Veteran Stories:
Richard Hugh “Dick” Leir

Navy

  • HMS Prince of Wales (British Battleship, 1941) Photographed in 1941, sometime prior to her 24 May 1941 engagement with the German battleship Bismarck. She is lowering a Supermarine "Walrus" amphibian aircraft over the side. Credit: Official U.S. Navy Photograph, Public Domain

    Mr. Leir served on HMS Prince of Wales and was onboard when HMS Hood was famously destroyed by the Bismark

    United States Navy
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"I rang again and this time I got mother. And we had our first, she had heard, I was still officially dead. And so that was my end of World War II. This is the best thing that ever happened to me, was surviving."

Transcript

It was quite a, eight of us. Junior officers. We were then mustered on the, loaded into the cruiser, [HMS] Exeter. And started off for England. We got as far as Ceylon [Sri Lanka] when we were torpedoed. Funny enough, we just saw that as part of the routine. We didn’t see it as a horror story at that time. It seemed to be a part of fighting a war. And we were helpless there and the Japanese came and finished us off. I climbed down the super stretcher and got washed overboard, stupid thing to do. But I reached a life raft and sat there all night. And eventually, the Japanese came and picked us up. I was sitting in the raft all night, along with a dozen of other guys all clinging around the outside. And we took turns getting into the water. We were sitting there all night and the next morning, we were still sitting there, pretty cold, and the Japanese fleet had come in and was trying to pick us up but not being very successful. And eventually, I struck out from that raft and swam and I was a very good swimmer. So I rested on that and then struck out for the Japanese cruiser, which I could see was picking up survivors with what appeared to me to be way out on the horizon. And I swam to the side of the Japanese cruiser and they had nets. And I honestly can’t remember how I got out, I passed out then. But they hauled me in and the second-in-command of the Japanese cruise spoke English and had been trained in Dartmouth [Nova Scotia]. And so they treated me very well. The first campsite was in Salabies. They were strict discipline but they respected officers. And we weren’t given officer-like jobs. Well, at that age, at 19, you think you can eat anything, you could withstand anything. And so we were on food rationing. The work conditions were harsh, long. And the executions were bloody. When the allies arrived, in Java, in the last days of the war out there, I was in a camp in western Java and there was another fellow called Tidey and we were sent to Calcutta [India] where they literally bathed us from head to foot in a pool full of all sorts of medicines. And eventually, this other Canadian lieutenant, Tidey and I, were let go in Calcutta and we hitchhiked on empty airplanes. And I reached Halifax [Nova Scotia] and I weighed 93 pounds. They said, “My God, where the hell have you been?” in so many words. And I was stuck in the hospital there and they said, “You’re not leaving here until you weigh 150 pounds, so settle down.” And so I settled down in Halifax and they had just finished the trans-Canada phone line and I could remember my phone number, Penticton 97, even then. And so somebody said, “Why don’t you telephone home?” And so I said, I went and dialed up, I could hear them connecting across the country and eventually, Penticton 97 rang and my 11 year old sister, Esther, answered the phone and I said, “Hi, this is your brother, Dick.” And she let out a squeak and hung up. I rang again and this time I got mother. And we had our first, she had heard, I was still officially dead. And so that was my end of World War II. This is the best thing that ever happened to me, was surviving.
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