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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Man Who Died Twice

I would like you all to read a story that appeared in the November 11, 2012 edition of The Toronto Star newspaper... a story about a Canadian war veteran help prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp in Burma, but more importantly, the life he lead after it.

The article was written by John Spears, Business reporter. It's a fine tale and well worth reading. It's especially poignant, considering I still get mail from readers who think I should rot in hell for liking the Japanese culture merely because they have read about the Japanese atrocities during World War II. 

No doubt those atrocities occurred, but the measure of a person is their ability to rise above the suffering and hatred... something a few (very few, mind you) of my readers seem incapable of doing.

But this story, about Flight Lt. Herb Ivens (see photo above), even though he felt deep hatred for the Japanese, he knew that wasn't good for his soul, and decided to do something about it.   

Calcutta, May 10, 1945
Dear Family,
I’ve just had one of the best experiences of my life . . .
This is the story of a lucky man. A man who came back from the dead.
It emerged from a dusty box that my sister found in the attic of the house where my mother had lived for 60 years.
It begins in 1945 in India, where my father, Flight Lt. Borden Spears, was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
It ends with some phone calls to British Columbia.
In the box my sister dragged from the attic was a sheaf of letters, written by my father to his parents in 1944 and 1945. They probably ended up there after my grandfather died in 1951.
In a few short paragraphs, confined by the cramped space of an airmail form, was the story of a man who beat the odds:
“One of the hard things about this job is that you meet a lot of people, make some good friends among them, and then they go on operations and don’t come back. One of the best of them was Herb Ivens, who got killed last December at Meiktila.
“Last night I went to meet a hospital ship bringing prisoners of war back from Rangoon — and the first man I saw leaning over the rail was Herb Ivens.
“I busted all the regulations, dashed up the gangplank to see him, and before I could get a word out he was congratulating me on my promotion.
“I still can’t get over seeing him alive; his No. 2 saw him hit the earth at 500 miles an hour. He himself doesn’t remember anything after he got hit, until he came to in a bullock cart. He didn’t have a bone broken. It was certainly good to see him.”
That’s it.
Dad’s letter moved on to other news, after managing to dispatch and then resurrect Herb Ivens in about 200 words.
So what became of Flight Lt. Herb Ivens, whose life had been so miraculously spared?
My father, who died in 1983, had never mentioned the story.
Websites with wartime records turned up a few details. Herb Ivens had been the pilot of a P-47 fighter-bomber, shot down on a raid over the Meiktila airfield, in northern Burma, in December 1944.
After his astonishing survival, he spent the rest of the war imprisoned in Rangoon, until he was liberated by Allied forces.
The Japanese simply vanished one day, leaving the cells unlocked, according to Herb’s younger brother Boyd Ivens, who lives in Delta, B.C.
Boyd Ivens filled in some of the details.
Herb Ivens was a Saskatchewan boy, born in 1922, who joined the air force after war broke out.
He trained in Ottawa and Dartmouth, N.S., (where he met his future wife, Patricia) before being sent to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska with his squadron. He was then transferred to Southeast Asia.
It was while flying a mission in Burma, that he was shot down — and so miraculously survived.
He was imprisoned in the jail in Rangoon, with hundreds of other Allied prisoners.
One of them was an Australian flyer, Lionel Hudson, who later wrote a book about the experience, The Rats of Rangoon.
He recalls his first meeting with a gaunt, bearded Ivens on Christmas Day, 1944. Hudson had arrived in the jail late that day — and had missed dinner.
Ivens was locked up in the cell opposite.
He waved a chicken bone at Hudson, offering it as a gift.
“It was a sordid, lonely shank, bare of meat as the iron bars I gripped,” Hudson wrote. Not being familiar with Rangoon jail conditions, he thought Ivens was crazy, and waved him off.
Later, he realized Ivens had been saving the bone for the next day, to suck the marrow: “I had turned down a precious gift.”
Then, one day the retreating Japanese suddenly pulled out, leaving the gates unlocked.
Boyd Ivens said the prisoners’ first instinct was to head into the city.
They found it in chaos, with gangs ransacking shops and homes for whatever they could find.
The PoWs retreated to the jail to wait for their liberators.
They spelled out signs on the roof of the jail to let aircraft know the Japanese were gone.
One of the pilots who buzzed the jail at low level saw prisoners waving from the roof.
When he got back to base, he told his incredulous mates: “I swear I saw Ivens.”
And sure enough, when Allied ground forces arrived in Rangoon shortly afterward, there he was.
Boyd Ivens says his brother was physically in worse shape than my father may have gathered from his brief shipboard reunion, and Herb wasn’t one to seek pity.
Herb had been badly injured in the crash, says Boyd, and was still walking on canes when he got back to Canada. Boyd says Herb’s legs had, in fact, been broken, and had to be reset once he returned to Canada.
(Hudson had also made light of Ivens’s injury, calling it a sore knee.)
Ivens’s sense of humour hadn’t deserted him, however.
Boyd Ivens recalls that a group of reporters interviewed his brother and several other ex-PoWs when they arrived back in Canada.
One of the reporters was a woman — still something of a novelty at the time.
As Boyd Ivens tells the story, she fixed him with a pleading gaze and said: “I’ve heard about Japanese atrocities. Did they do anything to you?”
“And Herb said: ‘It was horrible, just terrible. Unbelievable.’ ”
“She said: ‘You poor dear, what did they do to you?’”
“He said: ‘They put me in a cell with a bloody Australian.’ ”
After the war, he went to law school in Saskatchewan. After articling with a firm in Vancouver — with Cecil Merritt, who had won the Victoria Cross in the Dieppe raid — he decided to move there to start his career.
He opened a practice in Delta, with Boyd, who had also gone to law school after the war.
In the early 1970s, he took on Ulf Ottho as an articling student, then hired him for the firm.
Ottho, now a full-time member of the National Parole Board, looks back on his time with Ivens with huge pleasure.
In those days, B.C. used lawyers in private practice as prosecutors, and Ivens regularly tried criminal cases. Sometimes, he’d do defence work. He also took on civil litigation cases.
“He was in my view, and in the view of many others, the best cross-examiner in B.C.,” recalls Ottho.
He was also well-known for his extralegal activities.
Ivens was part of a group of hard-living professionals that “seemed literally to run the town,” Ottho recalls.
They included the police chief, the biggest developer in the region, and a few others.
“The gambling they would do was legendary,” recalls Ottho. “Herb once won a house in a poker game.”
Despite Ivens’s social and professional rehabilitation, Ottho believes he was still dealing with demons from his wartime experience.
The prison camp had been brutal. Hudson’s memoir recalls prisoners being beaten to death, or dying of disease and neglect.
Ivens harboured a deep antipathy for the Japanese following the war, says Ottho.
He wanted to deal with it — and embarked on a long trip to Japan and around the world in 1971.
Hudson, his Australian cellmate, recalls Ivens telling him, years later:
“I said to myself: ‘You don’t want to die hating the Japanese.’ So I went off to Japan to get it out of my system.”
He got in touch with a former Japanese fighter pilot who had also flown in Burma.
He left Japan with a samurai sword, engraved with his name and the name of his pilot friend, along with a prayer for peace.
He also left Japan with something else — a connection with a young woman, named Machiko, who had been his translator.
When he left — on his way to Israel, the next stop on his world tour — he said she could come and stay with him if she were to come to Canada.
The next year, Ivens went back to Japan to see Machiko, and shortly afterward she moved to Canada to be with him.
Machiko still lives in Vancouver.
She remembers him with love.
“He was very fair in his thinking. He never held grudges. He was very kind,” she recalled when reached by telephone.
Not that he was saintly.
“He lived every day the way he wanted to live,” she recalled.
“He drank and smoked and partied all day, all night. I guess when you have that kind of experience, you try to live every day to the fullest. I think that’s what he did.”
The home they shared was decorated like a Japanese dwelling. Herb wore a kimono at home.
The two didn’t get married until 1979. Shortly afterward, Herb was diagnosed with cancer.
He was still taking treatment when he decided he’d like to make one more trip to Japan, in 1980. Machiko arranged for him to have treatment in Japan on their visit, but by then nothing could stave off the end.
Herb made it back to Canada, but his plane was met by an ambulance. He died shortly afterward.
“I’m very thankful about the life he shared with me,” Machiko says.
“Without him I wouldn’t have this outlook on life — be happy every day, and positive. And live today, not tomorrow.”
It’s hard to get the real sense of a man’s life from a few short words in an old letter, and a handful of phone calls to the other side of the country.
What’s clear, though, is that Ivens had a life. He’d been given a second chance, and seized it.
As Ottho recalls: “He told me he regarded his life as a bonus because he should have been killed when he was shot down. He had the attitude that every day was a bonus.”

Andrew Joseph  

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