Second World War veteran Gordon Quan knows what will be on his mind when he makes his way to the Saanich cenotaph on Remembrance Day. Like every year, the Victoria, B.C. man will be reflecting on how lucky he is that the war never killed him - that he made it past 90 and is "still alive, still driving, still here to tell you this story."
And to think he owes it all to the atomic bomb.
Gordon was a student at Victoria Chinese Public School in Victoria, B.C. when the British military showed up on a recruiting drive in 1944, the first year that the Canadian government dropped a recruitment prohibition blocking Chinese-Canadians in light of the Allies' desperate need for new recruits. Eighteen at the time, Gordon would later realize that the demolition team he was being trained for was basically a suicide squad. "Fifty per cent of the demolition teams were being killed at that time," he recalls.
While he was born in Cumberland, B.C., he remembers the recruiter telling him they wanted to recruit Chinese-Canadians for Burma and India because "our heritage meant we'd adapt better to that area." After three months in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, Gordon and 150 other recruits were transferred to London to train with the British Army.
Gordon's team was trained and poised for deployment in the Burma jungle when the event came that would change the course of his life and world history for decades to come: The August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Just like that, World War II was over. Instead of being sent to the Burma jungle with a 50-50 chance of surviving whatever came next, Gordon's team returned to London before they'd ever lit a fuse in combat.
"I was discharged to Victoria in 1946 and joined the militia here for 30 years," says Gordon, who rose to the rank of regimental sergeant major before retiring from the 11th Victoria Service Battalion in Victoria.
Gordon worked for many years as mechanical foreman for the City of Victoria while also serving part-time with the regiment. As his family grew, his four children joined him at annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, and it became their yearly tradition as well. Click here for Victoria reservist and Afghanistan veteran Randal Evan's story about his own family's three-generation commitment to Canada's militia and the Remembrance Day tradition.
Gordon still sells poppies for the Royal Canadian Legion, as he has for 60 years now. He returns to his old Chinese school every year around November 11 to share his experiences with current students.
"People sacrificed for us to live in freedom," says Gordon. "Remembrance Day is a big day for honouring the people who never had the opportunity to come home."
The 600 Chinese-Canadian troops who fought in World War II not only endured racism, but the indignity of being recruited to fight on behalf of a country that still didn't allow them to vote. Canada's Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese-Canadians from voting, but the act was struck down in 1947 when Canada signed the United Nations Treaty on Human Rights.
Gordon's service and commitment to sharing the military history of Chinese Canadians have gotten him noticed. The Chinese government invited him to China in 1991, and he was among the contingent of World War II veterans who travelled to Southeast Asia in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of war's end.
Closer to home, Gordon received the City of Victoria 2014 Citizen Award, and met with Prince William during the 2016 royal visit to Victoria. "I told him I was training in London right when his grandmother was doing her own military service driving trucks," laughs Gordon.
He has enjoyed the chance to travel, but says nothing tops his 80 years in the Victoria region. "You can't beat Victoria," he says with a smile.
The historic role of reservists like Gordon is on display in Victoria at the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary's) Regimental Museum. The CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museumtakes a broader look at West Coast military history going back to 1865.
The BC Aviation Museum in nearby Sidney displays and recreations of flying machines dating back to 1913, including three rebuilt World War II fighter planes, while the Ashton Armoury Museum features the achievements of local military police and three other military units: communications, medical and logistics.
Planning a visit to Victoria? Explore Tourism Victoria's website or visit us at the Victoria Visitor Centre at 812 Wharf Street to find out more about local museums and historic sites dedicated to preserving the region's rich military history.