Sgt Gander

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In July of this year, I noticed my dog, an Irish Setter Newfoundland cross named Boris, had a bit of a cough.

I took him to the vet and was told he likely had laryngeal paralysis, a condition that could be life threatening but surgery would give him several more years of life. An appointment for August was made to visit a veterinary surgeon and it was at that point a CT scan was scheduled. The CT scan discovered that there was no laryngeal paralysis, but a long tumour that ran the length of his throat.

At that point, Boris was given two weeks to live.

I began to create a bucket list of items for him so he could enjoy those last two weeks to their full potential. I never got the chance to cross an item off that list. On Sept. 6 at 5 a.m., five days after the CT scan, Boris died in my arms.

Boris was born on Dec. 31, 2011, and this New Year’s Eve would have been his 11th birthday.  As this episode comes out around his birthday, I wanted to honour Boris, my best friend by sharing a tale of another Newfoundland dog, one who became a war hero and whose name lives on to this day.

Please join me, in my tribute to Boris, as I bring you the life and legacy of Sgt. Gander, the Hero Dog of the Battle of Hong Kong.

I’m Craig Baird….and this is Canadian History Ehx.

Our story today does not begin at an army base, or even in Canada for that matter. It starts on a small farm in Newfoundland in the 1930s, with the Hayden family and their dog Pal, the name Gander came later, but I’ll refer to him as Gander from here on out.

You may be saying to yourself, wait a minute… Newfoundland is IN Canada. Well, at the time, despite its proximity and ties to Canada, Newfoundland was still its own dominion in the British Empire.

In fact, it would not officially join Canada as the 10th province until 1949, well after our story ends. For the Hayden family, Gander was their children’s favourite playmate. One of the earliest pictures of the beloved pet depicts him pulling the three children on a small toboggan attached to his large frame, as they smile at the camera.

Gander was no small dog, so pulling a sled with three children in it would be an easy feat. The Newfoundland breed is known for being large, hairy and having the personality of teddy bears with their people. Classified as a large working dog, known for their intelligence, strength, calm disposition, love of children and deep loyalty.

Gander fit this description well as he was pushing 130 pounds and clearly great with children. They also excel at water rescue thanks to their thick double coat and webbed paws. Now…The irony of this description is never lost on me, because as a quick aside Boris hated the water.

The heroic nature of this breed is well documented and a thing of legend. One unnamed Newfoundland dog is credited with saving Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. During his escape from the island of Elba, he fell overboard. The dog jumped into the water and kept Napoleon afloat until he reached safety. Another Newfoundland dog, in the early 20th century, saved 92 people on the SS Ethie that wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland. The dog took a rope that was thrown into the water from the boat and brought the rope to shore to people waiting on the beach, allowing the passengers to use the rope to escape the ship.

More recently, a 10-month-old Newfoundland named Boo, saw a man drowning in a river in California. Boo immediately dove into the water and rescued the man. According to Janice Anderson, Boo’s person, he had received no formal training in water rescue. Needless to say, the breed is known for its heroics so with that in mind… let’s get back to Gander.

There are conflicting stories about Gander’s adoption, so we don’t know for sure how he entered the military, but it could’ve been one of two ways. Some sources state that Gander accidently scratched the youngest Hayden son’s face with his paw while playing. The other states that he grew too large for the family and was put up for adoption. Either way, the Royal Rifles of Canada, a regiment of the Canadian Army stationed at the Gander Airport, gladly adopted the large, beautiful dog.

This is when he became Gander because as soon as he was adopted, his name was changed, and he was given the honorary rank of sergeant, for his duties as the regiment’s mascot.

By all accounts, Sgt. Gander loved his time with the regiment.

He took part in parades and was photographed with his comrades several times during their time at the base.

Andrew Flanagan was one the Royal Rifles in 1940, and he said that,

“Gander quickly adapted to military life. He was elevated to sergeant faster than any enlisted man. On parade, he proudly marched up front, wearing his sergeant’s stripes next to the regimental badge, attached to his harness.”

Sgt. Gander took particular delight in sleeping on the runway of the Gander Airport. There are reports of pilots radioing in that they couldn’t land, because Gander was enjoying a nap. For those pilots who didn’t know Sgt. Gander, they often mistook him for a large black bear. But that idyllic life on base was short lived…

In the autumn of 1941, the Royal Rifles of Canada Regiment were sent to Hong Kong to defend the island colony in case of a Japanese attack. The regiment could have left Sgt. Gander behind, but he was a part of the regimental family at that point and the soldiers wanted him in Hong Kong with them. Like most dogs, Sgt. Gander was not well traveled but now the Newfoundland who had never left the island, was on his way to a new island halfway around the world

For the first few weeks the soldiers lived well in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong dollar was worth 18 cents Canadian, so the soldiers hit the nightclub scene of the island with gusto.

Some even hired locals to keep their gear and boots shining, and their faces shaved.

For Gander, Hong Kong was a big change from Newfoundland. Despite it being autumn there, the heat was intense, and Gander was meant for cold weather. Rifleman Fred Kelly was put in charge of taking care of Gander and gave Gander long cold showers to help deal with the Hong Kong heat.

Gander loved sleeping in the shade of a veranda, and overall seemed to enjoy the first few weeks in the tropics. Sadly, this is the story of war and sacrifice, and those good times were about to come to an abrupt end.

Now, although the Second World War began in 1939, war in Asia had been going on for a decade. The Empire of Japan was growing in strength and in 1931 it invaded and conquered northeast China, known as Manchuria, followed by Inner Mongolia. In 1937, Japan invaded China proper, beginning the Sino-Japanese War which left 20 million Chinese, mostly civilians, dead by 1945. On Sept. 27, 1940, Japan signed a pact with Germany and Italy, officially becoming an Axis power.

 As England fended off a Nazi invasion over the English Channel, few troops were spared to deal with possible invasions of British territories in southeast Asia. This is when Stg. Gander and the Royal Rifle regiment landed in Hong Kong. A few months later, fearing an oil embargo by the United States, and with their own domestic reserves shrinking, Japan attacked the United States Pacific Fleet in Hawaii at Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, which left 2,500 dead.

Just one day later as Japan launched simultaneous attacks on British Hong Kong, British Malaya and the Philippines. The Battle of Hong Kong had begun. With the attack on Dec. 8, 1941, the Royal Rifles, along with the Winnipeg Grenadiers, became the first Canadian soldiers to see combat in the Second World War. They were joined by troops from the United Kingdom and India, and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.

In all, there were over 14,000 troops defending the island and part of the mainland, including 1,982 Canadians.

But those numbers would not be enough. The troops were outnumbered three-to-one. As well, few members of the Royal Rifles had any field experience and were not fully equipped. They were supposed to be equipped with everything they needed when they reached Hong Kong, but this never happened.

For the next week-and-a-half, the Japanese Army attacked various targets on the mainland to the north of the island, slowly moving to the south across Kowloon Bay to the Island of Hong Kong. As night fell on the evening of Dec. 18, Japanese troops launched four separate amphibious assaults across a three-kilometre front on the northern beaches of the island.

Amid the battle, a portion of the Canadians forces retreated down an overgrown road as the Japanese pursued them. As they attacked the regiment’s position, Sgt. Gander rushed at them, barking, and biting at the invaders’ legs. Royal Rifleman Andrew Flanagan, described the Sergeant’s demeanor during the battle, as

“Gander showed no fear of guns or bombs. At the battle of Lye Mun Gap, he attacked Japanese troops as they landed near the Canadian section.”

A second attack began as a group of Japanese soldiers advanced towards Canadian troops. Stg. Gander charged out of the bush, once again forcing a retreat. The fact that it was night made it hard for Japanese troops to see Gander, as he came charging at them.

Rifleman Reginald Law stated,

“He growled and ran at the enemy soldiers, biting their heels.”

Japanese soldiers could be heard yelling “Black Devil” as they once again retreated. But they didn’t relent 

In order to protect the beloved dog, Sgt. Gander was placed near wounded troops where the hope was that he would be away from intense fighting.

 Early in the morning of Dec. 19, Japanese troops began to approach wounded Canadians. Suddenly, a grenade was thrown that landed near the soldiers. With no one physically able to deal it, death looked certain At that moment, Sgt. Gander took the grenade in his mouth and ran back towards the Japanese forces.

Gander, the dog that had pulled children on sleds, walked proudly in parades, and napped on runways, was killed in action but saved wounded Canadians lives.

Some say that Sgt. Gander was simply playing pitch and catch, believing it was a toy that he was returning. However, if you asked any of the veterans who were there that day, there was only one thing that Gander was doing,

He sacrificed himself to save his comrades.

I spent 11 years with a Newfoundland dog, I don’t doubt that Sgt. Gander knew exactly what he was doing, he was saving lives.

The Battle of Hong Kong lasted a few more days, until Christmas Day 1941 and was thought of as an overwhelming defeat for Canadians and British troops it seemed like Allied forces were doomed from the start in their defence of the island.

After the battle, as the Japanese forces interrogated Canadian prisoners of war, they demanded to know about “the black beast”,

They feared the Allies were training ferocious animals for warfare.

The Canadian troops said nothing about Sgt. Gander.

By the end of the Battle of Hong Kong, 290 Canadian troops were killed and 493 were wounded. Those who survived, the suffering had just begun. For the next three and a half years, they were prisoners of war, and worked 12 hours a day in mines or on the docks in the cold. They were only given 800 calories a day to survive on. A total of 267 Canadians died in the prisoner of war camps.

Rifleman Andrew Flanagan said that Sgt. Gander proved to be a beacon of hope to those men who spent those hellish years as prisoners for war.

“Gander became a source of pride and encouragement for the Canadians who were captured and spent almost four years in the notoriously cruel Japanese POW system. Gander was their inspiration.”

By the end of the war in 1945, of the 1,975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver for Hong Kong four years earlier, nearly 600 never returned. As for Rifleman Andrew Flanagan, he weighed 68 pounds when he returned to Canada in the fall of 1945. He passed away on February 28, 1993.

His son, Andy, wrote,

“The scars of battle and torture remained until his dying days. He never complained, and he never missed an opportunity to tell Sgt. Gander’s story.”

While Sgt. Gander did not survive the Battle of Hong Kong, his name lives on. When the Hong Kong Veterans Memorial Wall was first proposed in Ottawa, on Aug. 15, 2009 Original plans didn’t of Sgt. Gander among the 1,977 names on the wall. Among the veterans who survived the prisoner of war camps, they had one policy, sharing any food that came into their possession.

It was in that same spirit they insisted for Gander to be included, ensuring they shared the public remembrance with their canine comrade.

That is how Sgt. Gander’s name was added and can be found on the monument today. On Nov. 24, 2004, Princess Anne unveiled the Animals in War monument in London, England. The monument honours 60 animals for their heroics in war. One of those animals on the monument is Sgt. Gander.

Gander is also remembered in Bass River, Nova Scotia, at the Forgotten Heroes monument where a statue to the loyal Newfoundlander can be found, designed by Nova Scotia sculptor Clifton Sears. And closer to home, On July 23, 2015, a statue of Gander and his handler was unveiled at the Gander Heritage Memorial Park in Gander, Newfoundland.

Most notably, Sgt. Gander was awarded the Dicken Medal on Oct. 27, 2000, by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. Founded by Maria Dickins it is the leading veterinarian charity in the United Kingdom. The medal was instituted to honour the wartime service of animals.

Between 1943 and 1949, 32 homing pigeons, 18 dogs, three horses and one cat were awarded the medal.

This medal is considered the animal equivalent to the Victoria Cross, the highest military award in the Commonwealth.

It was presented to honour Sgt. Gander for his sacrifice, and it was done s thanks to the efforts of the Canadian War Museum, the Hong Kong Veterans Association, and the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association.

They ensured Sgt. Gander was recognized quote

“For saving the lives of Canadian infantrymen during the Battle of Lye Mun on Hong Kong Island in December 1941…Without Gander’s intervention, many more lives would have been lost in the assault.”

This was the first time the Dicken Medal was awarded since 1949. The medal is now on permanent display at the Hong Kong section of the Canadian War Museum.

This is the end of Sgt. Ganders story… but I would like to end this episode with a note for another loyal and beloved Newfoundland dog. Happy birthday Boris, I miss you every single day and was proud to be your person.

Information from ValourCanada, The Newfoundland Club of America, Gander Airport Historical Society, Wikipedia, Canadian History Bits, CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun,

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