ARCHIVED - Former prisoner of war treasured rare Christmas card from Prime Minister King for 69 years before presenting it to Prime Minister Harper

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Article / December 23, 2014 / Project number: 14-0274-xmas-card

Ottawa, Ontario — Captured on Christmas Day 1941, Battle of Hong Kong veteran Rifleman Arthur Kenneth Pifher (Retired) received a Christmas card from then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1943 while captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He kept it safe for 69 years before presenting it to current Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2012. The card is now a valued artifact of the Canadian War Museum.

Rfn Pifher (Ret’d), now 93 years old, joined the Royal Rifles of Canada in 1940 at the age of 19. Reached at his home in Grimsby, Ontario on December 16, 2014, he described the events surrounding his rare keepsake’s remarkable journey.

 “It was a surprise for me and for everyone when I received Prime Minister King’s card. At the time, I thought everyone had gotten one, but that was not the case,” he said.

So rare is the card that only one other has found its way to the war museum, although thousands were sent out in each of 1943 and 1944 by Mr. King. War-time postal regulations did not allow Christmas cards to be sent to prisoners of war to avoid slowing down the prisoners’ receipt of precious letters from home, according to the war museum’s archives. Mr. King’s card was intended to stand for all of the Christmas card sentiments of Canadians for their imprisoned loved ones.

 “Prisoners of war held by the Japanese weren’t allowed to keep much in the way of personal effects. So it is surprising and certainly unusual that the card would have made it through in the first place to Mr. Pifher in the camp and that it would have survived his time in captivity and then all the years after the war as well,” said the Canadian War Museum’s Second World War historian Dr. Jeff Noakes.

 “We have only one other of these Christmas greeting cards in our catalogue. It was sent to a Dieppe prisoner of war,” said Dr. Noakes. That prisoner of war was Private Jack Powerful Griss of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, who was captured at Dieppe in August 1942 along with 1,946 other Canadians.

The text of the 1944 card reads:  “All Canada joins in Warmest Christmas Greetings and good wishes to you,” and is signed by Mr. King.

After keeping it safe for all of the intervening years, Rfn Pifher (Ret’d) presented it to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on November 11, 2012 following a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Sai Wan Cemetery in Hong Kong, where 283 Canadians who fell during the battle are interred.

He included a formal note:  “To Prime Minister Stephen Harper: Sixty nine years ago, while a captive POW in Sham Shui Po prison camp, I received this card for Christmas. Please accept this as a memento of today’s Remembrance Ceremony. From Rfn A. Ken Pifher, Royal Rifles of Canada.

 “When I gave it to Mr. Harper, I said, here, this would be a dandy bookmark for you,” said Rfn Pihfer (Ret’d),  “but Mr. Harper took it very seriously and said it should be in a museum.

The Prime Minister’s office promptly donated the card, its envelope and the message Rfn Pifher (Ret’d) wrote to Prime Minister Harper to the war museum. The items were immediately put on display throughout the 2012 holiday season and into March of the new year.

Upon receiving this gift to the museum, James Whitham, Director General of the Canadian War Museum said,  “This simple Christmas greeting recalls a nation at war, a young soldier's suffering far from home, and the forms of personal and national remembrance.” He added,  “We are grateful that Mr. Ken Pifher preserved this important artifact for so many years and we are pleased to add it to our National Collection.

 “It is an honour for me to have it displayed in the museum,” said Rfn Pifher (Ret’d).

The Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent to Hong Kong in November 1941 to help British and Indian troops defend the then-British colony. When Hong Kong fell to the larger and more seasoned Japanese force on December 25, 1941 after 17 days of grim fighting, 290 Canadians were killed and 493 wounded. Rfn Pifher was one of the 1,700 Canadian soldiers held captive in prison camps in Hong Kong and China. By the time they were liberated almost four years later, almost 300 had perished in captivity from malnutrition, disease, brutality and hard labour.

The 73rd anniversary of Battle of Hong Kong was commemorated in Ottawa, Ontario on December 6, 2014 on behalf of the Government of Canada. See http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=912549&tp.

 

By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

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