Don Stewart

After Japanese torpedo attack, navy vet ‘got bayoneted’ in prison camp

Thought dead by his family, Don Stewart weighed just 87 pounds after five-month imprisonment during WWII

He shouldn’t have come home alive.

But then he shouldn’t have enlisted in the first place. At least not when he did.

A picture of Don Stewart at 16 that he has hung on on the wall.
A picture of Don Stewart at 16, the age when he first joined the Navy. (Courtesy Don Stewart)

At only 16 years old and underage, Don Stewart tricked his mother into signing a paper that would allow him to join the navy with his friends.

It was early in the Second World War when he was shipped to Vancouver and assigned as a naval gunner on merchant ships. That’s when his war started.

“My worst memory was when I was on a ship on the Ganges River in India and got torpedoed by (the) Japanese,” Stewart said. “I ended up in a Japanese prison camp for five months.”

He had no bed to sleep on in the camp and barely any food to eat, Stewart said, but worse was to come. He made the mistake of standing up for himself.

“I wouldn’t take any abuse,” he said. “That’s when I got bayoneted. They didn’t give a damn what happened to me after that.”

Stewart and 127 others were freed from the prison camp one night by a unit of Ghurkas, he said. His weight had fallen to only 87 pounds.

It wasn’t the first dangerous ordeal he’d survived.

“During the Italian Invasion, our ship was sunk in the Mediterranean,” Stewart said. “I was on a life raft for five days. There was nothing to eat. We just drifted around until a British minesweeper picked us up.”

He survived that, just as he would his time in the Japanese prison camp.

That came as news to his family, who had been told otherwise.

“When I got back (in 1946), my father hugged me,” Stewart said. “The old man was not a very compassionate guy so I thought, ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’

“That’s when he said, ‘You’re supposed to be dead’.”

Stewart had been mistaken for another soldier by the same name who had died.

Despite the many hardships he faced during his time in the navy, he has no regrets.

“I’m glad I went there and helped defend our country,” Stewart said. “I made a lot of friends. I met a good person who I made my wife. We raised eight kids together.

“I’m not sorry for any of it.”