Ken Chesser emerged from the Second World War a beaten man. Frail and thin from starvation in 1945, he shuffled past a barbwire fence to freedom.
After four years as a Japanese POW camp, liberation ended the war, but it marked the beginning of a new battle for him and his future wife, Elizabeth Hicks.
“The war ruined him,” she said. “He was always dealing with it.”
At 17, Ken Chesser joined the 1st Battalion of the Royal Rifles of Canada to escape a life of rolling logs on New Brunswick’s Restigouche River. In 1941, the battalion found itself defending Hong Kong against a powerful Japanese attack.
Desperately outnumbered, lacking adequate combat training and with little ammunition, they fought valiantly before surrendering on Christmas Day. POW Chesser spent the next four years on meager rations of rice, his life reduced to bouts of malaria, torture and forced labour.
The experience left him nearly blind and traumatized. He returned home unable to cope with everyday life.
“He was belligerent when he got back,” Hicks remembered. “He was bitter about how it all started. The way the Canadians were ill prepared. They should never have been sent there in the first place.”
Not long after the war he married Hicks, a widow at the time with four young children. For a while it seemed as if he’d put the war behind him. His eyesight continued to deteriorate, however, and he turned to alcohol for solace.
“It was the one thing that would make him feel better,” she said.
Chesser’s drinking worsened and life got even more difficult his wife said. She called that period the “nightmare years,” fearing for her children’s safety and she finally left him.
For the next 20 years, she struggled on her own to raise the children. Ken eventually sobered up completely and lived the rest of his life alone and remorseful.