In the 1980s Tim Bowden produced many of ABC Radio’s most outstanding audio documentaries. They were forerunners of today’s podcast genre, and led the way in oral history documentary-making in Australia. In the first of this two-part series, Tim told of his early career and the making of his iconic series ‘Taim Bilong Masta’, which examined Australia’s involvement in Papua New Guinea, pre-independence. Now in part two, Tim tells of his next, and arguably most important, series – ‘Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon’. More than 22,000 Australians became POWs after Japan entered World War II in December 1941. By the end of the war in August 1945, one in three of the prisoners had died. ‘Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon’ related the extraordinary and previously untold stories of many of those who survived.
Surviving In Captivity
By Tim Bowden / 24 March 2022
In 1982, with Taim Bilong Masta safely in the bag I was not in good shape. I had repetitive strain injuries in both arms through an excess of typing and editing tapes. I had shamefully neglected my two growing sons and my wife Ros remarked it had been like ‘sharing a house with a cranky lodger’. Then there was a phone call from Professor Hank Nelson with a suggestion – or was it more like a command – to saddle up for another major project.
He said: ‘Listen Digger, we HAVE to do the Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese. They have never talked publicly about their experiences, or even told their own families. Most are now in their mid-sixties and they may now be ready to talk. We simply HAVE to do this.’ I heard myself meekly agreeing and hung up the phone wondering how I was going to break this to Ros.
So began another two-and-a-half year project which in my view, turned out to be even more rewarding in historical importance than the Australian colonial experience in Papua New Guinea.
Within three months of the Japanese entering World War II on December 8, 1941, 22,000 Australians had become prisoners-of-war. They went into camps in Timor, Ambon, New Britain, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Singapore and Malaya and a few were scattered to other points in what was briefly part of the Japanese empire. Later many of the surviving prisoners were shifted further into South-east Asia, South Korea, Manchuria and Japan itself. They were captives in lands, cultures and experiences alien to all other Australians. At the end of the war in August 1945, 14,315 servicemen and 30 service women were alive to put on new loose-fitting uniforms and go home. One in three of the prisoners had died. That is, nearly half of the deaths suffered by Australians in the war in the Pacific were among men and women who had surrendered. (Historian Dr Hank Nelson)
The Australians who found themselves fighting the Japanese in South-east Asia had not expected to be prisoners of war (POWs). Nor had the victorious Japanese expected to have to cope with so many Australian and British troops as their own code was to commit suicide if they were captured in combat, in honour of their Emperor.
The Japanese were also surprised by how little resistance they met as they swept down through Malaya to Singapore island where the commander of the Allied forces, General Percival, surrendered unconditionally on 15 February 1942.
Changi POW camp
Two days later a shocked cavalcade of some 15,000 Australians and 35,000 British POWs were marched to Singapore’s Changi Peninsula where they were forced to surround themselves with barbed wire supplied by their captors. Changi was to become the biggest Japanese POW camp in South-east Asia.
One of the first challenges for the Australian officers in captivity was to find something for the Diggers to do. There had been some outbreaks of homosexuality by the then fairly fit men with nothing to do and so the Diggers (literally) were given the job of digging trenches, and then filling them in again. (Homosexuality disappeared when malnutrition soon drove all thoughts of sex from the minds of the prisoners, who started having dreams about food instead.)
Humour was an important element of survival. It came to the fore very early on in Changi as chronicled by Gunner Tom Dowling, on the occasion of the Japanese Emperor’s birthday:
We were called on parade and ordered to bring our drinking mugs. We wondered what on earth we were going to do with the mugs but did as we were told.
Along came a Jap officer resplendent with gold braid and campaign ribbons, sword swinging by his side, and he stepped up onto a well raised platform specially placed in front of the parade so that he could address us at eye-level.
‘Today is Emperor of Japan’s birthday and we are to celebrate.’ Having said that, the guards accompanying him, armed with flagons, moved up and down the lines and half-filled everyone’s mugs with saki. When the last of the mugs had been charged, the Japanese officer said, ‘Now we drink to Emperor.’
This put the prisoners in a dilemma, and he had us by the short and curlies. Drinking his saki was appealing, but to drink to the Emperor’s health was quite a different matter.
‘You will all drink to health of Emperor,’ the officer repeated sternly.
There was no way the boys could bring themselves to drink to the Emperor’s health, Dowling said, so they just stood there blankly, carefully holding onto half-filled mugs of saki.
Then out stepped Vern Rae, a rugged 15th Battery Intelligence Officer, hailing from the tall cedar country of Tasmania, who thundered out: ‘We will drink to the Emperor.’ He held up his mug.
‘FAAARK the Emperor!’
A great roar went up. ‘FAAARK the Emperor!’ – and the Australians quaffed down their saki.
The Japanese officer then dutifully completed his toast. ‘Ah so… FAAARK the Emperor.’
Dowling could see the Japanese officer was exceedingly delighted that His Imperial Highness had such an enthusiastic response from his vanquished foes.
Some weeks into captivity in Changi, someone came up with the bright idea of starting what became known at ‘The Changi University’. Brigadier H.B. Taylor was appointed Chancellor, and the future Judge, Sir Adrian Curlewis, was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Law and general organiser. Adrian Curlewis:
It was amazing the response we got from the troops; they all wanted to learn. We had representatives who could lecture on Tutankhamun in Egypt, on history, languages, mathematics, engineering and art. I personally took up the Malay language and motor engineering. We had plenty of what we called ‘bomb-happy’ vehicles to pull to pieces. We made blackboards and used clay from a nearby pit for chalk.
George McNeilly, who set up classical music appreciation programs, discovered many of the troops had hardly any basic education skills:
We even found men who couldn’t read and write, so we taught over 400.
Alick Downer (later Sir Alick, a member of the Australian Parliament and father of Alexander Downer) suddenly decided that he really couldn’t bear any longer the way Australians spoke.
The author, Russell Braddon was incredulous of Downer’s self-improvement classes:
He assembled a class of hairy, uncouth, pigheaded, very volatile Australian privates. They were thieves of the first order, and they had survived because of their daring and recklessness. They used to sit on palm logs in front of Alick Downer while he conducted a litany of elocution… ‘How now brown cow.’ It was magnificent! Nobody sent them up nor did they send Alick up, but it was weird.
The Changi University barely lasted three months before the Australian and British POWs were sent out to Japanese slave labour work camps that were totally contrary to the Geneva Convention.
‘Playing down the POW experience’
The word Changi has come to mean all that was extreme and frightful about the POW experience. But as Hank and I were to find out, for those in the slave labour work camps on the Thai-Burma Railway in Sandakan and Borneo, there’s no doubt Changi in Singapore would by comparison seem like heaven.
There were more POW camps in Timor, Java, Sumatra, New Guinea, Ambon, Hainan, Borneo, Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Burma, Manchuria and Japan. Australian POWs also turned up briefly in unlikely places like Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Saigon (Vietnam).
What was quite staggering to Hank and me at the time was the growing realisation that most of the ex-prisoners of war tended to play down what had happened to them. They felt their experiences as prisoners of war weren’t as important as those of serving soldiers.
This attitude was well summed up by one of the POW doctors, Ian Duncan, recalling the situation when he was in Japan:
At the end of the war, I interviewed every Australian and English soldier in my camp – I was the only medical officer in that camp. And I thought it was my duty to record their disabilities. And I’d say to them, ‘What diseases did you have as a prisoner of war?’..‘Oh nothing much, Doc, nothing much at all.’..‘Did you have malaria?’..‘Oh yes, I had malaria.’..‘Did you have dysentery?’.. ‘Oh yes, I had dysentery.’..‘Did you have beriberi?’..‘Yes, I had beriberi.’..‘Did you have the skin disease pellagra?’..‘Yes, I had pellagra, but nothing very much.’ These are all lethal diseases. But that was the norm you see, everybody had them. Therefore, they accepted them as normal.
So, Hank and I began to record the POWs – trying to make sure we covered every camp from Timor to Manchuria. Even though the death toll had been high, one in three men on the Thai-Burma Railway, there was no shortage of people still around to talk about their experiences.
Not so, Sandakan in Borneo where, in round figures, 2000 Australians and 500 British were sent on the infamous Death Marches in early 1945. Only six survived. Four of those six were still alive in the early 1980s and I interviewed them all. I also interviewed some of the officers whom the Japanese sent to Kuching, another camp in Borneo, after an underground escape network was discovered in the Sandakan camp in July 1943.
Only one Australian, John Murphy, survived the Japanese POW camp in Rabaul in New Britain, Papua New Guinea, and he was an excellent interviewee.
On the theme of how even a little homework yields great benefits, I quickly detected a change of attitude in my interviewees when I asked them, for example, which countries of the Thai-Burma Railway they were on. Burma or Thailand? And then, whether they were in the most challenging work parties in the mountains, A Force, on the Burmese side, or H and F Forces in Thailand? ‘Oh, you know about the different forces, do you?’ said one former POW. And he immediately began to talk to me as though I was an insider.
I continued to be amazed about the frankness of people’s testimonies in telling me stories for the first time that had not even been told to their own families.
Both Hank and I were keen to make sure that the surviving Army Nurses told their stories. They were evacuated from Singapore in the closing stages of the battle there, on the ship Vyner Brooke. It was bombed and sunk soon after leaving Singapore Harbour. The surviving passengers and 65 Australian nurses were left struggling in the water, hanging onto any debris they could find.
Separated by the currents, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel was one of 22 Australian nurses who were washed ashore on Radji Beach, Bangka Island, off the coast of Sumatra. There they were discovered by Japanese soldiers, who marched them into the water and opened fire with machine guns. Although shot twice, Vivian Bullwinkel survived after playing dead. Concealing her wounds, she managed to join up with another group of nurses, who were put into a POW camp. The Japanese never realised that she had survived the massacre. If they had, she certainly would have been killed.
By the end of the war only 24 of the 65 nurses who had boarded the Vyner Brooke were still alive. I interviewed five, Betty Jeffrey (who wrote a book on her war experiences), Sylvia Muir, Mickey Syer, Beryl Woodbridge and Iole Harper.
Only then did I approach Vivian Bullwinkel, then Vivian Statham, in Perth. I was well aware that her story had been so astonishing that it had eclipsed those of the other nurses. Our interview was, in my terms, sensational. Vivian later told me she had given me the fullest account to date of her remarkable survival. I asked her why? She said, ‘Well, I heard you had been interviewing the other girls, and I’m always conscious that my story seems to get all the publicity. So, I decided to give you a good interview.’
The trauma of remembering
The ex-POWs would speak to me, often with astonishing frankness, in two or three-hour sessions. However, I had a salutary occasion during my interview with Sergeant Jack Sloan in Brisbane. My ABC-issue tape recorder broke down in mid-stream, and I had to apologise to Jack, asking him if I could come back the next morning. He agreed.
The next morning when I fronted up, he said, ‘You bastard! I didn’t sleep a wink last night with all that stuff running around in my head that I hadn’t thought of for years! But okay, come in and let’s get it finished.’
This worried me and I sought advice from a clinical psychologist who told me that it was indeed beneficial for men to recall those traumatic events. I hope he was right. What psychological counselling there was at the time, after the war, was practically zilch – it was generally advising ex-POWs to try to forget what had happened to them and not talk about it, especially with their families!
One of the worst prisons in Singapore was Outram Road, where the feared military police, the Kempeitai, locked up Australians and British who had tried to escape.
Escapees were kept in solitary confinement in tiny cells that had originally been built by the British for Asians.
Survivor Chris Neilson, whose bullshit detector was always well honed, reacted characteristically to what a psychologist said to him when he got back to Australia, ‘You’ve got to forget about it completely.’ Chris replied, ‘You stupid bastard, if you were there for five bloody minutes, you never forget it all your bloody life!’
I was certainly made aware that trawling through these traumatic experiences was an emotional overload for some. I would often have to stop and turn off the tape recorder and wait for interviewees to get control of themselves again.
I’ll never forget the first time this happened. I was in Perth, interviewing Arthur ‘Blood’ Bancroft (nicknamed for his once flaming red hair). He had been an Able Seaman on HMAS Perth when it was sunk in the Sunda Strait along with the USS Houston.
Arthur began his life as a POW, stark naked and covered in fuel oil on a West Java beach. He joined Dr ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s ‘Java Rabble’ – a name later given to them by Colonel ‘Blackjack’ Galleghan, the Commandant of the Changi camp in Singapore when they passed through from Indonesia on their way to the Thai-Burma Railway. It was a name they wore with pride.
After spending a year building the Railway, Arthur ‘Blood’ Bancroft returned to Changi. He was then put on one of the tramp ships in company with thousands of other Australian POWs to be sent to Japan in early 1944 to work in coal mines in the bitterly cold winter.
But Arthur never made it to Japan. His ship was sunk by an American submarine, unaware that there were Allied POWs on board. He spent six days and six nights in the water, clinging to flotsam before being picked up by an American submarine – narrowly averting being machine gunned in the water when they were first thought by the sub crew to be Japanese.
I had reached the point in the narrative where Arthur described being helped onto the deck of the submarine. Being a sailor himself, despite his debilitated state, he observed protocol and stood to attention as straight as he could and saluted the bridge. I said, as I looked down to check that my recorder’s tape reels were still turning, ‘That must’ve been quite a moment.’ To my shocked surprise, Arthur suddenly broke into explosive sobbing. Naturally I switched off the recorder until he felt ready to go on.
The Thai-Burma Railway
One of the interesting facts about the Australians who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway was that they survived better than any other nationality. Of the military POWs, the British had the highest death toll, but nothing like the poor, unfortunate Asian labourers who had no organisation at all and died in their thousands and were buried in unmarked mass graves.
Australian officers’ relations with their men were better than those of the British, whose class system insulated officers from their troops.
Many of the British soldiers had been recruited from the slums of London or provincial cities like Liverpool and Glasgow, and given only rudimentary training before being rushed to Malaya just before the Japanese invasion began. They were not in good physical shape when they arrived. With the onset of tropical diseases, vitamin deficiencies like beriberi and pellagra – as well as the universal dysentery – put them at a disadvantage compared with the Australians who were mostly country boys, super-fit and handy. They had bush skills and a great ability to scrounge or steal what could be had under the circumstances.
Lloyd Cahill, one of the doctors on the railway, summed up the survival qualities of the Australians when I interviewed him in the 1980s:
I always remember one fellow, ‘Ringer’ Edwards, who later appeared in the movie ‘A Town Like Alice’. Now ‘The Ringer’ was on my crowd that went up on the railway. He was one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met. We’d be marching at night and fellows would be falling over in the mud and breaking their arms in the pouring monsoon. We’d stop, and the ‘Ringer’ would have a little fire going in about five minutes and how he did it in the wet jungle I don’t know. But he was a tower of strength there. If you got a bunch of fellows like that around you, it doesn’t matter what conditions you’re living in, in the jungle – you’ll be okay. The poor Brits had a tough time; they did it the hard way. They had no idea how to set up a kitchen or latrines. Even when they were cremating people, they had no idea what to do. If you were lucky enough to be with a good bunch of Australians, you could see most of it through.
Kevin Fagan, another legendary doctor on the line, put it this way:
I felt that Australians had a greater sense of group loyalty than the British. There was this terrible class thing in the British mind and it’s horrible. I’ve seen British officers at the end of a long day’s march, as soon they arrived at the camp, just flopped down on the ground. Someone would say, ‘What about the men?’..‘Oh, bugger the men, I can’t do any more.’ Whereas a fellow like Major ‘Roaring Reggie’ Newton would be scrounging around trying to buy a few eggs for the sick, trying to organise the men to be together, finding out where everybody was and whether anyone needed a doctor – and do all that before he even thought of eating or sitting down.
Still on this point of the survival skills of Australians, Hank Nelson recorded ex-POW Hughie Clark:
If one of the blokes was crook, someone always took him food. I was taking an egg down to a mate in hospital when this raspy-voiced Englishman said, ‘There’s no doubt about it. You lot always stick together.’
When the wet season arrived in 1943, the Australian POWs thought, perhaps, this would mean they would not have to work as hard. Hughie Clarke:
The ground turned to mud, your clothes rotted away, your boots, if you had any at that stage, rotted off. The six, two-metre deep latrine pits which we had dug filled up with water. In no time the whole camp area was crawling with maggots. In the cemetery the graves filled up with water and bodies floated to the surface. But none of this affected the progress of the railway. You were just living in a watery world, and after a while it didn’t occur to you that there was anything unusual about being wet all the time.
The wet did disrupt the ration supplies – trucks bogged down, the barge traffic was stopped by floods, and even the carts were down to their axles in the mud. The POWs clung to one hope, would the monsoon eventually force the Japanese to suspend work?
In fact, with the rain, came the demand that the railway be built with greater urgency. Petty Officer Ray Parkin recalled that a Japanese officer transmitted the instructions of the Imperial General Headquarters in stark terms:
He gave a long speech and said we were doing a good job and the railway was progressing, but the railway must be completed – ‘Nippon very sorry, many men must die’. Well, that began at least 150 days without a day off. Those days of feverish haste were known to them as the ‘Speedo’ – it came to be called that because the Japanese were always calling, ‘speedo, speedo’ when they were hurrying us up.’
Food, and the fair sharing of it, remained a preoccupation with the constantly starving POWs. The cooks became skilled at making sure each man got a standard measure. But on occasions, there was some rice left over, and the ‘leggie’ system was started – based on the Malay word lagi, ‘again’. Each man was given a number, and in turn would line up in the ‘leggie ’queue if there was more rice to be dished out to the lucky few. According to Private Bob Grant, the ‘leggie was like winning a small lottery’:
We got to the point where it was generally accepted that getting your extra ration was your business and jolly good luck to you. Once having received your rice, it was yours and you trusted no one with it, not even your best friend.
It was Alby Roderick’s lucky night, his ‘leggie’ came up and he received a generous portion of extra rice. He was ecstatic and was boasting about his good fortune when suddenly he had one of his unfortunate calls of nature. The risk of contaminating his rice by taking it with him was greater than the risk of leaving it behind with his trusted mates. Wearing only his G string, Alby pulled out his doodle, dipped it in his dixie of precious rice and stirred it around a couple of times with his penis making sure those around him could see what he was doing. Alby then knew he could now concentrate on first things first, knowing that his dixie of bonus rice was in safe hands until he got back.
Humour was never absent from the most dire of circumstances on the Thai-Burma Railway, when morale could be raised by misfortune, as Private Don Moore recalled:
Toilet hygiene was the single most effective way to prevent cholera. Our doctor, Captain Millard, pulled no punches. ‘If you don’t make it to the latrine, you will infect some of your mates and they will surely die as a result of your carelessness and stupidity. If you get caught short on your mission you are the same as a murderer!’
Following instructions, we dug a new, very deep trench and placed four strong timber planks across it. We then cleared a pathway through the jungle scrub so that the latrine could be quickly reached by those in urgent need.
In the never-ending rain the trench quickly half-filled with water and so to add to our lot, the area rapidly became muddy and the wooden planks precariously slippery. It was always a race against time and Roly Hull in his ardour to complete his dash to the new latrine like the good doctor said, had just reached it, when he slipped, over-balanced and fell into its murky depths.
His cries of distress quickly bought his mates to the scene.
‘What the hell are you doing down there Roly?’
‘What the bloody hell do you think I’m doing? Learning to swim?’
While relations between Australian officers and their troops were better than in the British Army, the Australian officers found themselves – as did the British officers – in a privileged position. They were accorded status by the Japanese and given more privileges, but importantly they did not have to do the hard, backbreaking work that killed so many Australian and British troops on the railway.
In battle, officers die in numbers out of proportion to their men. But in the Asian POW situation, being an officer was like being issued with a ticket to go home. Hank Nelson, with his usual thoroughness, researched this assertion:
The 2/29th Battalion lost 12 officers and 58 other ranks killed in action. Even when it was taken into account that many other ranks were classed as ‘missing believed killed’, the officers died in battle out of proportion to their numbers. But as prisoners, two officers and 381 other ranks died. In H Force (on the Thai-Burma Railway), the death rate for British and Australian officers was 6 per cent – for the men, it was over 30 per cent. Among the Australians in F Force, three officers died in comparison with 1065 other ranks. On HMAS Perth 18 officers were killed in action or drowned, but none died as prisoners of war…. The battle conditions which made junior officers vulnerable were reversed when the Allies surrendered (to Japan).
Not all the Australian officers behaved well, although most did. The doctors are remembered as heroes by the ex-POWs. Major ‘Roaring Reggie’ Newton of the 2/19th Battalion was outstanding in his unceasing abilities to stand up to the Japanese to get a better deal for his men. He was often beaten and humiliated for his efforts, but just kept going – continuing his pastoral care of the men of his beloved 2/19th even after the war was over until the day he died.
Some officers could never attend any unit reunion after the war because of their shameful conduct.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gus Kappe came back to Changi from the Thai-Burma Railway fat, in marked contrast to his skeletal men. As well as feathering his own nest with extra food from his officers’ allowance (some officers did pool their extra pay and did share with their men), Gus Kappe even turned over his own men to the Japanese for punishment!
Private George Aspinall (the Changi photographer) told me of his experience with Kappe on F Force, Thai-Burma Railway:
He was renowned for laying back all day doing nothing, issuing orders and making life very hard for the rest of the men that were working. To some extent he was co-operating with the Japanese to their detriment. The men detested this particular person. Even today they don’t talk about such things publicly – they prefer to let bygones be bygones. But when this group is talking privately, some of these names come up and there’s a real hate session. It did anger people. But we were supposed to be soldiers – we were supposed to take orders from superior officers. We perhaps tried to live up to a code, something set up by our forefathers in World War One.
To add insult to injury, Lt-Colonel Kappe was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his war service!
Private Don Moore spoke of another case:
There was one officer known on the railway as ‘The White Jap’. He was entirely dedicated to his own self-preservation. He was affluent by POW standards. He had money that he would lend where he would be paid back three times the amount in English currency when he came back. This money had come from the proceeds of a canteen which he ran at a camp of which he was the commander. In this case it was private enterprise purely and simply for himself. This fellow, I speak of, has never been back to any reunion that I know of.
Our series Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon went to air in 1984, sixteen 45-minute programs – plus ten 30-minute documentaries in an accompanying series, Survival, featuring the stories of some extraordinary individual POWs, including Chris Neilson, who spent time in the dreaded Outram Road jail and the remarkable Sister Vivian Bullwinkel.
Radio cassettes were sold by the ABC and several thousand sets were snapped up by our listeners.
Hank published a book on the series with the same title, a chapter for each program. I also wrote a book (my first) Changi Photographer – George Aspinall’s Record of Captivity, based on extended interviews with George and which published many of his photographs for the first time.
After our 16-part radio series went to air, the experiences of Australian POWs in Asia became something of a growth industry. There were personal memoirs written, documentary films made, and even a television drama series produced by John Doyle for ABC-TV, Changi. It is difficult to imagine an Australian Prime Minister celebrating Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass on the Thai-Burma Railway – as John Howard did in 1998 – before our radio series went to air in 1984.
So, Hank Nelson’s phone call in 1982 triggered an immersion exercise in prisoner-of-war experiences that has been a considerable part of my professional life. Working with Hank for all those years was simply wonderful, and I cannot believe that he is no longer here. The urge to ring him about something still occurs. But he neglected to leave his telephone number – how very inconsiderate of him.
Tim Bowden is a broadcaster, journalist, foreign correspondent, radio and television documentary maker, oral historian and author. His background in journalism includes current affairs, news and feature and documentary work in radio and television. He is also the author of seventeen books. Tim received an Order of Australia for services to public broadcasting in June 1994. In May 1997 he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Tasmania. He was born in the island state of Tasmania in 1937, and like most island people, believes they hold special values.