Prisoners of War: A conference on the Australian experience

Prisoners of War: A conference on the Australian experience in captivity in the 20th century.

(ANU, Canberra, 5-6 June 2013)

I attended parts of this conference where, at the request of President Peter Salter, I represented the 2/20 Battalion Association. The talks covered POWs in WWI and WWII and both the European and Asian theatres of war. My interest was to do with the 8th Division and the Japanese experience and I shall put together information from the six appropriate abstracts and in some instances will add my own notes:

“I don’t think I deserve a pension, we didn’t do much fighting”

This talk by Tim Bowden reviewed the making and broadcasting of the 16 part ABC Radio series “Prisoners of War- Australians under Nippon” in 1984. There was 300 hours of original oral history testimony from the veterans who finally decided to reveal moving and personal stories of their captivity particularly the slave labour forces on the infamous railway and the airfield near Sandakan. Initially the POWs had spoken little of their experiences, harbouring feelings of guilt that they had been POWs not fighting soldiers. However they had contributed to the gallant actions fought to counter the successful Japanese attacks on Ambon, Timor, Java, Singapore and Malaya and the reaction to these stories on the radio helped the men review their perceptions about themselves.

[In ‘Pounding Along to Singapore’ I used several quotes from Gordon Gaffney who I interviewed in 1995… as he said “If we don’t start to tell you what happened, no one will ever know.” ]


“Our Number One Priority’: Australian Red Cross and POWs during both World Wars”. was the paper by Melanie Oppenheimer (Formerly at UNE, moving to Flinders University)

Assisting Prisoners of War was a key aspect of wartime work for the Australia Red Cross. Working with the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as other Allied National Societies, the ARC played an integral role through its Bureaux for Wounded, Missing and  Prisoners of War. The paper particularly focused on lengths to which ARC leaders went in their attempts to ‘pierce the darkness’ surrounding the situation of those interred by  the Japanese in WWII.

‘Pounding along to Singapore’ includes a transcript of a letter from the Red Cross to Bill Gaden’s mother

Vera who had written to ask if they had any news. Their letter of reply dated 2March 1942 stated

“We refer to your enquiry for Capt. E.W.Gaden NX12543. The position with regard to personnel in Malaya and Singapore is at the moment obscure and there is no communication, either cabled or postal, with these countries, because as you know they are entirely in the hands of the Japanese.

In a cable from London, dated February 19th, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, of February 20th, it was stated that an announcement had been made that Japan will conform to the Geneva War Prisoners Convention and allow all necessary food and clothing to reach men in Japanese Prison Camps. One of the first obligations upon Japan will be to supply a list of all members of the various fighting forces who have been taken Prisoners of war as well as a list of civilians interned. Naturally it will take some time to collect all the details but as Japan has agreed to do this work it should not be unduly long. We have every reason to believe that food and clothing will be allowed to reach the Prisoners through the Red Cross in the same way as it is reaching them in Germany and Italy.”

How wrong they were!

Back home Vera finally received an official letter from the Australian Military Forces (AMF) dated 30 April 1942, ten harrowing weeks after the fall of Singapore advising

no definite information is at present available in regard to the whereabouts or circumstances of your son Captain Edward William Gaden (Number NX12543) 2/20 Battalion A.I.F. and to convey to you the sincere sympathy of the Minister and the Military Board in your natural anxiety in the absence of news concerning him.

She was asked that if she received any information from other sources it should be sent on to the AMF to verify or assist with their official investigations.

By 29 June 1942 Vera received another official letter informing her that the Minister for the Army advice was that Bill was posted as “missing”. Further news was being sought through the AMF and also the International Red Cross. What hell for the families who didn’t know if their loved one was alive or dead so long after the cease fire.

In the meantime, in October 1942, Bill reported in his POW dairy that some Red Cross parcels were distributed to the troops, they had come from Lorenzo Marques, the capital of the Portuguese colony Mozambique.

And finally, after eleven interminable months of waiting herself, on 6th January 1943, Vera finally received a telegram from Victoria Barracks, Sydney to find her son was no longer was “Missing” but still alive as a Prisoner of the Japanese.


“Discipline in Changi: Crime, punishment and keeping order inside the prison camp” by Lucy Robertson, an Honours student from Adelaide University, who presented her paper with excellent clarity and enthusiasm.

Changi was one of the largest prison camps in the Asia Pacific region in WWII and was the most autonomous camp established by the Japanese. The Allied troops’ own military structures were to remain intact and they themselves were responsible for discipline within the camp. This led to some troops like Russell Braddon objecting to the discipline of still being a soldier, and it also led to friction between the troops and their officers.

Military discipline meant officers were to be saluted, it meant drill and neat dress with tidy hair leading, it was thought, to dignity and self respect. Men breaking the many rules could be sentenced to confinement, for example one who stole a jacket was confined for 30 days. Things ran relatively smoothly whilst ‘Black Jack’ Galleghan was in charge of the Australians but declined with another leader and once men started to return from the working parties on the railway. Bored men in Changi had been incarcerated a long time, they were starving (one bucket to rice was to feed 250 men) and nerves were fraying.

Theft was common, not within the immediate circle of  half a dozen or so mates, but on a wider scale and was probably important for both survival and morale, especially if the victim was one of the hated Japanese. Food, medical supplies and personal items were the targets and there was a strong black market trading gold, fake products and food. For some gambling debts became a problem and there was serious inflation, a 35c tin of bully beef or a 30c tin of pineapple would sell for $4. It was up to the officers to deal out punishments to the various ‘miscreants’.

The impact of the situation led to an ‘Officer versus Other Ranks’ attitude, many of the men perhaps not appreciating the essential buffer between the men and the Japanese that was provided by the officers, nor how much worse it would be under the rule of Japanese or Korean guards…. but perhaps they finally realised how bad things could have been if they had worked on the railway and Lucy, when I spoke to her after her presentation, told me the Changi men were generous to the men returning from Burma and Thailand.

An interview I had with Gordon Gaffney, a survivor of ‘F’ Force, makes for harrowing reading.

“What did you weigh?”

Well at one stage there I was – I don’t know, about four and a half, five stone. When I was up at cholera hill a fellow died along side of me – and he had cerebral malaria which is a dreadful thing – he bucked over on top of me and I couldn’t kick him off, I was too poor to kick him off. While I was up there, orderlies came around and wanted to pick up the dead [to place on the funeral pyre]. They said [of Gaffney] this poor bugger’s had it, and they pulled these meat tickets off [his boots]. You couldn’t talk, your eyes were back in your head and I winked at him, and I think he fainted!

“Tell me, when you actually got back to Changi, what was it like getting off the train? What was the reaction of the people in Changi?”

They were….Black Jack, the toughest man in the world, cried when he saw us, he said, where are the rest of my men? Thirtieth Battalion? They said that’s it. Well they tipped us off the back of trucks at Changi like a lump – heap of bones and meat – and these fellows in Changi, they couldn’t understand it. We were just like skin and bone, there was nothing of us. Filthy dirty…

Reference:  Interview with Gordon Gaffney, May 1995, transcript is at

<>    and tape donated to AWM, S01738 and “Pounding Along to Singapore” page 207.


“Hellships, prisoner transport and unrestricted submarine warfare in the Second World War” by Lachlan Grant, Military History section, AWM.

In 2012 a new memorial in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial was dedicated to the memory of those lost on the ‘Montevideo Maru’ a Japanese transport ship carrying Australian POWs and civilian internees from New Britain which was torpedoed by the USS ‘Sturgeon’ on 1 July 1942. It was Australia’s largest maritime tragedy with the loss of 1053 lives. In all it is thought that 22000 Allied prisoners died on the Japanese ‘hellships’ the majority of which were sunk by Allied submarines.

The Red Cross pleaded with the warring nations to have ships marked as POW or hospital ships but no agreement could be reached, there was no trust that opponents would not use the ships to transport troops and in some instances an outward voyage could carry troops with a homeward voyage taking prisoners and wounded. It  is thought that overall 136 ships made 150 voyages transporting 60,000 prisoners.

Captain Reg Newton, 2/19, told me of their trip to Japan on one of these hellships, the ‘Byoki Maru’. It was a real ‘rusty old bucket’ (a ‘small weather-worn burnt-out wreck’ was how he described it in ‘The Grim Glory’) but Reg remarked that the ship’s Captain was an excellent seaman. When hit by a huge typhoon they retreated to the leeward side of various islands and the normally-ten-day voyage extended to 70 days as the ship leap-frogged  from one lee to another as they tried to evade both bad weather and American submarines. Reg recalled they sailed as part of a convoy and several ships were torpedoed. They too anticipated they would soon be sunk, but the expected torpedo didn’t arrive and eventually the ship reached Nagasaki to disgorge its human cargo to work in the mines. Reg recalled they survived the eventual atomic bomb, and, not knowing what it really was, they wandered in awe through the devastated city before eventually being repatriated to Australia. Post-war Reg sought out the submarine commander and visited him in America to ask why he hadn’t sunk their ship. With great honesty the American remarked that it was such a rusty wreck of a vessel that he thought it was not worth wasting one of his precious ‘fish’ on it, the typhoons would sink the vessel and do the job for him.

Reference: “The Grim Glory of the 2/29 Battalion A.I.F.” edited by Reg Newton, (1975, 2/19 Battalion Association). I commend to you the story of their trip to Japan on pages 671-689.


“If you want to survive captivity get a commission”, Joan Beaumont, Australian National University

Abstract: Since 1945 Australian prisoners of the Japanese have progressively integrated their experience of captivity into the dominant national memory of war, the ANZAC legend. Central to this foundational narrative are the values of mateship and egalitarianism. However a closer examination of captivity in Asia Pacific region suggests that these values were often strained, not only by the terrible stresses to which Australian prisoners were subjected but by the fact that officers enjoyed certain privileges. Even though the Japanese ignored most of the provisions of the 3rd Geneva convention, they often did not require officers to undertake manual work and they paid them at a higher rate than the Other Ranks. This paper examined how these relative differences impacted on chances of survival and on relations between the ranks.

From my notes of the talk: Joan Beaumont claimed that 22% of Australians and only 21% of British troops died on the railway and remarked that the notion of egalitarianism was wrong. Allied Officers were given the privileges of extra pay, a batman, the right to work or not  and the ability to bring issues to the notice of the Japanese. Officers on the railway survived at a higher rate on the railway than O/Rs, for example ‘H’ force lost about 26% of O/Rs but only 7% of officers even though I understood her to later say they were also forced to do the heavy work. At Hintock camp Captains were paid $50, Lieutenants $40 and Privates just $3, however the Japanese withheld officer’s pay to cover ‘Board’ and a donation to the ‘Bank’ for their dependents, so ‘Weary’ Dunlop ‘lost’ 27% of his pay. Officers were also ‘taxed’ to support the sick. Those with higher rank came into much more contact with Thai and Burmese traders and so could buy additional food such as duck eggs. Camps had ‘canteens’ so if you had money you could supplement your diet. So what did the officers do? Well the Medical officers received praise for their hard work and intervention where possible. Other Officers were known to be involved with kitchen duties and wood collection for the cooking fires, they helped bury the dead, they dug the latrines, they  negotiated the amount of work on the railway to be completed in the day and they acted as buffer between POWs and the guards.

From my research I found there were some appalling officers and some excellent ones. An incident on board the ‘Byoki Maru’ saw someone give rice to starving Filipino labourers, much to the wrath of Japanese guard ‘Boxhead’ who demanded to know the culprit. Warrant Officer Bill Belford (RAAF 404493) owned up, saying he was one of ‘Dunlop’s Mob’ who always helped one another and only Dunlop’s and ‘Newton’s Mob’ had done this on the railway and he had to keep up the good work.

‘Pounding Along to Singapore’ focuses on ‘D’ Force POWs and the ‘U Beauties’ (U Battalion) were blessed with their excellent leadership… Captain Reginald William James Newton (NX34734), their OIC and his 2IC Captain Edward William Gaden (NX12543) and Medical Officer Captain David Clive Critchley Hinder (NX76302), we salute you for the work you did to bring so many of ‘your boys’ home… as ‘Roaring’ Reggie himself would say, “Well done Bonnie Laddies”.

A transcript of the interview with Reg Newton is at



‘Dishonourable Men? Australian POWs and the First, Second and Third Anglo-German POW Repatriations’ by Seamus Spark

This paper does not directly relate to the Prisoners of the Japanese but give an interesting insight into the attitude of the Australian Government and Army towards POWs and perhaps helps to explain why the returning men were discouraged from talking about their POW experience and their families were told to not discuss it with them but to change the subject if the men raised the topic at all.

The first group of Australian POWs to return from World War II arrived in Melbourne in May 1942. The soldiers in the first group had been exchanged for enemy servicemen. Later in the war hundreds more Australian personnel exchanged in POW repatriation followed them home. This paper examined the significance of their return in wartime, their reception in Australia  and the effects  of Anglo-German POW repatriations on Australian POW policy, with the poor and ambivalent treatment of ex-POWs in the post war era having its origins in the official response to these repatriations.

Seamus told us Australia was involved with 6 repatriations involving 900 people. The men were treated with disdain when they came home. In 1943 there were 10,000 men on the dock in Barcelona. The seriously ill and wounded were repatriated first and they needed doctors and stretcher bearers i.e. non-combatants. There is a difference between those ‘repatriated’ (i.e. the sick and wounded) and the ‘exchanges’ who were able bodied men and exchanges were based on number, with the recognition they could become enemy combatants again.

In April 1942, 120 Australians and British were exchanged for 900 Italians at Smyrna in Turkey and subsequently more exchanges took place in Smyrna and Lisbon. The public stories of captivity evoke the image of the ‘worthy Australians’, the men who ‘take it on the chin’ and ‘laugh it off’, they didn’t want to alarm relatives, they wanted to hide the shame. In private it was a different story with fears for the health of the POWs.

There were 4 Anglo-German repatriations, 1943 Gothenburg, 1944 Barcelona (540 Australians), September 1944 Gothenburg (107 Australians) and finally Switzerland (100 Australians).

The Government were interested in the repatriations but the Army had to decide  if POWs were ‘men of honour’, after all they had been captured. Blamey himself said “Surrender to the enemy over death was dishonourable”, so the men were thought to be guilty of dishonourable action until proven innocent. The Army thought there was too much glamour associated with POWs and dockside receptions were cold, there was no welcoming band and  relatives were kept well away ‘for security reasons’.  The Army could not admit the POWs had in fact served their country. They acknowledged, but then completely ignored, the orders from Prime Minister John Curtin and Minister for the Army Frank Forde. The Army used the repatriations as test runs for when the majority returned.

The thoughts that POWs were not worthy of a pension was an acquired attitude, it was a result of Army policy yet the Red Cross cards show the physical and mental breakdown of many POWs. No doubt the images that emerged over the years of the appalling conditions of the Prisoners of the Japanese evoked some sympathy and, thank goodness, we now recognise the symptoms and have a better understanding of how to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


 “Compensating captivity: POWs of the Japanese in post-war culture” by Christina Twomey, Monash University

The paper examined the transformation of POWs of the Japanese from objects of ambivalence and contradiction to their current status of veterans who arouse profound sympathy and author Christina Twomey thinks three situations may have accounted for this:

1. The two ‘3-bob-a-day’ campaigns in the 1950s when the Federal Government twice refused the POWs claim to a sustenance allowance for the duration of their captivity… the refusal was to designed to discourage future soldiers from surrendering early and not fighting on.

[Capt Reg Newton, OIC of the Australians in ‘D’ Force POW, paid huge amounts of money from his own Bank of NSW account at Head Office for food for his ‘D’ Force men. The food was transported to the camps by barge (see Bill Gaden’s painting in the colour insert of PA2S), the further a camp was from the river, the harder it was to obtain food as the ‘F’ force POWs found out. Reg gave blank cheques to Kanchanaburi merchant Boon Pong all of which were filled in and honoured at war’s end.  But Reg himself was threatened with Court Martial by the Army when the newspapers became aware of the story that the Government would not reimburse him the money for POW food.  Eventually Reg did receive some money, but it came from the Red Cross, not the Government… see PA2S pages 187-8].

2. The POW Trust Fund established in 1977. Applications for assistance reveal the frail psychological state of many men who felt employers had no empathy for their plight and they felt anger and bitterness to both their captors and their own Government. The Trustees were also incredibly insensitive to their trauma.

3. The Compensation (Japanese Internment) Act of 2001 which finally, [55 years too late] awarded $25,000 to the remaining ex-POWs, at last showing there was some understanding of their being victims of human rights violations with just claims for compensation.


That was the keynote address and the final paper in this Conference report. If I have made any errors in my notes and interpretations, I apologise to the speakers. There were so many interesting snippets and facts I would have loved to have transcribed, I wish I had learned Pitman shorthand!!





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