“Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon” by Hank Nelson

More reading for Anzac Day …

This 1985 publication is based on an award winning ABC Radio series of the same name that was first broadcast in 1984. It was presented by Tim Bowden, AM (war correspondent, journalist, broadcaster, documentarian, author and oral historian) and Hank Nelson, AM (historian, author, mentor and ANU Professor). I listened to that series week-by-week, on Saturdays as I remember, because I was named after Dad’s older brother who was killed as a POW when the Japanese ship the Rakuyō Maru, transporting over 1,000 Australian and British POWs back to Japan, was torpedoed by the USS Sealion II in September 1944. My family would never tell me much about my uncle’s tragic experience as a POW when I asked and this radio series and book helped me to understand why. They simply did not know. Some earlier accounts had been published, such as Russell Braddon’s “The Naked Island”, but I think this broadcast and publication really helped us to understand the experience of those POWs because it was made at a time when so many ex-prisoners were finally more willing to talk about their incarceration. That the stories were brought to life is also not least down to the skill of both Tim and Hank.

The book is quite simply full of almost unimaginable memories of endurance, mateship, courage, compassion, humour and the most beastly brutality. It begins with the fall of Singapore in February 1942, and then covers life in Changi, the infamous Thai-Burma railway, the capture of Australian Army Nurses, the decimation of ‘Gull Force’ on Ambon, the atrocities committed on Borneo and the Sandakan death march, escape and evasion attempts, forced repatriation of some POWs to slave labour Japan, the severity of punishments handed out in Outram Rd prison in Singapore, survival and eventual freedom and the legacy of wounded minds.

Now that the 16 parts of the series are available for download, I think that it is best to take the opportunity to listen their voices and then read their words, perhaps chapter-by-chapter. Together, the program and the book bring to life the experiences of many memorable prisoners such as Stan Arneil, George Aspinall, Keith Botterill, Vivian Bullwinkel, Dr Kevin Fagan, Don Moore, Ray Parkin and Snow Peat.

P02569.192

A George Aspinall photograph of three “fit” workers on a camp on the Burma Thai Railway: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P02569.192

Nearly all ex-POWs would have passed now, but I had the opportunity to meet and talk with some while I was working at the Australian War Memorial. It always amazed me that so many went on to lead healthy, productive and reasonably long lives knowing what they endured and also what they went without for so many years as POWs. I think it would’ve been around 2004 that several ex-prisoners tracked me down at the Memorial and asked if I was related to a mate of theirs (they had enlisted, served and been captured in 1942 with my uncle). They were all in their 80s or 90s by then and I got to know them all. They marched together every Anzac Day in Sydney and had all survived the sinking of the Rakuyō Maru in 1944. They asked me if they could meet with my father and I remember getting them all together one Saturday morning in West Ryde at one of their homes. After all those years they had managed to track me down and finally my father and I knew what had happened to his brother so many years ago. For me it was just like meeting many of those who told their stories to Tim and Hank.

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