Australian prisoners of war during World War II: In Their Own Words

Australian prisoners of war standing with their cooking utensils in the Changi prisoner of war camp. AWM 043134

Background

Australian service men and women have been taken prisoner in wartime from World War I to the Korean War. The highest number of Australians held prisoner was during World War II. However, it's important to remember and understand the experiences of all Australian prisoners of war (POWs) regardless of the particular conflict.

The personal accounts in this resource may be difficult and confronting to hear. The experiences of POWs often contain moments of cruelty and heartbreak, contrasted against acts of selflessness and humanity.

Learning about these events firsthand from those who lived them allows us to understand their experiences better.

Some of the language used in the videos may seem outdated or offensive in a modern context. However, it's important to remember that these terms were relevant to the time and experiences being discussed in the videos.

Colin Hamley

Colin embarked from Egypt for Australia with the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion but was diverted to Java. After 2 weeks of fighting, Colin was captured when the island fell to the Japanese. In 1943, Colin and other Allied prisoners were moved to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. Colin’s brother Don had also been captured and was working on the railway. Don did not survive. Hear Colin talk about the harsh working conditions he and other POWs endured on the railway.

Watch the video:

Do the activities:

  1. Colin recalls being so hungry that he felt grateful for being given rotten food to eat. How would the shortage of fresh food affect the prisoners’ abilities to work in the quarry?
  2. Why was looking out for each other important when working in the quarries?
  3. How did the challenges of conditions and climate affect the treatment of ulcers?

James Kerr

James Kerr was serving in Malaya during the defence of Singapore. After avoiding capture for almost a week, he and 18 others were cut off from their units and decided to surrender because they were short of food. James was held in Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur before being sent to Changi in October 1942. In March 1943, he was sent to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. Hear James talk about the vital work POW doctors did in camps to keep fellow prisoners alive.

Watch the video:

Do the activities:

  1. What do you think James means when he describes the doctors in the camp as ‘men above men’? Why were the doctors held in such high regard?
  2. What made the work of doctors in the POW camps especially difficult?
  3. POWs were especially vulnerable to tropical diseases on the Burma-Thailand railway. Read about medical improvisation in POW camps. Research 5 ways doctors came up with improvised medical supplies.

Leslie Glover

While serving in Singapore in 1942, Leslie became a POW when the island fell to the Japanese. Leslie spent 6 months in Changi before being sent to Borneo to build an airfield at Sandakan. Leslie felt the mateship displayed by the men in the camps was like a brotherhood.

Watch the video:

Do the activities:

  1. Leslie describes the bond between Australian POWs as a brotherhood that carried on after the war ended. How might veterans have kept in contact once they returned home?
  2. Why did US General Douglas MacArthur discourage anti-Japanese sentiment after the war?

John Pope

While in Syria with the 2/28th Infantry Battalion, John served in the Siege of Tobruk. On 3 August 1941, he was captured when the Germans overran the post he was defending. As a POW, John was sent to Germany and tried to escape twice while in transit. He felt lucky not to have been shot the second time when soldiers took him and 2 mates to Gestapo headquarters for questioning. John believed that one of his friend’s ability to speak German saved them all. Hear John talk about his final escape during an Allied air raid.

Watch the video:

Do the activities:

  1. Why do you think John and his friends would have risked such dangers to meet up with the American army?
  2. Do you think being held prisoner under tough conditions encourages ‘mateship’? Explain the reasons for your answer.

Bart Richardson

While serving as a lieutenant in Malaya and Singapore, Bart was taken prisoner in Singapore on 15 February 1942. As a POW, Bart was interned in Singapore and Thailand. He was one of a group of officers who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. In December 1943, Bart was sent back to Singapore and eventually moved to Changi prison, where he was liberated in 1945. Hear Bart talk about his journey back to Australia.

Watch the video:

Do the activities:

  1. Bart returned home to Australia on a naval ship. How does he describe the mood of his fellow liberated POWs as they awaited their arrival in Australia?
  2. Bart made several stops on his journey around Australia before arriving home. What was the reaction of locals when arriving in towns like Darwin?
  3. How did Bart and his friends react when told they would only have a short time to visit their family before having to report back to duty with the Army?

Pat Guest

Pat Guest (nee Bourke) enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) in 1942. Pat worked a variety of jobs in the AWAS, including as an ambulance driver ferrying returned POWs to hospital. This was the worst experience of her service because of the poor condition of the men’s health and the anxiety of their friends and family trying to find out more information. Hear Pat talk about the return of her brother Jim, who had been a POW, and how she coped during this difficult time.

Watch the video:

Do the activities:

  1. How does Pat describe the condition of returning POWs, including her brother Jim?
  2. Which part of Pat's job as an ambulance driver upset her the most?
  3. During World War II, more than 66,000 women like Pat joined the AWAS. Australian nurses were also held as POWs during World War II. Use our ebook Devotion: Stories of Australia's wartime nurses to research stories of Australian women who were held prisoner in World War II.

Value of oral history in the classroom

Oral histories bring historic events to life through the voices and memories of people who lived through them.

Listening to the stories of Australian veterans helps us understand the experience of military service and war. Hearing from their family members gives insight into the hardship of service on home life.

By gathering oral histories, we can avoid stereotyping and generalising military service. We can identify the similarities and recognise the diversity of their experiences. Two people who have served in the same theatre of war will have different memories and bring their own insights to the broader story.

Copyright

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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