Prisoners of War: In Their Own Words

More than 30,000 Australian service personnel, civilians and their allies became prisoners of war (POWs) between 1940 and 1945. Australia also imprisoned its enemies during the Second World War.

The Germans and their Italian allies captured Australians during the Mediterranean, North African and Middle East campaigns. They also seized Australians at sea in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. Of some 8,000 Australians taken prisoner by the Germans and Italians, about 265 died during their captivity.

During the Pacific war, the Japanese detained more than 22,000 Australians, including sailors, soldiers, airmen, members of the army nursing service and some civilians. At the end of the war, only 13,872 of the POWs returned home; approximately one-third of them had died.

Based on how long and where they were held, people who were incarcerated had various experiences. Some were confined for a short time, while others were prisoners for years. Those held for a long time faced more challenges. These included physical hardships and loneliness. They worried about not knowing when or if they would be set free. Despite these difficulties, they demonstrated incredible strength and resilience.

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 incarceration 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Some of the language used in the videos may seem outdated or offensive in a modern context.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 encounters being discussed in the videos.

Four shirtless and visibly underweight men pushing an improvised auger on bare earth.

Digging bore hole latrines, Changi camp, by Murray Griffin, 1942–43: oil on cardboard, 42.6 cm x 52.4 cm. Bore-hole latrines were a necessity in a prisoner-of-war camp that housed thousands of men. AWM ART24493

Inadequate nutrition

Australian soldiers who were captured and kept in Japanese prison camps had a tough time. They had to deal with really harsh living conditions. They were made to work long hours, often doing hard labour. They were beaten and given very little food, usually just small portions of rice. That was not enough food for the work they were forced to do. Many prisoners became malnourished, which means they did not get the right nutrients, and they did not have proper medical care. On the other hand, Australians held by the Germans generally had it a bit easier. They were given more food, and they received medical care that followed the rules of the Geneva Conventions. The prisoners could look forward to regular parcels from the Red Cross, which had things like luxury food items such as chocolate, biscuits and dried fruit as well as other supplies to help them.

Discover more about food in Japanese camps.

Starvation camp

Not long after the war began, John 'Jack' Bell enlisted with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). While on a mission in January 1942, Jack's plane was shot down, and he was severely wounded. After months in a German field hospital, he was transferred to a POW camp. Over the next few years, Jack spent time in various Italian and German POW camps before he and 4 friends escaped. Hear Jack talk about his experience in a 'starvation camp' as punishment.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. What made the conditions at POW Campo No 65 Gravina Altamura stand out compared to the other camps?
  2. Why was it a big deal to have a tin of water, called a 'dixie', in the Gravina camp?
  3. The weekend ration for 600 men at Gravina was 6 cabbages and 6 broccoli. Imagine 100 people in your school being given only one cabbage and one broccoli for 2 days. If this happened regularly, list the short and long-term implications of this diet on the prisoners.
  4. Gravina was a 'punishment camp' that Jack was sent to after an attempted escape. Do you think the camp was an effective form of punishment? Give your reasons.
  5. What do you think would have been the impact on Jack's physical and mental health after 2 weeks at Gravina?

Hear more of John 'Jack' Bell's story.

The vilest rice

Keith Fowler enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 6 July 1940. After 2 days of fighting in Java, Allied forces were compelled to surrender. Keith became a prisoner of war (POW). He was sent to work on the now-infamous Burma-Thailand railway. Keith remained a prisoner until the war ended. He arrived in Australia on 9 October 1945. Hear Keith talk about “the vilest rice” he had to eat.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. What kinds of food could Keith and his friends get in the Hintok–Konyu camps? Talk about the condition of the rice.
  2. Keith talks about weevils in the rice. Research what a weevil is and describe it in your own words.
  3. From Keith's description, it is clear that the prisoners' ideas about food changed over time. How did they change, and why do you think they changed?

Hear more of Keith Fowler's story.

Forced labour

Prisoners in Japanese camps had to do hard labour, like building railways, roads and airfields. On the other hand, Australians held by the Germans had less harsh jobs, for example, farming or factory work. The German forces treated their POWs more fairly than the Japanese forces. In some cases, the Germans were better at following international rules like the Geneva Conventions.

Labour in the quarries

Colin Hamley embarked from Egypt for Australia with the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion. On the way home, the ship and Colin's army unit were diverted to the island of Java. After 2 weeks of fighting, Colin was captured when Java fell to the Japanese. In 1943, Colin and other Allied prisoners were moved to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. Hear Colin talk about the harsh working conditions he and his fellow prisoners of war endured on the railway.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Many accidents were caused when the prisoners were forced to use a 'star drill'. What aspects of camp life would have made these accidents more frequent or more of an issue than if someone were to have the same accident in Australia today?
  2. What techniques did the men use to break the bluestone boulders into smaller pieces?
  3. Describe the working conditions and treatment the prisoners experienced.
  4. What medical conditions were caused by work in the quarry, and why were they a problem?

Discover more about carving railway cuttings.

Disease and illness

Australians who were POWs in Japanese camps had a lot of health problems. They had to do physically demanding work and live in tough conditions. They suffered regular beatings, which led to injuries and sickness.

The camp hospitals were very basic, and the doctors were fellow prisoners. They had limited or no medical supplies, so they used whatever the prisoners could find or make. Cuts and infections were either very poorly treated or not treated. Prisoners often got tropical ulcers in the hot and dirty, confined places where they were held. Not getting enough good food made their bodies weak, and they became sick with malaria, dysentery and beriberi. Life as a POW also took a toll on their mental health.

In contrast, injured Australian prisoners in German camps usually had access to medical help and supplies. Even though their living conditions and food were generally better, many were still malnourished. Respiratory infections and dysentery were common ailments.

Mystery bite

Robert 'Bob' Molesworth Goodwin OAM joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1940. Bob was taken prisoner by the Japanese on 15 February 1942. At various times, he was held at Changi, Buket Timah, River Valley Road, Thailand and Singapore. Hear Bob's story about a painful bite on his foot one night.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Research 'centipedes in Thailand'. Discuss the size of the centipedes and how to treat a centipede bite.
  2. Describe what happened to Bob's right foot and how it was treated.
  3. How does Bob feel about what happened back then compared to now? Why do you think he can laugh about it today?
  4. Listen to Jim Kerr's story about ulcers Jim Kerr, ex Prisoner-of War, Burma-Thailand Railway video. What do Jim and Roberts's stories tell you about the treatment of POWs and the conditions in the camps?

Watch a short film Weary Dunlop: Stories of Service, an Australian prisoner of war who was a doctor.

Escape

Australians showed great bravery and ingenuity when trying to escape from captivity. Even though it was very dangerous, many tried bold escapes from camps.

In German camps, escapees often worked together to devise plans. For example, they dug tunnels under camp fences and made fake civilian clothes, identity papers and disguises.

There were very few successful escapes from the Japanese camps. Escape in Asia for European people was far more difficult as they could not blend in with the local communities. Escapees from European camps had a better chance to reach a neutral country, or Allied lines later in the war. In Asia, this was not really possible.

In Europe, recaptured escapees were more likely punished rather than killed. Prisoners who escaped from the Japanese were often executed.

Escape and recapture

On 27 April 1940, Alexander Kerr enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in Perth. Alex was shot down during a raid on Hamburg, Germany. He spent 6 months recovering from his injuries in a German hospital. Hear about Alexander's escape attempt.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Research and write your own definition for the following words: Luftwaffe, Stalag, Gestapo.
  2. It took more than 7 months to dig the tunnel that Alex and 51 others escaped through. It held a record of being the longest tunnel. Why didn't they dig a shorter tunnel and escape earlier? Explain what you think the benefits were of a long tunnel. Explain what they needed to do to avoid being discovered before the tunnel was finished.
  3. Imagine that you are a POW after listening to Alex's experiences. Explain how escaping and getting caught again would affect you.

Escape plan

Jack Calder served with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Tobruk and Syria. During the battle at El Alamein, Jack was captured and became a POW in Italy. Jack was also sent to various German POW camps. Hear Jack talk about escape plans.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. What was one of Jack's roles as the sergeant in the camp?
  2. What qualities did Jack Calder and Jack Woight want in the prisoners they chose for the tunnel project?
  3. What were the '12 holes' around the camp? How did they use them to try to escape?
  4. What caused the tunnel escape plan to fail? Why were only a small number of prisoners put in solitary confinement?

Curriculum notes for teachers

The videos and activities align with Year 10 History, v 9.0 Australian Curriculum.

The places where Australians fought, and their perspectives and experiences during the Second World War, such as the fall of Singapore, prisoners of war (POWs), the Battle of Britain and Kokoda ACHH10K02

  • Comparing the experiences of various prisoners of war (POWs), such as the treatment of Australian POWs under German and Japanese control
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