Surviving freezing weather in POW camp

Name: Alexander William Bourne
Date: 1943-1945
Unit: POW
Location: Keijo Prisoner of War Camp, Korea

Signaller Alexander William Bourne was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. He was later transferred to Korea where he spent the rest of the war at Keijo Prisoner of War Camp.

He managed to keep a detailed diary of the last few months, recording daily events at the camp where the POWs were forced to work on the roads.

Having worked for the Department of Agriculture before the war, he was able to grow extra food after finding some seeds and planting them at the camp.

Like all POWs, Signaller Bourne lived for news and mail from home. He wrote in his diary in February 1945.

"After a month's anxious waiting for more letters and parcels nothing has come to light although rumour has it that there are 4000 letters in the office."

Food and health were also major concerns. Signaller Bourne tells of being uneasy after a few serious cases of pneumonia when one poor fellow

"produced a 13 inch worm. I think a number of us must have them. When Frank Hern was starved for his appendicitis operation one came out of his mouth."

The weather is another concern.

"A nice day or two at the end of the month (January 1945) indicated that spring was on its way and all the ice melted from the previously frozen paddy fields. It must be cold for the men who wade through them in high rubber boots searching for something like water cress."

Many of the men managed to retain a sense of humour. Signaller Bourne writes that he heard a good limerick:

There was a young girl from Australia
Who went to a ball as a dahlia.
The petals revealed, what they should have concealed
And the dance, as a dance, was a failure.

He also referred to an article he tried to get from the Nippon Times newspaper

"that told of a Japanese pilot who accounted for two Yank planes by throwing a rice ball at one. After running out of ammunition he threw his wireless set and everything else available until finally he thought of the rice ball and seaweed. The 'enemy' thought it was a hand grenade and crashed into the sea hitting his mate and giving him a watery grave."

During March the long awaited warmer weather was still proving elusive.

"Although we expected a big change in the weather this month, it is still chilly and we have not discarded our long woollens yet. However, I was very pleased to see the gardens start in earnest on the 6th as a large area of gardens had thawed out and by the end of the month our hot frame was showing life and lettuce and carrots had been planted together with an outside bed of cabbages, and tomatoes and bringalls in the hot frame."

The POWs were obviously looking forward to the harvest of the vegetables but meanwhile they had other concerns.

"Probably this has been the most hungry month I've had to contend with," he wrote. "I'm afraid there are a few of us who are becoming food maniacs although I am convinced that our meagre ration is being shared with one or two 'Hermans'."

Lack of news was a continuing problem.

"Newspapers have gradually fallen further and further behind and there is no news worth mentioning in them," he wrote. "We are expecting to hear rumours of the Second Front opening at any time."

Death of fellow POWs was a constant event.

"The padre was recalled from the gardens one day and on our return the truck was outside with flowers covering a coffin. It turned out to be a young officer who was doing 8 years for attempting to escape. He was only 23 and had managed to get out of Dunkirk. They said he died of pleurisy."

April turned on the rain and the garden flourished, enabling them to eat the daikon and turnip thinnings.

Mail from home was released during the month. It had been in the office for about six weeks but it gave the POWs fresh hope that the 'Red Cross War' was over and they might soon receive some parcels.

"I received 14 ultra-welcome letters and sent a reply on the 29th in card form," he wrote.

More mail was released on 22 May but there was still no sign of the parcels although

"a fair quantity of medical equipment arrived together with some comforts in the form of 1 toothbrush between 2, shaving cream & toothpaste between 2, 5 razor blades, 1 pencil, a few towels, some civvy suits, few woollen socks, some woollen underclothing and a few handkerchiefs."

The end of the war was signalled by the dropping of leaflets on 20 September 1945. Headed "Attention Allied Prisoners", it issued instructions from Lieutenant General AC Wedemeyer, USA.

Allied Prisoners of War & Civilian Internees, these are your orders and/or instructions in case there is a capitulation of the Japanese forces:

  1. You are to remain in your camp area until you receive further instructions from this headquarters.
  2. Law & order will be maintained in the camp area.
  3. In case of a Japanese surrender there will be allied occupational forces sent into your camp to care for your needs and eventual evacuation to your homes. You must help by remaining in the area in which we now know you are located.
  4. Camp leaders are charged with these responsibilities.
  5. The end is near. Do not be disheartened. We are thinking of you. Plans are under way to assist you at the earliest possible moment.

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Helen Bourne of Queensland


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Surviving freezing weather in POW camp, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/surviving-freezing-weather-pow-camp
Was this page helpful?