Bandsman defied execution to keep diary

Name: Alan Murnane
Unit: 2nd/21st Gull Force

Alan Murnane, who joined the Army as a bandsman in 1940, kept a diary throughout the war. After travelling in Australia with the band, he was posted towards the end of 1941 to Ambon in the Dutch East Indies, where he discovered a new talent - as a stretcher bearer.

He quickly adapted to his new role as the Japanese attacked Australian troops but it wasn't long before the Australians were forced to surrender.

Alan Murnane spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He continued to keep a diary, which if discovered would have led to his immediate execution. He hid the diary in the lining of his trumpet case. His graphic account of life as a POW makes fascinating reading.

1 February 1942

The men at this stage were all pretty tired, working in the day time and a certain amount of activity at night, such as explosions and fires and sentry duty, making sleep impossible. 16 Platoon, to which Alandie and I were attached, were told to go to Ambon as a fighting patrol. We had gone only a few hundred yards when the leading scouts met 3 Japs armed with tommy guns and on push bikes. They engaged them and Alec Mason was injured. He dropped to the road and remained there, the rest of the patrol scattered about the hill and there was a hell of a lot of firing, although I doubt that anyone could see what they were shooting at.

One of the lads came back to us to report Mason's injury to Stewart the Platoon Commander. He called for stretcher bearers, told us our task, reminded us that we went at our own risk. This was the first test for the Red Cross. We moved down the open road to where Mason was and found him to be badly injured (broken arm, big hole in the shoulder, and one in the back, he was lying in a pool of blood.). There was a hell of a lot of shooting going on all round us, but we couldn't worry about that. We bandaged the patient up, and Alandie went for a stretcher while I remained with Mason. After waiting about 10 minutes and Alan was still away, I reckoned we had better move back or we were cert to be taken prisoner. I helped Alex to his feet and we managed in slow stages to get back to a tin hut just behind our front line troops.

We made our patient fairly comfortable on a bed there, and then came another call for stretcher bearers. A mortar bomb had landed in the trench adjacent to the pill box where four of our chaps were standing. We improvised a stretcher from a canvas bed and two poles, and proceeded to the spot, with bullets and shrapnel from bombs whistling over our heads.

What an ungodly mess faced us at that pill box, three chaps terribly badly injured, equipment scattered everywhere and the ground a huge pool of blood. We didn't have time to think much about the awfulness of it, just got stuck in to the job of applying dressings to the wounds. In most cases we had to cut their shirts right off, and this revealed horrible gashes in the body. It was a big job to get these chaps out and down to the shed but we did it somehow. We had to cut through barbed wire entanglements with an axe and a hammer.

3 February 1942

That morning while working at the RAP a couple of McRea's patrol came along for help. The 2IC had collapsed in the bush a couple of miles back. Four of us went back to pick him up, found the party preparing to leave the island, when they heard the Colonel had capitulated, two of them came back with us. We loaded the wounded into trucks and took them to the bottom of the Amahoosha line where the main body of Japs were. The whole Battalion walked to this place and slept under guard that night.

4 February 1942

Proceeded along the road to Ambon and what a sorry sight we must have looked. We marched in easy stages and met a hell of a lot of Japs along the track. Saw a good few dead Ambonese soldiers and one Aussie.

22 March 1942

Ever since we have been back here prisoners, the hospital has been full of fever and malaria cases, the disease seems to be getting worse. Luckily neither my cobber or I have caught it yet.

28 March 1942

For some time now Alan and I have been thinking of trying to escape to Ceram and ultimately to Aussie. Reg Sinclair came along with what seemed a pretty good plan. Arrangements for guides and boat had been made by chaps from A Company when on trips for tobacco. We three agreed to give it a fly.

29 March 1942

Escape plans going well until "Sinny" comes along with the news that the Colonel has reported missing the previous 11 escapees. Decided to postpone our attempt.

24 September 1942

27 today. Last birthday spent at Darwin with appropriate celebrations, not so here! Nine Yanks and four Dutch prisoners were brought in last night. All went to the Dutch compound. Allied reconnaissance planes have been over about once a week, but no fireworks. Flour and meat rations quite negligible now, a welcome issue of fish occasionally. Magnificent weather.

5 November 1942

Arrived at Hainan, a very hard morning, carried our kit bags two miles. No other prisoners in this camp. We are to build roads. Band will play. Food extra. Open air huts. Dutch in one, Aussies in another. Climate hot but a dry heat. Work 5_ days a week. Electric light 'til 11.00 hrs.

25 December 1942

Xmas Day in Hainan and not too bad considering. Porridge and sugar, an egg, a taste of chook and a taste of pork, little cakes and a pair of light sox. We work six days a week shovelling sand, walking five miles a day to and fro. Lost a bit of weight - am now 8.7 Ambon weight 9.6 but feel quite alright. A hell of a lot of sickness in the camp now, Berri-Berri, Malaria, Dysentry and all sorts.

8 March 1943

Malaria bug has roped me in at last and it is not good. Weighed yesterday, record low 7.9.

17 August 1943

The Snake (Commandant) has been shifted. Food a little better. A couple of meals of meat a week and a few eggs. Berri-Berri is terribly bad now, 20 or more of the boys are swollen to twice their normal size and dozens of others badly effected in their legs and chest.

24 September 1943

28 today. Presented with a very good rice cake from the cookhouse. These birthday cakes have been given since we came to this camp. Harold Martin organised a move to have me made Bandmaster. All the band supported him but the Colonel, as usual, in obstinacy put Dave Harris in charge saying he could not make any appointment here and that the NCO would have to do the conducting.

25 December 1943

Xmas Day went off alright. Sweet rice, pork pasties and rissoles, little beans and soup and, of course, rice. Condor's relief had a look over the camp.

8 April 1944

Shocking Disaster: 24 of us and Jap guards (15) attacked by Chinese force (150) 9 of our boys killed - namely B Hines (Band orch), V Claxton, L Connell, Russell Talbot, F Dyer, C McKenzie, G Wharton, B Armstrong, G Gilder (orch). Injured: Alandie Hillier, R Connell, J Nelson, T Radcliffe, A Chenoweth. 8 went with Chow soldiers Nugget Hawking, and A Haines (Band), H Struks, B Stafford, F Stokes, H Youngberry, L Shiells, S Lynch. J McMahon and I returned uninjured. He remained in the truck and I came home through the bush. Chows ambushed the truck, attacked with rifles, pistols, tommy guns, machine guns and grenades. O'Donnell and I ran the gauntlet for 200 yards, then ran right into a machine gun crew. O'Donnell was hit through the shoulder, I went bush and escaped scott free - a miraculous escape. Eight guards were killed and several injured.

24 September 1944

29 today. Five of us have saved, scrounged and bought ingredients for birthday cake and party.

8 October 1944

Food rations extra bad. Our clic ate rat stew last night. We are hungry all day. Everyone has lost weight lately. I am 7.12.

[Entries in the diary from this point became less frequent and much shorter mostly referring to the death of fellow prisoners.]

9 May 1945

Dutchman died dysentry and starvation, another caught in Hasho, taken to Hokari.

25 May 1945


23 July 1945

12 allied fighters flew around this area. Food better.

24 August 1945

I have had eodema from Berri-Berri for a few weeks. Japs issued good medical supplies and better rations.

25 August 1945

Japs admit war finished.

28 August 1945

O. Glynn and P. Burns died. Yank officer parshot here to arrange move.

31 August 1945

P. Buckland died. Cer, Malaria. We left by train for Sangor. Chinese derailed engine and we return to Haisho hospital. Yanks procured plenty good rations.

5 September 1945

Werincke and Forward died. All but 10 moved to Sangor. Good barracks and food.

12 September 1945

Left for Hong Kong on Queenborough (destroyer)

15 September 1945

Left Hong Kong for home on aircraft carrier Vindex.

24 September 1945

30 today.

30 September 1945

Arrived Sydney. Driven around city in double-decker buses, everyone out cheering and that. Taken out to Ingleburn Camp. Medical examination and x-ray. Stripped off waiting for x-ray when a joker asks if there is anyone named Murnane here, if so another bloke of that name wants to see him. Rushed out practically in the nude, delighted to meet Laurie. Very glad to hear all at home are alright. Bardy and Hunky are both married.

1 October 1945

Arrived Spencer Street. Taken in RACV cars all round City. Much cheering, kissing and that. Saw Ila, Bardie, Jimmy, Mum and a couple I could not recognise (Hunky and Pickles). Met the crowd at Heidelberg.

2 October 1945

Home in our own car.

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Jean Murnane of Victoria

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Bandsman defied execution to keep diary, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 July 2024,
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