Mixed feelings as POWs waited to be released

Name: Reg Mahoney
Date: 1945
Unit: POW
Location: Changi

Every day that Australians spent as prisoners of war they longed for freedom. They thought about family and friends at home and just hoped to survive for the end of the war.

When victory finally arrived they had mixed feelings. Many of those who had suffered at the hands of the Japanese were euphoric. Others were too ill to really enjoy the moment.

But then frustration set in for some as they waited to be released. They had been told for their own safety to stay put until Allied troops arrived at their camp.

Reg Mahoney had been in Changi and various camps in Thailand. During that time he kept a diary, writing on any scrap of paper he could get hold of. He buried the diary to avoid detection and almost certain death if detected by the Japanese guards. He dug up the diaries and took them with him each time they moved camp.

When the war ended he was at No 5 Camp, Nacom Nai. One of his first actions was to write a long letter to his brother Jim describing his feelings at the end of the war.

Dear Jim,

It's great to be free. Tho' we are still living as POWs in crowded bamboo huts, eating rice and stew, there is meat in the stew and we will soon be living like white men once again. At last we have a radio and transmitter in camp and at least get some news, but are very much in the dark. Heard today that NCOs including Australians have left Bangkok by plane for Rangoon. I expect to see some movement after all these surrenders are signed. Its reported they are going to Bangalore, India, tho' why the Australians should go there has us puzzled. However, we've been mucked around for 3 ½ years by the Nips and must not squeal about our own administration having a go at us for a few months.

Three Yank paratroops arrived here yesterday and were truly embarrassed by the mobs' curiosity to look at a free man. It was a great shock to everyone of us to learn that our troops were in the country. They praise the Thais 5th column support. Our experiences with Thais in '43 and '44 led us to regard them as treacherous, the average being capable of' selling a man for a few dollars. But their attitude noticeably changed in the latter end of last year.

Most of us are fairly fit now and a much better sight than the drafts of scarecrows when I left the Jungle two years ago. How is everyone at home? We're proud to hear of the part our boys have played and its useless trying to express our gratitude for being released from our hell on earth. Every one of us realize how lucky we are to get out alive. H.Q., R.A.A. has been split about. As far as I know, we only lost one - Phil Hunter, missing after a bombing at Bangkok while coming to this camp on 27 March. His mate, Keith Trayhurn, lost a foot, but is in fine fettle here. I've never seen a lad with more guts. Phil Kelly, also is here, Chas Kelly in Bangkok.

Have had 28 letters or cards from you, Mum, Dad, Jean, Babs and Fred. Thank you all for the brightest spots in' 3½ years. And three snaps were never worth more to anyone. We are sweating now for more mail, papers and evidence of a white man's world.

Our cry once was "If only we were free" but this waiting is harder to bear than we expected. The novelty of working freely with no coolie work under our barbaric hosts is beginning to wear off and who can blame the boys for getting on the Thai whisky, kin to metho? Have no inclination for it myself. There are thousands of Nips in the area. They still have the guns and we are unarmed, but, fortunately; there have been no serious incidents since the peace, despite much drunken A.W.L. taunting from both this and the officers' camp nearby.

Nacom Nai village is about six miles from here, but there and back is nothing after all the marching we've done - three or four miles to work and back every day - 1 to 2 hours on our feet (mostly bare) rice and stew for meals.

When the Yank paratroop medical orderly drew his chow last night, he cried: "God, you guys been living on this?" Ho, that's 100 per cent better than we've been living on for 3 ½ years." "That's just shit," he said, throwing out the rice and stew, thick with meat, veg. and beans He walked to his kit and opened a tin of bully and biscuit. God knows what he'd have said about our Jungle "pap" or melon water.

Later, on his return to Australia, Reg Mahoney wrote more about his experiences under the Japanese. He recalled two incidents in particular which he will never forget. The first in 1942 occurred at Changi Beach in Singapore.

We drew shovels and chunkles (the heavy hoe which is the all purpose digging tool of the Orient) and marched towards the beach. Conjecture was rife on the nature of our job.

We are going to start gardens, declared the practical minded among us.

Maybe the Japs are looking for something that's been buried, and we are to dig the Island up, til they find it," said one romantic minded chap.

"Yes, perhaps the gold and silver that was dumped into the sea from the banks," came a forlorn voice.

One sarcastic joker jarred our nerves by remarking "Well by the look of that Nip's fiendish face we may be going to dig our own graves."

"Shut your morbid trap," he was told.

"Anyway they had best give us a feed if they expect us to do much work."

"My oath," was the popular reply?

We passed through a grove on the edge of the beach and halted. Everyone turned to gaze out on the sea, calm and serene.

"My God, look there!" exclaimed someone pointing to the edge of the water.

Yes, we were looking at and stood horror stricken by what was "there".

Bobbing on the gentle swell and fall of the water, were cloth covered blobs, unmistakably the bodies of men.

They seemed to be everywhere. Gruesome patches of human dead, blotching the edge of the water as it lapped the pure sand of the beach. Figures in grotesque positions with arms and legs askew, upturned faces white in the sun, faces sunk in the sand or water.

Each man slowly turned his eyes from this sight towards the faces of the Jap guards. There was one thought in each mind - "You bloody murdering swine!"

As though they read this thought, the Japs gruffly globbered at us and sorted us out to work.

We started digging, obviously the excavation was a big grave for the bodies that lay on the beach.

It was hard work in our weakened state, made worse by the mental strain caused by the nature of the job. Try as we would, we could not prevent our eyes from wandering towards the beach, wondering what those bodies were and what devilry was behind their death.

Then came the gruesome job of dragging the corpses to the grave. To make this worse, we found that their hands had been tied together, and the victims linked in fives or sixes.

As we expected, they were Chinese, mostly wearing coarse blue clothes. We could not tell whether some were young men or women.

There were bullet holes in different parts of the bodies.

It was easy to imagine the scene. To create terror and leave no doubt as to who wore the iron heel, the Japs had rounded up these Chinese, perhaps selecting at random, and brought them to the beach.

Tied together the Chinese had been marched into the sea and callously slaughtered with a burst of machine gun fire in their backs.

The perpetration of this act on the beach near our camp, and the selection of POWs to bury the bodies, no doubt was to impress us.

Sweat pouring from us under the tropic sun, we lumbered the corpses to the grave, and dumped them in with sickening thuds. They fell in all sorts of weird positions, limbs buckled under bodies, an arm or hand upflung as though in shameful appeal against such a fate.

At first we tried to make the burial as decent as possible by placing the bodies straight. Such a nicety was quickly prevented by the Jap guards, who ghoulishly seemed to want the job done as gruesomely as possible.

One man was dragging bodies from the water's edge when he started back with a strained grim face and blazing eyes to shout - "Jesus, this one is still alive!"

He was joined by others who began to examine the body, in which there were unmistakable signs of life.

A Jap rushed to the scene, kicked the body, and then made signs for it to be held under the water. The men quietly stood there refusing to move. He swung his rifle forward and made ready for a bayonet lunge at the nearest man's belly. Slowly the men moved to the sickly task. We were forced to render similar treatment on other bodies in which life was suspected.

"The Japs must pay for this," was the determination expressed by every man present.

Approximately 120 bodies were buried there, and we wondered how many more may have been slaughtered in other places.

When we had finished the task, disgusted in mind and sick in body, we wearily marched back to camp.

Even the thought of food did not have the same appeal to us that night.

Another example of brutality involved the POWs at Hintok Mountain Camp during the Big Purge on the Thailand Railway in 1943.

The five men missing from No. 2 gang when the check was made, were called out and stood to attention. "Molly the Monk", a lumbering heavy individual, strode up and punched each man twice in the face. He was followed by his corporal "Jumbo". Two men were knocked down. The Japs kicked them viciously until they groggily stood up.

This was a real "Roman Holiday" for the Japs, who excitedly babbled among themselves, and jeered at the prisoners.

The sight of cruelty always seemed to have an influence on Japanese passion, and tonight they were all keyed up for the occasion. Each one impatiently waited his turn to rush in and hit a victim in the face, kick him or throw him with "ju ju".

Two men wore knocked unconscious and could not rise. In a wicked fury the Japs kicked them, tore at their ears and hair and tried to make them stand up. Then they jumped up and down on the bodies, cursing and spitting.

This was a display of pure animalism, there was no drink or drug to blame for the bestiality that showed itself in the Japanese character.

Two of our officers arrived on the scene to protest, but they were driven off with pick handles.

While this barbaric scene was unfolding; our gang (No 1) was standing to attention, three men short, and the sergeant in charge had been sent off to find them.

When the Japs were satisfied that the first five men had been punished, they dismissed No 2 gang and the men carried the victims away.

Then the Japs turned to us, and told us we would stay there until the three missing men turned up. They asked us if anyone knew who the missing men were, but after seeing what had happened to the others, nobody was willing to tell them. We agreed it would be better to stand there all night than see another such display of cruelty.

The sergeant returned to say he could not find the missing men. The Japs told him if he did not bring them he and the rest of us would be flogged.

Immediately they heard of this, the three missing men came forward, although they had heard the Jap's shrieks while venting their sadistic fury, on others. Those three men were bashed. kicked, thrown, jumped on and pummelled for an hour and a half. When the Japs could not knock them out, they tried to throw them into the fire.

When the punishment stopped the three men were stood to attention. They stood there, faces black with bruises, eyes swollen, and bodies covered with red weals, and, although their knees were shaking the very set of their heads and shoulders spelled defiance and contempt. Their spirit was magnificent. Their names wore Cpl Alan Hourigan, Sapper "Squeaker" Worther, and Cpl Wimpie.

It was almost midnight when we were dismissed, and, unable to break the spirit of the three men, the Japs ordered them to work the next day.

One of the men beaten up, Sgt. Mick Hallam of Tasmania, died the following day, and two others were left with permanent injuries.

There was not a man in the camp who did not swear vengeance on that gang of engineers, but I suppose when the war finished they were in another part of the East, perhaps ingratiating themselves with the suave smile of the Japanese, upon their supposedly temporary captors.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Mixed feelings as POWs waited to be released, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 1 December 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/mixed-feelings-pows-waited-be-released
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