James Kerr's veteran story

James Kerr was underage when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in March 1941. He was accepted, nevertheless.

Initially, James was drafted to the 2/4th Field Regiment, but when that draft was halved, he was sent to Malaya with the 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment.

During the defence of Singapore, James was involved in fighting at Parit Sulong. He and 18 others were cut off from their units. After avoiding capture for almost a week, they decided to surrender, as they were short of food.

Initially, James was held in Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur, then in October 1942 he was brought down to Changi, where he rejoined his unit.

In March 1943, James was sent to work on the Burma-Thailand railway as part of 'D' Force. He considered time spent in Changi as much preferable to the conditions endured on the railway.

From August 1943 to January 1944, James was hospitalised in Thailand – he had ear and skin infections, malaria and leg ulcers. He believed that the doctors were marvellous, attributing them and an exceptional Australian morale as helping in many men's survival in the prisoner of war (POW) camps.

After his release, James was discharged in December 1945. He went on to join the Royal Australian Navy. He served on HMAS Quickmatch for 2 years as part of the British and Commonwealth Occupation Force.

World War II veteran (Army)


Joining the army

I always had a love for the navy and when I was 13, I sat for the midshipman's exam to enter the Royal Australian Naval College and qualify as a midshipman. So it was an educational exam and I didn't pass that because my standards were only state level, whereas it was a higher level than the one I was being taught at that time, so I failed. So I said to my father, "When I'm 16, I want to go in the navy." Which you could do then at 16 and a half years of age, for 12 years.

He said, "Well, if that's what you want to do with your life. Your mother and I are quite happy with you doing that." When I left school at 14, I didn't worry about learning a trade, I decided I'll just wait until I'm 16 and a half, and I'll join the navy. That was going to be my life.

In 1940, '39, the war broke out. Of course, in 1940, there's soldiers everywhere. I saw a friend of mine who never, I wasn't very close to, but he was a friend. I saw him in an army uniform, and I said, "How did you get in the army?" He said, "I put my age up." That got the wheels turning. I thought, "If I can't get in the Navy?" Because you have to show your birth certificate to join the navy, so that caught me up straight away. Which meant I had to wait until when I was 18. I thought, "Oh." I thought, "Yeah, I might go to the army then." In August 1940, I walked into the Malvern Town Hall, age 15, and joined the AIF. That's how I came to be a soldier.

25 pounders

When I first joined the army I was in the artillery reinforcements, and I had final leave to join the 2/4th Field Regiment in Syria. But when we got back, half the draft had been cut, so I was left behind. Then, not long after, I had another final leave and sailed for Malaya and joined the, I was one of 50 reinforcements for the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment…the artillery are 25 pounders.

Big field pieces, those are only two-pound guns for tanks, short distances, which is a vast difference in training and the capability of the units, of course. And anti-tank units are front line troops, you're right up there with the infantry, whereas the artillery you're usually about 5, 6 or 7 miles behind the front lines, because they can project their shells that distance.

So we were always frontline troops we anti-tankers…we had to be up with the frontline infantry, so we had a clear line of vision if the tanks were coming down the road, or through rubber trees. Yeah, we had clear vision of sight so you can get a shot at them.

A fighting withdrawal

The 2/29th battalion, the Victorian battalion, had been sent to oppose a supposedly small force of Japanese that were stationed across the river. Unfortunately, few Japanese, as I said it was small force, turned out to be an Imperial Japanese guard's division. Perfectly trained troops, usually bigger than the average Japanese. And the 2/29th were only three companies less one platoon. So haven't even a full battalion of men facing a full division.

So once they met up with the Australians, the usual tactics of course, once the Australians held them up. And our guns knocked out eight tanks, which came down the road to break through the defences of the 2/29th. They circled around the 2/29th and us, of course. So that's what the tactics were, they met head on with strong opposition, and couldn't break through…Well, held them up for four days, which was incredible considering the small force like that vs a full division.

And the 2/19th, which was the New South Wales battalion had been sent up to reinforce the 2/29th, so they were coming up the road to reinforce. They then met the Japanese, of course, that had gone around us. So they met them, so they were trying to fight their way up to us. And after four days, we realized that the commanding officer for the 2/29th had been killed. They realized that we couldn't hold any longer, so they made a fighting withdrawl back towards the 2/19th. So, unfortunately, we had to leave our guns behind, we couldn't bring our guns with us. So we just walked out with the infantry, so we made a fighting withdrawal to join up with the 2/19th Battalion…Made our way back towards the 2nd, which we eventually did meet up with them, fighting our way through road rocks all the way back.

So it was a fighting withdrawal, it wasn't a rout, it was a fighting withdrawal. It was very difficult…What was left of the 2/29th ‘cause they had had quite the beating, the front line. Got back to this bridge at Parit Sulong, which is a bridge over a small river, and unfortunately the Japanese had got there first. So they had it heavily fortified. And there were swamps on both sides of the river, so Charles Anderson, the commanding officer of the 2/19th battalion, who incidentally won the Victoria Cross, he decided we couldn't break through, through the bridge, because it was heavily fortified, so virtually it was every man for himself.

Unfortunately, part of it was that we had 110 Australians, 35 Indians in trucks, they were all wounded men. So we had to leave the men behind in the trucks and hope that the Japanese would treat them humanely. But what they did, they pulled them all out of the trucks, killed, shot or bayoneted them. And then burnt them. So they were all killed. I went back in to Parit Sulong mission, just before, to get away from Parit Sulong, I headed back to Parit Sulong. I'd been cut off and sent around the fighting action and headed back to join the main body. We'd been sent around the rear of the Japanese, all dug in on a hill, holding us up with 44 and the 2/29th, and we got around and engaged the enemy, but by the time we broke off the action, only 19 of us out of 45 survived.

Cut off and surrender

Unfortunately, we never got back to the main body again. So we're 19 men behind the Japanese lines, then. So all we did was try and get food off the natives to feed 19 men, just sleeping wherever you could, and then we decided it was just too hard to get enough food for 19 men, so we decided to split into three groups. I went with five other members of the 2/29th. So our aim was to get to the west coast and steal a boat and try and get out of Sumatra. So we were just walking all day, trying to get better food off the natives, sleeping wherever we could at night.

And then this day, we met a well-educated Indian, and he said, "What are you doing?", so we told him what we were going to do, our plans. He said, "Did you know that Singapore had fallen?", and we said no. He said, "It fell five days ago". So that was the 20th of February. So we had been wandering around like we had been for over a month. So we had a talk amongst ourselves and we said to him "Do you know if they're taking prisoners?", and he said, "I wouldn't know"…

So we decided that we couldn't keep going the way we were. So we decided we'd let him go and bring the Japs up to us. So we waited there not knowing what our fate would be. And out they came and unfortunately took us prisoner. We just sat there quietly. We didn't talk amongst ourselves. And when the truck pulled up, there was a drain, we're on one side and the path ran down the other side. And we heard the truck pull up, so we stood up and they came down with their rifles, so we just put our hands up and we jumped across the drain and they put us in the truck. Strangely, they put us in the truck next to their rifles. So I thought that was a good start. But they could have shot us there on the spot and nobody would have known. They would never have known our fate. But they took us prisoner, so we were fortunate, very fortunate.

Pudu prison

And took us to a small town, put us in a police cell there and after a few days we were taken to Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur. So there were 160 of us Australians taken prisoner on Malaya and about 1000 British troops. So we were in the civilian jail, Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur.

And then in October 1942, they brought us down to Changi to re-join our units…We were all jammed in one area. Squashed in like that. It was pretty hard there for a while until they finally opened up some of the other wings and put the Australians in one wing and the English troops in another. And we were three men to a one-man cell. But that was alright, you had the concrete slab on the walls, so one person slept on that and the other two on the concrete floor.

We never had any blankets or anything like that. But food was reasonably good. 3 meals of rice a day, a bit of stew. The food wasn't too bad, really…quite a few men died of course from some of the wounds they had, and other debilitating diseases. Not as bad as. But we lost quite a few from Kuala Lumpur. It wasn't very pleasant, but once we got into the cells and the doors were open, of course, we weren't walked in, it was much better… then they started forming working parties. So they'd be out working railyards or whatever, but just manual work. It wasn't hard. It was hard work, but you could manage it.

So we'd use the time up trying to cadge some money off the natives, or cigarettes or something…Yeah, the conditions we experienced in the Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur was quite a shock. Quite a shock to us, ‘cause we still had all the clothes. The only clothes we had on were the ones we'd had on in action. A lot never had hats, of course, ‘cause of our steel helmets. So no slouch hats. So we were a fairly poorly dressed bunch of men that came down from... I'd seen people getting around, particularly officers, so well dressed and everything. It was quite a shock.


There was 12 of us, 12 anti-tankers taken prisoner in Malaya, and then we re-joined the unit in October 1942. It was tremendous, catching up… Changi compared was a holiday camp, of course, you know? The food was quite good, three meals of rice a day, a little stew, a vegetable stew sort of thing. And it was run like an army camp, firstly, you never saw any Japs. So it was run like an army camp, except you were eating rice.

The officers were getting around as if, you know, it was still peace time. And yeah, they wanted to be saluted, and we were having parades and all that sort of business. I got myself into a bit of a strife, we used to have a parade each afternoon at roll call, and you're allowed to smoke until you were told: "Cigarettes out". So I, whether I didn't hear the order one day, I can't remember, but I took another puff as the commanding officer and his new orderly sergeant were walking through the ranks.

The commanding officer went "Put that cigarette out!", so cheeky mate being me, I took another puff. So he said, "You're under arrest". So I fronted the commanding officer and I had 21 days detention. So I was in Changi jail, in another jail, inside Changi looking through the bars doing 21 days detention for smoking on parade.

And the military police, the 8th Division of the military police were in charge, I always hated and still hated them. So they run a pretty tight ship in peace. So after 18 days, I got three days for omission. So I thought, "How can I get something of our own back here, they got their own veggie garden the MPs".

So there was five of us, we called ourselves the diamond gang. So five of us went over there one night and raided their veggie garden. People speak of Changi, you know, well you're in Changi as if it were some horrible camp like Belsen or one of those. But Changi compared to what went on in Thailand was nothing. I would have been happy to have stayed in Changi for three and a half years, I know that.

D Force

I went up to Thailand March 1943, on D force. We were 30 men to a steel rice truck, enclosed rice, steel truck, fortunately, the doors were open with the Japs sitting at the door. 30 men to a truck for a five-day journey to Bangkok. So that was not a very pleasant journey. I can remember marching into my camp, which was Konyu in the night, one day 1943. That day sticks in my mind, day 1943.

I marched in on the railway camp and I worked on the railway then until I was evacuated, second of August 1943, and I was in the hospital. I've still got the medical discharge it was a little piece of cardboard. I've still got my original discharge from Thailand hospital. And I was discharged in January 1944. We were right next to the ulcer ward, that was the big hospital camp then. I was right next to the ulcer ward, and the people with ulcers. And I'm not talking about tiny little ulcers, I'm talking huge. They'd take up all the shin. And they used to have to be cleaned each morning, the only means of cleaning those was with a sharpened spoon with no anaesthetic. So you can imagine the pain and the screaming. Terrible.

Disease and ulcers

Most of mine were ear and skin complaints and this and that, bits and pieces. I don't know why I was kept there for so long, really. I've got it written down, here, I was in from August '43, during '44. There in black and white. But I was very fortunate, really, my main complaint during the three and a half years was malaria. I had the normal skin complaints and a small ulcer I managed to heal, but I never had the debilitating diseases like cholera and dysentery that killed so many. Or the ulcers that took so many lives and limbs of course.

I can't remember how I did it, probably just bathed it and was fortunate that it healed. It was the size of the scratch, of course, and being in such a weak condition, it doesn't take much for an ulcer to break out. A lot of the men, of course, once their boots wore out, lots of us were barefoot for over two years. No footwear at all. Now and again, there was an issue of boots, but that was the standard Japanese army boot which was canvas top with a rubber sole. We never had socks, of course. The humidity and the wet weather, and some blokes with big feet. Some blokes just never had boots for probably over two years…their feet became just like the navvie's. You know, the navvies, cause they're barefoot, their feet get wet and that's how their fellows got that hard. They'd walk on broken rocks and they wouldn't even feel it.

Hellfire Pass

My camp was below the one you probably heard of, Hellfire Pass? Well that was the biggest cutting on the railway. The one that we had was only a small cutting. So we had a small cutting in the embankment, so it had what we call "Hammer and tap" men where you had a steel rod with a pointy end, and a fellow with a seven-pound sledgehammer. So you held the rod while he belted the end of it, and he turned it. So he bore a hole in the rock, and when they had enough holes they wanted to use in that particular section, they'd put dynamite in there and blow the rock. Then we'd have to clear rock.

There's never a wheelbarrow, there's no wheelbarrows on the railway. All we had was a rice sack with two bamboo poles shoved through its side, and that's how you carried the dirt and the rock. No wheelbarrow. It's incredible, isn't it? And that's how all the dirt and rock was moved. Two men, a rice sack, and two bamboo poles…we had to be sure the fellow wielding the hammer knew what he was doing. Yeah. That's right. Hammer and tap man, they were called…as they started working towards getting it completed, the hours increased of course. And that's why Hellfire Pass got its name, because they used to light these bamboo torches, and on the tops of torches had this top of the cutting that shed some light on the men working down below.

Lack of amenities

It was very wet, there was mud, you had mud everywhere. We never ever had proper washing facilities, our camp was on a small creek so that was your washing facility to wash the dirt and the sweat off you. Changi wasn't too bad in that respect, but the time I spent in Thailand from March '43 until the end of the war, in fact my whole POW life. I never sat at a chair at a table to eat a meal. I never had soap, I never had a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel. Just as normal things that you take in everyday life, we just never had those things.

And most of the camps were on the river, so you went down the river and washed the perspiration and dirt off yourself. And your clothes, of course, some fellows only had what they called a lap lap which is a basic cord with a piece of material that wide and about a metre long which you brought up between your legs, found the string and dropped it down in front. The Japs wear them a lot when they bathe. A lot of our fellows were barefoot and wearing a lap lap.

But, you know, just to think of for that length of time, you never sat at a table to eat a meal. We never had electric light, of course. Never ever had water. So, you know, I see people these days getting around, they can't walk half a dozen metres without having a swig out of a bottle. Good God we worked on the railway with our bottle of water for the whole day. Can you imagine the perspiration we lost? We never had a tap or a source of water where you could go and get a drink. The only water you had was what you took out with you to work out on the railway. And that had to last you for the day. I never ever had running water in Thailand. I never had the option of turning the tap on and having a drink. Didn't happen.

Beds and bed bugs

You're acclimatized to all these things like the weather. You're acclimatized to that. You're acclimatized, you get used to the fact that you haven't got an exhaustible source of water to go out and have a drink or go and have a cold shower to refresh yourself. So that's the way you lived. And when I went to Thailand, I had one blanket, which I ended up selling to get some money for food.

My bedding for the last couple of years in Thai consists of two rice sacks which are split apart open, and I lay on one, and the other was the top blanket. So that was my bedding for the last two odd years in Thailand, two rice sacks. And we never had beds. They built our huts and a platform of bamboo. It'd be bamboo which had been cut out and flattened, so we slept on bamboo slats alongside each other, but you never had your own individual bed or anything like that. And they always got full of these little bed bugs that'd bite you and suck the blood. Terrible things, they were.

The only way to get rid of them every now and again, we'd light a fire and take out the slats. You take your slats off the bed and you pass them backwards and forwards over the fire to get rid of these damn bugs. Oh, they were terrible things. Body lice, they were there but not to any extent because we never had much clothing. Lice was a big problem in the First World War, a big problem. But all they did there was if they had gotten into your shorts, you just took them and put them in the sun, and the lice would drop off with the sun being on them. They weren't a real big problem, but the bed bugs, they were a curse. When you squashed them, too, they smelled. It wasn't very pleasant.

A spoonful of charcoal

You've got to remember we never had any sweet things. So your three meals of rice a day if you're lucky, and a very watery stew with some pumpkin. So there's no sweet stuff going into your mouth to, you know, cause cavities or anything.

That's the thing. I can remember using charcoal on my tooth, never had toothpaste. I remember using charcoal. Of course, if you had diarrhoea that was the medicine. If you went to that doctor you get a spoonful of powdered charcoal. Never had medicine or anything like that. I might be mistaken there I remember using charcoal on my teeth. I've said that to my dentist, about using charcoal. So I might be mistaken there, Courtney. We certainly never had soap or a towel, or anything like that.

Marvellous doctors

Doctor or doctors, depending on the size of the camp. And they had a tremendous responsibility, and they were men above men, the doctors on the Burma-Thailand railway. Absolutely. The Japanese would say how many men for working party, so they'd round the fit men up and they'd be 5 or 10 men short. So they'd pull all the men out of the hospital tent. If you could stand, you were fit enough to go to work.

And the doctor would fight them, trying to keep the sick men off the line. So that went on every day for the doctors. So it was a constant battle. Of course, with no life-saving drugs or even drugs to treat minor complaints, honestly, they did a marvellous job, the doctors. Marvelous job. Men above men. So it was a constant battle each morning, trying to keep their sick men in camp.

Burma-Thailand Railway

It was 415 kilometres in length. It took 15 months to build. There were 60,000 prisoners of war working on the Burma-Thailand railway. 16,000 died, and 2600 of those were Australian. I estimate, there's no atomic estimate because nobody can estimate how many natives were recruited from Java or Malaya. Brought them up there, I reckon over 100,000 died.

There's no known graves for them, they just fell to the waist side. There weren't any known graves. They estimate over 100,000. Of the 60,000 POWs that worked on the line, 16,000 died. They were the ones who brought cholera up through the camps as they came up, they had cholera amongst them, so every camp they'd pass through they left the cholera germ behind. That's a terrible death. You lose all your body fluids. Terrible death.

Australian morale

Most of the camps I was with had mixed nationalities. Mainly British and Dutch, Dutch that had been brought over from Java as it was then. Yeah. But the Australians were the ones that, I'm not saying this because I'm Australian, but the Australians were the ones that stood out as POWs. Just the way we stuck together and helped one another and our hygiene and that sort of thing.

The Australians were a pick above the others… Ah, that was just my joke, just what Id' say as a joke. I've had this: "I'm underaged, I should not be here, I'm gonna have to tell them that I should not be here and that I wanna go home!", and it'd give them a bit of a laugh.

We never, ever lost morale. Our morale during those three and a half years was fantastic. You were being taken prisoner, we accepted that. You adapt to the conditions, particularly up in Thailand. But our morale, we never, ever lost it. We were never beaten.

Hygiene and sanitation

It was so important. So important. The flies, the ones that breed disease. You don't even want to let one fly to land on you, the cholera germ or dysentery germ. Of course, working on the trains we never had proper toiletry. Our toilet consisted of a long trench with logs across the gap, of course, and you just squatted on the logs. That, of course might be 10, 15, 20 feet deep, would just be one seething mass of maggots. So that wasn't a very pleasant smell. But if you had to go, you had to go. Urinals were generally a pipe just stuck in the ground, and that was your urinal. But the other part of it, of course, that was the only way we could manage a large volume of it. An open trench.


There was always those that were very sadistic and cruel, and delighted in giving you a bashing for the slightest misdemeanour. But every once and awhile there were those that weren't quite as bad. In fact, which a lot of people don't know, a lot of the guards we heard were Koreans.

We had one fellow he was a big Korean too. He was over 6ft, big fellow. And he got the nickname "AIF Joe". And if we struck Joe at the camp we'd go "Joe! AIF Joe!" He never bashed anybody, and that's what we called him, AIF Joe. So as soon as we'd see Joe… he was a great bloke, Joe. A lot of them were, just for the sake of hitting somebody for the slightest misdemeanour. You know, they'd have someone kneel on broken rocks on their knees holding a rock above their head looking into the sun, that sort of treatment.

Pap and pumpkin stew

Well, just being what you are and accepting what you've got. If you can't get something, you can't have it. Don't worry about it. We knew what our meals were going to be three times a day if you're lucky, three bowls of rice, just a normal mug full of rice. Our breakfast for quite a while was what they called "pap", which is the Dutch word for porridge. That was a watery rice that they'd make so it was virtually real mushy. So you'd get a cup of that, and that's what you went out and worked on the railway on. No sugar, no salt, no nothing. That's what you went and worked on the railway on. Lunch time you got your lunch out and the rice would be sour by the time you got to it. It might have been something a bit dry to eat with it, but by night time, you'd get another mug of rice or hopefully a watery pumpkin stew with some veggies thrown in or something.

But that's what our meals were, we knew the water we were getting. The water had to be boiled once the cholera came through the camps, we were only allowed to fill our water bottles unless it was from water which had been boiled. There were no taps where we were going, you had to turn on, fill your bottle to get a drink. You accepted that was the water that you had, and it had to last you the day, and you couldn't just knock off your work in the railway to go and have a drink until they told you to have a rest, which wasn't very often, what they called "yazmi".

It didn't happen very often. They might give you a 10 or a 15 minute, but it didn't happen. Once "Speedo" came in there was no breaks, then. Just go, go, go…That's why there was so many skin diseases, of course, because you never had the nutritional value just in rice. The best part of the rice is the husk, of course, and that's done away with. The rice polishings we didn't get any in Thailand but got now and again we got it in Changi if I remember rightly because that's got all the goodness in it. But actual rice itself, there's virtually nothing in it. You get a water cup and bang, it's gone. So yeah, and to work on this mug of watery pap as we called it, that kept you going for 4 or 5 or 6 hours before you'd need your lunch. But that's what you had to work on, there certainly wasn't going to be anything else.

Weight and malaria

You could pick out a bunch of fellows and go "Oh, gee", but they probably hadn't suffered as much as the others. But for some reason, there's one particular photograph they show every time when they talk about camps. It's that six blokes just virtually skeletons walking with their lap laps and they bring that, just like they do with Belsen, of one particular fellow, when they bring that out.

But some fellows, depending, some fellows worked in the cookhouse. Well, if you're in the cookhouse, of course you're getting a little bit more to eat than the other fellows. The Japs always had a few of them blokes helping their cookhouses…I don't know what I weighed when I came home, when I was released, but I've kept myself in reasonable condition, I think.

Of course, waking up with malaria, there's, unfortunately, no treatment. You just lay there, and you feel terrible and you get the shivers and you're sweating and you're hot. And you certainly don't feel like eating. Your mates would get to your rice and share that amongst themselves, and then they got malaria, which we all did after you share that rice around. But 4 or 5 days you'll be out of it. I think I had malaria about 20 times, I think. But that really knocked you. No treatment, so you just lay on the bamboo slat and shiver and sweat all over until you got over it

End of the war

When the war finished, I was in a camp called … which is about 80 kilometres out of Bangkok, and our particular job at that time was digging tunnels in the hills for fortifications. So we had this quite a long walk to our place of work, and I can always remember by this time, they'd separated the officers from us. All the POW camps were in charge of the sergeant-major or sergeant. And all the officers had been taken off by this time.

And I remember passing this officers camp as we were going to our work, and we're marching out this day, and all of a sudden, they turned us around. So I was thinking "What's going on here?", so they took us all back to camp. So they lined us up on the parade ground and we had an English Sergeant Major in charge of our camp, and they lined us up and they said "The war is over, an atomic bomb has been dropped on Japan, and the war is over".

We wouldn't have cared if a custard tart had been dropped on Japan and finished the war, but it was over, and we had survived. People say I've coped very well, and I think that I have. But I think the main reason I've coped so well is that when you've lived through [inaudible 00:44:36] for three and a half years, why do you want to go back and revisit it all and make this life a misery thinking of what you went through? It's in the past. Put it behind you. And that's what I did. In fact. I left the Army on a Friday towards the end of December, I still had my ambition. Monday morning I walked in and joined the Navy. And I had two years in the Navy. I was on the HMAS Quickmatch so I had four months out of Japan, and I had 47 in the occupation forces.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), James Kerr's veteran story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/oral-histories/james-kerrs-story
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