After the war
Bringing the POWs home
We were going home, and it was just really terrific. We were absolutely elated. Even now I think of that homecoming. It is like being born again. Something wells up into you.
[Don Moore quoted in Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 206.]
For Australian prisoners of war the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945 was the first step towards their coming home. In September and October around 14 000 of them were repatriated. This was the culmination of years of hope and longing. However, for many of them the physical and psychological effects of their captivity would linger for decades.
As soon as the Japanese surrendered Allied authorities implemented plans to find and provide supplies to their nationals who were prisoners of war. Air drops of leaflets and food were followed by medical and administrative personnel who were parachuted into the major camps.
When they learned of the Japanese defeat the prisoners usually took control of their camps managing their day-to-day operation. There were only isolated cases of vengeance against the Japanese. Most prisoners were simply overjoyed to be free.
However, the prisoners' situation was really secure only when Allied ground forces finally arrived. In some places this took many weeks after the Japanese surrender, owing to the sheer size of the Pacific theatre.
Repatriation of the POWs was a logistically complex operation given the dispersal of prisoners around the Pacific and their poor state of health. To process former prisoners, the Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees organisation (RAPWI) set up reception depots where prisoners were given medical attention, received letters and had their details recorded.
The collection of nominal rolls and other information, some of which had been kept hidden from the Japanese for years, was essential to documenting Japanese atrocities for prosecution in war crimes trials. It was also key to the process of locating graves of prisoners who had been buried near former camp sites.
Once a POW's details were recorded his relatives could be informed of his fate. Many families had had no news or word since 1942. Some learned at this point that their son, brother, father or husband had died years earlier.
For men used to extreme hardship and scarcity it was a profound relief to receive the supplies and medical treatment provided by the Allied military organisation. Roy Whitecross remembered being issued with new clothes and equipment and throwing away all else:
Who can imagine what that meant to us! For years we had hoarded rusty tins for drinking cups, rusty dixies, patched and disreputable bits of clothing, knowing if they were lost they could not be replaced. Now we tossed them away, secure in the knowledge that we were in the midst of plenty.
[R. H. Whitecross, Slaves of the Son of Heaven, Sydney, Corgi, 1971, 252.]
Repatriation was usually by boat, although some of the fitter prisoners were flown back to Australia. Prisoners of war had priority over other Australian soldiers. However, some men, such as the surgeon, Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop, remained in the Pacific to assist the repatriation parties in their work.
Demobilisation from the military occurred soon after arriving in Australia. For most ex-POWs homecoming was an incredible experience after years of captivity. They were welcomed back as both soldiers and ex-prisoners and their stories would soon become part of the national memory of war. Even so, many returned men felt that there was a stigma associated with their surrender and captivity.
The ex-POWs' integration into Australian society was an ongoing process. The military offered training programmes, while friends and families helped them adjust to civilian life. Many former prisoners had no wish to dwell on their experiences, desiring only to 'get on' with their interrupted lives. Most were able to do this to varying degrees. However, some found post-war life difficult, especially after the initial joy of homecoming had worn off. William Webb remembered:
Our discharge centres have vomited us out, by the hundreds, and after the almost sacred family reunions, we view with some misgiving, a rather strange world, that somehow does not seem to be going to be quite that Utopia, as viewed from dark hopelessness of a prison camp.
After their experiences of Japanese brutality, poor food and exposure to multiple illnesses, many prisoners also had chronic health issues. Hence in the immediate post-war period mortality rates among former prisoners were higher than among other veterans.
While many prisoners did not want to be seen as needing special treatment, there were ongoing battles for compensation. Although they were paid their wages by the Australian government for the time they had spent in captivity, POWs had missed out on food, clothing and other allowances. Many felt they had been short-changed and that they had actually saved the military money while they were in captivity.
In the immediate post-war period prisoners of the Japanese received some compensation under the terms of the 1951 peace treaty with Japan. (This money was raised from the sale of Japanese assets in the Pacific, such as the Burma-Thailand railway.) However, this amounted to only £102 (about $2000 in 2013). Former prisoners such as 'Weary' Dunlop took a prominent role in advocating on behalf of captives of the Japanese. However, it was not until 2001 that former POWs received significant compensation from the Australian government, in this case $25,000.