Ambon and Hainan

We'd go out and dig the graves, and then bury them. And by the time we got back from one there'd be another one ready to go out … You couldn't keep up with it. You'd wake up through the night and you'd hear them, you'd hear the death rattles.

[George Williamson quoted in Joan Beaumont, Gull Force: Survival and Leadership in Captivity 1941–1945, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1988, 138.]

Ambon, Borneo, Hainan and New Britain were the sites of some of the greatest disasters for Australian prisoners of the Japanese during World War II.

As the Japanese posed a growing threat to South East Asia in early 1941 the Australian government sent two brigades of the 8th Division to Malaya. It held back one brigade, the 23rd, in Australia planning to deploy it to the islands to the north if the Japanese threat materialised. The brigade was split into three battalion-sized forces—Gull, Sparrow and Lark Forces—ominously non-predatory names.

In March/April 1941 Lark Force was sent to Rabaul on New Britain, the headquarters of the Australian administration of New Guinea. Then when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 Gull Force and Sparrow Force were deployed to Ambon and Dutch Timor respectively.

All three forces, even with the support of local Dutch troops, were 'penny packets', far too small and ill-equipped to withstand the Japanese when they attacked in January–February 1942. They were defeated quickly and taken prisoner in the first months of 1942. (Some 250 men of the Australian 2/2nd Independent Company who had been sent to Portuguese Timor remained there as a guerrilla force.)

On Ambon, Gull Force suffered tragedy immediately when two companies at the airfield at Laha were massacred after their capture by the Japanese. The remaining prisoners, with the exception of two groups who make their escape to Australia by island hopping across the Arafura Sea in advance of the Japanese, were interned in a camp at Tan Toey, near Ambon town.

The Japanese treatment of the prisoners became harsh after another successful escape was made by a small party of Australians in March 1942 and command of the camp was taken over by Japanese marines in mid-1942.

In October 1942 Gull Force was split and 263 of the Australians, together with a similar number of Dutch prisoners, were sent to Hainan off the coast of Vietnam. The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel W.J.R. (John) Scott and most senior officers and medical personnel accompanied them, leaving the Australian prisoners on Ambon almost leaderless.

This problem was exacerbated when in February 1943 an Allied air raid detonated a munitions dump which the Japanese had located within Tan Toey camp. Nine Australians including five officers (and the only Australian doctor officer) were killed in the resulting huge explosion. A second air raid in August 1944 killed a further three Australians and devastated the camp again.

In 1943-45 the rates of illness and death among the Australians on Ambon progressively rose despite the ingenuity of the Australian dentist and the single Dutch doctor. From late 1944 the malicious Japanese interpreter controlling the camp also introduced a crippling work regime, the Long Carry. Emaciated prisoners were forced to carry heavy bags of cement and bombs between villages along precipitous jungle paths—all, it seemed, to no purpose.

With food being reduced to starvation levels the death toll soared in 1945. By the time of the Japanese capitulation only 123 of the 532 Australians left on Ambon in late 1942 remained alive. It was one of the highest death tolls that Australians experienced in captivity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this appalling situation on Ambon caused deep divisions among the prisoners of war. Trying to maintain discipline, the most senior Australian officer created a cage in which to detain thieves, an action that was deeply controversial given that it violated the dominant values of mateship and solidarity in the face of the enemy.

On Hainan meanwhile Gull Force again suffered a particularly severe regime of malnutrition, disease and neglect, although they were able to mitigate its effects by developing an ongoing trade in medicines with the local Chinese population. A more sympathetic Japanese command from mid-1943 on also helped to avert a looming medical crisis.

However, in 1944–45 conditions deteriorated. In April 1944 an Australian workgroup outside camp was ambushed by local guerrillas, resulting in nine Australians being killed and ten abducted. What happened to them has never been fully resolved.

Six Australians, who broke out of the camp in April 1945 were luckier, managing to join Chinese nationalists in the mountains and, with the exception of one who died of malaria, surviving the war.

The death rate on Hainan was ultimately 31 per cent. As on Ambon, the intense stresses on the Australians caused deep divisions among the prisoners. Scott, suffering an emotional breakdown, resorted to handing men guilty of offences within the camp to the Japanese for punishment. This included electric shocks and life-threatening beatings. Ultimately in October 1944 the men took discipline into their own hands, setting up a vigilance committee to judge and punish their peers.

The dead from Ambon were buried at Tan Toey, Ambon, a cemetery that was vandalised in 2000 when the Cross of Sacrifice was destroyed during civil violence. It is currently (2012) being replaced with a Stone of Remembrance. The bodies of the dead from Hainan, to the dismay of some survivors, were transferred after World War II to a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Yokohama, Japan. From 1967 the Gull Force Association maintained a program of medical aid to Ambon in recognition of the support the local population had given the prisoners during World War II.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Ambon and Hainan, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 June 2024,
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