By any quantitative measure the imprisonment of so many Australians is a major event in Australian history. For many soldiers it was living—and dying—in captivity which made World War II different from … World War I.
[Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 4.]
More than 22 000 Australians were taken prisoner in the Asia-Pacific region in the early months of 1942. In contrast, only 4000 Australians were captured by the Germans and Ottomans in World War I.
Most of the prisoners of the Japanese were from the Australian Army—about 21 000. A further 354 were from the Royal Australian Navy and 373 from the Royal Australian Air Force. Fifty-nine were women from the Australian Army Nursing Service. In all, over 8000 of these men and women—around 35 per cent—would die during captivity, more than 2800 of them working on the Burma-Thailand railway.
The majority of the army personnel were from the 8th Division. Nearly 15 000 were captured on Singapore in February 1942 and over a thousand on each of Ambon, Dutch Timor, and New Britain. The second largest group of prisoners—more than 2700—were captured on Java. These were men from the 7th Division who had been brought back from the Middle East to help defend the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) from the Japanese attack in early 1942. They were joined in captivity by three hundred survivors of the sinking of the HMAS Perth in the Battle of Java Sea in late February 1942.
In the years that followed the military units to which the Australians belonged were broken up into work forces to meet the Japanese need for labour. From late 1942 more than 13 000 Australians were sent from Singapore, Java and Timor to work on the Burma-Thailand railway.
Australians were not the largest national group on the railway. They were outnumbered by the British, the 'Dutch' and large cohorts of Asian labourers (rǒmusha), particularly Burmese and Tamils from Malaya. Yet in relative terms, Australian POW deaths were very significant, accounting for around 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II.
Little detailed research has been done on the background of Australian POWs and how this affected their chances of survival. However, we know that all of them had volunteered to serve. Under Australian legislation prior to 1943 conscripts could be used only for the defence of Australian territories.
We know also from a study of the Australians who joined the army in World War II (Mark Johnston, Journal of the Australian War Memorial) that they were generally young and unmarried. In 1939 the age limits for enlistment in the AIF were 19 to 35 years of age (higher for officers and some NCOs). In 1941 these were adjusted to 19 and 40 years. Most recruits were in their twenties.
Australian army recruits were also not highly educated. Fewer than 10 per cent had completed a full secondary education and probably only 1.5 per cent, a university degree or diploma. Most were manual or factory workers, or in clerical and commercial employment in civilian life. Contrary to the World War I mythology therefore, the World War II soldiers were not predominantly bush men or farmers. They were, however, likely to have been medium to tall in height and in good health at the time they enlisted.
The officers, in contrast to the ranks, were better educated and had some pre-war military experience.
These men came from all over Australia though some battalions had strong regional roots: the 2/40th captured in Timor, for example, was established in Tasmania; the 2/21st captured on Ambon, in Victoria; the 2/10th Field Regiment were Queenslanders, mostly from the Darling Downs and the south-west.
The vast majority of the men of the 2nd AIF were also of European descent and reared in a society which was unashamedly racist. This made adjustment to captivity in the hands of the Japanese, a race seen as inferior and alien, even more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
Little again is known of why the men of the 2nd AIF volunteered to serve. Probably their motives were mixed: a desire for adventure, a sense of duty, nationalism and a conviction that they were part of a proud Australian military tradition dating from Gallipoli. Since the 8th Division was raised during the crisis of the fall of France in mid-1940, these men would also have chosen to play a role in averting Allied defeat. We can only speculate how these motivations sustained them during their years of captivity.
After the war ended some Australian POWs remembered their captivity as a time in which the 'typical' qualities of the Australian soldier came to the fore. Even though defeated, they displayed the Anzac skills of resourcefulness, laconic humour, mateship and survival against the odds. Undoubtedly some Australian POWs did display such qualities on the Burma-Thailand railway and elsewhere; but the surviving evidence suggests that others did not.
It is also the case that Australians' distinctive national characteristics did not give them a greater chance of survival, as is sometimes assumed. Their death rates on the Burma-Thailand railway were little different from the British and higher than the Dutch. What mattered in captivity was not so much a man's nationality but the particular circumstances and location of the places in which he worked, his access to food, medicines and medical care, his genetic inheritance, and even his luck and will to survive.