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World War II Prisoners of War

Friday 10 February, 2017

“It was a tragedy: the dying and the hating equally…but there emerged a sense of values which made the simple rich and profound.” Ray Parkin, HMAS Perth.

Throughout the Anzac Centenary we are discovering many stories of heroism, causing us to reflect on the bravery and courage of everyday Australians.

None more so than the stories of those Australians who endured the hardships of Prisoner of War camps throughout World War II. Some survived. Sadly many did not. From a soldier in Germany, to a nurse in Indonesia or a sailor in Japan, Australians who endured prisoner of war camps operated by the Germans, Italians and Japanese during war time numbered more than 34,000.

As we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore we focus specifically on the 22,000 Australian servicemen and almost forty nurses captured by the Japanese. Most of these were captured in 1942 when Japanese forces captured Malaya, Singapore, New Britain, and the Netherlands East Indies. Hundreds of civilians were also interned.

By the end of the war, 8,000 had died in prisoner of war camps across South-East Asia, most succumbing to the harsh conditions and the indifference of their captors. Tragically, over 1,000 Australian prisoners of war died when Allied submarines torpedoed unmarked Japanese ships carrying prisoners.

At wars end in 1945, survivors were liberated from camps all over Asia: some in the places they had been captured but others in Burma and Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and even Japan itself.

Following the surrender of forces in Singapore, 50,000 British and Australian prisoners of war assembled around the British barracks at Changi, on Singapore Island. The prisoners erected a barbed wire fence around the camp taking responsibility and administration of the camp’s operation. Being provided only small amounts of basic rice rations, the prisoners began to grow their own vegetables. Japanese captors demanded work parties for tasks on Singapore Island, but for the most part the camp was rarely interfered with.

Until the end of World War II, Changi remained the main prison camp in south-east Asia, and compared to the Burma-Thailand Railway, Changi was referred to as “heaven.” Within days of the Changi camp being established, the Changi Concert Party was formed. During their imprisonment its members staged numerous performances, each with its own details and vibrant handmade program.


Allied prisoners of war laying track on the Burma–Thailand Railway, at Ronsi, Burma. (AWM P00406.034).

The Burma-Thailand Railway
During the fighting in 1943, the Japanese High Command recognised the need for a supply railway linking Thailand and Burma. The railway was required to traverse 420 kilometres through dense jungle. A labour force of 60,000 Allied prisoners and 200,000 Asian labourers was used to build the rail line. The track was built with hand tools and human labour, working through the monsoon of 1943.

Regular labour, inadequate rations and the tropical environment all contributed to the high loss of life during the construction. By the time the railway was completed in October 1943, at least 2,815 Australians had died with over 11,000 other allied prisoners and 75,000 Asian labourers. The [Thai–Burma] railway … was the common and dominant experience of Australian POWs … [it] distorted or ended the lives of over half of the Australian prisoners of the Japanese …”.

In 1942 Australian prisoners were sent to Sandakan to build an airstrip. As Allied forces advanced toward Borneo in late 1944, the Japanese decided to send approximately 2,000 Australian and British prisoners west to Ranau. The prisoners, already sick and weak having been placed on reduced rations by the Japanese, staggered for over 260 kilometres along jungle tracks, many dying on the way, their bodies too weak and unable to recover. Those who did not recover were killed and those too weak to march were left behind in Sandakan, where they all died or were killed. Only six Australians out of the 1,000 sent to Ranau survived the war.

The Sandakan “death march” remains the greatest single atrocity committed against Australians in war.


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