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Research essay
In captivity: Australian prisoners-of-war of the Japanese, Feb 1942 to Aug 1945
Richard Reid



AWM 132935
Hospital area, Selerang Barracks, Singapore Island, September 1942: The overcrowding visible here resulted from the Japanese forcing excess numbers of prisoners of war into the barracks after their refusal to sign an undertaking not to attempt to escape. On 2 September 1942 four POWs, including two Australians, were shot for an escape attempt and after this over 15,400 POWs, 1,900 of them Australians, were concentrated at Selerang Barracks into an area of little more than three hectares. There were only two water taps and rations were cut by a third. Despite this the POWs refused to sign the non-escape agreement unless the Japanese authorities actually ordered them to do so. A Japanese order was forthcoming and on 5 September the POWs were allowed back to their former areas. This POW resistance to the Japanese became known as “the Selerang Barracks incident”.

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Burma–Thailand Railway, c.1945: An example of the kind of railway wagon used to transport British and Australian POWs from Singapore to Thailand in work parties to build the Burma–Thailand railway during 1942 and 1943. Thousands of men were taken north in this way packed 30–40 men per carriage. The trains travelled very slowly so an average journey took 4–5 uncomfortable days and nights.

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Ronsi, Burma, c.1943: Allied POWs laying track on the Burma–Thailand railway. Some of these men are clearly Australian soldiers and most likely members of those forces – A Force, Williams Force, Black Force and Group 5 – brought from Singapore or Java via Singapore to work on the northern end of the railway. The railway was constructed simultaneously from the Thai and Burmese ends between Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Bampong in Thailand. To build the railway the Japanese used approximately 61,000 Allied POWs – 31,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, which included Eurasian and Indonesians, and 13,000 Australians – and over 250,000 Asian labourers.

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Ronsi, Burma, c.1943: Japanese soldiers praying for the dead of the Imperial Japanese Army. Ronsi was approximately 60 kilometres from the end of the Burma–Thailand railway at Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Japanese engineers were responsible for the building of the railway and construction commenced from the Burmese end in September 1942 and from the Thailand end in October. The two lines met at Konkoita, Thailand, on 16 October 1943. Of the approximately 13,000 Japanese engineers and guards who worked on the railway some 1,000 died.

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Ronsi, Burma, c.1943: POWs building an embankment on the Burma–Thailand railway. Japanese engineers estimated that in the building of the approximately 420 kilometre line, 4,000,000 cubic metres of earthwork was constructed, 3,000,000 cubic metres of rock was shifted and 14 kilometres of bridgework was erected. POWs and Asian labourers utilising mainly primitive equipment and hand tools accomplished all of this work.

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Ronsi, Burma, c.1943: Burial service for a POW on the Burma–Thaliand railway. The construction of the railway over some 14 months cost the lives of approximately 12,400 POWs out of 61,000 who worked on the railway – 6,318 British, 2,490 Dutch and 2,815 Australian. Most of these men died from malnutrition, illness and disease and general ill-treatment at the hands of Japanese and Korean guards. An estimated 68 Australian POWs were beaten to death during the construction of one series of cuttings at Hellfire Pass, Thailand.

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Burma–Thailand, c.1943: The amputation ward of a bamboo hut hospital at a POW camp along the Burma–Thailand railway. Amputations among the POWs resulted mainly from the development of uncontrollable tropical ulcers which spread from infected skin lesions contracted during work on the railway.

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Thailand, 1945: Corporal OKADA, Japanese Imperial Army, who worked as a POW guard during the building of the Burma–Thailand railway in 1942 and 1943. OKADA was known as “Doctor Death” and one of his practices was to use a wooden sword to beat POWs who reported sick. He was tried as a war criminal for brutality and executed.

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Nakom Paton, Thailand, 1945: Emaciated native patients in a hospital hut. Approximately 270,000 Asian labourers from Burma, Indonesia, Malaya and other places were virtually forced by the Japanese to work on the construction of the Burma–Thailand railway in 1942 and 1943. Their camps were squalid and the medical facilities provided for them by the Japanese non-existent. Consequently some 72,000 of them died but some authorities suggest this figure was as high as 92,000.

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Tamarkan, Thailand, c.1944: A memorial built by the Japanese to commemorate those who died on the building of the Burma–Thailand railway in 1942 and 1943. A marble plaque at each corner of the base was inscribed in English, Dutch, Japanese and an unknown fourth language. The monument was built of stone and contained wattle, rose and tulip emblems as well as one representing the United States. This photograph was taken during the dedication ceremony attended by POWs of various nationalities, Japanese soldiers and Thai civilians. Speeches were made by an unidentified Japanese commander and Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Ramsey, 2/30th Australian Infantry Battalion, 2nd AIF. The Japanese commander reportedly praised the work done in the construction of the line but deplored the loss of life that labour had entailed.

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Portrait of Flight Lieutenant William Ellis Newton, VC (Victoria Cross), No. 22 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force beside his aircraft. Flight Lieutenant Newton was made a prisoner of war after being shot down by the Japanese over Salamaua, New Guinea, on 17 March 1943. Despite his POW status Newton was beheaded by his captors on 29 March 1943.

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Aitape, New Guinea, 24 October 1943: Sergeant L. G. Siffleet, M Special Unit, tied and blindfolded, about to be beheaded. Sergeant Siffleet, a radio operator, was part of a long-range reconnaissance unit led by Dutchman, Sergeant Staverman, operating behind Japanese lines in New Guinea. The party was betrayed and Staverman killed. Siffleet and two Ambonese companions – Reharin and Pate Wail – were taken to the Japanese base at Aitape where all three were executed by beheading on the order of Vice-Admiral KAMADA, commander of Japanese naval forces at Aitape. According to the original caption to this photograph the name of the Japanese executioner was YASUNO, who died before the end of the war. Siffleet was buried on the beach at Aitape below the tideline and his body was never recovered. The photograph of his execution was taken by a Japanese soldier and found by American forces when they invaded Hollandia in 1944. The photograph of Siffleet’s execution appeared shortly afterwards in American, and subsequently Australian, publications as an illustration of the brutality with which prisoners of the Japanese were treated. For many years in Australia the photo was captioned as if it depicted the execution of Flight Lieutenant Newton VC, Royal Australian Air Force, by the Japanese at Salamaua, New Guinea, on 29 March 1943.

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China Sea, 15 September 1944: Oil soaked British and Australian POWs, who survived the sinking of the Japanese transport ship Rakuy Maru, being helped aboard the American submarine which sank that ship. The Rakuy Maru, carrying POWs from Singapore to Japan, was torpedoed on 12 September 1944 off Hainan Island. Between 13 and 17 September American submarines picked up 141 survivors, including 80 Australians. These Australian POWs, most of whom had worked on the Burma–Thailand railway in 1942 and 1943, when they arrived back in Australia provided the first authentic news about the terrible conditions and high death rate among the POWs on the railway.

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Ohama, Japan, 16 September 1944: Official Japanese indentification photograph of prisoner of war No. 364 at Hiroshima No. 9 Branch Camp, Ohama, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The POW is Private Charles Edwards, 2/19th Battalion, 2nd AIF. Private Edwards was captured near Darit Sulong, Malaya, on 22 January 1942 shortly after his unit had been involved in the battle of Muar.

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Melbourne, Victoria, 21 August 1944: Mrs M. Forster, whose son was serving on the Light Cruiser HMAS Perth when it was sunk by the Japanese on 1 March 1942 in the battle of Sunda Straits, is making enquiries about filling in a radio message form for broadcasting overseas at the Prisoners-of-war Relatives Association Rooms, Elizabeth House, Melbourne. Of the Perth’s crew 357 went down with the ship and 320 survived to become prisoners of war. Over the remainder of the war 106 Perth survivors died in captivity, some during the construction of the Burma–Thailand railway. The Perth’s crew would have been officially listed as “missing in action” and in such circumstance anxious relatives often sought the assistance of the Australian Red Cross to obtain information about the fate of their loved ones through messages sent out over the airwaves seeking information. Stoker H. D. Foster was killed aboard the Perth on 1 March 1942.

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Tokyo No. 4 Branch Camp, Naoetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, late December 1942/early 1943: Concert performance by Australian POWs shortly after their arrival on 12 December 1942 at Naoetsu from Singapore. The original caption contains the following comment about the concert: The Japanese vetoed future concerts as they thought some items were send ups of themselves (which they were). Several prisoners were badly beaten up by the Japanese following the concert (including private W. C. Lewis, brother of John Lewis).

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Tokyo No. 4 Branch Camp, Naoetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, no date: Australian POWs enjoying a break from the harsh conditions they endured at this camp. In December 1942, 300 Australian POWs of C Force from Singapore under Lieutenant Colonel Robertson arrived at Naoetsu. Initially they were well-treated but from February 1943, under a new camp commander, they endured conditions similar to those suffered by the POWs on the Burma–Thailand railway – lack of food, bashings and general ill-treatment. Of the 300 who had arrived in 1942, 60 died. After the war the camp commander, Lieutenant Narumi TA, and several guards faced war crimes courts accused of brutality and murder. Some were sentenced to imprisonment and two guards, one of whom was Sergeant SHIBANO Tadao, and six civilian employees were hanged.

AWM P00142.001
Tokyo No. 4 Branch Camp, Naoetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, 25 December 1944: Christmas Day parade. The Japanese officer visible to the right is the camp commandant, Lieutenant TA Narumi. Three other Japanese soldiers, one of whom is Sergeant SHIBANO Tadao (“Sibano– the Bull”), have also been labelled. In December 1942, 300 Australian POWs of C Force from Singapore under Lieutenant Colonel Robertson arrived at Naoetsu. Initially they were well treated but from February 1943, under Lieutenant TA, they endured conditions similar to those suffered by the POWs on the Burma–Thailand railway – lack of food, bashings and general ill-treatment. Of the 300 who had arrived in 1942, 60 died. After the war Lieutenant TA, and several guards faced war crimes courts accused of brutality and murder. Some were sentenced to imprisonment and two guards, one of whom was Sergeant SHIBANO, and six civilian employees were hanged.

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Niihama, Japan, c. November 1943: One of the POW confinement cells in the guardhouse at the Hiroshima No. 2 Branch Camp.

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At sea off Japan, 26 September 1945: Australian POWs aboard HMS Speaker heading home after their liberation form Japanese POW camps. Sergeant D. R. Abbott, 2/20th Battalion, 2nd AIF, gives the thumbs-up sign to the Japanese coastline.

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Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, 15 September 1945: A typical prisoner-of-war’s bed in a section of “Australia House”, a section of the British POW compound occupied by Australian troops during their imprisonment by the Japanese in Lintang POW Barracks. At war’s end there were approximately 150 Australian POWs in Kuching, mostly officers who had been removed from large contingents of Australian POWs sent to Borneo in 1942 – B Force with 1496 Australians, and E Force with 500 Australians.

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Lintang, Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, 18 September 1945: Japanese soldiers who had been on the staff of the Lintang POW camp near Kuching. From the left they are, back row,: SAITO Kyoshi, TAKETA Masaji, IMAGAWA Masamune, OKAMURA Soichi, SUZUKI Noboru, OKAMURA Seiji; front row: IMABAYASHI Tasshoku, HASEGAWA Takeo, UMEMOTO Kaneyoshi, OKAMURA Yoshiaki, HIROTA Sadaji, TOMIBAYASHI Teruo.

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Singapore, late 1945: Recently liberated Australian and Allied prisoners-of-war from Palembang, Sumatra, relating their experiences to a British war correspondent. Until May 1945 the Palambang camps – Mulo and Changwa schools and the airfield – contained a small number of Australians, mainly officers who had escaped from Singapore in early 1942 and were captured in the islands further to the south of that city. By 1945 the diet at these camps had been severely reduced and, as a quote from the Australian Official history states: snails, rats, cats, dogs, iguanas were all eaten.

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Bangkok, Thailand, 16 September 1945: Private R C Quinton, 2/20th Battalion, 2nd AIF, sitting on the steps of the Bangkok Red Cross Hospital. Private Quinton lost his leg while a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Thailand. His artificial leg was made for him by Sergeant R. Wilstoncroft, 2/12th Australian Field Company, at the POW Hospital at Nakom Paton.

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Bangkok, Thailand, 18 September 1945: Three Australians of the 8th Division, 2nd AIF, ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese, demonstrate the “G” string – nicknamed the “Jap Nappy”. These were practically the only kind of clothing issued to POWs by the Japanese during the period when they were in work parties. POWs often worked barefooted and had to improvise hats from rice bags if they lost their original digger hats.

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Sydney, New South Wales, 13 September 1945: Four members of the Australian Army Nursing Service – from left to right Captain Kay Parker, Lieutenant Lorna Whyte, Lieutenant Daisy “Tootie” Keast and Lieutenant Mavis Cullen – waving goodbye to their families shortly after their arrival from Japan. They are on their way to the 113 Australian General Hospital for a medical examination. The nurses were among the first large body of Australian army personnel to be captured by the advancing Japanese when Rabaul, New Britain, fell on 22 January 1942. Along with two other AANS nurses, seven civilian nurses, four Methodist mission nurses, and a civilian housewife were taken to Japan in July 1942.

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Bakli Bay, Hainan Island, China, 27 August 1945: Two members of the 2/21st Battalion, 8th Division, 2nd AIF (identified in the original caption as VX2700 D. T. Noonan and VX20199 R. Fishwick) emptying a latrine trough at the Japanese POW camp near Haicho. These men were among 263 Australians of “Gull” Force taken in October 1942 by the Japanese to Hainan from Ambon Island where they had surrendered in February 1942. Conditions on Hainan were bad and 81 men of Gull Force died from malnutrition, overwork and beatings.

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Morotai, Halmahera Islands, Indonesia, 8 September 1945: Australian prisoner-of war stretcher cases from Ambon Island being brought ashore at Morotai from HMAS Glenelg. These men from “Gull” Force were captured by the Japanese in February 1942. Of those who spent the rest of the war imprisoned on Ambon 77 per cent died from malnutrition, disease and general brutality. Others were taken to Hainan Island, China, where 31 per cent of them died.

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Tantoei, Ambon Island, 3 January 1946: Graves of Australian prisoners of war who died at Tantoei POW camp. At first crosses were made to mark each new grave. Towards the end of the war those POWs left alive on Ambon were too weak and exhausted to dig proper graves. Wooden stakes were erected over shallow graves to which were attached tin plaques on which were scratched particulars of the dead POW.

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Paginatan, Borneo, 12 December 1946: Members of the combined British–Australian Reward Mission recording the story of “Widow Bureh.” In 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Borneo, Bureh helped Australian and British prisoners-of-war during the Sandakan–Ranau death marches. Hundreds of Australian and British POWs died during these marches, or subsequently at Ranau camp. Hundreds of others died at the Sandakan POW camp. Of approximately 2,500 Australian and British POWs alive at Sandakan in mid-1943 only 6, all Australians, survived the war.

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c.1917: Studio portrait of Lance Corporal Raymond Horace Coker (1900–1945). At sixteen years of age Coker enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force on 17 February 1917 and served in France with the 2nd Light Railway Operating Company. He re-enlisted in the 2nd AIF on 20 July 1940 aged 40 and served with the 4th Motor Transport Reserve, 8th Division. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942 and sent to Sandakan POW camp in Borneo where he died on 7 May 1945. Of approximately 2,500 Australian and British POWs alive at Sandakan in mid-1943 only 6, all Australians, survived the war.

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Sandakan POW camp, Borneo, 26 October 1945: Captain G. M. Cocks, 3rd Australian POW Contact and Enquiry Unit, reading out the name and regimental number from the band of a pair of shorts to Lieutenant E. K. Robertson at the former Japanese POW camp at Sandakan. All the articles shown around them were found in the camp and bore identifiable names and numbers of Australian and British POWs who had either died there, on the Sandakan–Ranau death marches, or at Ranau.

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Kururai Yama, New Britain, 17 September 1945: Lieutenant H. K. Das, a liberated Indian Army officer at the former Japanese Indian POW camp on New Britain. Lieutenant Das is carrying a large log of the kind he was made to carry when a POW. This officer continually tried to protect his men when they were caught by the Japanese stealing rations and because of this he was often beaten. On one occasion his ankle was broken when kicked by a Japanese guard.

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Singapore, October 1945: Australian Army Nursing Service nurses from the 2/10th and 2/13th Australian General Hospitals and the 4th Casualty Clearing Station. They are shown shortly after their arrival from Sumatra. The nurses were aboard the SS Vyner Brooke when it was sunk off Bangka Island, Indonesia, fleeing from Singapore in February 1942. Thirty-two Australian nurses survived the sinking and the subsequent massacre of a number of their party by Japanese soldiers. They spent the remainder of the war in various Japanese camps where their living conditions were extremely poor. Eight of them died from disease. On arrival at Singapore they were still wearing their original uniforms.

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Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan, October 1945: A party given by Baron MITSUI for Allied officers who had been held in Fukuoka Camp 17, a POW camp at Omuta, a provincial manufacturing town on the island of Kyushu. From left to right are Baron MITSUI; Captain Richard Parker, Australian Army Medical Corps; Padre C. Hamel, Royal Netherlands Army; Lieutenant Theodore Bronk, United States Army Medical Corps; Scotty Howell, Australian Army and Lieutenant Gerit Bras, Royal Netherlands Army Medical Corps. Baron MITSUI head of the Mitsui, Corporation, the owner of the coal mine in which most of the camp’s Allied POWs – Australians, Dutch, Americans and British – were put to work.

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Rabaul, New Britain, 16 March 1946: Graves of Chinese forced labourers who died in Japanese captivity at Rabaul. Of the 653 Chinese who died 259 were re-interred in this Chinese cemetery.

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No date, but taken a few weeks after the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945: A dying Dutch child in the Kampong Makassar Hospital. The original caption states that Kampong Makasser was the worst prison camp in Batavia, where 10,000 women and children internees [of the Japanese] were confined in a space of less than half a square mile. When this photograph was taken these women and children, many in bad condition, were awaiting evacuation. This little girl of seven had lain for weeks staring at the ceiling while medical staff strove, with inadequate medical supplies, to save her life.

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Sydney, New South Wales, 11 October 1945: Part of the crowd at Woolloomooloo wharf waiting to welcome home liberated Australian prisoners of war from the 8th Division, 2nd AIF arriving on the SS Largs Bay from Singapore. Most of these men had been made POWs of the Japanese at the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942. The friends and family of Private Len Day, 2/10th Field Ambulance, are waving a banner to greet him.

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Melbourne, Victoria, 19 October 1945: Private B. R. Francis, 8th Division, 2nd AIF, an ex-prisoner of war of the Japanese, enjoying himself during his first dinner at home soon after his arrival in Australia. Private Francis most likely went into captivity at Singapore on 15 February 1942 and was released at war’s end on 15 August 1945.



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