Physical description

Index, bib, ill, maps, p.224.


Within three months of the Japanese entering World War II on December 8, 1941 over 22 000 Australians had become prisoners-of-war. They went into camps in Timor, Ambon, New Britain, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Singapore and Malaya, and a few were scattered to other points in what was briefly part of the Japanese empire. Later most of the prisoners were to be shifted further north into South-east Asia, Formosa, Korea, Manchuria and Japan itself. They were captives within lands and cultures and to experiences alien to those known to all other Australians. At the end of the war in August 1945, 14315 servicemen and thirty service women were alive to put on new, loose-fitting uniforms and go home. One in three of the prisoners had died. That is, nearly half of the deaths suffered by Australians in the war in the Pacific were among men and women who had surrendered. Another 8174 Australians had been captured in the fighting in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: but of these men only 265 died as a result of wounds, disease or execution.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 that of World War I. But the prisoners have received no permanent place in Australian history. Their story is not immediately recalled on celebratory occasions. In a general history of the nation in which a chapter is given to the war the prisoners might be mentioned in a sentence, or part of a sentence. Where the horror, stoicism and gallantry of Gallipoli have become part of a common tradition shared by all Australians, the ex-prisoners are granted just the horror. The public may be sympathetic; but the horror is for the prisoners alone. To make another comparison: in five months of fighting on the Kokoda Trail in 1942 the Australians lost 625 dead, less than the number who died on Ambon. Yet the events on Ambon are unknown to most Australians. There were no reporters or cameramen on Ambon and, for the 309 who defended Ambon's Laha airfield, no survivors. How many of them died in battle or died as prisoners will never be known. But there are more than just practical reasons why the record of the prisoners of war is so slight and uneven in the general knowledge of Australians. They have not tried to find out. No historian has written a book to cover the range of camps and experiences, and only in specialist medical publications has anyone investigated the impact of prison life on subsequent physical and mental health. The complexity of the experience and its impact on particular lives have not been expressed in a way to give them significance for other Australians.