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Testimonies of POWs

Experiences of Jack Boon

On the 15th February 1942 Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. On the 17th, two days later, I celebrated my 25th birthday marching about 14 miles to Selarang Barracks situated near the small village of Changi and the barracks of the regular British army stationed in Singapore. Our only possessions were those we had when the fighting ended, and although we had extra clothing in our kit bags that went into store when the Malaya campaign began, we never saw our kit bags again.

The barracks were of solid construction but without any comforts; we slept on the concrete floors. Fortunately Singapore is warm and the absence of bedding was not a great problem.

Our units were intact and at least we had our friends around us. Once there was realisation of our status as Prisoners of War, we were anxious as to how long we would have to endure captivity, what tasks would be given and places to which we would be sent. Also how our captors would treat us, as we were well aware of Japanese behaviour in China. Wild rumours of great allied victories in all theatres of war were given some credence, which gave to some false hopes of our early release.

Our days in the barracks were uneventful and rather boring with little contact if any with Japanese guards. Food was plain, mainly rice, but adequate. Before long working parties were assembled and the first "A" Force sent by sea to Burma.

In March I was one of a large party sent to Singapore where we were housed in an amusement park, the "Great World". Our work was mainly in godowns [warehouses] and our task was to load tinned food, sugar and other goods into trains and ships. The work was constant and generally not too hard and we had many opportunities to add to our rice meal with meat, milk and other tinned food. Stealing led to beatings, if caught.

To discourage stealing the head of a native was nailed to an entrance gate and we passed this grisly sight every day as we went to and from work until it was removed at a later date.

Accommodation in the "Great World" was good with electricity and running water. My accommodation was in the picture theatre. A secret radio was hidden and a friend had access to the radio. The war news was generally grim; the war was going badly on all fronts.

In October we had the first good news since our capture with the British victory at Alamein. My friend returned to his bed that night and said "good news at last!" I had a school Atlas and he said, "See if you can find a place in Egypt called 'El Al' something" I searched the map of Egypt and found El Alamein. "That's it" he said, "we have defeated the Germans there."
  Later came the news of the Russian victories at Stalingrad, these were great morale boosters.

In November I was in a small party moved out of the "Great World" to the River Valley Camp. It was there that we had our first Red Cross parcels. We did not stay at River Valley Camp and just prior to Christmas we returned to Selarang Barracks.

The period spent in Singapore, March to December 1942, can be described as tolerable. Misdemeanours attracted beatings, often severe, but if one did the work required, which was not unduly heavy, trouble was avoided. The physical condition of the men was generally good, sickness was kept to a minimum and our rice ration was supplemented by tinned food available in most of the godowns where we worked.

The local population, particularly Chinese, were friendly but circumspect as any outward show of friendliness resulted in a severe beating.

The Japanese guards were not averse to a bit of trading with the locals when opportunities were available. I was working in a godown when the guard signalled me to follow him down to the ground floor. I was apprehensive as to his motives but had no option but to do his bidding. On the ground floor were stacks of cans of condensed milk.
  I was to take a case across a narrow lane to the house of a Chinese person and collect $10 for the case. Following the successful trade another case was delivered and this time paid in $5 notes and to my delight and surprise the Japanese handed me $5! By means of sign language he inquired if I could be available the following day, but he intimated that I could be working elsewhere. That was the first and only occasion I enjoyed trading with the enemy!

During our absence in Singapore those who remained in the barracks suffered the Barracks Square incident. The Japanese required all Prisoners Of War (P.O.W's) to sign a "No Escape Clause," which our senior officer objected to. To force compliance, men were forced out of the barracks onto the square and forced to live in appalling conditions. When disease and illness spread the men were ordered by the Senior Officer to sign the "No Escape Clause" document.
  Apart from the period of the Square incident, conditions in Selarang Barracks had improved. Concert parties and other activities had been organised and life at the camp was reasonably tolerable.

Rumours began to circulate that a railway was being built in Thailand and a party would be sent to work on the railway. One group known as "A Force" were sent way in May 1942, and in September that group commenced work on the railway from the Burma end.

In March 1943, "D Force" of about 5,000men, involving 2,200 Australians including me, left Singapore for Thailand, travelling in steel rice trucks, about 27 men to a truck. This was a most uncomfortable journey, very hot during the day and uncomfortable at night, due to overcrowding and difficulty in sleeping. The journey took about 4 days and on arrival we were taken by truck to where we commenced work. Initially we were housed in tents and later bamboo huts were built. We slept on slats of bamboo, which soon became infested with lice and bugs.

Our first job was to build an embankment, carting dirt in small bamboo baskets or on rice bags on bamboo poles. One man carried the small baskets and two men carried the bags on poles. The work was not exceptionally hard but the hours were long. When the area allotted was completed we were moved to the next site to build embankments and dig cuttings. We also built bridges over small streams with these bridges being built of timber, cut from the forest and driven into the ground by means of a heavy weight lifted by pullies and allowed to drop until the timber was driven well into the ground. This was particularly heavy work, as the fallen timber had to be moved from the jungle to the site of the bridge. Other areas required the blasting of rock to create cuttings and in some cases went on 24 hours a day. Flying splinters of rocks broke the skin on our legs and inevitably resulted in these wounds becoming ulcerated.
  Fortunately we had some medical supplies and generally the ulcers were cured. Further up the line medical supplies were limited or non-existent and this caused the ulcers to become gangrenous and many men suffered amputations often without anaesthetic.

Shortly after arriving in Thailand we suffered illness and disease, particularly diarrhoea, dysentery and malaria. Other complaints such as berri-berri and hookworm took a toll on our health.

With the onset of the monsoon, cholera spread through all the camps and resulted in many deaths. In many cases death was mercifully sudden; a man would become ill at work, carried back to camp and be dead by nightfall.

The Japanese, no doubt to try and stop the camp becoming infected supplied some injections. Strict adherence to hygiene kept deaths in our Unit, "U Battalion", to a minimum. The heavy monsoon rain turned our camps into a quagmire and living and working conditions were extremely difficult. The little clothing we had deteriorated rapidly. Many men were reduced to only a loincloth and some had no footwear.

From our pay of 10 Thai cents a day, our Senior Officer, Major Reg Newton kept 10% which was used to purchase some medical supplies from a Thai trader, Boon Pong who brought supplies via the river. With our pay we were able to purchase a few luxuries, coarse tobacco, some fruit and duck eggs, but alas, this did not happen very often.

One of our last tasks was to complete "Hellfire Pass", a deep cutting through solid rock. The rock was blasted after drill holes were drilled using hand held drills and sledge hammers. A number of the fitter men in our unit were sent to complete the cutting, which was holding up completion of the railway. A heavy toll was taken in the previous groups because of the nature of the work and the brutality of the Japanese engineers and guards. This necessitated the dispatch of some of our unit to finish the job. "Hellfire Pass" has been restored as a memorial to the men who worked and died constructing this cutting which enabled the railway's completion, albeit at a heavy cost. It was dedicated as a memorial by the late Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, the medical officer, as did other doctors, who toiled with none or inadequate medical supplies to cope with disease and suffering of the men who built the railway.
  On the way to the site I had a severe attack of dysentery and the doctor accompanying our party dropped me off at a camp for the sick and dying.
  While at this camp a few died and I helped bury a man who had been reduced to a skeleton.

I believe there was a radio in this camp, as a British officer often came to me asking if I knew the location of the islands in the vicinity of Australia where action was occurring.
  One of the British officers in the camp was Major Swanton, a well-known cricket writer and commentator. He survived the war and visited Australia when test matches between Australia and England resumed.

After the completion of the cutting, which took about four weeks. I was picked up to return to our unit. One of the redeeming features of our time in Thailand was the survival of humour. Flashes of humour as we toiled brought some relief as we slaved away. A couple of incidents come readily to mind. We were always talking of places back home where we would like to be or what we would like to be doing. One man when asked where he would rather be, without hesitation said "before the 'beak' [magistrate] on a charge of drunk and disorderly". Most replies to such a question would involve food or female company.

Most Japanese (Japs) were given nick names relating to their appearance or brutality. The Jap in charge of one camp had the name "Caesar". One of our officers, Capt. Gaden gave the man a task and then "Caesar" gave him another. The frustrated man said, "Things are bad enough without being confused by Gaden and "Caesar". Without hesitation, a man versed in the New Testament offered this advice "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars".
  The railway was completed within 12 months by October 1943, for approximately 400 kilometres over difficult terrain and with crude tools and equipment.

After completion of the railway the workload eased and confined to duties such as maintenance and cutting wood for use as fuel for the engines. The railway was put to good use and several trains passed daily, taking troops and equipment to the Burma front. It was soon after the completion of the railway that we first saw Allied air activity since our capture in February 1942. While on a working party we heard the drone of aircraft and then a flight of bombers flew overhead at a great height heading south.
  Shortly, and much to our satisfaction, they all returned safely. It was a real morale booster. The sound of aircraft flying over our camp at night became a regular occurrence and confirmed our faith in the ultimate triumph of the Allied forces.

In June large numbers of P.O.W's were moved south into a rest camp, food improved and there was little or no work. From this camp a party of "fit" Australians, me being among them, were selected for work in Japan. We travelled to Singapore from where we were to travel by sea to Japan.

Most of us were glad to leave Thailand where we had experienced sickness and disease and very hard work. Despite the hardships, 15 months in Thailand was a unique experience. These included a pristine jungle, a complete absence of the trappings of civilisation and the Kwai River. However we believed that conditions in Japan would be better and most were ready to try our luck in Japan.

On the 4th July 1944, we sailed from Singapore on the "Rasia Maru"(=Rashin Maru). It was an appalling ship as it had been damaged and the deck had been strengthened with railway lines welded to the deck. The majority of the men were in very cramped conditions below deck, but a few of us decided to live above deck despite the exposure to the elements. Toilet facilities consisted of wooden crates roped to the ship's railings and one had to climb over the railings into the "toilet". This was a very hazardous task during the typhoon but miraculously we managed the manoeuvre.
  Washing facilities did not exist, occasionally we were hosed down with seawater and when on deck we were able to wash during the odd shower of rain. We travelled first to Borneo and then to Manila.

We arrived at Manila on the 16th of July and remained in the harbour for about 3 weeks.
  We finally sailed from Manila on the 9th August, the day was clear and the sea calm. Our ship was part of a large convoy escorted by destroyers. We had sailed for about one hour, still within sight of land, when an oil tanker, 2 ships to our rear was torpedoed. It sank in about 20 minutes but we believed most on board were saved. Immediately the destroyers went into action with depth charges. The attack by the destroyers lasted about half an hour during which time our guards were agitated, but settled down when the attacked ceased.

It gave us a great deal of satisfaction to have first hand experience of the presence of allied naval activity so close to the Philippines.

After a few days of calm we ran into a typhoon, probably the most terrifying experience of our three and a half years of captivity. Our ship was tossed about so violently that the captain obviously decided it was in danger of breaking up and we were detached from the convoy, with a destroyer escort. We sought shelter between some small islands until the storm subsided. The ship was in such poor condition that during the worst of the storm sounds of metal breaking could be heard.

We left the shelter of the small islands and caught up with the convoy and reached Formosa about the 16th of August and took on fuel and food. The remainder of the journey to Japan was uneventful and we reached our destination of Kyushu about the 7th of September.
  Ten weeks had now passed since we left Singapore. I believe this was the longest sea journey of any P.O.W. ship sent to Japan. Three deaths occurred during our long trip and were buried at sea. The bodies were placed in rice sacks and after a short service, read by the senior officer on the ship they were cast into the ocean.
  On arrival in Japan, the group was split into two, and our group of 103 Australians, including an officer and a doctor, was despatched by train to Saganaseki, a small town centred on a copper smelter. It was evening when we arrived and after a short march arrived at our camp. We were relieved to see the camp with timber sleeping quarters, mess hall, kitchen and communal bath, Japanese style. Clothing was supplied; rubber boots like oversized sandshoes, and an overcoat. This was our first issue of clothing from the Japanese and some men arrived wearing rags. Our heads were shaved to conform to the Japanese Army hairstyle.

After a day settling in we went to work at the smelter. I was assigned to the furnaces.
  The work involved filling large bins with coke or ores and pushing them on an overhead rail to the furnace where a Japanese workman emptied the contents into the furnace. It was hard work but we could rest when the furnace was full. The process was repeated when the molten ore was tapped.

Our camp guards marched us to the smelter and on arrival handed us over to civilian workers who supervised our work. The civilian bosses were generally decent men. The one in charge of our group was of middle age and we certainly had no complaints. One day he invited us down to his small rest room and gave us some small rice cakes and a drink that could have been Saki.

We worked eight-hour shifts, with one day off after working nine days straight. We alternated shifts, with the night shift being the worst as it was difficult trying to get a decent sleep during the day. The work was not particularly heavy but we were in poor shape owing to a very light diet, mainly boiled rice. Malaria and dysentery were diseases we left behind in Thailand, as most illnesses were now carbuncles and dry berri-berri. We suffered during the winter, which was very cold, and many saw snow for the first time.

On arrival in Japan there was little evidence of allied air activity, but it was not very long before allied aircraft were active at night. Fortunately there were other targets and our town suffered only one attack. A lone plane flew over in the daylight and dropped one bomb that blew up a rice store. We had little news of the progress of the war.
  One of our men was reasonably fluent in the Japanese language and he picked up some news by overhearing conversations. Occasionally, an English language newspaper arrived in camp with stores and on a few occasions they fell into our hands, providing us some information about the war. We learned of the German surrender and this cheered us up and gave us confidence that the war would soon be over.
  We also heard an extraordinary piece of news about Prince Konoye, Prime Minister of Japan, who had gone to Russia on a peace mission about the beginning of the war. It was difficult to believe but subsequent reading after the war confirmed that this had occurred and his mission was unsuccessful.
  Our linguist became friendly with his civilian Japanese boss at the smelter, and it is probable that he kept him up to date with news of the war, which by then had turned in the Allies favour.

It was about June when we were moved to a large town on the West Coast, Omuta. We were sorry to leave Saganeski as we were a small closely-knit group of 103 Australians and were uncertain about our new location. The new camp was a large one, with over a thousand men including Australian, British, American and Dutch. Most of the men worked in coalmines but our group was assigned to a Zinc smelter. I worked on furnaces shovelling ore into white hot retorts. It was extremely hot work but we could rest when the retorts were full of ore, which was a welcome respite from very hot and very heavy work.

Shortly after arriving at Omuta, allied air raids increased and most nights were in air raid shelters. This resulted in very little sleep and we were weary when we left for work each day. In late July, Omuta suffered a heavy raid, which did considerable damage to houses as well as our factory. Some incendiary bombs fell in our camp and burnt out some huts, fortunately there were no casualties among the prisoners. There was no work done for a couple of days because of the damage to the factory and when we resumed our jobs it was to clean up as the furnaces were out of action. As we walked to work the extent of the damage became apparent. Hundreds of Japanese were living in open parks, their houses having been destroyed and fortunately for them the weather was still hot and dry.

Finally the Japanese repaired some of the furnaces and work resumed. One morning one of the furnaces started up and at about nine o'clock a lone plane flew over and must have seen smoke coming from the chimney. In jest we said that we would have a visit from the Americans and sure enough about an hour later we were bombed and machine-gunned. I took shelter in a hut adjoining the factory and had as a companion a Japanese boy who was a factory worker. He appeared no older than 13 or 14. After the raid was over we marched back to camp. The factory never resumed until the surrender.
  Although the factory was out of action we still went to work and were engaged mainly in cleaning up, interrupted by occasional air raids sirens; fortunately no further raids occurred.

On the 15th August 1945, it was my day off and I was put to work in the kitchen preparing vegetables for the watery soup to be served with rice for the evening meal.
  Two others were with me, Tom Uren, who entered politics on his return to Australia and became a cabinet minister in the Whitlam and Hawke governments. The other was a Dutchman.

It was quieter than usual, much less air activity than we had experienced over the past few months. Prophetically the Dutchman said "Maybe the war is over" Early in the afternoon the men from the mines marched back to camp earlier than their normal finishing time and told us there was real excitement in the town. Then came the announcement that the night shift had been cancelled and we could leave lights on all night. Red Cross parcels, which we had not seen in that camp, were handed out.

Naturally we wondered what was afoot but were not prepared to believe that the war was over. Several days passed without incident, the Japanese guards did not intervene and gradually we were prepared to believe the war was over but had no idea what had caused a sudden end to hostilities. We had expected Japan to be invaded before victory could be achieved.

When American planes started to fly over the camp and drop food, clothing and medical supplies it was obvious the war had indeed ended. The Japanese camp commander then called us on parade and told us the Emperor had decided that the time has come for peace to return to the world.

A day or so later we awoke to find the Japanese had gone and we were on our own. Men started to leave camp and wander around town. We had no problems with civilians, children begged for lollies and cigarettes; we were supplied with such luxuries as a result of air drops and Red Cross parcels.

A local cinema was operating at night so I attended and saw a film, despite not knowing any of the language. The enterprising proprietor put up admission prices in English but there was no objection as I strode into the cinema without paying. Young lads in the audience kept asking for cigarettes which were a valuable currency in the days after the surrender.

We learnt that the Americans had established an air force base at the southern end of Kyushu and men started to leave the camp to find the air force base. One night two others and I decided to have a go so we packed kit bags with foods and set off to the railway station. Trains were running and we boarded one heading south. The trains were crowded including the occasional armed soldier but we were ignored despite it being obvious we had been Prisoners of war.

Finally after three days and nights travelling we arrived at the base and were greeted by American airmen as the train pulled in. We were taken to their camp and given medical treatment, showered and well fed. Many POW's were arriving and although we were not expected in such numbers they coped very well and started to arrange aircraft to fly us out.

From Japan I flew to Okinawa. One night we had a severe typhoon which did a lot of damage but somehow my tent survived. The next flight was to Manila and there I met up with Australian recovery units and I was able to write some letters home. After a short stay in Manila I boarded the British aircraft carrier "Formidable" and sailed for Sydney. A pleasant and relaxing trip and on the 13th October, 1945 I sailed through the heads and was home again after 4 years and 8 months since leaving Sydney in February 1942 on the "Queen Mary."

Late Jack Boon(right) and his son, John

Left to right; Jack Boon, Niel MacPherson and Military Attache of Australian Embassy
  at Commonwealth War Cemetery (April 2004)

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