As Japanese forces invaded the Pacific and Southeast Asia in December 1941 and early 1942, they captured more than 200,000 Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war – including 85,000 Commonwealth soldiers from the fall of Singapore alone. Thousands of civilians would be interned as well. Imperial Japan had never ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention, which governed the treatment of prisoners of war. The Allies hoped Japan would still honour its provisions, but the lack of paperwork confirming who was being held, and where, by the end of 1942 boded ill. Few prisoners were allowed to send any word home. For many families, their loved ones had simply disappeared.
On any given Sunday night, until June 1940, the seven sons of Mary and Henry Hutchins could be found at their home on their fruit farm near Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia. The boys and their two sisters loved to sing, and the family band of Henry’s accordion and the boys’ mouth organs used to play the local ‘old soldiers’ hall. All seven sons would enlist to fight in the Second World War. Four would never come home, dying while prisoners of the Japanese.
The eldest two and the middle two joined up in June 1940. In July 1941, the youngest two – Eric and Fred – bumped their ages up to 19 and 21 and were joined by their remaining older brother, David, to keep an eye on them. David had two young children and his wife was pregnant.
More than two-thirds of Gull Force who surrendered on 3 February 1942 were dead by VJ Day.
The mass graves of the Laha massacre were found in December 1945 after a tip-off. A team of Australian Royal Engineers were sent to Ambon to recover and move the remains of the POWs from their camp cemeteries and the mass graves into what is now Ambon War Cemetery. A close cousin of the Hutchins’ boys was a member of this team, and the family believe he had to identify his cousins – a task which he never talked about, and never got over.
POWs were initially held where they had been captured, often in former prisons or army barracks, but soon they were sent out to work as manual labourers: loading and unloading, clearing debris from bombing raids, or on larger construction projects like new airfields. In mid-1942, Japanese engineers began using forced labour to construct a 250-mile railway through the mountainous jungles of Thailand and Burma. Hazardous terrain, an inhospitable climate and a punishing timetable awaited the Allied POWs sent to the railway.
At the height of activity in mid-1943, more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war – predominantly British, Australian, Dutch and American – worked on the line, alongside some 250,000 Asian labourers, known as ‘rōmusha’. Using no more than primitive tools and human endeavour, these men raised embankments, hacked cuttings through rock, and built bridges from forest materials, all the while plagued by fatigue, malnutrition, disease, and brutal mistreatment at the hands of their captors. Food and medical supplies sent by the Red Cross were withheld. Living and working in appalling conditions with primitive medical facilities, the men suffered greatly: in all, around 12,000 prisoners of war are estimated to have lost their lives. Casualties among the rōmusha may have been seven times this. By the time the first locomotive travelled the length of the track in October 1943, it is estimated that one in three of those working on its construction had perished.
POWs were sent all over Southeast Asia and to the home islands of Japan to work. Those transported by sea were packed into the holds of ships designed for freight, not human beings.
Under the baking tropical sun hundreds of men would be crammed in with scant room to sit or lay down and with little or no ventilation. Small groups of POWs might take turns on deck, but often they were held below for entire voyages which could last weeks. Food, water, sanitation and medical care were limited or non-existent. Wounds soon turned putrid, the sick grew sicker and men even died of asphyxiation.
Flight Lieutenant Grahame Prebble White, aged 24, was the only New Zealander amongst the 540 British and Dutch POWs onboard the Suez Maru when it left Ambon bound for Java. Grahame, known as ‘Tiny’ White to his mates, had been a commercial artist in Wellington before enlisting in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He fought in the skies over Malaya, Singapore and Java, before being captured there in March 1942. He was part of a group of prisoners sent to construct an airfield on the island of Ambon. In November 1943 Grahame and the other POWs who had become too sick to work were sent back to Java onboard Suez Maru, along with some 200 sick and wounded Japanese soldiers.
On 29 November the Suez Maru was torpedoed by a US submarine. Around half of the POWs were trapped below deck and drowned, but the rest managed to escape into the water. Four hours later a Japanese escort ship picked up the surviving Japanese. Soldiers with rifles and two machine guns then opened fire upon the men in the water, none of whom survived. Grahame and his comrades have no known grave and are commemorated on the CWGC Singapore Memorial.
After the fall of Singapore several thousand British and Australian POWs were sent to camps in the Sandakan area on the eastern coast of North Borneo, where they were to build an airfield. The men were starved, beaten and overworked. In February 1945 the Japanese, anticipating Allied landings in North Borneo, decided to move the remaining prisoners to Ranau, more than 160 miles inland from Sandakan. Those who fell on the journey, whether sick or exhausted, were killed; the survivors who reached Ranau were then put to forced labour on starvation rations. Out of the 2,000 men who left Sandakan only 260 arrived at Ranau, and by the end of July 1945 most of these had died. Only six survived, by escaping from Ranau and living hidden with the help of local people until liberating troops arrived.
In 1939, John Oakeshott was a 38-year-old doctor living in Lismore, NSW, Australia, with his wife and two children. When war came, he decided to put his medical training to use in the army, joining the 10th Australian General Hospital and shipping out to Singapore in 1941, where he would become a prisoner of war upon its surrender.
Oakeshott was sent to Borneo a year later, reaching Sandakan in June 1943. In 1945 he was in the second group forced to march to Ranau, and was among the last 38 prisoners left alive at Ranau at the end of July. After a guard warned one of the POWs that the intention was to kill them, this prisoner offered John the chance to join their small escape group, but he chose to stay with the sick and dying men, giving another man his boots to enable his escape. He and 14 others were shot by Japanese guards on 27 August 1945, 12 days after Japan had surrendered. His family had heard nothing since a brief Red Cross postcard in late 1942. Two months after celebrating the end of the war in hope of John’s return, the grim telegram arrived. Today, he is buried in CWGC Labuan War Cemetery in a grave with four of the men he chose not to leave.