VJ DAY 75: Prisoners of the Japanese Legacy of Liberation

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.

British troops are taken prisoner in Singapore, 15 February 1942. AWM 127902 & some of the thousands of Commonwealth soldiers taken prisoner in Malaya and Singapore, February 1942. AWM 134903.


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.

Some of the Hutchins boys as children, c1924-25, on their farm. AWM P05555.016 & This composite portrait was made from three different photographs in order to get all seven sons in one shot, in uniform, with their parents. Back, L-R: David*, Malcolm, Eric*, Fred*, William and Ivan; seated, L-R: mother Mary, Alan* and father Henry. AWM P05555.015

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.

2/21st Battalion in Australia, 1941. AWM P10805.002 (left), Men of 2/21st Battalion AIF, Ambon, January 1941 before the Japanese invasion. AWM P07476.001 (right)

The three brothers were posted to 2/21st Battalion AIF. In mid-December 1941, as part of the small ‘Gull Force’, they arrived on the island of Ambon in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), 640 miles north of Darwin, to help defend the vital airfield at Laha. On 29 January 1942 a large Japanese force invaded, quickly overwhelming the defenders who were forced to surrender on 3 February. About 300 of the men who had been defending Laha airfield were summarily executed by their captors over the next two weeks and buried in unmarked mass graves. Eric Hutchins, the baby of the family, was among them.

David and Fred held on in one of the worst of all the Southeast Asia POW camps, through over three years of brutality, forced labour, sickness and starvation until July 1945. On 5 July, Fred was ordered to work while suffering from severe malaria, then beaten unconscious because he wasn’t working properly. He died the next day. Three weeks later, David died of disease less than three weeks before Japan would surrender. David never knew that he had had a son in March 1942, that his wife had died in 1944, or that his brother Alan had died a prisoner in New Britain.

David, Eric and Fred Hutchins in their parents’ garden before deploying to Ambon. AWM P05555.002

More than two-thirds of Gull Force who surrendered on 3 February 1942 were dead by VJ Day.

A recently liberated prisoner of war, 28 August 1945. AWM 030358/05

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.

CWGC Ambon War Cemetery is the final resting place of over 2,100 Allied servicemen, nearly all of whom died in captivity. Some 350 are men of 2/21st Battalion AIF.

‘The Railway’

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.

Three men considered fit to work, photographed using a secret camera belonging to a POW, Private George Aspinall. AWM P02569.192

Adrian Anthony Huxtable was born in Kuala Lumpur on 10 February 1920. His father was a rubber planter who had served with the Royal Artillery in the First World War and continued to serve with the Territorial Army. Adrian was educated in the UK, attending Sherborne School in Dorset, where he was a house prefect and Lance Corporal in the Officer Training Corps, known for his sense of humour and zest for life. After school he also joined the territorial Royal Artillery, serving with 88 Field Regiment.

With thanks to Sherborne School, Dorset

When war came in 1939, Adrian’s father donned his uniform again, his younger brother joined the Royal Navy, and he went to France with the BEF. He was evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940. In late 1941 he was posted to Singapore, where he joined 9th Indian Division south of Kuala Lumpur just four weeks before Japanese forces invaded. He fought in the Malaya campaign and at Singapore until the surrender. He was sent to work on ‘the Railway’, where he died of dysentery on 5 July 1943, aged 23.

His obituary in The Times of 8 September 1945 reads “Adrian's life was gloriously clean, unselfish, and honest. He loved life and the simple things, and the ways of peace, but gladly went to serve, and to endure great hardships after the fall of Singapore. Those who knew him…will never forget his happy, charming personality and his dauntless courage to the end.” In Dorset, his family set up a marker in Dorchester Cemetery next to the spot where his parents would be buried, “In proud & happy memory” of their son, who lies on the other side of the world in CWGC Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Over 5,000 Commonwealth servicemen are commemorated here, all of whom died as POWs. Nearby Chungkai War Cemetery has 1,400 and Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in Burma a further 3,100.

Hell ships

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.

A US Navy ‘spotting card’ for the Montevideo Maru. AWM 106138 & Four POW survivors from the sinking of a hell ship are picked up by a US submarine. AWM P03651.005

The conditions alone would have earned these vessels the moniker “hell ships” but they also lacked any identifying hospital or POW markings, leaving them open to attacks by Allied submarines and aircraft. The first to be hit was the Montevideo Maru, torpedoed by a US submarine on 1 July 1942. Exact figures and names were never confirmed by the Japanese authorities, but it is believed that close to 850 Australian POWs and over 200 civilian internees died, most still locked in the hold as the ship sank.

Credit: The Weekly News & Auckland Museum Online Cenotaph

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.

‘Tiny’ White and squadron mates enjoying Singapore. Franks Cecil William Collection, PA1-o-1866_027, Alexander Turnbull Library (above), ‘Hell! That was close!’ drawn by Grahame while a prisoner. From the collection of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand (right)

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.

The AIF section of a POW cemetery in Sandakan, October 1945. AWM 120491 (left), One of the many graves along the route of the Sandakan-Ranau death marches. It would be moved to Sandakan, along with other scattered graves and battlefield burial grounds in Borneo. AWM 042578 (right)

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.

Oakeshott AWM P02467.937. CWGC Labuan War Cemetery is now the final resting place of over 3,900 Commonwealth servicemen, some 2,700 of whom were brought here from Sandakan when that cemetery could not be made permanent. John Oakeshott and his children, Elizabeth and Robert, in 1939, & Captain John Oakeshott, 1940, Courtesy of the Oakeshott and Seccombe families.

The truth of what it meant to be a prisoner of the Japanese was only revealed after the Japanese surrender. Some testimony reached Allied authorities in October 1943 suggesting things were bad, and more news of this nature trickled out as the war progressed, but the extent of the malnourishment, disease and brutal treatment would only become clear when all camps were found and liberated. Secret records kept by POWs, carefully hidden, were retrieved. Japanese commanders and guards were interrogated. Some, like the commander in Borneo, committed suicide rather than account for their actions. Up and down the infamous ‘Death Railway’, along jungle tracks, within POW camp cemeteries, the final resting places of those who died in captivity were sought. The CWGC strives to make our beautiful cemeteries and memorials in Southeast Asia a fitting tribute to tens of thousands of servicemen and women who died in as prisoners of war.

With thanks to the Australian War Memorial.