National Museum of Australia Deputy Director Janda Gooding and Australian War Memorial curator Garth O'Connell, 30 October 2017
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Good afternoon and welcome back. I hope you’ve all been well and truly fed and watered. This is the after lunch session and I know you won’t fall asleep.
I’d like to introduce Dr Janda Gooding, who’s Deputy Director of Collections and Contents here. Janda worked at the Australian War Memorial from 2005 to 2014, and at the Art Gallery of Western Australia from 1979 to 2005. Janda has a PhD in history from Curtin University, a degree in Fine Arts, and a Master of Philosophy in Australian Studies from the University of Western Australia. She has published extensively on Australian social and cultural history and art history. Janda’s talk today is entitled, Broken families: British evacuees to Australia in 1941–42. Please welcome Janda.
JANDA GOODING: Thanks Suzanne. I was going to start today with an image of a very personal possession of someone who’s loaned it to me for the day, but in fact I’ve brought it along, so I hope you don’t mind. Very unceremoniously in a Woolworth’s bag. [Points to slide] This is Edward, you may notice that he’s showing his age, you can have a look at him later, but he’s got lots of repairs, all of them representing a moment in his history. He’s lost his nose and his mouth stitching, and his mohair is thinning in many places.
Here he is, stripped down for the photo shoot, and sitting on an embroidered black silk housecoat, which is also showing its age, it’s starting to unravel. Together these two objects represent a lot about their original owner. Edward the bear is an Alpha Farnell teddy from 1920. That means in the teddy bear world he’s about as British as you can get.
The bear belonged to a girl in Singapore, but she was part of a British colonial family with a very distinguished history in the region since 1844. While the teddy may represent much of her sense of Britishness, and her connection to family, the housecoat can be seen to represent much of her experience of living in an Asian city.
I’d like to acknowledge before I start this story, of the people in the audience who have either family connections to Singapore in 1942, either POWs or evacuees, and those who might have similar experiences from other parts of Asia, of evacuee families. We have several people today who’ve identified themselves to me, in that situation. This is a very personal story, as I said, and Edward bear is witness to much of it.
It centres on one woman – her name is June – and when she evacuated from Singapore with her three young children in December 1942, she also took Edward and the housecoat. They remained in June’s possession her entire life. Edward in particular was a constant source of joy and comfort to June. He connected her to her past, and she shared her present. I don’t claim that June’s story is typical or emblematic of all civilians caught up in the traumatic events of Singapore in late ’41 and ’42.
June and her children were indeed very lucky. They did escape and they all survived. Hundreds of other women and children were not so lucky. They might have been killed trying to reach safe territory, and of course British, Chinese, Indian and Malay civilians who remained in Singapore faced separation, imprisonment in internment camps, and a really uncertain future.
I’d also like to acknowledge that June’s story reflects the advantages accorded to white British civilians when they relocated to other parts of the British Empire, in this case Australia. June was born in Singapore in 1915. Her father was a lawyer, and in fact most of her family, for many generations had been lawyers there. They had a large house and servants, and an amah for the children. Their day-to-day life was similar to many others, and much of its pattern revolved around daily business life, family relationships and social occasions. Husbands visited Britain on business, and it wasn’t uncommon for women to go back to Britain to give birth.
A few years later families might return to England to deposit children into boarding school. June’s early life followed this cycle, and in 1922, at age seven, she was placed in an English boarding with her new teddy bear Edward. She returned to Singapore when she was 19, and not long afterwards she met her future husband, Roy Lewis, who was nine years older than her. Roy’s father had been involved in the rubber industry in Malaya and his son worked for one of the big subsidiaries, the Borneo Motor Company.
He was well respected in the business world, and he was also a champion tennis player. Sports and sporting clubs provided a place for the British community to socialise, and contributed to a sense of cohesion, and it’s likely that June and Roy met at the tennis club. As part of the British business community he was also encouraged to volunteer and was a member of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces. The Malayan Volunteer Forces were comprised of European, Malay, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians, and numbered just over 5,000 men.
Many came from government jobs, local business, plantations and professional services such as medicine. After a very short engagement, Roy and June were married in 1935, just days before her 20th birthday. Again the pattern of their early married life was typical and revolved around Roy’s work and their boarding and social commitments. They were based with the company in Kuala Lumpur, and by mid-1941 June and Roy had three young children, a boy and two girls.
A few months later, as the rumours circulated of Japanese troops moving up to the northern Malay border, most civilians still assumed that Singapore and Malaya would be successfully defended by British and volunteer forces. Troops were being shipped in on a regular basis, and the new naval base opened on the north-east coast in 1938 had impressive facilities to support the British Navy in the region.
However the possibility of evacuation had been demonstrated to Singapore residents a year earlier when thousands of women from the crown colony of Hong Kong were evacuated to the Philippines, and then on to Australia. British expats in Singapore and Malaya probably never believed they would face a similar situation. The war in Europe seemed to have little impact on daily life, but on the 29th November 1941 Singapore was put on a state of emergency. Two days later all the local volunteer forces were called up, and Roy reported for duty.
The following day he was put in an armoured car company, and that would be part of the defence of Kuala Lumpur. Then just a few days after that, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and almost at the same time, the Japanese 25th Army moved into northern Malaya. They moved at lightning speed, and as they pushed through Malaya civilians fled ahead of them, all heading for the safety of Singapore.
June and her children were in Kuala Lumpur when Roy was called up in early December. She was still there on Christmas Day, when he secured three hours’ leave to visit his family. By this time they probably knew there was a real likelihood that the city would fall and be overrun. A couple of days after Christmas Roy wrote to June with some advice about evacuating with the children. Most of it was really practical; in fact there was a list of 20 things that she should try to do.
Things like; take the insurance policies, the identity cards, money, get fuel for the car, and if possible leave the valuables in the bank, and contact his company when they arrived in Singapore. ‘Ultimately,’ he wrote to her, ‘try to get away from Malaya, either to India, Australia or Africa.’ June’s youngest child was just six months old, and he was very concerned that the three children would be way too much for her, so he also said, ‘If you can, take an amah with you.’
As the Japanese Army advanced, Kuala Lumpur was the next major target. June’s sister-in-law drove them all down to Singapore, June recalled that she only had about an hour to say goodbye to her husband, and she had to leave jewellery and personal possessions in a bank safe in Kuala Lumpur. Edward was far more than just a possession; he’d been part of her life since she’d been first separated from her family in 1922, and he was put into the car as well.
The journey along crowded roads was not without danger. June later said that,
when we heard Japanese planes overhead, we’d leave the car and hid in the ditches, but we were never fired upon.
Others were not so fortunate. By the time they reached Singapore it was crowded with thousands of refugees trying to find food and accommodation as well as safe passage away from Singapore. Canteens and refreshment stops like this one was set up at train stations and along the docks. The Japanese were also conducting both day and night bombing raids on the island, and the harbour was chaotic.
In the armoured car company Roy was also constantly on the move, but occasionally he got messages to June. He tried to be cheerful and supportive, and on the 28th of December he said,
I wish I could do a thousand things to help you through the crisis.
On the 31st of December he implored her again to leave Singapore and to go either to Africa or India. He ended by writing:
I wish you Godspeed and a safe journey darling, and shall think of you every moment of the day.
Clearly at this stage he didn’t know if she could get away, when or where to, but clearly any destination was better than staying. June’s family was well connected and these networks may have helped her get passage on a ship leaving on the 31st of December. They were fortunate to be leaving before the last mad rush, and they were on the Orion, a P&O ship that had been commandeered by the Navy. Those who left much later faced bombing raids on the harbour, and air or submarine attacks at sea.
Evacuees were advised to take one suitcase only. The priority was essentials for the children. June had few valuables left, but she did have Edward, and she was certainly not going to leave him behind now. Perhaps the teddy bear also served to cheer up the children on the voyage to Australia. Crowded on the Orion were nearly 1000 evacuees, mostly mothers with small children. June was in this instance a typical evacuee; she carried her baby and had the other two older children, aged five and two to manage on her own. One woman was travelling with seven children.
In fact, over half of the passengers were young children. Quite a few of them were travelling alone or in the care of friends. The story of Ann Burgess illustrates the terrible decisions people had to make on the spot. She and her husband were both doctors, and were pulled between professional and humanitarian duties and the safety of their children. Ann and her husband gave their two children, aged eight and six years, into the care of family friends on the Orion. They said goodbye and stayed to help.
Just before the fall of Singapore Ann evacuated and in turn was asked by a friend of hers to take two small boys to Australia. Ann later learned that that woman, her friend, had been killed as she tried to leave the harbour. The two boys were with family in Australia for the duration. The Orion headed south towards Western Australia and the Port of Fremantle. Most passengers had just scrambled to get on the ship, let alone make suitable arrangements for accommodation or funds to support them in Australia.
The Australian government had also made it very clear that it could not and would not pay the expenses of evacuees. Women whose husbands were in the services were supported by their husband’s salary, and other types of funds wired to Australian banks. In cases where neither were available, women were eligible for a small weekly stipend, based on living costs and the number of children they supported. In June’s case about £4 a week. An undertaking to repay the money was also part of the arrangement.
Arriving evacuees were warmly received, and at least one journalist noted that there was an advantage for Australia, that should some of these evacuee families choose to remain, that they were the ideal type of immigrant who’d made good in difficult jobs in remote parts of the empire. Debates about who should enter the country at this time were in fact very public. Australia had a long-standing immigration policy that was designed to limit non-British migration to Australia. Asian women with British husbands had in fact been turned away after leaving Hong Kong on their way to Australia.
In early ’42, as Australia prepared to take in thousands of refugees from Singapore and Malaya, some aspects of the White Australia policy were relaxed on humanitarian grounds, and Asian women and children from war zones who could support themselves were allowed into the country. As refugees started to arrive, calls went out across the nation for suitable accommodation. Refugees were met on the docks by immigration officials, transferred to temporary accommodation for a week or so, and then had to find their own accommodation. Red Cross, Junior Red Cross, YWCA and Country Women’s Association all played important roles in supporting the evacuees.
Families often shared, to cut expenses, and with no servants had to learn new skills such as cooking, cleaning, and chopping wood for the hot water system. June had tried to contact her husband Roy several times, but letters were slow to reach him. She wrote on the 8th of January from Perth, that they were safe and looking for a house. She’d spotted an ad for a self-contained bungalow in Safety Bay, a small seaside settlement about 55 kilometres south of Perth. It was cheaper, it would give safety to the children and greater freedom, and there was a small community there prepared to help.
She relocated there before the fall of Singapore, so she was there before the 15th of February, but she’d heard nothing from Roy. In fact, the facilities there were far from luxurious; she often told her children there was no running water and she could see the sky through the roof. However, the lifestyle was healthy, they were safe and there was a recently opened school nearby. Over the next three years, she had little or no news from Roy. In fact she was received only two POW cards, both of them in 1942.
She showed remarkable resilience and adapted. She was suddenly responsible for everything, cooking, cleaning, managing and caring for the children, and looking after the money. She admitted that she couldn’t even boil an egg when she arrived in Australia. We don’t know if she received any informal news about Roy’s fate, but an official letter arrived in November 1945, advising that he had died two-and-a-half years earlier from cholera in a POW camp along the Thai-Burma Railway.
June found herself in Australia. Her extended family had also fled Singapore, and her parents had gone to Portugal. She’d lost her husband and her children their father. She could return to Singapore, go to Britain or stay in Australia. However, sometime during the last three years she had met and fallen in love with an Australian. His name was also Roy, and he made her laugh. He became her second husband, and together they raised the three children and another five.
I am concluding now, Thomas. At the end of the war many evacuees made their way to Britain or returned to Singapore and resumed their lives. However, with so many British business and civil service community lost in the war, many felt that things would never be the same again. As a white British subject June had been welcomed into Australia – others were not so warmly received. Her decision to stay had significant ramifications for herself and her children.
Connections to her own family were weakened. She’d grown up in a really well-known family that had contributed to the foundation of modern Singapore. That history gave her social status and a sense of belonging in Singapore, but it meant nothing in Australia. The war contributed to most of her family leaving Singapore, and their interests were gradually sold and transferred into Singaporean hands, thus their 100-year-old connection to the Far East was broken.
None of the children from either marriage had access to their maternal grandparents, to her maternal –And of course, she could not easily draw from the support of her own parents as they were in Portugal. Her pre-war life of privilege in Singapore was replaced with the struggle of raising a large family of eight children.
June never quite reconciled herself to life in Australia. She was always as British as her bear Edward, but she also fondly recalled her early life in Singapore, her friends there, and the time she spent in the Indian and Malay quarters or daily life in the city. She rarely spoke of her experiences during the evacuation, and she never forgave Britain for failing to defend the citizens of Singapore.
In later life, she railed against what she called Australian Philistines, and she was interested in languages, literature and poetry, as well as radical left-wing politics. She attended Communist Party meetings, and participated in the Vietnam moratorium marches. Her character was in fact part-forged from her early experiences in Singapore. She was a strong-willed, fiercely independent and rebellious woman, argumentative to the end, and full of contradictions. She was, in fact, pretty amazing.
June’s bear Edward, stayed with her all her life. Wherever June went Edward went as well. For instance, her passion for motor car racing, Edward went to the Bathurst 500 five times. He was a most treasured part of the family. Edward, as well as the housecoat with the beautiful embroidery, is now lovingly cared for by June’s youngest daughter, who kindly allowed him to be here today.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thank you Janda and Edward. I’d heard about Edward before, but this is the first time that I’ve met him. Garth O’Connell is a curator at the Australian War Memorial. He served as rifleman in the Australian Army, and completed a Bachelor of Applied Arts, sorry of Applied Science and Cultural Heritage Management. Garth joined the Memorial, the Australian War Memorial, in 1999, and worked in the Military Heraldry and Technology section. Garth is proud of his cross-cultural family roots to Ireland, and the Gomeroi people of north-western New South Wales.
His research interests include the service history of Indigenous Australians in the military, and the Malaya-Singapore campaign of 1941– 42. Garth will talk about Aboriginal Australian Prisoners of War in Singapore. Please welcome him.
GARTH O’CONNELL: Good afternoon. Thank you very much for the invitation to come and talk today, and I’d like to acknowledge of course the Ngunnawal Nation here of which we have our big beautiful, a National Museum in it. My talk today is about Aboriginal servicemen who were captured in Singapore in 1941 and 1942, and this is the result of my family’s involvement in the conflict. I’d also like to acknowledge everyone here who has a family connection to the fall of Singapore.
As a quick show of hands, who here has got friends or family who were involved in the campaign? Any –Good stuff, yeah, so it is the vast majority, yeah. This talk today is – I’ll try and keep it short, because I’m famous for talking a lot, and also talking fast, so I’m making sure I’m slowing down. As a very quick background on who I am, that’s me as a little kid, on my first birthday, with my grandmother. The only grandparent I ever physically met, the rest of them had died prematurely, sadly.
That’s my grandmother, and then this talk today is dedicated to the young Aboriginal soldier here, Percy Gunner Suey, of the 2nd 15th Field Regiment, he was a 25-Pounder gunner in Malaya and also Singapore, and was captured. He suffered badly for his time in Singapore, and he tragically is a missing person, ever since 1976. He walked out the door of the family home and never came home. There’s a hole in my family, and he’s part of it.
That’s me as a soldier and all my stuff, and that’s me last year in the Middle East doing my job as a curator, collecting and researching and talking to veterans and people in theatre doing their job. That’s where I work, nine to five, Monday to Friday, and I masquerade as the National Secretary of the Aboriginal Serviceman’s Association, so I’ve got a couple of hats on.
Introduction, among the thousands of Australians who were taken prisoner by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore in 1942, there was at least 45 Aboriginal soldiers. These men make up the biggest single group of Aboriginal Prisoners of War ever taken in any post-colonial conflict. Within this diverse group of prisoners is the first Aboriginal Australian soldier to be decorated for combat valour in the First World War: the father of author, historian, civil activist Jackie Huggins; and the brothers of two other highly significant women, post war author and poet Kath Walker, and human rights campaigner Faith Bandler.
This anniversary talk today, I will highlight this, a unique facet of the fall of Singapore and the lesser known links between that country and Aboriginal Australia. As a quick backgrounder, this is some of our diversity other than our nation, that little star is where my family’s from the Ngunnawal or Gomeroi mob, and other people that I’m talking about today, or one soldier in particular, I include in this group, because his family are South Pacific Islanders.
Mr Mussing his family come from Vanuatu, and they were forcibly removed and taken to Queensland, and they were working in the cane fields, and then his family escaped to Coolangatta, Tweed Heads, to escape the Queensland government. He joined up, and today many, many, in fact the vast majority of South Pacific Islander families have mixed in with Aboriginal families, so I consider him as one of our third Indigenous people. You’ve got the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islanders and South Pacific Islanders here.
As an Aboriginal perspective on the fall of Singapore, there are currently, because it’s always going to be changing, there’s currently 70 known Aboriginal soldiers that were captured, and one South Pacific Islanders who was captured in all theatres of the Second World War, 45 were captured in the fall of Singapore itself. Of these men there are no Torres Strait Islanders.
In addition to those who were captured in the fall of Singapore, another ten soldiers and two sailors, also captured by the Japanese in Java, which includes the Battle of Java Sea, we’ve got two Aboriginal sailors in HMS Perth, also spent time in Singapore. All out of 71 you’ve got 55, that’s a very high percentage. 23 Aboriginal servicemen were murdered, died of mistreatment or of disease. Two Aboriginal soldiers who were captured in Singapore who went on the Sandakan to Ranua death marches were murdered on that.
Nine of these men are buried or commemorated at Kranji in Singapore. No Aboriginal servicemen in the Second World War, captured by the Germans, the Italians or the Vichy French or the Japanese were killed by those countries, so the only ones that died were at the hands of the Japanese. This breaks down those that we know of, and where they were captured, with the big red circle being Singapore. The blue for Timor, adding an extra two more there, and then two more for the battle of Java, so you’ve got quite a few men involved.
This breaks down the Army, Navy and Air Force, so green being the Army shows you that of the vast majority of these men, 67, were in the Army. Two in the Navy, and two in the Air Force. In fact the very last Australian Aboriginal POW to die was actually murdered two weeks after the war was finished, in Borneo by his captives, along with his B24 liberator crew. This give you an idea for the deaths amongst those men that I’ve come across so far. Some of them haven’t been actually detailed, and it will take more, some more research, but the illness is quite generic of course, but it’s more likely to be beriberi and cholera.
This gives you an idea for how many, or about how they were killed or died. Four of these men were drowned on hell ships, that were sunk by the US Navy on their way through and around the islands, going back to Japan. This is some photographs of these men, which I’ve put up from my gathered collection from the War Memorial and also from private collections. You’ve got Mr Huggins up here, his daughter’s come along today to be part of this, and thank you very much Jackie for that coming along today.
That’s one of them up there, and then you’ve got, yeah, so this gives you an idea for some of the diversity which we’ve got amongst our men that were captured in Singapore. This man here, Mr Knox, his nephew was a famous Australian singer called Roger Knox, and the title of this talk is called, is actually named after one of Roger’s songs, about the ‘Blue Gums are Calling Me Back Home’. I’ve put him in there as a sign of respect to him, and he’s also from our Gomeroi community, so quite a few of these men are from northwest New South Wales, and they’re across a range of units.
Mainly infantry units like the 2nd 19th, 2nd 20th. The 2nd 26th’s got at least eight Aboriginal soldiers in it, so a bunch of Queensland boys as well. No one in the Air Force as far as I know that we’ve come across in the Malaya-Singapore campaign, so no one that we know of yet from 1 Squadron or 6 or 21 or 453 Squadron. Yeah these, and Mr John Hill here, we have one of his grave crosses at the War Memorial as well, so that was actually given to us by his unit who were the 2nd 4th Machine Gun Battalion from Western Australia.
These other fellows here, on the left there, he’s 2nd 4th Machine Gun Battalion, he’s 2nd 4th Machine Gun Battalion, they had quite a few men captured from WA. A strong family connection, as it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black or brindle in the service, and our military goes back a long way for many families, and this is very true in the case of these families here. Five pairs of brothers were captured, four of which suffered at the hands of the Japanese. One pair include the Beel brothers, which is up near Koorindah, which is up near Moree where I’m from, and one of these men died in Japan.
Working on a 24-hour shift he fell into a machine and was killed, and he’s buried in Japan. The Hill brothers from Busselton Western Australia. One each served in the Army, Navy and Air Force. The interesting thing about the Hill boys is one served on HMS Perth and he was sunk, and he was captured and put into a Prisoner of War camp. His brother John, this man here, [points to slide] he also gets, he gets wounded at the Battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge which is a famous place, which is in Singapore, supporting the Malay Regiment, and he actually saved a bunch of his mates lives in his Bren Gun Carrier.
The third brother flew Lancaster bombers. Most folks know of or think about, when they think of Aboriginal aircrew, I think of Uncle Len Waters, but we had about four Aboriginal pilots in Second World War that we know of so far, through research at the Memorial and through families and friends coming forward. You’ve got here, and also you’ve got the Ramalli brothers, so this man here’s Cecil Ramalli, he’s from Moree, his mother is Aboriginal and his dad is from modern-day Pakistan, from Lahore.
He’s the first known Aboriginal Wallaby, he played two test matches against the All Blacks, and one of his colleagues is Winston Ide, Winston Ide, I-D-E surname, he was Japanese-Australian, and he was also a Wallaby, and he was in the 2nd 10th Field Regiment. At one point you had this Wallaby hanging out with a Japanese-Australian bloke, who was also a POW at the hands of the Japanese.
Sadly Winston was killed in 1944 when his hell ship was sunk by the US Navy off the coast of the Philippines. That’s Uncle Cecil, he had one of his brothers also captured in July 1942, at the Battle of El Alamein, so one brother was at the hands of the Japanese, and one at the hands of the Italians and later the Germans. Uncle Cecil here survived the bombing, the atom bombing blast on the 9th of August 1945 at Nagasaki.
The Ruska brothers are from Minjerribah, which is now known as North Stradbroke Island in Queensland, a Murray mob, their sister was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, also known as Kathleen Walker. She was a hero of mine from when I was little kid, and that’s her there in her Army uniform and during Second World War [points to slide]. She joined up after her brothers were captured. This man here, [points to slide] Maitland Madge, Military Medal, a pretty cool name, and he’s got the same initials as his post-nominal, MM, you can’t forget that. He’s one, he was the very first Aboriginal serviceman that we know of to be awarded for battlefield valour, and that was in 1916 at Pozieres. He enlisted again in Second World War at age 45.
This is again, part of that proof that a lot of Aboriginal men had a sense of equality in the forces, and he backs it up again for Second World War to go back in. He joined 2nd 26th Battalion, and he gets captured in the fall of Singapore, and he dies on the 7th of June 1944, from disease, and he’s buried at Kranji. Exactly, on that day, around the world you’ve got Operation – You’ve got Allied troops coming ashore in Normandy, so the 6th of June in Europe, the 7th of June in Singapore.
On November 11th, sorry on November 11th 2015, Prince Charles wrote a copy of Maitland’s name at the Memorial, as a sign of respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Island servicemen and women who served. This is about Edward and Faith Mussing, their father Peter was one of 60,000 South Pacific Islanders forced to work in Queensland between 1862 and 1901. He married a Scottish-Indian lady and he escaped New South Wales in 1897. One of his sons, Edward, and he was captured in the fall of Singapore, again the same unit as Uncle Madge, with the 2nd 26th Battalion.
His two little sisters also joined the Army after he was captured. He died of cardiac beriberi in Burma in July 1943, and he has a grave up there, and his sister Faith later led the historic yes vote for the big 1967 national referendum on Aboriginal rights, and she passed away in 2015, and here at the National Museum of Australia they’ve got her gloves and also this pamphlet that we handed out. This is a photograph of her from the War Memorial Collection and her and her brother and her dad, and of her two brothers here, before he went off in 1941.
The conclusion, the social impact of the fall of Singapore significantly affected the Aboriginal Australian community. This includes my own family and from my wife Camilla, we’re a troubled nation today. 63 per cent of all Aboriginal POWs captured during the Second World War were captured in Singapore. Another seven per cent were later moved to, or through Singapore on their way to the Burma, so the Death Railway, or other camps in Japan, Borneo and other occupied land such as Manchuria as mentioned before and so forth.
No Aboriginal POWs died at the hands of Germans, Italians or Vichy French forces, all who died were at the hands of Imperial Japanese. Several repatriated POWs died shortly after the war, from their service. 32% of all Aboriginal POWs held by the Japanese died or were killed after capture. The loss rate and post capture experiences of Australian Aboriginal POWs are extremely similar to their non-Aboriginal brothers that they served alongside of. The racially integrated Australian forces may contribute to this. At least nine Aboriginal soldiers are in Kranji cemetery with at least two others missing in action in Singapore.
Many significant wartime locations such as Alexandra Hospital, where Sydney Williams here was actually in the hospital when the massacre occurred, but he survived, is one location. At Bukit Chandu with the construction of various war memorials around there as well, the Battle of Pasir Panjang Ridge with the Hill brothers involved, and Sentosa which is of course a big tourist place now, but back then it was a, back then it was actually a big prisoner of war camp. I know of at least one story in the 2nd 18th Battalion postwar book that they write about an Aboriginal soldier who pointed a bone at Japanese camp guard, who then died a few days later.
This was written by his non-Aboriginal mates, in the 2nd 18th Battalion, and the following two guards then also died. Crazy stuff, but that’s all at Almady, so Sentosa. Whenever I go to Sentosa, which is once or twice a year, I always think, on this island there was – three Japanese camp guards died at the hands of one Aboriginal POW. Yeah, and of course yeah, so there is much more to Singapore, the POW experience, as you all know, rather than Changi. There is much further work required to fully understand the experiences, stories and number of Aboriginal Australian POWs in Singapore between 1942 and 1945.
There’s been no dedicated published book on this subject so far, but we’ve made the odd line or reference in books published up until a year or two ago. Hopefully, this sort of stuff will get out amongst our community, our academics and museum people that actually we were there too, not just our white mates.
References and acknowledgements: I’d like to thank, of course, the National Museum for inviting me along to this today. Official histories and so forth – I’ll go through a lot – my good colleague at the Memorial [Australian War Memorial] Dr Lachlan Grant, who can’t be here today. The institute on the corner here is also awesome – the National Archives, the National Museum of Australia for – you’ve got Aunty Faith’s gloves and so forth. The National Library’s Trove is such a good reference and resource. The State Library of Victoria, the Memorial and many consultations with Aboriginal families and so forth. Thank you very much for your help.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thank you Garth. Look I’d like to invite both Janda and Garth back to the stage for questions and answers. We have one person who is Thomas, who will come round with a microphone. Okay the lady over there.
QUESTION 1: Thank you both, that was very, very interesting. Garth, I’d just like to ask you, your formidable information there. I have a photograph at home 2nd 29th Bonegilla and there’s definitely an Aboriginal face in that line up. Can you tell me who it is?
GARTH O’CONNELL: I can – I’ve got on my phone a Google document of my database I’ve got, which is quite long. Michael Bell, whose our Indigenous liaison officer at the Memorial is sitting at the front row here, giving us a wave, he’d love to have a look at that photo as well. We have – In my data I’ve got so far, I’ve got 71 so far, there’s about half a dozen which we don’t know just yet. Like I said, just a photo, they’re a dark face in a sea of their mates.
Or they are – Or I’ve heard stories, or the caption’s incorrect. We’ve looked them up and gone, ‘Hang on, this doesn’t match who they are.’ I do know of at least one or two Aboriginal POWs in the 2nd 29th, but there’s a heap in the 2nd 26th, a heap in the 2nd 20th and 19th and 18th, but I’ll sort you out after this and we can have a look at them.
QUESTIONER 1: Sure, and that last one I was going to say was my dad, he’s from Wee Waa Burren Junction.
GARTH O’CONNELL: Oh true? Wee Waa is up my family’s way. He went north of the border to join.
QUESTIONER 1: He was a teacher down [inaudible 00:43:42] He went to Victoria.
GARTH O’CONNELL: Went to Victoria, yeah of course, wow.
QUESTION 2: Thanks for both your contributions and that wonderful story about June, I thought that was quite amazing. I’m just wondering, given June’s background, how was it that she actually became a member of the Communist Party and concerned about – so forth – what sort of steps which might have taken place to that, given her background?
JANDA GOODING: I’m not sure if she was a member. She certainly attended meetings. I didn’t know her at that time. One of her sons was drafted to the Vietnam War, I think that may have pushed her slightly that way. I know she used to carry a little red book around with her, and wave it in everyone’s faces. I don’t know exactly how she moved into that sort of stream, but she was always rebellious and I’d say on the extreme edges of whatever she did.
QUESTION 3: [Inaudible]
JANDA GOODING: I can’t tell you that, and her family haven’t told me, so I just don’t know that.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Okay thank you.
QUESTION 4: A question for Garth. I’m just interested in what you were saying, how Indigenous people died as Prisoners of War, under the hands of the Japanese, but not in the European theatres. Have you done any research into why there were fewer in POWs there, or is it just a statistical anomaly do you think?
GARTH O’CONNELL: Thank you. I’m not exactly sure why, but we’ve had, I know of at least one close run-in, of one Aboriginal, of two Aboriginal POWs in 1944 when Italy changed sides, there was a whole lot of pandemonium going on in prisoner of war camps in Italy. Some of the gates just were opened up and blokes just ran off.
I know of in one case, one of our official war artists at the War Memorial, who’s a friend of mine, Tony Albert, his grandad was actually captured in North Africa, and him and another Aboriginal digger from Western Australia, were sheltering with a bunch of British POWs, and this fascist Italian guy walked into the room and just started shooting up guys. By the time he stopped they were saying, ‘We’re Inglese, Inglese.’ Not being partisans, and they stopped shooting, that’s why Tony’s got a really good artwork in Sydney at Hyde Park South, right near the ANZAC Memorial, and he’s got these bullets, these .303 bullets.
They brought them on actually for that, which he sculpted for it, and it’s huge, it’s like a monumental size, and two of the bullets are fallen down, and I think three are standing up. They symbolise that actual incident. Getting back to why, I don’t know. I know that in my family, and what I’ve been told by my family and that, because with my great-uncle he was beaten up because they couldn’t understand why a dark guy is with all the white boys. He said, ‘I’m not Indian’ and they said, and he had to prove that he wasn’t Indian. Yeah.
QUESTION 4: Hello Garth, just a question for you. You haven’t included Flight Sergeant [inaudible] as a POW. I was just interested why that would be?
GARTH O’CONNELL: I mentioned him early on, being the last POW taken and how he was executed after the war had finished, with the remainder of his B24 crew in Borneo in 1945. I’ve actually got him down on my list, so of the 71 you’ve got 67 Army and then you’ve got two Army and two Navy, and the other Aboriginal airman who was captured was shot down over Greece in 1943 on his 30th and final mission before he got, and then he got a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] for doing this tour of 30, and then he got told after the war, ‘Oh by the way, you actually got a DFC two years ago.’ Yeah, David Paul, David Paul Valentine his name is, he actually then later on formed, helped form the New South Wales Police Air Wing.
The first NSW police pilot was an Aboriginal veteran of Second World War, a DFC pilot, and he died at his desk in 1971 at Richmond Air Force base in Sydney, as the XO [Executive Officer] of 22 Squadron out of RAAF, so he’s a big deal for us as well. He’s also Gomeroi just like Uncle Leonard. I’m bragging a bit there –
QUESTION 5: Thank you. Janda, I appreciate you’re concentrating on one person – on June – but in general are you able to say what happened to many of the evacuees? Did they actually return to their place of embarkation or was the dislocation permanent and they remained where they had evacuated to?
JANDA GOODING: Thank you. I can’t give you specifics, but in the reading I’ve done, and there are people here perhaps who know as well, but a great many people did return to Singapore. The woman I said was taking care of the two children, she and her husband did go back to Singapore, and they worked there until their retirement, and then they went to Britain. It was also a pattern that families might retire back to Britain, after doing their service in South-east Asia.
Many people who evacuated, the women who evacuated from Singapore in ’41 and ’42, they often stayed in Australia a short time, and then tried to make their way back to Britain, because they had family support there. Then after that of course it’s very difficult for us to trace them. There’s not much written about the experience of the evacuees. We actually have someone in the audience today who as a child evacuated –
SUZANNE BRAVERY: – and she’s putting up her hand to say something. Lorraine? Thomas will just be on his way he’s on his way.
JANDA GOODING: – I can’t tell you exactly. It was mixed, it was definitely based on personal circumstances, and clearly June was trying to make the best of her life with a new husband, so that’s why she stayed.
LORRAINE: I can probably answer that question a little bit just on behalf of me. I was – My father was in the British colonial service, and was posted to Penang, and the Japanese came down from the north, and bombed our house in Penang, and my parents and my, and our servants did shelter at the bottom of the garden under a stone bridge which is still there, well some of it.
Then almost immediately my mother and I, I was aged 15 months, were evacuated to Singapore, put on a train and sent to Singapore. There was no arguing with them, my mother wanted to stay there, but it was quite, she was physically told she must get on the train and she must go to Singapore. When they got to Singapore, they were, we were put on to a boat, which was very hastily adapted with hammocks in the hold, to hold mothers and children.
Now my mother had always insisted that she looked after me herself, but a lot of the children there were very distressed because they had been looked after by amahs and didn’t see very much of their parents. It took, I think it was several months, I’m not quite sure, to get to first to Batasia where we were held and we were looked after by actually an admiral’s wife, and then eventually got another boat across to Fremantle, where the Australian government had put out a call for anybody who could come and look after women and children who were in – were coming ashore and would need help.
I was, apparently at that stage very ill because there was no food for children on the boat, there was no fresh milk, and I lived mostly apparently on bread and butter. The Australian – The population in Fremantle were extremely good, and they rallied very quickly, and an admiral and his wife took mother and I and they helped us for about a week, I spent time in hospital, we were paid for, mother had no money, she had, well she had only been able to bring one suitcase with her and she had no money at all.
She did, once we were well enough to leave, we went across by train to Sydney, where my grandmother, my father’s mother lived. That’s what happened to us. My father was in the police, colonial police, and he stayed behind in Malaya, and the day before Percival surrendered, the British surrendered to the Japanese, he was told, ‘You’re on your own now, get out as best you can’.
He actually did get back to Australia, it took four months and quite a story. He got back there, and you were asking about people going back into Malaya, father worked for – he worked from Calcutta, and for the British, the work they were doing behind trying to help behind the Japanese lines in Malaya, and then in 1945 he went back into Malaya and mother and I, and the two children followed back then, and we settled there you until 1965 and the emergency, and I was sent to boarding school in Australia, as many children were.
Anyway that’s the story, I hope that answers some of the questions of the previous gentleman. Thank you.
JANDA GOODING: Thanks Lorraine.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: We have time for one or maybe two quick questions.
QUESTION 6: Thank you both for your very interesting talks. Garth as a, I call myself a descendant of war, because I had, my grandfather was in First World War, and my father as you pointed out Jack Huggins Second World War as a POW. I guess the question that we all ask ourselves I suppose, is why did they go to war? Why did they go to war when the people weren’t even citizens of their own country? The brutalities and the slavery that was happening at home. I never got that opportunity to ask my father, because he died when I was two.
I guess I don’t know if it’s a question I will ever, ever know, but I’ve thought that all my life. Yeah, so I don’t know, don’t give me any – You could try to give me the answers, but just some of the reasons maybe why Indigenous soldiers went to war, World War I, World II, even the Boer War, even back then.
GARTH O’CONNELL: That’s a very good question, and that, we get asked that a lot at the War Memorial from the media, from families and stuff. One of the photos in my talk, is actually, it’s an Australian flag with an Aboriginal soldier in it. It’s by the Beel family, who, which lost, one of their boys was killed in Japan on that 24-hour shift working at a military camp, and look for many of the boys I believe there was a lot of the same patriotism that affected all Australian lads, that were drawn into their serving for King and Country and so forth.
I think a lot of the fellas, maybe my Uncle Bill could be on to that as well, but I think a lot of our – we know of a thousand Aboriginal soldiers in World War I. Definitely, confirmed, everything’s done through IATSIS, through doing all the genealogic – So there’s one battalion of the AIF effectively, if you’ve got on paper a fresh battalion, that’s 1000 blokes. In that we’ve got a disproportionate number of MMs and Distinguished Conduct medals for bravery.
That to me says a lot of blackfellas are trying to prove themselves, to say that back home we can fight for ourselves, we are warriors, you’ve been denying us our chance to do it. Now you give us an equal playing field, now we’re going to prove ourselves, and you’ve got – If you had 1000 boys in 1 Australia Battalion, integrated, so you’ve got Asian-Australians, black-Australians, all mixed in, and then you’ve got the black RAAF boys all put together, there’s more MMs and DCMs in the Aboriginal battalion than what there would be in the 61st Battalion if there wasn’t such bundled, if there was one in World War I.
Yeah, I think there was an element of that, trying to prove themselves, and a chance to get off the mission, to get out of your state. Because you’re told, no you can’t from here to go to there, you’ve got to – no you can’t do that, but you’re getting told, leave in Paris, go to Glasgow, go to Edinburgh, go check out the castle. Once you’re in Egypt, there’s seeing the pyramids and seeing ancient – And they’re going, well this is amazing. They could never see that back home in Australia.
As well there’s domestic pressure, where non-Aboriginal women are walking down the street, and you’re a blackfella, and they’re going, ‘How come you can’t go fight? Here’s your white feather. Because my boy got killed in Gallipoli and another boy got killed on the Western Front, how come you black mob can’t go fight?’ There was also a bit of that internal stuff I’d imagine as well. Pressure from – ‘You know what, I might as well go fight for this, and also get good coin, good money.’
So there’s a whole range of factors. I think the main one is a lot of the boys had the same patriotism and love to serve, the King and Country, yeah.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Okay, that’s all we have time for before afternoon tea. I’d like again to thank Janda and Garth for their personal stories. Thank you.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018