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Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Page: 5261


Mr MORRISON (6:39 PM) —I rise to support the motion before the House. In doing so, I wish to pay tribute to all those heroic Australians who have served as prisoners of war. More specifically, I wish to do this by drawing attention to the experiences of four remarkable Australians who live in my electorate of Cook and by telling their story in this place—a story that will resonate with the experience of so many others; an experience that produced in them a unique character, of which we are all beneficiaries. In preparing to speak on the Military Memorials of National Significance Bill 2008, it was my honour and privilege to spend time with these men, to listen to their stories and to be humbled by their sacrifice.

The generations of Australians who have served, as the Leader of the Opposition often says, in our name, in our uniform, under our flag, to protect our values, whether in hostile or peacekeeping situations, occupy a special place in Australian society. This is no more true than for those Australians who became prisoners of war, forced to suffer the indignities and abuses of imprisonment at the hands of the most ruthless of captors. This bill and the recognition afforded to the memorial at Ballarat provide further recognition of the unique standing of Australians who have served as prisoners of war. It is fitting that we recognise them through this memorial. It is disappointing that what was promised by the government to recognise this memorial, as the member for Mackellar noted in her remarks, has not been delivered. The expectation knowingly and willingly created by the Rudd government, then in opposition, was to create a national memorial, which would carry with it ongoing funding for maintenance. This expectation has not been met in this bill. I do not wish to detract from the tribute paid to our prisoners of war by making further reference to this point, but as we mark this occasion it is important to hold the government to account for its failure to honour that pledge.

In 2004 Don Collumbell, aged 83, travelled to Ballarat to attend the opening ceremony for the memorial we recognise in this bill today. Don grew up in what he described as a ‘kids’ paradise’ on the Burraneer Bay peninsula not more than 100 metres from where my family and I live today. He attended Cronulla Public School and later Hurlstone Ag as a boarder and went to work for the MSB in Circular Quay in 1937. In September 1942, Don signed up with the Air Force. His father was a war veteran and would not let him join the Army, and there were no Navy ships for him to sign up with at the time. So the Air Force it was for Don. At that time Don had never set foot in a plane, let alone taken to the sky.

Don was sent to Bomber Command in the UK, where he trained as a navigator for 12 months. After completing training he crewed up at the local pub—the Coach and Horses—with two other Aussies, including the pilot, a Brit from Yorkshire, a Kiwi and a Welshman. It was not long before Don was flying missions in a Halifax over Germany. Life expectancy in Bomber Command was not something you talked about. Don said: ‘If you dwelt on it you couldn’t carry on.’ Boarding school had toughened him up, but all of this was put to the test in the months that followed.

In late January 1944, 16 aircraft set off on their first mission to Berlin. Don thinks it was their 13th overall mission. Thirteen minutes from the target they were attacked by a fighter that took out their hydraulics, meaning they would have to open the bomb bay manually. They pressed ahead and were hit by a second fighter, causing the leading edge of the wing to catch fire. At 20,000 feet Don and the crew bailed out over the suburbs of Berlin. The Aussie pilot from Glenelg and the wireless operator from Yorkshire did not make it. The sky was filled with aircraft, exploding shells, searchlights and smoke. Don described the situation as ‘a bit daunting’. He landed in an elderly lady’s backyard, where police later arrived and took him and his Kiwi bomber mate away, with 200 to 300 people in the street waiting to lynch them. Don said it was his first drive in a Mercedes convertible.

After interrogation, they were sent to a camp, where there were 1,400 air force personnel in the main compound, including 100 from the RAF. After D-Day, things tightened up, and with the Russians approaching their position they were moved—first to a nearby port, where they were put aboard the Insterburg for a journey down the Baltic, where Don did not drink for four days. At port, some were chained together and sent by train to another camp. The rest, including Don, were run, not marched, along the road with prisoners dropping their gear in order to keep up. There was one guard for every three prisoners. The Germans’ plan was to get them to make a break for it into the woods, where machine guns were set up to open fire. Thankfully, the Allied camp leader could speak German and instructed everyone to hold their ranks. They were then put into confined quarters, nine to a group, for four weeks, after which time they were put back on the road and marched a further 1,000 kilometres to a location near Hanover.

Soon after the Allied advance guard came through, the war was over and Don made his way back to the UK. Don returned to Sydney in September 1945, saying it ‘needed a good coat of paint’, and his wife, whom he had married in London before his capture, followed in January 1946. Don took up his place once again at the MSB, where he found a sympathetic workplace, supported by colleagues who were also veterans and a supervisor who had lost two sons in the war.

Don and his wife lived together in the shire for the next 50 years, making their own contribution to building our local community together with so many other World War II veterans who joined Don in the shire after the war. Don’s wife passed away 11 years ago. Don remains an active member of the Cronulla RSL sub-branch where he is held in high regard, taking the opportunity wherever he can to pass on his own experiences for the benefit of future generations.

William ‘Bill’ Thornton was born in Western Australia in 1919 and grew up on a dairy farm before his family was evicted in the 1930s when, after a rabbit plague during Great Depression, they were unable to meet their interest payments. He left school at 14 and seven years later, in April 1940, with his father’s consent Bill joined the AIF. He travelled to the Middle East for training in the desert as an anti-tank gunner. His service took him to Bardia, Tobruk, Tokra—where his unit was visited by the then Prime Minister Bob Menzies—and then to Crete, in what he described as ‘the worst battle a person could ever go through’.

Despite having victories over the Germans in Brekleyan and Retamon, where Bill was stationed, his unit was defeated in Melamie. The night before Bill’s capture German tanks rolled into Retamon. They were ordered to evacuate to their last position, but Bill did not make it and was captured in a cornfield in May 1941.

After five weeks in a Turkish barracks in northern Greece, with barbed wire, poor food, searchlights, patrols, vermin and lice—and where escapees were punished by standing for hours in the sun—he was put onto a train to Germany. There were 50 prisoners per truck. Diarrhoea was spreading and sanitation was non-existent. Several prisoners escaped by jumping from the moving train. The Germans responded by promising to shoot the remaining prisoners if anyone else jumped. In November 1941, Bill was put in a 10-man working party where for six weeks they worked in summer clothes, with one blanket at night, in the middle of a German winter to drain a frozen swamp. Bill admits that if it were not for the arrival of the Red Cross packages that finally caught up with him and his fellow prisoners he doubts he would have survived.

Like my grandfather’s brother Len, Bill served out the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war working as an indentured farm labourer, during which time he broke both wrists and injured his back in an accident. The POW hospital had one doctor, two orderlies and 200 British and Australian troops needing care. Despite his injuries, he was then forced back to labour with a gun to his head.

At the end of war he marched for three weeks to get to Munich on four days of rations. He said he saw many terrible things along the way. One incident he relayed to me was when he saw two teenage girls accept a lift from a German convoy only to then observe an American fighter fly over and take the convoy out.

He came home to Australia and, in 1950, he married his wife, Nancy. They moved to the shire and lived there together for the next 52 years. Sadly, Nancy died in 2002. Bill studied accountancy and worked for the Department for Works in New South Wales as well as the federal Taxation Office. He was also a local coach for the Miranda Magpies soccer club.

Bill and Nancy had five sons and two daughters, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Bill will turn 90 next year and lives in Miranda. Some weeks ago, when I asked him at the Miranda RSL what message he wanted to relay about his time as a POW, Bill simply said, ‘I’ve seen too much injustice.’

Roy Kent was a POW held by the Japanese in Changi and then Kuching in northern Borneo. Roy and his elder brother were sent to an orphanage when he was only five years old, following the separation of their parents during the Great Depression. Eventually Roy and his brother were reunited with their mother after she remarried. They went to live in Newcastle, where Roy decided that school was not for him and he dropped out, aged 15 years.

Roy enlisted in the Army after the Dunkirk evacuation, when he was only 17 years and three months old. He had lied about his age, much to his mother’s annoyance, telling the recruitment officers he was in fact 21. After several months of training in Australia, Roy was sent to Singapore and, as part of the 2/20 battalion, headed north up the Malay Peninsula to Port Dickson.

After Pearl Harbor the Japanese landed at Kota Bahru near the Malaysian-Thai border. The Australian diggers found themselves with weapons that were totally inadequate to defend their positions. Orders were given to evacuate to Kranji airfield where every man was to get out as best he could because they were completely surrounded by the Japanese. Roy and several other soldiers loaded themselves into a truck and made for Kranji. Roy was lying on the floor of the truck and was hit in the arm by a passing bullet. Eventually the truck could go no further, as a bullet had hit the radiator, so they made for a casualty clearing station that had been established in a rubber plantation. Roy’s wound was treated and he was shifted by ambulance to the 13th Army General Hospital at Serang. During his stay in hospital, he watched the Japanese bombers and artillery blast Singapore, as he said, ‘to buggery’. He was now behind enemy lines.

After the surrender, the Australians were sent to Changi Barracks by truck. After his wound had healed, Roy was passed fit for a work detail. On 28 March 1943, just after Roy’s 19th birthday, he and his brother were put on E Force, which consisted of 500 men bound for Sandakan to reinforce B Force. They sailed from Singapore and arrived at Kuching on the island of Borneo. It was here that he saw out the rest of the war in the camp called Batu Lintang.

After the war Roy returned home and recommenced his employment with David Jones. He took on a variety of other jobs, but he soon found himself working as a barge master for the Australian Petroleum Company in Papua New Guinea. Roy eventually married Margaret. After the birth of their first child the couple returned home to Sydney in 1955. Roy found new employment with Stannard Brothers driving a workboat engaged with the construction of the Kurnell oil jetty, which supported the new Kurnell oil refinery. Roy was to work on Botany Bay in the shire for the next 30 years. For some of this time Roy and his family were living on the waterfront at Kurnell. Eventually he would buy a house of his own at Miranda with the benefit of a war service home loan. Roy and Margaret had two other children, one of whom they lost tragically at age 13. After his retirement, Roy and his wife, Margaret, travelled extensively in Australia and abroad. Roy is now 85 and he lives in Sylvania.

George Forwood was born in Ramsgate. He joined the AIF at 16 years of age in Martin Place. He said:

We used to see the troops sailing out through the heads and we used to wave to them and it just got you, and I decided then that I would go with them. I was that type of kid, always looking for an adventure.

George’s father did not approve as he was a First World War veteran, who had been gassed in France. George said he did not mince any words in telling him about what he should expect in war. George said:

My dad said he would go and see the army to get me pulled out. I said, ‘If you do that I will go and join up under a different name.’ Soon after, he told me he was quitting his job to join up and be with me. He went to the same training camp I was at but the day after I had left. Our trains passed in the night.

George was put in the 8th Division. He arrived in Singapore in 1941 and they were first attacked by the Japanese in December. George contracted scrub typhus and was in hospital when he was captured by the advancing Japanese. He said:

I was in a coma and, when I came to, the Japanese were bombing around the hospital. Because I couldn’t get out of bed and there was stuff flying all around me two sisters—

he said with a smile—

laid on top of me to protect me. Word came through that the Japanese were outside the hospital and they were going to come through and anyone who wasn’t a patient they were going to shoot. There was an Indian regiment and some of them ran into bed so they wouldn’t get them. The Japanese came in and tore all the blankets off us, took away the people who weren’t sick including the Indians and shot them.

George was then put in a prison camp after a fortnight and reunited with some mates who thought he was dead. George said, ‘After six weeks, our body muscles began to deteriorate because we were on just a rice diet.’ George contracted severe haemorrhoids soon after and had to be operated on by Australians doctors working without sufficient supplies. They didn’t have enough anaesthetic and the doctor was halfway through the operation when it wore off. He told the doctor he could feel everything, and he had to bite on a stick and have two men hold him down.

George’s next move was to Thailand to work on the Thai-Burma railroad. POWs were stuck in a rice truck on a train without enough room to sit down. They had turns to squat down. There were eight to 10 days of that, day and night. The train never stopped. He said:

If you wanted to go to the toilet you had to have your mates hold onto your arms as you went outside the door. You had just a bowl of rice for breakfast and dinner. Meanwhile anything that crawled or climbed in trees like monkeys you would pounce on and eat to stay alive.

When put to work on the railway, George said you always had a mate to share the work. If one was sick, the other would take over. This went on until the war finished. He said:

If you showed any sign of sickness you would get a belting because the Japanese didn’t like you getting sick. I fell from a bridge while putting sleepers on top of a bridge. When I came to, a Japanese guard said to me, ‘Back to work,’ and I had to get on with it. There was no place for anybody who was sick. If you were sick and could not go to work you were put on half rations.

He went on to say:

A lot of the poor buggers who went down on half-rations didn’t survive. Your body just wouldn’t keep going. You never thought of death, even though it was all around you. We could be talking together at night time and wake up in the morning and there’s no response. Your mate is dead beside you. You become hardened to it. I was so young; it was an experience for me. I grew up in the prison camps. I went from 17 to 21.

When the railroad was finished, George was kept there with 50 Australians to do the railway maintenance work. George and his fellow prisoners endured being bombed and machine-gunned by Allied forces during this time.

During the railroad construction, POWs built a bridge and deliberately did it so poorly that when the first train went over it would fail. However it turned out that the POWs were loaded into the first train to go across, and George was on board. He said he could hear the wood creaking and thought they would plunge to their deaths. Eventually they made it over the bridge and apparently it stayed up for years.

At the time of the surrender, a Japanese captain came over and he told them the war was finished. He said, ‘Very sorry for what you have been through.’ In commenting on this, George simply said, ‘which was a lot of BS, you know’. They were eventually moved to another camp and allied supplies were dropped from planes. A couple of days later, they were in bed and could see a lot of women coming down in uniforms. As it turned out it was Lady Mountbatten. She said, ‘What’s wrong with you boys? Are you all sick?’ One of George’s mates, who was naked, got up to show her. She was devastated and had tears rolling down her face, and she made sure they all had clothing. George also met Admiral Mountbatten not long after, describing him as ‘a real gentleman’.

On his return to Sydney, George was met by his father, mother and younger brother at Central Station. He did not recognise them. George could not sleep when he returned. He would just sit in the corner of the room and smoke. He could not stand anyone near him. George first went back to live with his family in Mortdale, arriving when he was 21. He eventually attained work as a linesman on telegraph poles and spent most of his life in the St George district before moving to the shire.

George still drives his car around town and lives with his wife, Norma. They have been married for many years. George is 83 years old. George said:

Living in the jungle, you become an animal, but you do change eventually. I still have dreams about the war. They are things you can’t get rid of, because you have no idea how a human being was treated by another human being. I haven’t been back there and I wouldn’t go back. There’s too many memories and I lost too many mates up there.

Before concluding, I would like to honour a number of others. I do not have the time to tell their stories in this place but their stories are equally remarkable. These men are currently with the Miranda and Cronulla RSL sub-branches: Alex Barker, Basil Barrett, Joe Byrne, Bob Chapman, Jack Howland, Rudy In Den Bosch, Alfred Jacobs, Mic Jordan, Herbert Lamb, Paul Lavallee, James Lillington, Alick Moroney, Bill Minto, John Salter, Ron Smith, Arthur Toms and Eric Wilson.

In closing, I would like to quote Sir John Carrick, a former senator for New South Wales, a former distinguished minister, the longest-serving General Secretary of the Liberal Party of New South Wales and, most significantly, a former Japanese POW. In an article some years ago he said:

For those of us who were there and survived, a great and enduring learning experience. For everyone, a reminder that totalitarian forces must not be allowed to grow strong. Lest we forget! Forgetfulness and complacency are the rogue genes of democracy.