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Wednesday, 4 December 1996
Page: 6637


Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs)(12.45 p.m.) —I rise to speak about the extraordinary life of Harry Laurence Ward, a surveyor and ex-prisoner of war. He was born in Condamine in Queensland on 6 November 1902 and died in Taringa in Brisbane on 7 November 1996.

When the Second World War ended with the surrender of the Japanese, among the many starving and emaciated prisoners of war who were repatriated back to Australia was Harry Ward. At the time of the fall of Singapore, Harry was a civilian and a volunteer member of the Singapore Royal Artillery. This was a militia unit he had joined in 1928, three years after he had taken up a position with the Malayan government as a surveyor.Harry Ward was to spend 28 years of his life in Malaya, three of them as a prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma-Siam railway.

The second child of the three children of George and Georgina Ward, Harry received his primary education from his father, a schoolmaster at Wondai school, until in 1915 he went as a boarder to the Brisbane Grammar School where he decided to become a surveyor. After being articled to a staff surveyor in 1919 and engaging in pioneering surveying in various parts of Queensland, camping out in very hard conditions, he changed his articles in 1922 to a private surveyor at Kingaroy and then, in 1924, to the Brisbane City Council for the formal tuition necessary for his professional qualifications.

In 1925 he took up a position with the government of Malaya, where he was to live for the next 28 years. He married Jean Smyth, a Brisbane girl, in Singapore at St Andrews Cathedral in 1928. Jean had been trained as a nurse at the Brisbane General Hospital, and Harry met her at a tennis party. Their first home was 20 miles from the railway in a remote place called Kuala Pilah, to which Harry returned once a month from distant survey camps in the Malayan jungle. Between 1930 and 1942, Harry served in a number of positions throughout the Malay peninsula. Life was good in those far off days in the atmosphere of the British Raj, with cricket and tennis and balls and parties.

It was not destined to last, for in 1942 the Japanese invasion was to change everything. Their two boys were luckily out of harm's way at primary boarding school in Australia, and Jean and their small daughter were evacuated by P&O ship in time to reach Australia safely. Harry, as a volunteer in the militia, remained and was imprisoned by the Japanese. The next three years were to be the most traumatic of his life, and also for his family, who did not find out until the end of the war whether he was alive or dead. My wife vividly remembers the day when she, as a little girl, saw Jean out in the garden at Harry's home at Mount Gravatt weeping and showing my wife's parents the letter she had received telling her that Harry was alive.

After a period in Changi prison, the Japanese told the prisoners they were to be transferred to a holiday camp and to bring any musical instruments they would need to entertain themselves. The `holiday camp' was the infamous Burma-Siam railway, and they were taken there by train and cattle trucks. At 40, Harry was older than most of the other POWs. Had he revealed he was a surveyor, he would have no doubt received preferential treatment from his Japanese captors because his professional knowledge would have enabled them to speed up the construction of the railway—and certainly, as Harry said, by a different and much better route.

Such was his character that he remained silent and did nothing to assist the Japanese. He worked shift in a POW gang, digging with the others and suffering the privations and beatings that they all received. The fact that he had lived in the tropics for many years, together with his physical toughness, no doubt helped him cope. As with all prisoners, he suffered from starvation, malaria, beri-beri and tropical ulcers and was reduced to a weight of seven stone.

Only 10 per cent of the railway crews were allowed to be ill at any one time. If too sick to work, they were set to the task of catching flies—at least 200 a day. Harry outsmarted his captors by cutting each of his catch in two to obtain his quota. No wonder that, with this pettiness and his understanding of the Japanese philosophy whereby soldiers who surrendered were treated with contempt, he detested them and for the rest of his life was, sadly, unable to tolerate Japanese people.

Harry Ward was repatriated home in October 1945. The authorities of the day decided to send the ex-POWs home by the longest route in order to `fatten them up' before their shocked families could witness their dreadful condition. The result was that Harry came home to Brisbane South via the Western Australian coast. Weary Dunlop, one of his colleagues in the camp, came via the Queensland coast. In fact, one of Weary's first acts upon setting foot back on Australian soil was to go to Harry's home at Mount Gravatt, where he had his first real bath and was fed and feted by Jean and the children.

The following year, in May 1946, Harry returned to his old job in Malaya with Jean, and in 1950 became chief surveyor of Singapore. He was responsible for much of the surveying work necessary in that war devastated community. He became very active in encouraging Malayan, Indian and Chinese students to study in Brisbane. This was subsequently to add another facet to his life in later years.

Harry returned from Singapore in 1952 and spent the next few years on the land with his sons. In 1955 he joined Thiess Brothers as a surveyor on construction sites and on the coalfield development in the Blackwater and Moura areas. In 1962, the Thiess coalfield interests became a joint venture with Peabody and Mitsui. Harry felt he could not work for his former captors and left the firm. There was a short period of work in 1965; then for the next 17 years Harry worked at the University of Queensland as a full-time demonstrator and tutor in surveying.

This he and Jean found particularly fulfilling as their home became an open house to the students—particularly the many that came from Malaysia—where the food was as they knew it at home and where conversation was in fluent Malay. Many of those students are now the leaders in their professions, both in Australia and overseas, and Harry was very proud of them. Up until the day before he died, which was his 94th birthday, he was getting visits from former students from both Australia and the east who loved and revered this gentle, unassuming man. Many of the young students—Malays, Chinese and Indians—referred to him as their father.

In 1985, Jean died after a long illness, nursed by Harry at home during that period. In 1992, the whole family went to Singapore to accompany Harry to the 50-year war memorial service at Kranji Cemetery. The week before the service, they had all gone to Bangkok and then to the River Kwai, where they stayed in a hotel on the edge of the river, taking Harry on a journey of remembrance to Hellfire Pass and other places by road, by bus and also by train over the tracks that he had helped to build so long ago. On their return, he went to live with his daughter as he became physically frail, although his intellectual abilities never deteriorated.

Harry Ward maintained his interest in the surveying profession until the end of his life. He was particularly pleased to receive the emeritus certificate as a licensed surveyor from the surveyors' board and honorary fellowship of the Institution of Surveyors, Australia. More recently, he had an institution prize named after him—the first is to be awarded in December this year. He was the oldest licensed surveyor in Australia and also a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

Harry Ward was a devoted family man. He is survived by his two sons, Keith and Douglas, and his daughter, Shirley White, 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.