Australian Parliamentary House of Representatives
AUSTRALIA PRISONERS OF WAR
Mr. WILLIAMS. — Following the recent escape of Australian soldiers from a Japanese prison ship which was torpedoed, does the Acting Prime Minister intend to make a statement to the House concerning the inhuman and barbarous treatment of Australian prisoners of war by our cruel and ruthless enemy, the Japanese ?
Mr. FORDE.—That matter is now the subject of consultation with the Governments of Great Britain and the United States of America, and I am not in a position at present to make any statement about it.
Mr. FRANCIS.—Having regard to the sinking of ships on which Australian and pritish prisoners of war were being transported, can the Attorney-General say whether, under The Hague Convention, or any other international agreement, there is provision for the special narking of vessels carrying prisoners of war. If so, will he ascertain whether such markings appeared on the enemy vessels which have been sunk ?
Dr. EVATT.—I shall look into the latter, and furnish a considered answer later.
AUSTRALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR
Mal-treatment by Japanese
Mr. ANTHONY. — Yesterday, I asked the Acting Prime Minister whether, in the light of information elicited from men recently rescued, he would make a statement concerning the treatment of prisoners of war in the hands of the Japanese, and he promised, that a statement would be made to-day. Does he propose to make such a statetment.
Mr. FORDE. — Negotiations are still in progress between the Commonwealth Government and the Government of Great Britain. If I receive a cable from the Government of Great. Britain before the House adjourns today a statement will be made. If not, the statement will be delayed until next week.
1838 Rail Travel Priorities REPRESENTED
AUSTRALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR.
Mr. ANTHONY. — I ask the Acting Prime Minister whether it is a fact that some weeks ago a number of Australian prisoners in the hands of the Japanese were rescued from a vessel which was torpedoed. I understand that that vessel was transporting Australiana who had been captured in Singapore to Japan. If that be the case, has the Government any good reason for refusing to inform the public of the circumstances in which prisoners in the hands of the Japanese are being treatcd or of the lots of Australian lives through the sinking of that vessel ? Such information would relieve considerable public apprehension on this matter.
Mr. FORDE .— This matter has been the subject of consultation between the Commonwealth and British Governments, and a statement upon the subject will be made at an early date in the House of Commons. I hope to be able to make a similar statement to this House before the conclusion of the sittings this week.
17 November, 1944
AUSTRALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR.
Flinders Naval Collage — International Air Services — Case of David J. Bourke — Austealian Army: Field Butchery Unit at Katherine — Transport of Stock, Fodder and Wool.
Mr. FORDE (Caprieornia — Acting Prime Minister and Acting Minister for Defence) [3.21]. — I move —
That the House do Adjourn
The house will be aware tliat 92 Australian and 60 British prisoners of war were rescued by American submarines from a Japanese transport which was torpedoed on the 12th September, 1944, in the Western Pacific. All but one of the Australian survivors has now arrived in Australia. As the result of the skilled attention given to them overseas after tlieir reseue, and immediately on their arrival in Australia, the men gencrally are in good physical condition, and with few exceptions are now on leave.
These men were among about 700 Australians who, with about G00 British prisoners of war, had been embarked in a Japanese ship at Singapore on the 4th September, 1944, for transfer to Japan. The accommodation provided for the 1,300 men consisted of a space in the ship's second hold. This spacc, which carried a sign reading "Accommodation for 187 steerage passengers”, had been horizontally subdivided by a false fioor. Thus the Japanese created two decks, neither of which had a ceiling height in excess of 4 feet. The Japanese Orders were that all prisoners of war should be confined below deck, and this meant that in the subdivided, each man was allotted a space of only 2 square feet.
Men had just enough space to sit up. When they wanted to sleep, they had to rest on one another. Their bedding was their personal clothing, and one blanket, usually of poor cotton material. The air below was fetid and stifling hot, as the port holes were sealed, and the only ventilation was through the hatch. The Japanese commander refused to permit the erection of wind sails, which were found in the hold and would have provided some slight relief for the men below.
Because of the physical impossibility of cramming all the 1,300 men into the hold, the Japanese commander was forced to agree to several hundred men sleeping, and living on the deck, together with the sick men who had to be brought up for aid and treatment by the two Australian doctors who accompanied them. As many as 100 men at a time were ili, and the price which they paid for fresh air was that they had to remain throughout the day exposed to the tropical sun, and at night had to sleep on the bare deck with only one thin blanket for covering.
The sufferings of the men were intensified by a shortage of drinking water. The rice ration, and often the stow, was cooked with salt water, and this made the prisoners even thirstier. Despite the shortage, the Japanese guards freely used fresh water to wash themselves, and did so in view of the prisoners. The food ration for each man consisted of three-quarters of pannikin of rice three times a day, with an added spoonful of sugar in the morning. and a small tin of watery fish stow at night.
While in an escorted convoy, the sliip with other Japanese vessels was torpedoed about 5.30 a.m. on the 12th September, 1944, on a calm sea. The Japanese panicked. Most of them hurriedly left in the ship's lifeboats, but others jumped overboard. None displayed the slightest interest in the fate of the prisoners of war. In the darkness, the Australiana and the British, under the direction of their officers, effected an orderly evacuation of the ship. They went overboard progressively, after they had thrown into the sea all the rafts and wooden articles which would float. About 75 per cent, of the men had life belts. The Japanese also had issued to each of the prisoners a block of crude rubber for use as a lifebuoy. It was found that the blocks were useless.
The men hsd been in the sea only a short time when the Japanese destroyer escort dropped depth charges in a counter attack against the American submarine. Unfortunately, the explosion of the depth charges affected many of the men in the sea, greatly reducing their chances of survival. The Japanese destroyers then put out boats to rescue any Japanese on rafts, but these refused to pick up any prisoners of war. The Japanese, after rescuing their own nationals, waved derisively at the Australians. The latter, who had been in the water for some hours, showed their magnificent Spirit by singing "Rule Britannia". The evidence given by the rescued men makes it clear beyond all doubt that the Japanese intended to leave ail prisoners of war to drown. During the first day, there were repeated attempts to organize rafts into groups. Men swam from one raft to another, seeking friends. Groups of Australians, gathered together for mutual assistance. In the first night, the men were mainly in large parties.
On the second, third and fourth days, many men, including those affected by the depth charges, were lost from the rafts, most of which were very slippery owing to having become coated with oil from a sunken Japanese tanker. Between the afternoon of the fourth day and the evening of the sixth day, the survivors were rescued by American submarines, the commanding officers and crews of which showed great skill and courage in their conduct of the rescue operations. The Australians rescued consider that they can never praise too highly the treatment they received aboard the American submarines after they were rescued. They were then in an emaciated and often semi-delirious condition, having spent days in the sea without food and water, and in many instances without clothing. On the submarines, the rescued men were washed free of the black oil which covered them, wrapped in blankets, and given every medical attention and nourishment. They say that officers and crew acted as mothers and sisters to thiem. The submarine crews, as they came off duty, spent the whole of their rest periods cooking food, and feeding, shaving and washing the survivors; They also gave them complete outfits of clothing. The pharmacist mates on all vessels worked almost without sleep for daya.
At an advanced island base, at Guadalcanal, and on American ships which brought the Australians home, the utmost attention and kindness was bestowed on the survivors.
After the men had been accommodated at a convalescent home in Australia, opportunity was taken to have them compile lists of their comrades who had been on board the sunken transport, and also to obtain a first-hand story of how the Japanese have treated Allied prisoners of war in Burma and Thailand.
The rescued men were a part of a force of Australian prisoners of war transported in May, 1942, from Singapore and Java to various parts of Burma, under the same conditions as existed on the transport that was sunk. After, employment in Burma, mainly on aerodrome construction, the Australians were transferred to a camp at Thanbyuazat, at the northern end of the projected Burih - Thailand railway. By October, 1942, thousands of Australians and other Allied prisoners of war were at work in the jungle. At intervals of several months, they were transferred to camps deeper in the jungle as the railway progressed.
The men in the jungle camps lived in bamboo huts, thatched with palm leaves. Many slept on bamboo tier floors, but in some camps where there were no floors, the men improvised beds out of bags and bamboo poles to keep away from lice and bugs. Each man had only one flimsy blanket. From April to October, 1943, tropical rains penetrated the roofs, and turned the camps and hut floors into a sea of mud. Clothing deteriorated, no issues being made by the Japanese, and many of the men wore only a loin cloth, sometimes with one other garment. Boots were worn out and not replaced. Many lived and worked without boots for months. food consisted of a pannikin of rice and about half a pint of watery stew three times a day. Endeavours were made to supplement the ration with native foods and edible roots. The issue of soap was one small piece about every six months.
Each day there was usually a sick parade held by an Australian medical officer, but if it resulted in an insufficient number of men being available for the work, a Japanese doctor would make a casual inspection of the sick, and order to work all men who had no visible disease. Often men with very high temperatures would be forced to work. Australian doctors did their utmost for the sick men, but owing to absence of drugs and facilities, sickness and deaths were inevitable. Main causes of death were malnutrition, dysentery, malaria and exhaustion, and in some places, cholera.
Hospital cases had to be accommodated at each camp until, after lengthy delays, they were evacuated to a base camp at Thanbyuazat. The hospital was similar to the work camps, but more strongly constructed. Rations were somewhat better because native supplies were obtained.
Allied surgeons used mainly improvised instruments. Only local anaesthetics were available, even for the removal of limbs. Large numbers of the patients had I tropical ulcers, often from the knee to the foot. Many such cases had a leg removed and a large percentage died. The skill and devotion shown by the Australian medical officers in these circumstances have been magnificent.
Actual work on the railway consisted of cutting through virgin forest, levelling a fly track, making embankments and cuttings, building bridges and finally laying and ballasting the track. Prisoners of war wore also employed in the ballast quarries. All the work was done with crude tools and involved a maximum of physical effort. As camp strengths diminished owing to deaths and illness, the remaining men had to work longer hours. Shifts thus increased from twelve hours to eighteen hours a day, sometimes exceeding 24 hours of continuous work. Work through the night was done by the light of lamps and torches. Meals were brought by semi-fit men. Work continued in all weather.
Each camp had a Japanese officer or sergeant in charge, with about 30 guards supervised the work. The guards mal-treated the prisoners of war at the slightest pretext. Bashings usually heavy blows on the head, sufficient to knock over the prisoner of war. Another punishment was to make a prisoner of war stand holding a heavy piece of wood above his head for two to five hours. Sometimes the prisoners of war were made to stand to attention for several days. The guards, who were Koreans, almost invariably behaved with the utmost brutality, having learned their lesson from the way the Japanese had treated them.
When the line was completed in October, 1943, the prisoners of war who had constructed it were withdrawn through its southern terminus and were accommodated in Thailand. Some were transferred to Indo-China. It was from one party of these that a selection was made of the fittest for transfer to Japan. The men recently rescued belonged to this group. By their dauntless courage and amazing endurance, the survivors from the Japanese transport have performed a great service. They have given an eyewitness account of the manner in which the Japanese treat their prisoners of war, they have managed to compile an almost complete list of their comrades who were, shipped with them, and they have furnished long, lists of names of Australians who have died, mainly in Burma and Thailand, and of whose deaths the Japanese Government has not notified the Commonwealth.
It is deeply regretted that, at this stage, it cannot be stated how many Australians have died. An early estimate places the death roll in Burma and Thailand at about 2,000, out of approximately 10,000 Australians. It is hoped that this estimate will prove too high, but unfortunately it may ultimately prove to be an understatement. The careful collation and checking of all this vast amount of information will take a considerable time, but. all next-of-kin of men identified as casualties will be notified as soon as possible. Priority has been given to the preparation of the list of men not rescued from the sunken transport, so that their next-of-kin may be informed. As to the fate of the 600 Australians not known to be rescued from the Japanese transport, it would appear that the chance of survival of any of them would depend, upon their being able to reach land. That chance was very slender, but it is just possible that some may be alive. Only time will provide the answer.
While all this work is receiving attention, relatives of Australian prisoners of war are especially asked to refrain from making any effort to contact or question the rescued men who have been returned to their homes. These men have been through harrowing experiences, have splendidly co-operated with service authorities during a lengthy interrogation, and now richly deserve a peaceful and uninterrupted reunion with their families. It is considered that this information should be given to the public, even though the Government is profoundly aware of the anguish it will cause to the families of all Australians captured by the Japanese. It was considered that next-of- kin would-wish to receive an authoritative statement of the facts. It should be understood that the foregoing description relates particularly to accommodation and conditions under which prisoners were worked in Burma and Thailand. When the men were withdrawn from the construction of the railway, their conditions were somewhat improved. The description, moreover, has no reference to camps in Hong Kong, Formosa, occupied China, Korea and Japan, where it is believed present conditions may be relatively better, although still far below the standards we would desire.
Sir William Webb, who is the Australian Government's commissioner for the investigation of Japanese atrocities and breaches of the rules of warfare, has obtained evidence from a number of the Australian survivors. His conclusion is that the Japanese almost entirely disregarded the rules of warfare concerning prisoners of war, but he also expressed the view that it was only fair to state that there were times, mostly on work other than railway construction, when the Australians came under the control of humane Japanese commanders and had relatively decent conditions. Sir William Webb is continuing his investigations. A statement will be made later by the Minister for External Affairs (Dr. Evatt) in relation to the war crimes aspect.
I know that I speak for the people of Australia when I say that they share fully the sorrow and pride of their kith and kin throughout the British Commonwealth who are grieved by these sad events. The Government regrets that these disclosures' have to be made, but it is convinced necessary that the Japanese Government should know that we are in possession of the facts, and will hold them responsible. All the rescued men speak of the courage shown by their comrades. Even where, and in all circumstances, the Australians have maintained matchless morale. They have shown themselves undaunted in the face of death. The many others who have survived privation and disease in the jungle have develop spiritual and physical powers to triumph over adversity and over their captors.
Let us look forward to the day of the' release.
Mr Forde (Capricornia — Acting and Acting Minister for Defence [4.15]. — in reply — I have listened with great interest to what honorary members have said. The statement to Parliament dealing with prisoners of war was about the hardest statement I have ever had to make. I made it as the acting head of the Government Parlimentary House for the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council had given the fullest consideration to all aspects of the matter. The snbject was first considered by the Defence Committee consisting of the Chiefs of Staff, who, with the assistance of representatives of the Prisoners of War Relatives Association, drew up a statement which was submitted to the Government. We were in the closest consultation on this matter with the Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Regard was paid to the fact that tlie rescued men were back in Australia and were moving around among relatives with the result that all kinds of inquiries were being made and it was suggested that an authoritative statement should be issued by the Government in view of the possibility that distorted accounts might reach relatives of other prisoners. As I explained yesterday in reply to a question on this subject by the honorable member for Richmond (Mr. Anthony), an arrangement was made that similar statements on the matter should be made to-day in this Parliament and in the House of Cominons. Before I made my statement this afternoon, I was awaiting advice that a similar statement would be made in the House of Commons to-day. The whole matter, as I have said, has been considered, not only by the Defence Committee and the War Cabinet, but also by the Advisory War Council upon which the Opposition Parties have five representatives. After the subject was debated at length, the Advisory War Council decided that the best course for the Government to follow was to take the public into its confidence and plainly set out the facts.
Mr. White. — My point refers to the advisability of disclosing the fact that there was a number of casualties before the Government actually received from Japan the names of those who lost their lives. The bald announcement of loss of life caused considerable apprehension among the relatives of all prisoners of war in Japanese Lands.
Mr. Makin. — Those names may not be procurable until the end of the war.
Mr. White. — They come to hand periodically.
Mr. FORDE. — I repeat that it was only after the fullest consideration that this statement was released.