24/06/1912 - 14/10/2008
2/9th Field Ambulance
Australian 8th Division
Laurie Fitzsimons and Michael Fitzsimons
BOB Fitzsimons, a primary school principal whose view of his Japanese captors in World War II did not strictly conform with the widely held opinion of their brutality, has died in Wangaratta. He was 96.
Typical of his self-effacing approach, he said in his last days: "No eulogies at my funeral. Just say the poor old bugger did his best with the limited abilities that he had."
Bob was the fourth child born to Leslie and Louisa Fitzsimons at West Warburton; a fifth sibling was born at Yarra Junction, where Bob started school. In 1918, the family moved to Hawthorn, and at age 17 he began working for a local estate agent; when he was refused a pay rise, he resigned and became a junior teacher at Box Hill State School.
In 1932, he completed training as a primary teacher at Melbourne Teacher's College and the following year became head teacher at Nypo. Postings to Gigarre East and Whorouly followed. He was the only teacher at Whorouly, where he met Lorna Johnstone, and they were married in Wangaratta in January 1941.
Bob had enlisted in the army the previous June, and a week after the wedding he sailed for Malaya with the 2/9th Field Ambulance of the Australian 8th Division. At the fall of Singapore, Bob became a prisoner of war in Changi Prison, where he stayed until liberation in 1945.
He hardly ever spoke of his wartime experiences, but he documented his thoughts in a number of letters. Some of his observations contradict accepted beliefs about life in Changi. In September 1945 he wrote to his brother Jack: "Life hasn't been too bad and certainly not as bad as has been painted by some newspapers that have arrived in camp. It seems to me that the papers are trying to stir up enmity against the Japs by publishing atrocity stories and doleful tales of conditions in POW camps. No doubt some of these are true but they seem to forget that there are good and bad Nips."
In Changi, he used a scalpel to carve a chess set from the legs of a chair. He brought home a microscope that was used by the medical officers, and a diary that as children we often saw and perused in the shed. There were sketches and reminiscences of his time at Changi, but by the time its importance was recognised it had disappeared and has not been found. Bob was not particularly perturbed.
On discharge from the army, Bob returned to teaching in Whorouly — and his three sons Robert, Laurie and Michael were born. In 1951 the family moved to Derrinallum, and in 1954 to Waubra, near Ballarat.
These were country schools with often rudimentary facilities; the teacher was the "general factotum", which included having to empty the school toilet pans.
In 1958, his final teaching move was to Wangaratta West Primary School, followed by a three-year stint as principal of Yarrunga Primary School.
Bob's needs were simple. Even as vice-principal at Wangaratta, he opted to teach in a war-vintage Nissen hut rather than a new brick classroom.
A non-smoker and teetotaller all his life, he took up trout fishing in retirement, played tennis into his 80s and played his last game of golf at 93.
He is survived by his sons Robert, Laurie and Michael, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.