Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial Dedication Anniversary
Ballarat, 9 February 2014
Guest speaker: Dr Rosalind Hearder, Department of Veterans’ Affairs
Senator The Hon. Michael Ronaldson, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs; the Hon. Catherine King; the Hon. Mr Simon Ramsay MLC; Mayor Joshua Morris; Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO RAN; Memorial Trustees; distinguished representatives of the ADF, POW organisations and RSL clubs; ladies and gentleman. It is a real honour for me to be here today, particularly to be speaking before this distinguished group of former prisoners of war.
I would like to start with a story. One day many years ago, I was interviewing a former Australian prisoner of the Japanese in the Second World War, for my PhD research. After several hours of talking about his POW experience, I asked him what he thought about a young person like me wanting to write about this topic. He leaned towards me and said very gently, ‘Girly, you’ll never get it right!’
Regardless, remembering these stories is important. What I love most about military history is that it is one of the best ways to understand why people behave the way they do. Put a man or woman in extreme and abnormal circumstances – such as those found in captivity – and you tend to quickly see the best (and sometimes the worst) in them. This complexity is what makes us human, and makes us reflect on how we would behave in the same situation. Would I be the kind of prisoner who would give my last food to a sick comrade even though I was starving, or stand between someone who was being beaten and an abusive Japanese guard? If I was an Australian medical officer in a German POW camp, would I stand up to my captors, demanding to be allowed to tend to ill Russian prisoners to whom the Germans were denying medical treatment?
It is very appropriate that this Memorial is here, because as I’ve heard before, ‘All roads lead to Ballarat’. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is a Ballarat native, and many Australians can trace a family connection to this area. Many Australians can also trace a connection to a POW, including me – my great-uncle John Wischer was a prisoner of the Germans during the First World War.
Only last night I visited Jack Higgs – a wonderful Victorian who spent his years in Japanese captivity as a medical orderly caring for desperately sick POWs, and helping some of the 106 magnificent Australian POW doctors who kept so many men alive against the odds. One of those medical officers was of course Ballarat’s own Sir Albert Coates. Jack is a sprightly 94, and is married to Beth, who hails from nearby Buninyong. Many of you will know one of their sons, Stephen Higgs, who is here today, and is the Headmaster of Ballarat Grammar. All roads lead to Ballarat!
I love this memorial because it commemorates every Australian who was a prisoner. It honours those who died as prisoners, often in terrible and desperate circumstances. But it also recognises that for the thousands of survivors, their memories and the legacies of captivity did not stop when their wars ‘officially’ ended. In many ways, the decades that followed were just as hard for survivors as they tried to readjust to a normal life and society – one that rarely understood what they’d endured. This is what I want to reflect on today.
The experiences of surviving POWs from the Boer War and First World War were effectively eclipsed in the enormity of these devastating conflicts. While the stories of the more than 20,000 Australian survivors of German and Japanese camps in the Second World War are comparatively well-known, they were nevertheless largely misunderstood for decades.
Many people in the post-war period could not reconcile an Allied victory with the horror of so many Australians suffering in captivity. The Australian public was also unable to understand the unique suffering and deprivations of the nearly 7000 service personnel who survived European POW camps, constantly and unfairly comparing their war experience to their counterparts in Japanese camps.
Korea is often referred to as the ‘forgotten war’, so imagine how forgotten those 28 Australian survivors felt who were captives of the North Koreans, returning to a nation which was still exhausted from the Second World War only a few years earlier.
But the survivors did not forget. After the Second World War ended, families of returning POWs were advised by military authorities not to ask them about their experience, believing that not discussing it would help survivors put the experience behind them. The Repatriation Commission felt at the time that ‘[A POW] should not be encouraged to regard himself as a palpably abnormal person, with a spirit scarred, a mind warped or a body weakened by his experiences.’ It was also thought that ex-POWs should not be made to feel ‘different’ from non-POW returned servicemen and women.
A leading Sydney psychiatrist stated at the time, ‘At present neurosis among prisoners of war is minimal and what has occurred is mild in character and easily cured. Proper rehabilitation would successfully prevent any unusual degree of nervous illness amongst this group of men.’ Of course, many survivors were not eager to share their stories right away. Jack Higgs recalled after reuniting with his parents, ‘What I remember most … was that we could find so little to talk about; Mum just sat beside me with her hand on my knee, and Dad did his best to conceal his tears.’
Although by the time they were reunited, most POW survivors had gained weight, and for the first time in years had received well-supplied medical care, their altered, aged appearances were a shock to their families. Survivor Bob Rolls of the 2/29th Battalion, only 19 years old in 1945, was looking for his father at the Melbourne Showgrounds. Bob spotted his father, walked up to him and said, ‘G’day, mate.’ His father responded, ‘Hello, Digger. Welcome home. I’m looking for Bob Rolls. Do you know him?’ Bob replied, ‘Yes, Dad. I know him.’
Memories would often return at night, and at unexpected times. Former American POW orderly Griff Douglas worked with dysentery patients on the Burma-Thai Railway. Part of his duties involved washing their soiled blankets every morning in the nearby river. Years after the war, he could not change his new daughter’s nappy without being sick.
On a lighter note, Lt Col Cotter Harvey, an Australian medical officer, built a machine in Japanese captivity from lawn mowers and motor car pistons which churned out gallons of crushed grass extract. The ‘grass soup’ he gave to his patients provided the much-needed vitamin riboflavin. Harvey wrote wistfully after the war, ‘As I mow my lawn these days, I think sadly how much riboflavin is going to waste.’
For many former POWs, post war physical and psychological problems took a significant toll on their families. Depression, restlessness and moodiness required a lot of emotional support and understanding, such as panicking at the sound of overhead aircraft, hoarding food, and tensions with children who did not feel they had father figures for several years of their childhood – even if their fathers were present. Rates of substance abuse and broken marriages were high.
There was also little attention from the medical community regarding the legacies of captivity until the 1980s. For example, in a landmark 1980 study of 600 British ex-POWs of the Japanese, 128 still presented with diseases from captivity. Twenty per cent were still infested with strongyloides worms – many told by civilian doctors that the symptoms were simply due to ‘stress’. One subject still had rib fractures from a beating received in captivity nearly 40 years earlier.
A 1984 study of 2000 Australian ex-prisoners of the Japanese (conducted by a group of former POW medical officers) similarly showed the lasting damage of captivity. Fifteen per cent had permanent vision damage from the years of malnutrition, a quarter had chronic respiratory illness and skin diseases, and half had back and neck problems from forced labour and beatings while in captivity. Several still suffered from recurrent malaria and premature senility.
An international study in 1986 compared psychiatric illness in ex-POWs of the Japanese and non-POW veterans of the Pacific campaigns. The researchers noted that although the experience of both groups was potentially very traumatic, that of ex-POWs was ‘almost incomprehensible’.
Other studies described former POWs of the German and Japanese ‘who cannot sleep at night, who have separate bedrooms to their wives and whose children can’t understand why they become so irritated about simple things’. Some survivors were less able to cope with work-related stress and responsibility, had poor concentration, or simply found working indoors too claustrophobic.
Here is a typical story about an 80 year old former POW of the Japanese, who never discussed his captivity experiences. His wife saw its lasting psychological impact one day when her husband heard a Japanese tour guide shouting to gather a group together. Hearing the man shouting in Japanese, her husband turned and ran down the street. She found him hiding in a nearby alley, shaking and overcome with fear.
One Australian I interviewed spent years in a German POW camp during the Second World War, living in constant terror. Although he gave a false name to his captors, he feared every moment they would find out he was Jewish. He carried this memory of fear throughout his post war life.
One former POW doctor, reflecting on his POW experience after many decades said, ‘I think the whole thing isolated me and I’ve been isolated ever since.’ Before talking to me, he had never discussed his experiences, even with his family.
For survivors of captivity, Anzac Days and ceremonies at memorials such as this were often their only chance to gather and talk to each other – the only people who understood. There are unbreakable bonds of group loyalty between Australian ex-POWs, and survivors are often reluctant to publicly criticise each other. This is of course only when it comes to Australians – it is always open season on the British! Lifelong friendships were forged in captivity, even with captors. Lt Col Glyn White, a senior Australian medical officer, became friends in a Japanese POW camp with a Korean guard, Kim Yung Duk. He taught the guard English and in exchange, the guard smuggled medication to him and protected doctors from other guards. In 1969, White happened to pass through South Korea and tracked down the former guard. White wrote that apart from meeting his wife again in 1945, ‘I don’t think I have ever experienced such an emotional reunion’. After a friendship that lasted many more years, White gave the oration at his former captor’s funeral.
For survivors of captivity, some aspects of post war life were common across all wars. For the rest of their lives, they shared an intense appreciation of basic values. Most experienced varying forms of post war health problems – both physical and psychological. All grieved for friends and comrades they had lost in terrible circumstances.
I am proud to work for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs because it is one of the best veteran care systems in the world, in a country that recognised earlier than most that the Australian people had a duty to care for the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and to care for those who survived to carry the memories of their comrades.
Here at the 10th anniversary of the Ballarat POW Memorial’s dedication, we imagine what these 36,000 men and women endured during their particular wars, and in the aftermath. We may never ‘get it right’, but places like this remind us to never stop trying.