Archive number: 944
Preferred name: Snowy
Date interviewed: 15 September, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 01
Give us a brief outline of your story from the time you were born, to where you are now.
Born in Swan Hill close to Wellington station, which was rather a big station, and lived on that. I’d just about completed my primary
education when I was shifted off there to an irrigation block and lived on that until we shifted down to the Yarra Valley. We were on a farm between Healesville and Lilydale and was there until Dad went away to the war. By that time, I’d finished education. I was apprentice to…
Just pause there.
We were still living on the farm in the Yarra Valley until Dad
went away to the war. He’d been working with a different firm that had a production area not far from where we were and they shifted down to Balaclava, and that’s where they stayed during the whole war. And as soon as I was 17, I didn’t tell anyone, I just nicked off and joined the army. Put my age up to 21. Didn’t need my parents’ signature or anything. And went into the
original army division just as they were forming that towards the end of 1941 and that started off a lot of education. A lot of it was done at the RMIT [Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology] where they give you a lot of technical courses. And I left there accredited as a signals electrician in the armoured division. Then went up to Puckapunyal, done our complete tank training, qualified as a tank gunner,
tank commander, tank signaller, tank driver. They’d give you every one of those qualifications. And then shifted from there back down to Melbourne and they decided that they’d send us up to Malaya, tanks were to come to Malaya and no tanks arrived, they got sunk on the way. When the war was well
and truly on, they just took the 96 of us, which would all have done infantry training as well, and put us into a special infantry battalion they formed called X Battalion. We were called A Division of that battalion. The other fellows that were there to do the back-up, the ordnance blokes that had come down from Bendigo, some of those poor kids had been in the army for only 3 weeks and had no training whatsoever. They were put in a
C Company of the X Battalion. And from then on, we just become footsloggers and we acquitted ourselves, we had quite a few casualties, but not large numbers like the C Company. They got cut to pieces. They didn’t know one thing from another. It was a bit of a mismanaged affair, the whole thing, in our book.
When we were told the war was over, we didn’t wanna surrender. They didn't give us a chance to get across to Sumatra or anything. We had to go off to the prison camps, that’s what ended up. We ended up in the prison camps and marched out to Changi. We were only there about 6 weeks, and when they formed the first of the work parties to go anywhere, was A Force, which went up to Burma. They’d started building that infamous railway.
Prior to that we worked on several spots along where the coast, some at Victoria Point, some at Mergui. Most of us worked at Tavoy and then at last we worked at a place called Ye when we were building a motorway, which was on a large river that could supply materials to go up the Burma line. It was the shortest route through up to 3 Brigade across a wide, jungly swampland really.
When the first monsoon broke, all the bridges were built on that, and the culverts all was washed away, so it was abandoned and they shifted us up to Moulmein and we went out to Thanbyuzayat and started working on the railway and worked on it down to Konkoita in Thailand just clearing work there. But we built the permanent way and cuttings, bridges, embankments, all that sort of stuff all the way up along the line. Quarry rock for ballast and things like that.
Of that original party, I think there was about 1,000, in the ‘Green Force’ of A Force, which was a third, about 3,000 they took. I think we lost about 300 and something in that stretch from the Moulmein up to the border. From there when went down to, we shifted down to Bangkok and most of us were shifted then up through
Phnom Penh, which nowadays counts as Cambodia, and down on river-steamer to Saigon where we worked on various projects like rehabilitating the aerodrome like we’d done in Burma. It had been badly bombed, and things like that, loading ships at the piers and that sort of work. And we were there for quite some time. Our losses there weren’t very much. We lost a few, quite a few blokes, but some in bombing raids
from the Americans and that coming down from China, they were bombing us. And then without any warning, we were just told we were heading back. And we went back up the same, followed the same voyage down, by river-steamer up to Phnom Penh, then railed down to Bangkok and then railed down to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and down to Singapore. And imprisoned in the infamous River Valley Road camp, which has got a pretty bad history.
Worked on the docks most of the time there until they decided they were gonna build a dry dock. And we shifted to a little island off the coast of Singapore called Pulau Bukom Island, which was only a trip across on a Japanese barge every day and back, and started building this big dry dock. We dug the hole for it. And if you go back there today, you can see the
dry dockers working and going over the top in those big cable cars that run from the top of the hill above the dry dock down to what is now Sentosa Island, used to be Blakang Mati Island. So that’s one thing that’s stayed from our efforts. Then, without any warning, working on the docks one day, back to Singapore, we were just told we’d be going off on a sea voyage. We knew much later for Japan, the coal mines.
That’d be in about September 1944. And after about five days sailing, we knew we were heading towards Borneo, went along the coast of Borneo, more ships joined the convoy, then up north past Manila, more ships joined the convoy. We were a convoy of 15 ships, including 4 warships. I think it was about the fifth or sixth day all hell broke loose. And of those 15 ships,
only one of them survived. The rest were all sunk, including us. We had 1,300 prisoners of war on. It was very little killed in the actual torpedoing of our vessel. We got two torpedoes in the engine room, which caused a lot of damage to us. We were in the hold in front of the engine room, and it was only a bulkhead
between us. So we had a lot of wounded there. I got thrown across the bulk, I hit my head against the wall of the bulkhead, and I still carry the problems from that to this day. The back was really smashed around a bit. And the only way to get out of the vessel, there was no steps to get up, they were blocked away, and most of us went up, I went up the davits of where they used to load on things where they’d fallen down into the hold – greasy wire hawsers. I
climbed up that and got up on the deck. It was obvious the boat wasn’t gonna sink that fast, and I spent about two hours on it, got plenty of water, filled our water bottles, and went over when there was about 3 or 4 foot of freeboard left. And of those blokes that were there, they’d all gone into the water, we were the last few to go off and floated round. When we first broached and thought we’ll
try some water, it was just as salty as the sea water, because the corks in the water bottles were 3 or 4 years old. They didn’t do anything for it. They just let the salt water in, so that ended that, and after three days in the water, we started losing men on the first, second day. We were losing them pretty fast, and I had two mates with me, Bob and Snowy, and we had managed to get a Carley-float to ourselves which would
support us. And on the third night, both them died without even a whimper or sigh or anything, and in the morning they were just stiff. And I closed their eyes and shoved them off and thought, “I’m not staying with this mob” because they’d all started to drink salt water. And couple of my other mates had left, and I could still see them. I reckoned it would take me two hours to swim over there. So I headed off. It took me five hours to get there and that was on the fourth afternoon there, was about 5 o'clock.
A bloke come out and give me a hand, and they’d collected six Carley-floats and there was four of them there. I made five and I’d only been there a while, and another one, well-known to us, who later ended up as a professor in Perth University, still alive at 95 now, and he come drifting down, and we got together. And we were a pretty close-knit unit. We worked this out that about the
drinking salt water. And we thought, “Well, you’ve gotta have some moisture.” And we came to a consensus, that if you swilled it round in your mouth and spat it out, what was retained in your mouth would keep you going. And that’s what we did. About ever 2 or 3 hours, we’d just have a mouthful of water, swill it round and spit it out. And they’ve done a lot of research onto that sort of thing, I think it’s written in the safety manuals now. And the fifth day it came up very rough with
we didn’t know, but it was getting dark, and the seas got monstrous. We estimated they were 40 to 50 feet high at one stage. It was just like going up and down in a lift, and we had the six rafts tied together, so when they got up on top of a wave, they’d sort of fall down each side, and they’d stay together. That went on all night until about midnight. We got up on top, and where you were up on the top of the waves the spray was nearly
cutting your face. All of a sudden it ceased. There was no spray. The wind had gone. And then it twigged. We knew we were in a typhoon, in the centre of it where there’s no wind. It took about an hour later for the wind to come back, and it blew from the other way, but nowhere near that velocity. And about 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning, we could see the sun starting to rise, and the waves had dropped perhaps to about 30 feet. And we could hear engines.
And we had a big debate about whether they were aeroplane engines or ship engines or what. We couldn’t see anything. And then someone saw a submarine in the distance. They reckoned they were picking up survivors, so that gave us hope, and we waited out the whole day. The seas never abated down below 20 or 30 feet. They were still very rough seas. And about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, with a lot of noise and air blowing out, the submarine surfaced about 100 yards away from us,
the USS Queenfish. And I can remember one of our blokes said, “Oh, out of the bloody fry-pan into the fire. They’re Jerries.” And then this fellow yelled out, “Hi, can any of you guys catch?” And they fired a rocket line across and we knew if we could keep going for another half hour or so, we’d be all right. They managed to pull us into the side of the submarine and get us all down below. We were filthy, coated in oil. We were just like black fellows; you couldn’t tell we were Europeans.
And they cleaned that off in the showers. We were that thirsty we couldn’t swallow water. I can remember they don’t have a doctor on a submarine. They only have what they call a pharmacist. He suggested to the captain, in the captain’s cabin is a first aid chest that has a bottle of brandy in it, that they opened the bottle of brandy and put a bit of brandy in the water, see if we can get some water down. I remember them giving us this big glass of icy cold water with a bit of brandy in it,
put it in my mouth and kept swilling it round. Then all of a sudden you’d feel this cold thing trickle down your neck. Went to sleep for about 24 hours, I think. Got a bit of water anyway. We were on that for about 6 days. They searched for another 18 hours, 24 hours, and we were the last ones they picked up, the 6 of us. And then they headed away, and we ended up in Saipan in the Marianas Islands where they were still
fighting for Saipan Island, the Americans, and put us in a military hospital where we had a grand view of everything. We could see everything right from one of the highest points of the island. We saw the last tank charge they ever made there. We were told to have a look out, there was only one township on the island called Garapan. And you could just see these tanks hold down across, because blokes like us, we were interested, old armoured blokes. And when they heard a bugle call, they’d run out, they only got about 10 feet and they were
gone, blown to smithereens. And it was an interesting place. There was a lot of civilians on that island, Japanese civilians, and through the field glasses you could see them walk down to the cliffs, hold hands with children and jump off the cliffs. It was horrible. And then they surrendered, and we managed to go down on the beach and go along. And there was dozens of people where they’d jumped off the cliffs. And we found another spot, a big cave, and it had been a
Jap [Japanese] hospital. The Marines [United States Marine Corps] had gone in with flame-throwers and scorched the whole lot of them. They were all dead. I don’t know, it was a funny sort of coming out of what you’d been through before, lost so many men, then you come back and see it lost the other way and you were all right. From there, they took us by a destroyer down to the Guadalcanal. There was an American hospital there to get us fit. That’s our first contact with Australians. The captain comes over
and, I think there was about 68 of us survived, and he brought a lot of hats over. And that’s the first bit of Australian clothing we got, slouch hat, and plenty of Australian beer. We taught the Yanks [Americans] a lesson. They were drinking it hot, or any way they could get it. We used to take our two rationed little bottles of beer down to the beach, dig down there under the palm trees until we got to the real cold water and keep them there for half an hour
and they were nice, cold beers. Taught the Yanks, they learned something off us. But we were there until we were judged fit enough. And they took us by an old mine-laying destroyer, took us through the reef and we struck another hurricane. They ran back around Vella Lavella, sheltered behind there until it was safe to go over, and then we headed for, they told us we were going to Brisbane. We went down the Brisbane River. The thing I can remember first was passing all the ships they were loading.
And it had all been in the papers that we’d been given, and heard on the news services about them refusing to load ships to go to New Guinea with ammunition for the troops, so we weren’t too popular. I remember we passed this one, one of them yelled out, “Oi, who are you blokes?” And one of the blokes started going straight into them, “Buggers, you wouldn’t bloody well take things up to our mates” and all that. They all disappeared down below. But having got up there, I think they went under the Story Street Bridge,
I think, if I remember right, and there was a big welcoming home party there. And they pulled up at this spot and Ronny Miscampbell, he was later the head of Department of Veterans Affairs in Queensland, he was given the honour of first down the gang plank. He was a Queenslander. So Ronny went down the gang plank, and down the bottom was Tom Blamey on one side, and MacArthur on the other. He ignored Tom Blamey, he
shook MacArthur’s hands, which set the pace! None of us would shake Blamey’s hand because we’d only just recently before that how he treated Major General Bennett. So it was quite a homecoming. Very interesting. But they locked us away in a hospital up there. We were there several weeks. And Dad, he was fighting up in Labuan, I think. He got special leave to come down. He knew I was in Queensland. He couldn’t find me. My brother was flying Liberators out of Borneo, and he couldn’t find me.
He came back. And then they just went on home. And we all got put on an express service down to Sydney, and a Spirit of Progress down to Melbourne. And I think it was 60 days leave when we got home, after they’d give us all this thing, if we were crook we knew where to go and all that sort of thing. But when the 60 days leave were up, we were called back, and they were given the
option of immediate discharge or if you wanted to serve on, notified and what you wanted to do. And I think it was only about three of us decided that we wanted to get even with the Nips [Japanese], because they’d been pretty tough on us. So they kept us in. And of all places, what do they do with me? They sent me up, I spoke Japanese reasonably well, they sent me up to Murchison Prison Camp where the
survivors that had broken out of Cowra had been brought down to. I had to interpret for these Japanese prisoners and look after them. They weren’t much different to us in prison camps, the Japs, they used all their wiles and that. What I found was the best was their sake still. They made good sake. But they were treated like with kid gloves to what they treated us and we used to think
“Terrible that they were getting the same rations as the troops” whereas in the Japanese prison camps you were lucky if you got, for breakfast you might have got half a mug of what they used to call ‘papala’, which was a Dutch word. It was like rice boiled up just like gruel, and only a small amount. They were getting fed like fighting cocks.
I remember I took the mickey out of a few of them. Going down between the main part of the camp was divided into 4 segments like a big octagon sort of thing and there was just this one road went through the centre, and in the centre was a pill-box full of guards. Used to go down and check the blokes were all right in there. There’s three little Japs throwing rocks at a magpie on the electric light line going through the camp.
Course I bawled out in Japanese the swear words “Korta bugeru.” And made them, pointed up and said, “Ichiban bird, magpie, kiri.” ‘Kiri’ means salute. And they were saluting the magpie. God it was the biggest joke in the lot. About 3 days later, I was going back down, they see me coming and about 10 of them lined up, throwing stones. And as they were throwing stones, they go like this, “Kiri, kiri” to the Magpies.
So they weren’t much different to us. They had a sense of humour. But I stayed there until they were sending these Italian war criminals and some of them, the sickest, their prisoners of war back to Italy and they put me on the
draft to go on that. So I thought, “I’ll go and see a bit of the world” and went on that, which was an interesting trip. They went across to Naples, landed them all at Naples and they had the reputed head of the Mafia in Naples, one of the prisoners we took over. And he was a so and so and he wouldn’t eat his breakfast the day before because he was gonna eat good, Italiano food for breakfast. At that stage, we’d just gone up past the
island with the big volcano on it, the name’s gone now, but we got into Naples in time for their breakfast. I had to take papers back down there later on and I went looking for him. He sat up and he pushed aside, he won’t eat the food, this was on the boat, he wouldn’t eat the food he was getting for breakfast. Real English breakfast: mashed potatoes, sausages and green peas. He pushed that one side, “I’ll get good Italian food
at Naples” or Napoli as he called it. And he’s sitting down, and he’s got a little bit of toast sort of stuff, and a black coffee, that’s his breakfast and he’s going crook. And I told him to go crook. He was bloody stupid, he was.
Take us back to Naples.
How long were you in Naples for?
2 or 3 months before we shifted back to – the war ended, the European war ended – and we had to wait to get a berth on a boat with the New Zealanders who were shifted back to Mahdi Camp in Cairo, outside Cairo and there we stopped with them. They started getting some of their
blokes who’d been away from New Zealand for three or four years. They were getting ships. There’d be eight berths or something on a ship going through the canal that was going to Australia and New Zealand, and that was the way they started to get them away. And, cause we didn’t have any priority because we were the last to get over there, so we’d be the last to get back home. So we did all those trips I told you. Like we went up to Damascus and
saw most of Europe and the Middle East. You could go wherever you liked so long as you could prove to the old man you could get transport. And the Americans were great. If they had an airfield there and they had a plane going there, from Cairo, long as your leave pass was endorsed ‘Air Travel’ they’d put you on the plane and bring you back. It was fantastic. See a lot of the country that way. And then without any warning, we were told, “Get
ready, we’ve got a boat coming through.” And the whole of the bottom hold was empty, which was nothing unusual for a troopship. So that’s where we travelled back all the way down there back to Melbourne and got off at Melbourne. Most the people had got home by then, and the late getting out of the army. They tried to talk me into staying in, and I’d had it. I’d had over 5 years, which was enough.
It was, I don’t know, as far as education, you learned a lot about the world, you know, I’d been through most of the countries in Europe and Asia and I learned to speak a bit of Italian. I spoke pretty fluent Japanese. I can still understand Japanese fairly well. And it’s interesting, when I was in business, I used to occasionally meet up with the Japanese paper
salesmen or something like that, and he’d start talking and I just said, “I understand Japanese,” and looked a bit surprised about it.
So you went back to newspapers at that point?
Yeah, I had an apprenticeship to finish. I had 18 months, I think, of an apprenticeship to finish. And I finished that up in the Yarra Valley under the same company I was with.
Soon as I finished that, I used to buy into a business down here in Frankston and started the Western Port News and ran that for quite a while, and then got out of that and just concentrated on shifting the factory up to Brighton, concentrated on printing until it was time to get out. My health was deteriorating, and they made me TPI [Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pensioner], the
DVA [Department of Veterans’ Affairs]. All the old past was catching up with me fast, especially the back problem, and got out of the thing. Haven’t done much work since then. Just voluntary work. I was president of the Frankston RSL [Returned and Services League] for a long time. In fact, I did the job while they built the new clubrooms that are there now. Pretty
monstrous job. And then I got talked into going for the head of the Prisoners of War Association. I’ve been president of that for quite a while. I was national president up to about three or four years ago. Still president of the Prisoners of War Association and Prisoners of War Relatives Association, that’s just in Victoria, which is enough for right now.
More than enough. You’ve had quite a life.
Yeah, numbers are falling away fast. Very, very fast. In fact, of my own immediate group that I went up to Burma with, there are only about six of us still alive and that’s way beyond the odds.
An epic tale well told.
Now we’ll go back in more detail. Tell me about your childhood. What sort of thing did you do, and what sort of childhood was it?
Normal kid’s childhood. We played football, we played cricket, we used to box at school. Swimming was a very big sport up there along the river. Everyone learned to swim very early.
Help around the shearing shed when the shearing season was on. I was too young in those days to lift a bag of wheat. I used to watch all that. Used to love to get up early in the morning, the old steam traction engine, and a bloke named Harry Yates used to drive it, and he used to say, “Get up here with me.” And you’d get up with him and he’d throw this thing over you, and he’d throw a shovelful of coal in it, and chug along pulling the reaper and binder behind.
And that sort of thing was a great life for a kid in those days. Then when we shifted down onto the irrigation block, much the same thing although there, fishing took a large part of your life because you’d get plenty of redfin and those type of fish in the main channel. And if you caught fish, you’d tether them in the little channel, the one that ran through your own place, so when you wanted fish, you’d just go and pull one out. Fresh fish for breakfast. Used to be a lovely life in those days.
Plenty of fruit in orchards up there. Was quite a happy childhood. Did all my education up to, I think I got a merit, I think I got a merit education in, yes, up there. And then I got the senior levels down at Lilydale High school when we shifted down from Swan Hill to the Yarra Valley.
Tell me about your parents.
Dad was of a large family. His father came out from England with his mother. Mother died when he was only a youngster and he had a stepmother who they used to call ‘the Matron’. She was a bit of an autocrat. She’d box your ears quick smart quick. But Grandad was a nice bloke.
And on Mum’s side, her father, he was the local bloke that looked after the local cemetery and all those sort of things, and he was up in those sort of things, and her mother was a lovely old lady. She used to look after us and treat us pretty well. So we had a pretty happy childhood. I couldn’t go crook about it. I say any clip you got over the ears, you deserved it.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
Yes, I had two brothers and a sister. Ann’s since passed on. She was the oldest in the family. She passed on about three years ago. Ian, the brother next to me, he went into the air force after me and flew Liberators. He died about 18 months, two years ago. And Gordon, he’s still alive. He was too young for the war.
They’ve got their own children. They’re all still alive. They all keep in touch still. We’re a pretty well-knit family.
Was your father, or anyone else in your family, involved in the First World War?
No, Dad was too young. He was in the army when the war ended. He was too young. He didn’t get over there. All his brothers, he was the youngest of the family, Uncle Jim, Uncle Bill was killed in France, Uncle Perce he came back at the end of the war badly
wounded, and his son, Bill, Uncle Perce’s son Bill, I found his grave at Alamein. He was shot down over Alamein in the air force. And found his grave. I went up when I was on leave from Egypt awaiting the boat home. We went up and had a look round, struck two blokes in air force uniform come over. I knew the general area, I knew he was buried in the sort of rough place, and they were just doing all the headstones and all that.
And these two blokes come over and say, “Can we help you? Who are you looking for?” And I said, “I’m looking for a cousin, Bill Wheeler” and his unit. And they found it, so I found his grave. And he was about two or three years older than me. He got shot down over Alamein in the last battles of the war. He was a photographer, not only an air gunner. He was mainly intelligence-seeking.
Your Uncle Perce, he came back. Did he talk much about the war?
No, he didn’t talk much about the war. Uncle George never talked much about the war, Dad’s oldest brother. Both of them had been wounded. Uncle George, he used to walk around with two bullets in him until the day he died. He was a big, tall bloke. But even as a young bloke, he was still playing football. Good footballer.
We had a background, the whole family, of war. I think on Mum’s side of it, there were no male sons, only had brother Eddie, and he was too young. Dad was, well, he was in the army, but he didn’t get away to the war. The war ended before he could get sent over there.
As a young fellow, what was your impression of the First World War, and the
men who were in it?
We used to worship them. We used to reckon they were great that they survived it. We got taught a lot in the schools in those days of the First World War and because your whole family had been involved in it, you were proud of them. You never missed an Anzac Day march. You went down to see them, and I suppose it’s part of the Australian tradition in families, that if they were into the First World War, the kids automatically went into the Second World War.
They did within our family. The only one that didn’t go was Gordon, and Gordon was too young. When we came home, he was still only 14 when I came home. First time I came home, rather. It’s something that had to be done. If you survived it, I think you learned from it. I think you learned a lot.
George and Perce, how did they fare after the war?
They both worked for the State Rivers and Water Commission out from Swan Hill. And they fared all right. They brought up their families, the kids all went to war. Perce’s sons Jim and Jack, they both went to the war. They were both up in New
Guinea and survived. George never had any children. Uncle Jim didn’t survive, so he didn’t come back. I think you learned a lot from the war years, a real lot from their experience in the war, broadened your outlook. Up till then,
til you talked to them, you didn’t learn much about France and Europe. The world became a place that you could sort of say, “I’m part of a big expanse of people.
When you say ‘big expanse of people’, do you mean the British Empire?
Yeah, the British Empire in the main. When we went to school, we were taught to respect the British Empire. They used to have an
Empire Day when I went to school. I can remember that. In fact, I suppose, you met up with old school mates in the funniest of places in the army and that. And when I got sent up the Murchison to do the work with Japanese prisoners of war, the bloke who was up there, he played football against Dad. The year that I was, he was the headmaster of Tyntynder State School, which is just out of Swan Hill. So it’s only
a small world when you really look at it. He was in the First World War.
Did he boss you around like a headmaster?
No, he was a little bit suss [suspicious] of me. I was a bit of a wild one still in those days. And he called me up, and he took me to task or something. I was about 4 hours late from leave. The train didn't leave Melbourne in time, or something. Anyhow, I made it up. I used to nick down to the Waranga basin, which was just down from the
Murchison camp, and knock off a few duck. Be about a line of about 20 of them down on the water. You’d just go “rrrrr” with a Sten gun and you’d get half a dozen, take them back and get up there. I went up to his place this morning after they’d all been plucked and cleaned and said, “There’s two for the officers’ mess.” He said, “Where’s the rest?” I said, “Down in our mess. We’ve got 4, you’ve got 2. But we’ve got a lot besides more food than you.” He was all right.
We used to often give them fish. Go down the base and give them fish. Blokes had grown up in the country and knew where to go. We learned to live off the land. In the Depression years, we used a lot of duck and things like that. We used to fish. We always had fish tethered in the channel, mainly cod, and a few bream and a few redfin.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 02
Tell us what you were saying about learning about World War I?
As a child up there, because nearly all your family had been in the military during World War I, most of them had served in France.
And the kids that went to school with you, they all had someone in their family that had served in the war, or had lost their life in the war. And so it became quite a topic, and we liked to learn from our forebears what went on. And with Dad’s brothers and knowing that there’s one left over there from World War I, Uncle Bill, it became fixed
in your mind. You learned a lot more that way than you would out of a history book. It’d only be sort of piecemeal what you’d learn about where they fought. You wouldn’t learn about the other side of the line, the other side of the line that they were holding.
You didn’t really learn a big picture?
You learned the big picture in what you were taught in school. The part that stuck most was
the part you got told by your relatives. They’d experienced it, and it wasn’t second or third hand or out of a book.
So you did ask your relatives?
Yeah. They’d come and we’d go and ask them. Anzac Day coming on, quite often you’d have to write an essay on Anzac Day. It was much more used up by the schools when we were kids at school
than it is today. You always had a bloke from the local RSL come and talk to you, which was a big thing. I suppose that’s where they founded the RSL, founded the Anzac tradition was passed down to the first generation after World War I, and so it’s gone on and on and on.
What was your impression of stories that
they told? Were you horrified?
Because we were kids, I suppose, they didn’t tell the horrible side of it. But it made you think, “Why did these men do that?” And when you pieced it all together in your brain, if they hadn’t done it, what would have happened to Mum and the girls and everyone if they’d succeeded in their quest to conquer the world? And so it became an accepted part of your education
and you grew up with it. And I think growing up with anything like that is something that never leaves you.
What happened on Empire Day?
Empire Day at school was never as big as Anzac Day to me. We used to learn all about the Empire and that. It was more matter of fact stuff out of a text book. It was no one on an Empire Day to get up and
tell you the tales of where they were from and things like that in the First World War.
That was more exciting?
Yeah, that stuck in your mind more.
Did you sing the “God Save the Queen?”
Yeah. We always sang “God Save the Queen.” If you think about during World War I, there was a lot of Australians went to the war, but a lot of them were born in England.
If they weren’t born in England, most of them were born off English, Scottish or Irish parents. So you had that bonding with families and family in the British Dominion. And British was Australian, Australian was British as far as we were concerned.
You were telling us before about some of the Aboriginal kids.
Tell us more about that.
We used to get on very well with the Aboriginal kids and a lot of them went to school with us. In fact, some of them made quite a success of their life. I’ll tell you one little incident. It was quite a few years ago I was in, I say a few years, 30 years ago, I was in Heidelberg Hospital and this young, tall, not full-blooded Aboriginal, but he had
50-50 Aboriginal, came and sat down alongside me. He was a doc [doctor], he had a stethoscope. And he said, “Are you Mr Wheeler?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You wouldn’t remember me. I was only a kid when you last seen me. Dad said if I heard of you.” He’d heard on the grapevine from my relatives up there that I was in Heidelberg, he came and found me and sat alongside me. And I thought,
“What a change in the world.” This tall, young bloke. He was a lot younger than me. And here he is, coming in at the hospital, he’s a doctor, sits down and talks to you. And after he’d gone, the bloke in the room was saying, “Hey, he was Aborigine, wasn’t he?” I said, “Yeah, good bloke, isn’t he?” And he didn’t’ make any reply, because we’d accept them. We’d played with them as kids going to school. They were no different to us. They didn’t have half the chances we had.
Why do you say that?
Well, they didn’t. Our families were more affluent than they were. A lot of them weren’t out of the tribal influence in those days and if they were under the tribal influence they didn’t care about their education. It was only where you had one with a little bit of grey matter, he’d make sure the kids went to school and they’re the ones who got on a lot.
So a lot of them were finishing their school?
Yeah, a lot of them finished their
school. We had a lot of them away in the Second World War with us, too. I can remember Audrey coming home with me one day on the train from Melbourne, and this Aboriginal bloke, said, “Hey Jack” and he sat down beside me. He’d been in the 4th Anti-Tank. They’d been alongside us, been along the Burma Railroad together. We yakked [talked] all the way then. He was a full-blood from up in the Northern Territory, who was adopted.
He was a kid of about 10 or 12 down here in Victoria, and he saw it as his duty to go away and fight with us and he was bonzer [good] bloke. And he had of all names, Jack Johnson. It wouldn’t have been his tribal name, but that’s what he was called.
Tell me about the Depression as you were growing up. Was there enough to eat?
Yeah, well, during the Depression years we were on the land still. So always during the Depression, if you had the land,
you could grow enough to eat. Whilst we were on the station and whilst we were on the irrigation block and whilst we were on the farm down in the Yarra Valley, there were plenty of rabbits around. We used to make sure we got plenty of rabbits. We used to sell the rabbit skins. Anyone that didn’t eat and lived in the country weren’t bothering to really get stuck into it, because you could grow all your own vegetables.
If you couldn’t afford meat, there was always rabbits, there was always fish in the rivers, fish in the channels. We used to keep fish tethered in the channels, that was there was always something there. So you had a pretty good diet.
Did your father stay and work? You were running a farm, but I mean
was there much actually coming off the farm?
At one stage he got himself, he was baking bread. Until the farm got developed enough I think, I can’t remember the exact thing, but I remember for a long time, he was several years baking bread. When we came down to the Yarra Valley, he was doing butchering. His sister had a butchers-shop
and he used to go along, work in the slaughterhouse and that.
Did you see or know other people that weren’t doing so well?
There was a lot that didn’t do so well. When we went to school, we used to often say to Mum, “Put an extra sandwich in.” She’d say, “Why?” “Well, some of the kids don’t get much. They get about half a sandwich.” And you take it to someone
that you knew needed it, you’d give it to them. That happened a lot.
Were there kids without shoes?
Yes, a lot of them only wore sandshoes in those days. In fact, it was that bad, when we were down on the irrigation block, we used to go up to school. Because some of the other kids didn’t have shoes, you’d take them off and string them around your neck and run through the frost to school, just to be like the other kids.
You could probably keep up better too.
Yeah, because I don’t think it hurt you.
Did you see blokes walking along the road?
Used to see a lot of people used to be walking around, especially when the fruit was ripe and the grapes were ripe and they were looking for work. They’d come into the town, and if they were coming in from where you were, they’d come in and see if they could get a billy of tea or something like that.
And I can remember Mum quite often she made a batch of scones. She’d give them a bag of scones. There was a lot of that went on. There was a big population that weren’t tramps or hobos, they were just looking for work.
Which year did you move down to Melbourne, to Lilydale?
To Lilydale? It would have been about 1934
to 36, somewhere in that area. Somewhere in ‘34.
What were the changes you noticed from?
Not much difference. School was much the same. You’d go to a school, maybe not quite as big as the Swan Hill High School, but with the same standard of education. Better sporting facilities there.
You had to adjust, because there was no codfish to get any more. You had to learn to catch trout and blackfish, I can remember that. Come home the first time, I got no fish. Dad said, “You silly kid. Go and get one of the locals to tell you how to catch trout and blackfish.” Went looking for old mussels to catch trout. They liked that.
Yeah, they weren’t tethered up any more.
Around that time, did you know anything of the Spanish Civil War?
Used to hear it on the radio and see it in the papers. There was one thing Dad and Mum was pretty strong with us. They used to make sure we read the papers and keep in touch with current affairs. Yeah, we heard all about the Spanish Civil War, because wireless
was your television of those years. Hear it on the news service.
What was your impression of the civil war?
Spanish Civil War. I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand why they wanted to do what they were doing. I thought, you analysed it in your own mind, I suppose, and we got conditions in Australia that could lead to that. If they’ll talk it out,
they’ll come to some conclusion about it, instead of getting rifles and shooting each other. That was the way I looked at it. But I can never remember Australia want to have a revolution or anything.
Did you know or hear of anyone that went over to Spain to fight?
I heard of some people from town up from Lilydale that were, I think
Healesville was up that way, went over and came back very early. They didn’t stay there. We were told that they got the belly flu and they didn’t like what they saw. That’s what we were told, but I don’t know the whole story of it. I never talked to any of them.
Do you remember where you were when World War II was declared?
World War II. Yeah,
we were home. It was a Friday night or something and Mum said, “Quiet, quiet.” And I can remember Winston Churchill saying something or other, “We’re at war with Germany.” I’m pretty sure we were home. It was at night time. And the days of the old crystal sets and the earphones had just gone, and we had one of the first mantle-type radios that you turn the dial round and you could hear it
through the whole house.
How did that affect you?
Didn’t worry me that much, It was a long way away, and Australia hadn’t been involved in it, so.
You’d been reading the papers, presumably?
Oh, yes. We read the papers.
Did you think it would happen?
Yeah, I thought the war. It was Dad’s mother. Dad’s,
Mum’s father rather, he was a religious reader. He used to always tell us, “Read the paper. Read the main lines and the business main lines. They’ll educate you more than your teachers at school.” He wasn’t too…didn’t really think much of the teachers in those days. Not that they weren’t…I can’t find any bad teachers.
Certainly gave you good training in
Yeah, I always liked newspapers. When I first went to work, I started working in an electrical place down in Burnley and didn’t like that very much. It was just repetitive stuff. And when I got a chance to be an apprentice in the printing industry, I took it.
What year was that?
Oh, crikey. That was, I’ll try and work
Was it before the war?
Oh, before the war, yeah. I still had 2 1/2 years of apprenticeship to finish when I came out of the army. That time, it was a 6 year apprenticeship, so that’ll give you an idea. About ‘37, ’38, somewhere around there.
When Australia declared
war on Germany, how did that affect you?
You talked amongst your mates and nearly all of them wanted to go, but they were too young. And some of them actually joined the army a lot younger than I did. Mum used to fret around and of course when Dad went, it made it a lot easier. He was up in…I forget where he was.
I told Mum I was going in to join the army and she said, “I’m gonna send a telegram to Dad. If he says you can’t, I’ll have you pulled out.” And Dad got back to her on the phone or something, and he said, “Let the bugger do what he likes.”
At what point did your father go back into the army?
Into the army?
He would have joined up in the army about 1940 I’d say.
Late ‘39, early ‘40.
So, initially your mum wasn’t keen on you going into the army?
Would you say she was vehemently opposed, or just?
I was too young, she reckoned.
You were 17 when you…?
Yeah, 17. 17 ½ when I finally went.
Tell me more about your apprenticeship. What sort of work were you doing?
In those days, you got into…there was two or three different types of apprenticeships. There was one in the country newspapers that made sure you learned the newspaper side as well as the commercial side. You learnt reporting and the whole lot. I think it was a little bit harder to get the credentials for that. I know you had to have English, was one of the subjects, if you didn’t pass English you
weren’t likely to get a job, or apprenticeship in that category. I think, just before I went into the army, I was doing court reporting and things like that, just in the local courtrooms.
What sort of things were you reporting on?
Just be the usual
things. Traffic infringements. None of the tough ones. They wouldn’t give me one of the tough ones. I know I sat in on a murder one up there from Sylvan or somewhere. I was amazed at what went on. The power of the old beak [judge] and everyone else. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a reporter after that one.
Why’s that? What do you mean?
sounded all strange to me, that you couldn’t ask this question, but you could ask that question. The different things. You had a lot to learn. All in all, I didn’t mind that. I thought you learned a lot by going to courtrooms, learn about human frailty.
Mostly I went to report on the shoplifting or something like that, or caught in the pub after hours.
Did you join up with any of your mates?
No, a lot of them joined up after me.
You said a lot of them were younger.
Yeah. A lot of them were younger
and they joined up when they got to the same age as me. Most of them joined up before they were 18. Then they shifted the age just before I joined up, they shifted the aged to 19 for the AIF [Australian Imperial Force].
How did you fake your age?
He said, “How old are you?” And I told him. He said, “When’s your birthday?” I had already worked out. I told him and the birthday was only about two days before and he said, “My God, you’re keen.” I can remember him saying that.
He was the old JP [Justice of the Peace]. He had the local where everyone bought their wool and clothes and that. He was the one that put you straight, told you what you could and what you couldn’t do. He wasn’t ever against you if you joined up underage. He said it was either
if you signed the thing. I suppose I had a charmed life, I should have got killed a few times. I didn’t.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
Yup. Always went to Sunday School. Always to Sunday School, and to church; if Mum and Dad went to church you went with them. That was par for the course in those days.
Dad was Presbyterian and Mum was Methodist. But they were either Methodist or Presbyterian, and we used to go to both of them.
Would you say you were devout?
I learned to be a true, practising Christian, if you can call that devout. I still think it’s got a lot to offer anyone and I still think it’s perhaps one of the mildest religions of the
lot. But they don’t say anything like the Muslim religions and that. I learned a fair bit about that over in the Middle East, wasn’t too happy with it. But as far as the Christian religion, I seen the Pope, and stood outside the Pope’s thing where he addressed the whole meeting
up in Rome, and things like that. Went right through the Vatican City. One thing I can still remember, when I was coming home, telling Mum. I can’t get over it, there was a big statue of St Peter not far inside the Vatican City, the big dome, and his feet, one of them’s got a big guard over it. I didn’t know what that was for until I saw the queue round the other side, they
were all lined up to kiss his foot. Tell you what, I had some things about that one. Snotty-nosed kids kissing that foot. No, I got nothing against anyone’s religion. It’s your own choice.
When you were young in Lilydale, was there much division between the Catholics and the Protestant?
It started to wear out in those days. We used to play with Catholic kids and sport with them, especially when you left school. My main strength when I left school – I played football for the local team – my strength was bike racing. If some of your mates was really good Catholics and that, you got sixth in the Victorian championship as a junior or something like that. We used to ride
for a training ride on a Sunday. We’d leave Lilydale, we’d go down through Melbourne, down to Geelong, come back through Melbourne and go back over the mountains through Ferntree Gully and back down through Sylvan to Lilydale. It was a normal training ride. Up past Bendigo and back. Hundreds of miles in a day. Couldn’t do it now. We were fit then.
Good healthy upbringing.
When I was bike racing, I used to get up in the morning up at the farm. I’d send the dog up the hills to get the two cows I had to milk. Old ‘Nigger’ would go up there, and I’d get on my bike and I’d go up to Healesville and back, about 24 miles, and she’d have the cows in the, ready to be milked. One of them already set in the choke ready to put the thing over so it didn’t back out on you.
Old ‘Nigger’ used to sit there, and the cat, ‘Dynamite’, would get there. You’d be milking old ‘Strawberry’, she was always full of milk, and you’d say, “Righto Nigger,” and go like that and squirt it straight into his mouth. And the cat would meow, she’d want the same thing, but she was hard to hit, she’d lick it off her fur. Oh no, you lived…in those days
you lived completely off the land. Everyone grew their own vegetables, everyone had a bit of an orchard. I don’t think it’s altered that much. Our grandchildren are much the same as we were. We got one, now she’s up at Mount Buller
with the school. She’s been up there for three months doing their lessons and everything up there. She’s done very well in skiing and that before, and Alison rang last night, or this morning, not sure. I think she’s won three gold medals, so many silvers, and she’s got some other title. And she’s one of the inter-schools champions. She’s an amazing kid.
Only 15, but she can really ski.
Fit lifestyle made for good breeding.
Yeah. She’s a good kid. And she’d got one arm a bit shorter than the other. She doesn’t let that, that doesn’t interfere with her. Amazing what she does.
At the point when you first enlisted
you went into signals you said?
Armoured Division – 6.
And you went to Puckapunyal?
Tell me about your training.
You did the whole gamut of the training on tanks. If you weren’t interested in tank training, you did an infantry course. They put you in tanks. Old tanks they were. You learned to drive them, did a bit of gunnery. Gunnery mainly was out of
Bren carriers. They had the Vickers machine gun on a round mount that you could wiggle them any way you liked. And used to get carted along over the thing and the target would come up. They’d say, “Get ready to fire,” and you soon woke up to the things because you had to grab the side of the thing and
tuck your nose in. You had to make sure when you cut your nose, through the nose, you went up like that or you got a bloody nose. I can still remember that clearly. They’d generally be squares of sheeting on the ground, and you’d fire at them. As long as you could hit them in one or two bursts you were pretty good. And then you’d learn the other gunnery. For the gunnery, the type of guns you’d be using in tanks, they were 2 pounders or 4
pounders. They’d just be little artillery pieces and you’d learn to shoot them, learn to load and shoot them. And I really like the old Bren carrier. Boy, they could shoot. Scarp along the ground at Puckapunyal, go over a log and they’d be airborne and a thud and keep going. Used to like it. But then you get over there and you’re supposed to get tanks and they got sunk on the
way out, so that’s the end of that.
So they were sunk on the way to Malaya?
Don’t think they got out of the English Channel from what I hear. It’s what used to happen in those days.
Did you form any friendships at Puckapunyal?
Yes. The ones I was at Puckapunyal with, now there’s none of them left. Frank would have been the last
bloke who died 18 months ago. The ones that went over to Malaya with me, there’s about six of them left. That’s all.
Same blokes who went all the way through?
Yeah, and then we got separated. I’m the only one of that group that was with A Force, or Green Force in A Force, left,
because that was a big leveller up on that Burma Railway. We didn’t lose many in action, but once you got up on the railway, Green Force lost over one third of their group on that line, 38.3% or something like that. And nearly all the groups would be much the same. There’s about
one third or a bit greater. If you happened to strike a cholera camp, that little bit you were with, quite often they exceeded 50%. We had cholera in about three camps I think. A bit of a worry. You’d go out to work, especially when you were in the jungle, up near the Burma-Thai border, you’d be just about back from work and you’d hear the last post
being played. By the time you got back to camp, it’d be played about five or six times. That could be English, American, Dutch and Australian blokes being buried, although the Americans had a different tune to us. There are a lot of blokes buried up there, a lot of friends, and half the time you couldn’t go to their funeral, you’d be out at work. I’ve
been back over there several times, and find a lot of them there, they’ve been shifted into different cemeteries now with proper headstones. One of the biggest ones in Thailand. Trying to think of the name of the cemetery now, but it’s a big British and Australian cemetery. It’s not far from Bangkok and I’ve figured how many we buried there, about 5,000 I think, British and Australian
mainly. And you go along the rows of them, and you wouldn’t get along one row without finding someone that you knew, had worked with. It’s something that never can be told thoroughly, and you’ll never get people to understand how many, why they died. A lot of them died because of they didn’t want to keep living. Just
went out to work in the morning and said, “I’ll see you when you come back.” They said, “Don’t be too sure of that.” They’d just will themselves, and you’d come back and they’re dead, didn’t want to survive. They’d had it.
What do you think kept you going?
Only reason I kept going, I wanted to get home. I used to always think that. We had a good padre there. What was his name? He was a Methodist padre, I think, Matheson.
He used to talk to us about it and I think that was his theme. Why wouldn’t you want to get home to your loved ones? So you put it right out of your mind. He was a good bloke. He survived.
Do you think some of the blokes that gave up didn’t have family back here?
No, a lot of them had family.
There were some of the ones that survived the best that didn't have any family. They were virtually like orphans. Because they’d had time to get used to that sort of thing, they didn’t worry. If you didn’t have any family, you didn’t have to worry about them. And the other thing that was the worst thing of it, I got one letter in all the time I was prisoner of war. And I got that about
three weeks before we went on that boat that I got sunk on. It was about two years old. Mum got one card from me six weeks before she knew I was coming home. It had been written in a place called Moulmein in Burma. Would have been the first or second card we wrote. All you could write on it, you could tick boxes; ‘I am ill,
I am sick, I have been in hospital’. Several little ones like that you ticked whichever one was that, and you were allowed to write 12 or 15 words or something or other. That was it. That was the only one they got. That was 2 1/2 years after I was prisoner of war. Six weeks later, she got a telegram saying I was back in Allied hands, I was on my way home. It’s a strange thing, I can
tell you, and I got that one just before we went down and got on that ship, writing to say that they hoped I was still alive and well. That’s the way they treated it, too. They hadn't heard from you. All they could say was that the papers had got through and you were in all probability a prisoner of war.
No one wanted to be a prisoner of war. You didn’t get the opportunity. You were just told you were a prisoner of war once they signed the surrender.
Did your parents ever get told that you were missing?
Yeah, the first telegram they got was to say that I was missing in action and then the next one was just missing, missing, missing.
They never let us write a letter or a card until we were up in Moulmein in Burma and that would be 18 months after we were taken prisoner of war. We were never taken prisoner of war, we were given to them. I always say that we had no say in it. The British general signed our life away, virtually,
Major General Percival. You were told you must not try to escape and that sort of thing, weren’t given the opportunity to try and get to a boat and get away. We were still full of ideas of getting away when we were in southern Burma working at places like Tavoy. We’d eye the boat off and if the engine would work, we reckoned we could get across to Sumatra
in about 24 hours. But next day the boat was gone. The owners had used it or something or other. But you got the boat, you mightn’t have been here now. Plays funny tricks on you.
Did you have a belief in fate?
When your number’s up, you’re up?
Yeah. Used to say, “It’s not my turn now.” If you went through a heavy bombing raid and there’s a couple killed within reasonable distance of you, you just said, “It wasn’t my turn.” I used to always say, “I hope my turn never comes.” I reckoned it had come when we got torpedoed. Gee, that sent me back against the bulkhead
the next thing I’m flying across. You knew you’d been hit, because they had 1,300 altogether down in, and they couldn’t all fit in the hold. They tried to push us all down into this one hold, and it wasn’t room for anyone to sit down with their knees under their chin. So they put the sickest blokes on deck. About 280, I think, on deck. When the first attack on the convoy was made, you heard them scream, the blokes on deck scream.
You heard the boom. And there was an oil tanker or something going up. Then it was quiet for quite a while, because apparently they had to refuel or dive and regroup or something, the sub [submarine], and the next time wasn’t long after, they started to yell out up on the bridge, and the ship just in front of us got hit and the one at the back got hit. Then this big screaming and wham right in the engine just behind us.
I was sitting right back there. I got flung, I suppose the hold would be from here to the garage wide, and I was flung halfway across it over the tops of heads of blokes. When you got up, you didn't realise you’d been bleeding. You had a big hole in one elbow and another bit out of my thigh. Didn’t realise you had been hit or you were bleeding from something until they told you. That was when you got up on deck. You climbed up on the wire davits,
the wire cables that had collapsed down into the hold. It took a long time to sink. Ours was afloat for two or three hours.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 03
Tell me about from the point when you finished training at Puckapunyal and you were sent to Malaya. What ship did you go on? How long did it take?
Tell us about the journey.
I’d never been on a really big ship before, and the
Aquitania I think was third biggest in the world and I don’t know how many troops it had on, but we transhipped onto smaller boats in Sunda Straits, between Java and Sumatra. I think the name of the thing, it was an old cattle boat, SS Rael, Dutch one. It took us up to Singapore, and it stunk to high heaven. We were only on it for about a day and a half.
Were you down in the hold?
we were in shelter just behind the bridge where we were. But some of them were down the hold. I think they had three of these small boats to take us up to Singapore.
What were conditions like on Aquitania?
Aquitania was like a cruise to us.
Did you have good food?
Good food, yeah.
How did you keep yourselves entertained?
You got addressed on what to expect up in Malaya and Singapore and all that sort of stuff. I think they had a concert at one stage and things like that. Was a ship’s newspaper. It was a big place. It was the third biggest ship in the world.
What were you told to expect in Singapore?
Very sketchy. We weren’t
told much about what to expect. In fact it wasn’t till we got ashore that we were told there wouldn’t be any tanks. Tanks had been sunk. Because most of us had been infantry trained as well, as soon as you finished your tank course you got an infantry course, that was part of the course, and you knew what had happened if no tanks had arrived. You’d be an infantry,
which we were, A Company of X Battalion. I think A company was the only one that had trained infantrymen in it. C Company they got cut to smithereens.
When you arrived at Singapore, what were you told to set about doing?
We got sent up to Tampin
camp, I think, in Malaya. We were there, and that’s when we went into the infantry. It was only a matter of days and we were off on infantry duty all over the place, came back across the causeway in the 24 hours before the Japs came across, and were positioned about halfway over towards Changi.
In fact, last time I was over there, a group of us went over. We walked to see if we could find some of the old positions, and we found them. The old gun positions for the 4th Anti tank, a couple of them, and that sort of brought it all back to mind. You could remember where you were and that then. Once the Japs landed, we got pulled back and we went to Bukit Timah,
where we were quartered in tents just below the old Ford works where the Ford motorcar was assembled. All our work from thereon until the surrender was based from there. We were on one part of it there, our platoon was sent across the road from us, as the railway line crosses right out the front of the Ford works,
and just forward of that there’s a rather steep cliff, and that’s part of a big quarry complex. We were positioned up on top of this cliff-face looking straight down Bukit Timah Road. And you could see what was happening as far down as Penang, which was the next town. At one stage, we saw the Japs forming up to march up Bukit Timah Road. They were coming up, they were a bit like ants when you first saw them, but they became
figures, about half as high as a normal person coming along and then the mortars and the artillery started to burst amongst them. They’d all throw themselves down, get up again. There’d always be a few left. They wouldn’t touch them, they’d just reform and march. We hadn’t seen any, had any communication with our company blokes. We were getting a bit worried. We thought we were left for dead here.
And what happened, they pulled out and they were about halfway down the road. You could see what was happening. We heard this toot-toot-tooting, and they sent an armoured truck to pick us up. Just as well they did, or we wouldn’t have been here. We would have been fighting off about 4,000 men. About 10 of you. So we managed to get down, all got on the
armoured truck, and back to where they’d regrouped. They’d forgotten all about us, so we were nearly a statistic just because someone forgot. But that’s a picture that’ll never go out of my mind. Seeing these blokes reform and march and then there’d be another bracket of shells and mortar rounds dropping amongst them and they’d get up again – there’d always be a few left there – and march, keep marching. I don’t
know how many. There would have been hundreds by the time they got up there. So, I don’t know where they were calling the shots from, or where they were. Definitely a higher place than we were. That I’ll never forget, it was something that always stuck in my mind, why they kept doing it. Why don’t they get off into the jungle and walk through the scrub on the other side of the road, in stead of out in the open like they were?
I think they found it hard stopping us from doing something like that.
you don’t think the Aussies would have held rank?
No, the officers wouldn’t have held rank. They’d have taken you off into shelter where you couldn’t be seen so easily. That’d be par for the course. Not like those silly fuckers.
from that point?
We went back to the gardens in Singapore and we were regrouped. And we were given stations on the other side of the gardens. And the Japs had one go at coming through near where we were, and they were beaten off. That’s the last we saw of them. The next thing we get is an English officer, colonel, comes up and says, “War’s over. You are now prisoners of war of the Japanese.”
We said, “What? Thankyou for telling us.” He said, “You will not destroy your arms. You will not destroy your ammunition. You will not destroy anything. You will report back to Tanglin Barracks where you’ll be told what to do.” Tanglin Barracks was only about 10 minutes hike away.
So this was a British officer?
British officer. British colonel. We’d been surrendered to the Japs.
There must have been a lot of frustration.
It was complete and utter frustration. I don’t know why they didn’t just have the capacity to assemble and put up a real good, stiff resistance. They never made much inroad into where we were holding. Well that was
What was your opinion of the Australian officer who acceded to this British order?
Well, they controlled everything, the British. If the Australian officers had been like us, they’d said straight out, “Get stuffed. We’re not going to do anything like that.” They’d be charged and court martialled.
Do you think you could have fought them off for much longer?
Only as long as the ammunition we had would hold out, that’s all.
Would you have preferred some time to scarper out?
They could have said, “Every man for himself. We’re gonna surrender in two hours” or something like that, and give you a chance to at least get over to the coast where you might pick up a ship and get across to Sumatra or somewhere. They didn’t give anyone that opportunity.
From that point, when
did you first see a Japanese officer?
We had to report back to the Tanglin Barracks, there’s a Japanese major come through. He was the first one we’d seen close up like that. He was there to take the surrender from the senior British officer there. And from then on, you saw them all the time, coming through in parties. And they assembled you all with what you could carry, and marched you out to Changi. But first we had to march
back so you went through the city of Singapore past everyone. You could understand why that was happening, because a lot of the big buildings on the main street of Singapore, you were going down, was just knocked right down by bombs or shelling and in the main, it was stacked full with corpses 10 or 12 high, just stacked there where high buildings had been dumped out. The further you got out, they got less and less. When you got out to the little
suburbs and kampongs they were digging big holes in the ground, putting quicklime in and throwing bodies in there. It took us nearly all day to march out to Changi.
Do you think they wanted to show you this?
I think so. I think so. We were told, “You’ve seen what happened. That’ll happen to you.”
What was the reaction from the
city population that were still alive to you?
We didn’t see any of the English population. They would have been rounded up fairly quickly. The only ones were native population, and some of them were sullen, but there was none of them throwing abuse or anything. I believe that some places where the English had been marched, they did abuse them.
How did you feel at this point?
I felt I’d like them to tell us ‘every man for himself’, so you could have a go at getting away. I feel sure that had they said that, perhaps 20 or 30 per cent would have made it back home.
Even once you’d been taken prisoner?
At that stage, you didn’t see many Japs at all. Juts a few walking alongside with rifles and all that. But you had no arms. But if in the first place they’d have said, “Every man for himself” instead of saying “You’re now prisoners of war” it would have been a different story because you would have had your arms then.
When they told you not to destroy your arms and so on, did the Japanese come and take your arms?
Yeah, they came and we had to tell them we were leaving to take them back. But they would have
found a lot of my butt around a rubber tree. It was splendid. You wouldn’t have fired anything out of it. A lot of them did that.
Despite what the British had said?
I was told some of them, they’d set their hand grenades so that if they handled them roughly, the pin would drop out. But that was, you know, it was a real shemozzle. We had a couple of officers with us.
One was a bank manager from South Australia, and when we were issuing the grenades out, I’d been on the armoured truck, riding on that strip with Harry Hutchison, our driver, and we got the grenades off. He started just opening them and passing them out. I said, “You can’t do that. They’re not armed, those grenades.” “No, they’re all right, they’re all right.” He didn’t know the first thing about them. Once you’d opened a box of grenades, you had to put the base on second or
2 seconds or whatever second fuse you were gonna use for whether you were gonna use them for firing out of a rifle launcher or thrown by hand. Anyhow, Harry Hutchison said, “Look at this” and he pulled the pin out and let the handle go and it just went “pop.” We were white as a ghost. Then he handed over us to do. That’s what you had to put up with, but we’d been thoroughly trained. We’d had full infantry training as well as armoured.
I’ll never forget him. He didn’t partake in anything else with us.
Was he an Australian officer?
Yeah. Bank teller from Adelaide.
Did you strike a lot of them?
No, you didn’t strike that many of them, but he was with us. He was part of our unit. And he’d been, I don’t know how he’d got an
officer. He didn’t have much training, he didn’t know anything about grenades. He didn’t know you don’t just take them off a truck and say, “Go and throw them, quick as you can.” You gotta fuse them up first.
After you were marched through the city, you went to Attica?
Sorry, I thought you went to,
were quartered for a while at some barracks, weren’t you?
So you went straight from Singapore to…
Straight from, all day out to Changi or Tanglin, either one. Doesn’t matter what you call it. But we were quartered, not in Changi, but barracks. We were taken to the Selarang Barracks, which were the officers’ quarters, English army officers’ quarters. Our unit were given one house. And there was about a hundred and…
would have been nearly 300 altogether, but a lot of them didn’t arrive there. Some had been caught up the mainland and things like that. But the outhouses and that, you got enough room to put a blanket on the floor and lie down and that was about all. No sewerage, no water. You had to cart water. Had to dig your own toilets. Nothing worked in them.
How long were you there for?
We left Changi after less than six weeks. We were the first out of Changi.
Some of the blokes were taken away and worked in Changi. They didn’t go with us. The ones that didn’t do any work at Changi, we were the ones that went on A Force. We were taken down and put on a ship called, I’ll tell you its name, the Toyohashi Maru, set sail and went from Singapore across to Medan in Sumatra, where we picked up a lot of Dutch troops, and it sailed across to Victoria Point where some of our
blokes disembarked. And it sailed on up the coast to Mergui, another port, where a few other blokes disembarked, and then up to Tavoy where the rest of us disembarked.
Tell me more about your six weeks in Changi.
We didn’t see much of Changi. We never got inside the prison. Our view of Changi wasn’t too bad because, if you had plenty of room to sleep, you would have been all right. Bot so many hundred
in an ordinary officer’s house. We had a good view over the straits at Johore. And apart from everyone getting dysentery, because there was nothing to protect you against dysentery there, no running water or anything, it would have been quite, quite pleasant, because you used to just look out over the strait. You could see the Japanese shipping going up. You could see an aircraft going up,
still alight and things like that, which give you a little bit of heart. You knew that somewhere around there were someone doing some damage. And then when we were shifted from there, they picked about one third of our complement, we marched off, were taken in and put in the Toyohashi Maru.
What food did you have?
Basically just rice. Just a little bit of rice until we got settled
in to camps up in Tavoy. In Tavoy, we were quartered in the airplane hangars on the airfield. We were filling in bomb holes, lengthening the runway and all things like that. It was all hurry, hurry, driven with a bayonet detail. Hurry, hurry, to get it done, because they were gonna use it after a certain time. And
this morning we’d actually finished the runway, and we were tamping down old earth and that up the end of it, and we heard a plane coming and it was an old Avro Anson, civilian plane, come round and flew round three times, it was obviously a captured one. Three times round, and then straightened up and everyone said, “Crash, you bastard; crash, you bastard.” And it hit, if you’d asked it to hit there, you couldn’t have been more accurate.
One wheel went down where there was a big bomb crater and the earth was still a bit soft and it sunk. That was enough to spin it round and lose its undercarriage. Then it went round and round and cartwheeled. Poor, bloody pilot, he got shot. It was a lot of Jap brass and top brass, and we thought it was just retribution.
How bad did the plane actually crash? Was anyone killed?
Only one of the
Jap generals. They carried him out. We don’t know whether he died or what. But it wasn’t, see it hit this soft earth and the undercarriage went off. It went down on its belly and just cartwheeled round and it stopped.
Did the blokes cheer?
“Crash, you bastards.” What thought can do. It was funny. But that wasn’t long after that, they just picked out,
I think it was 150 of us, Australians, put us in trucks and away we headed up north. We knew why we were going up north. It was all the bridges had been blown by the retreating English and Burmese. And we had to pull them through forwards, until we got up to this place called Ye, on a big river there. And we were, the Australians were all left there, and we were to build this motor road across from Ye, which was a big
river where really big ships could come up, unload. It was the shortest route on this motor road we were to build and come up out near Three Pagoda Pass, would have saved a lot of distance and that. And we worked on that for months and months. We got it half built, and they shifted to a new camp. It was christened ‘Jungle House’, was just an attap hut type thing.
And we worked on building up towards where we started going up the rise. It was quite a jungly place, full of wild tigers and elephants. You’d hear them every night. I got confronted by a wild tiger there one night. Coming home late trying to buy some food off natives, Gunga and I coming home, and he says “Je-je-je-je,” he used to stutter “Je-je-je-je-je-Jesus, look at that,” and there’s two eyes looking at you about that far apart and then you could smell it. They stink, tigers.
You could smell it. I thought, “What are we gonna do?’ Gunga said, “I don’t know about you,” but whoom, he was gone. He went down the track back to camp. The tiger turned round, run down the other track. I’m left there laughing my head off. I hiked back to camp, back to the Jungle House and Gunga’s organised a search party, reckoned the tiger would have eaten me by that time. But oh, they were very thick up there. There was another case there, an
old Burmese bloke. He was sick. We managed to get him away from where the Japs could see him, and we were taking him a bit of food out. He was getting to the stage where he was getting his strength back. I went out this morning and someone was yelling “Oi.” I went over and the bloody tiger had got him that night. Some of his legs were just about eaten right off. I didn’t like the buggers. And you knew before you got there. You could smell them. They stunk, those tigers.
Did you ever see any elephants?
Yes. Plenty of elephants up there. But they, at one stage, the best job I ever had on the railway was riding an elephant and they just come along, “Yu, yu, yu, yu, elephant.” And they had an old bloke in charge of them, an old Burmese bloke, toothless old fellow. You reckoned he’d be 80, he could have been younger than that, but they aged fast up there. He showed us all the rudiments of it and how to take the hobbles off them and put them on at the night time, how to ride them, and
how to prod them to make them do different manoeuvres. Easy to drive. It was the best job I ever had. You’d let them go over night time, hobbled. Then in the morning you’d have to go out and find them. They had bells on and you could hear them and you’d pick them up, take the hobbles off and, what’s the command to get them down, “Moyu, moyu.” They go down on one knee, you get up on his back. Tickle him behind the ears, he stands up and away you go.
If you wanted them to come to you, hobbled, you said, “To, to, to” and they’d come over to you. Get to know you.
Do you remember what your one was called?
No. It was something Burmese, and I never tried to remember it. I used to call her ‘the old bitch’; it was a female. But she was that good. The first time I drove her I was taking this log out from the jungle to a bridge
and got a bit stuck. Generally when they got stuck, the end went over a rock or something and pointed down. So I got out to try and help get it straightened out. And I had to clear out near where her foot was. Clearing it out, I slipped over and my head was down where her foot was just above it. And it come down and that’s the end of me, and it just touched me and back up it went. They’ve got touch-sensitive feet. I loved her after that.
She was a dear old soul. But they starved her to death after. They took me off driving and onto something else, and come back one night, and there she is dead alongside the track. The next morning, whole carcass was moving from the great big maggots they get in them. They’re eaten right out in a day. It’s a vicious place, the jungle up there. She was a beautiful, real old beast. The old chap that drove
those, was in charge of them, he was a licensed elephant trainer and driver from Burma. We were in Burma there and he told us about elephants. They start them off from when they’re very young and these people, like him, they guarantee that they’re trained thoroughly, and they are. He was a very interesting old bloke to talk to. Whether he survived the war or not, we never could find out.
You’d only take one thing wrong and a Jap would shoot you.
How did you find the Japanese guards in general?
Japanese guards in general were just. Korean guards were worse. They brought Koreans up there, and they were more brutal. The Japs used to bash the Koreans, and the Koreans used to take it out on us.
Why do you say the Japanese were just?
Well, they were just, depending on what it was. Like
there’s one Japanese bloke, if I could have found him afterwards. He met an untimely death in Bangkok Jail after the war. I know the bloke that got him. Every time you’d see him, cause you were tall, he’d run over and he’d kick you in the shins with his boots, and you always got ulcers where they broke the skin. Anyhow, I got shifted from there and this other chap, he was in Bangkok when the
war ended, or down near there. Someone come and told him that’s where he was in the Bangkok jail. He pinched an MPs [Military Police] cap and his armband and went up the jail, because he’s a bit Asian of appearance, went over and wanted to go and interview the prisoner. He only was with him a few minutes and killed him and walked out. He died about four or five years ago up near Ballarat.
But he was a rotter. There were a lot of them like that, especially where they were near as tall as you too. They used to like to kick you in the shins, the buggers. Just vicious. Mind you, their officers treated them the same as they treated us. It’s a vicious circle. But the Koreans they just used to love to bash you,
just because you were a prisoner. Because the Japs used to bash them, they’d bash us.
So you got arbitrary beatings from the Koreans?
Yes. There’s a lot of humour. I remember the humorous parts more nowadays. My old mate Gunga, Gunga Din. Gunga did something wrong, and we were on the top of a cutting, nearly up to the border.
I suppose it would be over 20 foot high, not the cutting, the embankment coming out of the cutting. It would be about 20 foot high. And this officer is coming up the top of the line, and he’s that short, the major, that his sword’s scraping the ground. He gets up, and Gunga must have done something wrong. And he walks over and makes a swing at Gunga and he can’t catch him properly. So you can see the lights in his eyes go one and he “Ah,” and he makes Gunga walk one
step back down the embankment. He still puts his hand up and his head’s still up that high, and he makes him take another step. He goes out and “Ah,” and he goes to swipe, but can’t reach him, and down he goes and rolls down into the water down the bottom. He comes storming up, what he’s gonna do to Gunga. By that time, we’d sprinted away from there and he can’t find him. I tell you it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, this bloke,
this mighty swipe, and he missed him by about that much, and he just ran around.
It was more than poetic justice. Pity he didn’t land head first on a rock.
Did you see any outright sadism?
Yeah, there was a lot of things. When we first got the Korean
guards, we sort of understand the Japs by then pretty well. And we were working down about the 75 Kilometre camp. And there’s a tree down across a track with a bit of a stream running through it. And we got given the job of shifting this tree so that they can run a road through across the track. And it’s bent like that. And this Korean wants us to cut at the top,
in the centre and then cut the ends off. That’s all right, but you’re not gonna get a saw through the centre because it’s gonna close and you wouldn’t be able to shift it. I can’t explain it to him. And anyhow, he got to the stage where he did his block and started bashing us. And just then we could hear a voice coming down the line. It’s a Jap colonel or something.
So he springs in and “Come on, saw, saw, saw,” always trying to saw this thing, and it’s well and truly jammed, and in comes this Jap colonel or major, I can’t remember what he was. But he took one look and he yelled out at this Korean. We can’t get the saw out. And he asked a question of some of the ‘kumicho’, the Jap in charge of the whole group and he said, “Him, him, he do it.” And he belted the hell out of this Korean. We had a friend for life after that.
He wouldn’t do a thing to us. There was a lot of raw humour like that. I suppose, unless you were there, it wouldn’t be so funny.
I’ve heard that a lot from the blokes that we’ve spoken to. Humour played a big part in
getting people through.
Yeah. Warped sense of humour, the Japs. The Koreans had no humour. They were only real bastards. They’d bash at the drop of a hat. Never got to like them one bit.
What they did with your rifles and what they made you do at the airstrip, did that make you think about subversion at all?
Yeah. We were always
primed for anything. Some of the bridges that were built had little chinks in them that could have been their downfall. Things like that.
You would actually cut chinks into them?
Taking a big risk.
Taking a risk, because you could be on a train going over it yourself, but the overall thing was, they were doing it so damn quick. They were so expert at what they were doing. Because life meant nothing to them.
They didn’t need tractors and bulldozers and that when you could have any amount of human life. I think every party that worked on the railway had well over 30%, well over a third, 33% of casualties died. Not just casualties, they didn’t come back. One that we were with had 38.3% didn’t come back.
When you start getting them like that, I don’t know, it makes you bitter. Bitter about life. Bitter about the whole of the Japanese, and when you got the Koreans, you were more bitter with the Koreans because they took it out worse than anyone else.
Did you support each other a lot?
You had to. You had to have a mate. There was a story went
round when we first got up there, ‘If you haven’t got a mate, you die.’ And that went round, because some blokes who were a bit stand-offish, you know, was hard to find a mate, and it seemed to ease it out. Everyone had someone that looked after someone else. You needed that.
So there was a definite attempt to just link up and get a buddy system going?
Yes, if you managed to steal something that was too much, then you made sure that someone else got it, cause you might lose it and no one would get it if they managed to find it before you could eat it, or cook it. I would say that a lot of the blokes over there, like myself, could have made expert little one-time thieves out of you in Australia from what you learned
over there. You had to, to survive.
What sort of things did you do?
Pinching rice right from under the Japs’ noses. One of the best ones I knew, you’d trip over where their rice was stored and as you tripped over, your hand would go down into where there was one opened and in your hand you’d have an old bit of rag or something, and you’d just close it off and put it in your pocket, pull the rag out, the rice was in your pocket, and wipe your face.
Pocket full of rice. You needed that pocket full of rice to survive.
Before you met the tiger, you’d visited the natives. Were you trading?
Yeah, we did a lot of trading with the natives. The Mon tribesmen right up on the border of Burma and Thailand are the most nice people you’d ever find. They’re very particular about their womenfolk and all that. That’s why the Japs never got onto them.
But as far as we were concerned, they were friends. There’s another tribe, I can’t think of the name of them, another tribe up there, they were much the same. They used to look after you. They’d give you anything they could. The Mon tribe, I reckon that they should have struck something and given them something. They were wonderful to us.
What things would you trade?
We had very little left to trade then. The things you could trade best were gold rings, watches and things like that. Plenty of blokes went about to take the gold out of their teeth and so forth. One place in Ye, or Yibon, in Burma, where we were camped for a while, we got in touch with a British agent. His name was Ma Thwin Boc. I can still remember his name. Most the
blokes called him ‘Gold-I-Want’. He used to trade in gold and things like that. He used to always give you a fair price for everything. He came out and told us quite bluntly when he knew we were leaving there, that he was a British agent, and we managed to give him a list of the blokes, and that list was back in English hands by the time we got home. They wanted to know the story of how. They checked up on Ma Thwin Boc, but he didn’t survive the war, the
Japs got him. He must have done something wrong. He was a lovely old fellow. But he was an old rascal, ‘Gold-I-Want’. That’s how he got the name, Gold-I-Want, didn’t know if it was 9 carat or 18 carat, you got the same price.
How had the Australians managed to hold on to things like gold watches and so on? Didn’t the Japanese take everything?
They did if they could find ’em.
First thing you did when you shifted camp, you put it somewhere where it would be hard to find, and as soon as you got to camp, you buried it some place hard to find. But by the time ended, you didn’t have much anyhow. Hollowed-out bamboo is very good to hide things in.
When you were working on the railway,
what sort of quarters did you have?
Attap [palm thatched] huts. They were generally pre-built before. A couple of places we’d have to build them or finish them off ourselves. They were only made of bamboo poles placed in the ground and stayed outwards, with bamboo across and a tripod-type roof, and attap thatching over the top. And they’d have sleeping quarters up about that high off the ground made of split bamboo.
That’s what most of them were. A few places where they had sawn timber, you might have sawn timber to lie on. I didn’t mind the bamboo, it had more give in it.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 04
Please give me an explanation of the role of the special X Battalion.
If was just a battalion formed because they were running out of infantry. I suppose it didn’t fit in with any of the prescribed battalion numbers, so they just called it X Battalion. And it wasn’t a special battalion,
it was just an ordinary battalion of infantry except that, apart from two companies that had had a lot of infantry training like we had, the others hadn't had much at all.
You told me you were in combat in the Malayan peninsula.
Yeah, we went up into that.
That was your initial, first and only experience of combat?
No, we went back on the mainland again then for combat.
Tell us about your first experience in combat in Malaya.
First experience was something thudding into the log alongside. I wondered what the hell it was and someone said, “duck.” Simple as that. I think it was a Jap sniper, but we never got anywhere with him. That was my first experience. It taught me to keep my head down.
What were you told about the Japanese?
We were told that they were good fighters, that they were clever, that all this was a load of BS [bullshit] that they couldn’t see in the dark. Everyone was told when they were in training, “Don’t worry about the Japs, they can’t see in the dark. They’ll be no good at night fighting.” That was a big furphy [rumour, lie], but we were told that. They had more seasoned troops than we ever had.
They’d been fighting up in China and places like that.
Did you get a chance to fight against the Japanese Imperial Guard?
I think they were in action alongside us just before Singapore fell. It was Imperial Guard blokes near us just when it was all over, and talking to some of them that came up was guards. They were in that area.
I couldn’t say that they seemed any different to anyone else.
Were there any particular Japanese troops that had a fearsome reputation?
No, not really. The Imperial Guards were considered pretty good. But apart from that, the others were treated much the same. They never had any Koreans fighting there, so we couldn’t make any assessment of them as fighters.
What, from observations, coming up Bukit Timah Road was you’d see the artillery and the mortars open up on them, and then they’d land amongst them and some would stay there, and they just got up, reformed and marched on down the road. Proved that they were pretty well trained, or it had been instilled in them to keep going. Different from what you would have expected from anyone.
I heard there were specialised Japanese units. One particular unit, everyone had to be over 6 foot.
Imperial Guard in the main were tall, but they weren’t over 6 foot. They had stringent regulations as far as I can gather. I can’t remember any that you say were as tall on the average we were.
What were their uniforms like?
Baggy cotton things. They were like a pair of jodhpurs with sometimes
puttees and a shirt with a kepi type hat. Very few of them ever wore the tin helmets like we did. In fact, most of our tin helmets got thrown out before the end. They’re cumbersome, they make too much noise. It was quite suitable from where I was concerned for tropical warfare, the uniform they wore. They had rubber, canvas type,
rubber soled boots. Most of them had pigeon toes. Whether that was an aid to tree climbing, I don’t know. They never issued us with any boots all the time I was prisoner of war so I never got a chance to try a pair on, so I wouldn’t know.
When you look back at the Malayan Campaign,
tell us what you think the Japanese’s reason for victory was on the tactical scene.
I think a lot was the tactical leadership we were under. I didn’t
rely heavily on that, especially in the lower ranking of the officers. We ran up against some of them at different times, and they were very caustic in their observations til they realised we were doing a lot better than they were. They just didn’t seem to, a lot of them when you met up, it was just like it was a foregone conclusion they were going to be beaten.
That’s how you felt about it.
So there was a feeling of defeat?
That’s how you felt about the officers and that, even of the MCAs, the English troops and that, with one exception, the Scottish troops. They had a few Highlanders in there. They were bloody good. They were real fighters.
Did you fight alongside the Indian troops as well?
Yeah we had Indian troops there, but there was never any within close
proximity to us. The only time that I can remember being very close to them, was up between, on one of our flanks on Bukit Panjang and Bukit Tinggi, and they came racing back through our ranks. The only comment I can make on that, they were only young troops and perhaps poorly trained. But most Indian troops, no, they put up the resistance, well they had to, otherwise they got killed.
There was no mass surrenders by them.
Can you tell us what it’s like to experience a Japanese infantry attack?
Pretty frightening. They are two or three frontal attacks on us. They’re prepared to die. Silly, we wouldn’t have made the same type of
attack. Just charge straight at concentrated fire like that, you’re stupid. I believe that’s been overplayed a lot. I don’t think they did that often.
Why do you say that?
Well, there wouldn’t have been any of them left. You couldn’t’ just charge straight at people well-armed and plenty of ammunition and get away with it.
So what tactics would they use when they were charging?
the jungle. They were good as far as…and in the rubber plantations it was hard to spot them. That’s the first time we had any contact with them, in a rubber plantation up where we was talking about and they’re hard to see with that particular uniform on, anything was lighter than what we wore. They paid a much bigger price than we did. They were more prepared to die, they had numbers.
I’d hate to see their death toll. It would have been far greater than ours.
What about the Imperial Guards? Were they more intelligent?
Imperial Guards, they were crack-units. In the main, they were well trained, and well educated. For instance, I can give you an idea of two or three of them. There’s one there, his name was Mankata. He was later one of our guards up at Ye. He was head of the Tokyo telephone exchange. Well educated, and
quite easy to talk to.
He was an officer?
No, just an ordinary private. And then there was another one, he was an Olympic Games wrestler called Terimoto. He spoke fairly good English. He was different to the rest of them. He travelled the world and he was a bit different to the others. But I imagine he’d be a pretty damn good fighter. When they got word they were being sent to New Guinea,
some of them got our blokes to write them letters. I heard after I got back from Italy that Terimoto was killed in New Guinea.
What struck you about this cultural encounter?
We were pretty prepared for it, because it didn’t strike me as odd. I’d had no experience with Japanese before that. I’d plenty of experience with Chinese out in Australia, and Malayans and
other oriental races, but the Japanese were a different kettle of fish altogether to me. Very obedient to what their officers told them to do. They didn’t hesitate to run straight into open fire, which is stupid.
Are you saying that the Japanese Imperial Guard were basically middle-class origin?
Were they a socially exclusive unit?
I would say they appeared to be higher educated than the others.
And this included the privates as well?
Yup. Even the privates.
Was it common to meet privates who could speak English in the Imperial Guards?
Yup. Most the Imperial Guards spoke a fair smattering of English, the ones that we had anything to do with. Most of them we had anything to do with in talking to them, was whilst we were prisoners of war.
How did they treat you all?
They treated us better than the lower-ranked ones, the lower class of people.
When you say better, how much better?
They’d talk to you in English. They’d ask where you come from. They’d inquire about your family. They’d tell you about their own family. They were more or less citizens of the world than the others were.
Were they still brutal, the Imperial Guard?
Only if you did something real wrong. They were far better
than the ordinary ranking soldiers and file of them. In fact, they’d be 10 times better in facing up if you had Korean guards. They were the worst.
They’re something quite interesting, the Koreans.
Well, see they’re mostly from northern Korea. That’s where the problem is now, isn’t it?
Did you notice the same disciplinary system in the Imperial Guards as opposed to standard Japanese army
They had a system that I’d say, just their drill and that, where you could detect anything different, they were very good at it and I think they were very proud of what they did. But as for the difference in the systems, I couldn’t comment on that. They didn’t seem to be that much different.
One particular aspect of it I’ve noted through other prisoners of war is that apparently the Japanese command structure was
one where officers could assault the lower ranking.
And not just officers, but NCOs and privates and so forth, Lance Corporals.
That’s correct. That came right down through the Japanese army,
Imperial Guard as well?
And you’d seen that many times before?
Yeah. Their hold over their men was greater than anyone else I’ve ever seen
simply because of this, the beltings and the bashings and that. They were very fierce in that sort of thing.
Tell us about the Koreans.
The Koreans were not known to us until they came down as guards and it didn’t take us long to realise that they were worse than anyone else. They were brutal and cruel and they looked for opportunities to bash you. When I say “to bash,” they didn’t just
belt you over the face with a slap, they tried to break your jaw bone or something like that. They weren’t what you’d call pleasant blokes to deal with. Some of them, if you met them on a dark night, you’d think twice about spearing them, that’s the type I put them down to.
A lot of people say that the Japanese were extremely brutal, and ruthless
because of their martial tradition.
Yeah. That’d be right.
The Koreans are not known for martial tradition as much as the Japanese.
What I could say about that is Koreans learned very fast and they practised it harder than the Japanese.
Why do you think they were so brutal?
I don’t know. I think they just wanted to make their mark on the world.
Say “Look, we’re another race of people and this is what we can do.” I can’t see anything behind it. You’d strike the odd one who was no different to anyone else. He was just wanting to talk and find out more about the other nations in the world and wasn’t worried about it. But then he was the rare one, very rare.
Did you come across Koreans that could speak English?
A few. Very
few. There were less Koreans that understood English than there were Japanese. Most Japanese had a smattering of English. I think they learned a bit at school about it. The easiest way that I put it down to was to learn a smattering of the Japanese language as quick as you could.
how did you do that?
We were fortunate, the group I was with. We were first to be sent away from Singapore, A Force. We were sent up to Burma. One of the first
things that was placed in our hands up there was a Japanese propaganda paper produced every week at Rangoon. There was so many copies that come into whichever camp you were in, and had a basic course in Japanese, learning to speak Japanese. Those of us that took the trouble to try and learn it, generally got away from things like bad beltings and that much quicker and better than the blokes that said, “Bugger it, I’m not gonna learn this.”
Were a lot of people apathetic towards learning Japanese?
It was only a few that decided to take it on?
By the time your time had expired, there wouldn’t be hardly one prisoner of war that didn’t know all their command words, all their cuss words and he knew when to tuck his head. That’s how it worked out.
Tell us some of the command words.
‘Kyotski’ that’s attention. Their swearing at you that’d be ‘kura bugeru’,
What did they mean?
Mainly they mean you’re an idiot without brains. They all got much the same translation. They don’t have any words like we have, like ‘bastards’ and things like that. You could tell him his father mightn’t have known his mother and we’d say, “You’re a bastard.” That’s what the English language would translate it into, but not the Japanese. They didn’t worry about that.
On the topic of the Japanese communicating to you all, there must have been a very rigid social system.
Most Japanese would learn a bit of English. I think it was at school. The higher the rank, the more they spoke it.
I heard there were social differences between the Japanese air force, navy and army.
We never had much contact with the air force. A little contact with the navy, but very little. But
what I would say about the navy, they seemed to be a bit softer on us than the others, maybe because the only time you contacted them was when you worked on ships or when you were working on the dock.
Tell us where you were when you first come across the Koreans.
Koreans up in Burma.
Do you know where you
We would be out perhaps the 35 Kilometre camp. 35 kilometres from Moulmein. Wasn’t that far out because it’s only about 110 or 115 kilometres to the border of Burma and Thailand from Moulmein. At that stage, we were only
learning kilometres, metric. Our whole life had been built in miles and yards and feet and inches. Then once you started work on the railway line, you had to shift so many metres of earth a day, and you had a metre rule that you had to put down, and put in a peg, that’s the amount of earth you’ve gotta dig out down to a metre deep and so on. You learned it from a different point of view.
Throughout your experiences in
the POW [Prisoner of War] camps, what sort of Japanese soldiers were stationed in these camps?
Some of them were a little bit older than what you’d expect and in the main the older ones weren’t as bad as the younger ones. The ones that had fought against us seemed to have a better understanding of the white race
and they may have been a little bit tolerant than those that hadn’t been up against you. That’s just my own personal observation but I believe that that’s roughly what it was about. That if they’d had any real action against you, they had a bit more respect for you than if they hadn't. They were
funny experiences. You very rarely struck anyone as tall as you if you were around the 6 foot mark. But, like you said, the Imperial Guards and those blokes, and a lot of them were around 6 foot. They were big blokes, but they all weren’t. But I would say that the Imperial Guards were 10 to 20 per cent better educated than the others.
It would suggest their middle-class origins.
I would think so, yeah.
I would think so.
Did you notice a curiosity on the part of the standard Japanese soldier of peasant extraction?
A lot of them if they got talking to you after you’d been under their charge for a while, they’d see you pick up a bit of paper and they’d start trying to talk to you in broken Japanese and a bit of English. A lot of them asked you about where you lived, and what sort of stuff you grew in gardens and things like that.
And they were interesting to hear their comments on the way you grew things and the way they grew things. That part they seemed to be almost human. They were talking about something that was common the world over.
Were they forbidden to do that?
They were allowed to talk to you?
They were allowed to talk to you as long as you kept working and they didn’t get into any trouble. They didn’t worry about it. On a normal
working day on the Burma railroad, you’d be in groups up to 30. There’d be one Japanese guard there but there wouldn’t be an officer for about, only one officer for 10 or 12 miles. Some days you’d never see a Jap officer. Those guards that were doing the job, they were from one star private up to three star private. Very few of corporals or anything like that. They’ve got one star private, he’s the lowest rank. two star private, three star
private is a senior private.
Like a lance corporal and a…?
No. Just a different grade of private. Once you go past the private, you go to corporal and then you go to sergeant. It’s a different system altogether, theirs.
I understand their army was modelled on the German army.
Could have been, but I don’t think the ranking was the same as Germans. I don’t think the Germans had 1st, 2nd and 3rd class
privates. Not to my knowledge. Not to anyone I’ve met.
Perhaps it’s a conglomeration.
It’s a funny system between the lot of them.
You were taken to Moulmein, is it?
Moulmein. Yes, Moulmein is the next big port down from Rangoon, that’s the easiest way to describe it, and that’s where the railway launches off from Moulmein
and goes straight across through the highlands up to Three Pagoda Pass and down into Thailand.
How were you transported there?
Can you walk us through the journey?
To Moulmein was quite a long journey. We started off in Singapore. We got aboard a, trying to think of the name of the vessel the other day. I can’t think of it. I can think of the name of the one that I was on
when I was sunk. It’s Toyohashi Maru. That was the name of the one they put us on in Singapore and we went across, would be perhaps 3,000 men on it, went across to Medan in Sumatra, picked up some Dutch troops, went back across the Burma side to Victoria Point, dropped off some Australian prisoners of war there, went on up to the next port, which was,
God, I can’t think of the name of it. There’s another port. Then we went up to Tavoy. That’s another big port, with a big airfield. Quite a large city and quite a large river running down to it. I remember we had to unload a steamroller off a ship there. And lo and behold, the steamroller rope
or something broke and it went down to the bottom of the river. It took about two days to get it out again. Then from Tavoy, we did the trip by road up to Ye. Now, Ye is not a port. It’s about 10 kilometres in from the sea on a very big river that large ships of about 30,000 tons could travel up, no problems. Fairly wide. And that was to be the jumping off place
for supplies going up to the railroad, which would be the shortest way up to the centre of the railroad near Three Pagoda Pass. That was a long job there. We worked building the road from Ye heading up towards across…it’s not that far across. I believe it’s only about 80 kilometres straight across, through up to where they wanted to
take this road to, so they could supply the railroad when it got higher up. But it’s across a very low-lying jungle. Very thick jungle area. Very swampy. Full of tigers and elephants. All together not a nice place to be. A lot of malaria and we got a lot of dengue fever across through there, too. And that worked very well until we got over half
way. We built bridges across rivers, built culverts and proper road-building techniques. But the Japanese hadn’t studied the monsoon season. When the monsoon broke, the first monsoon, the rain was that heavy they’d get about 400 inches of rain a year there and it washed everything out, bridges and all, and it was never rebuilt again, so that was the end of it. So they had to supply all the way from, either from down at
Moulmein or from down at Bangkok. Only way they could get the supplies up there.
Do you think if the Japanese had a chance to properly supply their troops at the front, they would have been more successful in Burma?
No. Wouldn’t have made much difference. The Japanese were ruthless. Their frontline troops wouldn’t have suffered any, because they’d just take it off the civilian population, given it to them.
That was their tactics in Malaya and anywhere. Absolutely ruthless. Their army came first and foremost. I don’t think it would have made any difference to them.
What interaction did you have with the local people of Burma?
The Burmese people, of all the people we had anything to do with, perhaps were the best disposed towards us. A lot of them had never heard of Australia, but it was a British
protectorate most of its life. A lot of them spoke English. They were slightly different race of people to the Thais and to the Indian races. They were slightly different. They were very proud of their being and where they were. For instance, where the River Valley Road camp, not that, that’s in Singapore, trying to think of the name of the one in Burma down near Ye.
I was one of the fortunate ones. I’d been off with bad malaria, and two Japs burst in and they put an armband on me and an armband on another chap and that meant when we got back to working fitness, we could wander anywhere two days a week amongst the Burmese within so far of the camp and beg, borrow or steal foodstuff for ourselves. Never had to steal anything. The Burmese used to fill your baskets.
You could get to talking. A lot of them spoke English. I remember one family that had a rather large rice holdings down off the river. They were waiting for their son to come home to be married. They knew he’d get back. He’d gone with the Burmese army. The last letter they’d had from him, he was over near the Indian border. Whilst we were still there, we had this band thing on, we went over, and this young chap came out in military uniform. He had come home for his wedding. They’re entirely different
to what the other families were. We got invited to his wedding. The day that we went was the next week. When we went over, we went a bit early to be at the wedding, and his mother and father spoke English. He spoke reasonably good English and they were not much different to people anywhere in the world. They were lovely people. We found that they were the best of all of them. Whether anyone else had that same experiences as us
that were doing that particular job, is hard to know, because we had a big leap forward when we were allowed to do that. That badge you wore on your arm gave you a lot of power to walk to different places.
What about escaping?
It was only limited to a certain area. You couldn’t go more than 10 or 12 miles; you’d get shot, simple as that.
I would understand that Burma
was rife with Allied prisoners of war, practically in most districts, doing some sort of labour-intensive work.
No. In the south of Burma, in the area that we worked with the exception of the aerodromes, down at Victoria Point, Tavoy, there’s another one down in there, and up at Ye,
most of them were just rice growers and that type of people and they have very little interest in politics or anything like that. They were just genuine people that felt sorry for other people and they had the same sort of feelings that we had.
That really is an extraordinary amount of area of movement for a prisoner of war, by contrast to others.
We had nowhere to go. You couldn’t have gone anywhere without arms and ammunition. Once
you got out of the area that you were allowed to beg, borrow or steal your rations, these went to the whole camp. They weren’t above taking the best for themselves. It would be against their own policy. They were pretty liberal where they let you go to.
Did that surprise you initially?
No. We’d heard about it before. There’s nowhere you could go to. Even if you got to the coast and got a boat there,
there was no islands nearby. The nearest place to head for would have been India, and it would have taken you days and days, and you had no idea of what the conditions were in Bengal, so you didn’t. You wiped it from your mind pretty quick when you thought of the awesome problems of getting across there.
What about special operations in Burma. Were you aware of anything of that sort?
We knew that further north, when this young chap come
back to his wedding, he knew of British Special Force groups somewhere up there. He said there were some up there. But he said, “I don’t think they’ll ever get down this far.”
So they were in the more isolated areas?
They were in the more isolated area between Burma and India. In there. I believe there were some further operations going up, down from China. We didn’t have any contact with anyone that had contact with them.
Can you describe the conditions you had to work in and live in in Burma?
They weren’t what you call good. You slept on the floor in most places, except a few where you were allowed to built a bit of a hammock-type bed, if you could steal a couple of rice bags or you had enough time to
cut up bamboo finely and make up bamboo-matted mat, over of which you threw a rice bag or something over and sleep on. Apart from that, you slept on the floor. The rations in Burma, perhaps, were a little bit better than other countries, mainly because you could subsidise the rations from the people, not what you were given by the Japanese. The Japanese were noted for never giving you very much meat.
You got very little meat. In fact, to us in Burma – and Burma’s the home of a lot of snakes – snakes were a delicacy up there. We loved snakes. You very rarely let a snake get away. You killed it and took it back and cooked it.
What’s it like to eat snake?
It’s a bit like fish. I’d had snake before I went over there, I grew up in the Mallee and we liked snake because the aboriginals up there used to eat snake. You’d just throw them in the fire and cook them.
It’s quite a pleasant meat, snake. There's a lot of stuff up there. If you could get some of the fish up there, are very nice, and you’d get fish in all the inland streams. The Japanese used to come quite often and say, “You, you, you and you” and grab 4 or 5 blokes and go down to a stream with a hand grenade and throw them into the water and send you in and get the fish as they came to the top.
You used to sometimes sneak one down your loincloth and get it back to camp.
So they’d let you take a few for yourself?
Well, we believed they didn’t know we had them, but I think some of them were letting us get by. I think they felt a bit sorry for us. The rations got worse and worse. When we first went to Burma, it was a bit of a holiday, and then the rations slowly were
reduced and reduced.
I understand you were in a group called A Force?
A Force, yeah. That was the first force up there. The first to leave Changi and go up there.
Tell us more about this.
Once we got out to Changi, there was nothing. They just said it was so many of us, 3,000 men or something all together that went up there to Burma. They said, “We want 3,000 men. Australians.” And it was up to our own officers to
delegate those of us who wanted to go up there. They talked to us about it and they said they thought we might be going further north or somewhere right away from everywhere. And we mulled it over and moist of us said, “Well, it’ll be a change and it won’t be in the middle of civilisation. Might get a chance to escape.” And nearly everyone they spoke to, they just went along. You couldn’t volunteer, they just said, “You, you and you.”
Once those 3,000 that went up first were divided into three forces. A Force still remained A Force. But you had Green Force was lead by Major Green, he was the head of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion. You had Colonel Anderson VC who was the 26th Battalion colonel. There was Anderson Force, Green Force,
the other one was a bloke came over from Middle East, came down to Java and came up to Burma from Java. He was a colonel too. And they were the three forces of the 3,000. They were fortified by a few other arrivals later on, and I think out of 3,500 men up there, there’s 38.3% or something that died in Burma, and that was Australians only. It wasn’t a very pretty picture
because the work was non-stop and the closer it got to meeting dates, they might keep you up there 17, 18 hours a day just to get the amount that you had to do that day to keep the timetable.
What understanding did you have about the war elsewhere?
It wasn’t a place we were ever in that somewhere or other we didn’t have a wireless set. I was a sig [signaller] electrician and I helped them construct two
sets while I was over there. The first one was well-known. It was hidden in the bottom half of a water bottle. A chap could be operating that, and a Jap could be standing alongside and he wouldn’t know. The water bottle was placed alongside his bed, and it was just those little thin wires you get, like out of a carburettor or something like that, very fine with a cotton covering. And they’d go into the pillow in the chap’s bunk,
wrap around and where it was connected would be to a single earphone in the middle of his pillow. And he could be lying there and listening to the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news and no one would know.
An ingenious invention.
There was four or five ingenious wirelesses invented up there.
Tell us about the other ones.
That type of one. The other one was one we used down in Thailand a bit. That engendered a water bottle too but it was much bigger. It had a better range.
It used to, I forget where they had the earphones hidden, but they just used to hook it up, sit there and listen to it at night time. What happened, you had officers designated who would be the ones to be told the news that you’d listen to and you weren’t allowed to talk about it. It was always embargoed whoever found out about it. I think it was three to six weeks or something,
before anyone talked about it. If the Japs heard someone talking, and it happened two nights ago that Bremen was bombed or Tokyo was bombed or something like that, they’d have a big search looking for a wireless. But if it was six weeks ago or three weeks ago, they wouldn’t worry, because when they’d challenge you, “How do you know what you’re talking about?” We’d say, “Those troops going up to Burma, they were telling us about the big bombing raids in Japan.” It was the only way you could get away with it.
Did they actually capture people who had this wireless?
I don’t know, I think one place there was a wireless set confiscated, but they couldn’t find out who owned it or it was inoperative apparently when it was caught. Most times you knew, but it was embargoed for two or three weeks before anything was told about it. You had an escape committee of officers, and they would release the news when and where
it was deemed right to do so. If there’s been a couple of trains of troops going through up to Burma, or marching up to Burma, these Japanese troops, where you had a God-given opportunity, you could say, “Well, these troops going, marching up the line the other day, was telling us about the bad bombing in Japan and the Russians bombing Berlin” or something like that.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 05
You mentioned off-camera about being beaten up by a Japanese general. The general actually beat you?
No, they wouldn’t do anything like that, their aide de camp, they just say “bang.” You knew what it was coming. I don’t think there’d be any Australian up there that never received several bad beltings.
You received quite a severe
I got about a dozen altogether. If you were talking when you were working, and the next thing you’d get a whack on the side of the head with sometimes a sword in its scabbard or something like that, because they caught you talking instead of working. Things like that and that won’t do you much good. They were quite good with their boots. In fact, the Koreans, that was one of their specialties. Get you a tropical ulcer on your shin from a
kick in the shins. I think they didn’t like us. You struck some that would talk to you. And it wasn’t so much they didn’t like us, they didn't’ like the way the Japs treated them, so they took it out on us.
How did the Japs treat them?
They treated them as bad as they treated us, I think. They considered them inferior.
Tell us about some of the examples you had seen of this treatment.
At the 75 Kilometre bridge on the railway, we had Korean guards there, and they caught them one day. We were rolling some rotten wood so it would sink after the earth was put over it and that. And we said it would be all right, but the Japs used to watch. And the next thing, they came over and they got stuck into the
Korean guards for letting that sort of thing go on. So we got a belting, and they got a worse belting. That was part and parcel of it. We were only putting something over them, they shouldn't have got a belting at all. It was a game, a big game. You took a lot of risk for some of the things you did. There wouldn’t have been hardly any bridge
that our blokes worked on that wouldn’t have had handfuls of termites put down in the bottom of the poles when they were put in.
Handfuls of termites?
Yeah. Eat them out. That sort of thing went on and on. It was a natural cause. It was tough too, because you had no clothes after your first seven or eight months. What we used to walk round in was a lap or a loincloth.
Soon as you wore a shirt out, the first thing you did, you took the sleeves off it and made a loincloth. That’s how wide they were. Just a sleeve unfolded. If you wanted to catch some termites to put down there, the only place you could carry them was in your loincloth. It was a bit hard, any wriggly termites, to try get them any distance but it was worth the effort. There’s a lot of ingenious sort of things happened up there
What were the others?
A log that looked pretty solid, it would be rolled in to form the bottom of where they splayed outside the retaining walls at crossings. But it was hollow. You could tap in it and see. That was one of the things you used to like to do, it was nice to know that even before we left the line,
it was finished. Some of them were starting to collapse and cause some problems, because once the bottom thing went, that means the water could go ahead and wash away a lot of the foundations on their bridge. It was fun and games. Use your mind to beat them.
The Japanese must have caught on to this.
I don’ think they ever, I can’t remember them ever bashing anyone of us over it. I think they just thought it was crook timber or something like that. They'd have it all walled up
and done again, within another 48 hours it would be back to normal. Those sort of things caused a little bit of time that trains couldn’t go through and things like that. It was a lot of that sort of thing went on. Everyone that I can remember had a fetish to try and put something over the Japs and I think to be fair, there wouldn’t be too many blokes that didn’t try something
and get away with it over the years up there. See, the average time I spent up there in Burma and part of Thailand would be two and a half to three years for our group of blokes.
What year were you in A Force?
A Force? We went up there in early ‘42, and we would have worked through there till ‘42, ‘43, ‘44.
I got away from it in ‘44, September ‘44. I got home for my 21st birthday. I had my 21st birthday in a hospital in Brisbane. It was wonderful, I tell you. I’d forgotten all about it as you tend to do. This day I’d been sent down to MacArthur’s headquarters in Brisbane to do some identification on Japanese shipping that they’d
brought photographs back from. And I thought, “Gee, they’re a bit late letting me get back to camp tonight.” I said to one of them, “You’d better ring up the camp and see if they’re sending a ute out, or I've gotta get my own way back.” And he said, “Oh, no. Someone will come and pick you up soon.” I get back up there, and walk through and as I go through I’ve gotta get past the dining room. And it’s all set out with party cups and everything. I thought, “Looks like they’ve got a bit of a do on tonight” and went back into my room, and they said, “You’d better get
changed, we’ve got a do on tonight.” Get in there, it was a do for me. It was my 21st birthday. Mum had sent a telegram and the staff had got hold of it, and they put on this bloody big 21st birthday, and they had all the girls from an American WAC [Women’s Army Corps] camp just up the road. They were down there, so we all had a female partner. It was a fantastic night, I tell you. And my Dad, he had been serving up in the army in Labuan Island and my brother had been flying
Liberators out of Borneo or somewhere or other and they both came home. Mum had sent them telegrams to say I was back in Brisbane. They couldn’t find me in Brisbane. And it was just to know that they’d been there, and I was this secure and locked up, and yet they’ve got this big party on. It was unbelievable.
Must have been amazing to see your family again.
Well, I didn't see them until weeks later until we were all pronounced fit enough to go home. And they’d give us 60 or 90 days leave, came down by train, all the way to Sydney, then changed over to the Spirit of Progress down to Melbourne and they were all standing on the platform at Spencer Street Station, and all the family.
I went past them. No one picked me up. I had aged, and I suppose I looked entirely different. Except my youngest brother, he was there, he was 12 years old. He spotted me and pointed me out. And from there they took us by car out to Royal Park. We got issued with Australian clothing and a leave pass, and sent by car out home. Caught up with the family. They were living out at Balaclava in those days.
Ian and Dad only had 4 days leave or something. I didn’t see much of them there. It was the next day or the second day after was the Melbourne Cup. We all went to the Melbourne Cup. Used to be able to go through just on your leave pass and they had military policemen at the leave thing. I go through and show them my leave pass, and this military policeman grabs it and says, “You can’t have 60
days leave” and he’s gonna do this and he’s gonna do that to me. And Ian and Dad fronted him up and just told him, “You’d better be careful. This bloke’s just escaped from the Japanese and he’s got this leave pass. Read underneath right down the bottom of the leave pass, there’s a telephone number to ring,” which was the officer out at Royal Park. And they did that. And they were shoe-faced about it after that. They give us a tough time, because you were walking around town and they
reckoned no one should have a 60 day leave pass. They used to hunt you. We used to go out the RSL out near Ripponlea, the big RSL club out there. We used to go there to get away from them.
What rank was your father?
I think he was only a private. I think at one stage he might have been a corporal or sergeant, but he was only a private then.
Am I right to say that he was a First World War vet as well?
No, he was in the army, but he was only just made it when the war ended.
He was in Europe when the war ended?
No, he just made joining the army here in Australia, and the war ended. So he was one of the early ones to join up this time, the Second World War.
He was keen?
He was keen. And he reckoned they kept fobbing him off and wouldn’t send him over to,
he wanted to go over to the Middle East and Europe, because one of his brothers was buried over there. And I’ve actually found the graves when I was over in Europe after – I ended the war in Europe. Found my cousin’s grave. He was shot down over Alamein. And Uncle Bill’s grave is up in the Somme somewhere in France; I found that too.
was your father keen to do his bit for the war when he had a family?
Well, he’d missed out in the First World War, and he felt it keenly that all the others were members of the RSL, and he’d never had the opportunity, because if you didn’t go away from Australia you couldn’t join the RSL in those days. It was only after the war that they made it, that anyone that was in the army could join the RSL.
Had he seen combat?
Yeah, he seen combat when I seen him. He was fighting up in Labuan on the island.
Did he talk to you much about that? How would he relate to you being a…?
He compared the types of Japs they fought against to the type we fought against with me. Much the same sort of thing.
What were the differences?
You described vaguely a frontal infantry attack by the Japanese in Malaya. Someone else I spoke to with infantry experience against the Japanese said it was very loud.
He said they’d have tricks where they’d put string on a bush and move the bush to get you to fire.
They used those same tactics up in Malaya. We used the same tactics too, worked on their own, with them.
Tell us about the noise, their specific tactics in Malaya.
The same thing you said about a bush wobbling
like that. The first thing you were told was, “Don’t take any notice of a bush wobbling. It is possibly a bit a string going for 200 yards, and someone tugging it to make you give your position away.” You didn’t fire unless you could see something positive to fire at. Simple. They were full of a lot of tricks, the Japs, they were. Some of them we fought against had been fighting in China for years, the older ones.
Generally the older ones were better to deal with, when we were taken prisoner of war, than some of the younger ones. They were stupid and more likely to bash you up. The Japanese, if you’d fought against them, the older ones, like the Imperial Guard ones, they treated us better than the others.
Did the Australian units involved in the fighting in Malaya suffer
heavy casualties in the engagements?
Roughly the same, perhaps a few less than the English, but the actual casualties in the shortness off time weren’t that high in Malaya and Singapore. I think up at the Muar River was about the worst lot of casualties we had.
You were inland, weren’t you, in Malaya?
Not near the coast?
No, we were up pretty near the central part of it. We went up from Tampin up through to the Muar River.
The Japanese also tactically speaking, I knew they were doing outflanking movements and attacking from the rear. Tell us more about your experience.
Never had any of them get right through. Because by the time we got up there, those tactics were known, and they were shifting people out to report on them, and they’d catch them coming down
trying to outflank them. So the Japanese considered us a lot more dangerous than the English. I suppose the Australians were more venturesome than the English and not completely bound the way they are. We thought they were good fighters, we had no qualms with them, although we saw some of the things they’d done that we’d never do. They were pretty ruthless with the
Give us examples of the Japanese infantry’s intelligence in combat tactics.
No, the only ones that comes to mind is where you wonder why a bloke over there
got whacked because he shouldn’t have, and it dawned on you, Japanese up a tree over there. That’s the only ones that come to mind. Of course, once you detected one up a tree, he didn’t last long.
Was that a constant fear?
Not really. I can only remember one or two instances of anything like that. One would be different altogether because they were back in
Singapore in the built-up area in Singapore, but apparently someone flushed him out.
What about yelling and shouting?
They used to do more of that than we did.
We didn’t know what they were shouting about. They were making a hell of a noise. We used to always reckon they’d make good football barrackers.
They weren’t that bad. They were good troops. They were better off than we were led, I believe they were. Man to man, I don’t think they acquitted themselves any better than we did. The whole trouble too also was that a lot of the troops that went over there didn’t have the right training.
No, the Australian troops. We got very little jungle training. You got that over there when the fighting had started, and then you got shifted straight up. You didn’t get much chance to get any extra training.
Were some of these troops some of the ones that were fighting in PNG [Papua New Guinea] later?
Yeah, well the Imperial Guard blokes, they had some of them as – they’d been wounded by mainly Australians in Singapore –
as guards on us up in Burma.
Were any of these troops in the fighting in Papua New Guinea?
Yeah, they came down to New Guinea afterwards and we know of one of them, who was the Olympic games wrestler, who was killed in New Guinea, the Japanese named Tirimoto. I know that when they were being shifted down there, they’d come and ask some of the chaps to write a letter to say that these chaps were all right to us prisoners of war.
I know Tirimoto was one, and I think Monaka was the other one. He was the head of the Tokyo telephone exchange. Highly trained men.
Why would they get you to write a letter?
They never asked me to write a letter. If they happened to be caught or anything, then the Australian troops would treat them better than they possibly would have been treated, because by that time, I would say, everyone knew what they were recognised of doing, and what they did do and they’d get
a rough time if they were caught. The only reason. The Japanese officers used to always call me ‘boy-soldier’. I was only 17 when I went over, they thought that was much too young. As I said, I had my 21st birthday back in Brisbane. It was a beauty.
And I had my 22nd in Italy. “See the world.”
Tell us about the other work chores you were compelled to undertake in Burma.
When the railway
got to the finish, we got right up into Thailand, but only doing a bit of clearing work along where the permanent way was to go. When we came back, we were just inside Burma on the Three Pagoda Pass side. Our main job there was quite a large expanse of very fracturable rock. You could use explosives to blow up slabs. It was easy to quarry down for ballast, railway ballast. We had a group of
Japanese engineers there that were in charge of us. Some of the older ones weren’t too bad, but some of the cheeky young buggers would try to put it over you. We put down 30 holes this morning, by tap and drill, and the Japanese engineer blokes would go and lay the charges down, gelignite or dynamite or whatever they had to do it; they used different mixtures of explosives. You used to
watch them. If you see them run, you run too. They wouldn’t let you know when they lit the fuses. This day, we counted about 28 fuses once, 28 explosions. And we reckon there must be nearly all right and we wouldn’t go back in there while the Japanese engineers weren’t back. Someone reckoned one hadn’t gone off. We were watching from a safe distance. He’s prodding away with a stick and someone said, “Oh, look at that, there’s a bit of fusing.” Just as he lifted it up, ‘boom’, up he went. So, we cheered that and thought that was very
You just cheered? Loud?
Oh, yeah. They couldn’t do much about it. He had it coming. He was so cocksure of himself, he shouldn’t have done that. Bet you if it was one of our engineers, he wouldn’t have done it, wouldn’t have thought of doing that. They might have lit another one and put it on top, but wouldn’t try and get a double explosion.
There’s a lot of that went on up there. They were a bit maniacal with explosives. In fact, there’s a lot of explosives laying buried still up there that never went off. Don’t know whether they ever surfaced them, or whether Burma has done anything about it.
What do you mean?
Well, we were blowing up concrete walls and that. You can see the hole, and you know there’s been explosive in there, but it’s never blown off and fractured the rock,
where they were doing cuttings in solid rock and things like that. You learned to avoid them. They weren’t very good in their safety practices, but they got that railway through, built in a time that no one else reckoned they could ever do it, and it wasn’t from any help from us.
Have you seen the movie Bridge over the River Kwai?
What do you think about that?
it’s not true to the word but there was an incident that it’s related to. The same – I'm in a book here, don’t know where it is now, its called “Return from the River Kwai.” It’s just a chapter in our life where we were picked at. We’d been from Bangkok down to Saigon. We
worked down there and they brought us back to Bangkok and then sent us down to Singapore. They couldn’t get us on a ship in Saigon to go to Japan. They sent us to Singapore. After a lot of work and that down there, they put us on a ship and we got sunk about six days out up north of the Philippines. It’s the whole story of our group and the sinking of the ship, where there was only about 68 Australians and 35 English or something out of 1,300 survived. And that book
has been written by professional writers Joan and Clay Blair, it’s a pretty accurate account, but it’s been embellished a little bit beyond what it should be.
Did you come across American POWs?
Where did you come across them?
Up the river. Most of the Americans we struck came from an artillery regiment. They came up with Australians and were landed in Java and off the
USS Houston that was sunk nearly alongside our [HMAS] Perth. And they came about the same time as the blokes off the Perth. We had them along the line with us from about a place called Thanbyuzayat, which was the actual start of the railroad, right through down into Thailand. A lot of them made good friends.
You liked them?
We got on well with them.
I don’t think they had the same capacity. They weren’t trained for jungle warfare, especially the blokes off the cruiser, the Australian blokes off the Perth had palled up with them, and we found they were a different type of bloke to the fellows in the artillery regiment. The artillery regiment was a home guard unit or something, that had been sent across somewhere to one of the islands and then down to Brisbane and just shot off on the ship up there.
What about American soldiers from the Philippines?
The only time we struck the American soldiers like them was after we escaped to the Marianas Islands, where we were hospitalised and sort of nursed back to a more reasonable state of health. We only weighed about 7 stone, half normal weight. They
shifted us from there down to Guadalcanal and we had a lot to do with Americans in that short time. In fact, we were in American hands until we got back to Australia. They brought us back from Guadalcanal through, dropped us off in Brisbane. There was a lot of feeling about Americans still around in those times. The
big thing that we were told all the way back when we met Australians, was about the dispute with General Blamey and General Bennett. And they came up the Brisbane River with us. There were these stevedores loading these ships, because we were told they were used to load
ammunition and take it up to the blokes in New Guinea. One of the blokes yelled out, “Hey, you one of the blokes that wouldn’t load the ship to New Guinea?” And he yelled out, “Yeah, so what?” Boy, didn’t he get a mouthful. They went down below as quick as they could get. Course we were primed by the time we got up to Brisbane, talking about MacArthur and Bennett and Blamey and all those things. We got up to just under the Story Bridge, we got off somewhere there.
They had a gangplank went down. On one side of the gangplank we got off onto land was MacArthur on one side and Bennett on the other. No, Blamey, I’m sorry, on the other. And Ronny Miscampbell, he was later to be the head of the DVA, Department of Veteran Affairs, in Queensland, Ronny was given the honour of going down the gangway first. Down he goes. He completely ignores Bennett and shakes hands with MacArthur,
then kisses the earth. And oh, he was a real snob to Blamey. He came up the hospital later on, where we were hospitalised and everyone kept their hands under the blanket, wouldn’t have anything to do with him.
It was Bennett and Blamey he hated?
Bennett he didn’t hate. But it was Blamey. We didn’t like Blamey for his treatment of Bennett.
Didn’t like Blamey for his treatment of Bennett.
He didn’t’ know the facts. Bennett never had that sort of name amongst his troops. I think Blamey said something to Bennett, what I read, he should never have deserted his troops. Well, he was still in Singapore long after the surrender was signed. He got himself out. You can’t go crook at a bloke. The first thing he taught us – try to escape if you can and he did it.
Blamey and Papua New Guinea. Did you hear about the things he said there?
Yeah, we heard a lot of that up there.
When did you hear about this?
When we came back to Brisbane. Blamey wasn’t too popular with us at all, because of his attitude towards Bennett mainly. I know there was a few of us who stayed back in the army were asked to join the Special Forces. And I think Blamey was
wanting to come and talk to a couple of us, but we didn’t want to talk to him. That’s when we went over to Italy with the Special Forces.
Was that to get away from Blamey?
No, no. We had these war criminals to take back to Italy. Once we’d delivered them, we went with the Kiwi Division specials doing all the mopping up while Italy was rendered safe.
It was very interesting. Different factions of the Italian parliament were pinching arms off the battlefield and stacking them up, and it was only to see who’d take power.
In Singapore, you were transferred from Burma
back to Singapore with a project with a dry dock?
When we were shifted from Burma, they took us down to Bangkok and then across up through Phnom Penh, Cambodia as it is now, down by river steamer through the big lakes in Vietnam, as it’s called now, down to Saigon. We worked in Saigon on various projects for quite a few weeks. We were imprisoned in the
old Foreign Legion barracks down at Cholon, a sister city of Saigon. We worked mainly on the air force, building blast walls for their aeroplanes and things like that, shifting oil and Avgas into the big rubber tree plantations over near the big wireless equipment there.
Tell us what Saigon was like at that time. Vietnam.
Saigon was like coming home. It had all the French people there. Not only
were they Vichy French, but all the young girls would be wearing the cheongsams and riding their bikes, and they’d wanna do a right hand turn, you were being transported to the airfield to work, and they’d put their hands out like that to do a right hand turn. We thought it was marvellous the younger girls and that over there. They were nominally Vichy French, but they couldn’t all have been Vichy French to a man. We actually had one bloke escape from over there. He was an air force
bloke, Jock Bingham. He must be in your records somewhere. And Jock was looked after by a French family until the war ended. He’s still alive. He’s living in Queensland.
What did you think about the French?
The only contact we had with them they treated us very well. They were upset that they were in the position with the Japanese. If you’d get them to talk about it,
they didn’t wanna talk about it, but that was the position they were put in when they were surrendered to the Japs in what we call now Vietnam. They weren’t too happy about it at all.
You got a chance to speak to some of them?
Oh yes. Many a time. When you were working in the airfield, they’d have some of them there. There might be a pilot or someone or a plane; you’re building a blast wall alongside his plane and he’d come over and talk to you. The Japs never used to worry much about it.
They were quite nice people.
Was there a large French military presence in Vietnam?
Very few military French there. You didn’t see very many. Very few military, mainly Japs.
There seemed to be some sort of resentment, I understand?
There was a lot of resentment amongst the French people that they were surrendered like it was. That’s our opinion of it.
To the Japanese that is?
To the Japanese, yeah. Oh, there was a lot of resentment to the Japanese. No one wanted
them there. The contact we had with the few French people that you actually met up with and could talk to, they were just ordinary French people. No different to getting off at Marseilles and talking to them, they were in the port of Marseilles and talking to them there. That’s the way we looked at it.
There seems to be some confusion that the French don’t like the
They didn’t like the Japanese as far as we know, because the people were very good to us. Quite often, when we were going to the airport or somewhere, or marching somewhere, a newspaper would be thrown from a car, or a booklet or something. Inside there’d be a wad of French money for you to use, occupation money, Jap French money. So they were a bit our way, I think.
What about the Japanese military presence in Vietnam, in Saigon?
It was the old Foreign Legion barracks down in Cholon. You didn’t see many guards inside because it was a barracks and you’re locked up inside it, and you only had them round the outside. Rarely seen them while you were in there.
Were there any Foreign Legionnaires in the area?
No. It was just the Foreign Legion barracks because they changed it into a prisoner of war place.
What happened after we left there, I don’t know.
How long were you stationed in Saigon?
About three or four months. Then we were sent back upriver back to Thailand. Then down through Thailand down through Malaya right to Singapore.
You worked on the dry dock project after that?
That’s when we went onto the dry dock project. They shifted us up to
Pulau Bukom Island which was just off the Singapore coast, and only about a 5 minute trip across on a Japanese barge, and dug the big holes there. Still operating to this day. You ever go over there, get a ride on the cable cars that go right across it to Sentosa Island, it used to be Blakang Mati. You go right over that hole we dug. We considered ruses there, because they started off
with, I think 20 skips to each of the, four skips going out from the big hole in the ground – steam-driven winches pulled them out – and they all started to disappear. Then they came to the conclusion that the natives were pinching them, selling them back to them for scrap iron. In reality, what was happening, when an air raid came on, we’d uncouple one at the end of the thing, tip it over into the swamp where it was being filled up, tip all the earth over that, and they’d be one short. Last time,
I can remember them having 20 skips on each one, they had about eight. They used to reckon, they used to say, “Singapore worker. Pucking thieves. Pucking thieves.” – they can’t say the f-word too well – “Pucking thieves.” And they used to say they’d pinched the things and got them spirited away and come at night and break them up and sell them as scrap iron to the Japanese.
Did you encounter any Allied military activity in Vietnam or Saigon when you were there?
Bombing from planes coming down from China, American planes.
Where would they bomb?
Saigon airport, Saigon docks. Mainly, definitely military installations. They never bombed anywhere near the military barracks we were in. They must have known we were there. They bombed down on the wharfs along there a couple of times.
Was it heavy bombardment?
Oh, yes. Some heavy stuff there. Really heavy stuff. They were the first time we saw the big four-engine B-24, 25 or something. They were the first time we saw them, 4-engined planes. They’d pick them up in the searchlight, they’d only look about that long and we got to know that pretty well. They were gonna land nowhere near us from the direction they were flying.
I don’t think we lost anyone by bombing there, which is about the only place where we didn’t. Same as Singapore being bombed by the time we left there again.
Did you hear about Ho Chi Minh and his resistance to the Japanese forces in Vietnam?
No, not really. No,
not Ho Chi Minh. He wasn’t known, that name wasn’t used. We heard there was resistance by Vietnamese to the Japanese. I don’t think Ho Chi Minh was around then. I think he might have been a bit young or he didn’t have a full say in it. Going back up through Vietnam and then across to Cambodia, you’d see signs of bombing and military action. It
didn’t matter where you went in South East Asia, you saw that.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 06
Tell us about Thailand. How long did you
stay there for?
Thailand? A fair while. We finished working on the railway at the 105 kilometre mark, which is only about 12 miles short of the border. Then we worked around to Konkoita I think the name of it is, in Thailand, which is about another 80 ks [kilometres] down into Thailand, just clearing where the track was and alongside the track. That’s
where the line joined up. By that time I would have been back down in Singapore. Where was it first? Before we went back down to Singapore, we went down to Bangkok, up to Phnom Penh and down to Saigon, did about six or eight months over there working on the airport
and the rubber plantations and all sorts of jobs in factories around Saigon.
In factories? What sort of work did that involve?
Just labouring work. They wouldn’t trust us with anything else.
What sort of factories?
Electrical and all sorts of things, mainly electrical components or something like that. It was an interesting part, Saigon.
French population were quite good to us. Nominally they were Vichy French, but most of them weren’t, because they’d cycle along in front of you with the girls on their bikes, and the long cheongsams and when they’d make a right hand turn, they’d go like that, ‘Victory’ V fingers.
They knew you were prisoners of war of course.
Yeah, got around pretty quick. One of our number, he escaped over there. He wasn’t going to come back, and he lived with the French. We only found out where he was about three months after the war finished.
He’s home now, he’s living up in Queensland.
Thailand was a very short stay?
Yeah, wasn’t that long. We stayed at Thanbyuzayat mainly in Thailand, down in Bangkok.
What activities did you do there?
Just waiting to be placed again, really. We’d get sent out to a job cleaning the side of a road or something like that.
No solid jobs like building railway lines or anything.
So it was a bit of a rest?
Bit of a rest away from everything.
What were the Thai like? Did you encounter them?
Yup, yup. Quite good. They’d talk to us. They were very nice people. No problems with them. We never had any problems with the civilian population wherever we went. They were pretty good to us. The ones in French Indo-China were much the same, because they had that French influence
through there, because Saigon was a pretty cosmopolitan city, really. You met all sorts there. Used to nick out of the camps at nights a few times there. We were camped down near the docks. You could get over the back fence easy enough. But you had to space
it very quick. You didn’t want to be more than a couple of hours out, or you’d get missed, get yourself back in.
You went to Cambodia as well?
Yeah, in Cambodia twice, but only for about a week and about 10 days the second time.
Cambodia was a French colony then?
Yeah, Phnom Penh was the city we stayed there.
Yeah, Vichy French.
What took place there that was different to Saigon?
Just the natives were different. The native people of Cambodia are different to the people you strike down southern Vietnam, or Vichy France as they called it then. I got pleasant memories of up round there, round Cambodia. You didn’t have to do any work. Perhaps that’s a good enough excuse to have a good
memory. Most the time you worked at least 10-12 hours a day.
Was there a large Japanese presence in Cambodia?
Yeah, there were quite a few of them around. But they were only occupation troops; none like the blokes that we had looking after us, they were just bash-artists.
The ones that were looking after you?
When you say occupation troops, they were
more like fighting troops?
No, occupation troops that were running the civic installation of the place.
Like holding troops?
Yeah, just holding troops.
Did you see any Allied air activity in Cambodia?
No, I never saw any activity in Cambodia. Seen plenty of it in Thailand, plenty of it down in Indo-China and plenty of it up in Burma.
We actually got bombed in about 10 places in Burma. Then back down in Singapore, we got bombed.
Tell us about the bombing in Burma and Singapore.
Burma? Well, you’d see the planes going over every day. They’d be heading towards Thailand, coming from India. But every now and then, I don’t know whether they just had some bombs left and, coming back, they’d drop them on you. Not that they were
very accurate. That was from very high up. I don’t think we ever had many losses from them. Except if you were down in Moulmein or anywhere like that in the big ports, you’d get a bit of a doing. I suppose, from our own planes, losses the group we were with, we’d probably lost a couple of hundred right throughout the whole time. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
You couldn’t blame the pilots of the planes. They wouldn’t know what they were bombing. Most of them up there are flying that high, they looked about that long. That’d put them up over 30,000 feet, I’d say. It was pretty high. Only way to bomb there, from what the specialists tell us, is carpet bombing – just plaster the whole area.
They got a few prisoner of war camps in the process.
Well, they weren’t like prisoner-of-war camps, they were just sort of holding areas up there. There wasn’t that many of us.
In Cambodia. There was all you could fit on one train, perhaps 150, two or three train loads.
How were you actually transported from Saigon to Thailand to Cambodia?
From Saigon to Cambodia, you went up by river steamers, up through the great lakes right up to
And how did you get from Cambodia to Thailand?
Down by train.
And then you went back to Singapore?
If you were going by river, how were you transported? By merchant ships?
No, they had these river steamers that’d go through those great lakes. They’d start about halfway up from Saigon to the Cambodian border. They’re quite extensive, big lakes.
You see a lot of river steamers running through there.
Were they operated by the Japanese?
They were operated by the normal people. Japanese had taken control of them. They’d tell them where to go and what to do. They were just producing about their normal duties, I imagine.
Did you have any problems getting people onto ships? Did the Japs have problems with that?
We didn’t want to go on the ships. We knew if you went on a ship you’re likely to get sunk. But you had no choice in it. If you didn’t wanna go, they’d just bang you over the head and carry you on. Wouldn’t muck about with you.
When you worked in factories, I’m not sure where this was.
You were making blast walls in an airfield building.
Yeah. That was for their planes. At one stage there, they were bringing in –
we’d be working at the airport, this was in Saigon – you’d hear these engines coming and the next thing there’d be a flight of aircraft carrier crafts with wingtip tanks and they’d fly round and round and drop their tanks. Then they’d go back and come in and land. In fact, we saw one of the things that got the biggest cheer out of the Japs you’ve ever heard in Saigon. They come in one morning there. We were working right down the end, where they used to take
off and go over a cypress hedge and come in to land over a cypress hedge. And the planes used to come in and fly around and drop their wing tanks, come in and land it.
Were these Zeros?
No, these were Japanese, not a Zero, I don’t know, they were an aircraft carrier plane. They wouldn’t fly Zeros out on them, they were just fighters. They were bigger than the Zeros.
I can’t think of the
name of them now. It’s not an Oscar. The last one had landed and we heard this noise coming “prrt, prrrrt.” A plane in trouble. It was obvious. And we were saying, “Gee, this was gonna be interesting,” because right down the main area they were loading a captured DC3 that was all big brass Japs, and their womenfolk. They taxied out onto the runway, and it’s coming down
to take off over this low cypress hedge so they won’t see anything coming and you can hear this other thing coming. And he just gets airborne, he’s about 30 foot up as this plane comes over the cypress hedge with his wingtips edged along and they crash about 300 feet up, head on. Course the cheer. You’ve never heard such cheer in all your life. There wouldn’t be any survivors. None at all.
All the prisoners of war were cheering?
the Japs were trying to quiet us. We wouldn’t quieten. I thought it was wonderful. We seen a couple of bad smashes there at that airport. Another day we were working there, this one come in, it must have had crook undercarriage and shot up in the undercarriage. It looked all right. It came down, it was running down normally on the tarmac and all of a sudden the undercarriage buckled and down it went. It skidded round to one side and took about three other planes with it. It all went up in flames.
It was great. Used to like that detail.
Wouldn’t the Japanese react to this cheering?
They were more worried that they’d get belted up for allowing it to happen, not being observant, that’s what they were worried about. It was a hard place over there. I thought it was wonderful to see them.
You said there was an instance where you have to fill in craters
That was when we first went up to Burma. We did the airfield. The first one I worked at was up at Tavoy. We filled all the bomb craters up with sand and then they were covered over again with hard rock and that. Then they extended the runway there about 40-50 feet must be, for one of their own planes and it had a lot of bomb craters on it. We filled them all in.
And the day they bring it back into operation and this Avro Anson came around, the civilian version, and it circled the aerodrome, come down and, as it was going to land, we all said, “Crash, you bastard. Crash, you bastard.” And where he landed, the undercarriage went straight into where a bomb crater had been, and it must have been soft and it slowed a bit, and the undercarriage went away, and just sheered off and oh, what a mess. We thought it was wonderful.
And that was a Japanese
There was a lot of high brass in it. They carried most of them off. They took the pilot out and shot him.
In front of you all?
Yeah. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times.
The pilot was shot?
Yeah. He should have known better. That’s the Japanese way of thinking. They used to think like that all the time.
Where would they shoot him?
Down the end of the airfield. They just took him out, marched him to the end of the airfield, contingent run out.
It was all over in 3 minutes flat.
Immediately after the accident?
Immediately after the accident. They don’t muck about. They got immense power, the Japanese generals. They can point the finger at you and they’d march you out and shoot you, and nothing would be said about it.
If that took place in an Australian Army setting…
Wouldn’t take place.
If it ever did, what would be the likely repercussions?
Have to be court martials. You gotta remember, in those days, that was nearly the extent of the Japanese advance where we were. You weren’t going to get much flak from there, because of what they’d been doing to the people. They were pretty callous.
Was it Vietnam you were building blast-walls?
That was down in Saigon. That’s for their planes, they were bombing the airfield there every occasion .
You’d come across poison gas being stored in a plantation?
Yeah we had to shift stuff. The rubber plantation was almost adjacent to the airfield. In the rubber plantation was a large
radio transmitting place and they ordered us to take the Avgas, gasoline for airplanes.
In 44 gallon drums and stack them hidden underneath the rubber trees and we were several days doing that. But the intelligence must have been good, because only about two weeks later they had to go and get them. Must have been terribly good their intelligence there. We used to like going to that airfield. That
was the Saigon main airport. I believe it still is this day. Through the main entrance, there’s a big monument to Charles Kingsford-Smith, one of Australia’s first ever aviators that flew from England to Australia and used that as a stop-over port. Used to drive around that to go into the airport when you come from the prison camp. Used to be like a little bit of home.
You had a chance to trade with the population?
We always did.
What would you trade?
Watches, anything gold, pens with gold on them and things like that. That was about all you could trade. They were only
looking for stuff they could get cheap and by the time we got over there, there wasn’t much left for any of us. That was one of the reasons you’d trade, to get money to survive. I don’t think when I got to Saigon that I had much to trade at all. Yeah, I did. I had a watch. I traded my last watch. I had two watches, one they’d given me for my 20th birthday,
21st birthday or something.
I’m surprised the Japanese didn’t confiscate it.
It was well hidden. You learned how to hide things quick-smart.
Were there many other prisoners of war also stationed in Saigon?
No, it was only the group
that we went over with that were there. If there was, we had no contact with any other prisoners of war.
When you were being transported, there were problems encountered
between the Japanese merchant marine and the army about prisoners of war being stationed onboard?
Well, we could only assume that that’s what their argument. They’d be standing up near the bridge arguing and pointing down at us. They must have been arguing about us and the conditions we were being transported under. The average Japanese merchant t marine skipper that we came in contact with was a far
different bloke to a naval skipper. He was a travelled man of the world. He’d been all over the world travelling in merchant ships. He was more like a man of the world. He was different altogether.
Were they rugged people?
Fairly rugged people. They’d have to be. We didn’t have much trouble with the merchant marine and the merchant shipping blokes with the Japanese unloading or loading ships.
Quite often you’d be walking past, carting some rice down into a hold. It has been loaded in and you had to shift it underneath the part that you can’t lower it into. There’d be a bloke standing over near the door to see you didn’t go out. He’d give you a cigarette as you walked past. You don’t light it till you get upstairs. That was the sort of things. They were different people, the merchant marine blokes. They’d travelled the world.
You had respect for them?
Yes, we never had any
argument with them. They were just doing their job, doing what they were told to do.
They’d give you cigarettes?
They’d give you cigarettes. Sometimes if they had a tasty bit, quite often you’d get a tasty Jap, you know, those meats and the way they cook them?
Sushi and all that?
Yeah. Used to have better stuff on the ships than anywhere else.
Any interesting conversations you had with them?
You used to use what Japanese we’d learned. I’d become pretty fluent in Japanese before
I come home. I was interpreting for the Japanese when I come home. They were just ordinary people to talk to. They were more interested in sport than anything else, tennis players and people like that, that’s what they were really interested in. They loved their sport. That’d be pretty right of all the Japanese merchant seamen, they all liked to talk about sport.
I suppose that was one thing they could do over night time. Sit on the ship and listen to a…
Did they get along with the army?
Didn’t see much evidence to say they didn’t. The only army you’d see around when we were there would be just our own guards. They wouldn’t be worrying them much. Once you’re aboard the ship, the guards can’t do much about you. See that you got a station so you don’t go down below, don’t hide yourself on the ship or something like
that. That’s about all. They never used to use many guards on the ships.
There could have been a mutiny for that matter.
Could have been.
Have you ever heard anything about mutinies on ships?
No. Never heard of mutiny on a Jap ship. Some of the crew were a little bit upset at times about what the navy were doing, telling them this and telling them that. They’d rather do it some other way. I don’t think there’s much. That was just
common in all services I reckon. The ones we stuck was the straight out and out Japanese military blokes.
The army, yeah. They were terrible. Real hard cases.
You were at Phnom Penh.
That’s in Cambodia. I don’t think it was called Cambodia back then. I forget what it was called. Lot of those places, their names changed.
I think it was still part of French…
Part of French Indo-China. The area was called French Indo-china.
Tell us how you got to the Singapore dry dock
When we finished building the railway, our share of it, they brought us down to Bangkok and the Kanchanaburi Camp, from which we were shifted down through Phnom Penh and Cambodia and the lakes to Saigon. Then we worked on all those
projects like I’ve told you, all through that area, and they brought us back up the same way as we went back down to Bangkok. Then they took us right down by rail through to the southern part of Thailand and through from there, down on the same railway line that went right through to Kuala Lumpur,
capital of what Malaya is now. Then by the same railway down into the, not the overpass, where the railway went across into Singapore and right into Singapore by train. Singapore we were in River Valley Road camp, one of the worse prison camps.
Why was it called River Valley?
I don’t know. That was the name of the area, I think, River Valley Road was the name of the road it was
built on. It was called the River Valley Road camp. It was pretty wired in. I don’t think anyone ever escaped from there. If they did, it was if they were away on work parties out of there. We were there for quite a while, worked on the Singapore docks for quite a while there. Then, without any word, we were put on a ferry-type vessel and taken over to Pulau Bukom
Island, just off the coast of Singapore. There’s only one big plantation I think in that. Set up a prison camp there for, I reckon, over 1,000 of us, mainly Australians. It had quite a large jetty, would take a decent sort of a tourist boat or something, and they used to take us over to work on the main Singapore Island building that dry dock. We stayed there until we completed the hole.
How long did that take you?
Four, five months at least. They had four steam winches taking the stuff out night and day. It was quite a big project.
How many prisoners of war were there?
I suppose 800 to 1,000.
This was the time when you started getting air raids coming?
Yeah, the air raids were starting. It wasn’t too bad where we were because we were in the swamp area where they were building that
on the island of Singapore. They were reclaiming swampland, that was overburden and taken out of the hole. We weren’t in much danger of air raids. There wasn’t much there to bomb, only mangrove swamps and things like that, so it wasn’t too bad there.
How did you get news coming in at that period?
We had a radio going still. Somehow we’d get a radio going.
The means that were used were hard to explain a lot of them to you. The one in the camp in Singapore, it was in a stretcher bearer’s water bottle, which is a bit bigger than the others. The bottom part had been taken out, and the whole receiving set was built into that bottom part, and then soldered back together. You had about four wires coming out, which you hooked two
of them up to torch batteries, and the other two up to the earphone. That one used to be worked by one man. He’d sleep in his hut of the night, be it made up of rice bags slung on bamboo poles. He had a pillow with coconut fibre stuffed in it for the pillow. Inside was one earphone; where it was sewn up, this pillow, it was actually the wire out
of, how you get out of generators and that, fine wire covered with cotton. It was sewn up like that, and two of those wires was hooked into the battery and the other two hooked into the bottom of the water bottle, which hung on the end of his bedpost. It was tuned in permanently to somewhere in India, or it might have been somewhere in your hometown.
Somewhere from over there. They used to
have a relay of the BBC news on it. Only one man would ever listen to it. He wasn't allowed to tell anyone. He’d tell the escape committee, and it would be released seven or eight days later. So if the Japanese ever picked up any hint of what they were talking about and asked you where you’d heard that, you’d say, “The Japs going through to get on the boat over there. They were telling us all about that. Happened last night
or something.” “Oh, no, no. Not last night. That’s a week ago that happened.” We used to get away with it that way. They never looked for it even.
They never caught anyone?
Never caught it, no.
Were you allowed to communicate with people from Changi when you were in Singapore?
No. The only time we ever met up with Changi blokes when we went back there, if they happened to be working on the next pier to where we were, we would shout across to one another over the water.
How far would that have been?
From only here to the road. You’d scream over a couple of
ships, merchant ships to go in side by side. All you’d be shouting was, “Do you know so and so” if any of your mates were still left, and if anyone knew, and things like that. They didn’t seem to take that much exception to it. Meeting up with them and being allowed talking to them was verboten [forbidden] as the Germans would say.
This is where you came into contact with the German
submarine, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that was the funniest thing. We go down this morning. We’re working on the main pier for the bigger cargo vessels. “That’s a bloody submarine tied up there.” It’s between where you walk down the wharf and it’s down near the end because a pretty big vessel was unloading. As we go past, we recognise it as a German sub. From then on,
we saw blokes walking and looking at us. A bloke in an officer’s uniform comes down and watches us working. He comes over and talks to us. The Japs didn’t seem to worry about it because he was German. He was well-known on the wharf because they used to berth there apparently every few weeks. He come down at lunch-time and asked what we were eating. We told him. He come down to have a look and he just picked up the bucket of wooden pales, and tipped the rice and the slops into the water and took them back to the submarine and came back with beautiful meat,
you know, proper stuff like we’d normally eat, potatoes and that.
Where did they get this food from?
Off the submarine.
They’d been cooking for their lunch and brought it back. And oh boy, we had a feed. That was the only time we ever got a feed from him, because the next morning the submarine’s gone. But there was several instances while it was there. The Jap officer, I told you about that one, did I? The bloke
Yeah, but off camera.
He was about 4 foot nothing, and his sword was just about scraping the boards. He was walking along and he sees the German, just a crewman in a pair of khaki shorts sitting on the mooring the sub’s moored to. And he walks up to him and “kotski,” called him to attention. Of course, the German doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Slaps him over the face, the German just stands up and whack, drops him.
He was knocked out cold?
Knocked him cold. Right on the
button. He got back up to his feet, and other Japs came screaming down the thing and it was nearly an international incident. We thought it was wonderful. The next morning we go down, there was no submariners round at the old Collier wharf. I can still see it.
How did the Japanese react to that? You said they were running down the wharf.
They were going mad. They reckoned that shouldn’t happen. But I think they were a bit frightened of the firepower that they had on the submarine. They were the only guns around. They
were the only guns you could see, the big one in the bows about 3 inch gun.
Was it a huge submarine?
It was a seagoing sub. Had to be a seagoing sub to get out that far. It’s been out there for quite a long time. Over the years, it had had spare parts put into it. They didn’t have the resources to go back to Germany, and so the Germans let the Japanese use it under their
guide until such time as they could get back there. I don’t know what happened to it eventually. I suppose it was there when the war ended. After that incident we didn’t see it again. We left soon after.
I know the submarine you’re speaking of. It got sunk near Java.
Could have. There were several subs sunk up there.
remember the captain?
No, I can’t remember his name. But I tell you what, did the Japs look up to him when he strode down, those started to sling off about the major being decked by an ordinary hand. We sang “Rule Britannia” for them, even though we were Australian. It’s the only song we could see to fit the
sentence. It was quite good. Makes your day when something like that happens.
What about the story of the fuel constraints?
The story they told us, when they first come out here, they were travelling from Java right up to Tokyo in Japan, patrolling that whole area.
It wasn’t the fuel so much, as the parts of the submarine wore out and they couldn’t get new parts for it. They got less and less that they could travel. It got to the stage where, when we first met up, all they patrolled was from Java to Singapore and Singapore to Java. That was as far as they could do a trip. Something to do with the mechanical running of the submarine. Just about worn out, I suppose. No spare parts for years.
When they first got out here, it would have been quite easy for them to get another submarine out with spare parts. But at that time that we came down there, it would have been much luck to sail one out here.
This is where you were after you had finished the dry dock project?
Back at River Valley Road camp.
What took place there?
They screened us all and they said they were getting ready to send us to Japan. Those that were picked to go to Japan, we got a pair of shorts, a shirt, a singlet, pair of underpants, pair of white split-toe socks and a pair of those canvas rubber sole shoes, split toed. That was to go
to Japan in the middle of winter. And a cotton blanket. That was to get you to Japan.
Were you looking forward to that?
I wouldn’t have minded getting to Japan, but I didn’t have any clothes and we’d have frozen. It was the middle of the Jap winter.
What did you hear about the convoys that were going to and fro?
We heard enough from the other seamen that we used to strike around. Like you had seamen
from various other countries, allied, neutral, you used to often strike one of them, and they told you what was going on, and you knew by what they told you that the odds of you getting even across there were pretty slim.
Tell us what they’d say.
They’d say that the last convoy that they were in, there was four or five ships sunk. We soon learned to believe that, because when we finally
got sunk, we’d seen the same thing happen. They didn’t seem to pick on any of us in the convoy, and there was a Jap ship guarding it. ‘Boom’ you were gone.
Do you think the Allies knew there were prisoners of war onboard?
No I don’t think they knew. They had some suspicions, but they didn’t know concretely. We were the first to get away to tell them the true story.
How did they react to that, the submariners?
The submariners wouldn’t have heard. This was just a group sitting down and what happened and when we told them about the activity of submarines and that there, and all the things, what we knew about it. And then it’s a pity they didn’t know what ships had prisoners of war on, because the Japs never used to tell anyone. They never used to obey international laws. You were just an ordinary merchant ship and an available target.
They wouldn’t mark with
red crosses or anything like that?
No, nothing on it. Nothing at all.
Wouldn’t that be to their advantage if they did?
You’d think it would. But then they could point a finger at them and say, “One ship will sink a lot of them.” Every time they saw that, it’d be an enticement to sink it first. That’s the whole problem with it. They were the most dishonest people you ever struck when it came to things like that. They wouldn’t admit
and tell us anything about the bombing up in Burma. Sometimes you’d get a little bit of the old Burmese paper that some of them understood, and read about air raids and where they were held. It was just like a closed circle. They didn’t let anything out.
When your ship got sunk by the USS Queenfish, you said you were covered in oil.
They sank 14 out of 15 ships in the convoy. The only surviving ship was a Jap destroyer or a light frigate, we couldn’t see. We didn’t get close enough to really recognise what it was, but it was a warship, either a light destroyer or a frigate. Of those
ships, three of them would have been carrying, two oil tankers, which were sunk. Another ship which had 44 gallon drums of oil all over its deck. A rather large President Wilson liner they’d caught in Shanghai when the war started, and that was carrying women and children and that back to Japan. Any spare space on the deck was stacked with petrol or Avgas, 44 gallon drums. They were amongst the casualties.
When we got on deck, that President Wilson liner thing, I can’t remember which one it was now, these 44 gallon drums were exploding and going up in the air like a pyrotechnics display. We were drifting straight into the oil from that. Some of it was brownish-coloured oil, and the other was as black as the aces. You just got covered completely in it. Some of the experts say that
that played a part in some of us surviving because that gave you a film covering all over you and kept you warmer than you normally would.
Did you encounter sharks?
Saw sharks several times. They came down about the second day we were in the water. It was a big group, about 90. I don’t know how many Carley floats and that we were floating round on. And you’d see these
fins come round and you’d just slap the water and they’d go off because there was hundreds of bodies in the water. They didn’t have to come and try and get one of us.
So they came very close?
Oh, they’d come in from here, 10-20 feet away.
Big sharks we’re talking here?
From the distance of the fins, they were big sharks. They were really big ones but they never caused any problem to us. In fact, the only shark attack we ever seen was the third day. There’s a Japanese seaman. He’d been on one of the oil tankers, and they’d tied him to like a patch cover. He was flopping his hands every now and then. He was still alive, but he was horribly burned, you could see that. He wasn’t that far away from us. Then you could see these fins swimming round him. The next thing, there’s a real scurry in the water and the whole raft and the board they had him on turned, and there was a flurry of blood and that was the end of it. Never saw another shark. That was the last time we saw one.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 07
Tell me more about your time in Cambodia.
I was only there twice for about 24 hours, in Cambodia. It might have been a little bit more. It was like a stopping-up place, coming down on the railroad. You could go
right through down to Saigon down on that railroad, but they had arranged to go down on one of the island, pleasure steamers or something that ply the lakes through there. You could go right down to Saigon on them. It’s only a matter of a little shift over to the water’s edge and away you go. That was the only reason they dropped us off there and we were there going and coming. We slept there twice, the two nights,
so we weren’t there long. It struck us as a very friendly place. There was a lot of French spoken by the lake people there. Most of us had French at school, so we were able to talk to them, until the Japs saw them talking and kicked at them. The Japs didn’t know that we understood French. Most Australians learnt French in school at that time. They didn’t realise that.
It ended a nice party. We liked the people in Cambodia, especially the ones around Phnom Penh.
Did you do any trading with them?
Didn’t have much left to trade in those days. They were quite good with us. They fed us marvellously. They brought plenty of nice fruit and that and plenty of nice French delicacies. They know how to prepare them, which was a big change to our diet, the old lousy rice, and half the rice we
used to get from the Japs in those days was laced with insects. Poor quality stuff would be used for cattle food back here.
After you’d been sunk. I wish I could pronounce the name of the ship.
Do you think the oil would have helped to repel the sharks?
No. You occasionally see fins around and the whole of that area of sea, even for the full time we were in there, see,
where the sinking took place. Imagine 14 out of 15 ships sank, including two oil tankers, a big passenger liner carrying hundreds of 44 gallon drums of petrol and oil on the deck, and another ship – I don’t know where the oil was coming from on that, but it possibly had it stacked down in its hold as well as on the deck. It spreads out over a hell of a lot of sea. We were just covered in oil for the
whole six days. They seemed to think that oil played its part with us. We were the last six to survive. They’ve done a lot of thinking about on survival with us, that six of us, they’ve taken that into account, this washing the mouth out with salt water and spitting it into account. They came to the conclusion that must have played
a large part in it, because of all the blokes that survived, we were the last six to be picked up and we’d been together for the last two days. We were together before, and then we were separated for about a day while they shifted off, and I came across later and Phil came down later on. That was the six of us. There had to be some reason behind it, and the thinking about it, because we went that extra two days. And they put it down to
either the oil in the water and/or the rinsing the mouth out and keeping moisture in the mouth. This is the survival things they did up in Canberra. They still contact you occasionally about that, amazing. “Why did you survive?” “Because I wanted to.” That’s my stock answer. But we were still active when the submarine finally popped up
alongside us. It was in 20-30 foot waves, and no one had to jump into the water to get us. They just fired a line out, we pulled ourselves over, got onto the rope ladder and started climbing up. A hand grabbed you and lifted you over. We were coated in oil, black and brown, two different types of oil. Black one was globule black, globule brown all mixed together. You could have scraped it off with a knife or something, it was that thick.
Most of our clothes that we had on was an old shirt and a pair of shorts. That was all.
Were you keeping yourselves active?
Yeah, we discussed things, especially when Phil arrived in the last two days, we were discussing different topics and how you can survive and what’s going to be the effect of this and what’s gonna be the effect of that. Intelligent discussion. Talked about it all the time until night time and then someone would tell you to shut up, they wanted to
get some sleep or something like that. You weren’t that much different from if you were in a boat. You were on a secure 6 by 6 Carley float. Some of them would have air containers under them, but there was only one in the six we had that had that. But you could stretch out. We had a life jacket and you tied your life jacket so that you could use it as a pillow. One of the four lines that tie your life jacket to you put on
round the rope on one side, one round the rope the other side, which made that static, put the other two round your wrists, both wrists, went like that and you could lay back and go to sleep. If you got washed over or turned over or anything, you just let your hands go and you were free. You could get back on and do the same thing. That was the technique we worked out.
Were you worried that if a sudden wave came and you got knocked over,
that you might lose the raft?
No, because the way you tied yourself on there at night, even if you got knocked over, by the time you surfaced, the raft wouldn’t be more than a few feet away even if you’d lose both straps. Only time I can remember that I went into the water, I came up and I had one strap still secure. And I just pulled the raft and got back on. Simple as that.
You were saying it’s a Carley rope?
Are they from 40 gallon drums?
No, it’s about a 3 by 4 perhaps framework. Perhaps two pieces going parallel across and floor boarding on it, and around the sides they had hold-boardings on it and 3 or 4 pieces of rope that you could grab a hold of to pull yourself aboard and that. On of them I think had a hole cut in the centre
if you wanted to sit up on it without overbalancing to one side, you put your feet through the centre hole.
After the first few days, did you get out of the oil spill?
It was still oil flopping away from well after the third day and I think what was on us after the third day just stayed there, because we had nothing to wipe it off with, and in any case it was protecting you from the wind and the sun and the rain.
How did you manage to get water with oil on the water?
You just push it aside like that. It’ll just disappear one side, and you quickly grab a mouthful. Or put your head down through it and get a mouthful. Didn’t matter. You had that much oil on you, it didn’t really matter. Close your eyes when you do it, or you get oil in your eyes and that stings.
It was amazing, we couldn’t get over how much oil we had to take off us when we got on the submarine. Neither could the submariners. It was two different types. They commented on, “What’s the brown stuff and what’s the black stuff?” “Well, you ought to know, you sunk the bloody things.”
So you still had strength left?
Well, not one of us had to be pulled up onto the submarine. The whole six of us managed to climb up the few steps necessary to get onto the submarine.
Then they told us to get up and go down below. I think we were halfway down and all of a sudden you could feel your strength going out of you. You knew you were safe, you were down below deck. By the time you got down the thing, they were hanging onto you, threw you into the shower, cleaned you up. That was down in the forward torpedo room where they took us, up in the bows of the ship. There was already
10 blokes there in bunks that they’d picked up previous to us. We were the last six. The whole 16 beds, there’s one bloke sits there operating the sonar underwater, an underwater listening device. Once having got us down there, they took us straight into the showers and got what oil they could off us, and plenty of soap and cleaned us all up, cleaned our hair and the oil out of it, and that made you start feeling better, made you feel like you could
stand up better. Although you couldn’t swallow water. Oh, God that was gonna be a problem. And then the pharmacist mate, who’s like the doctor on a submarine, he’s not a doctor, he’s a pharmacist mate, he suggested to the captain that he break open the captain’s discretion, the medical case, locked in the captain’s cabin, which has a bottle of brandy in it. And he got a glass of ice cold water, plenty of ice cold water as only the Americans do
on any ship, and a little tot of brandy and iced water. And they give you that and you put it in your mouth and you couldn’t swallow straightaway. You’d just hold it there and all of a sudden you felt this cold starting to go down your throat. It was just glorious. The first water you’d had for quite a while. They just got you into a bunk and you slept for 24 hours.
Why weren’t you able to drink
Your throat had contracted up, I suppose, the oil and that and you hadn’t had anything for six days. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink. I don’t know what the things, they were doing a lot of research into that, whether it’s best that way, cause the only stuff you’re gonna lose was if you urinate. You don’t urinate much because you don’t have anything to urinate. Perhaps that’s something to do with it. They’ve done a lot of thinking and researching to find out why
six blokes, the last six, were still alive four days, lasted the last two days together. The others they picked up, there was only one or two out of a group that were saved. It’s ongoing research they do, I suppose. I tell you what, after you come to after that 24 hours sleep, you wake up, “Where the hell am I?” And you can hear the engines turning over, you’re under water so
it’s as calm as anything, hardly get a chance to sit up and there’s a bloke sitting next to you with a glass of water. You realise where you are. It’s amazing. Then within a few minutes, the captain’s down to talk to you and ask instructions to the cook. If he’d got it in the kitchen, he used to cook it for us. They were apologising they were out of steak, but they had horse meat. That horse meat was the best steak I
ever had, I’ll tell you. They had plenty of eggs, plenty of fruit juice. The pharmacist mate was a bit dicky about whether we could have any more than just a little bit to start off with, but we seemed to handle it all right. Within 48 hours, you were walking around the sub good as gold even though we were all skin and bones. When you’re eating
food, you were eating more than you ever eat. Consequently, I think we all put on, in the, I think it took 4 or 5 days to get from where they picked us up and did further searching, to get up to the Marianas Islands, Saipan, and we’d all put on nearly a stone in weight in that short time.
You must have lost a lot of weight while encamped.
At one stage I reckon, we’d be
down to about 6 stone 10 [pounds] or something like that. My normal weight is about 12 stone 8 [pounds], has been since I was about 16 or 17, and is still that weight. I don’t know, but we were able to keep the food down, and they’d apologise about not having any fresh steak, but this horse meat, frozen horse meat, it was all right. Made good stew, anything, even a bit of steak with it. As
soon as you felt hungry, you walked down and say “What have you got?” and he’d say “Couple of eggs all right?” and they’d cook you eggs, because they knew they only had to last six days and they were getting up to get re fuelled and re-victualled and everything. In the hospital up there, I tell you what, they had all the food, better food than you’ve ever seen. The Yanks are better with food than anyone else. We put on the weight so
quickly it was amazing. They didn’t bother fitting us out with clothes until after we’d been in the hospital, I think we’d been there about 12 days before they put us on a ship to take us down to Guadalcanal.
So you’re still in lap-laps?
No, they’d given us, we had a pair of shorts and a shirt and that’s about all. That’s all you needed. It was a full American hospital with nurses and everything. It was the first
white women we’d seen for years and they were so nice to you. They’d come up and tuck you into bed of a night time and give you a kiss. Oh, God, like Mum. We had one tough bloke called Claude. He said, “You know what? You bloody well remind me of me Mum. She used to do that when I was six years old.” They were lovely people there. They treated us like, I
don’t know, curios or what. It was the best treatment you could get, because we all put on weight. By the time we got down to Guadalcanal, we were fit enough to walk down the beach and have a swim and things like that. The doctors down there decided they’d put us onto two bottles of beer a day. The troops get one bottle of beer a day, and we got two. But there was no fridges in the hospital. It was a tent hospital. So we worked out the old trick we used to use down the beach here. We went down under a palm tree where it was a bit cooler,
dug a hole deep in the sand until you got to water, and stuck them down there, waited and had a cigarette for about half an hour or some. They’d come out and they were beautiful cold. Some of the Yank Marines and that were in the hospital. They said, “What are you doing that for?” We said, “Taste this.” And they’d, “My God, where’s the fridge?” “There it is, there.” Learn off the old stagers.
When you were in the water,
some of the blokes stated to drink the salt water?
Salt water, yeah. It was English and Australian that drunk salt water. You don’t last long once you do that.
Did they become delusional?
They’d become a bit delusional and some went into like a trance and never come out of it. I don’t know what it is. Something in the salt that does it.
They didn’t’ survive long once they started that.
Did you try and convince them not to?
Tried to convince them, but by the time they started that, they were pretty near delusional and not understanding and told you to get well and truly, and they’d drink what they liked. You can’t stop them. They just put their head over the side of the raft and had a gulp, that’s what it boiled down to.
Did any of them throw up when they were drinking?
Not really. I think the first time they started it, a few throwed up, but they was only swallowing a mouthful and that was enough, because you never get rid of the combined salt after you’ve had half a dozen mouthfuls building up.
You mentioned that during the typhoon you managed to get some rainwater.
Yeah, well that was
by just lying straight back. At that stage, we were all on a Carley float each. You laid straight back and opened your mouth and took potluck that a wave didn’t break over the top, and you were getting rainwater straight into your mouth. But once you got a few, you closed your mouth pretty quick other wise you’d get saltwater in your mouth. That must have played a part in it, but I really think that was just working out not
to swallow salt water. That’s what it all boils down to. That’s my own interpretation of it. If you start swallowing salt water you’re gone, but if you swish it round in your mouth and then spit it out, all that water you spit out, there’s enough moisture retained there that the body can handle even though there’s a bit of salt in it.
Did you have any problems with sunburn?
No, too much oil on us to worry about sunburn. By the time they cleaned us up and that, there was a few
lesions on the skin and that, but I don’t think it was sunburn. I think it was from crashing around on the raft and that. I had a couple of holes in my side and on the elbow there, and they’d started to heal up by the time we were picked up.
How long were you in Saipan for?
I’d say two weeks. I’ll work it out. That’d be on the
5th, we would have got to Saipan about the 10th or 11th of September. We’d been at least two or three weeks there. We watched what was happening in Saipan. ‘Bull’ Halsey’s fleet was building up to do the landing on Leyte Island. When we first went there, there were 30 or 40 big ships pulled up there. Over the days that new ones would come in, there was submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, everything
you could think, landing ships, and the Japs were coming over at least once or twice a day, trying to bomb them, but they got shot down long before they got there from the aircraft carriers that send up their planes. The nearest that ever got anywhere was one crashed in the hospital grounds about from here to the road down there from where we were camped. The whole crew had white boxes strapped to their chest to send their ashes back to Japan.
When we sailed out to go down on the American ship to go down to Guadalcanal, it took about three hours steaming through all these ships before we were clear of them. Just headed straight south. Must have been a terrific fleet that went over to do that landing at Leyte.
So when you say going through the ships, you mean the wrecks?
No, the ships that were just laying at anchor there waiting for
them all to be filled up and sail over to do this landing. That was the first of the American islands to be freed. We missed that, but we saw it all build up. We saw, I suppose, plenty of Jap planes get shot down, coming over. They used to come over, they’d be towing, like a human glider. You’d see a big bomber towing this one plane, and it’d let go, and it had like
a stove jet in it. It would come out the back in plumes of smoke and it would try and head for a target, but they had such concentrated aircraft fire, I never saw one hit a ship. I seen them blow up in the air, though. It was an amazing sight. We’d gone from being bow and arrow boys when we were taken prisoner in Singapore, was handed over to the Japs and handed us with it. We’d gone from bow and arrow boys to modern-day fighting, watching
all that. We’d never seen anything like it. All the American troops over there had about twice, or each platoon would have three times as many automatic weapons as we ever carried. Much more firepower. Things had changed a lot in those few years that I was a prisoner. It must have been to the good, because they rounded it up pretty quick.
I think I regained my sanity by going to Italy and seeing what happened in Europe. It was a bit mad to start with, otherwise you wouldn’t have stayed in the army. They give you the choice.
Tell me about having your 21st.
I’d forgotten it was my 21st birthday altogether. I didn’t realise it was my 21st birthday. I used to work in the army on my army age, which was three years older. This morning, it was on the 27th of October, I got sent down to MacArthur’s headquarters to do some identification of ships that we may or may not have
loaded, and what they carried, in Brisbane. I’d been down there a few times before that, and I thought, “Jesus, they’re supposed to send me back at 3 o'clock, and no one’s come to pick me up.” I said, “What’s wrong with these blokes? Aren’t they picking me up tonight? I’ll ring up and find out.” He said, “They’re running a bit late. They’ll be down about 4, half past 4 for you.” So I just kept working there and picked up and taken up to the hospital we were in, get out and walked past the dining room to go to my room.
Private ward. And I headed down there towards the thing and “Jesus, that’s set up like a party. Maybe they’re having a party tonight.” I didn’t realise I’d come in late because I had to get changed and have a shower and everything, come down to mess. Go down there and there’s women there everywhere, and there’s a whole group of American WACs from the camp up the road, and all the mates and that. They were all singing ‘Happy Birthday’. Then it dawned on me it was
my 21st birthday. How they’d picked it up, Mum sent a telegram to the hospital to congratulate me to get back for my 21st birthday. She’d made “Happy 27th” and that “Happy 27th” rang a bell with the hospital staff and they thought, “Jeez, we’ve got to work fast and do this” and they had the best 21st birthday you could ever have. It was fantastic.
Did you have a lot of food?
Yeah, at that stage we were starting to eat a little bit better. You
were allowed to eat really what you wanted by then. It was great. Good company, all these American WACs. They were told they weren’t to talk about where they’d been to this thing, because it was all top secret. No one was to know anything about us. They wanted to use the information they got on sinking Jap ships and all that sort of thing, which I know for a fact that they did a lot, because I’d seen some that you put the mocker on – you used to load that in Singapore and used to
load that in Saigon, and a bit later you’d see the thing sinking, stern going down first, or see it in the water. It used to give you great pleasure. Great pleasure.
What do you mean “put the mocker on”?
Put the mocker on the Japs. Putting the mocker on them made them very vulnerable. You knew where they’d last seen it, and they’d found that two or
three times in the same area that photo showed up, it was on a regular run. Different ports. That’s how they used to take that one out.
All these nurses and WACs that turned up at your 21st. Was there any romance?
Not that I
know. There’s a few writing for months and months after. I wasn’t interested in romance then. I was getting back and find out what had happened, who’d won the football. You’d been nearly three years incommunicado.
You were 21.
Yes, but it had been nearly three years without having any correspondence from home. I only got one letter from Mum about two weeks before I left, and it was two years old.
Mum got one card from me, about six weeks before I come home, and it was written when I first went up to Burma. One of those cards that said, “I’m well, I’m sick, I’ve had malaria,” and where it was, and I had 10 words, “Hope to see you soon if I’m lucky enough to pull through.” That’s the mood a bloke was in he wrote it.
Did you meet up with your mum when you came down to Melbourne at Spencer Street Station?
Spencer Street. Stopped and
met them at Spencer Street Station. One of them had a car there, it was Dad and Mum, Gordon the youngest son. No, Dad wasn’t there. Dad was still coming down from up at Laverton. Mum and Gordon and my sister and Ian. They wanted
to come with me. We had to go to Royal Park to get a leave pass and any clothes we wanted. Then a car drove us home. I said it was far better, I’d do it quick without them there, so they went home in their car, or whatever they had, and I went out to Royal Park, got my clothes and my leave pass and they supplied a car to go home.
Can you describe what it was like when you first saw
your mum after all this time?
The only one that recognised me was Gordon, the youngest brother. I’d gone past them. I recognised him, I recognised Mum and my sister. When I got out, they all knew me straight out of the train. They knew me straightaway. The thing was that when I went away, I was about 12 stone and then I only weighed about 7.
Just a skinny Malone. Didn’t take me long to settle back into life again, had plenty of time. They said don’t make any decision on what you wanna do, the army part of it and, when the leave pass ran out, I went back in. They said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to stay on. I want to go and help the other blokes out.” That was it. So I stayed on to be the last.
You went up to Murchison for a while? What did you know of the Cowra breakout?
We knew pretty well. We’d been told all about it. It was still bits of it in the paper. I knew what I was going up there for and why: because I spoke pretty fluent Japanese, especially the army brand. I thought I could be of some help, which I ended up, I was a lot of help to them up there.
They wondered what they’d struck when they struck me, I tell you. They were just ignorant because they’d been handled with kid gloves in my opinion, after the Cowra breakout. I did some stupid things, but I didn’t think they were stupid at the time. They used to come down to the fence of the night time and I’d be up in the tower and see they were behaving themselves. At one stage, I caught them plaiting
camouflage netting together and rang up the security officer and asked what it was. They were making props for a concert they were gonna put on. I said, “Like hell. They’re making plaits to throw over the wire.” The next morning we went in and took that off them and searched their place. You’d be amazed at the stuff we found: homemade weapons like lances and spears and things like that. Old Boxer the next day, I said to him
“You like sake?” He said, “Jap whisky?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Where did you get that?” I said, “They’re making it.” He wouldn’t believe me. I said, “Well, after we do the count, you just come with me.” We counted and they were all there. I said, “Come for a walk up the Jap kitchen.” We got up there and I said, “Your nose twitching yet?” He said, “What’s that smell?” I said, “That’s sake being distilled.” Walked around the corner of the kitchen to where the gully trap is and
lifted a rice bag that was over the top, and there’s this “drip, drip, drip” noise. A big glass jar of sake being. So we confiscated it, and took it back. The old Boxer reckoned it was the best whisky he’d ever had. It was a funny experience. They were no different to what anyone else if you lock them up. They worked out how to do that, and they could make their own sake.
You being able to speak Japanese, were you able to settle
them down a bit?
When we found it? They started to listen to me the first time I had to use a bit of physical exercise on one of them. That was when they, one of the things I used to do, they used to get three big milk cans full of fresh milk. That used to upset me, them getting milk. We never got a drop of milk all the time I was with them. This morning, one of them took the liberty and
called me one of the worst things they can call you in Japanese, and I took exception to it and clocked [punched] him. Clocked him senseless and that started a big uproar. When they found out that I could understand every word they were saying, they clamped up. Used to interrogate a lot of them. I did some stupid things with them.
I told you the magpie incident?
I always start to laugh when I think of it.
Why do you think the bloke insulted you?
Just trying to be a bold Japanese. Picked the wrong bloke. I think they didn’t know where I’d learned Japanese. They didn’t know I’d been a prisoner of the Japanese. I believe they were told after I left up there that
they were playing with fire, that I understood all they said. We put on several searches there. They were making knives and things. Real artisan jobs, you know, real good, well-made knives that they could use in a breakout. Of course, they had this netting to throw over the fence and all that. We calmed them down. The Italians next door, they were
just the opposite. Went in there one day and had a look around in there and I thought I’d go in and have a look under these huts. I’d seen them go in under these huts, and I went under. The best toy-train set, handmade, you’d ever seen. They had it going underneath this whole hut. It was made out of tins they’d beaten into shape, proper engine, little electric motors in the engine, little things to switch the rails. It used to run around under this hut. It was a real
beauty. It was just the difference in them They put their efforts into doing something peaceful like that. I think they were allowed to take that back home with them to Italy when the war ended. It was a perfect little thing and they’d painted it. It just looked like a train you’d come up to Murchison on, only scale model, and the engine about that long.
They had no interest in escaping?
No. They didn’t want to escape, Their life was too good for that. The Germans that were there, they weren’t too bad either.
They had three sectors there with different officers from the different armies, prisoners of war. They were pretty bland, pretty easy to handle. I used to love getting at those Japanese blokes throwing rocks at the magpies. They’re no different to anyone else in the same situation. I roared laughing about it. 10 of them, when I went down the next time, 10 of them throwing rocks, and I started
bawling out til I got they were just having me on.
From Murchison, you then went up to Naples. Tell us about the journey there.
First I was picked to go and take these Italian, mainly war criminals, we took back to… The war was drawing to a close over in Europe, and they were fighting up near Rome, I think, when we went with them. We had
one bloke called Pino, who was rumoured to be head of the Mafia Naples branch. Branch of the Mafia in Naples. He played up like hell on the ship going over there. He actually escaped once, and we finally tracked him down, and got him put back in his box as we called it. Going up the coast of Italy, going past Mastromboli, an island with a big volcano, works all the time,
at night time it was just a big glow in the sky. We were going past there at breakfast time, and he just pushed his feed of beautiful English sausages and mashed potatoes and green peas to one side. He wouldn’t eat it. I walked down to Pino and I said, “You eat that. You won’t get a feed like that where you’re going.” He pushed it further away and he said, “I get a good Italiano feed. Naples is my home town” or “Napoli my home town.”
So we got them off and sent them on their way up to the campo where they were all being screened. Some of them would get discharged, some of them were waiting for charges to be laid against them. I gotta bring all their papers down to handover to the Italian army authorities there. When I’d done that, I thought I’d go and see how Pino is getting on. So I go down to the mess house. Pino is still sitting looking at his breakfast, a bit of crusty bread roll thing about that big, and a cup of coffee,
which I think was ersatz coffee. I said, “Oh Pino, to think you threw those sausages away.” He was damn mad.
Did you say “rat’s coffee”?
Ersatz coffee. Not proper coffee grounds. I don’t know what it was made of.
What sort of war crimes were these guys up for?
He was charged with war crimes somewhere
during action in Italy. I believe he had some pending from something that happened in a prisoner of war camp out in Australia. He’d been shifted from one to another. But whatever happened, I never followed it through. I didn’t care. He was a tough cookie.
What was your role, exactly?
Someone that could keep them in check, make sure it happened. A bit of a reward
for not being too hard on the Japs. When I came back, I had to go up and stay with the Japs until we got them all out of Australia. They wouldn’t let me out of the army until we did. It was interesting work that, the Japs. We had one Jap officer. He was a colonel. Coming down we had several, what do you call them,
officers, like senior NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers], warrant officers is what we’d call them, coming down on the train from Murchison with them, I look up and there’s these two or three little Japanese blokes standing up. So I go down and here’s this senior Jap officer, he’s laying on their seat. I stick a gun in his guts and tell him to get up in Japanese. And he jumped up.
He got a fright in his eyes. He starts to argue: he’s the boss, he’s going home to Japan, he’s a free man. I said, “You will be a free man when you get off the ships and the Japanese sign for you. Get back to your seat.” And I thought he was going to have a swing at me and I turned around and the officer in charge of the train, noted for shooting two escaping Italian prisoners about a month before, he was standing behind me. He said, “What’s the problem?”
I told him. He took out his gun and tapped it on his head and said, “Get back to your seat.” About 10 miles further down the track, he’s up again. He’s keeping three up. So they put handcuffs or something on him so he couldn’t get up out of his seat. Soon as they got him to Port Melbourne dock, they had the ship there, I went aboard and asked the captain could we use the brig? And he said, “The brig’s not to be released until we’re outside Australian waters.” I told him what had happened, and he’s an old
merchant marine, Japanese bloke. And he was quite happy to do it. He was a rotter. Gave me great pleasure though.
Interviewee: Raymond Wheeler Archive ID 0944 Tape 08
Tell us how long you were in Saipan for.
Saipan. Two weeks I’d say. Good two weeks.
It stood out in your mind,
you mentioned a few incidents.
It stood out in your mind for a lot of reasons. It was the first contact we’d had with the free world troops in about three years and they’d been pretty good to us. They showed us most of what was going on on the island and learned a lot more. It was a different war in those days to what we went through.
They allowed us to witness, told us where to look through the field glasses to see these kids and that coming up to surrender and those that were jumping off the cliffs and things like that. It was a different experience altogether. They were different troops to what we’d been used to but they were quite nice blokes. The hospital we were in was well-staffed. Good doctors. Full
services. Good nurses, all pretty senior girls from what I can remember of them. But still, I suppose at that stage we wouldn’t have minded how they were. We were free at last.
What did you hear about the battle for Saipan? You were there while the battle was in progress?
It finished while we were there. It finished when we’d been there about a week, and this morning they said, “Look for the tanks down towards
Garapan,” which was the only big town on the island, and you’d see these tanks; they’re what we used to call ‘hull-down’ in the armoured division, just waiting. Then there was a bugle call and they all charged forward. The Americans must have been watching for them. They saw them just disappear. It only lasted a few minutes. That was the end of Saipan.
Like a last stand by the Japanese?
Last stand. One of their suicide type of thing. They had nowhere to go and nothing to do and
that ended the war far as this island of Saipan in the Marianas was concerned.
Did you see any other combat incidents?
Not after we got away there. Only minor ones in Italy when we were taking arms off the illegal groups over there.
Most of what you saw was through field glasses.
That was the airstrip. You could look down to the airstrip. It’s a funny island, Saipan. The best suitable ground is down on one side of the island, where they can run a long way and they sort of come up and clear where there’s a big cliff face, but they’ve got plenty of room to do that. We used to sit and watch this big Negro working a bulldozer. Watching him one day, we hear a Woodpecker [Japanese machine gun] open up. He just stops the
bulldozer, puts the blade up in the air, and you can see the sparks fly as the bullets hit the big blade. He waits till the Marines come in with a satchel bomb and blow the bloke up, just firing them, looked just like comic book stuff to us. We never expected anything like that there.
When you say Woodpecker, are you referring to a machinegun?
Woodpecker machinegun, yeah. That’s what they had there and they opened up on it and he just put the blade up and
you could hear the bullets going off the blade and you could see the three Marines come along and they just hurled the satchel bomb over and that was the end of it.
This Japanese was in an underground bunker or something?
No, they were crawling through the scrub, ran from where the end was. We had field glasses on, you could see where they were. I guess the bloke on the bulldozer was possibly told about it before even he seen it.
He had marine escorts around him?
Yeah, the Marines were all around there. They finished that before we left there. It was only a couple of more days before they became operational. The first of the big planes that were to do the bombing of Leyte Island, later engagements towards the end of the war, they were coming in to land there. Then just after we saw the first of them come through, we was shifted off to Guadalcanal.
When you encountered American nurses in Saipan, was that the first time you had been able to get fairly close to a woman in years?
It was, yeah.
That was the case?
Yeah, to white women. We had plenty of opportunities in Burma and places like that where you went out to try and beg, borrow or steal food to meet up with womenfolk in Burma. They were quite a nice person, the Burmese people. Found them
a lovely population.
Did a lot of soldiers interact with the women there?
No, you didn’t have time to. You didn’t want to because of what was involved in it. You could be involved and get into a lot of trouble. We kept away from anything like that. You were more intent on surviving the war to get back home.
With the United States Army nurses,
what was the basis of your interaction?
The first incident I can remember, the first time the Japs came over to bomb at night time. The nurse came up to my hospital, tipped me over, rolled me under and got under the bed with me. It was the only shelter you had. I still remember that. I thought that’s an amazing thing for a nurse. She could have gone in the dugouts or the bomb shelters.
It was one of those late night things, and pushed me under the thing and the other blokes were going crook and were getting out of their beds themselves. I was asleep and first time I was being tipped out of bed. They used to come over and bomb a few at odd hours, the Japanese there, and they weren’t too accurate or they would have got us that night. They never got anywhere near us.
When you were in all the Thai railway camps and Singapore, did you find any Allied troops that collaborated with the Japanese?
No. A few blokes said at times they thought that so and so was collaborating with the Japanese.
I never saw any of it or heard of any of it that proved to be true. There was a lot of people tried to buy food off guards and things like that. A lot of it stemmed around that where they were trying for their own survival. I can’t remember anything that happened that points a finger at anyone.
What about groups and cliques inside the camp itself? There must have been tensions. What were
the types of tensions amongst Australian troops and the Allied troops amongst each other?
Not that much. Sometimes you got a bit of a tension between the Dutch prisoners of war and the other Allied prisoners of war, but nothing that you could write home about or anything.
Just that they reckoned that they weren’t getting as much food as we were or something like that. Minor things, they were.
Did you get along with the Dutch?
I got along with most of them. You got the odd one that you didn’t get along with,
and in all the races.
Tell us what you thought specifically about the Dutch.
The Dutch, I thought they had a harder row to hoe than we did. I’m talking about the real Dutch troops who come over to try and defend the Indonesian islands. They were different to the locals that lived there and there were some of them in the army too. Those real Dutch troops, you felt sorry for them. But they’d get hunted halfway across the world
after their own country had fallen, and then for that to happen and be virtually handed over to the Japanese on a platter, I always felt sorry for them. Apart from that, I never had any problems with them. We got on all right with the British and the Americans were much the same as we were. Free speaking and easy to get along with, the Americans.
Did you come in contact with the
Javanese and Indonesian soldiers?
Yeah, a few of them. One I can remember, he was half Javanese, half Dutch. Tonny Koffen I think his name was. He was a wonderful bloke. Good mate to work alongside; he wasn’t interested in feuding between countries and everything. He was just a normal type of bloke who thought like we did, ‘You have to behave yourself
and try and see this out if you want to live. Get back home and put it all behind you.’ That was his, he had a philosophy much the same as ours. No, I got on with most of them. The Americans were perhaps the easiest to get along with, then the British they weren’t much different to us. They had a harder row than us to hoe, I don’t know.
I always used to feel sorry for the married blokes. They had a harder row to hoe than anyone.
What got you through the war?
Just a belief in being able to survive. Simple as that. I think part of my background and bringing up out there in Australia and learning as a valley kid how to look for food
and the bits you learned from the Aboriginals from when I grew up along the river at Swan Hill. How to go about looking for food and stuff. When the chips were really down, especially in Burma, along the railway line, you made friends with the native people there. They showed you what you could eat and what you couldn’t eat. Some of the stuff that we used to get there was quite nice to eat off these different trees, but you had to watch and just eat what you were told you
could eat. There was several things up there off trees you could pick in the form of, it didn’t look like a fruit, but it was a fruit. Things like that. Same with stuff from the ground. We didn’t know a thing about wild ginger and that, but they taught us how to halve and boil ginger and put that in your diet. It was quite a lot of things like that that you could put together that were part of your survival routine.
Things we could teach them was what we learned from the Aboriginals. Snake was good tucker. Snake was always on our diet if we could get one. There was a rather big lizard, a bit like our goanna, up there that we used to get. It was put into our diet quick-smart too.
Basically you’d eat anything to survive.
Anything that you knew wouldn’t kill you or do anything wrong with you. But snake, and the
big lizard thing that they had up there, they’re good tucker. Anyone would eat them. You’d buy them in a restaurant if you could buy it down here.
The food you got from the Japanese wasn’t very good?
No, you couldn’t survive on just what they gave you.
So you had to forage for yourself?
You had to forage for yourself and learn. I used to always watch what the monkeys were eating. Once ever did I become undone, they were little
nutlike things and things like that. Once I got a hell of a tummy ache and had an upset tummy for about a day. That’s the only time I ever got unstuck on that. The other stuff seemed to suffice and keep you going.
What would the monkeys eat?
They were eating things off trees that looked like little nuts and flowers that they pulled the leaves, watched what they did, pull the leaves off and eat the kernel or something from the bottom of it. It didn’t seem to affect you if you ate what they were eating, except
in one case.
You kept on eating that same sort of stuff?
No, I didn’t. That one that made me sick, I didn’t eat that again. But I kept eating the other stuff. The same, there was another one we learned by watching, there was a rather bigger monkey there that we used to see that foraging for food in the ground. We come up with what it was getting was a little sort of a fungus thing, much same as what grows out here. We used to use that, cook it like a mushroom and it was quite healthy.
Did you ever eat monkeys?
No. Never ate a monkey. Wouldn’t kill them. You could learn more by watching them and get more to eat by watching them than by killing one and eating it. Watch what they ate, and there was plenty of it around. Kill one of them and you’d be in their bad books.
Did they serve any other use at all?
The monkeys? Yeah, if you ever nicked out of the camp to try and find something,
you talked to them and made yourself just a part of the backdrop of the scene. If anyone strange come into the district while you were there, they’d set off a hell of a chatter. You’d know there was someone coming. They were good as a look-out.
How would you communicate to the monkeys?
Just sort of chatter
away to them. Don’t make any gestures that went towards them. Learned that from some of the Burmese people. Just watched the way they treated the monkeys. They were like pets to them. If you go like that towards a monkey, she thinks you might hit them, so you keep your hands still and talk to them, things like that.
That doesn’t make them talk?
It makes them talk, sort of more confident,
“He’s not gonna hurt me” sort of, you know. That’s with all animals, you had to take a bit of a look like that, except with snakes and lizards. Then you had to get them as quick as you could or someone else got them.
When the monkeys did raise the alarm, would it often be a Japanese soldier?
Never used to look to see. Used to make yourself scarce [run away or hide]. When they stopped
their chattering, whatever it was was gone, but I imagine they could have been Japanese, they could have been anything at all. Could have been so many animals up in the Burma jungle, especially more so in Burma than in Thailand.
What other animals did you come across?
A lot of wild pig up through there. A lot of tiger, wild elephant. You get several types of lizards. You get the big king cobras.
You get quite big…that’s a good source of food if you get one of their giant pythons. They’re very good food. You get them up to about 20 foot long.
How would you get one of them?
Chop its head off. Once you chapped its head off it soon died.
You were bold enough to go close to one of them?
As long as he’s stretched out on the ground, move, you chop his head off, he’s not gonna throw a coil around you.
It’s when they get a coil around you that you’re in trouble.
How many people would attack this python? Was there a plan?
I never attacked anything bigger than about 8-10 feet. I wouldn’t try anything bigger, because they could throw a loop over you and you’d be hard pushed without someone there to help pull it apart. The biggest snake I ever caught was about 10 foot.
We’re talking very thick ones?
that round, about 4 or 5 inches in diameter, and there’s a lot of meat on them. Some people say it tastes like chicken, some say it tastes like pork. I reckon they taste a cross between the two. It’s good tucker if you can get it.
So it was good?
Mmm. And there’s a lot of bird-life in the jungle up there. There’s one bird that’s, we used to call it a bit of a
turkey or something. It doesn’t actually look the same as a turkey, but it tastes like turkey. You learned to make a call like it and sit there with a shanghai and try and shoot them that way. You had to use your own wits, watch what the animals were eating, what they dig out of the ground, and that’s the only reason I think that a lot of us survived.
Because you got that little bit extra food that made the difference.
What about deer?
A lot of deer up there, but you had no way of catching them. Some I can remember tried to build traps to get them. But if you built a trap and the Japs found the trap, they’d take out any deer that were caught and get them before you. Never ever caught any deer, plus they’re a nice animal.
They grow quite big up there.
Were elephants actually used on the Thai-Burma railway for any labour?
Yup. I was an elephant driver for about three months. Was driving an elephant. Made great friends with it. The old Burmese bloke that was in charge, someone had died and I just happened to walk past, and the Japs said, “You, elephant driver.” Simple as that. The Burmese bloke, he was in charge of all the elephants.
He started teaching me from the ground up how to look after elephants.
So it was a Burmese mahout who’d…?
He was a qualified and had his certificate from the Burmese government to look after elephants and that. He used to teach us how to hobble them, put them out over night time, get them in the day time. I can still remember some of the calls. If you want him to get down on
his knee so you could climb up on his head, you used to day “Maju, maju.” Down he’d go. If he was wandering too far away, you’d sing out to him “Tor, tor” and he’d come back to you, things like that. I learned all those commands and became quite expert in them. They used to listen to you. I reckon they’re a beautiful animal, the old elephant. Saw a few of them starve to death, which upset you greatly.
How did they starve to death?
The Japs would work them too hard, and wouldn’t let them have
time to feed them properly. If they were let go in the jungle, they’d survive, but capture them too long and held them too long and worked them too hard. Young elephants. Not used to it. I can still take you to the actual spot where one died. It was near the 100 kilometre peg on the Burma railroad. He died there, and within
four days, his skin was just a moving, wobbling mass like that. The big, giant blowflies would get under them and just within three days there was nothing left. Just bone. It’s a rough type of existence up there in that jungle. There are other things up there. There’s a type of pheasant we used to shoot
with a shanghai. Might take you 20 shots to get one of them. Might take you 10 days to do that. But anything you could get to supplement with what the Japanese were giving you, you had more chance of coming home.
You mentioned something about monkeys.
You watched the monkeys. Always watched the monkeys and watched what they ate.
Not about what they ate. You said you found them very comical.
Oh, crikey yeah. They’re
Tell us about the stories.
Once there I tried, he was picking something out of the ground, I got over there and I was trying the same thing. I roughed the earth up and got it. The next thing, right alongside, he’s landed alongside me, and he runs down and picks it up and it’s like an acorn, but something that’s there in the ground. I cracked it open, and the flesh was quite tasty. I’m blowed if I could find
them like they could. Something in their regular diet I suppose. But you used to watch, and they used to pick little seeds and that off trees. Anything we ate, only once did I get a bellyache. That was part of your survival drill. Most people used it.
Did the Japanese domesticate any of the monkeys?
Have them as pets?
One place they had them as pets, but they always had them on a chain. They’re not a pet; they just live with you. You see them with some of the native people. They just live and run round with them, and any ones the Japs had, they’d have them on a chain. That’s not a pet in my book. There are three or four types of monkeys up there. Some of the bigger ones, you wouldn’t try and make a pet. They’d be pretty strong and fierce and they’d gash you or slash you or those sorts of things.
What sort of
monkeys are you talking about?
There’s three or four different types.
Orang-utans was it?
No, I never saw any orang-utans up there. It was ones that would stand about that high, and there’s little ones that stand about that high.
Gibbons? With long arms?
Gibbons with the long arms, yeah. You’d get them up there. But they’re pretty friendly.
Which ones were the fearsome ones?
The ones that are about that high and they got sort of white whiskers. White whisker-things. They can be a bit
savage. You put your hand out, you wanna look out they don’t nip it. They’re not what you’d call family-friendly at all. There's lots of things up there. In most of the streams you get fish. Some of them you wouldn’t eat, because of the colours and that. You didn’t know whether they’d be poisonous or not. In Burma near the coast, when we
first worked along there, we used to get quite a few fish out of one stream there, and they were quite pleasant to eat. We actually made up lines and bent nails and things like that to catch them.
Did you run across any tiger or leopards?
Plenty of tigers. I’ve been confronted a couple of times by tigers. A mate and I used to go out of a night time right up near the, what camp would it be? About the 75
kilometres up the line. We used to go over towards the sea, and there’s a big valley there and the people there were close to where we were at Ye. We used to get, they’d hand you food. Coming back this night from there, we went to go to this place to stay and they had a thing where they’d hang out a towel out a window
or the attap windows, of their hut. You saw that there, don’t go over, there were Japs around. We just sat there and wait until we saw the Japs go off on their bikes, and then went in. Because it was late, getting dark when we started heading for home. We had some stuff they’d given us. We followed the trail we always followed. We got within five minutes of the camp called the Jungle House. Next thing Gunga froze.
He said, “J-j-j-j-j-j,” he stuttered, “J-j-j-j-Jesus. L-l-l-look at that.” Pair of eyes about that far apart. And I said, “Oh my God. What do we do now?” And Gunga said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m off” and he took off down the trail back to the camp. The tiger spun round and went down the other trail, and I’m left there laughing my head off. I just ambled back to camp. Took my time going back to camp, making sure
there was no Japs around, that we hadn't stirred the Japs up. When I get back to the camp, he’s got the boys organised in a search party. He reckoned the tiger had eaten me. Him taking off made the tiger take off down the other track.
Did you hear stories about Japanese soldiers getting attacked by wildlife? Tigers, leopards.
No, I saw one flattened and I believe died of a broken back by an elephant. One of the working elephants.
A Japanese soldier?
Yeah. Some of them used to
prove they were brave, and they’d run up to the working elephant, the ones that snagged the logs out of the jungle, with their bayonet on their gun and go right up and “ski-yi,” you know, jab at him. They would jab him, and this elephant just lifted his trunk and whacked him right across the back. I never saw him again. I reckon he broke his back.
He hit him pretty hard?
Oh. I reckon he threw him about 10 feet through the air.
What was the reaction? Was there cheers?
know, but I know we didn’t see the old bloke that drove those two or three elephants for several days – the other two stayed there – before he came back; he kept away in case the Japs tackled him, I think.
Every time a Japanese had an accident or get killed, you’d feel a sense of pleasure?
Oh yeah. Definitely. Especially if
they were the ones that used to really belt you, and cruel buggers. There was a lot of cruelty in them, and they took pleasure in doing it, some of the Japs. Even though they were fed as good as they needed, if they saw something you had that they liked you were eating, they’d come and take it off you.
That happened to you?
Yeah. Especially when we found a few berries in the jungle and you were eating them, and they’d spot you, they’d just come and take them.
They’d put a bayonet in your shoulders, or just put the bayonet in and say, “They’re mine” and take them Not nice people most of them. You got the odd one that treated you fairly, but not too many. We found the Koreans were worse than the Japanese.
Did you find that after the war, there was a debate whether Japan should formally apologise for their atrocities?
I heard about that and I knew they’d never apologise. It’s not in their make-up.
I think they’ve recently recognised that these things took place.
They still haven’t apologised.
They won’t. It’s not in their make-up.
Do you think that should happen?
Forget about it now. It would have no impact if they apologised for something that happened 50, 60 years ago. They wouldn’t be worrying about
How would you best see reparations done between Australia and Japan for the atrocities committed against Australian troops?
I think they could pay us a fair wage for how we worked for them. Then just add it on what it would be worth today, that money. That’d be fair enough, because there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They never ever would come up with anything like that. It’s not in their make-up. Not in their make-up one iota. The number of good Japs that you met in those years, you could count them on one hand on your fingers. When I say good, I mean fair-minded Japanese. Not many of them. I suppose there’s a reason behind that too: if one was seen as fair-minded, he’d
get tackled by his own mates the same. Just a question that’ll never be answered.
When you heard about the atomic bombs being dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, you were in Australia. Tell us what was going through your mind at that period.
I couldn’t count them quick enough, I said
“Drop a few more.” That’s what I would have said. I never liked them at all.
Do you still feel that way?
Not quite as far as that way. But there’s a caste in Japan that’s the military clique, as they call them, that are still there and that worries me. It worries me. They don’t surface as often nowadays, but they still worry you. They’d take charge and do the same thing again. Whether the people of Japan themselves
would allow them, that’s another question that I can’t answer.
In what way do you think Japan has changed, apart from the obvious?
They’ve learned the lesson that the rest of the world won’t stand for any behaviour like they mounted in that period. And I think the younger ones in Japan have recognised that lesson, and recognised that America and all those other countries get along with their form of living,
why can’t they? I think that it’ll boil down to the fact that they want to stay the same way as they are now. I can’t see them ever wanting to get back to that standard. I can’t see one iota of them getting back to that stage, because I think they’d fail miserably if they did.
Do you subscribe to the theory that if atomic bombs weren’t dropped on Japan, that it would have cost millions of Allied servicemen’s lives?
Yeah, I do. I do.
I believe that if they’d had to win that war by sending troops into Japan, that possibly 2, 3, 4 million could have died in getting the same result. At the same time, an equal number of Japanese would have died too. It’s not a one-sided affair. It’s a double-edged sword that both sides will have casualties.
Because you’ve been involved in combat, you may have been involved in actions where you’ve killed Japanese soldiers, how did you deal with that?
I think in the first place I was very worried about it. I think what cured me of that, when we come across a couple of our blokes that they’d ambushed, and seen what they’d done to them.
Then it just disappeared like that. I was of the opinion from seeing that, that these chaps weren’t human. They’re not human. I never had any problems with it from then on.
Have you been involved in close combat with Japanese troops?
Tell us about that.
Well, I was as close as you could get, within bayonet-length of them. They’re no different to anyone
else: Fear comes into their eyes like it comes into your eyes. It’s just a part of a thing that you’re trained to do, and told to do. It takes you a while to get it all out of your system. Took me a couple of years after I came out of the army to get it all out of my system.
Get what out of your system?
Just the feelings you had of revulsion for what you had to do to survive.
And that includes the combat?
That includes combat as well, yeah.
The average person is not, you grow up with no feeling that you’ll ever have to do anything like that, and when you do, otherwise you die yourself, it takes a long time to come out. It finally comes out. I got no worries with it now. I don’t think it matters whether you kill one person of a hundred,
it’s still the same problems there. Half the time you don’t know anything. If you throw a hand grenade or fire a mortar, unless it’s an ammunition dump or something like that and it’s a big explosion, you don’t know what you’ve done. You don’t know how many casualties and you’ve just gotta put that behind you quickly.
In the instance of hand-to-hand combat, bayonet, what goes through your mind at that time?
First of all, it’s a sense of fear, then you realise you’ve gotta be quicker than the other bloke. Quicker and more brutal, I suppose. Any chink in the armour, you gotta
go for it. Otherwise, you go [die]. Very simple. It’s the same with ambushes and all that sort of thing, which the Japanese were expert at.
When you say fear, what level of fear are we talking?
Fear of being killed yourself, I think that’s the easiest way to put it.
Is this a fear that’s bordering on terror? Or have you been trained in such a way in the army
where that can be minimised?
It’s pushed into the background from your training. You realise that very early in the piece; you think back 12 months ago before you did all your training and that, I’d have been so bloody scared I’d have run, and the fact you didn’t run, it’s been pushed into the background and you’re behaving in a different manner.
How did you find you soldier colleagues next to you
when that action was taking place, close combat. How did they behave?
Much the same as myself. They’d be in the same, they’d never ever had to face that problem close up. The longer you survived, and the older you got, the less it affected you. You learn to live with it.
You learn not to dwell on it. If you dwell on it, you go nuts, I think.
Did you see that happen with other soldiers?
I saw that with some good soldiers. They were damn good soldiers and they’d go completely gaga [mad] because they dwelled too long on it.
Did any of them commit suicide?
No. Only ones I ever seen commit suicide was Japanese. I seen plenty of them do it, but that was,
they thought they could take on the whole world and run screaming and not get killed. They never used to last long when they started that. There’s plenty of photographic evidence of that.
What changed in you as a person once you had been involved in killing another soldier?
I think your Sunday School training in you haunted you for a long time.
The part “Thou shalt not kill,” but if you talked to one of your chaplains, he’d give you the right slant on it, and it didn’t worry you.
What would the chaplains say?
The chaplain would say, “Have you said your prayers?” and he’d ask you all the obvious questions, and if you replied in the affirmative, he said, “Well, don’t worry about it. Just keep going the way you’re going. You’re doing the right thing.”
Did he go any deeper than that?
No. Very few chaplains that I struck ever gave a lecture on God or anything like that. They were there to teach and talk Christian principles to you.
So they would justify your deed?
Yup. They’d justify it with “It had to happen, and it’s happened and
that’s it. Now you gotta get on with life.”
Have you ever seen anything where an Australian soldier treated a Japanese soldier in a way totally against your principles?
No, I’ve never seen anything like that. Nothing against that.
Or heard of?
I’ve heard a lot of stories, but you can’t confirm them, so don’t worry about them.
I’ve heard stories where Australian and American soldiers have been accused of shooting four or five people that had surrendered, killing them and things like that, but they’re only stories, and without pictorial evidence or backed up evidence of someone that witnessed it, you can’t do anything about it.
Like you said in the hospital in Saipan and the Americans had flamethrower-ed, torched it,
would you see that as being against the principles?
No, not beyond my principles, because they had machineguns in the mouth of the cave, trained on them. They were going to defend them. Blowing the Japanese troops that used that as an excuse to try and protect themselves. They had a couple of Woodpeckers in the mouth of that cave, and they’d be the first to go.
What about the Japanese women that were committing suicide? Did the Americans make attempts to stop that?
They did, but they were too fast and grabbed their kids’ hands and jumped. It was a terrible thing to witness that, but I suppose at that stage, some of those Marines and that were fighting there, they’d been in action for a long, long time. They become very callous. I don’t believe they’d still be callous to this day.