Archive number: 746
Preferred name: Eddie
Date interviewed: 05 September, 2003
Prisoner of the Japanese on Ambon
You are listening to the interview audio
As I said go through a quick version of events starting with where you were born?
In East St Kilda.
Ok, into a big family?
Four, I was the first of a family of four, two girls and a boy. I was first, then
my sister then another sister then a brother.
Did your dad have anything to do with the First World War?
He most certainly did. He was in France and I believe he was gassed at one stage but he survived and, yes, and actually met my mother to be in England after the war. Yes.
Where did you go to school?
Well, Brighton Road State School as it was called then up until 6th grade, then I went to Caulfield Grammar. My father was very keen for me to have a really bit education but I think his sights were set a bit too high because after about two and a half years at Caulfield they could no longer
keep me there. They just couldn’t afford it, this was in the ‘30s, post Depression years. So at age fifteen I had to start work. It was a disappointment, but that’s what happened.
What was your first job?
I was a storeman at a wholesale jewellery firm in Melbourne, in Little Collins Street but from the time I started work there my father, who was working for the old SEC [State Electricity Commission], was very keen for me to get into the SEC he could see that there was a better future there for me and he was right, too. So I think I was there for three years and eventually I yielded to his persuasion, could see the sense of it
and I got an interview for a job in the SEC again as a storeman. I was only 18 then and well I don’t know how much further you want me to go beyond that.
Sure, we might develop that later on. I was wondering what were your recollections of the day war was declared?
Very clear recollection was we had our ears tuned to the radio but
yes a very good, dear friend of mine, a school mate came around very soon after the announcement had been made on air and said, “Did you hear the news? We’re at war, you know, Mr Menzies [Australian Prime Minister] has declared war on Germany.” So that’s a very clear recollection that I have. That’s the actual main thing that I recall from the actual time when the war started on the 3rd of September
And how soon after that did you enlist?
On the 10th of June 1940. It’s a date that’s indelibly impressed on my mind. The 10th of June 1940. I was caught up, as thousands of men were, it was men mostly then, with what I describe now as perhaps patriotic fervour, thousands and thousands rushed because in June 1940
Britain really had her back to the wall. Things were at their darkest and so there was this tremendous rush of fellows to join the AIF [Australian Imperial Forces], and other services, but particularly the AIF so I was caught up in that period.
And whereabouts did you train?
Well after two perhaps three days reporting out to Royal Park, there was a big army camp at Royal Park.
We were resplendent in our new uniforms and everything and we were put on a train to the Shepparton Show Grounds and I was housed in the fat sheep pen. And there we paraded around, we had no rifles and just a uniform really and we were paraded around the showground at Shepparton with broomsticks and things like that
to try and instil into us the basics of rifle drill and that sort of thing. And that would have been in late July then that we moved from there to Trawool which is, I think you could say it was on the Yea Road that runs from Seymour to Yea, Trawool.
Very close to the Goulburn River. Very, very hilly but it was a tent camp and it was there that we became the 2/ 21st Infantry Battalion, issued with rifles and our real training started then. Intensive route marches and things like that, getting us fit.
Your first posting, where were you sent?
Oh well, that’s where we became a unit while we were at Trawool. Is it all right if I have a look at my notes here I want to get the dates right, I haven’t got my glasses either.
So you went to Bonegilla after that?
Bonegilla, yeah. A recently established camp, a great camp, a lovely camp I was very happy there. In huts there, wooden floors
and really intensive training started there. At night time you know marching all night and wading cross streams and things like that and digging holes and filling them in but what relieved that was that we were fairly closed to Albury, the town of Albury, and we got regular leave into Albury and the people there were very, very hospitable, they really
welcomed us and I took advantage of an offer from a family to spend more than one evening with them which was really great for somebody away from home for the first time which was the case for me. So I liked it, Bonegilla was great.
I’d just like to rattle through the events fairly quickly. You were sent north in Australia I believe?
Well we eventually left Bonegilla in March
1941. Put on a train, we didn’t really know where, a lot of hush hush, mind you we were very impatient to get overseas to fight the enemy. We’d heard about the 6th Division having gone over there to Africa and whatever. But anyway, we were put on a train and ended up on the Ghan and South Australia up to Alice Springs and from
Alice Springs the next six hundred miles we travelled on what is now the Stuart Highway but it was unsealed in those days, it was very primitive you might say. And we travelled that six hundred miles sitting on palliasses in the back of three tonne trucks. Not ideal accommodation but that’s the way it had to be. A thing that
sticks in my mind, knowing or having in mind that the centre was virtually desert, I was soon to learn that that wasn’t necessarily so, was cold beer. Every night we stopped, every place we stopped at there was cold beer and that was the first time I’d ever head of or ever seen kerosene operated refrigerators. That was a big deal for me and most fellows like a cold beer at the end of the day. So at the end of those six hundred
miles we got off the trucks at a place called Birdum which, if my memory services me right, was at the end of the railway line that went to Darwin, Birdum. And we trained there in cattle trucks and headed for Darwin. But we didn’t go right into the town we stopped about seven miles out at a place called Winnellie and it was just scrub
at that time. And that’s where we established a camp, a tent camp at Winnellie.
And was it more training there? What did you do there?
Yes Mind you a fair bit of that time was initially was spent getting the camp established and sort of making crude beds for ourselves out of sacks and saplings and things like that. But, yes, we regularly went
out, again my recollection is a big part of the time was spent digging what we called “slit trenches” which I think were meant to help you to prevent you being run over say by enemy tanks. You’d hop into these slit trenches and they’d run over you, something like that, but it wasn’t all that exciting. But for me
what relief, mind you it became pretty monotonous at Darwin and we started to be very disgruntled. We joined up to go away and fight the enemy and here we are in this god forsaken place, Darwin, which was in those days I’d describe as a wild west town. But getting back to what I was just saying, a highlight for me and something that relieved that monotony, I was
selected to be part of a mortar team. It was decided that each company would have its own mortar detachment and I was selected to be part of that team of six men. And that was great because we were learning something new and we were way out, we were bivouacking away from this camp and learning this new skill, how to operate and fire a mortar. That was good for me so
then at that stage I became part of the B Company mortar team, each company had its own mortar team.
And how did you end up in Ambon?
Well, what was the date? They bombed Pearl Harbour on the 8th of December didn’t they? It would have been within a week it might have been a day or two longer than that.
We were told we were off, off to war and we were embarked on, the whole unit was embarked on three Dutch, I suppose you’d call them inter island vessels, fairly small vessels. When I say we embarked it transpired that it wasn’t just the 2/ 21st Battalion now but it was attached, what they call attached troops like a company of engineers, a company of field ambulance, army service
corps and several other small units. And we became Gull Force. And three days later we arrived at this place that we had never heard of. Well, I say we, ordinary rank and file. But there’s a little story that I’d like to tell you about that actual trip. A day out from Darwin, and mind you we noticed that the ship was doing a sort of a zig zag course and we
assumed that was to avoid submarines, there was a war on now we were really in it. I noticed that I could not see any evidence of any life belts. So I said to one of the Dutch crew members who had good English, “Where are the life belts? We haven’t been told where the life belts are? He said, “Forget about life belts. Do you know what’s down in that hold? There’s hundreds of tonnes of mortar bombs. If a
torpedo hits, that would be it.” So I knew we were really at war, you know, and three days later we arrived at Ambon.
What sort of scenario was it on Ambon when you arrived?
Well I might emphasise again that we had never heard of this place, never seen a
map of it. I say we, ordinary ranks, I mean, officers had. So we had no idea of how big or small the island was. We could see that it was very mountainous, it appeared very picturesque, the population were very warm in their welcome, especially the kids, “Hello Australie, hello Australia.” I can still hear them calling that. And we went into a camp that the Dutch had already
prepared for us. See I learned many years after the war that the Australian government had made a deal with the Dutch government that the Australian government would send troops to Ambon to help to defend it should the Japanese attack. So they built, started building this camp for us so there was a camp almost completed, huts on concrete slabs and roomy and comfortable at this place called
Tan Toei, which you may have heard it, just a few miles out of Ambon. And of course our spirits had risen, there we were in a situation where we had a real job to do.
Was your unit split at this point?
Yes, yes. It’s important that I don’t forget that. Yes, C Company, C Company was split off from the main body with some attached troops, like ambulance people and ASC [Army Supply Corps] and so on. And they were sent over to defend the air strip and you really need to see a map of the island to appreciate how
we were separated. We were separated really by about three miles of water. They were on one side of Ambon Bay and we were on the other. And their major task was to defend the one and only air strip at Ambon whereas ours was to anticipate landings on our side of the island were most of the, or where the town was, the only town and most of the fortifications were.
It does seem silly but I want to get through these events quite quickly and we’ll come back and talk about them in detail? How soon after that did the Japanese invade?
On the night of the 30th and 31st of January 1942 they landed. Mind you before that they had
been, to use the army parlance, they’d been softening up the place, they’d been bombing the air strip and that and installations around there nearly every day and the town. But it was right at the end of January 1942 they landed at several points around the island. Because I was
part of this mortar detachment, I was separated from my mates. Actually I was in B Company and two thirds of B Company, two platoons of B Company were sent to support C Company defending the air strip and the other platoon, of which I was part, had been part, stayed on the town side of the island but because I was
part of a mortar detachment I was separated from the rest of the platoon that had taken up defensive positions where there was a trench complex and things like that. I was quite a few miles away from them having set up the mortar where we were told to set it up and established mortar bomb dumps and things like that close by. But it was all over within three days.
All we knew about what was happening over the other side of the bay at Laha on the air strip was the mortar fire and machine gun fire and at night time seeing the trace of bullet fire and of course the Japanese had complete control of the air and they just did what they liked, flew over us and we could do nothing about it really because they knew exactly where we were. And as I say after three days
it was all over for us. Our officers negotiated a surrender and that was it.
And upon capture where were you taken?
We were taken back to the camp that we were familiar with, Tan Toei. Mind you it was only while we were marching from where I was right at the.,
almost at the end of the southern peninsula at Ambon, while we were marching along there towards Tan Toei that I saw my first Japanese soldier and then the horror of war was brought home to me as we passed some Ambonese soldiers who had been killed some days before and it wasn’t a pretty sight. And I think it was
then that an intense hatred of war was born in me when I saw those bodies there. So, yeah, the Japanese turned our camp at Tan Toei into our prison camp, put a barbed wire fence around it and it was our new home.
Now you were to be there for three and a half years all told. Were there distinct stages in that period?
I’ve never thought of dividing it up into stages. The rations were probably reasonable for probably the first 12 months although mind you we were able to supplement them from stocks of food
mainly that the Dutch had stockpiled at various places around the island where we were allowed to go out and retrieve those. But as the time progressed and allied air activity started to reappear over Ambon things got gradually worse,
I mean the treatment became harsher and the rations started to be reduced and that was a gradual continuing thing for the next two years or more which eventually led to starvation really because the prisoners just could not survive on what they were providing in the last twelve months or so.
And how did you discover that the war had ended?
They never ever told us that the war had ended. It was a sort of anti climax, I like to think of it like that. The war ended on the 15th of August. The only thing that told us that, well some of us anyway, that something was afoot, you know, we hadn’t been told anything. We were sent out on our working parties but
around about midday they suddenly ordered us to get onto the trucks and brought us back to camp whereas we had been used to being out all day on work parties. And when we got back to camp we found that the guards had been double and they were in full battle dress. There was a sense of tension in the air. We didn’t know what that was all about but we learned later after the war that a number of
Royal Australian Navy ships had stood off Ambon with a view to coming to liberate us. And the Japanese had told them to, in effect, go away or we’ll shoot you out of the water and they went away. That explains the excitement but we didn’t know that at the time. In answer to your question, it was probably a week later that a new Japanese interpreter said to
us, in effect, I mean I’m paraphrasing it, “We’re going to get you ready to return to your home.” Nothing said about the war being finished but that was good enough for us, “It must be over.” And suddenly, very, quite suddenly the rations were increased quite dramatically and we were issued with Japanese marine shorts and
shirts and that. And they supplied our doctor with vitamin B and we were getting vitamin B injections every day and of course vitamin B was one of the main vitamins that was missing and well the lack of it was responsible for the malnutrition and so on. But of course our officers, no I should
correct that, it wasn’t our officers really, there were a handful of Americans in the camp and that is another story we won’t go into just now, and it was one of their officers that brow beat the Japanese and made them give access, give some of our people access to a radio transmitter so we could tell the outside world that we were still there and come and get us. And contact was eventually made, The Japs
finally acceded to this and a couple of radio operators were taken away to a radio station not far from the camp and they made contact with some Australian forces at Morotai which was some miles due north of Darwin, I’m saying Darwin instead of Ambon. And then we had the wonderful news that the next day there’ll be three corvettes of the Royal Australian
Navy to take us off Ambon, take us home. Well, that is the day that I will never forget, that was the 10th of September 1945. That was the most wonderful day we were able to watch these ships come up Ambon Harbour, they were going to take us home.
Did it take long to recuperate in Morotai?
Well, we were
immediately hospitalised at Morotai. There was a very big army hospital there at Morotai and we were immediately hospitalised mind you I, I suppose about a third of the fellows, I should mention that there were only a hundred and twenty of us left at this stage, and I suppose about a third, this is just roughly, about a third would have been stretcher cases and the rest of us were able to walk and I was able to walk. But we were, getting back to your question, we were
fed on a very, very carefully graduated diet which was increased day by day, week by week, because our stomachs had shrivelled up, well not shrivelled, but reduced and not been used to big meals so they very gradually increased the amount of food and the nature of the food. So at the end of the week we were eating, I think I’m right in saying, we were eating steaks even which were something we used to
dream about. We were there for two weeks. Again it’s a very, very gradual process of healing. Sadly there was one fellow who got to Morotai but he died the next day he was just too far gone. Later on I’d like to tell you about, I will tell you about the rate of deaths of people in the camp but
they were still dying after the war was over, some were dying. And after that two weeks we were put on the hospital ship, Wanganella. Let me say this going back to the hospital back at Morotai, boy was it wonderful sleeping between sheets after all that time. I mean, you know, we’d been in the army a little over five years and sleeping in sheets I can remember the thrill of just sleeping between
sheets, it mightn’t sound much but, by golly, it was really great. So on a hospital ship, Wanganella, and we thought we’d be headed home straight away but to our well temporary disappointment we went further away from home still, the ship called at Balikpapan which is part of, or we called it Borneo then where the troops had been in action against the Japanese very late in the
war. So having taken aboard some of the wounded people from that engagement then we headed for home on the hospital ship. And of course again our menu was very carefully graded and improved all the time of course we were nursed back well those that needed nursing and of course we got stronger and stronger ever day. It’s quite remarkable how the human body can recuperate you know it really, really is, the
punishment it can take and yet how it can with good care and nutrition how it would bounce back.
Well what did you come back to in Australia?
Well we had a few fellows who had enlisted in Queensland, came from Queensland, they were part of an engineering company that went to form part of Gull Force and we pulled into the Brisbane River and they were disembarked there but the ship only stayed there
a few hours and then we came down to Sydney and we were disembarked at Sydney. There were some fellows from New South Wales and of course they left us then but the rest of us, as the majority were from Victoria we were put on a hospital train in Sydney and brought down to Spencer Street, Melbourne to be greeted by hundreds and hundreds of people in Spencer Street. It was wonderful, we were home, we were
Did you still need hospital care yourself?
I didn’t. I didn’t. Most did but I was very fortunate. We were all taken out to Heidelberg hospital where the army had made sure the next of kin to be out there, they had been transported there probably by the Red Cross although I’m not sure about that. But we were in a motorcade travelling down Spencer Street between cheering crowds
and the very first person, one of the first, well the first member of my family that I saw was my younger brother in the crowd yelling out, “Hey, mate.” I couldn’t believe it, he’s eight years younger than me, just my kid brother I wouldn’t have taken much notice of at home and here he is. He was seventeen or something and much taller than me then. And he was the
first person I saw. So, no, I wasn’t hospitalised. I met my parents of course a very, very emotional period there. And we were brought home, again probably by a Red Cross driver or something like that, I was brought home with my Mum and Dad to Gulay Street, East St Kilda. I was really home.
And then you were discharged?
we were given an unlimited leave pass, unlimited leave pass. We had money, of course we had new uniforms, completely new uniforms and badges and everything and a new pay book and money in our pay book and, I’ve just lost my train of thought there.
I was asking you about discharge?
Oh yes, yes,
so we had this extended leave and I can remember I think nearly every day hopping on the train at Balaclava Station and going into town. In those days there were pubs all over Melbourne, they were everywhere and you’d go into a pub, I know we probably all felt the same that if we went into any pub we’d probably meet up with some of
our mates who also were free at last and had money to spend. And so what was that October, November, December, it was about three months as I said I was pub hopping in Melbourne frequently and it was just wonderful, the freedom was really marvellous and having money to spend and being able to meet up with your mates
without any restriction. But after 3 months I thought this is ridiculous you can’t go on like this I’ve got to think about getting back to work. So I arranged to be discharged, I haven’t got the exact date of my discharge in my head but it was probably at the end of January I think 1946. Mind you, getting stronger all the time, putting on
weight, the Repat [Repatriation Commission] were looking after us. So I had been working with the SEC when I enlisted, I was 19 when I enlisted and was working with the SEC so I had a job to go back to but there was no hurry. I chose a time when I felt well enough to go back to work, I decided to do that. Well
there, then, that’s the start of another story really.
Well, just to go right back to the beginning, I’m interested in your father, he had quite an experience in the First World War. Did he tell you much about this?
No, part of the reason is probably that there wasn’t a good relationship between me and my father which I don’t want to
delve into, but it wasn’t a very happy relationship and I was content to, well, I learned which battalion he was in, I remember telling him which battalion he was in and which ship he went over on but he never, apart from telling him that he had been gassed, I don’t know whether I learned that from him or from Mum, I’m not too sure now it’s too long ago. But I did learn that he had been gassed while in France and perhaps
invalided over back to England.
Do you have any thoughts on how the war affected him?
Well, I don’t know that it had any lasting affect, I don’t know even whether he had a pension of any sort, I don’t know that detail. But
as far as I can recall he was always a great walker. I’m a chip off the old block, he was very refined, very skinny, really very thin which would have stood him in good stead. He had collected a number of books about the war which I gobbled up as a teenager; I remember reading those with great interest. So what I did learn about the First World
War, I learned mainly through these books. I can’t ever remember really sitting down and getting him to talk about it. I don’t think that ever happened somehow. No, but he seemed to enjoy life. In fact he lived until to about, I think he was about 83 when he died.
What sort of impression did you get of war from these books?
Oh, it was an exciting thing. Oh yeah, exciting. I used to love reading about the exploits of the pilots in the Royal Air Force for instance or was it called the Royal Flying Corps. I loved reading about their exploits, yes, if anything it was an adventure sort of thing.
I hadn’t really absorbed anything of the horror of war, I really hadn’t. I do remember my father when I joined up, mind you I put my age up, I was nineteen and I put my age up to twenty because if you weren’t twenty you had to get your parents permission and I wasn’t going to ask my parents for permission to join the army so I put my age up
to join the army so I put my age up to join up and said I was twenty. I remember when my father learned that I was in an infantry battalion, having his war experience behind him and seeing how thin his son was, he feared that I wouldn’t be able to cope with being an infantryman and tried to persuade me to try and get transferred to an artillery unit where there wasn’t a lot of marching and that sort of thing. But I was enjoying what I was doing as an infantryman
and I just ignored that advice. I was keeping up with the biggest of them. When I joined the armed I was only eight stone, a very wiry eight stone.
We’re just towards the end of this first tape. I’m just wondering if, from these books or your understanding of war as a teenager, Australia had any sense of a war identity?
Oh well I mean Anzac Day was a big
deal, and a big thing, my father always marched on Anzac Day, always. And probably as a youngster I would have gone and watched Anzac Day marches on occasion, perhaps not every year but quite often. And I knew about the shrine and of course at school we were taught about the significance of Anzac Day but particularly Gallipoli.
Mind you it was never ever said that it was really an awful defeat. That was not ever emphasised that part of it. The heroism, not surprisingly, the heroism was what was played up when we were at school. So each Anzac Day we’d have a flag raising ceremony at school at Brighton Road State School and learned about,
somebody who come out, probably from the RSL, and talk to us the bravery of the people, particularly at Gallipoli because well I mean that’s why, how Anzac Day came to be Anzac Day on the 25th of April. So I hadn’t really thought very deeply about war at that stage. No, certainly not when I joined up I mean
it was the patriotic thing to do for one thing and there was an element of excitement. We’d heard that the Australian forces were already in Africa repulsing the Germans in Africa and that was good, good to hear, you know.
We might pick up on your enlistment on the next tape.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 02
I had my elder sister, only thirteen months younger than me, her name was Sherie, we, well see we were close in years and as we became teenagers we both started to find we liked
dancing. I had no at that stage developed no interest whatsoever in girls so I would go dancing at St Kilda Town Hall with my sister every week on a Saturday night there was what they called 50/50 dancing in those days. And we enjoyed one another’s company and it helped to sort of bond us. So my younger sister was oh
she was about three years younger than me so there wasn’t the same closeness as we grew up. It’s understandable really I think. And Sherie, my elder sister, was very much like me too, very good looking she was then too, lovely looking girl so it was only actually when I joined the army that that I
started to take some interest and find a girlfriend. By that time Sherie had found a boyfriend and so it went on, but my mother was probably the most important person in my life. I loved my mother dearly and as I indicated earlier she was a war bride as they were called, she met my father in London at the end of the war. He came
home and she followed a little later and they were married and then very soon yours truly arrived, number one. Yes, so my mother was terribly important figure in my life and remained so until she died far too early at the age of about fifty eight with a stroke.
With your mother such an important
influence and being English, did you feel partly English growing up?
Well, I’ll make you laugh, I almost became English when I was eleven. My mother took myself and Sherie, my elder sister, and my baby brother, she was only three then, took us to England to visit her parents and we lived there for about six months, I went to school in England
in a school nearby where my Mum was born in a county called Cheshire. I went to school there and I loved England as an eleven year old, really, really loved that and it was a marvellous experience. Although the shipboard experience was as much a highlight as anything in those days you went to England by ship and that ship became a wonderful playground for eleven year olds.
It really was. But when I came home after that six months and went back to school I realised that I had acquired an accent, a mid-county accent as strong as any person who was born there and I used to be teased quite often until eventually of course it disappeared. But I had acquired that
without realising through mixing at school with kids who talked like that. That’s a recollection I have but it eventually faded of course.
As an early teenager at twelve, once you got back, did you long for England? Did you want to be back there again?
No, not really, no. I had two good boyfriends that I went to school with, went to Caulfield Grammar with anyway
and a strong friendship developed with one in particular and then when I was about eighteen, I suppose seventeen, I was introduced to another lad who was boarding here in Melbourne who came from North East Victoria a place called Nathalia, his name was Chas Henley who eventually became my best man at my first wedding. I became very, very close to Chas
and this other fellow from my Caulfield Grammar days, his name was Les Langworthy and they stayed friends right throughout until both of them died eventually. I was mad keen on aeroplanes as a teenager, this was my main interest. I have always had a hobby and my hobby then was making model aeroplanes and spending as much time as I could out at Essendon Aerodrome
with my camera. I used to ride my bike out there, my bike was very important to me then. And I spent a lot of time out at Essendon Aerodrome as it was called then and in those days you could walk out on the tarmac you could go right up to a plane and touch it and take photographs of it close up, a far cry from today. So I had a great interest in aeroplanes and used to read up in magazines and became familiar with the aircraft, civil as well as military
aircraft that were current at that time. And yeah that was my hobby and great interest as a teenager.
Did you try to pursue that as a career?
I tried first of all before I went in the army I tried to join the air force because I had a one track mind. But I was rejected because my
academic qualifications weren’t sufficient at that stage for my to be accepted into the air force. I would have passed the physical I think but academically a bit of a laugh when I think of that. No I never thought, had any of ideas of pursuing anything to do with aeroplanes after I came home, no.
All I wanted to do when I came home was to find someone to be my wife and start a family, that’s what I wanted to do.
Just going back, you were in England, was that the early 30s then?
Yes, ’32 was the time I’m talking about when I went there 1932, yes.
Ok, do you have any recollection of the impact of the Depression in England?
No, no, not as an eleven year old, no. We lived with my grandparents in a
tidy little, well twin shops they were, probably about three hundred years old, the building. And the shops were divided by common wall, my grandmother had a toy shop on one side and my father ran a butcher’s shop on the other side but under the one roof, their rooms were upstairs. I don’t know where we fitted, but we fitted in this tiny place upstairs. No, that made no impact whatsoever on an eleven year old
What was the locals’ attitude to you as an Australian boy?
Oh well, the centre off interest at school, the centre of interest and that was good for the ego, my sister and myself, we were somebody, these people from Australia. So we were experts on Australian geography at school. It was a happy time.
So you were ambassadors?
I suppose so. My mother had three brothers and two of them were butchers with their Dad in the butcher shop. And one of them in particular, my uncle Charlie, he took a fancy to me and he used to take me fishing for eels in the local canals. That part of England had a big network, well still has, a big network of canals and he’d take me to a
local canal and we’d fish for eels and that was quite exciting for an eleven year old. I really become very fond of Uncle Charlie.
How did your family react to the Depression in Australia?
They couldn’t have been affected all that much because Dad was working with the SEC and he had a secure job although everybody in the SEC had to take a cut in
salaries at that time but he had a job. But he must have been fairly resourceful because he was able to augment his wages, because Mum was what was then called a housewife. I remember Mum taking in washing to eke out things in the house. But Dad got a part time job down at Luna
Park of all places. It was a night time job and weekend job, when he wasn’t at work, and that was great for we kids because he was able to get little books of tickets which enabled us to get free rides on anything at Luna Park. And I was able to go back to school on the Monday and say, “I had four rides on the big dipper yesterday.” you know on Saturday. You know,
really skiting about it but that was a really, really good thing. So they must have managed all right because with Dad working in the SEC and working at Luna Park part time and Mum taking in washing, they got by. We lived in a very mean, tiny little cottage in East St Kilda. I don’t know how we fitted in
but we lived there. And it was only after we came back from England which would have been late ’32 that my parents, we all moved to what seemed a huge house, still in St Kilda, in Gourlay Street, East St Kilda. I mean where we were in Prentice Street you could hardly swing a cat in the back yard, really tiny, hardly any space at all. And the back yard in this other house at
Gourlay Street, we kids thought it was marvellous, it had two big lawns. By today’s standards it was still tiny really but it was great but we still were living in East St Kilda. And in those days I was a choirboy. I was a choirboy in Holy Trinity Church in Balaclava which was the station for St Kilda.
And I loved being a choirboy.
What role did religion play in your childhood?
Well being a choirboy meant you went to church twice every Sunday and Mum went to church, I don’t think Dad went to church, but Mum went to church. But as a choirboy I had a duty I had a duty and I loved it, I loved singing.
Getting back to your question, that was just part of life it was just sort of routine you might say. Every Sunday I, with the rest of the congregation, would repeat the creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and Jesus Christ his only son.” and so on, reeled it off in parrot fashion. And I was
in the choir by this time, my voice had broken, and I was singing with the men, the basses, by the time I joined the army at nineteen. Pursuing this line about religion which you’re asking me about, I hope I don’t sound pompous when I say this but before I went away I wasn’t what I call a
“thinker.” I wasn’t interested in politics, social issues whatever. But when I came home I describe myself now as a “thinker.” and I don’t mean to sound pompous but in other words I had become politically aware because of the association with people older than me, not that I’d been brainwashed in any way at all but enough had happened to me to get me to question, this was the big thing, to
question things. So naturally when I came home I did the natural thing, pick up the threads again, started going back to church, probably singing in the choir again but I started to listen to what I was saying and what the minister was saying and I said, “No, I can’t say that any more, I don’t
believe that any more. No, no more religion for me.” You can put any sort of label you like on a non-believer and if you had to put a label on me and I know you’re not trying to do that, I would think of myself I was a humanist. Can’t say much more than that when
later on perhaps when I have the chance to talk about my role as a volunteer you’ll perhaps understand better what I mean when I’m saying that.
What sort of ethnic mix was St Kilda and that area in those days?
Oh, almost entirely Anglo Saxon except for the Chinese, the Chinamen as we would call them then, which we don’t do now, but the Chinaman who had the
laundry near the Balaclava Railway Station in Carlisle Street. I used to go in in fear and trepidation when I had to collect my stiff collars as a choir boy, this strange looking person, you know, that all we kids used to be scared stiff. I really don’t know why, I suppose it was because this person was so different from us. But, no, apart from that and
probably the greengrocers would have been Italian. That’s about all, generally known as Anglo Saxon whites and Protestants.
Now as a teenager how aware were you of what was going on in Europe?
Well, when , well I started to become aware only when the
war started I think. No, I would have learned probably by radio rather than papers because I was not a newspaper reader. I probably would have heard on the radio for instance of Hitler invading Czechoslovakia and so on and of the concern being expressed I would have heard about Chamberlain going to Munich to meet
Hitler and so on. So I was certainly aware, mainly through the radio as I say, that this person Hitler and the Nazis were really becoming a real menace in this far off place called Europe and at that stage there was never any thought about this place called Japan and most Australians like me
I’m sure would have been entirely, almost entirely ignorant about any of the lands due north of Darwin and Queensland. But of course once the war started and we heard, everybody I suppose would have heard, Menzies declare that we were at war with Germany well naturally our interest, well my interest and the interest of thousands of other Australians would have been
aroused because we were still very much part of the British Empire and it was common for England to be called “the mother country” and naturally enough because a very big proportion, a very big proportion of the Australian population either came from there or whose ancestors came from there either as a convict or later on. So there
was the British Empire, you know if you saw a map of the world then there were great big patches of red which denoted the British Empire. Well there was a saying wasn’t there, “The empire which the sun never sets.” And that was never ever questioned for instance, I never anyway, and I think my attitude would have been fairly typical, never ever questioned say why the British were
ruling this country called India. That seemed to be the right and proper thing to do. I took a long while for that to change.
What was your mother’s reaction to England being at war?
That’s hard to answer, that’s just too long ago now really. She would have been most concerned because naturally her parents were both alive then and her brothers. Her brothers, I think the
three of them had been in the First World War, so they knew what war was, but they were too old for World War II. No, I can’t really answer that with any accuracy it’s just too long ago but I’m sure she would have been concerned.
Did you immediately think you’d have to serve in those early days?
I’m not sure what you mean?
Well, when you heard that war had broken out, but before you’d enlisted, did you get a sense that you’d be called upon or you’d get involved?
No. No, not really, mind you within months of the declaration of war there were, the 6th Division was formed in Australia, the second AIF was established and the 6th Division was formed and eventually went off to
Africa to fight.
Did you know anybody involved in that?
No, no, I didn’t know anybody involved there. It’s just a bit hard to collect one’s thoughts. No it was, see I was nineteen, well wasn’t quite nineteen, I had never voted, wasn’t old enough to vote.
It would have been, all I can say with any certainty is that I was caught up with, we followed with great interest what was happening in England and the evacuation from Dunkirk and with Britain on her own, America was not even in it then, and because Britain meant so much to us as the mother
country it’s understandable that there was a tremendous patriotic upsurge throughout the country and of course the government was then calling for people to enlist in the AIF, for volunteers to enlist in the AIF. And I was caught up in that patriotic fervour and I thought, “Yeah, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to go over there and help Britain.”
And that’s the only way I can describe how I felt about it.
That particular call up, do you remember were there advertisements in the paper? Or were there posters.? What did you see that you noticed the government calling for enlistments? By what means did they call for enlistments?
Oh well over the radio and in the newspapers, it was years before television. Yeah, in the newspapers, great big ads in the papers every day.
Were there images attached to this? Were there particular images attached like, you know, the classic Lord Kitchener for the British enlistment, did we have anything like that?
Oh that’s hard, I’d have to do some research about that I really can’t answer that in any worthwhile way. I do know this, that the response was so overwhelming that it really took the government
off guard in a sense because they didn’t know what to do with these thousands of fellows who wanted to get into uniform and get into the army. And I guess that’s why I ended up in that sheep pen up on the Shepparton Show Ground. They were using showgrounds, Caulfield Race Course was taken over as a big recruiting depot. I’ve mentioned Royal Park where I enlisted. They had a
great job finding where to put all these fellows and accommodate them and naturally we were all welcomed. I don’t know whether I’ve answered your question all that well because I can’t remember anything and I know about the thing about Kitchener, that image of Kitchener pointing his finger and saying, “The country needs you.” or whatever. There would have, I suppose there would have been something like
that but I don’t have any recollection of it.
Did you enlist by yourself or did you go down with mates and enlist?
I enlisted by myself, yes, by myself. As it turned out the three people who became my real mates enlisted on the same day at Royal Park, that’s where we met. And somehow or other, I can’t really remember the
process but we somehow came together, our army numbers will show how close we were, we were very close to each other. We hit it off, the four of us, and when we went to Shepparton we still slept together there in the same, that sheep pen, and when we went to Trawool we made sure we were in the same hut, tent sorry, at Trawool when we became part of the 2/ 21st Battalion.
And they were my staunch mates right throughout until they one by one died at the camp.
What were those fellows’ names?
Their names? Eric Stag, he was, I’ll say my main mate, but we were all very close. Eric Stag, Jack Morrow and Alan Martin
and one by one they died in the camp. This might be a little digression but when we became prisoners the four of us agreed that we’d pair off. So Jack Morrow and Alan Martin formed one pair and Eric and I the other pair. Because we had agreed right from the start that anything we got in the way of extra food, we could scrounge or thieve or whatever, would be shared
between us. We thought it would work better if we were in two pairs rather than just wanting to share between four and that worked well so Alan and Jack they shared and Eric and I shared everything that we were able to scrounge. Until one by one, as I say, Alan Martin died first and then Jack Morrow and then Eric just before the war finished. And I
think and we’ll perhaps talk later on in more detail about this and I think one of the things that helped me to get through was having a staunch mate. Morally as well as anything else and I say that because I do remember when he died I feared that I might chuck it in as it were because I mean survival is a matter of
being determined that you know life is sweet, determined to live. And I went to one of the fellows in the cookhouse and I said, “Jack, if you see me dropping my bundle, give me a kick up the ass won’t you.” because I recognised that I could just, you know, having lost the last sort of moral support from my mate I could
imagine that happening and it could happen, it did happen. But fortunately I was able to make it.
Were you all from different parts? Can you tell me what sort of backgrounds these three fellows were from?
I find that hard after all these years, really, I can’t. I can only in respect of Eric, Eric Stag my main mate. He had been a
baker I learned and he’d also had a milk round at some part of his life. He was ten years older than me in other words when I was nineteen he’d have been twenty nine when he enlisted. No, to my shame perhaps I can’t remember what the other two did. I’m pretty sure they were city
lads I don’t think they were from the country I think they were city lads.
Twenty nine is relatively old isn’t it, for enlistment, were there many of that age?
Yes, it was a young battalion and he was, he would have, I find it hard to strike an average age but I was one of the younger ones but I would think on an average mid twenties. We were a young battalion in the main yes. The other
two would have been only a year or two older than me but I know Eric was ten years older.
Can you tell us some more about becoming a unit? You were, immediately from Royal Park you went to Trawool is that correct?
Well from Shepparton we went to Trawool that’s when we were formed, we became the 2/ 21st Battalion there which meant we all had colour
patches and we had rifles, World War I rifles mind you, (UNCLEAR), but that’s how it was. I’m not sure what your question was?
Sure, I suppose I was vaguely leading towards the idea of, besides specific training, the idea of forming as a unit. Does that come about just from training together? Or are there some other ways of becoming unified?
Oh well, I don’t know how the army goes bout doing that,
they go about forming units except that most of the officers would have, I think I’m pretty safe in saying this, most of the officers would have served in the CMF [Citizens Military Force], the “Chocos” [chocolate soldiers] as we called them, you know, part time soldiers in mid peace time, not surprisingly because they’d had some training, some army training, and so they became the officers.
But there was probably, there were some in the unit who had had some military training, the older ones, would have been when there was conscription before the war, I forget just when that occurred. But I do remember this, that we very quickly came to respect and admire our commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Len Roach,
and he was very, very strong on what he called “esprit de corps.” he said it was very important, and of course it was, for there to be a good spirit between everybody and between the unit for it to be able to function at its maximum efficiency and so on. So I do remember that at Trawool that’s when we were introduced to this person
Lieutenant Colonel Roach and he forever remains in the memory of those that are left, one who we loved and respected.
I have read that about him. In those early days in the training period what was it about him that impressed you so much?
You’re really testing me, you really are testing me now. I
suppose it was the way he addressed us when we would be assembled as a battalion and he’d address us for whatever occasion. I really can’t answer you any more than that I’m sorry. You know, his demeanour and what he said must have been enough for him to become respected by all and sundry.
What did you find particularly hard about the training period?
Oh, I loved it.
See I was, as I say, I was quite a skinny bloke but I kept up with the biggest of them, climbing these mountains and these long route marches and I was there with the rest of them. I mean, at one stage there at Trawool we did about a twenty two mile route march from the camp I think. I think we marched to Seymour, then Tallarook and then back to camp.
Anyway it was about twenty two mile around march with our full gear on and it was pretty gruelling and quite a few dropped out, I saw it out, I was there. Mind you, I think in fairness I must mention that band, the 2/ 21st Band. I’m prompted to bring this up because only very, very recently in the last few weeks or months a book has been
published about the band of our sister the 2/ 22nd Battalion which was in camp not far from us at Trawool and their band was made up mostly of salvation army bandsmen. Anyway, I reckon we had the best band in the AIF. See I must have had music in me from way back and I just loved marching behind that band. Well on this route march that I’m talking about the band accompanied us because they had to keep fit too. One by
one they dropped out, it was mostly with blistered feet, you know, perhaps our boots still weren’t fully broken in. One by one they fell out until there was only one drummer left, I’ll never forget this, dear George Kissick, who was playing the side drum. And he kept us going I reckon, he kept that one leg going after the other, it was the way he was playing that drum, he played all sorts of fancy rolls on the
drums, still in time mind you, but he really made that drum talk and I reckon he kept the rest of us going until we got back to camp and I have the fondest memories of George Kissick playing that side drum. He survived, I’m happy to say, although he’s dead now. I loved that band, I reckon we had the best. Of course we marched through Melbourne, too, behind that band before we went away to Bonegilla. Cheering crowds and
again they used us and other units to boost recruiting to bring before the public all these magnificent soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets. There’s something, I never ever saw the bayonet on a rifle as anything but quite striking with fixed arms and all these bayonets all lined
up, until I realised and was taught what the bayonet was meant for and that it had a groove down each side to let the blood out as you drove it into the enemy, that gave me a different perspective on bayonets and all that. Anyway, the band was for me, good for me, I loved it. No, I kept up with the rest of them,
despite my father’s fears that I wouldn’t be able to.
Do you think in spite of your father’s fears….?
On no, no. I made up my mind that I’d join the army and I very soon found that I took to it, I could keep up with them, enjoyed the (UNCLEAR), new experience, new experience every week almost. Oh no, no, It wasn’t to
spite him, no.
You mentioned your shock at how a bayonet would be used; did you have misgivings about going into action?
No, no, no misgivings whatsoever.
And at this stage were you still expecting to be sent to the Middle East?
Well all the time that’s where we thought we’d go. You see Japan wasn’t in the war, this was the early days of late 1940, early 1941, yes, we’d heard about the troops. By now the 6th and 7th Battalions were both in the Middle East, so we felt pretty confident that that’s where we’d end up.
I’m just trying to think whether we would have known, you see I was in the 8th Division. Whether we’d known that part of the 8th Division had been sent to Malaya, they were sent there before the Japanese came into the war because it was a British colony anyway and they could do that without offending anybody. Again I’m
sorry I’ve lost my train of thought just for a moment there. Yes we were quite confident that that’s where we’d end up, in the Middle East. As I said before that when we found ourselves in Darwin, oh, this wasn’t what it was meant to be at all.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 03
In terms of training, how did you find your training officers?
How did I find the training officers? I have to cast my mind back, it’s just so long ago. I think quite often they were objects of ridicule.
Perhaps that’s just the Australian way and Australian’s attitude to authority probably. We did what we were told but for instance if we were on leave in say Melbourne and you met an
officer from your unit coming towards you, you were supposed to salute them, well, you know, we didn’t want to have a bar of that sort of thing but, you know, that says something about the Australian attitude but there were, as in any group of men, there were some that you respected and there were others that were a bit of a joke. I mean, my platoon commander was a
lieutenant and quite a few of the fellows in the platoon were older than him, “Still wet behind the ears.” we used to say. We used to call him, “Snowy off the Trams.” which said something bout our attitude towards him. In other words, he wasn’t taken all that seriously but, you know, we had to do what we were told. But there were others and of course our CO [commanding officer], notably,
who we came to respect as real leaders. Some of the officers were, as I said earlier, became officers because they’d had experience in the CMF [Citizens Military Forces – the militia], as part time soldiers which is understandable. But that didn’t necessarily make them leaders in the real true sense but there were those that we did respect and
my first company commander was one such who was respected. His name was Major Newbury.
I mean there was the commanding officer of the battalion, anyway the number officer of the company usually in the 2/ 21st Battalion was a lieutenant, no I beg your pardon, a captain, but we had this Major Newbury who I have fond recollections of. He was one of those who perished at Laha, but he was one of the
few that I certainly respected anyway. I don’t know whether that answers your question in any way at all helpfully.
No, very thoroughly. I suppose I was interested in also in how the esprit de corps is established, that Roach mentioned?
How he went about doing it. Yeah, well he’d have to. He’d have to do that through his officers wouldn’t he?
Or did you find it within yourselves? You said you had maybe
common people you made fun of. Does it come that way as well as a reaction against your officers?
I hope I’m not exaggerating that. You see, what helped, this is a bit hard to say, I think what helped us to be bonded, as it were, were the circumstances in which we enlisted. We were caught up in
this patriotic fervour because of what was happening to the mother country, to Britain, whereas, I might be on dangerous ground here I don’t know, but whereas perhaps our fellow who joined up in the very early stages of the war like in the 6th Division, well probably a lot of them were unemployed anyway, I can’t quote the figures but probably, but again it would be for the
sake of adventure as much as anything else. And they did prove themselves to be a very rough mob. I remember reading when they were on the last train to be embarked on a ship somewhere they stopped the train by pulling the communication cord, umpteen times the train was stopping and starting, these boisterous fellows of the 6th Division, but by golly they turned out to be good soldiers though in the Middle East, no two ways about it.
What sort of role did adventure play in motivating you?
Oh, that’s a hard one to answer I must say. It was, it had to be an element I suppose, it had to be an element. As I say, I never ever thought deeply about what war really meant even though I’d had a
father in what is known as the First World War it was known then as the Great War of 1914. Yes, there had to be, there would have been an element of adventure but it’s really hard to say, it’s a long time ago. I mean I’m in my eighties now, golly, some things fade and other things still stay quite clear.
Well, moving on chronologically did you have pre embarkation leave before you were moved up to Darwin?
No, oh, before we were moved up to Darwin? Yes, we didn’t know though that it was going to be the last leave we’d have. We weren’t told that but, yes, we were given leave before we left Bonegilla to go to Darwin, yes. But because we weren’t told
it was our final leave we didn’t treat it as such. In other words I suppose our attitude on that leave with our families would have been rather different and they would have been sadder perhaps. But no it wasn’t said to be final leave, we just got leave and then shortly after we came back from leave we were on a train heading off to South Australia up through the centre to Darwin.
So, as such, final leave it just didn’t happen and certainly while we were at Darwin they weren’t going to bring us home from Darwin on final leave, no way so that was it.
Did you spend your leave time with your three mates?
Some of it, yes. I’m reminded of that because before this occasion today I looked through, I naturally looked through a lot of old photos to refresh my
memory on events and there’s a photo of me with a couple of them on the beach at St Kilda, near St Kilda Baths I remember. So, yes, we spent some of our leave time together, not a great deal of it but some of it yes. And my family would have met them.
Did you feel like a different person after your training, in that period then?
Well, yes. I’ll go back a little bit, I’m not evading your question. Because of my stature being skinny and that I had very low self esteem as a teenager, I was very, very self conscious about my skinniness. I didn’t go to the beach all that much but when I did I was very much aware my arms and legs were so skinny. And perhaps because of my
relationship with my father, that might have an element, I did not have a good self esteem. But having been in the army a few months and having been able to keep up on these arduous route marches and whatever, with quite big fellows, my self esteem started to rise, yes, very definitely, so that I could be with the big fellows too, yeah, physically, yes.
And being part of a unit?
Oh yeah, yeah.
Part of a unit, yeah, part of a team.
So what were you told before, were you told you were being sent to Darwin?
You know I can’t really recall exactly. I can’t say with honesty, yes, I can’t say honestly that we didn’t know where we were going. I think the likelihood is that we weren’t told. You know everything was hush hush in those days.
I don’t think there was any censorship on the mail then, I’m not sure about that. No, I’m not certain but I think the likelihood is that we weren’t told where we were going although I suppose it would soon become obvious if we started to go up the centre. When we got on the Ghan we would have known then that we were headed north up through
central Australia and where else but Darwin. I can’t answer your question any clearer than that I’m sorry.
No, I suspected you might not have been told especially as the general public didn’t know anything about Japan or any sort of threat to the north?
Oh this is well before Japan came into the war.
It must have been quite an experience making it all that way to Darwin.
Oh it was great.
It was a pleasurable experience?
Uncomfortable, as I indicated earlier at times, but, yes. A vivid recollection I have, little did I know and perhaps my sister who lives there, know about the centre really except we probably got the impression that it was all desert, most of us, inland Australia was desert, so it was a surprise when we were a few miles away from Alice Springs on the Ghan
to suddenly see vegetation, flowers, wild flowers and vegetation sprinting up all over the place and lots and lots of greenery all around Alice Springs, that was an eye opener. I expected this place, Alice Springs, to be in the middle of the desert, that was my expectation, I can’t speak for other people but I’m sure others were just as surprised, that was a surprise. And to find a river that had no water in it too was rather
interesting, the Todd River, which most times doesn’t have any water in anyway as you probably know. We spent a week at Alice Springs and a recollection that I have is that it was stinking hot in the day time and very cold at night time. I know that when I was on guard duty I had to have a great coat on at night time because the extremes of temperature are great there as you would know. But then the trip up there in the
three tonne trucks as I said sitting on the back of palliasses. I’ll tell you one thing I learned you can’t wee out of the back of a three tonne truck as it’s moving along, no way. But these staging posts, where we stayed each night there were just tent flies set up for us to sleep under and as I say there were these refrigerators with beer and you know the
butter was firm and al those sort of things. Flies were a worry, a problem, I remember having to brush flies away but we saw places like the Devils Marbles, I’ve got a photo of one of my mates climbing up the Devils Marbles there in the centre. You’ve probably seen photos of them. And there’s a place called Newcastle Waters where the river flowed over the
road, mind you, in those days the road was not much more really than a track and it was not uncommon for one of the trucks to get bogged on the side of the road. It was so narrow, they only had to get a little bit off the road, in fact I could show you a photo of a truck that is bogged, that was a common occurrence. But when we reached this Newcastle Waters where the river actually flowed over this road we had to get out of the trucks, take our boots and
socks off and actually wade across. I’ve got a photo of that, I’m reminded of that it was one of the photos that I was looking at the other day. And then continued on our way up to, as I said, the rail head at Birdum.
Who had the camera? Who was taking photos?
I had a camera with me all the time, al the time, just a tiny little Kodak, bakerlite type of thing that we called it, 127 size film, size little
films. Yeah, so the camera, I was a great one for taking photos before the war even of planes mostly as I said before and, yeah, I was always taking photos and of course I would send them home to be developed and my parents would save them for me and I’ve got a sack of them in an album there, you could look at them if you like.
Well that answers that question because I didn’t think you would have kept it throughout the camp so I was wondering how you had them back home. But you’d been sending back the films?
Oh yeah I’d send the films back
home and I don’t know whether I would have got them processed, I can’t remember exactly whether I got them processed say in the camp or send the roll of film home, it doesn’t matter does it, they ended up at home eventually and my mother mainly saved all these photos and I made sure that they went into the albums when I came home. So I’ve got lots of photos that were taken of groups of my
mates in my platoon and things like that. And I’m so glad I took them because it’s easy to forget lots of things, I’m reminded that I was more friendly with some fellows than I thought I was because I’ve got them in several photos and things like that. I’ve even got a photo of our whole platoon, I got permission to step out of the ranks as the platoon was marching out on some sort of march at Bonegilla to take a photo of the platoon as it marched up and then rushed in and
took my place again. I was taking photos all the time.
What was the mood of the unit in Darwin?
Well I’m sure it won’t be an exaggeration to say that gradually our morale went down. We were at the height of our fitness when we went to Darwin, we really were a very fit unit, no doubt about it, I certainly was. But when we found where we were and we were going to be stuck there for goodness knows
how long honestly morale did go down and the only thing you could do in your spare time was to either booze or gamble or both. In fact a couple of resourceful fellows got permission to set up gambling tables, quite elaborate, I don’t know what the game was but it was a game where the dice was used and the fellows put money on it and
I say those fellows were resourceful because they would have made a lot of money out of running those tables and they would have been sending it home. They didn’t gamble themselves but they had permission from the CO to run these tables. I mean there had to be something, there was no films to go and see oh, I must correct that, the exception was occasionally we were taken over to the RAAF
establishment, the Darwin RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] establishment, where we saw films. I can’t remember how often that happened, I don’t think it was all that often, I don’t really know, but that was always a welcome break seeing a movie over there at the RAAF and meeting some of the RAAF fellows, too, you know, that was good.
How did you get along with the RAAF fellows?
Oh we didn’t have much to do with them really but quite all right, quite all right. In
fact it must have been one such occasion we were over there when one of them must have done what he shouldn’t have done and told some of us that in the morning a flight of Hudsons were taking off for somewhere, Lockheed Hudson bombers, they were going to Ambon. But I don’t
think they would have mentioned Ambon they might have just said the NEI [Netherlands East Indies] or something like that I’m not sure. But we didn’t have a great deal of social contact with them these film outings were the only times that we were able to chat with them but we mainly went over to see the films. But, yes, if you weren’t interested in grogging on [drinking], talking about grog I’ll tell you a little story here. I’ve already indicated how thin I was but still
fit. A chap in my platoon took a fatherly interest in me and said Eddie, I was called Eddie in the army, there’s another story there, I’ll finish this story. He said, “Eddie, you want to put on a bit of weight. I tell you what, drink a bottle of beer every night. You’ll soon put on some weight.” “Oh, you reckon? Alright, Ok..” So for I don’t know how long a month or so I had a bottle of beer every
night. It didn’t make a scrap of difference, so I gave that away. I’m not really a booze artist [a heavy drinker], I mean I drank moderately in the army and didn’t get full or anything like that but I decided that nothing would really help me to put on weight. But it didn’t bother me because I was fit and healthy, it didn’t matter. I thought I’d mention that, is it relevant to talk about how I came to be Eddie at this stage or do you want to talk about that later on?
No sure, it’s a good idea.
Well I was a dark, I had very dark hair and a rather dark beard and it would have been soon after we went to Trawool and we became the 2/ 21st Battalion. A fellow in my platoon nicknamed me Eddie. The reason being this, and mind you I was happy to accept this because I didn’t like my proper name, my real name at all so I very quickly accepted Eddie.
In the 30s in Australia there was an aboriginal fast bowler who I think came from Queensland named Eddie Gilbert gained some notoriety up and down the Eastern Coast of Australia anyway because it was alleged he threw the ball, he was noted for the speed of his delivery and it was suggested, again I wasn’t interested really then, but someone either a journalist or somebody suggested that he threw the ball and it
became quite controversial, so that most people interested in sport in Australia got to know the name Eddie Gilbert, because his name was in the paper because of this. So that’s how I became, simply because my name was Gilbert and I was dark, dark, black hair. I was happy to be called Eddie and to those mates that are still alive they only know me as Eddie when I meet up for a reunion or something like that.
Nicknames are a big part of the army aren’t they? What were some of the other ones can you remember?
Oh absolutely, yes, yes. Well I’ve told you how we called our platoon officer Snowy Off the Trams, that was a bit of an elaborate one.
I’m not sure I understand that?
No I don’t either, don’t ask me. It’s gone, I don’t know how it came about, Snowy off the Trams, it must have something to do with something that happened in Sydney or Melbourne I don’t know. Other nicknames
oh, well there was a chap named O’Donoghue and he was nicknamed Irish, Irish O’Donoghue, a bit of a boxer. Oh, what other, my mates never had nicknames.
Eric Stag sounds like it’s dying for a nickname?
No, he never had a nickname. There was a fellow called Long and he was called Shortie, you’re testing me a bit here there would have been
a lot of nicknames but I just can’t recall any others just at the moment. No, you’re testing me.
What did they keep you doing or keep you occupied with in Darwin?
Well the whole emphasis was on defence. It was mostly as I remember it apart from say route
marches was digging these slit trenches which I might have referred to earlier, which were supposed to be some sort of a defence against perhaps light tanks that an enemy might use. To me now it sounds so utterly ridiculous but they were meant to hold I think two men. They were deep enough so that just your head, you know, they must have been nearly
six feet, five foot, six feet deep. A trench, I don’t know, about six feet long and just wide enough to get in and they were meant to form part of a defensive system. I don’t know whether we had to fill those in, no we wouldn’t have filled them in that would have been up at Bonegilla when we dug trenches and filled them in. Honestly I don’t have a very
clear idea of what other form the training would have taken except that I’ve mentioned earlier the time I spent learning, as part of a mortar team, how to assemble and fire a mortar.
And you really took to this too, you said you really enjoyed that period. What was it about that that you enjoyed?
Well it was a break in the boredom mainly
and learning something new. I’d heard of mortars, I didn’t know the first thing about them but to learn how they work, how you could assemble them in very quick time like the team of six all had a part to handle in putting it together so you could put the whole thing together. It would have to be pulled apart so it could be transported. Somebody would carry the barrel and somebody would carry the base and someone would carry another part of it so that you could man handle the thing quite easily from place to place but then be able to put it together
quickly. And one of the things that I enjoyed, there were two, the mortar detachment from two companies, we bivouacked in the same place some miles out of the camp, A company and B company, I was in B company. And to make it interesting and to put us on our mettle the officer in charge got us to compete against one another, see who could be the quickest to assemble their mortar and fire a dummy bomb or something like that or the
quickest to dissemble it or whatever and, you know, a bit of competition and that was good, I enjoyed that too.
With a crew like that do you get one task or do you learn all the tasks?
Oh boy, you are testing me. I would imagine, and I stress that I imagine that we would have had to learn to handle all the parts
because it could well be that one of the crew would have been knocked out of action for whatever reason. So it would make sense to me that we would have had to learn to handle and assemble all the parts, yes.
With all the defensive preparations you were making, was there any suggestion of against whom the defences were made?
See I’m talking
about a time before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, so they weren’t seen as a potential enemy. I don’t know, that’s a tricky one. Some fellows could perhaps answer that, I don’t have any recollection of us being told how it could be the Japs who will land at Darwin and we’ve got to defend Darwin against the Japs. I can’t remember
that ever being said or talked about amongst other ranks anyway. The officers, yes perhaps, they would be much more aware of the possibility than the ordinary ranks and I was only a Private and stayed a Private. So I cannot give you a really satisfactory answer.
No that is a really perfectly satisfactory answer that you don’t recall. Do you recall
when the Japanese did enter quite dramatically?
Oh yes, yes, yes. Well, that day the moment it became news it was, how did we learn, there again I don’t remember whether we were lined up and told. Yeah, we must have been, the whole battalion must have been assembled and told that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbour. Now wait a moment let me
back track a bit. I have thought of a reason why we could have suspected Japan, because Japan made a non aggression pact with Germany didn’t it? Yes it did, before, quite some time before Pearl Harbour, yes, so that put them on the enemy’s side, that’s come back to me now. So,
yes, we could well have thought, yes, it could be Japan although they weren’t actually in the war. Although they signed this non aggression pact with Hitler, their leader Tojo whoever it was did. So, yes, so we were told immediately what had happened that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbour and of course Japan had now entered the war and we were at war with Japan too.
And, as I said before I think it was no more than ten days later when we were embarked, still not told where we were going, but we were embarked on these Dutch ships and taken to Ambon, that’s all I can tell you really.
Was it fairly clear then that you’d be fighting the Japanese?
Yes, oh yes.
Were you told anything about them as an enemy as a force?
I don’t know whether we were told or whether we gleaned it, someone had gleaned it from the media somehow or another but, yes, we had the belief that the Japanese didn’t take prisoners. I do recall hearing somehow or other from some source or
other that the Japanese didn’t take prisoners. I don’t think any, well certainly I had no idea of what the Japanese had been doing in China from the early 1930s, where there were terrible things they were doing in China, I don’t think we were aware of that. As I said earlier, we were, and I think I’m speaking for most when I say
we Australians most were pretty ignorant of what there was even north of Darwin and north of Queensland. In other words vaguely aware that New Guinea was a territory that was partly controlled by Australia, partly by Dutch and that the Dutch had a whole lot of islands called the Nederlands East Indies and beyond that
well we were pretty ignorant really. Yes so I do remember hearing somehow or other that the Japanese did not take prisoners. I don’t know what affect that had on any of us. I can remember we got to Ambon and we were singing, “We will kill the yellow bastards when they come”
What is it? Coming round the mountain?
She’ll be coming round the mountain?
She’ll be coming round the mountain.
So what would you sing?
“We will kill the yellow bastards when they come, when they come.” They were yellow bastards they were. Yes, we had no doubt whatsoever, we would take care of these yellow bastards, yeah. That’s how we referred to them, yeah,
and what a shock we were to get.
What was the experience of being shipped over to Ambon, how did you find that?
Oh it was all right, I mean, only three days and we had to sleep on the deck, I think most of us slept on the deck. I told you the story about the bombs in the hold. The sea where I remember, the sea was quite calm, we were escorted by a couple of
Australian warships, I’ve forgotten the names of them, one might have been a warship, one might have been a cruiser, they were warships, whether they were cruisers, one might have been a cruiser, a lesser vessel I’ve even forgotten the names of them. All I can remember the ship, if you looked out on the stern you could see in the wake how the ship had sort of been going like this to avoid the possibility of being hit by a Japanese
torpedo. But, on, it was, I don’t remember, I can’t even remember eating on board the ship I can’t remember what we ate and how we ate. It was pretty crude conditions really I think these ships had been used as much as anything to transport cattle between the various islands of what was the Nederlands East Indies. That’s all I can remember about them. They were very similar ships
but I can’t even remember now the size of them, what they weighed, or the displacement. I’ve got a photo of one but you can have a look at that afterwards.
Now Roach wasn’t to stay your CO [commanding officer] was he?
He wasn’t to stay? No, well, that’s another story really and I don’t know how much you want me to talk about that.
Well when did the switch occur and what was your response to that?
Mind you, as ordinary ranks, and again I say I was a private, we’re not privy to a lot of things that go on where the officers are concerned. All that we knew, you see I learned the full story of course after I came home, years afterwards. All that we knew was there was an announcement one day that our CO was going to be replaced by another CO and we couldn’t
believe it, we couldn’t believe it. And mind you this happened, as it turned out, this happened probably only, I forget exactly now, two or three weeks before the Japs actually landed. And we were introduced to this fellow called Scott, a Lieutenant Colonel Scott, never heard of him, didn’t particularly like his manner. Now that was pretty
demoralising in itself. Here’s this CO that had been with us since the formation of the battalion that we’d come to love and respect and admire, taken away and replaced by an unknown. He didn’t even know the officers that he was going to command let alone anybody else. That’s a disgraceful story in itself really and I don’t know if you’ve read anything about it but
it was very bad news for us, bad news for us.
What was it about his manner that you didn’t take to?
Oh then again, this is hard to get the detail. It was probably the fact that somebody who we didn’t know, we’d never seen,
that was the main factor that sort of got us up, got our backs up as it were against whoever this replacement was. I can’t really answer that in detail there must, there was probably something about his demeanour that didn’t appeal to us all that much but I can’t be any more specific and even though he’s dead I want to be fair to the person.
I mean later on his name came to stink but again that’s another story and that’s another prison camp story later on. But I can’t answer the question better than that.
No, no, and fair enough to make the distinction too. So what were your first impressions of Ambon when you landed?
Oh very picturesque, very hilly, covered in jungle, secondary jungle perhaps, very
mountainous with this long wide bay that almost separated the two peninsulas into two islands because if you look at a map afterwards, or you may already have had a look t the map there’s a narrow isthmus right at the eastern end, probably no more than about a mile wide, I forget exactly, that joins these two peninsulas.
They’ve got separate names but together they form the island of Ambon. Of course it was very exotic. I mean there’s a different culture, entirely different people, dark people, I’d never had anything to do with dark people. Very friendly, the kids especially, they were very excited to see these big Australian soldiers coming in.
And we had leave into the town. There was only one town, there still is only one town there, Ambon, it’s called Ambon also. The island used to be called Amboina at one stage but for a long, long time it’s been called Ambon and the town’s called Ambon. And there was a bit of leave, we didn’t have much leave but shopping, we noticed all the shops were run by Chinese people which I learned in later years after the
war was common throughout the whole of Indonesia now, that the shopkeepers are mostly Chinese. They are the sort of entrepreneurs or the resourceful sort of people but I shouldn’t say that because that’s not fair to the Indonesians to say that but for some reason or another. I suppose in a way we’ve seen how the influx from the people from Vietnam here, so many of them become shopkeepers here and I suppose
some of them are of Chinese origin anyway. So it was exciting and exotic seeing these, visiting the town, new smells and the shops with all sorts of weird and wonderful things in and as I say the friendliness of the people. But we weren’t able to fraternise with any families at all. Some of the officers were but
ordinary ranks weren’t able to or allowed to fraternise with any actual Ambonese families so we didn’t, except that the closest I got to doing anything like that was when we were eventually moved out into our, I don’t know the proper term for it, I call them “battle positions.” I think there’s a better way of describing it in army terms I don’t know what it is, I’ve forgotten. But when we were put in our positions where we would in fact be
defending the island, my mortar detachment as I indicated earlier was out on its own, more or less on its own, and we were, the position where we were asked to set up our mortar and our little encampment was near, close, not far away, we were on the top of a hill mind you, not far away there was an Ambonese family. These two boys, I can hardly remember the parents but I
mainly remember the boys, early teenagers they were and they befriended us and they kept us in fresh fruit and in turn we gave them our empty biscuit tins which they valued highly because it was something they didn’t have. So I very quickly came to admire and respect the Ambonese people. They showed us how to make an atap it was called, that’s like a thatching
made out of sako palm leaves, how to make a shelter for us to sleep under at night time. I’ve got a photo of it even you can see later on. And when I saw how these things were made up from just stuff from the jungle, you know the bamboo and the leaves of the trees everything and the lace that was made to bind it all together was stripped off the edge of bamboo. I became very impressed and though, by golly, they’re very
cluey people they don’t need a hammer and saw.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 04
I would like to start with the fifty/fifty dances at the St Kilda Town Hall. Why were they called “fifty/fifty”?
Well they were half old time dances and then half more modern dances, I can only describe it that way. Old time, well, it was called old time dancing was very popular, well, my
parents used to go old time dancing, perhaps I got the dancing from them. I know my father in particular was very keen so yeah, the “fifty/fifty” dances as they came to be called they were a mixture of, I’ve even forgotten the names of the dances now, but they nearly all included waltzing which I loved to waltz, even reversing, I developed I as able to reverse quite well I like to think.
And then the other part, they were mixed up of course, were foxtrots and (UNCLEAR) more exotic perhaps type of dancing.
The modern waltz and the Pride of Erin, that would have been another one?
Oh yes, yes, all those yes.
And would somebody call the dances?
I think, oh St Kilda Town Hall, they were probably put up on a board I think near where the band was, it was a live band.
How big was the band?
Oh dear, oh probably about an eight piece band I would think fro memory. Something like that, yeah, it was at the
St Kilda Town Hall, it was, the band was in sort of an island between two dance floors. Plenty of space and that’s right my parents started up they used to go there and do, oh, those dances where they form in groups. Not square dancing, I can’t think of the name now, it doesn’t matter anyway. But my
sister and I we would just love being there and as I said before it was fairly regular. I think we used to go most Saturday nights and she wasn’t interested in boyfriends and I wasn’t interested in girlfriends and my sister was a good dancer and we sort of danced well together and that was enough.
Where did you learn to dance?
Oh, where did I learn? I can’t remember that. I went to a
dancing school somewhere in Melbourne briefly just to learn the basics of some of the modern dance steps. I have no recollection of where I learned that but I didn’t go for very long I felt that I’d learned enough, enough to enjoy myself with my sister. I don’t know where that was now, in Melbourne somewhere.
It seems to be an element of society that has long gone now and men and women both seemed to know how to dance beautifully.
I wanted to ask a little more about Luna Park. It’s very old now Luna Park, but it’s still operational.
Well hasn’t it recently been given quite a face lift? I mean I haven’t been there for many years but I have read that it’s recently had a big face lift. I probably wouldn’t know it now.
Oh I think you’d know it. It doesn’t look that different. The giggle palace is still there.
I believe the big dipper as long since gone.
That was my favourite,
The big dipper. So fast, you know.
Well the scenic railway is still there, but I wanted to ask whether the big dipper was higher than the scenic railway at the time?
No, no. It wasn’t as high. Somehow or another it was so constructed that it got up a greater speed. It didn’t have a driver for instance whereas the scenic railway had a fellow who works the break. It was so set up that well,
perhaps where it climbed its highest might have been probably as high as the scenic railway did go, but it was much steeper, so it got up much speed. It was a shorter trip but much faster and the way it stoped when it came into the platform, there were things that came and brakes were applied to the sides of the cars to brake it because there was nobody driving the thing.
But that first dive down was the most exciting thing and it kept it going for the rest of the short trip. So I couldn’t get enough of the big dipper.
I think I was the same. What about the hall of mirrors, do you recall that?
Vaguely, the wall of mirrors, yeah, where it distorts the image in all sorts of ways, yeah.
Not as exciting maybe for a boy than the big dipper.
No, I liked the
I associate those mirrors with the part where there were very steep slides, one was a straight slide and the other one went like that, I liked the one that went like that because it was more exciting.
With the hessian sacks?
And Jack and Jill. Do you remember Jack and Jill? It was another thing with a big slide and it slowly took you up high and tipped you out down the side. And of course the merry go round was
too tame for me.
Very beautiful though, it’s still intact.
Good to hear, good to hear.
Would that be on a Sunday, for example, at Luna Park?
Oh, no, no, not on a Sunday then, no way, Saturday. Oh no, Sunday was quiet and that’s when you went to church and the shops all shut.
Was there much of a promenade happening then in St Kilda?
Well, it’s an area where people have always gone to take in the sea or take in the air?
Well it was always tremendously popular as far as the beach was concerned, that and Elwood were favourite swimming spots and of course there was the, and still is, what was then the Palais Pictures. It’s called the Palais Theatre
now, but that was something out of the box really, the Palais Pictures because it was a cinema but it had an orchestra on a Saturday night and that was really something. I think you had to pay a bit more on a Saturday night but it had a fully blown orchestra. I even remember the name of the conductor, Harry Jacobs, I don’t know what happened to him. So that was special they used to play during the interval. In those days they always showed two
films, you really got value for money then. And almost next door was a place called the Palais Dance which was always a popular dance hall. I never, my sister and I never went to dance there for some reason or other.
Because it was jazz?
Was it all jazz was it? But that was very, very popular. St Kilda Town Hall was enough for us.
The Jewish quarter that moved into St Kilda,
do you recall that happening.
No, no. No recollection of there being a Jewish element anywhere at all. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me in any way because my first job, my two bosses were Jews in this wholesale jewellery business in the city. So I had no anti-Semitic feelings anyway.
I was just curious to know how
apparent that was then or when that became?
I don’t know really, I’ve never delved into that. I know it is now, but at the time we’re talking about, 1930s, I don’t know or was not away or there being a big Jewish component in the population of St. Kilda.
And my final St Kilda inquiry is the football team and the football ground. Were you a football fan?
No, you are talking to somebody who is not the slightest bit interested in sport. In fact I’ve recently just written a little short story about that. I was probably a great disappointment to my father. He was a mad keen Fitzroy follower and when I was probably twelve, thirteen, he would take me off to see Fitzroy play on their home ground or sometimes on the MCG [Melbourne Cricket Ground].
But the thing that appealed to me most was the chocolate he bought me at half time. But despite his efforts he couldn’t get me interested in football. I was just not interested and have not been interested ever since. In fact I really have no interest in sport at all which shocks some people but that’s the way it is. And I played, I suppose I’m
(UNCLEAR) myself here because I did play cricket for a while with the church cricket team when I was going to church but I was always last in and probably if I made two or three runs that was hilarious, I just didn’t have it in me the competitive urge at all. But the last sport that I embraced and
was after I came home from the war was cross country running with a well known club called St Stephen’s Harriers. I don’t even know whether they’re still going or not, but I ran with them for a while doing five mile cross country runs. I’m not a sprinter but I had the endurance of a five mile cross country run, I could handle that and stay up near the front. I don’t think I ever won one
but I was up near the front. Then I met my wife and to me that was it.
Did your sporting, or lack of sporting interest pose any problems when you were in the services, while you were training?
And I also had a question about your interest in planes.
Your interest in aircraft.
Yes, well what about that?
I’m trying to recall if you told Ianto [interviewer] that you tried to get into the RAAF?
Yes, because I was so made on aeroplanes my first though as far as services go was the RAAF but no, I think from memory applicants had to have at least the intermediate certificate, I don’t know what the equivalent is
today, what that would be today. But because I had to leave Caulfield Grammar when I was fifteen I never ever completed an intermediate certificate and because I hadn’t done that, that automatically ruled me out. I hope things changed later on. So I wasn’t going to be put off all that easily and then I went to an army recruiting depot and I think that was in the Caulfield
Town Hall and put my name down there. And that’s where it all started, and went out to Royal Park and signed my life away.
Can you recall the first time you heard the words Gull Force?
No. The direct answer is no, I can’t
recall when. It was probably not until we actually got to Ambon because while we were still at Darwin we were simply the 2/ 21st Infantry Battalion. But while embarked for Ambon with us were these other troops to make a supposed to be self sufficient force,
code named Gull Force. Some engineers and ambulance and anti tank gunners and army service corps to name a few of the units which formed Gull Force. It was probably only when we got to Ambon as far as I can recall at this distance.
And you said there were three boats that took you over and they were Dutch. I don’t suppose you recall what kind of craft they were?
except that they were inter island vessels. I think the one that I was on was used to transport cattle mainly. I can’t remember, they were fairly small I think, even though I’ve got photos of them I can’t remember say the displacement, I mean they wouldn’t be anywhere near say ten thousand tonnes they were much smaller than that I would think.
And were there
stokers there fuelling the boat?
Oh they would have been coal burners I suppose, again I’m not certain, but most ships of those sort were coal burners I think at that time.
And do you recall if there were any animals on board?
No there weren’t, no. I don’t remember there being any animals?
And was it daytime that they sent you over to Ambon or night time?
Well, it took us three days
to get there, both.
But when you left Darwin?
Oh we left in the day time, yes.
So I’m wondering if you can let me know if you can recall what Darwin looked like at the time?
Oh, well I always thought of it as a wild west town. There was one hotel I remember was known as The Blood House for very good reason, there must have been fights there every night because of the drink. I never saw a great deal
of it because we didn’t have that much leave into the town, not that I can remember, but myself and my mates, the four of us would have gone in together and walked up and down the streets looking at the shops and perhaps been surprised that some of them were run by Chinese which was the case then, a fairly big Chinese population in Darwin. I don’t, I was never ever
aware of seeing any Aborigines, although there must have been some but I don’t have any recollection of seeing any. Mind you, in those days we called them “boongs” and when I recollect that I now I shudder and think, “Oh God.” We had such a low esteem of these creatures who were human beings too, we called them “boongs.” But that’s how it was in those days.
Were there any in your unit or your battalion?
Any aborigines, no, no.
What about the naval fleet in Darwin harbour? Did you see any evidence of that?
I couldn’t tell you anything about it I’m sorry. I’ve no recollection of what was there, there would have been some warships of some sort.
Because after all these three ships were escorted by a couple of, I think there were two, ships of the Australian Navy, but I don’t even remember seeing them. I think they would have been in the harbour but I don’t remember seeing them. I may never have gone down to the wharf area.
I don’t know, I can’t remember.
Now when you got to Ambon, Christmas was not very far away?
That’s right, yeah.
How did you celebrate it?
Oh, how did we celebrate Christmas? Oh you’re testing me old memory now. I have to confess I don’t remember doing anything out of the
ordinary at Christmas time.
That’s quite okay.
No, I’m sorry. Probably if there was something it couldn’t have been all that noteworthy.
That’s quite all right. I’m wondering, that was a very particular time that you were in Ambon before you were captured and a lot happened
It was a what?
It was a very particular time for Australia, Pearl Harbor had been bombed and Malaya had been attacked, can you recall from your
position on Ambon if you saw any evidence in the air of action taking place around the pacific there?
Over Ambon, yes, eventually the Japanese came over there. Well the first presence was at night time when we hadn’t been sent out to our defensive positions and we were in our allocated huts and an air raid siren went and
probably heard a plane, didn’t know what it was, but we were told the next morning that it was a Japanese flying boat that had come over on a reconnaissance flight I suppose. That was the very first presence that I can recall of any enemy presence over Ambon. But then when we were sent out into our defensive positions nearly every ay,
this built up, but nearly every day there was a Japanese presence in the air as they started to bomb the air strip. Well, that was it, they had, when they were getting close, they had,
this surprised me being an enthusiast for aeroplanes, they had a fighter which was a sea plane with one float and it was a bi plane, not a mono plane, a bi plane. And they must have been put over the side of a carrier and taken off and come over, they’d be some miles away. And they had full control of the air because the
only planes, by this time the RAAF component that were there that had some bombers, they had departed. All that were left were two Dutch fighters, pretty obsolete fighters. And I was in a position where I could look over the bay to where the airstrip was and saw them take off but I also saw them shot down within about ten minutes and the
pilots parachute out of them. That was then end of the meagre air cover that we had. We had no air cover, no sea support, nothing.
Was that all around about the time that the Japanese moved into the harbour there?
No, this was just before they did, just before the landing.
So you saw the Hudson Lockheeds take off back to Australia?
No, I never saw them take off, no, no.
But you could see the airstrip from where you were, you were
over on the western side?
Yes, one’s memory, one’s memory cannot confirm one sometimes. The Hudsons didn’t leave until the night before the actual landing. That’s right,
I would have seen them taking off going out to sort of keep tabs as it were on the Japanese convoy coming down and sometime about then these fighters took off. That’s right, I didn’t see any Hudsons destroyed, that’s right, just saw them going out.
They left just before the Japanese actually landed.
It’s one of those heartbreaks of history that they left when they did?
Well, they had little option. They had to leave some personnel behind because some of the planes had been destroyed on the round then, the Hudsons, and there weren’t enough planes to take all the RAAF personnel off so some were taken prisoner and they were amongst those, the two hundred odd who were massacred afterwards.
Yeah, I can’t be any more specific than that.
That’s really quite clear. So the Dutch planes that took off? The Dutch fighters?
Yeah, they were Dutch, yeah.
Can you describe for me what that was like watching them being hit in the air and the parachutists coming down.
I don’t know from memory now how high they got up, but they didn’t get very high before they were shot down by Japanese fighters. And they were shot down in flames, they came down in
flames and I remember seeing the two pilots parachute and what happened to them I’ll never know. They probably ended up in the harbour somewhere.
When you first arrived in Ambon, how was your reception with the Dutch soldiers there?
Well, we had very little contact. See most of the soldiers, the local Dutch,
what’s the word, the soldiers were Ambonese and the NCOs [non commissioned officers] and the officers were Dutch so the ordinary ranks had no contact with the Dutch in that regard at all. Our officers, of course, would have had contact with their officers and they would have been talking about who would defend what and how. But I
don’t remember having any contact with any Dutch servicemen at all before we were taken prisoner and then there were a few, very few, in the prison camp of those. And again I had very little contact with them anyway. But what sort of disgusted us was to learn that the Dutch had chucked it in within twenty four hours. Our position then became absolutely hopeless, we stuck it out for
And sunk a corvette I believe, and sunk a Japanese ship?
Yeah, I’ve only got the haziest of memories, I don’t remember it. I don’t think I knew that at the time, I read about that after the war.
I could be wrong but I believe the reprisals were based on the sinking of the ship.
The reprisals at the airport were in retaliation?
Well that’s been suggested as the reason for the massacre.
I’ve only read about that from people about Joe Beaumont who wrote the story of Gull Force. I don’t know. They probably didn’t need much of a reason or excuse but the fact is that between two hundred and three hundred, eventually they became prisoners and within a few days they were all massacred.
But we knew nothing about that until after the war was over, long after the war. We didn’t know, there was no communication between the side I was on and the people at Laha. The communication broke down so all we could see was what was happening with the bombing and at night time perhaps a trace of bullets from machine gun fire or whatever. And it was only after we came
home and, you know, we were saying, “What happened to C Company, and the rest of B Company?”
Yes, did you have friends amongst B Company?
Yeah, oh yeah. You see two thirds of B Company were over there and would have been amongst those who were massacred. Mind you, there was a handful, again I’m not absolutely sure of the number, it might have been five or six. I’ve read this and I’ve forgotten the
detail but a handful did get away from that Laha and got back to Australia, including an officer. But I only read about this long after the war was finished and I read about the massacre and the mass graves. That would most certainly have been the major atrocity that the Japanese committed at Ambon, terrible.
In the weeks before the battle with Japan and the
capitulation, did you have any occasion to wander through Ambon town? Did you see much of the town of Ambon?
What time are you talking about again?
Before the Japanese arrived?
Oh, a little. Not very much, we wouldn’t have got very much leave. The main contact we had, the
main road, about the only real road on that side of the island, actually we followed the coast line but round through the camp as it happened and in those days the people, ever day they would be bringing things to market so mainly a subsistence culture that they had there. And we would be able to buy pineapples and bananas, what was
quite exotic fruit to us in those days. And I do remember the first time I had pineapple form there I thought, “Oh, God, is this what pineapple should taste like.” I mean freshly picked pineapple when here in Australia we had to wait for them to be carted down from Queensland and goodness knows what they were like when they were picked. So that’s a memory I have, of relishing the pineapple that
these people had. We were happy to trade because we had money in our pocket then. Our money had been changed to Dutch guilders so we were able to buy stuff. So I had paw paws and other exotic tropical fruits you’d never even heard of before. But no, we never had, I don’t remember very often going into town and seeing the shops
except enough to recognise or see that nearly all the shops were run by Chinese. And that was a surprise, they weren’t run by Ambonese.
What about the Dutch women and children that were there? Did you meet any?
Or the hospital? Did you have need to go there for any reason?
No. You’re talking about the time before the Japs? No, no.
I’m also interested in, Australia Day came about just before the stoush [fight] with the Japanese and I wonder whether that was celebrated at all?
Not to my recollection, no. Oh wait a minute, Australia Day, that’s late in January isn’t it?
Oh no, well we were well and truly out in our defensive positions then.
Just waiting for those little yellow men to come and we’d kill them. No I don’t ever remember Australia Day being
No, I was just kind of curious, as I said it was an interesting time and Japan had just been bombed as well, which you probably didn’t know. No, that was two weeks later. In any event, I was wondering when you got your orders to take defensive positions, where the mortars go? Do they go up high or do they take a low position?
I can only talk about the mortar attachment I was with. We were on the hill above a village called
Eri, on a hilltop above that village where we had a view, as I indicated earlier, had a view over the harbour. But our mortar was aimed more towards the hills, the hinterland on the side where I was because it was
anticipated that the Japanese would land somewhere on the coast in that area so our mortar was so positioned that it was facing in that direction. In fact that’s where when we eventually fired our mortar, that’s where we set our bombs up and I will never ever know what happened to them, whether we killed any innocent people I will never know that.
What was the strategy?
Oh, I’m not the person to ask really. No honestly, I can’t enlarge on that I was just a humble soldier doing what I was told in his position. I knew how to fire the mortar and was just waiting for them to come. No, in areas of strategy you’re talking to the wrong person.
That’s all right. I just wondered if they said, you know, when you see x numbers of soldiers coming this way, you know, fire at two minute intervals?
No, no, no. See, as I said
before, I never saw a Japanese soldier until after the capitulation when I was marching back to Tan Toei. Even though I was part of firing off some hundreds of mortar bombs towards where we thought the enemy was I never ever saw them. And in fact the night before the day when we were told to lay down our arms by our officers,
still on top of this hill, I was quite sure that tat would be my last night because we expected, well, our officers told us, we could expect to be overrun during the night by Japanese so we were spread out in a line, well I was part of a line. We were sort of lying down, had our rifles loaded, had a number of hand grenades by us with the pins
straightened so they could be pulled out quickly. And I’m sure that others felt the same way that we would go out fighting, we would be overrun and we’d be slaughtered. Come the morning we were still there and word came up, “Surrender’s been negotiated, destroy your arms, destroy your mortar, gather down on the road, we’re going to march back to Tan Toei.”
Okay, I’ve got a few questions there. When the officers indicated to you that you’d be overrun and you had this prior knowledge that the Japanese did not take prisoners, can you recall how that evening was? Or how that night was for you and what went through your mind?
Well, it was one of great apprehension and as I say we were quite sure, well I was, that that would be our last night on earth.
So what does a person think about when they think they’re going to meet their maker?
Oh I don’t know.
I can’t talk about what other people might, what was going through other people’s minds but I don’t, that’s too hard a question I’m sorry. To think what was going through one’s head just then, no, I cannot recall. Only that I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see another day.
Does it make the night especially long,
Oh yeah, yeah, terribly long, yeah. Someone thought they heard something and fired a shot not far from me and it happened to be one of our fellows and the bullet went through the edge of his tin hat. That was the only shot that was fired, but as I say at night time we had
left our mortar and told to take up a position on the ground with our rifles ready and with these hand grenades. You see I can only talk about the immediate surroundings that I was in, I don’t know what was happening to all the other fellows in A Company for instance, it might have been that they were further away. What I do remember is that
just at that night, two of my mates came away from where the fighting had actually been taking place, they had been told to leave that, to withdraw from that position, some few miles away, up on another hill where they had met, there was hand to hand fighting with Japs. And one of my mates said to me, “I got a couple for you, Eddie.” I always remember
that. Jack Morrow said to me, “I got a couple for you Eddie.” In other words he had faced them, face to face, but I’d never seen a Jap before I was a prisoner.
How tense lying there all night in anticipation?
Well see we hadn’t had any sleep for a few nights and we wouldn’t have had all that much to eat so physically we were pretty vulnerable anyway. Oh yeah, we would have been terribly, terribly
tired, we hadn’t had much sleep for a few nights.
Almost to the point of hysterical probably by that stage?
Oh, I don’t know.
I’m not suggesting men become hysterical.
No, I don’t remember anything like that happening.
No, two or three days in a row without food or sleep?
Well very little food, I mean we had some food.
When you’re lined up like that in anticipation, is there permission to go and relieve yourself from time to time, when you need to or can you go and get a cup of tea from the
whatever supplies are available?
I don’t remember such detail, I’m sorry.
You might remember this. Did you have any idea of where Scott was at the time?
I didn’t, no, no idea. As it happened he was down at the bottom of the hill at the village with his, he’d sort of set up headquarters there with his headquarter officers
and that and I think there were officers of A Company, another company that was down there. I only learned later, I didn’t know and I had no idea. The only officer I saw was my own. I don’t even know whether it was my platoon commander or who, I’ve even forgotten that detail but obviously there was an officer there who told us to start firing our mortar but I don’t remember who that was.
When you got the word to destroy your own armourments, can you describe what sort of anti climax that was?
Well, it certainly was an anti climax. The last thing, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be speaking for the rest of the fellows in saying that the last thing that ever entered our heads was that we’d ever be prisoners of war.
We thought that if we weren’t able to beat the enemy that we’d be killed anyway. But there we were, our officers had told us that they’d surrendered and we were to destroy our, well destroy, we had to pull the bolt out and throw the bolt away and throw the bits of the mortar in different directions and things like that.
You say that it had never entered your heads that you would become POWs [prisoners of war], that you would die before you would be taken prisoners, did that sit well with you?
You just accepted it. You see, this is a long, long time ago and to remember one’s actual feelings and what was going through your head, it’s just terribly hard and I’m not going to
make up things. I just don’t remember what was going through my mind. I remember what we were told to do and I remember that we felt that we’d be overrun that night. That’s about the extent of what I thought and believed.
That’s just fine, we’ll swap tapes.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 05
When you went down to the road as a surrendered force.
That was in the morning, yes.
You mentioned before it was the first time you laid eyes on a Japanese fellow?
Well it wasn’t until we’d been marching along that road towards Ambon town for some time that we saw a single Japanese soldier in the middle of the road. And a recollection I do have there, how
small he was compared with us and they are a small race you know. And I was struck by his footwear. He had what looked like black sandshoes on his feet but more interestingly the big toe was cleft in the sandshoe. Oh, God, yeah, that would help them to climb up
gulleys and hills in jungle and things like that. That’s just a little thing that sticks in my mind. He was short and he had this strange footwear on, I’d never seen it before. I suppose he just indicated to us to keep walking and we just marched in as I suppose we would have marched anywhere, in file, along this road. And I’ve already talked about seeing the
dead Ambonese soldiers and the impact that had on me. Of course our morale was way, way down then.
It might be impossible to answer this, but when you’re taken POW the worst part of it is never knowing for how long. Unlike a civilian prisoner who knows he’s got three or four years sentence and so on. Can you recall when you were taken prisoner, what you thought that was going to mean?
We used to
say, we said from the outset, “Oh, we’ll be home for Christmas.” We were quite confident, “We’ll be home for Christmas.” We talked about this, “We’ll be home for Christmas.” you know, “The Yanks are bound to come and get us before Christmas.” Christmas 1942 came and went. “Oh, we’ll be home next Christmas anyway, no doubt about it we’ll be home the next Christmas.”
Christmas 1943 came and went and we were still there, dying in greater numbers, starting to die in great numbers. We thought, “Yeah, we’ll be home at Christmas.” it never happened. So I don’t know whether that really answers your question, well it does in a way doesn’t it? In other words we thought it wouldn’t be all that long before we’d be rescued
because we’d be home for Christmas.
When you got back to Tan Toei barracks what did you have with you on your person?
Oh rucksack, just our battle gear, a small rucksack on our back. We’d have a, golly now you’re testing me, we’d have a pannikin and
eating utensils, perhaps some dried rations, I can’t even remember about the rations but we had what turned out to be worth its weight in gold what we call an army housewife. That is a little material roll up thing with needle and threads with buttons in, shirt buttons
in which you were issued when you joined the army. That’s one thing that I can say I had in my rucksack without any doubt because I have still got it. I can show it to you, that proved to be worth its weight in gold, a needle and thread, in those circumstances. And I can talk more about that later on if you want me to about how I came to use that.
Now you also had a camera?
I had a camera there, yes. Yes, the old camera I even took it, I almost took it into action with me but yes I took a photo of my mortar detachment under the shelter that I might have mentioned that the Ambonese villagers taught us how to make this shelter. And, yes.
But then very soon after that the action started, the Japanese landed so I probably had exposed all the films. I took the film out of the camera and threw the camera away and concealed the film, I wrapped it up in something in my haversack and carried it in my haversack. And there’s a real story about that because I kept that precious thing all the time I was prisoner. Fortunately, it was never ever
discovered when the Japs came through the huts form time to time to look for, I don’t know what they’d be looking for. And I brought that home and took it to Kodak and said, “Look, this film has been in the tropics for three and a half years exposed, I’m not very optimistic about it being any good, do what you can with it.” Kodak in Melbourne. They did and I was overjoyed that the film came out of well not only that the
two shots that I’d got of my mortar crew, but other shots that I’d take around Ambon town on times that I’d been on leave there. But those two shots of my mortar detachment became very, very precious and they are still very, very precious to me because they don’t exist anywhere else. And it shows two of these boys, these teenaged boys, Ambonese boys that befriended us that I might have mentioned earlier. Where they kept us in fresh
fruit and we gave them our empty biscuit tins by way of exchange.
Where did you hide the film?
In my haversack. All our worldly possessions were in this little haversack which I have still got, actually the only other thing I got from my army days, my housewife and my haversack which as I say I carried all my worldly goods and very little else.
I must have wrapped it up in something, I forget what I wrapped it up in but I managed to keep it concealed anyway in my haversack and it was never found and I’ve told you the rest.
Did you think afterwards you could have kept the camera inside?
Oh no, no, no. I would never. That would have been terribly risky. Oh no, it never entered my head I knew that would be a silly thing to do so I probably
smashed it and just threw it away. It was just a tiny little bakelite Kodak camera.
When you got back to Tan Toei, who instructed you was it your officers or them?
Well, best to put it this way, I guess in effect the Japanese would have said to our officers, “You run that camp as you would along Australian Army lines, you maintain the discipline in that camp.” Well,
you know, that’s the gist of what they would have said. So the officers set out doing just that. They allocated us our huts and I think initially, I’m not sure about this, I think there was an officer allocated to each hut. But that was only for a while; eventually the officers set up their own quarters, took over a hut and had officers’ quarters,
even had, would you believe, an officers’ mess, an officers’ mess in the prison camp. Yes, I kid you not, more to that perhaps later on. So in the early stages we were left very much to our devices. Mind you, there’d been a barbed wire fence put around to make it a prison camp and guard posts set up around various points around that perimeter and we were left for the first six
months or so very much to our own devices. They weren’t really interested in us so there was a daily roll call and things like that. But my friend Eric, for instance, I don’t know where it came from but we found ourselves in possession of an oven, a wood-fired oven, don’t ask me where it came from I’ve no idea.
Was it a fixed oven?
Oh just a tiny little thing it must have been
transported from somewhere. I’ve no idea where it came from but the fact is we had this little oven. And we had flour; it must have been something that the Dutch had stockpiled, flour. And my friend Eric, as I mentioned earlier, had been a baker. And he taught me how to hand up rolls, what we call rolls today, little loaves. You know, you roll them up; you get a skin on them.
And I had to chop the wood, again I don’t know where the wood came from but there was a supply of wood and an axe and I remember being the one to stoke the fires as well. And for a while we kept, I don’t know how many in the camp, but we kept them in fresh rolls for a very short while mind you. And while we were doing that some of the other fellow, for instance some of the engineer fellows made a crude lathe out of bits of a
bicycle they’d scrounged from somewhere. And a fellow started to make sets of chessmen because he’d discovered that the Dutch fellows in the camp, only a few of them, were mad keen on chess. So he made sets, whole sets, incredible, he made a forge so he could temper the tools, the cutting tools too, it’s beyond belief really, talk about necessity being the mother of invention, we saw it there. And he would
exchange these for probably cigarettes from the Dutch. Cigarettes became a sort of a currency in those days. Lectures were organised by either the officers or probably mostly the officers and our doctor for instance, our greatly respected doctor, Peter Davidson who wasn’t a 2/ 21st doctor, but he became Gull Force doctor, from
Queensland, Dr Peter Davidson. I will never forget that name and I’ll tell you why later on.
All right. I’ve got a few little questions to ask. A lot of people just assume that a Japanese POW camp is Nissen huts, no shelter, no nothing but in the early days of Ambon at Tan Toei there were a number of things that you could get your hands on. For example, did you have yeast for your bread?
I don’t remember that. Do you have to have yeast in making rolls? I supposed you would, I don’t know, can’t tell you, I don’t know where it would have come from if we did have yeast. I’m sorry I can’t remember that.
What about some of the other fellows. Were there little gardens?
Yes, some started gardens and very quickly discovered that it was very easy to grow
cassava which is a sort of, I was going to say native potato, I don’t like using that word native any more.
Like a yam?
Yes, like a yam I guess. And you could, it grew a long stalk above the ground with leaves and that on it with the roots quite prolific quite often. You’d pull up one and there could be half a dozen of these elongated cassavas.
The thing is you could chop that stalk that stalk up into bits and stick it into the ground and in no time at all it was shooting. So things grow so rapidly in the tropics so a number got gardens. I actually started growing some peanuts, I don’t know where I got the peanuts from but I planted peanuts and they started to grow and sprout but somebody did the dirty on me and one night they went and
what we call in Australia, we used to call bandicooting. Do you know that phrase bandicooting?
Eats roots and lettuce?
They’d gone under the ground, dug down under the ground and taken the nuts that were growing under the ground and I’d pull the plant up and there was nothing on it. But, you know, these things did happen I can’t pretend they didn’t happen.
What about chooks or poultry?
Yes, yeah, well I’m glad you mentioned that because I might have forgotten
again, a few fellows got hold of some chooks and must have been able to make a compound for them and they very soon started to produce eggs as chooks tend to do and they mostly went to the hospital because there were a few people in the hospital by then. One of the huts had been made into a hospital. I never ever saw an egg and I wouldn’t argue about that, but most of them as I recall went to people in the hospital,
until disaster struck and a disease wiped all the chooks out within a few days. It has a name, I’ve heard it but I’ve forgotten what it is. A disease that chooks apparently are,
I don’t know, that could be right. But that was an awful blow because here was a valuable source of food just disappear within a few days and they never got any chooks again.
That was the end, that was really bad news.
I wonder if you can describe to me in what we call a word picture the look of Tan Toei and what it contained?
Well, as you’ve gathered, it was a camp that the Dutch had made for us when we first went there. It was on a fairly steeply sloping block after all most of Ambon Island is mountainous and
hilly. The huts, how long would they be, probably about from memory about sixty feet long, again don’t pin me down on this, but this but they were the rooms were this thatching called atap made from sago palm fronds. The
windows were just openings along the wall with shutters that could be let down when the rains came. Concrete floors, we very quickly for ourselves, most of us managed to get enough material to make a rough bed for ourselves, goodness knows where the timber came from, it must have been laying around the camp or something. For instance my bed consisted of,
it would have been four, four six inch wide boards, say two feet wide, and on it I had managed to scrounge some hessian and my mattress was about six layers of hessian. That was my mattress, quite comfortable. And this was supported by bits of wood that had been somehow nailed together or
fixed together somehow or another, I forget how we actually did that but it was off the floor and reasonably comfortable. And I think my pillow was probably more often than not my army boots, I never had a pillow as such or it might have been a jacket or something, some part of my clothing I might have made into a pillow. But they were comfortable and airy and there was one thing though about the camp there was no electricity at all. So at
night time you couldn’t play cards, if you had cards, or do anything like that. And you only had light when it was moonlight. It was one of those situations where you came to see value in the moon because you could see down your hut when the moon was up. Yes, there was a number of huts like that on concrete slabs. There was on area where there either had been or was
going to be a hut, a cleared area which had nothing on it but we turned it into a basketball court and for the first time in my life I found myself in a contact sport, playing basketball of all things. I didn’t have a clue really but I just said, “Come on, Eddie, you’ve got to be in it!” And it was good for the morale I guess, again don’t ask me where the
basketball came from. It came from somewhere. So here I am, not really knowing the rules, but trying to pretend I was playing my part. My mate on the side line would yell out, “Come on Eddie, throw your weight about.” There was me, about eight stone. You asked me to describe the camp area; I’m trying to do that, that was part of it. We had a basketball
competition going and there was some really good basketball players and that was good for morale, an activity, and we were left alone to do just that. There was a guardhouse down on the road there near where there was a road that ran up the centre of the camp, a road had been formed, it was just a gravel road, quite wide.
And down the end of that road, near the harbour end, was a Jap guard post which we had to go past every time we went out we had to go past there, the guard post.
Can I interrupt for just one second, the road that ran through the camp; did that split the camp in two?
No, no, no. The road that I’ve just described really split the camp in a sense but it was only a camp road it didn’t go anywhere.
So there wasn’t Dutch on one side
and Australians on the other?
No, no. That was, the main road that I’ve referred to before, that followed the bay and ran through the camp and then into the town, that divided our camp from the compound that was set up to house the Dutch women and children internees. But no the other one in the camp it was just a camp road, it just went up the
hill and stopped at the wire it didn’t run anywhere, it was just a road that went nowhere. The huts were comfortable.
So there was a hospital?
Well they made one of the huts into a hospital, yes, and the Dutch, they hadn’t managed to, they must have intended to sewer the camp properly with septic tanks. But they didn’t get very far and
there was only one spot where there were any pans, actual pans. I’m saying this because that became significant because it became an adjunct of the hospital and it became called the mortuary. And this became particularly significant when dysentery swept through the camp and those fellows who it was thought
were really reaching the end of the road would be transferred to where these pans were so they had access to a pan. I had dysentery in 1944, and I must have been quite bad with it and I was put into this, what we called “the death house” actually, because no one had come out of that who’d been put in there, they died there.
And I was the first one to come out of that. I woke up one morning and both fellows each side of me were dead, they were fellows that I’d almost joined up with, they were real mates. So that leads me to again trying to give you a picture of what the camp was like, the all important latrines. The Dutch had built what came to be known as, well some call it, ‘the showboat.’
But it was like a platform, or a little jetty, you might picture a little jetty, at the water’s edge, just not far from, the camp was alongside, not very far from the water’s edge of Ambon Bay. And this little jetty had an atap roof and it had holes cut in the floor. A wooden floor with holes, holes in the floor, and you just squatted and that was it. And of course the beauty of that was that the waste was
transported twice by the tide every twenty four hours. So that was very hygienic, that’s we would have all used unless we were in hospital and perhaps had access to one of these lavatory pans.
Did the guards guard you while you were down on the latrine jetty?
No, no because the wire still ran down to the water’s edge.
but the people in the guard posts would be able to see down there anyway.
How far away were you from where the women and the children were interred?
You mean the camp or me personally.
I meant the camp. Could you hear them for example?
I have no recollection of hearing anything from them, no. I knew they were there.
Yes, it was only this main road, this bitumen road that separated us from them. I only became fully aware of their presence when the bomb dump was hit. But I don’t want to leap ahead too much to that. No, I don’t really remember. You see they were women and children,
civilians of course, I can’t remember seeing them.
What rules and regulations were laid down when you first got to Tan Toei?
Well very much along army lines. Again, to start with, well all the time discipline was supposed to be maintained by our officers. So we would have
daily roll calls and duties would be allocated, kitchen duties would be allocated. You had to do your time as a kitchen orderly. Perhaps one of your tasks might be chopping wood for the kitchen, say, transporting water would be another duty.
Water wasn’t reticulated into the camp. There was a watering point, well actually it was inside the camp area, one watering point, where we had a forty four gallon drum or something like that was obtained and a cart was built to hold it. And it was a cart that had to be pulled by two men, it had wheels and just a
framework to hold a drum of water. And that had to be pushed down to this watering point and filled and pulled up and other forty four gallon tanks in various places filled with this water. That was the way water was brought to the camp. So that was a duty, a regular duty, that was rostered, various people took it in turns to pull this cart up, the water cart with the water in it for the camp. Especially for the
hospital, the hospital was always the first on the list to be serviced. Of course things really changed when the Japs started wanting men for work parties. That’s really when the whole thing changed.
In the mornings, roll call was it done by the Japanese officers or by your?
No, no, by our people.
It’s just that I’ve read that to cover for some of the escapees off Ambon
the men would often shuffle themselves to disguise the numbers missing?
Oh well that’s another story, yeah. They got involved because it was, I don’t know how they, I’m trying to think of the circumstances when we did that. It must have been when,
how did that come about? There were a couple of, two escape parties in the first few months of captivity. Yes and to prolong the time when the Japs would realise that there were some missing there was this
subterfuge you were just referring to when we were lined up and men somehow or other were shuffled in places so that they were counted twice. I forget exactly how it worked but, yes, you’ve got me thinking about, I’ve already said that generally the roll call was conducted by our officers,
I might be wrong there, I might be wrong.
It might have been later, too.
It might have been that the Japanese interpreter might have come and counted us.
There was a big difference about six months in wasn’t there?
Yeah, you’ve really got me there. What I do remember in this regard, the second party that escaped comprised several officers, three or four officers, and Bill Jenkins, a true leader. And
to conceal the fact that officers had escaped, which our officers knew would really displease the Japanese, officers being much more valuable people because of what intelligence they could convey and take back home, so they got three fellows to assume the role of these three officers, to assume their names and to live with the officers. So the Japs never ever knew that three officers had escaped
actually. That’s just a subterfuge that I do remember happening. But after that the Japanese of course eventually were aware that people had got away and they said, in effect, “Well in future….” they were very displeased about this, “In future for every person that escapes we will take somebody from the camp and execute them.” And that was a big
disincentive to escape wasn’t it? It really was believe me. Mind you Ambon would have been a very difficult place to escape from, it was so small. But these people that did escape, especially Jenkins’ party, I realise now would have seen the possibility of prison camp and set wheels in motion even before the Japs came by contacting families in the
nearby village to tee up provisions, boats, arms, ammunition. But after that it was at least two years I think before anybody did attempt to escape and they were quickly caught. There was nowhere to go, it’s not like say Timor or Rabaul where it’s quite a big island.
There was nowhere to go and they were very quickly caught and executed. They meant what they said.
Was there any scuttlebutt or rumour around when there was an escape planned?
When it was planned, no, no. Well, not to my ears. I mean I don’t know how many would have known it was happening or being planned, I don’t know. I certainly had no idea, no idea. Once they had got away
word quickly got around who the people were. Well, because they were, we missed them, the Japs didn’t but we missed them.
In those six months before the marines turned up did your officers assign you any duties in your time or was it a free for all?
What me you mean or the camp generally?
Well you and or the men?
What you mean
other than what I’ve just described as kitchen orderlies and cooks?
Well did you have to do a parade or training?
No training, no, no. What would we be training for I wonder? I’m sorry I didn’t mean to mock you.
I don’t feel mocked; I just suspect that the officers wouldn’t have
allowed all their men to just fall about the place, that they would continue to run the place as an army?
No, what I was starting to tell you and I’m glad you mentioned this. Yes, of course it had to be seen that the men were occupied not just lounging around. And one of the ways we were kept occupied, this was a voluntary thing, but the officers started setting up what they call classes. For instance, the one I first mentioned, Dr Davidson wasn’t it, the doctor set up a
first aid class and I was quick to take advantage of that, ‘Oh, there’s a chance to learn first aid.’ So I took to that and learned the rudiments of first aid. I went to another class conducted by, he wasn’t an officer he was a much older fellow who’d had some experience of the world apparently, and particularly in politics, and he talked about politics and social set up which, it was the first time that I had my
thinking worked on in this regard. And I remember one thing that he hammered into us during these lectures. “When you get home….” note that when you get home not if, “When you get home make sure you tell Repat [Re Department] everything that’s wrong with you, every little ache or pain. Don’t go and say I want to get out of this blooming army and get discharged quickly. Make sure that they know, they’ve got a record of every little
thing that’s wrong with you.” And that stuck in my mind and I made sure I did that when I got home. So there was that. Another course I did, another chap was a commercial artist and he, I must have had a desire to draw or something, and he started to teach me and a few others the rudiments of commercial art, of drawing, of lettering, the importance of light and shade, a few principles like that which stuck to me. I have fond memories of that
fellow because he was a fellow that went to (UNCLEAR) but came home and eventually wrote a book, a history of Gull Force which I think he called “The Island of Spice” or something like that. This is quite distinct from the book written by Joe Beaumont who was an academic. So I learned from Courtney Harrison the rudiments of lettering which have still stuck with me all this time
and drawing, you know, in fact I went and did a commercial art course when I came home from the war, for a short time.
Where did you get the equipment for all of this?
Oh, I don’t know, that’s another one of those tough questions.
It was there?
It was there somewhere, yeah, there must have been pencils. Mind you this was before ball point pens had been invented. Yeah there must have been some; there must have been drawing equipment of some sort
available and paper, in those early days, mind you. Another thing that we did, kept quite a few busy, we had, the Dutch too, had of course established, I can’t think of the word, dumps of food and that around various places so that when we were actually in action we had access to food, tinned food mostly. So
the Japs let parties go out, with a guard that accompanied them, go out and retrieve these rations and that occupied quite a few for quite a while, a few months, it was all brought into the camp. And this is most important, I think, it’s probably partly answering your question
about discipline and order. A fellow who must have been a born entrepreneur got together, well made it known that he wanted to get concert parties going. And he spread the word around, you know, “If you can sing I want to hear from you or if you can act or do anything that will make us laugh let me know.” Now he got together a small group of people and I put my hand up. The
reason being that, do you want me to elaborate a bit on this, my role there? Why I put my hand up was this, I had, before the war I had memorised a few of the monologues that a well known actor, comedian, Stanley Holloway, used to, or had recorded and you used to hear it on the wireless quite often. And I sort of loved these, probably because of my part English background. I got
used to his pseudo accent from Lancashire. So I put my hand up and said, “I can deliver a couple of monologues, I know them by heart.” which I had learned by heart. So I helped to form part of a concert party by doing these monologues and somebody grabbed me, I teamed up with another fellow and we wrote a parody on a song written by
Flanagan and Allen. Now Flanagan and Allen may not mean anything to you, they were a wonderfully popular duo, comic duo, during the 30s and they sang nonsense songs and Bud Flanagan composed most of the songs. We took one of those songs and made a parody of it, another fellow and I, and we just sang this parody to the tune of Bud Flanagan, that was our little act.
I’m going to have to interrupt you because it’s about to finish, I just have one more
question. When this fellow was getting the group of you together, did he come by all the huts and say “Oh boys, I’m going to do this.” or was there anything written?
I forget now, I forget how he did it. I remember his name but that’s about all. I don’t know, just perhaps word of mouth around the camp, word of mouth I think around the camp I don’t remember him coming and going into each hut but that’s it.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 06
The whole recitation would probably go about three or four minutes.
No we’re rolling I think.
Oh well, we’re talking about the concert parties, so called concert parties, pretty primitive really. We had built an open air platform which we called a stage. No curtain or anything like that, no props. But
it sufficed. Yes, I got roped into doing this recitation which I had, well several of which I had committed to memory before the war and tried to take off the Lancashire accent. I suppose if there’s anybody, if you happened to be from Lancashire and you heard me at this you might shudder a bit but, however. Anyway, it caused a bit of laughter. You want to hear a couple of verses of do you?
Yeah, let’s have a taste.
With my finest Lancashire accent.
“There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool, that’s noted for fresh air and fun
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom went there with young Albert, their son.
Now, a grand little lad was young Albert, all dressed in his best
What a swell, he’d a stick with an horses head handle
It was the finest that Woolworth’s could sell
And they didn’t think much of the ocean
The waves they were fiddling and small
There were no wrecks and no one was drownded
In fact nothing to laugh at all
So seeking for further amusement they paid and went in the zoo
Where there were lions and camels and tigers
And old ale and sandwiches too
There were one great big lion named Wallace
His nose were all covered in scars
And he laid in a somnambulant posture
With the side of his face on the bars
Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
To see Wallace lying so peaceful
It just didn’t seem right to the child
So straightway the brave little fellow
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took his stick with the horse’s head handle
And shoved it in Wallace’s ear
Well, you could see the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with him
And swallowed the little lad whole.
Now Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly when all’s said and done
Complained to the animal keeper
That the lion had eaten their son
Well the keeper were quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap,
Are you sure that that’s your boy he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap.”
The manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Your lion’s had our Albert
And him in his Sunday clothes too.”
The manager wanted no trouble
He pulled out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
Pa said, “What do you usually pay?”
But mother had grown a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No, someone’s got to be summonsed.”
So that were decided upon.
So off they went to the Police Station
And in front of the magistrate chap
And they told him what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap
Well the magistrate gave his opinion
That no one were really to blame
And he hoped Mr & Mrs Ramsbottom
Would have further sons to their name
Well at this mother grew proper blazing
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed bloody lions, not me”
How about that Albert and the Lion?
Yeah, so, gave them a laugh of course and I had a couple of others up my sleeve and did those. But I really did my stage debut in that prison camp. One of the fellows, I think it was the journalist from
Melbourne, Bunny Porter his name was, he came home and he wrote a series of scripts based loosely on the Dad and Dave theme sort of and there was characters in it like Dad and Dave and the heroine was Mabel. And somehow or other they persuaded me to play the female lead. Well of course the first obstacle to
overcome is the matter of boobs. Well what better than getting hold of a coconut shell and cutting it in half and I must say that did the job fine. But then there was the problem of a dress. Now don’t ask me how this happened, how I did this, but somehow somebody got hold of a dress from the Dutch women in the compound adjacent to the camp. And as for hair well I put a handkerchief or something over my head. And there I was playing the
role of, I don’t know whether he called it Mabel, but that was the role. That was my first debut really on the stage. Anyway it was all good fun and I like to think that it all helped, we all helped to break the boredom and improve morale a little as well. There was a fellow who was steeped in Gilbert & Sullivan and he got a number
of us together to learn some of the choruses from things like Pirates of Penzance and we sang those also and I must say that was my introduction to Gilbert & Sullivan, too, in the camp.
Just some questions on specifics, how many of these concert parties were there?
Well, we tried to hold those and did hold those every week for quite a few months throughout most of
1942. They really started to peter out when the Japanese started to make demands for men on work parties which of course inhibited us considerably. We either didn’t have the time to rehearse things or we were just too tired anyway. So they went on right on up until
early 1943 when they sadly came to an end and a bomb dump in the camp that was bombed but that’s another story. So that’s how long they lasted, roughly a year I suppose.
And were these directed? Did you have someone running the concerts?
No, no. I don’t think so. I suppose the fellow who got us all together,
well, he would have arranged the program I suppose but it was pretty free and easy.
In terms of learning your lines as Mabel, was there a script to have a hold of?
Yes, yes. This fellow who wrote it, Bunny Porter, he would have written out a script, yes, somehow or other and gave it to those of us who were playing the roles.
There were probably only three of us, there was probably a Dad and Dave character and then myself, Mabel. I don’t actually remember learning the script but I must have because we did it without the, we did it from memory on the so called stage.
You must have been the only woman the men had seen for a while, did you get accosted?
No, it was fun.
They were all gentlemen were they?
All the men were gentlemen to you.
Oh absolutely, yes, absolutely.
Well, what did the Japanese make of your concert party?
Some of the guards came and watched us but they probably have had a clue really what we were on about because there was satire and nonsense that would only be understood by fellows like ourselves. But, yeah, sometimes they just came and stood and looked. We just ignored them
of course. Are you interested to know how and why the concerts came to an end? The so called concerts came to an end.
Well I would like to know but just while we’re on the topic of them if we could get the details of how they were running. Did you use that as a vehicle perhaps for some anti Japanese sentiment?
No, no. Did we include any anti Japanese sentiment in any of the skits did you say?
No, well we wouldn’t have been game to do that. We had already learned that they could be very, very nasty. No, no, I don’t recall that. It was mostly singing songs from Gilbert and Sullivan and these little plays that I’m talking about, the monologue, or before the band went away to Hainan which was late 1942.
Of course they always, some members of it, you know, presented an item or two. They would have been the highlight because I remember how despondent I was when they all went off and were taken away to Hainan. We didn’t know where they’d gone at the time.
What instruments did they still have?
Miraculously they had all their instruments as far as I can recall. I don’t know where they had been put while the action was on but they managed to retrieve
them, most of them, as far as I can recall. I can remember sitting in while it was in the camp, yes, I think it was early days at the camp when I sat in and learned the rudiments of playing a side drum from one of the fellows. So, yes, that was rather amazing. So they took their instruments away with them when they went to Hainan.
I don’t know what happened thereafter because I can’t talk about that first hand. But, yeah, that was a big factor in these so called concerts I almost left the band out which would have been wrong. That was a morale booster if ever there was one.
What sort of repertoire did they have, the band?
Oh well they would have, it would have been mostly marches I suppose. That’s a big hard for me to
remember at this distance. I’m sure they had other things other than marches in their repertoire but what they were I can’t remember at this stage.
Did you say you learned the drum off the drummer who’d survived that march?
Oh sort of, yeah. I learned the drum music from him. I didn’t know that drummers ever had music to get to play by but they do have it, some sort of notation. I’ve forgotten
what it’s all about now but it was, you know, it was an interest.
You mentioned before some lectures and tutorials of sorts. Were there musical lessons as well?
No, no. That’s a good question though, no. I don’t remember any musical lessons, no.
I wonder if you could describe the scenario to me of one of the concert parties perhaps what time of day it would be and how they would
assemble and that sort of thing?
Well it had to be, it had to be before dark because there was no electricity in the camp at all of any sort. So we probably had a day off once a week, possibly even the Sunday, and that’s when the concerts would have been during, say, the afternoon sometime. But we
eventually, we being people associated with this sort of thing, eventually persuaded the Japs to let us have the use of a hut which wasn’t being used for anything to turn it into what you might grandly call a concert hall. And enough people got together and we got material to make a stage and a curtain, now this has special meaning for me because talk about a work of art.
Again, don’t ask me where we got the material from but being scroungers from way back we got material. And it was all black for this curtain and I was one who helped to sew on that, to make up out of coloured material, and sew on it replicas of the unit badges of all the units represented in the camp, apart from he battalion, the ambulance and the engineers and
several other units, on this grand curtain. And we had an opening night and somebody had managed to collect enough cigarettes and as each person arrived for the concert they were given a cigarette, oh, big deal. Now this may not mean too much to you but I’ll tell you about it anyway. Opening Night came and there was a ribbon of some sort across the
curtain and it was to be cut by an important person and be declared open. And he was just about to cut it and someone else dashed in from the audience and cut it before he could do it and yelled out, “The De Groot Act.” Does that mean anything to you? No, that’s understandable. When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was to be officially opened in 1932 and I think the premier of the state Lang, Jack Lang, was to cut the ribbon
a fellow in military uniform rode up on a horse and cut the ribbon before him to make a gesture, you know. It was an outrageous thing, you know, it was really news, and his name was De Groot. So we, this fellow yelled out, “The De Groot Act” and of course everybody there knew what he was talking about, we were of that generation. A week or so later the whole thing was destroyed when the bomb dump was
hit and the whole place when up in flames and we lost all that. That was the end of the concert parties, very sad.
Well let’s talk about that act because it’s very significant, isn’t it, the bomb?
Oh the most significant apart from those who were executed. The most significant thing, yes, because after that happened time was measured as
being before or after the blast as we called it. Late in 1942, that’s our first year of captivity, the Japs, well they made us unload some hundreds of aerial bombs and store them in a hut inside the camp compound much to the, or against the protest of our officers. Naturally,
they protested to such a thing being done. That was late 1942 and on, I hope I’ve got my dates right now, on the 15th of February the next year, 1943, some Liberator bombers came over, the first time we’d seen Liberator bombers, American air force Liberator bombers. They were probably headed
towards the town, to bomb the town, and their flight path took them over the camp and a stick of bombs was dropped and landed adjacent to the bomb dump. Some of our fellows were killed immediately and within seconds word flashed around the camp, everybody was in the camp then, that the bomb dump was on fire. And we scuttled
like rats in a trap to get as far away from it as we could before it went up. But it went up in a very few minutes. It was over a hundred tons of aerial bombs in that dump. The people who took the brunt of that blast were the Dutch women and children in the compound that I’ve talked about. The reason being I think because of the lay of the land and because there was an
embankment on one side of the dump, which to some extent sheltered part of the camp, there was no such an embankment on the open side, on the road side, where the Dutch women and children were. They got the full force of the blast and I’m just snatching at figures now, I can’t be too accurate, but in the realm of about thirty were killed in that
blast. The rest of us we lost about I think it was twelve people. The worst loss for us were two officers, our doctor I’ve referred to, Dr Peter Davidson, a terrible loss in a prison camp of all places and a chap named Hook, James Hook.
Oh dear, isn’t that terrible, Hook his name was anyway, he was the adjutant of 2/ 21st Battalion and those two men were respected and admired in the prison camp for the way they stood up to the Japs and demanded better treatment and better medical supplies and things like that. We lost them both, they died. But those of us who weren’t injured for the rest of that day were busy putting out the
fire to save what was left of the camp. And the thing that sticks in my mind was that rather than our officers being conspicuous in directing proceedings and setting up bucket chains and that sort of thing, it was an American officer. His name was Red Carson, he took over, and he did a magnificent job and he was standing on
rubble under which were unexploded bombs and, you know, could have gone up any time. And he just belaboured us and yelled us and got us to give all we could, as quick as we could, to bring waters up from the sea which wasn’t that far away in any sort of containers that would hold water. He was conspicuous in my view anyway for his bravery on that occasion. He really stood out.
So that really knocked us to think that this had been done by our people to us. We never ever dreamed that we’d be on the receiving bombs from our own planes. So that really, to put it crudely, knocked our arse in, it was hard to get over that and just terribly demoralising it. Well after that the
Japs behaviour changed. They became nastier, a greater demand on work parties started to build up and that was a black day, yes.
Where were you when the bombs were being dropped?
I was probably as far as it happened; I was probably as far away, near my hut, which was as far away probably as you could have got from the dump inside the compound.
And I can remember, putting between me and the dump was, an embankment, I remember huddling up against the embankment when it actually went up. Of course it was an enormous roar and it left a tremendous crater and I will never forget
I have an image of everybody actually being outside watching the bombers come over?
Well at that time, we were going out on working parties, but the Japs were bringing us back at lunchtime, I say lunchtime, a bit of a laugh really, a few leaves, cassava leaves floating in a bit of water we’d call lunch.
So on that day and at that time we were being brought back to camp fro that and then taken out again to continue on the work part. So we were all in the camp and I was in my hut and suddenly heard the air raid going and almost at the same time heard the drone of bombers. And looked out the window of the hut and could see them.
Less than a minute later I heard, “boom, boom, boom.” as the bombs dropped on the camp. Of course then immediately the word spread around that the bomb dump had been hit itself had been hit and was on fire. We knew that it wouldn’t be long until the whole thing went up which it did. So that was the circumstances on that particular day. After
that when we were out on the work party we stayed out all day they didn’t bring us back until night time, well near the night.
The bomb dump was hit itself and the concert hall?
Well that was right against the bomb dump, yeah, and the officers’ quarters were there too so that’s how those officers came to be killed, their hut was right up. In fact, no, I’d better not,
I’m not absolutely sure of my facts so I’ll have to be careful really but I believe one of the officers had been killed because he had climbed on the roof of their, one of the officers had got up onto the roof of their hut to observe these bombers coming, it was so exciting to watch them. And of course when the bombs actually dropped and exploded, he was either injured or killed and somebody climbed up to rescue him and that’s when the dump went up so
he was killed too in trying to rescue this person who was wounded, I think he was wounded I don’t think he was killed outright this fellow by the original explosion of the bombs that were dropped.
Were your food stores anywhere near by?
Yes, you’ve triggered a memory there which I may have overlooked, yes.
One of the major food stores, it might have been the major food store, where there was still a fair quantity of tinned rations, Dutch they were, Dutch rations and as I recall it was mostly horsemeat, army rations, quite edible. That’s right, that was in a hut that caught fire and why I remember that, and I’m glad you asked that question. Here we are fighting the fire
still and every now and again there’d be a muffled explosion, it was these cans exploding underneath the rubble now and again. And our nerves were so much on edge, you know, we just dropped thinking it was a bomb, another bomb. But it was these tins of food that were in this fire and they just expanded and exploded too. Yes, so we lost a lot of rations that way, too, on that occasion, yes.
Who was dealing with the wounded?
Well I believe at least one Jap doctor came out from Ambon in fact I think he actually amputated a leg; I’m a bit rusty on this. But whoever it was, the person died anyway. Answering your question, there were two other medical people other than Captain
Davidson. A dentist, who had some medical training and a Dutch, he wasn’t a surgeon, what was he? I think he was a biologist. Anyway, he was a medical man of some sort. In fact, he became the camp doctor and he did an incredible job thereafter nursing the sick. He later, on,
he also later actually carried out a successful amputation on a fellow only just given enough ether to keep him out long enough for that to be done, with the crudest of tools. He survived, he’s dead now, Jack O’Brien, we were talking about nicknames, there’s one that just comes to mind, Mallee Jack. I don’t know what’s behind it, Mallee Jack O’Brien, perhaps he came from the
Mallee, it might have been that. Yeah, Mallee Jack O’Brien. He came home with one leg and started up a successful business, but he’s been dead a few years now. He was a bit older.
In the aftermath of that bombing, can you describe the next day? Who took charge and reorganised things?
Who organised camp? Well, our officers. The main
rile seems to have been in that regard, our CO, the fellow who acted as our CO after Scott was sent to Hainan and this blast was after that departure. His name was Westley, we hardly ever saw him. Hardly ever saw him and his sort of front man was a chap that was given the job as
adjutant and it was his main task to see that there were enough people for all the work parties that the Japs wanted each day. So he was the main officer that we say every day and became closest to us because he was the one who was allocating us to particular work parties. I gather this is how it worked, the Japs would say, “Oh, we want x number of men today.” and
they’d perhaps mention the work party so he would know what the work parties were. It might be working on the wharves, it might be digging tunnels or whatever and so it was his task, an unenviable task surely of allocating men to those various work parties trying to ensure to the best of his ability that you weren’t sent out on the same working party too often. Some working parties you hoped you could
get on because you heard there were chances of pilfering, getting food, particularly when we had to unload ships.
I definitely want to talk about working parties in detail. I particularly want to get a picture of the aftermath of that bomb attack. What was to be repaired and what did you have to repair?
Well mostly huts that had been partly destroyed, not permanent, but partly destroyed by, you know,
by salvaging timber from those that were partly destroyed or from huts that had perhaps been completely destroyed. Salvaging what material, what timber, could be salved to repair ones that were only partly damaged. So that occupied a fair bit of time. I wasn’t engaged on any of that activity, I would have been out on work parties while that was being done. What it did mean that where the Japs
congregated more to a hut after that, because there were fewer huts there had to be more people accommodated in the huts which wasn’t any really great hardship, there was room for them.
Did you have a hospital hut at this stage, a hospital area?
Yes, yes, that wasn’t touched fortunately. I can remember somebody saying, I didn’t see this happening but as soon as the bombs were
dropped steps were taken to evacuate the hospital straight away because it was closer to the bomb dump than the majority of the huts but a I recall it wasn’t damaged at all. I mean the hospital was simply one of the huts, like the huts we were occupying, but they had got beds. I don’t know how they got
beds but they got beds, there were steel beds and mattresses there for the patients to sleep on. But no, as far as I can recall the hospital was intact. It was just that we lost our doctor and Dr Ehlhardt , a Dutchman, took over and did a marvellous job with so little – I mean there was no medication for malaria, no medication for dysentery, dengue fever, no
medication whatsoever, nothing to really treat tropical ulcers with. Is this the sort of thing you’re enquiring about?
I’m also wondering at this stage or at any stage during this period what you did with the dead bodies? Where you took them?
Well, we buried them. A cemetery was formed in an area just outside the camp
perimeter. In fact I’ve got a photo of it I could show you afterwards, where we buried our dead. But I was never involved in a burial party, but I heard fellows talk about it who did go and have to dig the graves. And that was terribly hard work because there was a lot of coral in the area, terribly hard work to get any sort of decent grave at all. But in the early days, and I’m glad you asked me this because it was a lovely thing to
do. We tried, I say we, collectively, there was an effort made to mark the graves with a proper wooden cross. And a fellow in the camp who was obviously a handy man with wood, creative at making things in wood, made quite respectable crosses with the ends carved and the top bit carved in a sort of diamond shape and then cut into the,
what’s the word I want, when you cut something into wood?
Engraving, he engraved into the wood, goodness knows where he got the tools from. The fellow’s name, you know, rank, name, number and date of death. And so for quite a while, in the early stages I emphasis that because there wasn’t a high death rate in the early stages, so one of those crosses and he would polish them with boot polish
while the boot polish lasted, that wasn’t all that long, but they were a lovely job. I saw some of them before they were actually installed on the grave. And I have a photo I can show you later on of some of those. So that when we left Ambon those crosses marked a lot of the graves but as the years went by, and I could talk about it later on how the death rate increased, it was impossible to keep up that supply of crosses. Either the chap ran out of material
or he might have died himself, I’ve forgotten. So the graves were no longer able to be marked with a cross like that, but they had a stake with a tag on it of some sort but it was known. And of course the officers kept records of the whole cemetery so they knew exactly where everybody was. That was part of an officer’s job after all, to keep those sort of records.
And what sort of ceremony were they provided?
I don’t know, I was never on a burial
party. I’m glad I wasn’t really. They were, the boys were wrapped in blankets, that’s all they could be wrapped in. I mean I had nothing to do with preparing the bodies for burial so I don’t know what was done but they would have been treated with the greatest respect and they were buried, as I say, properly in a grave and the grave was marked. When you asked that question, you also remind me that one of the
people, and this is relevant, one of the people who were killed in the blast was our padre. Now had he survived I could well imagine he would see as his role to conduct a little service at the graveside. But there was nobody to replace him but somebody would have, I’m sure, one of the officers would have read something from the bible. I don’t know really but something like that would have been done.
How did the loss of the padre affect
the men, the camp?
I can’t answer that. I mean religion never came into the picture at all a far as I was concerned and I suspect as far as most fellows were concerned. He was affectionately known as “Chewing Gum Charlie.” which indicates that he wasn’t taken terribly seriously, but he was respected for the role that he was playing.
No doubt about that, he was respected. And people who had a religious bent, they were respected too. But look it’s not possible to say how many, to what degree religion was a part of that camp. I’m not able to tell you. All I can tell you is that I had the honour and the
sad task of bringing home the Bible of two fellows who I became quite close to. Not my, what I call my true mates, but they became mates as we were moved around from time to time, in huts, and you found yourself sleeping next to somebody different and go to know them. And two such fellows who I came to respect very much were religious, churchgoing people, and when they saw that things were getting very
dicey they would say, “Eddie, if I don’t make it will you take my Bible home?” “Of course I will.” so it was moving, sad but, satisfying is not the word, but it was a duty that I was glad I was able to do, to bring something back and give it to their parents, it was their parents in each case, and I know that they were forever
grateful that I did that, ever grateful.
Were there things that people held on to? Say one thing that they were just adamant had to come back to Australia? I mean in that case it’s a Bible for each of them, was that a common thing to hold onto something?
Probably. I think my most valuable thing was my army pay book and those two
photos I’ve mentioned before of my elder sister. They were very precious. I would thing that a lot of fellows would have something like that that they clung on to that helped them through it. I can’t cite any example so I don’t know. All I brought home of my mates was their pay book.
And I made sure that I gave that to their next of kin and it would have been their mother I think in each case. Yeah, I found where they were, where they lived and told them what I could tell them of the passing of their son, as simply as I could, as sensitively as I could. But I lost
touch with them. I don’t have many regrets in life, but one regret I have is not, for a while, for a few years anyway maintaining contact with those parents. But I don’t know why, I suppose I was so busy getting on with life, starting life again, picking up the threads, getting married, starting a family all those things. I’m using that as an excuse I suppose, but I visited
Eric’s Mum several times then that petered out.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 07
Can you fill me in on why the group was split and a group went to Hainan?
No, I can’t answer that. I suppose they just wanted some cheap labour because they were engaged on the wharf and other things. My knowledge, see I read the
story, Courtney Harrison’s story of the Hainan experience but that’s years ago now and it’s faded from me. I can only guess, it is a guess, I mean we were never ever told I say we, the ordinary ranks were never told why they were going. Possibly our CO was told where they were going. Now let me see, something is coming back to
me I got an idea that they were told, our officers were told that our men were being sent to a better place, that they would be better off. How they would be selected again I’m not sure but I have an idea that they might have been amongst the sicker ones, the frailer ones. Again, I’m not certain about that.
And we didn’t know where they were going, they didn’t tell us that they were going to Hainan, so we never knew anything about them after that until the war ended. So that left about five hundred and fifty of us and one hundred and twenty made it, one hundred and twenty.
After that split did you feel a bit left behind? What was the mood
or what was your particular response?
I don’t have any recollection, I’m sorry, I just do not remember. I suppose we were just mystified and said, “I wonder where they’ve taken them?” It was soon forgotten about; we were too busy then on work parties.
Okay, let’s talk about these work parties, what particular jobs were they having you doing?
hardest job, again I’m speaking from my own personal experience, was unloading and loading ships at the main wharf, well there was only one big wharf at Darwin, Darwin I keep saying Darwin instead of Ambon I don’t know why. Forgive me won’t you? Ambon, the wharf, so they used Ambon. Ambon has an excellent harbour, on the bay of Ambon, very deep and excellent harbour, sheltered, so it seems they used
Ambon to bring supplies say from Japan and then ship them out to different other parts of what is now Indonesia. So in a way the work parties on the wharf were welcomed, well some of them were welcomed, when we were unloading stores because here was a chance to pilfer. And believe me we became experts at pilfering,
unnoticed, because if we were caught we’d get a belting. So it was always good news if you knew you were going to be unloading a ship say that had cigarettes, rice and tinned food and rice and that sort of stuff on it. Well that was an opportunity to get some food or in the early stages cigarettes which became a sort of currency camp. And somebody might get, be able to get something back to
camp more than they could perhaps eat at the time and they’d trade some of that for cigarettes so it was a form of currency. But the hardest part where the ships were concerned the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. These ships were coal burners, yes, without exception they were coal burners. And from time to time we had to coal a ship, in other words shove, get coal into it for its bunkers. And shovelling
coal into the bunkers was frightful, there was all steel around you and it’s hot, it’s in the tropics and you’ll shovelling coal from where it’s been dumped in a hole into small recesses, trying to fill the whole recess up to the ceiling of the recess with coal. And being urged on all the time by a guard if they thought you weren’t working hard enough but that was really hard work. Okay, that’s unloading and loading
ships. Digging tunnels. As the war progressed, I suppose it was as things were turning against them and it was harder to get supplies into Ambon, they had us digging tunnels in which they stored provisions and goods. What made that harder than what it might sound is that the Japs being
smaller than us on average, quite a bit smaller the roofs of these tunnels that we had to make were so low that we couldn’t stand up working in them. We had to work bent all the time and the tunnelling involved the Japs blasting the face and then we had to shovel it all out somehow or other and carry it out on
baskets and so it went on. And they lined the tunnels with coconut palm logs; they destroyed hundreds and hundreds of coconut palms just to line these tunnels with logs.
So I’m guessing you were involved in cutting those down and bringing those in as well?
I wasn’t, no, I wasn’t involved in a working party doing that. But what I must tell you, as I said, the Japs used to have charges that we used to have to
drill the holes and then they’d put the charges in the fuse and we had to get out while we set them off. What they were using to make those charges was explosive, high explosive form aerial bombs that they could no longer use. And one of the work parties, you have to believe this, one of the work parties involved, they got an aerial bomb and took the tail off it and that exposed
this mass of high explosive, it was a yellow sort of, I don’t know what explosive it was, but what they used in bombs then. We had to chip it out, this was high explosive, we had to chip it out with a hammer and chisel, break it up and then hammer it on another surface to make it into a powder and they used that as the explosive for these charges which were made out of bamboo. They fashioned bamboo,
stuffed the explosive down the bamboo and put an explosive at the end and that was their charge. Inevitably, it happened one day, a spark was caused, and I wasn’t on the work party that day, a bomb exploded. It had to happen, right. Again my memory is a bit rusty, I think there was at least one, it might have been two of our fellows killed and I
think a Japanese guard was very badly injured. But that was the end of that work party. That was the most frightening work party of all because we all knew it only needed a tiny spark because we were, the air would have been full of the powder, that when we were making this into a powder the air would have been full of it. I hate to think what it must have been like when that one went off that
day but happily I wasn’t on that. So there was another person we had to bury, at least one, it could have been two on that day again my memory’s a bit rusty on that. It’s all been document in Joe Beaumont’s book. So that’s two or three parties. We had to unload ammunition, anti aircraft shells, and take those up to anti aircraft guns. Another work part that doesn’t sound
much but was very damaging to our eyes was scratching up gravel from beaches and carrying them in baskets, a man on each end of a pole and the basket of gravel in between, and carting it up to trucks where it was taken away which the Japs used to mend roads with, repair roads with, well, we had to repair the roads but that’s where it was used which was stupid and ridiculous because all those
pebbles and that off the beach have been rounded and smooth and they just don’t bind together and before long what we’d put in a pothole in a road was soon thrown out by truck tires. But what made that so nasty was the glare we were getting off the sea damaged a lot of our eyes. And that, with malnutrition, because all the time we were doing these working parties we were living on
only a few ounces of rice a day and that contributed towards damaging our eyes quite a bit. Can I mention coconuts because coconut palms abound on the island, in fact our camp was built where there was a coconut plantation but a ripe coconut was a much sought
after source of food as you might well imagine. But they weren’t easy to come by and if you found one most of the ones that we got were found, they’d fallen amongst leaves or undergrowth or something and we’d grab it and the Japs would let you ring it home, back to camp. But I noticed that the Ambonese had cut steps into the palm trees to harvest the nuts, the ripe
nuts and I being so, being rather agile and so light, I got permission from a Jap guard to climb up a tree to get some nuts on more than one occasion and take them back to camp. Mind you, I had to, Eric was usually there, not always on the same party, but if he was there I’d get him to grab the nut as soon as it hit the ground in case somebody else grabbed it and they’d have it.
Would that happen, would somebody else scrounge it before you got back to the ground?
Yeah, I suppose it could, it didn’t happen but when you’re half starving the temptation is very, very strong. In fact, I got home from one working party, I got home with two coconuts, not one but two and that was really a prize. Of course Eric would have had one and I’d have had the other.
And I had learned from the Ambonese how to actually tie them together by cutting into the fibrous, the stuff that coir mats are made out of, the outer casing, tie them together, and on this occasion I left them on the end of my bed at night time. When I woke up in the morning they’d
gone, they’d been stolen by a fellow prisoner. I’ve written a story about this and I’ve said in my story, I have never ever killed anybody, not even a Japanese did I kill, but murder was in my heart that morning. If I knew who had done that I would
have been tempted to murder him. He had taken my life away. I had my suspicions but I never ever, could never ever be sure who did it. But that took a lot of living down I was beside myself with rage and anger. I’d lost two coconuts.
What was the procedure with
theft? Did you have a court within the camp? Did you have someone to adjudicate?
No. See I didn’t know who it was and I wasn’t going to just on suspicion name the person I mean that. I mightn’t have been right, I couldn’t have done that.
Did you talk to him personally?
I don’t think I ever confronted him, no, no. No I don’t think I could ever have brought myself to do that.
But that, to me, that was really devastating because at that stage our ration was getting very, very slender and meagre. But I reflected probably after I came home, I became less judgmental about whoever did that and I reflected about the strains put on a person’s morality in a situation where we were
all starving, really literally starving to death and the temptation must have been too much for this person. It wasn’t, I suppose the person wouldn’t have been a mate so he probably never had any qualms. He’s probably long since dead anyway. But the coconut was, I came home thinking, I used to say to people I think a monument should be
erected on Ambon for the coconut. Because if you got a coconut it’s a wonderful fruit, so much nutrition in it, the fat, say, in the coconut oil that we were being starved of, there was bulk in the way of the nut. Also useful for making boobs as I told you earlier. But not, even if the
nut had been lying on the ground for perhaps a year or more and was starting to take root, this was fascinating to see how this happened with coconuts, how they start the coconut palm. But if you could get one of those and chop it open when you got it all the hard, the big that we eat from the coconut now, had all become spongy and there was no longer any liquid in it, it was just a sort of spongy material which was perfectly edible itself so every part about the
coconut, or if you got a green one which was pretty rare because they didn’t fall anyway, but if you got a green one and chopped it, chopped part of it off you could have a good drink, you know, there’s quite a good drink inside of it. It’s quite an amazing fruit coconut.
You mentioned someone bandicooted your peanuts. Was there much of that going on, I mean it’s pretty hard to guard plants all the time?
Well, you’re leading me into something that’s
important as far as I’m concerned to relate, as the work parties, the demand for men on work parties increased so the time for tending a garden diminished and there were very few eventually. But, and this is a big but, the officers, and I told you earlier I think the officers had their own quarters and their own mess in this prison camp. They tried to live as
best they could as officers were entitled to live in the army. They developed quite a sizeable vegetable patch where the crater, the bomb crater was, which I said earlier was adjacent to their hut. And because they didn’t go out on work parties, they wouldn’t go out on work parties, they had all day long to establish and man their gardens.
Not surprisingly, they became rather attractive to us now I was never able to do this but occasionally there’d be fellows who would bandicoot their crop. It’s a matter of survival, the officers kept the fruits of their labour; they didn’t share it with the rest of the camp, oh
no, it went to the officers’ mess. So it was pretty understandable, you’d agree, that when they got the chance at night time, somebody would go and bandicoot. Well the officers didn’t like this, naturally enough, and as their task was to maintain discipline in the camp the CO got permission fro the Japs to erect a
barbed wire cage inside the camp, along this road that I told you earlier went up the camp, divided the camp in half in a way, the road that went nowhere. He had this cage and that’s exactly what it was. It was say four corner posts and posts linking them at the top and then barbed wire
rolled out between the posts to make a cage. The roof was all barbed wire and the walls were barbed wire. No shelter of any sort, a barbed wire cage with a gate on it. And the reason why the CO got that built was to punish people who were caught bandicooting in their vegetable garden. And as you might imagine that did not endear the officers to the
men. In fact, I hold, I blame in part the CO for hastening the death of one of my mates, Jack Morrow, because he was one of the ones that was caught and he was put in that cage, exposed to all the elements, had to spend several nights in that cage and then go out on a work party. But that was how our CO in the Ambon camp, one of the ways he maintained discipline.
Much worse things than that were done at Hainan, but that’s not a story that I can relate at first hand so I’d rather not.
In a situation like that, how do officers maintain their authority? They don’t have the machinations of the army any more?
They had very little to do with us when all’s said and done. For a while they, an officer accompanied each work party but one day
a Jap, I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t on it, but a Jap for some reason or another struck the officer who was in charge of the work party, struck him over the face and when that was reported back in camp. The CO said, “I’m not going to have my officers humiliated in that way.” and thereafter made sure that there was an NCO in charge of a work party. So we had really little contact with our
officers, didn’t see much of them at all except this fellow who was the adjutant, his name was Van Nooten, whose task was to meet the demand of the Japs for the number of men needed each day and allocate fellows as I said earlier to the various work parties.
I suppose what I’m wondering is what’s to stop a bunch of hungry desperate men deposing the officers of their status? How did they
stay above the rest of them when there were men starving around them?
Good question. I don’t know. There was never, as far as I’m aware, no open hostility towards them, no physical abuse or anything like that but
we just came, came to hold them in very low esteem. Mind you, there were exceptions, a few exceptions but I think my view, my feeling when I came home was shared by most of them, and there weren’t many, but in the
main we had a pretty low, a low opinion of the officers. We, the CO especially, it was often remarked on and it’s been remarked on since too, we rarely saw him it was as though he was frightened of the Japanese and
was content to let his front man, the adjutant, Van Nooten, be the go-between between us and the Japanese interpreter who was the main person that we had to answer to, all our people had to answer to the interpreter.
Well in the situation where say your friend Jack got caught bandicooting the veggies,
who puts him in the cage, who enforces that?
You’re testing me, you really are. I don’t now I never saw, if I did see it I don’t remember. One of the officers would have done that. I don’t know, I can’t even recall how they managed to lock,
they had a means of locking the cage. The fellow would have just promptly come out had he been able to get out naturally. But I put the blame, and most of us would have put the blame with the CO, who after all was in charge of us in the camp and who had the responsibility of maintaining discipline in the
Was the fear of Japanese discipline tied in with a fear of officer discipline? I mean did they seem allied to the rank and file?
Well the Japanese discipline was manifested in a quite different way. To start with some
of the Dutchmen, I’ve forgotten the exact number, very, very few Dutch servicemen were in the camp with us, although they weren’t housed, we weren’t allowed to fraternise with them but they were in the same compound they were caught trying to send letters to their wives who would have been in this other compound and the Japs took a dim view of that and grabbed a number of them and started flogging them. They took them up to
headquarters and an event which we came to call the “Dutch Garden Party” occurred on one afternoon where they flogged these blokes with pick handles, mostly with pick handles and anything they could get their hands on. That showed us very clearly that the Japs didn’t mess about. If they were angered at any sort of behaviour they would take quite
severe, what we thought were severe methods to get the message across they didn’t like it. As I say that gave us a bit of an idea of what might happen if we were caught doing something we shouldn’t do. Well it so happened a little while after that, it might have been only a few weeks again, the actual period fades a bit, but not long after that it
seems that some of our fellows had bee managing to get under the wire and go down to a local village to get food and get back again without being observed. I didn’t know this was going on, just a very small little group of fellows. Of course it had to be kept secret, well they kept it secret, so I don’t know how long that went on but one night, well the Japs woke up that something was going on and they must have found where they were getting
out and they waited there one night and they apprehended three or four fellows as they came back into camp. Well the Japs were pretty sure that there were more than four involved, those four were taken up to Japanese headquarters. So the next day the Japs, though their interpreter, had everybody in the camp except those that were bed-ridden in hospital
line up in the open area of the camp and they brought the Ambonese from this village where these fellows had actually gone, brought them and told them they were to identify anybody that they recognised in the line up as people who had been going down to their village. Now it mightn’t sound much,
but that line up was one of the most terrifying and nerve racking experiences we ever had, because I’m sure everybody was thinking what I was thinking, “God, I hope I don’t look like one of those fellows.” As it happened, they picked out a number of men; I think another eleven, who had in fact
been the so called guilty ones. They took those away up to Japanese headquarters in the grounds which overlooked the camp, the Japanese headquarters, and they were flogged I think for at least a week. We couldn’t actually see the floggings going on but we could hear the beltings and the
screams and the groans and it was just horrible. Then they took them away and cut their heads off, executed them, buried them in a mass grave. There’s a photo of that in my scrapbook, that grave, with their names on it which somebody in our camp managed to erect and carve the names on. So that’s what the Japs meant
by severe punishment. Like they said, if you own up, there must have been a few that owned up, if you own up in this instance you’ll get light punishment, if you don’t you’ll get severe punishment, words to that affect. So those that did own up they were only beaten for a while, I say only, but they suffered awful injuries most of them,
they got off they had light punishment but the severe punishment was those that I’ve just talked about who were flogged and then beheaded. So that was the way things were at Ambon 1943, no ‘42, late 1942.
Did the Japanese publicise the executions? Did they let you know?
No, they would have told our officers that they’d been executed and of course that word was passed around the camp so we knew, yeah. Mind you, I learned after the war that there were a number of airmen that had been shot down, allied airmen, that had been shot down in the vicinity of Ambon and had been recovered and prisoners and they were executed too.
There was some truth in the story that was rife before we even went there that the Japanese didn’t take prisoners. It just wasn’t true of us as it happened, perhaps we were just too many, but at least they executed all those over at Laha who were taken prisoner. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration then to call Ambon a hell hole really, when you come to think about the treatment.
Well besides the executions, the beatings, were they a regular occurrence? For what could you expect to get one?
Well out on a working party for instance, if a Jap thought you weren’t working as hard as you could, or they expected, you’d get a belting with a couple of belts, probably across the buttocks with a pick handle. Every guard carried his rifle as well as a pick handle, that was standard equipment, a pick handle. And they became very good at wielding the
pick handle, yeah. I got a belting on a work party one day because somebody on a work party had found some rice in a nearby hut and had got into it. And the Japs found this out while we were still out on the work party and they wanted people to own up and nobody owned up so we all got belted. We had to line up in two or three rows and put our hands above our heads and they went down the
rows with the pick handles belting us on the buttocks. I think that was about six belts, I think I fell to the ground then but that was normal sort of treatment if you were caught doing anything sort of naughty or you weren’t working hard enough. All this on top of starvation rations, mind you, and disease.
I’m guessing there were
different guards with different predilections. How did you negotiate the personalities of the guards?
How did we negotiate the personalities of the guards? I’m not sure what you’re saying?
Well, were some more harsh than others? Were there some things you didn’t do with one guard but you did with another?
Yes, yes. I’ve got a list in my scrapbook of the names of some of them or the nicknames that we gave some of the more
notorious ones so that we could refer to them without them knowing that they were being talked about. For instance there was one we called “Black Bastard” and then we’d come across another one who was just as bad so he was called “Black Bastard Number Two.” There was one called “Creeping Jesus.” I don’t know why he was called that but another was called, oh yeas one of the ones that was
kinder was called “Charcoal Charlie” and he was in charge of a work party where we burned material to make charcoal, I don’t know what they used it for I’ve forgotten now. There was another one we called “Frill Neck.” he must have had a neck that suggested that. These nicknames were handy for us to talk about them. We coined a word,
what’s the word generic word? To refer to all Japanese as “Noggies.” I don’t know who dreamed it up, but they became Noggies. We used the word Noggie when they didn’t know what we were talking about. But you were really asking whether there were any decent ones amongst them. I only really remember two, they really stood out and I think they, I don’t think they were
marine guards, or marine people, I think they were part of the air force. Why I think that, they both wore air force boots, what the pilots or crew wear, boots that come up the leg. So, not surprisingly, we called the first one “Boots.” I don’t think he ever beat anybody. He was as near to humane as
(UNCLEAR). And then shortly he had a mate helping him, of course we had to call him “Saddles” didn’t we? Boots and Saddles. But they were the only two that I can remember that showed in any way at all that they had any humanity. But see they’d been infiltrated with a hatred of the white man, not surprising really when you really reflect on it, reflect what the white man had done to Asian races.
Here they were for the first time lording it over the white man and the humblest coolie on a truck or something had their permission to give you a belting if he felt like it.
Besides the decent guards, were there ones who were truly sadistic and who would give you beatings for more than misbehaviour or slackness?
I’ll give you an
example of sadism, I think I can call it that. You’ve probably gathered by now that cigarettes would become very, very rare and be much sought after by those who still smoked, I was not a smoker fortunately but there were those who still had this craving. We’d be out on a work party and the Jap guard, while he was
watching us work, making sure we’d be doing what we were supposed to do, would be smoking and he’d throw his butt on the ground and there’d be three or four fellows go to pounce on it and that saddened me terribly. These fine blokes, Australian soldiers, brought to that level, the craving was so strong that they would go and fight over a butt that the Jap had thrown on the ground. You might not believe this, I’m not exaggerating,
I saw it happen more than once. And if the Jap was in a nasty mood as soon as he threw it on the ground he’d rub it into the ground with his heel. That was an awful lesson for me, it made me realise what an addiction smoking is, so in the years since then I’d never say to anybody, “Oh why don’t you give it up?” Because I’ve seen how strong an addiction it can be in those awful circumstances where it was
almost impossible to get cigarettes anyway. So that’s that, just another story. I used to be thankful I didn’t smoke. If by any chance I was able to get any cigarettes out, pilfering on a ship or something like that, and I knew somebody had more rice than they could handle at the time. Mind you, you had to eat it pretty quickly, you didn’t want the Japs to find it, and he might
swap, he might be a smoker, and he’d swap some of that rice for a cigarette, for some of your cigarettes. And if I ever got cigarettes which was pretty rare that’s what I did with them I’d trade them for a bit of food. It’s sad to relate that somebody had a greater need for cigarettes than food but it happened quite a bit, yeah.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 08
I wanted to follow up on a few things that Ianto [interviewer] was asking you about the Japanese. Could you tell the hierarchy of the Japanese?
No, like recognise the rank and all that sort of thing you mean? No, I couldn’t.
You were talking before about a
few of the, I was about to say kindness, but less harsh treatment that some of the Japanese would meted out over the others. Were there any who would talk to you just to fill in a bit of time?
No, only to abuse us and yell out the words which meant hurry up, hurry up. In this context though, you’re talking about communication really. It’s interesting
a sort of language evolved which was a mixture of Japanese, Malay and English and I’ll quote you an example there, language is a marvellous thing really. When we did communicate, and it wasn’t very often, more often than not on a work party it would be to ask whether we could go to the toilet in effect. Now, the
Malay word as I remember it was pigi and the Japanese word for latrine, was benjou , so we’d say Pigi Benjou? And that’s how we communicated, a mixture of the languages. No, I can’t imagine that we’d want to converse with them anyway I mean they were so repulsive and
hated, again I can only speak from my experience.
Yeah, I was wondering whether you had a sense of “know thy enemy.”
I’ll tell you another way we communicated something that might give you a giggle. In the early stages of captivity, there must have been even in the early days one or two
work parties, very light work parties. One I remember was where we were allowed to set up a pan which somebody at the camp had made out of galvanised iron or something, a big pan which we filled with saltwater and set a fire underneath and generated salt for the camp. And that wasn’t very arduous and as I say this was in the early
days and there’d be a Jap guard. And the Jap guard would say, taunting us, they’d say, what was the word they used, they told us anyway, managed to convey to us, they said that they had taken Port Darwin, they had captured Port Darwin. And we’d say, “Oh yeah, Port Darwin.” “Yah, ada .” ada meaning have, the
Malay word for have, “Oh, ada.” “Oh Port Darwin, yeah.” And we’d say “Port Sydney?” “Yeah, yeah, ada.” “Port Manto?” “Yeah, yeah.” “Port Agaf?” “Yeah, yeah.” “Fish Creek?” “Yeah, Yeah. We had a laugh on them. One of the ways that we boosted our morale a bit in those early days when we were so
down. So that was a form of communication, I guess.
Did you ever hear about Darwin being bombed?
No. Only that they told us that, well they told us they had taken Darwin but really what was happening was they bombed it because some of the planes that bombed Darwin, in the afternoon, the second raid, they came from Ambon. We would have seen them take of, not knowing where they were going but they were bombing Darwin. That’s one of the reasons they wanted Ambon of
course, to keep Darwin quiet while they were going to Timor and New Guinea and all the rest of Indonesia.
Did you see the planes take off?
Yes. So we could see them from the camp, yes. I remember seeing some of the bombers. They didn’t fly past the camp they were taking off in the opposite direction but yeah, we were able to see and hear them. It was across the bay some miles
away but the sound travelled fairly well over the water.
That must have given you a funny feeling after the war knowing that you’d seen those planes heading off?
After the war, oh yes, yes, when we learned about Darwin, yes.
What about Japanese women?
Did you ever see any?
Never saw one. I’m not sure about this but I think it’s very
likely that they had their own prostitutes there, because sometimes the guard would indicate in rather crude ways that men would understand that they had been there or they were going there and doing this and that. Having read since about the way the Japs use women there, and not always Japanese women as you’ve read about, the Korean women.
Probably, they were.
But they used to have
prostitutes to look after their troops all over the place but I never, ever saw a Japanese woman, no.
Among the Dutchmen in the other camp, did they express concern that their wives might be treated in such a fashion?
I’m sorry I can’t answer that because I had no real contact with the Dutchmen at all. We weren’t supposed to fraternise with them and the hut that I was in wasn’t anywhere near where they were so I never got to know any of them.
I find that quite unusual,
I wanted to say how unusual it is from I guess looking in, how a group of people can live in a relatively small space, like the Tan Toei barracks, and for there to be no fraternising between Dutch soldiers and Australian soldiers?
Yes, well, I find that hard to
explain. I only know that I never had anything to do with any of them and they were in a separate hut from the Australians. And there was a handful of Americans, too, likewise, they were kept in a separate hut and they weren’t allowed to fraternise with us either.
But what about when you were walking around the camp site? Surely you had lots and lots of time to just wander around?
No, not there we didn’t. No, we
So it was just regimented up, out, work party, back, in?
Well after the first ten or twelve months, yes. Mind you, I can only talk about my experience there, might have been some fellows who did fraternise with some of the Dutchmen. I know one of my mates, one of the fellows, the survivors who’s still alive got to know some of the Americans fairly
well. I think he was put in the same hut as the Americans for a while. But he was treated quite differently, somehow or other he was selected by the interpreter I suppose, who was looking for a houseboy up at Jap headquarters which overlooked the camp. And once he became a
houseboy that meant looking after the kitchen and preparing the meals and cleaning up and all that sort of thing. Apparently the Japs didn’t want him to be staying with the rest of the fellows and they put him in with the Americans, for how long I’m not too sure, but I know he had some contact and got to know some of the American fellows. In fact, up to very recently he was still communicating with one of them back in America who was with us there, one of the survivors.
But yeah, it might sound strange, but certainly my experience I, I never had anything to do with either the Dutch or the Americans myself and I suspect that that was fairly typical of the rest of the camp.
I wonder if we could talk a little about Ikeuchi ?
Ikeuchi? Is that, am I saying his name right, the Japanese translator?
The interpreter, oh, Ikeuchi. Talk about him. Well he came to be the most hated Japanese. I learned, I think it was after the war, I learned that he was actually a civilian who’d been given the rank of something like captain or something and he was about the only go-between, he was the only go-between between us and Japanese headquarters.
And he became a really hated figure. On occasions, there were occasions when he was dissatisfied with the number of fellows that our adjutant had managed to bring together for work parties and he went into the hospital and I didn’t know this was going on at the
time I only learned about this after I came home I must confess, but he made some of the fellows who should have been in hospital, made them get out to make up the numbers for a work party. So he became hated for that reason alone but we felt that he had power of life and death over us really which in a way he did.
He was one of those who was charged as being a war criminal and eventually executed, but whether that was justice or not I’m not sure. Somebody else might have a different view of him. In fact, my friend who I’d rather not name, who became the houseboy. He has a different view of this man because he had
close contact with him nearly every day at the Japanese headquarters and this fellow of ours, this friend, was secretly learning Japanese and so he was able to get a better idea of what was going on. And he would probably paint a somewhat different picture of this fellow to what I’m painting. But I’m only telling you how I and most of the other fellows in the camp saw this
Ikeuchi, rightly or wrongly.
I can imagine there’d be intense hatred. So you didn’t learn any other words of Japanese apart from tenko and kura and…?
If I did I’ve forgotten them now. I learned whatever the word was for hurry up, I forget what it was, whether it was a Japanese word or a Malay word I’m not too sure. But, no, I don’t remember any
Japanese words now.
Could you correct me if I’m wrong, but somewhere along the lines I understood that in ’44 or at some stage some of the fellows from Laha who weren’t executed obviously made it over to Tan Toei? Is that completely incorrect?
When was that? Yes, I’d almost forgotten that. You’ve done your research all right. Yes, two
fellow managed to escape the massacre and went bush and were looked after by Ambonese villagers for a while but I think, again I’m very rusty on the story now, it’s really worth telling it in full but I can’t remember it all. I think the time must have come when they feared that they might be given away by the villagers,
because some of the villages were Muslim villages and it was thought that they were likely to sympathise with the Japs and perhaps give them away. So they eventually made their way around, I don’t know how long it took them but they made their way around to where we were and fronted up at the guard post at the entrance to our camp and gave themselves up, two of them. I know one came home, Laurie Benvie
he became our secretary for many, many years. Yes, I’d almost forgotten about that incident, we were astonished, you know. But of course they didn’t witness the massacre.
They must have known though?
I’m not too sure whether they would have known about it because if they’d been close enough to learn about it they would have been part of the massacre. They would have been part of the massacre too. But they somehow went bush before being captured. They must have been given
permission by somebody, an officer or something, well the officers gave permission for a few to escape from Laha before they were taken prisoner and they got back to Australia. But these two fellows, I don’t know whether they ever attempted to get off the island, all I know is that the were befriended by some of the villagers who gave them food and that but eventually decided that there was no
option but to give themselves up which they did much to our utter astonishment.
So would that be you would come home from a day’s work party and suddenly there’d be two new people in camp?
Sorry, could you say that again?
Would it be for you a surprise at the end of a day’s work to come home and find two new fellows in camp?
Yes, it was, you know, it was astonishing and everybody wanted to talk to them of course but I never, ever got to
talk to them, to hear their story first hand. I only learned about it after I got home the full details of it which are now gone from my memory. But yes, I’m glad you mentioned that I had almost forgotten about that, about those two. I can’t remember the name of the second fellow, I only remember Laurie Benvey because Laurie came home and became our secretary of our association for many, many years and died not all that long ago, only a few years ago.
The other question
was what happened to Captain Scott in this time. I actually don’t know whether he escaped or whether he was in your camp.
He was sent to Hainan. He was in charge of the Hainan contingent. He did some pretty awful things.
Did you witness anything that he did?
No, this was at Hainan, I only heard about it when I came home.
Yes, I remember now.
I’d rather not go into that because I can’t talk first hand about it. It’s all been
documented mostly in Joe Beaumont’s book about Gull Force.
Did you hear then or later on about any murder of Japanese at that time? And I use murder in a particular fashion obviously.
And also, if it’s all right, if you could talk a little bit more about the death house that you spent time in when you had dysentery.
Well, there’s not a great deal more to tell. As I
indicated it was a smaller hut where the Dutch had actually connected to a sewerage system and there were a number of pans there, porcelain pans. And I suppose the doctor would be the one that would rule this, it was decided that when a person got to a stage when it was believed there was no hope of him surviving, perhaps death was only a few days
off, they would be transferred to that place. This is dysentery I’m talking about, dysentery was rife in the camp then and it was probably a more hygienic way to handle that because of the presence of the pans. And I must have, I must have been at an advanced stage of it because I was put into that hut.
Can you describe to me what it was like lying on one of the stretchers or the
beds or whatever you had?
I only remember one thing when I was in that so called, it was called the mortuary officially. One of the ambulance fellows who were acting as nurses, nursing aides, and doing a wonderful job. And I regret
that I’ve long since forgotten his name, but he said to me, “Eddie, try not to eat anything, don’t eat anything.” and there wasn’t a lot to eat but he said, “Don’t eat anything for as long as you can, try and starve yourself.” And I did and I think that saved my life because the dysentery stopped and I eventually was discharged.
And I put it down to him saying that to me because there was nothing to treat it with. As I told you before, when I woke up on the morning of my birthday, the 24th of April, 1944, I was twenty three, a fellow each side of me had died during the night. I remember their names even to this day, Les Brown was on my right, and Les Fairbrother, the two Leses, Les Fairbrother on the
other side of me. I was the first one to come out of there.
Did you talk to the two men before they died, the two Leses?
Oh wherever possible, yes, yes.
Did they know it was their last night?
Probably, I mean I suppose you go to sleep hoping you would wake up.
And the padre, was the padre still alive at this point?
No, no, he was killed in the bomb blast.
Yes, but who took it upon themselves to try and administer last rites or try and put a little ritual into it?
I can’t answer that with certainty but I think the person who I’ve been referring to the adjutant, Van Nooten, whose job it was to get the work parties together, I think he officiated at most of the burials. I could stand corrected there but I think he did. There would have been some sort of rite
at the graveside by somebody but as I said I was never, ever a member of any of the burial parties.
I guess it would just become second nature fellows dying every day after a while?
When this was happening and also later on, we’d come home from a work party and had to front up at the guard house where we were counted.
One of the things I can still do in Japanese is count up to ten because I heard them say, ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, haichi, ku, ju.’ We would say, “What’s for tea [dinner]?” And, “Who’s dead?” In that order. “What’s for tea?” We knew what the answer would be; it would be the same as last night the night before and the night
before, a few grains of rice and a bit of sweet potato, whatever. I hope you give me an opportunity to list or read to you even the death rate in the last year, 1945, because they are so telling, just the figures in themselves are so
telling but I haven’t got them in front of me at the moment.
I wanted to ask if you would be okay, talking about your friends and the experience of watching them go?
Yes, well, that was, that was demoralising. I can remember when I was in hospital with dysentery one of the things, the day was long, and one of the things I looked forward to was Eric coming home from a work party and
sticking his head through the opening which was a window and saying, “How are you going, Eddie?” And if for some reason or another he was late I fretted like mad. That was so important to me just for him to come and stick his head through the window and say, “How are you going, Eddie?” That moral support that a mate could give, and did give.
So your friends were Eric and Jack and Alan?
Which was the first one to go?
Alan, Alan Martin was the first one to go. I’m not sure what he died of. In fact I’m not sure what Jack died of either. You see it wasn’t long before beri beri was rife in the camp. Nearly everybody had beri beri in the camp. There was dysentery which was the worst thing I suppose. We never
had the terrible thing they had in Malaya, typhoid, another terrible disease, but these were enough thank you. There was malaria of course, that dragged people down. Tropical ulcers were something that sapped people’s energy too, these were terrible things to get because there was nothing you could treat it with. No, I have to be honest I don’t remember what my first mate
Were you on a work party for example?
I was out on a work party, yes, and came home and learned that he’d died.
So when you said, “What’s for tea?” And, “Who’s dead?”
Oh I don’t know whether we were saying that when Alan died. I’m a bit hazy on that.
No, I don’t ever remember one of the names that was read out by the officers that was checking us in I don’t remember that name being read out. I forget how I learned. All I’m sure of is my mate Eric, my last mate to die, Eric I know he got dysentery. He was coping,
we were coping, surviving and only about a month before the war finished he got dysentery, but he was so far emaciated that he couldn’t pull out of it and he died only about a month. Again, I forget the exact circumstances when I learned, perhaps I’d been out on a work party, knew he’d been in hospital with dysentery, perhaps I went over to see him and was told that he had died a while ago. I forget the
exact circumstances. I know it was devastating when I heard it.
You’re surrounded by so much death anyway how do you find that extra space inside of you to cope with a friend’s death?
How can one answer that?
I don’t even know how I can ask that but…?
The will to live is very
strong. Who said “Life is Sweet?” I mean, I do know and I’m satisfied that those who stopped fighting within themselves, were less determined to survive, they didn’t. Or if they didn’t have the support, the moral support of a mate and I’m talking about the moral support as much as any food that might be shared,
their chances were less too.
Is that why Jack died because he lost his friend Alan?
No, I think his death was brought on because of his exposure in the cage where he was being punished for pilfering the officers’ garden. What he eventually died of
I don’t know, I’ve no recollection I’m afraid of what he actually died of. I only know what Eric died of and that was dysentery.
Did they get a form of a death certificate from the NCO?
I can’t answer that sort of question; you’d have to ask somebody on the medical side or one of the officers. I don’t know what the paperwork was.
So when your best friends died, you weren’t
allowed to enquire or ask those sorts of questions?
I might have. I might have at the time but it’s just gone from my memory. Sorry.
That’s okay, do you prefer to answer like this than actually talk about what happened? Is it too difficult?
No, no, I’m being as honest as I can. No, no. I’ll tell you if I find it’s just
too sensitive, I’ll let you know. No, I do not remember. I probably would have known at the time, I would have asked, “What did he die of?” With Alan’s case it would have been disease of some sort, it wouldn’t have been starvation for instance, because we hadn’t reached that stage. And with Jack, the second one who died,
well it might have been a combination of things but I don’t know.
I want to talk about that cage and the officer who brought that about. Why didn’t somebody in the camp take the officer out?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
Well, was he ever brought to trial or the
equivalent of afterwards?
No, I know we had no time for him whatsoever.
Was he shunned from marching with you afterwards?
Well as far as I can recall he only ever came to one reunion. We’ve had over the years had a reunion every year of course the numbers have gradually become less and less.
I might be going back fifteen years or more now I forget, it might be twenty years. And to my astonishment he turned up at this reunion and I came face to face with him and he started to strike up a conversation and I just looked at him and I said, “I don’t want to talk to you.” And he abused me like hell and I just walked away. I never saw him any more.
It seems just outrageous from this point of view that this could occur and whilst my opinion is not invited to this process, I am just trying to get a picture of how a fellow Australian, of no greater years than yours, could set this up and get away with it and case the deaths of other Australians?
I said I didn’t want to talk about Hainan because I can’t talk about that at first hand, but I’m satisfied that this happened because it was told by so many
people and it’s documented in Joe Beaumont’s book which is very, very thoroughly researched. Scott, the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Scott, caught one of the fellows one day in the officers’ showers. At the time they had officers’ showers.
Did they? And he, Scott, handed this fellow over to the Japanese for punishment. Now Scott was well aware of
Japanese behaviour. He had studied the Japanese before the war apparently and this fellow got an awful flogging. So here’s an Australian officer handing over to the Japanese for punishment which he knew would be very severe, a flogging, because he was in the officers’ showers. I needn’t say any more.
You know after the war there was this wonderful
sense of Australian bonding spirit and camaraderie and everybody did everybody else right, Ambon seems to be a little bit separate to that. How did you fit into post war society knowing that theft and betrayal among the officers had occurred in your war?
Well we came home and I think this feeling of mine was shared by most of the fellows who were with me, we came home with a very poor opinion of our officers generally.
And very few of them ever bothered to come to a reunion but those that did were people that we had regard for as it happens. But what was important after we came home, there as a tremendous, this experience created a tremendous bond between us and those reunions, that have almost petered out now, but they were an
occasion you didn’t want to miss. And I would never miss one if I could possibly help it. Just being with them again, there was that bond, having shared the same trials and tribulations. I’m not sure whether that in any way answers your question.
Yes, it does, but Ambon is such a devastating story.
I’m sorry, I was going to say that one of the reasons I’m happy to talk about it now, and mind you I wasn’t for a long time, is because I’ve come to find that so few people have ever heard of Ambon let alone know anything about it. They haven’t even heard of it, don’t know where it is. And yet this island is only six hundred miles due north of Darwin and there’s a cemetery there with over two thousand servicemen in it, mostly Australian.
I want them to know about it.
So there were some officers that went on work parties with you, or who served as one of the men?
No, only in the beginning there was an officer allocated to each work party. And as I’ve already related when one of them was struck by a Japanese Guard, the CO decided, Westley decided, that he didn’t want his officers humiliated like that and wouldn’t let them go about any more on work praties, in charge of work parties so it
fell to a corporal or a sergeant to be the one in charge on the Australian side.
Given the propensity of illness and the likelihood of death from sickness in Ambon, were privates in Gull Force still worried that their officers would put them on charges after you got back home if they were insubordinate?
I don’t think so, I really can’t
answer that. I never ever imagine that happening, no.
And when you would see the officer in the camp, in Tan Toei, nothing was ever said to them like, “You miserable so and sos”?
I don’t know it could have been.
Did you ever say anything?
No, no, I never was a violent person. It’s quite likely that some of them were abused by some of the fellows and that would
probably just be ignored but I don’t know. I never heard it and certainly never, ever did so myself.
Let’s talk about something a bit lighter then. What are some of the ways that the men would keep each other bolstered? You’ve mentioned a few already, but were there other ways that men would keep each others’ spirits up?
Well I suppose by just talking. I mean at night time, by talking and just
sharing food. At night time, see there was no electricity in the camp, so there was nothing else to do but lie on your bunk and talk and talk and talk. “Do you remember what won the Melbourne Cup in 1921, George?” And someone would say, “It was so and so.” “No it wasn’t it was such and such.” You know, for half an hour it would be an argument about the Melbourne Cup in 1921.
And they would go over and over that sort of thing. We never ever stopped talking about the steak that we’d have when we got home. “Oh, I’m going to have the biggest steak you can ever imagine.” We talked and talked. I don’t know how many steaks we ate in our imagination but food, of course, was talked about too. “Oh when I get home, boy will I get stuck into that porterhouse.” or whatever. But we talked, see we
shared, we had an opportunity, you had a lot of opportunity to share about yourself. We talked over and over again about our background, our families and what we did at work and all this sort of thing. And that was a bonding thing, too, when you got to know a person and what they did and what they were feeling.
What happened to men’s libidos in a camp situation?
imagine that would be one of the first things to disappear.
Oh yes, I mean, I never had an erection all that time I was there.
It must have given you a fright when you got well?
That’s a good question that because whilst it did disappear, because of malnutrition
it was one of the first things to go. But it was one of the first things, it seems, that, what’s the word? That was rejuvenated again. And why I say that is, a fellow that was with me who really should have died back in the camp but he refused to, he got injured on the wharf, something fell on him and he became a semi
cripple. He was one of the first to father any children. I became very, very friendly with him again, got to know him much, much better in peacetime, got to know his family and stayed with him on the farm. So that’s one of the things that comes good very, very quickly with nutrition and,
Well, vitamin B is that the major one is it, oh well.
Well I can imagine quite a lot of men would have worried that they were sterile by the time they got out of Ambon?
I never ever heard any discussions along those lines ever.
Well, men didn’t talk about that then did they?
I said men didn’t really talk about that sort of thing did they?
Not in those sort of circumstances, no. I mean in the army, fellows were all the time boasting about the women they’d knocked over and all that sort of things. But, no, I don’t ever remember, certainly not in the little circle of people that were sleeping in my hut, that I conversed with, that was
never, ever a subject, we talked about food or we talked about the footy or we talked about the racing. In the main, I mean privately, perhaps one to one, I might talk to Eric about more intimate things but I don’t really remember doing that, I don’t ever remember sex coming up in any of the conversation at all, if you were talking to any of my mates anyway.
But can I share this with you. Hanging on the wall there which you may or may not have noticed is a piece of paper with Kipling’s “If” on it. You may or may not be familiar with “If.” I learned about that poem in the prison camp in the fairly early days. And I got talking to a chap, he wasn’t one of my mates, but he was in the hut and we must have been kindred spirits in some way or
another and he was must have been more educated than me or more intellectual than me and he was able to recite the whole of that which he did one night. I just listened and listened. I was enthralled and I can’t remember much of the conversations in that camp but I can remember saying this, “Gee, you’d want to be
perfect to be all those things.” He said, “Yes, that’s not a bad thing to aim for is it?” They were his words. Sad to say he didn’t come home but he was a lovely bloke. That’s how I learned about “If” and it appealed to me so much that soon after I got home I went and looked it up in a shop and bought that. I used to have it hanging in my study for many, many years.
Interviewee: Maric Gilbert Archive ID 0746 Tape 09
Basically you wanted to convey that towards the end the death rate was just soaring. Well how did you deal with that if it’s not too vague a question?
Well, how did we deal with it? Well certainly from the beginning of that year, we’re now talking about 1945, into the third year of captivity it was then we were
certainly then saying, when we got back from party and were lined up outside the guardhouse, “What’s for tea?” And, “How many have died?” Because we were starting to hear that some were dying, not every day but ever few days. And what I’ve just said, in a sense of priorities, it sounds
cruel and pretty awful perhaps but our rations were getting so low that we were really starting to slide down to death because we were being starved as well as being worked so hard. So from three dying in January to 93 dying in July it’s gradually going up and up and up. Those figures in
themselves tell a story I feel and it was simply because we were being literally starved to death in conjunction with diseases, well, tropical ulcers took their toll.
Did you suffer the affects of one of those?
I had two very small ones and I’m amazed as I reflect on this that they healed up so quickly. They never developed. I had one in the
thigh here and one in all places on a heel. There was nothing to treat them, we had no ointment or antiseptic or anything like that, again I just put it down to having a good constitution, what do you call it? Immune system. So that wasn’t a factor with me.
So that was one thing that helped, combined with the starvation rations, brought about the rapid increase and all the time people still having to go out on work parties. It wasn’t al that uncommon for us to have to bring back somebody who did out on a work party. In other words he words he was worked to death, literally. It didn’t happen a lot but it did happen especially roundabout
In what ways could you avoid going on a work party?
You couldn’t, unless you were very, very sick in hospital.
Could you fake it?
I think you’d have had to have been a wonderful actor to fake it in those circumstances and I don’t think anybody would have wanted to frankly, really. Because after all it could mean hastening the
death of somebody else if you did. I’ve never thought about that I must confess, but I don’t think it happened. You had to be hospitalised and you were only hospitalised if you were pretty sick with either Malaria or dysentery or dengue fever or very, very bad ulcers. No, you couldn’t get out of it.
I did have a couple more questions
about work parties. Now there was one officer in charge of allocating personnel to work parties wasn’t there? Did people try to bribe him? Were there friendships cultivated with him?
Oh, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t think so. I don’t know but I would not think so. Not much to bribe him with.
Well I mean food if you’ve got it I suppose, cigarettes?
No, no, they were doing all right for themselves thank you very much. They had their own vegetable garden.
Would people try to negotiate with him or plead with him not to be sent on working parties? How would he decide it?
Some fellows might have, they might have. I never witnessed that, I never tried to I accepted my lot and was able to go out on
work parties except when I had dysentery. No, I can’t imagine bribing him, but I can’t say nobody did. That sort of thought has never entered my head, then or now.
I mean, I suppose like you said going out on a work party could mean hastening your own death, basically, you being worked to death?
yeah you just had to do it, the Japs insisted on the numbers and you were there to make up the numbers.
Did you, I mean on these work parties there was always the threat of violence for under performance would there still be a sort of go slow policy? Would you still try?
Yes, yes. Most of us decidedly, again speaking for myself and I can only speak for myself, I always
tried to make out that I was less able than what I actually was, tried to make out that I was sicker than I was, tried to make out that I couldn’t handle this or that or whatever. And mind you by doing that I wasn’t placing a burden on my mates at all. You know, if a Jap tried to hurry you up, perhaps I learned to be an actor then I don’t know. But no that’s true and
I and I’m sure many did tried to make out that they weren’t as able as they really were to have a little bit of reserve to try and protect yourself.
And converse to that, maybe perversely, did you have a sense of pride at having done work. I mean quite hard physical labour?
Pride, never, never any pride. We hated it all the
time. No, no pride whatever. I’m talking for myself of course and I think that would be pretty general. There was nothing to be proud about we just hated everything about it, hated our captain and hated being prisoners of course. No, no.
Did you never think something along the lines of, you know, that’s a good solid tunnel and walk away?
No way, no. It was a rotten tunnel, I mean you couldn’t stand up in it for one thing, no.
Was conversation allowed on the work party?
Oh yes, yes, with one another? Yes, yes. They probably didn’t lend themselves very much
to conversation I mean you were too busy working. If you were shovelling concrete as you often had to do we were building foundations for something or other and there’s a guard telling you to do it quicker, take the shovel off you and show you how quickly he wanted you to do it, you didn’t have time to converse with your other mates on the work party there. Perhaps when we were working in the holds of ships we probably had more chance to talk to one another and someone would say,
“In that crate over there there’s cigarettes, see what you can get.” or, “There’s some tinned food in that one over there see what you can do.” What I’d like to share with you and you can stop me if you think it’s not very interesting or relevant is some of the ways we managed to get back to camp without being detected.
You just pre-empted my next question. So could you explain to us, yes?
now it goes without saying that if we were caught pinching any of the food or whatever it was at least you’d get a belting over it and we would miss out on the food. So we were constantly trying to devise ways of getting stuff back to the camp without being seen. And one of the most ingenious ways which I used and with some success, I think we were inspired by the fact that the Japanese soldier wore sort of a lap lap sort of a piece of material.
It was tied with a lace around the waist and brought around the crutch and over this lace or flap in the front and it was a lap lap. This (UNCLEAR) and we somehow or other we got material and made a lap lap but it was like a pull slip, it was high, it had an opening at one end and we would tie the thing around our waste like a
lap lap and bring it round just like a lap lap, but we were able to lift up the front of it and when the Jap wasn’t watching of course, and put tins of food down that opening and then brought the flap back again and then in my crutch area is, I think once I brought actually two tins of food home between my legs. And that was very successful for quite awhile until the
inevitable happened. One day the guard saw somebody doing just that, well that was the end of that lurk because every time after that they’d poke a stick in your crutch to make sure there was nothing there before you came back to the camp. So we had to devise other ways and another way was on the trucks that took us out to the work parties we had to sit on the floor, those who got on the truck first, the latecomers, usually me, I was one of
them had to stand up, I wasn’t quick enough. We made little seats to sit on just to make it a bit more comfortable out of bits of wood we scrounged from somewhere but the seat would have a lid on it. And they’d conceal, we might be able to get some rice, say a few handfuls of rice from somewhere, a warehouse near where we were working on a work party and conceal it in this box which was a seat but then the
Japs saw that being done one day and we weren’t allowed to sit on seats any more. But the most ingenious way I think that was ever contrived, it was a work party and I wasn’t on this every day but it was a daily work party with people on and the job involved cutting down sago palms, I think it was when we were digging tank traps
down near the beach somewhere and we got permission or someone got permission to take home, take back to camp, home, fancy using that word home. Take back to camp the core of this palm tree was quite edible, you know where the fronds actually stem from, the core of that was like a cabbage you might say. And they got permission so each day there’d be at least on pair of
fellows with a big sack and they’d have it full of this sago palm stuff. So the Japs said, “That’s okay.” got used to seeing these sacks being taken home on the trucks with sago palm fruit in them, well not fruit the vegetable part of it. But on this party, this work party close to this party was a hut which somebody discovered was full of
rice, sacks of rice. I was never, ever a beneficiary of this mind you. So they managed to pilfer this rice and put some of it in the bottom of this sack and then put these sago palm bits on top and carry them into the camp under the nose of the Japanese. That was one of the most ingenious and successful lurks, if you can call it that that ever heard of, of getting food back to camp.
But that was the work party, I was on that work party that day, when it was discovered, this pilfering was discovered and nobody would own up to it and everybody on the work party got belted with these pick axes, I told that story earlier. So there were three of the ways anyway that we managed to get food back to camp and it was a
skill a highly developed skill.
People always find a way don’t they?
Oh I tell you we became expert pilferers in more ways than one. Talk about a lot of rogues but it was survival.
Besides the necessity of survival, do you think it was important to have those small little rebellions of some sort? I mean did you act out?
Small gestures against the
Japanese like calling them names and having nicknames, how important were things like that?
Oh yes, we’d sort of take the mickey out of them [tease them] whenever we got, but we couldn’t afford to let them know, they didn’t have a sense of humour like that.
I’m just saying it must have been very satisfying to have tricked them like that with the food. Was that a real morale booster as well as a physical comfort?
Yeah, yeah and of course we got at them
unbeknownst to them with the nicknames that we devised, Frill Neck and Black Bastard, I went over those before to you. They were always in derision when we referred to them of course. Yes, there was certainly a sense of satisfaction, apart from the fact that we had a little bit more to eat, a sense of satisfaction of having put it over them because it wasn’t easy, I think there were always two guards on a work party
and perhaps we’d use a ruse where one or two fellows might try and engage them in some sort of conversation to distract their attention while somebody else grabbed something. One way or another we managed to get stuff in until one by one each ruse was found and of course that was really bad news when there was no other way that anybody could think of of getting any food back into the camp.
But it was a challenge wasn’t it?
You mentioned that you yourself buddied up and had a small group of four, was this common to have shared food and resources like that?
Well I’m glad you asked that question because it leads me to an important thing. I go back to what I said earlier, there was this group of four of us, we divided into two pairs and we decided earlier in our captivity that it would be easier if we were just in pairs to share what we
got rather than sharing it between four of us. It was an amicable agreement so we had two pairs and these were, I’m talking about my real mates. To try and maximise the result of the scrounging, a number of what came to be called syndicates sprang up in the camp, you might call them
marriages of convenience where a group of fellows, it might be four, five or even more, would agree to form a syndicate, again with a view to sharing whatever might be got because you never, you know, there were so many different work parties, you might be on three work parties, or say there were four people, three of you might be on a work party where there was no likelihood at all of scrounging anything and this was the norm, but there might be one fellow that was working on a
ship, unloading ships, on that work party and he’d managed to get something, well, they’d share it. But these, what I’m calling “marriages of convenience.” eventually one by one failed because the temptation was too great for one of the people to not share something that he got back at the camp. And once that was detected all trust evaporated. Now that didn’t
happen, because I had a real mate, and Alan and Jack were staunch mates, there was strong bond there to start with where there wasn’t, it was a created thing with these so called syndicates and they didn’t survive for all that long for the reasons I’ve just stated.
Did any of those come to blows or violent situations?
Oh not that I ever heard of, no,
no, I mean I just heard someone would say, “Oh, that so and so mob, yeah, they’ve split up.” or something like that. I don’t think so I never heard of any violence one prisoner against the other in the camp.
Well could somebody be left out in the cold and be shunned by another?
Well, I suppose he would be the one who committed the crime as it were.
Yes, they wouldn’t want to know him again but I never had any direct contact with such people so I can’t speak first hand but to me it would follow that certainly the other fellows who made up that syndicate wouldn’t want a bar of him any more. But as far as I’m aware and recall there was no violence involved as a result of such action.
You’ve mentioned dates a lot
I’m just wondering who kept track of time and how?
Well, the officers did. We never had any calendars, yeah, the officers because they’re trained to keep records aren’t they? They had to keep all sorts of records. They kept records of the rations we were getting and all the deaths, when people died and all that sort of thing. They kept a calendar; they probably made their own calendar so we always knew what
day it was. Not that that was terribly important but I certainly knew that when I was in this mortuary, this death house, it was on my birthday when I woke up to find these other fellows dead so I was aware what the date was. We must have been aware most of the time you know just word of mouth, you know, you’d say, “What’s the date today?” And somebody would know, they’d heard it from an officer of somewhere. So we
always knew what date it was, the officers would have kept a record there, kept calendars.
The records of rations and so on, were they kept secret I mean I can’t imagine the Japanese permitting that?
No, no they weren’t kept secret because I’ve recorded in my memoirs how the rations gradually deteriorated and I mentioned so many ounces of rice so yes, we
knew what the basic ration was. I suppose the cooks, the cooks would have told us I suppose, camp cooks, what the rationing was because we knew, so many ounces of rice perhaps, so many ounces of sweet potato.
Of course, I’d love to hear about when you were finally aware that freedom was approaching. What were your first
indications that you might be able to get out and get home?
Well, the very first indication that the war must be over was about a week after it actually ended and a, well, one notable event was that suddenly we were confronted with a different interpreter. This hated Ikeuchi was no longer to be
seen each day. There was a Japanese interpreter who not only spoke English fluently with an American accent but had a sense of humour and could pun. How I remember he could pun, we were lined up one day and they were reading out the names of the people that were supposed to be on a particular work party and one of the names was a chap called Gordon Kent and it so happened that he was just to sick to be on
it and I remember this interpreter saying, “Oh, he Kent make it.” And that was really something to hear the Japanese make a pun. He had obviously been educated in America and he said to us on this particular time, about a week after the war had actually finished, which we didn’t know about, “We are going to.” I’m paraphrasing this, I don’t know exactly what he said but it was to this affect, “We’re going to get you ready to go to your
homes, are there any things that you need?” Well of course our doctor had a whole list of medications that he wanted, including vitamin B injections. So from the very next day, every day we got a vitamin B injection, you know, which started to make a difference almost instantly. The food ration
went up quite sharply. Rice, I can’t quote figures, but actually almost more than we could actually, literally stomach because I can remember the pains of hunger were being replaced with terrible indigestion pains. Our stomachs had shrunk to that extent and here’s a whole sack of rice, we only
dreamed about having, and we were now getting without any trouble and we just couldn’t digest it all. So we were getting a marked increase in rations, medical supplies, they fitted us out with Japanese marine shirts and shorts because our clothes were generally in tatters, nothing on our feet.
And there were no more work parties, we weren’t sent out on work parties any more. I said, “The war has to be over.” you know. So one of the American officers, you note that I’m saying one of the American officers, not one of our officers, started to brow beat the Japanese authorities, the interpreter and even the camp commandant telling them
that they had to make available a radio transmitter so we could tell the outside world come and get us, “We’re here, come and get us.” And that took a while for the Japs to do anything about that but they eventually relented and took this American officer plus two American wireless operators, that happened to be in the camp, to an installation,
a wireless installation, down in the nearby village, Galala village, and they made contact with Morotai and of course Morotai couldn’t really believe what they were hearing at first, the people at that end. And I believe they were quizzed. Well, one of the fellows must have been one of our fellows because one of the questions I heard that they were asked was, “What’s the pub on the corner of
Flinders Street and Swanston Street in Melbourne?” And they answered, “Young and Jacksons.” “Yeah and what’s it really noted for?” “Oh, for Chloe.” You’ve heard about Chloe? So, that established their bone fides so quickly they got together, the powers that be arranged for four corvettes to come down and take us off. I think it was the very next day, now I
ponder on this because it would have taken them more than a day to come from Morotai but perhaps these vessels, I’ve only just recently thought about this, those vessels must have been in the vicinity of Ambon already waiting to come in. But anyway they came down and signalled to the Japs and the Japs made sure they directed these ships through the minefields that they had laid across Ambon Bay and on the
10th of October, I’m sorry, 10th of September, 1945, this wonderful sight came down Ambon Bay, four corvettes of the Royal Australian Navy and I’ll tell you their names, the Junee, the Cootamundra, the Glenelg and the Latrobe. I will never forget those names. I was on the Junee and they tied up at Ambon wharf and in the
meantime we were taken in by trucks, I suppose it would have been trucks and cars, into the wharf where we were assembled. Our own officers here had us lined up and we were assembled and greeted by these fellows on the corvettes and well, it’s very, very hard to really to put into words, our emotions at that happening, it was just so wonderful. They had
baked a whole stack of bread on board and handed out loaves of bread to us. They could see how emaciated, we were still fairly emaciated of course.
Did they express shock at such a bad state you were in? Were they shocked? Were they surprised?
Yeah, they were shocked because there were a lot of stretcher cases, fellows who were not much more than skeletons. They were on the wharf too and they had to, you know, get them on
board and look after them. They were shocked, I know, because I met a lot of them at a reunion years later and it was something to hear them tell of their feelings and reaction when they saw us on the wharf there. It is something that will stay with them for all their lives I’m sure.
I think you mentioned before that they had come and been threatened and left again. Did you see them when they came that first time?
That was on the 16th of August, the day after the war actually
ended and we didn’t know anything about that.
You didn’t know anything about that? Okay, that was after you learned about it?
I learned all about that later, when we came home, after we came home. I even found at work, a colleague at work in the SEC was on one of those ships and he told me their story and how the Japs said, “Get the hell out of it or we’ll blow you out o the water.”
Did anyone die in that period between the 16th of August and end of?
Oh yes, some of them, there were some
Do you feel perhaps that they should have attempted to land and take it by force, it was after the end of the war?
I can’t really answer that. A decision was made by a naval officer that he would be putting too many men at risk if they tried to force their way in. After all, the Japs were in full control of the island and
you know they had the guns and the aircraft and they could have, they could have really given them a terrible time, well, they would have carried out their threat they would have tried to sink them or fire on them or do something like that but I’ve never talked to somebody who was actually in command of the fleet of the four corvettes.
When you were aware that the tables had
turned, what sort of retributions were made against the Japanese?
That is a very good question because I’ve heard it asked before. None whatsoever, and remember this, they’re still armed, fully armed. We are a bunch, a small bunch of emaciated prisoners we couldn’t if we’d have tried to
molest any of them they would have probably shot us anyway, even though the war’s finished because they were fully armed and we were still virtually prisoners. But after we were recovered and taken to Morotai very soon after that an occupation force of Australian troops from Morotai was sent down to take over the surrender from the Japanese at Ambon and two or three of our fellows, two or three of the fittest ones went with them. And I heard afterwards
that one bloke broke some fingers in his hand because he got stuck into one of the Jap guards with his fists. But no there wasn’t any of that because it would have been foolhardy. I suppose the temptation was there for some of the more aggressive people but that sort of thinking wasn’t in my mind but it would have been suicidal, it would have been stupid in the extreme to do it. Because they were armed still and still had
control of us.
What’s been the process for you of dealing with what the Japanese did? I mean in the years since how have you come to terms with that?
Well that was a long slow process. It took me many, many years for the hatred of Japanese people to
recede. I can’t really say how long, but probably twenty years anyway. Suffice to say that now I bear no ill feelings whatsoever against the Japanese. I have read enough since and thought enough deeply since about what motivated them to this behaviour, how they were indoctrinated for years by a military government.
So, no, I have no negative feelings at all about the Japanese now. My younger sister still does on behalf of her brother but I don’t, no. In fact I’m doing a creative writing course at the moment and there’s a Japanese lady in that group, but she was just a child when that war was on and I don’t discuss these things with her. Although I
thought in fairness to her I told her that I had been a prisoner of the Japanese but had long since resolved my negative feelings about them, I assured her of that. I wanted to do that because some of the stories I have been writing, not surprisingly, had something to do with Ambon and I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable when she heard because we read out our stories and they’re shared with the group. But no, those negative feelings have long
since evaporated I’m happy to say, happy to say.
It’s an amazing thing.
But I dreaded, for years afterwards, I dreaded bumping into a Japanese in the city, I didn’t know how I would handle that, but I never did. It so happened that in later years, working with the SEC, I had a job that took me out to various companies and one of the companies that had contracts with the SEC was Mitsui and I had to feel
comfortable about that and I had to go to Mitsui’s offices in Melbourne and by then I had resolved things and I felt comfortable enough in dealing with these people.
What did you find most difficult about coming back to Australia and getting back to normal society?
Well, first of all terrible nightmares,
terrible nightmares where I was back in the camp again and I experienced all sorts of things and you know, I’d wake up screaming or you know, amongst sweat or something but they were difficult. But as I might have indicated earlier I was very strongly resolved to get back into civilian life and to find a wife and to start a family. And I found a wonderful girl at a dance who became my
wife and she was my wife for forty three years before she died of cancer. But she was a tremendous strength in that I wouldn’t have recovered as quickly as I did if it hadn’t been for her wonderful understanding, her patience with me because I wouldn’t have been all that easy to live with in many respects especially if I was waking up screaming during the night which she would have found terribly distressing. But she supported me all the way through and we had
three wonderful kids and so on so that was a big factor. The Repat were very, very good too. I drank bottles and bottles of great big bottles of cod liver oil extract for months and months and months after I came home. I used to have to go into Repat and collect those. But it was a slow gradual process. I possibly differed from your average returned digger
in as much as I didn’t think it would be healthy to be put, or to see myself in a special category because I’d been a prisoner of war, so much so that I was not at all interested in joining an organisation which was formed in Melbourne called Ex POW and Relatives Association. I didn’t like that idea in principle because I wanted to put that
behind me and get on with my life and I didn’t think it was healthy mentally, to adjust again. I mean it was probably a minority opinion but that was the way I felt then. And I’d never been a member of an RSL [Returned and Services League], mainly because I wasn’t interested in going to a club that had a licence and who seemed to think of nothing else but grogging on and getting a licence, that wasn’t my
scene so I didn’t bother with the RSL. I’m not disputing that they’ve done and still do wonderful work for ex service people in many areas but it just wasn’t my scene. Nor was Anzac Day, I marched the first year I came home, 1946, it was the natural thing to do and have the cheering thousands, you know, first Anzac Day after the war then. But at the end of it I thought,
“This is not for me.” I don’t really enjoy this adulation, I don’t really like it. I never marched again, never marched again. I’ve tended to look on Anzac Day; it may be wrongly, as a glorification of war. Now I know my mates would jump on me and most RSL people would jump on me and say, “Nonsense, it’s not.” But that’s how I felt about
it for many, many, years up to fairly recently. I’m not sure that I’ve even got rid of that attitude about Anzac Day, I tend still to think it’s a glorification of war which is something, you know, I absolutely loathe and detest and I’ve grown to loathe and detest all forms of violence, I really have. I’ve written letters to the paper about it even.