Archive number: 854
Date interviewed: 18 November, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 01
Gordon, if you could give us a brief summary of your life? The highlights? The most significant events?
A sort of birth to now sort of thing?
Well, I was one of twins, I have a twin brother and we were born at Jamberoo, down the south coast. My father actually died on our first birthday, leaving mother a bit up in the air, really. And so ultimately we went back and lived with our grandparents who lived in Lindfield.
And we lived with them right up until the time I was married. I had a very wonderful grandfather and grandmother. My mother had a sister there. So there was a grandfather and two boys, and a grandmother and two girls. Until my auntie went into the nursing, and of course she was then only at home at weekends.
We grew up and went to the Lindfield public school, and later on to North Sydney Boys’ High. I got a job – my brother got a job first, he had done intermediate. He got a job and I went on to fourth year high school. But we couldn’t really afford to stay at school any longer.
And my brother having got a job, made me a bit restless, too. So I ended up getting a job in one of the insurance offices. And I worked there for four or five years. I joined up from there, actually. In the meantime, I joined one of the militia units,
the 8th Field Company Engineers, in the CMF [Citizens’ Military Forces]. And used to study for the insurance exams, like people study for accountancy exams. When I joined up, I had a very happy situation where they had, I don’t know whether you’ve heard of it, but they couldn’t fit us fellows into camp straight away. Because I joined up
when they were forming the Eighth Division, and there were already Sixth and Seventh Division on the way. Well, the Sixth Division had already gone. So we had a lovely time, because for six weeks we were paid a living allowance to stay at home, and report to a drill hall every day for sort of routine infantry training. Like route marches and pretending to slope arms with rifles that didn’t exist and that sort of thing.
Then selection officer came to the different units, when the Eighth Division got to the stage where they wanted troops brought together. I joined up with another chap, and we both went in the same militia unit, and we joined up the same day. And we got into the same –
well, what we thought was the same unit. He got into the 2/12th Field Company, and I got into what was known as the 2/4th Field Part Company, which was a company associated with the engineers. And I thought everything was going to be all right, until one day the OC [Officer Commanding] sent for me and told me he wanted me as a clerk in the orderly room, because I had been a clerk in civil life.
I told him that I didn’t care for that very much, but he said, “Well, that’s how it’s going to be.” So I didn’t have much option. But the two units stayed together. We went into camp at Liverpool, and then later on at Ingleburn. When we got to Ingleburn, I began to realise what was going to happen, that it was, really, not the same as the field company,
and I saw the second in command of the field company and told him that as I was in the Field Company in the CMF, I would like to get into the field company in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. So after a bit of manoeuvring, they made a transfer. And of course it changed the whole course of my life. Because the field company finished up being taken away from the Eighth Division and sent over to
the Middle East, the Field Part Company was sent over to the Middle East, and the Field Company was left in the Eighth Division and finished up in Singapore. So the field company went into a completely different sphere of action, and the field part company, as I said, ended up in the Middle East, and came back into Australia –
I don’t know quite where they went. They probably went up to New Guinea. So that was the early part of it. Eventually we went to Singapore in about July, 1940, and we were camped in Johor Bahru, which was just across the straits of
Johor from Singapore Island, and we were engaged in a bit of construction down there on the waterfront. And then, of course, when war was declared we were moved up to battle stations at a place called Segamat. Because the AIF were not supposed to fight outside the boundary of the state of Johor, which was the southern most state of the
six or seven Malay states. The reason being that we were not supposed to fight without air support, and there really wasn’t much air support. So we sort of marked time there for a few weeks, while the British and Indian troops met the Japs [Japanese] up at Kota Baru, which is up on the Malayan border side of the Thai Malayan border. And
they finished up fighting a rear guard action all the way down the coast, because the two battleships, the Prince Of Wales and the Repulse, were very early in the piece, disposed of by Japanese dive bombers, who came over in tremendous numbers and sunk them both. And that left the east coast of Malaya virtually unprotected from
attack from the sea, and gave the Japs a free go all the way down the coast. And that leap-frogging system of the British or Allied forces fighting the Japs, and then the Japs would land behind them and they’d have to pull back or they’d be cut off. And the process was repeated all the way down the Malayan peninsula, until they came to
border of the state of Johor, when the AIF took over. Then we went into action there. The war started with the Japs on, I think, the 7th of December, and it was all over on the 15th of February. And we went into action a bit south of the Johor
state border, and just carried on with the same sort of rear guard action all the way down to Singapore Island. On Singapore Island we were sort of regrouped and went to the area which was – I suppose you would say the classy white area of Singapore. Singapore in those days was a British colony and completely
run by British people, and this area was where a lot of them lived. We just dug in there for a week or so, it couldn’t have been much more than a week. Then the Japs ultimately over-ran Singapore Island and that’s when the capitulation took place. It’s worth making the point that Singapore Island then, and I think as now,
gets its water, or got its water, from Malaya. They had a reservoir on Singapore Island, but Singapore Island isn’t a big island, but it had quite a big population. Bigger still now, of course. So the Japs had control of the water supply to Singapore Island. When we were withdrawn to Singapore Island, the causeway was blown.
There was a dirt or stone causeway between Singapore Island and the mainland, with an opening so that the tide could go through, and that was blown to make a gap. But it was really only a gap that was worth anything after that. Because as long as you
had artillery covering the Japs with gunfire, nobody could use the gap, or the causeway to get across. And the Japs, in fact, landed by commandeering hundreds of native canoes, and other native craft, and coming across the straits of Johor, which aren’t very wide anyway, and flooded onto Singapore Island.
We were virtually driven back into a corner. And merciless bombing of the island took place. It had been taking place from day one, actually. Singapore’s a very crowded city, and flights of twenty or thirty planes used to go over, and knocked the population about in a terrible way. And ultimately, of course,
it was decided that we would capitulate. And then we became prisoners of war. We stayed where we were for a couple of days, then had to put all our arms down in a tennis court and join a long weary march to the Selarang Barracks, which I think was about seventeen miles from where we were. That was the British barracks, where
the British permanent army in Singapore – or one of the places where they were stationed. They were very good barracks, actually. They had been bombed by the Japs, but they were very good barracks. Brick buildings and tiled roofs. The unit, ultimately, that we were in, I think, had been flats for married quarters for the British Army.
They had a big upstairs room. I don’t know whether they were two families, one upstairs and one downstairs, or not. But they had one very big room, and a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom, all concrete and tiles and concrete paths around the outside, with drains for the rain, because they don’t use roof guttering there. They use drains
along with concrete around the outside. No roof guttering would ever cope with the rain that falls in Singapore. So we settled in there, and were fairly comfortable for a while. There were no beds, you had to fix up what you could from scrounging and that sort of thing. Engineers are pretty good at that sort of thing. I got hold of a bit of a bit of hessian
and a couple of poles – No, it wasn’t hessian, I think I used my groundsheet to make a sort of camp bed, resting on a couple of blocks. I don’t know that anybody was all that uncomfortable in Singapore, for army fellows were used to roughing it. So we stayed there, and they started working parties in Singapore.
But I didn’t go on any of those. They very quickly got a few classes going, improving yourself, and I started on an accountancy course. But that only lasted for a couple of months because the Japs decided they wanted an overseas working party. And that was to leave about the middle of May,
which was just three months to the day after the fall of Singapore. I was in that first party, which was known as A Force. It comprised three thousand men, and was carefully selected to include members of all branches of the service, so that there was a field company of engineers and a company of artillery
and army service and medical – In other words, a little group which could act, as far as possible, as a self-contained fighting unit; if it ever came to that. Bearing in mind, of course, at that stage, nobody knew what was going to happen. This was February of 1942. So we departed from Singapore on the 15th of May, 1942,
and didn’t know where we were going to go. There was all sorts of rumours about it. We might have been exchanged and everything else. So we watched very carefully to see which way the boat, and of course, when it got out of Singapore Harbour, it turned north and sailed up between Sumatra and Singapore. It pulled in at Medan at Sumatra first, for
a couple of days, and took on some Japanese soldiers and some gear. There was another boat in the convoy, and then we proceeded up the coast of Burma. The most southern town of Lower Burma was a place called Victoria Point, and we put off about a thousand men there, and then we went on for another day and a half to a place called Mergui.
And that’s where we got off, the second thousand. And the third thousand went on another day or so sailing, to a place called Tavoy. And the rest of them got off there. In each of the three cases, we were put to work on aerodromes, but the conditions at all of them, were dreadful. But in the case of Mergui,
there were more than a thousand there, because there were a thousand AIF, but there were another five hundred; some of the seventh division had been dropped off in Java on the way home. Some from the HMAS Perth, which had been sunk and captured and sent to Java. And then there was a couple of Americans. Because
the Perth and the Houston were two destroyers that were sunk. They had been working together, they were both sunk at once. So we had about fifteen hundred altogether there, and were quartered in a school. Which was a very nice school, actually, if you happened to be a child going to it. In those days, Burma was
a British colony, and they built nice schools. Some of them were mission schools. One later on, in Tavoy, was a Lasalle Brothers High School, I think it was. It was quite a nice college, but we had a dreadful time in Mergui, after we got there. Our people had been told when they left Singapore not to take anything. Medical supplies would be there,
cooking gear would be there. Everything would be wonderful. When we got there, there was nothing. We had to unload a whole lot of stuff from this ship, after we landed there. We pulled into Mergui in the evening, and we went on shore the next day, and ultimately we were marched to this school,
the whole fifteen hundred of us, and there was not room to put a matchbox down between ground sheets. Verandas and the rooms and everything else were absolutely covered. You had the size of a ground sheet, or a sleeping mat, in other words, about six feet by three. And it was all right during the day time of course. People rolled up their beds.
But at night, if you were in the room and you had to go to the toilet, you had to be very careful not to trip or trod on somebody, on your way out. Anyway, we had no food all day, that day. And to get food, they had to get oil drums, which had to be cut in half with a hammer and chisel, to
turn them into twenty gallon ones, instead of forty four. Then they had to be set on bricks, and boiled with water in them, to get the oil out of them. Then our first rice meal there was the night of that particular day. You wouldn’t believe it, but it was what used to be known as Empire Day. The 24th of May, 1942.
And there were a few remarks about Britons never being slaves and all the rest of it, I can tell you. Well, it wasn’t long before under those conditions gastric trouble broke out. The toilet accommodation would have been okay for the school. They weren’t the sort of toilets where you had pans. They were oriental style where you had a hole in the floor.
Pans of course. It wasn’t sewered. They were properly made toilets for the time, anyway. But dysentery broke out and people got dreadfully sick, and very soon they had to start a hospital. That was in a bamboo hut,
a few hundred metres away. And I was all right for about a month, I think. And we went to work on the aerodrome there. We were chipping grass. It was just a dirt aerodrome, air strip. But of course the Japs wanted it for war purposes; they were going to seal it, so
we were chipping the grass off, and they had coolies sitting down with hammers, cracking piles of metal, which they ultimately used to make an all weather strip. We never saw that. So this went on for quite some time. I ultimately – I don’t know whether it was dysentery or chronic diahorrea.
I know one day I went to the toilet forty times. And that wasn’t unusual. Other people went more. And the accommodation in the hut was you just slept on the floor. The toilets had to be outside of course. The toilets were just pans outside. And, well, there was
very little treatment for you. I think there was some tablets they gave me, it wasn’t anything very much. It took quite a long time to stop it.
All right. So you’re telling us about how the men were squashed together and how difficult it was going to the toilet. We’ll get a brief overview of the rest of your time in the camp, as a POW [Prisoner of War], then we will go on to your life after the war.
Then ultimately I went back to the camp. Of course, I had lost a tremendous lot of weight, and the Japs had the theory of sick men don’t eat, so they cut the rations for every person who was sick. But our officers got paid
whether they worked or not. We didn’t. So the officers had a sort of self-generated Red Cross fund from their pay. So I was lucky, and other people were, too, but I got a supplementary diet of a banana and an egg a day for a couple of weeks to help me put on a bit of weight. Because I probably went down
to fifty or sixty kilos at that stage. But ultimately I went back to work and in due course we moved off from there. But I should say, one of the outstanding things about this Mergui place, was when we pulled in there the night before we disembarked. There is a very big pagoda,
Buddhist, pegged on the shore, and I think the top of it was covered in gold leaf. In spite of it being war, it was lit up at night and it was a magnificent sight I can tell you, with the dark hills behind it. I will never forget that. Anyway, we ultimately moved off from Mergui and went up by boat to this place
called Tavoy. This was a very small boat, because there were only – We went in in lots, so there was probably no more than three or four hundred. But we were crammed on it; you had to sit like this, in between decks, which are probably only about five feet apart. About a metre and a half. Certainly not two metres apart.
And I guess they were used for transporting Jap troops as well. But luckily it was only for a day and a half, and we got to Tavoy. We got out of the boat, and into a barge, but we had to stay in the barge for a long time, because the town of Tavoy is up the Tavoy River. And the tide was out when we got there.
So we were in this huge barge, without any floorboards, so you were standing on the – The bottom came down like that, like an over-sized rowing boat, and you had to stand on the sloping sides. You had one foot on the bottom and the other foot up a bit. It was a most uncomfortable situation.
You didn’t fall over because there were too many of us. We were like that for ages. Then we were towed up river and we got to the wharf at Tavoy, and were marched to this camp in the very nice Lasalle Brothers – I think it must have been a high school. It was a very nice school, very nice grounds, a lovely avenue of trees
leading up from the front gate to the school. It was good accommodation, except we slept on the floor as usual. All our cooking gear, of course, had to be taken with us. Everything was just the same. And after we had been there for a few days, they called for working parties on the aerodrome out there, and we went out there.
After a while, they had some of us living out there. They had huts for accommodation for the few aircraft that used to call at Tavoy, pre-war. And there was a visitor’s book found in one of the huts we were in,
which had Kingsford Smith’s signature in it. Very sadly, it wasn’t kept. The paper was used for smoking. It was very sad. But that was one of the places Kingsford Smith landed on his way home, or on his way over to England. And there’s a monument at Mergui, I don’t know whether that was to Kingsford Smith or not, but there was an obelisk monument on the rocks, near
where we got off at Mergui, on the opposite side of the inlet.
Gordon, because we are going to go onto this later on today, and we want to talk about your childhood, first off. If you could just give us a quick summary?
Well, we stayed at Tavoy for three months,
working on an aerodrome again. It wasn’t a particularly nice place to stay. Rations weren’t much good, but in some ways the accommodation was a bit better. But then we went up, overland, we went from Tavoy to Thanbyuzayat, which was the Burma end of the railway.
And we went by road from Tavoy to a place called Ye, which was then the end of the railway line which came down from Rangoon, down the coast of Lower Burma. I look upon the shape of Burma as like a leg of ham. The top part is the main part of Burma where the Irrawaddy flows and then down the coast,
there is only a narrow strip between the mountains and the sea, because the peak of the mountains is the border line between Burma and Thailand. So we had a pretty winding road to get to Ye. And then a lot of rivers, I don’t know how many rivers – But
it’s a bit like the north coast of New South Wales. You’ve got a lot of coastal rivers running down from the east of the mountains. In this case, it was from the west of the mountains into the sea, and of course, every railway bridge across them had been blown, from Ye, I guess, right up to Rangoon. So that meant that we had to walk, and then be transported in canoes, two or three at a time across the rivers.
Then walk along the railway line in between. Which was a tortuous business and it took two days, because it’s a long way. And ultimately we got the Burma end of the railway line and this place called Thanbyuzayat.
And how long were you a POW?
Three and a half years. Basically like everyone else.
And how long were you working on the Thai-Burma railway?
Well, our group
got to the railway, sometime in December 1942, and I never left it. I was on it until I was released at the Thai end of it.
Okay, can you tell us what happened when you were released?
Well, that’s a very graphic story how we were released. Well, what happened was,
we’d been on a working party that day. I was released in a camp called Tha Khanun, which was well down the line towards Bangkok. I think it was about eighty or ninety miles from Bangkok, but it was past the junction of the railway which comes up from Singapore. That railway had been in service for years.
And it turned west at a place called Bampong to go to Bangkok. And that is where the Thai-Burma railway basically connected up. So I was in this camp that was further up towards
Burma, than that spot, only by sixty or seventy kilometres. This was a big camp. It had a huge ditch around it, which had been dug by POWs. I had worked on a similar ditch in other camps. The ditch was almost half as big as this room. It was a three metres wide at the top, three metres deep, and I suppose about two metres wide at the bottom.
All the soil from it was piled up onto the outside, to make a tremendous barrier for anybody trying to escape. The story was that was to be our graves. And it would have been, only the atom bomb came and stopped it all. But on this particular day when the war ended for us, we had been upriver to an old camp
called Chungkai, which you’ll hear a bit more about later, to get rice. Which had been left there. And we’d come back, in this barge, and unloaded the rice, and they said there would be a bit of an impromptu concert that night. We had noticed of a softening off of the guards’ attitude, in the last month or two.
So we had tea, such as it was, and went and sat on a bit of sloping ground. I don’t know what the main items in the concert were –
What we’ll try and do is we’ll come back to that. All those kind of details.
If you could just tell us when you left and when you got back to Australia? And what you did? What your occupation was when you got back, and then we’ll go back to your childhood?
But to finish this bit, it was basically during that concert that we heard the war was over. They had to smooth it all over. Well, we were there about a month. A British major was dropped into the camp and he sort of took over,
and rations were arranged for and we got a few Red Cross parcels which there were thousands around, but we hardly ever got. We were there for a month, and then we were taken into Bangkok. I had a mate there and we sort of stuck together. We were quartered in a building called the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which had a big meeting hall.
I think we were still sleeping on pallaises over there. I don’t think it was on the hard floor, not that it would have mattered to us. Then after looking around Bangkok for ten days or so, you could get yourself put on the draft. So we got ourselves on the draft to Singapore—we nearly lost our lives in the process, which is another hair-raising experience—and
got to Singapore. I promptly got malaria and was sent to hospital. Of course, we had contacted British people and that sort of thing, before then, and I was evacuated to a hospital which had been sent over from Australia, to look after the POWs and my name appeared in the Herald
as a casualty, the way it did. It just so happened that I had an auntie, the auntie I mentioned about earlier, she had been a captain in the hospital which went to Singapore. Grandmother had got very frail, and auntie had been
in the AIF for every bit as long as me, and had seen trouble in the Middle East and had been in New Guinea, and had had polio earlier in the piece, in Egypt I think it was, or Palestine. So she adopted to transfer to Concord. So when the CO [Commanding Officer] from the hospital got a cable from her,
of course everybody knew on the staff of the hospital, they would have known about me. Not that I was unique, but those sort of stories would be exchanged amongst serving personnel. So she sent a cable to the CO of the hospital and I was still in hospital. Of course, I got over the malaria pretty quickly, and
he came calling my name one evening, and I put my hand up and he said, “Are you Dorothy Bush’s nephew?” I said, “Yes, that’s right.” He said, “Oh, you’re going home in two days. Or as soon as we can get you home.” And I said, “I don’t want to go home that soon. I want to go home with the boys – ”
And when you got back to Australia, did you get married?
Not straight away.
What did you do when you got back to Australia?
When I got back to Australia – this is all in the book, but it’s a great story how I met my auntie in Concord hospital.
We can go back to that.
Anyway, I got home and checked into Concord Hospital and was given one night’s leave, and went home to my
old home where mother and my brother were. My brother had been discharged then. My auntie, she was at Concord and both my grand-parents were alive, so I went home, then I had to report back to Concord the next day. I was ticked off
on my first day home after being overseas for four years, was told that if I got back late again I would be put on a charge sheet, by the doctor in charge of the ward. Which was pretty mortifying, but what a laugh, really. Anyway, I got leave soon after that.
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 02
Okay, Gordon. We’ll just talk about your pre-war life for a moment. Can you just tell us what year you were born, where you were born, and just continue the story from there –
I was a twin,
the elder of twins. We were born at Jamberoo, down the South Coast. My father used to have a store there, a country store. But unfortunately, he died on our first birthday.
Our mother went back to live with her parents, who were at Lindfield, so I really know very little about Jamberoo, except we’ve been through there a couple of times and know the place where it all happened. We lived with our grandparents. There was grandfather
and grandmother, mother and her sister, and twin brother and myself. And we lived in Russell Avenue, Lindfield. I lived there, apart from the war, until I got married, after the war. And we went to the Lindfield Public School, which has just celebrated its centenary as a matter of fact.
That was a pretty uneventful sort of time. It was normal. After sixth class we sat for what they called the QC, Qualifying Certificate. I actually got to North Sydney High, and my brother got to Chatswood. Because I got to North Sydney, he was able to transfer to North Sydney High. So we went there in
’33, ’34 and ’35. My brother got a job after the Intermediate Certificate and I went back to North Sydney for a few months in ’36, but I was feeling a bit restless, with him working and earning money and me not having much. Or having any really. We weren’t a wealthy family by any means.
So I finished up getting a job in a city insurance office. I got it through school. The office manager knew the headmaster, I think, and asked him if he had any boys who’d be interested in a job. Two of us went over and as a matter of fact we both got a job.
That was in early 1936, April or May of ’36. So I was at school one day and work the next. I stayed there until I left to join the AIF in 1940.
Okay, Gordon, I just want to ask you, what sort of character was your father, from what you’ve been told?
He was a very straight sort of man. As my grandfather was, he was tied up with the Methodist Church. In fact, I think Mum met him because he came up from Jamberoo as a delegate to a church gathering. In those days, it was the usual thing for the metropolitan people,
who were of the same faith, it probably didn’t matter what church it was. They put up people around, for their churches and so on. So grandfather and grandmother offered board and lodging for two or three days while this conference was on. And that I gather was how he met mother.
I don’t actually know how long they were married. They were probably married in 1919. We were born in 1920, and I don’t think there was any scandal about that. There might have been earlier. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen mother’s marriage certificate. I know it is around somewhere, but it’s very hard to get hold of these things, after a lot of time.
I don’t really know much about him. Because of course, he died when we were one year old. There are photos of him, of course, but I understand he was a very good man, a very good father.
He had other children, and his wife had died, he’d had other children with her. The thing was at that stage of history, the First World War was over, and there were a lot of people widows, and there were a lot of people who might have married somebody, only the casualties were so tremendous there weren’t too many people around.
A lot of women didn’t get married at all, as a result of that. Mother had quite a nice marriage with him, I understand. But it was pretty short.
Gordon, did you have the Methodist background from both sides of the family then? From your mother’s side and your father’s side?
Grandfather was a Methodist.
Was the church a big part of your youth?
Oh yes. We were tied up with Sunday school and Christian Endeavour and youth organisations and that sort of thing, right up until the time I joined up. We had a very nice group there. A lot of nice friends. Quite a few of them are still alive, actually.
So that was a part of your life?
Yes. Very much in those days, because there was no official sport on Sundays in those days. I can remember when Sunday football, I mean big matches and that, those sort of things came in, grandfather was scandalised about that, as you can imagine. He came out from England –
I don’t know quite when. Before the turn of the century. He had a English Methodist background. And grandmother was from New Zealand. There were a lot of Methodists in New Zealand then, and still are. So they got on well together, and like most people they fitted in.
But they were very good, wonderful grandparents. Grandfather used to read us by the hour, when we were little kids. I read when I was old enough, I always read good books like Dickens and Scott. Good novels, you know. I remember getting a book from the Sunday school library and not knowing much about it and grandmother seeing it and tearing it up, saying, "That’s not going back.”
I don’t know what it was about, because I was never able to read it. So that was the sort of thing – There was no sports on Sunday, or anything like that. You could do church work on Sundays if you had something like that to do. Go for a walk and that sort of thing. But nothing much else. It would be a very boring existence these days, I’m afraid.
Gordon, was that the main focus of your social life, as a young boy?
That was pretty much the focus of it. When we were about nine or ten, I suppose, or a bit younger, we joined a physical culture club. There was the Killara church, which was a Congregational church at that stage. The minister’s
son there, he established a youth group, which was called the Killara Physical Culture Club and it was open to anybody. Quite a lot of the boys from the Lindfield Methodist Church went up there. I went there until about a year or two after I went to work. I got a bit old for it, then, pulled out.
But it was a very good club. It did a lot of good. We made a few friends there. But that was the other main activity. We didn’t belong to Scouts or anything like that. Mother, she was very conservative over those sort of things. Of course, Scouts have a lot of Sunday activities which didn’t sort of fit in.
Can you tell us about your mother? A bit about her character? And the influence she had on you, as a young boy?
Oh well, she was a very pretty straight-laced lady. Very loving and very caring. She had to find out about bringing up children, of course. She didn’t know much about it. I guess she felt she learnt the hard way.
But I can remember she insisted on she controlled the way we were disciplined, rather than grandfather, because sometimes he was inclined to give a bit of a slap when we were rude or something like that. Mother insisted that she was going to do that, if it had to be done. And she did. She’d give us a bit of a
beating around the legs from time to time. In those days of course, that is what happened almost everywhere. As far as I can gather. But she was very involved with the church and the young peoples’ movement. What was known as Christian Endeavour was an Australia-wide movement in those days. We had a branch of it
in the local church. Mother was the superintendent of the younger groups. They were divided into two groups, the younger ones and the intermediate sort of. And mother used to run the juniors. And grandfather was tied up with the Endeavour movement. Actually, he was part of the Australian committee for the organisation.
And mother was the junior superintendent. They used to have rallies once a year in the town hall, and people would come from all over New South Wales. I can remember, I must have been in high school, they wanted a map to show where they all came from.
I got an atlas and enlarged on a piece of Masonite a map of Australia about four or five feet across and three foot six wide. I cut it out with a fret saw. They had this on the stage on this main rally, with all the names on it, and
they’d call the name of the town and point to it on the map. It was very much a part of our lives. The other organisation that I did belong to, which was probably one of the best things I ever did was, it was held in the church hall but it was really nothing to do with the church, it was a public speaking class. Which people came to from some of the other churches,
some friends who are still alive, at the St David’s, the former Presbyterian church. Of course, they’re all Uniting here now. They used to come and other people, they were always welcome. We had a very good teacher. He just started this because he happened to know a couple of the fellows and thought it might be good.
And people flocked to him. I suppose at one stage there would have been ten or fifteen boys and girls, it wasn’t just boys. You learnt the hard way. You just got up there and you were told to speak, or you might draw it from a hat, to speak on a subject for five minutes without using the words ‘I’, ‘We’, ‘And’, or ‘But’.
Which is wonderful training. No notes, just off the cuff. And then there was a prepared section where you gave a prepared speech. But that had to be extemporary. You could have notes, but you didn’t read it. You had notes based on what he called the ‘Three-Three-System’. So you had three main headings, then you could have
three sub-headings under each one. Everybody in turn gave a five or six minute talk. You couldn’t have much long because of the number of the people in it. You were listened to very critically and you were told quite clearly where your faults were. Not nastily, but quite constructively; which was very good, really, because I can remember
after, when I was at work, after I joined the AIF, and I went back to the office party, and they were having a few drinks. The Sydney office manager was there, and he was a pretty powerful guy. This company had branches in all states, it was an English company. And out of the blue, he asked me to say
a few words on behalf of the other ex-servicemen. I was the only one who was able to get there. And I think I did it reasonably creditably. But I could have crashed, because it was really a very off the cuff sort of thing to have to do that and if I hadn’t had that bit of training – I was fortunately able to put enough words together to not make a fool of myself, if it wasn’t any better.
So that was, sort of, the thing. And of course, it stood me in tremendous benefit later on. Because after the war, when my grandfather died, he was a trustee of the church there, and he died in –
it, must have been the end of ’48 when he died. Then they made me a trustee. He had been a trustee. They had trustees in those days. They don’t have them any more. And so they made me a trustee, in his place, and very soon they wanted somebody to be virtually chief steward. One of the jobs of the chief steward
was to read the Sunday notices. And I couldn’t read in public. I had to learn them. There was an elderly gentleman who used to give the notices for quite some time after I was still a trustee, but then he had to give it up. I had to take it over.
So I had a bit of memory training, and I used to give the notices, every Sunday, for x years. I couldn’t tell you how long. Probably forty years I did that.
So you were forced to memorise those notices obviously because of your eye-sight problem from the war?
Gordon, was your grandfather a big influence on the development of your character as a young man, do you think?
Oh, I’d think he had to be. He was really the main man in our lives. My grandmother had three sisters, all living in the metropolitan area with their husbands, and they were all nice people. But relatives like that, you didn’t see them that often.
I mean they were very kind and nice people, in so far as that has an influence on you, of course. But the main influence comes from family. So it was mainly grandfather and grandmother, and mother and auntie.
Would you say that your grandfather was a role model for you at that stage?
Well, I guess unconsciously so.
You were obviously growing up around the time of the Depression. Was that something that impacted on your life at that stage?
Well, it would have. Because if we hadn’t been living with grandmother and grandfather, mother would have had to have somewhere to live. She didn’t have much in
the way of income. Because the store at Jamberoo actually did not flourish after my father. Which it probably should have done, but it didn’t. And so she was left without too much in the way of support. So after that happened, mother finished up – she always loved flowers
and decorating and she did a course in floral work. It was sort of an apprenticeship with a King Street florist in town, and then she used to do it from home. She didn’t get a lot of work, but she got quite a lot from, if somebody in the church died, well, she might get ten wreathes or something like that. In those days, I think a standard price
for an ordinary sort of wreath was about ten shillings. Now I don’t know what it would be. She used to make lovely wreathes. The basis for a wreath in those days, you had a circle of wire which I used to cut and the join the ends together. Around that you bound the stems of lilies and bracken or something like that for the flowers to be stuck into.
There was a vacant block of land across the road from us in those days, and there was plenty of bracken there. So we used to gather the bracken, and bind it onto the wire frame, and mother had learnt the business of wiring the flowers and sticking them in. We’d often have to deliver them.
It was quite an experience to sometimes go into the markets, if you had a lot of wreathes; she kept a pretty good garden going there. There were a few local people who grew flowers for selling, though they didn’t have the acreage. There was one at East Lindfield that had quite a big acreage. But there were
others who just grew flowers in the backyard. But you can grow a lot of flowers in the backyard if you want to. Often, if it was only for a couple of wreathes, she’d get the flowers from there. But if it was somebody from the church and she had to make ten wreathes, we’d go into the markets. And you’d have to get in there soon after five in the morning, and get the flowers. I would bring them home,
and with her, a basket like this, quite a lot of flowers on those sort of jobs. Or weddings. She used to do weddings, too, then I’d drop them off and go back to school. But that was when I was in high school, a bit older.
And Gordon were you still living with your grandparents and your mother and brother at that stage?
Right up until the time that I went to the war.
And afterwards, until I was married.
Was your grandfather employed at that stage?
No, he retired. He had had his 85th birthday when he died. He was in one of the banks, so I don’t know whether he retired at 60 or not. But he would have died in the ‘20s.
No, that’s silly. My grandfather didn’t die until after the war, at 85. I can remember when he knocked off work. It was the end of the year, and we were actually down at Harbord for
a couple of weeks and he came down there, instead of coming to Lindfield. So that would have been in the ‘20s. But then he lived on until he died in ’48 or ’49.
Gordon, did any of your immediate family have any involvement in the military or any involvement in World War I?
No, my grandfather would have been too old for that.
And at what age did you decide to join the CMF? And why do you think you made that decision?
I think at that stage, a lot of people thought the writing was on the wall about what was going to happen in Europe,
and there was a sort of a recruiting drive. So that sparked it. The other thing was that I always had a hankering to do engineering, but it wasn’t one of the possibilities then, because of the Depression. So I took the job in the office. You
did mention earlier about those earlier days and it was just pretty ordinary sort of going to work and that sort of thing. Nothing really sort of outstanding about them.
That feeling that something was going to happen in Europe. Around about what
year did you start to get that feeling? And how did it make you feel?
I think we got that feeling when Chamberlain went to try and bargain with Hitler. I think everybody got the feeling that this was likely to be on, but everybody
hoped that it wouldn’t be on. I can remember the night war was declared. We had had a rifle shoot that day down at what used to be Chatswood Rifle Range, and come home and then it was announced that the Prime Minister was to speak and
and he said England was at war with Germany, and we are, as a result, going to be at war, too. It was sort of an exciting feeling for young people, because they didn’t know anything about it.
So that was the main emotion for you, as a response?
Well, it’s a long while ago now. You can’t help saying to yourself, I wonder what this is going to mean to me? At that stage I was only nineteen. I didn’t have much idea about things, and we didn’t know much about the First [World] War, because, at that stage, it was quite a lot past. There was
a plaque in the church hall about commemorating four fellows who had been to the First War and had been killed. Quite a big honour roll of the men who had gone and come back. But it didn’t give you much idea about it. Even being in the militia didn’t tell you an awful lot about it. It gave you a smattering, but of course, in those days,
the militia weren’t very well equipped. I actually went to a camp where I think it was a horse-drawn ambulance. Which was almost a Boer War touch. They didn’t get much in the way of automation and that sort of thing. Old rifles, they certainly were .303s, but old model rifles and those sort of things.
You didn’t get much of an idea. You started to get an idea. You got a lot more of an idea during our early AIF training. The first six weeks when we were on this day boy stunt, and marching around the streets, there were planes flying over us, deliberately, I think. And we were encouraged to
have a look around and see where we would go if they suddenly started to shoot at us, and that sort of thing. So, that was quite a bit of a waking up. But you don’t really get too much of an impression about war until it starts, and it hits you pretty hard when it does.
Gordon, did you feel a personal compulsion or obligation
to be over there to protect the Empire? Was that concept of protecting the Empire close to you?
Well, yes, that was a part of it. I think probably more to down Hitler. Of course, at that stage you don’t really think of the Empire needing protection. I mean, we didn’t know at that stage what the German forces were like, what they had been up to.
All sorts of roads that had been built that were in fact aircraft runways. A lot of the stuff that Germany was going on with hadn’t filtered out to Australia, and I don’t know that it had filtered out very far over there. But certainly, it was quite far from our imaginations. I don’t think I’m necessarily representative of everybody.
But I guess, we were as well informed as a good few. One of the officers in this Field Company that I was in, he was a bit a wake-up to the Japs. He had a bit of a talk to us one night, and he reckoned the Japs would be in this before too long, and that was in 1939.
Well, obvious aspects of it were that the Japs weren’t actually likely to be in it at all. But of course, some people were watching them pretty closely. They had been infiltrating this country for years. I can remember, when I was enrolling at the university after the war, the chap that was interviewing me,
he was actually retired and came back to one of those carry-on positions, but he had been there before the war. I remember him telling me how the Japs had come through the uni on inspection parties and those sort of things, the way foreign people do. To this day, I guess. I don’t know whether he wondered then,
but he certainly wondered after, whether they had been making notes of all sorts of things. Which I’m quite sure they were.
Gordon, when that sense of war being imminent was felt and when the Declaration was made, did you perceive a feeling of fear in your immediate community? Was that an element of the feeling of the day?
I wouldn’t say so. It would be, probably, with people who had been through the First War and knew a bit about it. But I can’t say that I struck it in any of my young friends. A whole lot fellows from the insurance office joined up. Some of them
went away in the Sixth Division, which was the first crowd to go.
Gordon, in general, thinking back to those earlier days, did you have a feeling that you were living within a tight community that were, sort of, looking out for each other?
Oh yes, the church community was very good like that. And Methodists have been, and
so has the Uniting church, but they’re very much the same way. That’s what a lot of the Christianity is all about, looking after other people, as much as you can.
So you would say the church did play a part in forming that young character of yours?
Oh well, it would have to. I was tied up with it for the first twenty years of my life, and I still am, actually. A lot of fellows dropped it after the war. It still meant enough to me to hang onto. My first wife was the daughter of the parsonage.
Gordon, were you close to your brother in those days?
Yes, we were pretty close.
We weren’t identical. He finished up doing accountancy, and I finished up doing engineering. He had about as much knowledge of engineering as I had of accountancy. But we used to get on all right. He finished up with quite a good job in Qantas.
He actually finished his main accountancy course before the war. He didn’t join up as soon as I did., which was sensible, because he was able to get those qualifications before the war, and then he did extra courses in secretarial-ship and other things after the war. He finished up with quite a good job in Qantas. He was either expenditure or revenue accountant, I’m not sure which one.
But both of them were pretty senior people. He used to have to go overseas to the IATA conferences, the International Travel Association, he was on one of their committees and went all over the place for those.
Gordon, if you were to summarise your own character, as a young man, how would you describe yourself?
Probably pretty straight-laced.
So a fairly serious chap?
Oh yes, I think so.
You were never one to play the rascal?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we were that bad. We never took to drink or anything like that. Let’s face it. We were watched pretty carefully. Mother was very possessive.
Girlfriends were – you could be friends with the girls in the church, but not too friendly. No dancing was – you didn’t go dancing. I can remember one of the fellows in the church had his 21st birthday and they put on a dance, and everybody was asked of course. We were asked and we were allowed to go, but it was supposed to be very special that we were allowed to go to a dance.
Was that any source of any frustration at that stage?
No, I never particularly wanted to be involved with dancing.
So Gordon, how would you summarise that time in your life, just prior to the war?
Oh well, I was a young fellow in an office job.
I studied the insurance exams and things, just trying to get on, and the war was an interruption.
So you were feeling quite ambitious? You had thought about what you wanted to do with your life?
I was a bit sorry about the engineering side, but insurance can be a very interesting occupation. Not much fun if you just stay on a desk,
working out workers compensation premiums and those sort of things. But if you get into some of the claims side and the legal aspects of it, which were included in some of the exams, you could get quite a reasonable position and have quite an interesting job. I had resigned myself to that. Of course, then, after the war, the whole thing opened up to all ex-servicemen,
if you joined up before you were 21, it was an open book. The only thing I had to do was get permission from the doctor, because of my eye sight. Otherwise there was nothing to stop me going to uni. I did a matriculation course first. Not because I had to, because I got exemption for that. But because I reckoned it was no good going to uni and getting involved in first year math,
when I hadn’t done leaving math at high school. The education department ran a twelve month course, which started in January and finished about November. Which covered the five leaving subjects of Maths 1, Maths 2, Chemistry, Physics and English.
Sorry, we’re just out of tape –
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 03
Gordon, I just want to take you through the training that you had before you went to war? The training that you had to prepare you for war?
Well, the CMF was a militia. We used to go down every week, it was compulsory to go down at least once a fortnight. But we used to go down every week. You got paid for it, by the way. You used to get paid eight shillings a day for that; for the compulsory parade,
so you only got paid for the fortnightly one, not each week. But we used to have exercises there. Being an engineering unit, we had practice in different sorts of knots. How to tie them and where to use them and that sort of thing. We would have lectures on different aspects of field engineering, and ordinary army practice,
like gas attacks, all that sort of thing. They had a small rifle range there at the drill hall. So you could practice with light gauge, I think they were .22 rifles, at thirty yards or something. You were surrounded by houses there, too,
and I don’t think the noise was much appreciated by the locals. So we’d have all those sorts of things. Lectures about repairing roads, the things engineers do. You can’t do that too well in a drill hall, actually, because a lot of the stuff was,
heavy stuff, like bridge building and making floating bridges. We had lectures about those things. Then we had an Easter camp, which was four days at Liverpool. We actually
dug trenches and had night exercises and things like that. They made it as realistic as possible, which wasn’t very realistic, but the nearest you could get. We used to fire star shells at night that would float down on a small parachute and light up the whole area, and you’d practice freezing straight away, because
once the light comes on, if your enemy’s got a rifle, he can see you. What he can see most is if you move. So you learned to freeze as soon as the light goes on. You had to learn it, so there’s a certain amount of abuse and instructions going on in the process.
What do you mean?
“You bloody idiot! You’ll be shot if there’s a war on!” Or something like that.
So was there a sense of camaraderie at that time in your training? Was it a bit of fun for you blokes?
It was a bit of fun. And there was camaraderie because at Liverpool, you could get a bus into the town, these days it’s not far from the camp anyway, but it was further then.
But there was always leave on Saturday night for the pictures and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t only to the pictures, of course. Some fellows used to go to the pub. Normally the leave passes are 23:59, which is a minute to twelve, and if somebody wasn’t back, if his pallaise wasn’t unrolled and his blanket spread out for him, well, one of the things that
the new fellows in the game, because there were quite a few there who had been in it for years, and they used to love it and knew it pretty well – but one of the things the new fellows were taught to do, if the bed next to you hasn’t been unrolled when it was lights out, you unrolled it for him. At least it means he doesn’t have to fumble around in the dark to make the bed, and disturb everybody else. Oh yeah, that was very much the case, helping one another.
You mentioned before that the militia training, there wasn’t necessarily the right equipment. But you’re talking now about it like you learnt quite a lot. On reflection, do you think the militias were training well? Considering the circumstances?
I think they were trained as well as they could be, considering the circumstances. They were trained in the light of the experience of the First War. That was the thing.
That was the thing. It was trench warfare. But this was Second World War and it wasn’t. Even in Europe, I mean, Hitler’s armies were mobile. Here was the Maginot Line in France that didn’t go far enough and the tanks just went around. They might as well not been there. “Blow that, we’ll go around this.” And that was the downfall of France. I’m not a military genius, but I know that sort of thing happened.
The whole thing changed. The strafing from the air – we had a chap in the church, he was in the air force in the First War, he was a photographer. They used to go up in biplanes and those sort of things. Slow old things. So completely different, the Second [World] War.
And even when we got to Singapore, when our ship was pulling into Singapore Harbour, a plane came out to meet us. It was a biplane, with a propeller at the back. You can imagine what we thought of that. “Gee whiz, if that’s all the sort of thing that Malaya have got to protect us, Heaven help us.” Well, of course it wasn’t.
They did have Brewster Buffaloes and those sort of fighters, but I don’t think they were any match for what the Japs had.
You joined the Eighth Division?
Well, you joined the army, but with the main idea of getting into the Eighth Division. Well, the Sixth Division was formed very early in the piece.
I would guess that the idea of the Sixth Division came up within three months of the war being declared, if not less. And then it was filled. A different type of person joined the Sixth Division. A more adventurous type of people. Nothing wrong with this, but I had friends who went into it, and they were a bit
unsettled in their jobs and those sort of things, and they didn’t necessarily make bad soldiers because of that. And they were able to go, anyway. And then the Seventh Division was formed, and that was filled pretty quickly –
What sort of people joined the Seventh Division? Were they adventurous as well?
Well, I think they would have been a bit of a mixture. By the time it came to the Eighth Division, the people
who were waiting to see if the war was going to fizzle out, or had what could be classed as permanent jobs, and their own farms, and people like that. I think, as near as I could judge, there were more of those fellows. Tradesmen, and of course the army wanted tradesmen, always they wanted tradesmen.
I had a particular mate who was a foreman for one of the country shires. He wasn’t the head foreman, but he had his one gang and that sort of thing. Actually, he had been on Gallipoli in the First War. He said, “I don’t want anybody else to fight my battles for me.” So he joined the second one.
He was on the Somme in the First War, but he escaped that. I don’t think he was wounded. It was sheer luck that he could go through that without being wounded.
So are you suggesting the Eighth Division was made up of people who would have, perhaps, preferred not to go to war? That they were waiting for it to fizzle out because they already lives back here in Australia?
I don’t know that I can really speak for –
you can’t speak for twenty thousand men, really, like that. But there were people there who were science teachers in schools. And people in their late 30s, and quite a few who put their ages down. We had in our unit, a father and son, who were both in the same unit, which was
quite a silly idea, really. The father must have been about 38, and I think the limit – he might have been over 40. I think 39 was the limit for ordinary soldiers. But he had a son in his 20s. And they went in. People put their age up,
to get in.
So people were wanting to get in?
Yeah, at that stage. I don’t know about the first part of it. But at that stage, quite a lot of people put their ages up.
Was that because the war was looming closer to Australia?
Well, in some cases it might have been. I joined up after Dunkirk.
I think Dunkirk made people realise this thing wasn’t going to fizzle out in five minutes. And it was getting dangerous –
What did Australians hear about Dunkirk? What did you hear?
We knew about the beach rescues. It was pretty well covered. And the fellows left behind on the beaches, and that sort of thing.
The fellows lost in the water. We knew enough about it, to know that Dunkirk was a pretty drastic sort of show, and that England had lost a lot of men in it, and here was the German army on the other side of the Channel. So if you knew anything about geography, you knew it was a very threatening situation as far
as England were concerned. Of course, France was over-run, and they had this Marshall Petain business. DeGaulle went over to England with the Free French, and Germany’s Stuhl, he stayed on in France, and sort of ran France basically for the Germans. I think
southern France carried on more under French domination, but I think they called it the Vichy French. I forget about that now. I don’t know whether the French and the Germans had some sort of treaty, which was called the Vichy Treaty. But they were the ones that stayed with the Germans.
Of course, a lot didn’t. A lot of French were just as loyal as they could be, but you can’t evacuate a country like France. There’s an awful lot of people there who went underground. Great stories. You’ve heard about the White Mouse [Nancy Wake], I suppose? She’s a lady still alive, and she was in France
at the time, and she went underground. She has a great story. She had no inhibitions about getting hold of a German. If he had uncovered her little cell, no inhibitions about putting a revolver to his head. Because it was their life or his.
You admired her verve?
I didn’t know anything about that until after the war, of course. But I reckon she was a great lady.
How long were you training in the Eighth Division before you actually set sail for Singapore?
Well, I joined about April, ’40, I think, and we went overseas in about
April or May, ’41.
Can you talk a little bit about leaving Australia, about the ship you sailed to Singapore on, and those days leading up to actually leaving?
We were in Bathurst. When we left Ingleburn,
we went up to Bathurst, by road, and continued our training up there. And after we had been there a while, part of the Bathurst crowd went over to Malaya, but we were left. Because
there were two field companies going to Malaya, a Victorian one, and the Victorian one was sent to Malaya then, and we were kept in Australia, but we were moved down to North Head. And our section was building a pillbox at North Head, which I believe is still there. Although I haven’t been able to get to it. Others were working at
South Head and Middle Head I think it was. After a while, after the pillbox at North Head was finished, they wanted some huts built at Commodore Heights, you know West Head? Because that was just a park then, and it only had a dirt road. But there was a couple of guns down on water level,
and a searchlight group there, and they were living in tents. And so we were sent there to put up a couple of pre-fab huts. They asked for volunteers to go to West Head and I volunteered. So a lot of the group I was with volunteered, and we had a wonderful time at West Head.
We were sleeping in tents, but that didn’t worry us. We were on our own. We started work at eight in the morning, we knocked off at four, or half past, then we’d go fishing around the rocks, and wander through the scrub and that sort of thing. You wouldn’t know there was a jolly war on. We worked hard during the day on the huts.
And there was leave every weekend from Friday night until Sunday night, so we used to pile into trucks on Friday night. I’d get dropped at Manly or somewhere like that, and go home from Manly. And on Sunday night we would pick up the truck on the corner of – I think of it every time I go past it, between the Esplanade and the Corso. Just near the
ocean end of the Corso. And we’d go back. We’d be driven back to West Head and get into our tents and then start another week’s work.
Your mates at the time, did they end up going through the war with you?
Oh yes. We were a section, or part of a group of engineers and like an infantry platoon –
engineers were organised a bit differently. We had a group of about twelve there. But we were the same twelve who went into action together. Basically it was pretty much the same group there all the way through
until we were prisoners of war, and then after that everyone was mixed up.
Did you have a best mate amongst that team?
Yeah, my best mate was a chap who had been a council foreman. He was transferred to this Field Company, within a couple of days of when I got there. And both of us being a bit new at the time, we didn’t have any other friends. He was a likeable sort of chap, and I think he
regarded me as a bit like a grandson. He was always very fatherly to me, so we mated up and we stayed mates right until the time he died.
What was his name?
Dave Cummin. I had other friends. Some of the chaps in the militia joined up, and
they were in the same unit, but not in the same part as I was. But in the same company. So I was a bit pally with them. But some of my mates, of course, they didn’t see the battle. This other friend, he got wounded. A shell hit his truck or something like that and he got wounded in that.
I think he died. I don’t think he was a prisoner of war.
Is it a hard transition to make from the militia to the AIF?
Oh, no, it’s not. Actually, the militia gives you a basic training, in the drill and the discipline and the ranks and that sort of thing. The only thing is, the type
of warfare had changed, so you had to change with it. But we didn’t go all that way there, to change with it, because it was almost, in a way, what happened in Europe was too late to have too much influence on the sort of equipment.
We didn’t have Tommy guns. We had .303 rifles, right up to the finish. There were some – The infantry might have had Tommy guns, I don’t know, but in the First War everybody had a .303s. They’re a pretty heavy gun. They’re the sort of rifle you use if you want to knock somebody from three or four hundred yards or less, but certainly long distance stuff.
They’re used in open country. But in a jungle, it doesn’t matter if you have a rifle that only is useful for fifty or a hundred metres, because you don’t get fifty or a hundred metres, as a rule. It makes a big difference. A different sort of war. A completely different sort of war, and you had to catch up with it.
They did their best as it became known. But the story was, there was a great kerfuffle about the major general who was charge of the Eighth Division. A chap by the name of Major General Gordon Bennett, who was a First War soldier. He wouldn’t have been a major general in the First War, but he also stayed on in the militia, and became a major general.
And he was the first CMF, or militia, general to be given a division. The others were previously permanent army people, as far as I remember. There was a great deal of resentment about him, amongst the general staff. And he,
when Singapore was about to fall, he very rightly in my view, got together a few key personnel and got them out of the place, so they could tell the story of what happened. And of course he was damned from the time he came home. And the story was he fronted up at GHQ [General Headquarters] in Sydney, and he was just treated as though he was nobody.
He was made to wait and treated generally – And after the war, there was a move to have him tried for deserting his troops and that sort of thing. He took more risk getting home than if he had stayed there. But he saw that we were the first Australian troops that had struck jungle warfare. Nobody else knew anything about it. And I have met people,
after the war, who were in training camps in Australia, that were visited by Gordon Bennett, after the war, and told me that until he came and told them what went on in jungle warfare, they didn’t have a clue. Despite the fact that they were in jungle training camps. But they just hadn’t struck the real thing.
Anyway, there was a great gathering of former prisoners of war that filled the basement of the Town Hall and voted unanimously that it didn’t matter what any commission found about Gordon Bennett, the Eighth Division would stand behind him. And they did. But I don’t think there was much of an inquiry. There was a lot of jealousy, and
what goes on in the upper ranks of the army. It’s pretty pathetic.
I want to take you back to your last days in Australia, and you’re at the wharf and you are waiting to leave to go to, you thought the Middle East?
We didn’t know. What happened was we came down from Bathurst by train. After we left North Head, we went on final leave,
and then we went to Bathurst by train. So our goodbyes were said in the park at Central Station. My mother and brother came in, and we were all there. And in due course the OC, who had been second in command, but the major who had been in command had been transferred to the armoured division, so the
captain became the major. And in my view, a very good major. He actually finished up – after the war he was commissioner for Main Roads. The officers in the engineers have to be engineers or architects; you can’t just become an officer in the engineers. In the war there were some who went through special training. But by and large, you had to have professional qualifications.
So Shaw said, “Righto, fellows. Say goodbye.” So we kissed each other –
So there were lots of families saying goodbye to each other in Central Park that day?
That must have been quite a scene?
Oh yes, it was. That was goodbye. You didn’t see them again. And they didn’t come onto the platform.
We just went onto the platform, to a waiting train and in due course it pulled up and we went out to Bathurst. And we had stores to pack, and all sorts of things up there. All very secretive sort of business, that had to be packed at night, because – It was open country there, anybody could come in and have a bit of a look at what was going on.
What were you packing?
Oh, all sorts of engineering stores.
They were all put into packing cases and labelled and that sort of thing. And because I had had clerical experience, I was put out there to check them all off at night. And Bathurst in the middle of the year is a mighty cold place. And I had to do it with a torch, between eleven and one.
Anyway, when that was all done, we went down by train. We went to Darling Harbour, which was then a main goods yard, and got onto a ferry in Darling Harbour. We went around to Woolloomolloo Bay, and got off on the wharf and our troop ship was moored on the same wharf.
We went on board then. And the only clue we had – Of course, we all reckoned we were going to Malaya, because of the way things were going. But the only thing was, there was one last packing case, it was about this size, on the dock. And it had AIF Malaya on it. And that was the only real clue that we had. Apart from that, we had no clue.
Did you feel worried? Given that you were given so little information about where you were going, about what kind of leadership you were going to encounter?
Oh, no. I don’t think so. We had every confidence in Shaw. He had been an officer in the militia. Not in the First War, he wasn’t old enough for that. But he had had a lot of army service. And, of course, he was an engineer
in his own right, anyway. And a lot of the stuff that we learned, the special stuff, it was nothing new to him. Or the officers either. They had been engineers in the main roads board or the water board or somewhere like that. And they were used to not doing it themselves, but having explosives let off under their control, and all that sort of thing.
They had their militia training as well. And they had been to a lot of schools, of course. Special army schools. I never had any worry, myself, about them knowing what to do in the circumstances. Only in so far as they hadn’t had actual warfare experience. We all had to pick that up.
So what was the feeling that you and your mates had as you were setting off?
What was the mood at the time?
Well, it’s pretty mixed. You’re saying goodbye, and on the other hand, you are going to go overseas and there’s a bit of euphoria about that. But you also had to make a will before you went, and that’s a pretty sobering sort of – that was mandatory, you had to make a will. So that’s a bit of a sobering thing for a young fellow of just 21.
I was just 21 before we left.
Were you leaving behind a girlfriend, as well as your family?
Yes. I was going with Joy. She was our minister’s daughter, and I was going with her. Very carefully watched by mother, who didn’t want to see me make any mistakes about that sort of thing, and get engaged before I went away –
Why would that have been a mistake, in her mind?
That was mother. Mother probably didn’t want to think of one of her boys getting married – without proper thought and that sort of thing. And then coming back from the war and wishing you hadn’t done it, or that sort of thing. But we were never going to do that anyway.
We’d been going out together. I didn’t give her any farewell presents, except for a handkerchief, for Christmas –
Was that because you weren’t a sentimental bloke, or was that because you weren’t that close with her at that stage?
Oh, I was a bit closer to her than mother thought I was. But not that close.
We sort of agreed to wait for each other, but there was nothing binding about it. I mean this happened with lots of people, lots of married people, and their wives left them, too. Don’t forget, we went into smoke, with the fall of Singapore. We were non-existent people.
What do you mean?
Well, nobody knew what had happened to us.
We were blank on the face of Australia. We had gone. They didn’t know who had survived the fighting, who were prisoners, who had gone down on ships. It was months and months and months before any casualties got through.
So on the ship you had a sense of heartbreak of leaving behind your girlfriend and your family –
Well, heartbreak and excitement. I was a young fellow going overseas for the first time at 21, in those days.
They wouldn’t think twice about it now. They’d go overseas at 18. I’ve just come back from five weeks overseas, and quite frankly, the age of some of the people going, and the way they dress for an overseas trip, is quite appalling to me, but it goes on.
So what was the journey on the ship like? You were on a Dutch ship?
Yeah, we were. We were on a Dutch boat. It was called the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, and it was one of the prize ships of the Dutch passenger fleet. It had been gutted to make room for hammocks and things on the decks. NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] and officers, of course, had cabins.
But we went over, we were in hammocks. We sailed out of Sydney Heads. We had a pilot on board, and a couple of naval seamen, who fixed up the paravanes. Paravanes are big torpedo shaped things that hang over the side of a boat on wires, and the idea is that the wires
will collect a mine, because mines are held up by chains, collect the mine and cut the chain and it will thereby be thrown clear of the ship. They were set by the navy, before we went out. The danger part is the first few kilometres.
It’s a pretty known path, the way a boat leaves Sydney Harbour and where it goes, until it decides where it is going to go. That was a very big danger period. I don’t know whether it was there then, but it was there later on. There was a net across Sydney Harbour, to stop submarines getting in. But it had to be drawn back for the larger ships.
And, of course, you’ve heard about the two Jap submarines that got in. It’s believed they followed a larger ship in. They were very small submarines. I think they’ve got one in the marine museum at Darling Harbour. So it was a very dangerous time, leaving. One of the things in my story about North Head was that while we were working there, we got a whisper
that something was on one morning. We used to start work at six o’ clock. We worked two shifts on this pillbox. We went up to the point at North Head and we saw the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary passing at the heads. One coming out and the other going in. Because they wouldn’t have the both of them in the Harbour at the same time. It was a magnificent sight. It happened three times during the war.
But that happened on the 1st of April, 1940, I think it was. So that’s how careful they had to be. Then we picked up another boat in Melbourne. We didn’t go into Port Phillip, just outside. Then we sailed virtually a full day’s journey south, I think, on the western side of Tasmania, to get out of the
normal shipping route, because submarines could have been haunting there, then we sailed west. It was horribly rough and I was horribly seasick. But you just had to put up with that. Then we called in at Perth on the way, where we had half a day’s shore leave, and I was able to ring home.
Then we went back on board and we headed north. The seas were quite calm after that, and we headed north to Singapore.
As you sailed into Singapore Harbour, what were your very first impressions?
Well, it’s not a real harbour, like Sydney Harbour. It’s changed now, because they
filled in mile after square mile of Singapore Harbour waterfront. It’s really what they call an open roadstead. It’s a harbour, but it’s not a harbour like Sydney Harbour. It doesn’t have two embracing arms that come like that, and leave a hole in the middle. It’s got a lot of islands close to it, that were also taken by the Japs.
It’s one of the busiest harbours in the world, Singapore Harbour. And a whole lot of ships anchored off shore. We weren’t, we pulled into the dock. But, any time you go to Singapore Harbour, you can see shipping anchors off shore, or the last time I was there it was that way. But they have filled in ever so much of it.
Did you have feelings of jubilation or fear?
Oh, sort of excitement. Every now and then you wonder, ‘What the hell is in store for us?’ They were the natural thoughts that occurred to you. And you do wonder when you see a biplane with a propeller at the back come out, and you know there’s an aerial war likely to be on. You wonder how you are going to fare –
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 04
Now Gordon, what was the overall mood of the war as you were heading into Singapore?
Let’s be more specific. Why was there a need to get you blokes over to Singapore?
Well, I think the British government had suspicions about Japan.
Was there a feeling up until then that Singapore was a safe
bastion for us because of the British presence there?
Well, it was one of the outposts of the Empire and it had a big naval base there. They didn’t have a tremendous number of troops. We had something like twenty thousand. They said there was about a hundred thousand altogether. So about eighty thousand, which is not a big
garrison these days, for a place like that, but was about all I think they could have ordinarily have spared, with the other war going on.
So were you happy with the outcome? That you did end up heading into Singapore? Did that feel all right to you?
Oh yes, as far as I was concerned, it didn’t really matter.
Singapore, in some ways, without knowing anything about it, was a more attractive place to go. At least it wasn’t desert. Desert wasn’t greeted with much enthusiasm. We knew there was fighting in the desert, we didn’t know whether there would be fighting here or not anyway. So I think most of us were pretty much open-minded about it.
You get the attitude after a while, I’ve done my best, I’ve enlisted. It’s up to somebody else to make those decisions. Having volunteered to be in the army, never volunteer for anything else. Which you don’t apply to strictly, but you do to some extent, because you get caught sometimes.
So arriving in Singapore, that was obviously the first time that you left the country, what sort of an impact did arriving in Singapore have on your mind?
Well, it was all strange and new and interesting. Different customs and different people. We didn’t have a mixed population in Australia then, like we have now.
Over there you’ve got Chinese, you’ve got Malays and Indians and quite a few white people. I’m talking about then anyway, because it was a British colony. So it was quite different. We were only in the camp for about a day when traders started to come round, bringing their wares and all that exciting stuff, and it’s relatively cheap.
It wasn’t cheap for anybody, it didn’t matter how cheap it was, if all you had to spend was your army pay. Because the army pay for a private, or a sapper, was five bob [shillings] a day, half a dollar a day. The corporal got nine shillings a day.
The sergeant didn’t get that much more, I think about twelve or thirteen shillings a day. Officers, of course, got more, and got mess allowances and that sort of thing. I don’t think officers made much money out of the army pay either. They had to have a batman – They probably had to
give him a bit. Although he was one of the soldiers, of course. I don’t know what the arrangements with batman were. It was pretty much take it as it comes, I think. Basically when you join the army, that’s what it is. “You’re there to serve, and we’ll tell you where to serve.” Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck with it anyway.
Gordon, you alluded before to a sense of excitement in getting onto the boat and
heading into the war, and being involved in the war. So was that sense of excitement enhanced by finding yourself in this exotic new situation, with a very diverse different culture?
Well, that was a very interesting side to it. The war side of it, we didn’t know much about how that was going to be. We didn’t know anything about the preparations the Japs had and that sort of thing.
So once you did arrive in Singapore, were you given an idea, at that early stage, of what your function would be in that area? Was that spelled out to you blokes?
Well, no, because really, I don’t think it could be. Nobody envisaged the war taking the turn that it did.
I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t sunk the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Whether that might have stopped the Japs. It would have kept them away from the eastern side of the Malayan peninsula. If that had happened, it could have been a different story. But it would have had to have happened on a long term basis. Which I don’t think it probably could have done. Because the way the war
dragged on over the other side. But if it had, there would have been a position held probably across the peninsula up further north, and further down south would have been guarded by these ships. But I guess, without a bit more air support, the Japs could have still gone around Singapore and come around the other side and still made things very difficult.
It depended on what was available. And I don’t think at that stage of the war there was going to be much more available anyway. England was threatened, and you had Italy and Greece and all the rest of it, and all the African and Palestine side of things. It was a tremendous drain on the Allied Forces up there. So it’s a bit hard to say.
But when you look back on it – because everybody didn’t see it like I saw it. Other people had their own opinion. After we were taken prisoner, I heard some fellows, they were so incensed at being captives, that they would turn around and they abused everything from the King and Queen,
down to almost anybody, with a string of language which you wouldn’t believe. But I think most people who thought about it would realise that Churchill didn’t have any option. He didn’t have anybody to send. He couldn’t leave the Malayan peninsula, without doing something about it.
Singapore was a British protectorate – I don’t know what they called it, but it had a British governor and those sort of people. The Malayan states had a lot of British institutions there, schools and all sorts of things. The Sultans, I think, had a good bit to say in their own states. But I think a lot of the
administration was still British. So they had to do something about it. Either way, anyway, there were an awful lot of European and principally British people there. So we were doing something to help them. I really don’t know that you could have done much else, if you had been in
the position of somebody like Churchill. And if you had been, anyway, once the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk, you would have to say, “Well, that’s the end of them. We can’t send anything more.” They couldn’t have got them out there anyway, unless they’d flown them out, and of course they didn’t have the jumbos, then, that they have now. So they would have to come out by boat and that would have taken an age. It would have been all over anyway, by then.
That’s why some of the Seventh Division were landed in Java on the way.
Now Gordon, can you take us through what your experience was from the time that you landed in Singapore, leading to the time the Japanese entered the war?
Well, it was a rather pleasant existence.
Our section – a field company is divided into three sections. It’s not a big show, a field company. It’s only about 263 men, divided into three sections of about sixty, and a headquarter section and a few other bits and pieces. But I think it’s something like 260 – Less than 300 anyway.
So it was a fairly small show. But we had a nice time there. Our section was quartered in Johor Bahru. We were only a matter of ten minutes walk or so from the strait. And the job in the group that I was on, was actually on the shore.
And we were building a concrete ramp, down into the water. So that we went down to where the water was at low tide. And then a similar one, a different type but for the same purpose, the other side, on the island side. The water was shallower there, so on that side it was an infill. There was
a row of piles driven, side by side, they were about six inch diameter piles, placed so that they were actually touching each other, in two long rows. And then dirt was filled in in-between. There were native contractors doing all this. So that that virtually became, if you like, a solid jetty, out into
the point where the water was deep enough to get bigger ships in. And that was as near as it could be opposite to where the concrete ramp that we were building was. So the idea was that you would get landing craft, or whatever sort of craft, they would load on one side, and unload on the other, whichever way it went.
You were involved in the construction of those ramps?
That was our job, yes.
For approximately how long, and then where did you move on to from that?
From the time we got there, we started on the ramps straightaway, and left them when we pulled out of Johor to go north, to then what was known as ‘battle stations’. That was
July, sometime, I think. So we were doing that from say July, August, September, October, November. It was a big job. You could only pour a certain amount of concrete at a time. I think we were working two shifts there. But it was all hand mixed stuff.
We loaded the concrete by hand. They had big mixers of course, but we loaded by hand and packed it by hand, which was the usual practice, those days. There was no big batch mixers bringing in four or five tons of concrete in one hit. We just made a drum full and laid it, and while somebody else was laying it, we made another one.
So what was the next thing you headed off to do from those ramps?
Oh well, when the war got going, of course, then the main job was mining bridges, that the Japs might come across later on. We didn’t do this one, but the whole unit was involved
in doing that. The notable one was the bridge at a place called Gemas, which was the first bridge inside the state of Johor, because the AIF didn’t go outside the state of Johor. Well, in theory they didn’t anyway. And the fellows who were working on that, they waited until it was full of Japanese troops and whatever and they blew it up.
Gordon, were you still working on those ramps when the Japanese did officially enter the war?
How did the news filter through to you that the Japanese had entered and were becoming a threat to your vicinity?
Oh, once Pearl Harbour took place then, of course, the Japs intentions were uncovered.
Japanese warships I think had been spotted off the coast of Thailand, or the northern part of Malaysia, for a few days. But there was nothing they could do. They were outside the three mile limit. So nobody could do much about them, except make a pretty good guess as to what they were there for. As far as I know. They must have thought so,
because when they landed, one of my friends – The Argyle and Southern Highlanders, which is a British unit, basically of Scotsmen, of course, they were up there. I had a friend, I didn’t know whether he was still alive or not because I wanted to see him when I was over there, and I couldn’t contact him. Up until a few months ago, he was still alive and we kept in correspondence.
But he was amongst the first troops there. Because my second son did engineering and he joined Volunteers Abroad, after he graduated. And he was sent over to Malaysia – It’s Malaysia now, it was Malaya then. And he went up to the state of Alor Setar, which is the northern most state of the Malay states,
and he had a bit of trouble with the Communists coming in, I’m talking about in the ‘70s. I wrote and told my friend about that, and he said, “Oh, that’s where we first met the Japs.” So that was just across the border, from Thailand.
Gordon, having received that news, what impact did that news have on you personally? That the Japanese had officially entered the war?
Well, you realised it was going to be on. And, of course, what happened, we were told to pack up on the waterfront, put everything away, and close down the job and get ready to move.
We just went back to camp and got all our gear and moved off within a couple of days. We didn’t go to Segamat straight away. We moved off to a place, Keluang. It’s not quite as near the border as Segamat was. And we were there before Christmas,
because I know we were there on Christmas Day. Then a bit later on, probably in the New Year, I think, we moved up to this Segamat place, and we were mining bridges there. We mined a couple of bridges there.
As you were heading up to start that sort of work, what emotions were you dealing with?
You were sort of a bit apprehensive. We didn’t really know what we were doing, at that stage. I don’t think we’d even had any Japanese around. When we went up to Segamat, there was an AIF hospital there, and I was sent round there, with some of our fellows,
because I was a lance corporal at that stage. And I was sent round with a few fellows, to dig what they called a ‘herringbone’ drainage system. You have a central drain, then you have branches coming off that middle channel. So if you want to get rid of water, and you haven’t got anywhere better to put it, you can block off, with a bit of dirt, block off a channel and let the water go down this one and that.
We were down there, putting this in, and Japanese planes flew overhead, firing machine guns. Now to be fair, I don’t think they were firing at the hospital. It was well and truly marked with red crosses, and that sort of thing. I don’t know whether they were or not, but we took as it they were anyway, because we just flung ourselves flat on our faces.
They were strafing something else nearby, anyway. So that was really our first experience of having shots fired at us.
How did that feel?
Pretty ghastly, actually. I’ll tell you what, you can get yourself pretty flat on the ground very fast under those circumstances.
Gordon, what sort of expectation did you have about the Japanese as soldiers,
as a force?
We didn’t know. There was a bit of propaganda stuff put around, about them being them short-sighted. And we were also told that there was a group of Allies
in the jungle on our side, who were very good at dealing with the Japs. But I think this was just one of the things that army intelligence, or lack of army intelligence, puts around because people are naturally wondering, “What have we got? What are we are doing?” We’ve got our infantry and that.
The ordinary soldier, he doesn’t know what the rest of the army is doing. Much outside your own unit, you don’t know much. You don’t get the chance. Once active service starts, you were there. It’s your job to be where the officer tells you to be. So you don’t run into other people very much. Not once it starts.
Gordon did you start to feel
that Australia was suddenly very directly under threat?
Oh yes. We started to get concerned about Australia, then.
There was a shift in the way you felt in general?
Oh, I think so. We didn’t know anything about it. We knew about Pearl Harbour. And we knew we had lost the Prince of Wales and the Repulse,
but we didn’t know much about anything else. They had two great big guns on Singapore Island. I don’t know what calibre they were. The might have been eight or ten inch, but they were pointing out to sea. They weren’t on a hundred and eighty degree swivel, so they were stuck pointing out to sea. Well,
as soon as the Japs came in, or maybe a bit before, the British garrison there got busy turning them around. But it took most of the war before they got turned around. I think it was by the time we got onto Singapore Island. The shells used to go over, and they sounded like an express train. They’d land far up – I mean, Singapore Island is twenty by ten miles, or something like that.
So they fired from wherever they were on Singapore Island, over onto the mainland, and no doubt did a bit of damage amongst the Japs. But they were too late, and two guns anyway, they couldn’t do anything. The sea defences were gone. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse were gone. The Japs were all around. They were worth having I guess, but I don’t know –
I’m just talking as a private soldier. A private soldier knows nothing in these sort of situations. Except rumours and that sort of thing. And a little bit of information that the higher ups think that they ought to know. So you’re really in a state of blissful ignorance. It probably is blissful ignorance, too. But that’s what actually happened there, and we were glad to hear those guns go.
What happened for you directly between moving on from building the ramps and going up the country to be involved
in the dealing with the bridges –
I was just one of the fellows in the team. We would do a couple of those, and then we would move back and do some more. Then of course, ultimately what happened was, that we were the last people there. And the infantry rear guard had come through, and the bridge or culvert or whatever it was,
would be blown and we would retire back behind the infantry, and we would repeat the process, with one thing or another. Ultimately, that leap-frogging backwards situation until we got onto Singapore Island. When we got onto Singapore Island, what happened then was we were turned into infantry. We just formed part of a perimeter.
Did you feel like once you got to Singapore, did it have a sense of being like a last stand?
We couldn’t see how it could be anything else. We weren’t quite so awake to the fight or flight situation, but we soon realised that there was a serious water supply situation. We also knew that
the civilians in Singapore were being very heavily bombed, because we could see great masses of planes go over. At that stage, the Allied planes were nowhere near – what planes were there, were flown off into Java.
Gordon, what was the mood just between you blokes once you did get to Singapore?
Nobody was very happy about the situation.
In those situations, you don’t really get much time to have a mood. You’re pretty alive all the time. In case we were attacked, we were in a perimeter, in slip trenches. At one stage, we were in places where these big gardens were around these houses. And I’d had
a lovely bath in one of those houses. While I was immersed in water, with no clothes on, there was a bombing raid, and the ceiling cracked and the house trembled and I thought I wasn’t going to get out of it. But I did. That was the last bath I had like that, for three and a half years. But then we went into this perimeter and we just
stayed there. I had to take half a dozen fellows on a bit of a reconnaissance around – It was up to me where I went. But I had to see if there were any Japs around. I did a big circle, with eight or nine fellows, and we weren’t fired upon, and we had a good look around. But we
couldn’t see anybody and came back. I’m not sure if it was after we came back or before, but we came under shell fire. The first shell hit the gable of a house, not far away, but the next one missed the house – it wasn’t aimed at the house anyway, but it might have been a ranging shot. The next one landed in the ground and exploded
in the ordinary way that shells did, and we lost quite a few fellows there.
Blokes close to you?
I knew them, but they weren’t from our group. They were from another part of the company. But we heard them scream. One of them lost a leg. Some of those fellows may have got away, I’m not sure.
Because at that stage, there would have been time to get them away, except that a lot of boats that got away were bombed anyway. Even a hospital ship was bombed. I think a major lost a sister, who was on one of the hospital ships. She was a nurse, I think. But that was the only thing; what happened there.
We got shelled a couple of times. At this stage, it was getting near the end, only we didn’t know. We were just waiting, you know. We dug slip trenches and we were standing to in case anything happened. We were told there were negotiations for a cease fire to take place,
and not to do anything, That was in the evening, and the next day it was a reality. Within twenty four hours or so we were told to take our rifles and bayonets and things over to a tennis court and we just laid them all out in neat rows and that was it, then.
Very soon after, we started on the long, long march to Selarang Barracks.
Gordon, before we take that march. What was your personal response to that news? That the surrender was taking place?
Well, the first response was one of relief.
At least in theory, you didn’t have anything more to worry about. We had been on the move for six weeks. We never knew where we were going to sleep the next night. Or when we were going to get strafed from the air, which we were. We had a few instances where we were going along in the truck, and somebody spotted a plane, and the truck would pull up and you would dive onto the side of the road, and the truck was machine-gunned.
I don’t think it was hit. One memorable occasion my tin hat bounced off, and we had to pull up while I got it. Because you wouldn’t be without the jolly thing. But it didn’t please the other fellows in the truck. We weren’t being chased by that particular stage, but we could have been.
Gordon, did you find that that intensity, at that stage, and that level of stress,
did that affect some blokes differently to other blokes?
Yeah, I think so. Mind you, the first time under fire is quite an experience. People after they’ve been in action a few times, they either give up or they get hardened to it. They’ve have to. But in our case,
of course, there wasn’t any time to weed people out. Which was a bit unfortunate for a lot, but anyway that was the way it is. It was a frightening experience to think that somebody is going to drop a bomb on you, or have a shoot at you. You know, not very nice. Don’t let anybody tell you, he wasn’t frightened.
Of course you’re frightened. It’s a matter of whether you can stick there or not. Some stuck and some didn’t. I know of cases where part of a group disintegrated. Some stayed, and others took off.
Gordon, I believe just prior to the surrender, there was an incident
you were involved in where you were given a Joseph Conrad book? Can you tell us that story?
Oh, I got the Joseph Conrad book from the place where I had the shower. And it was a house which had been occupied – I found something in it that said this, by the Director of Education for Malaya. I think he was a minister.
I think his name was the Reverend Cheeseman, if I remember rightly, but I couldn’t swear to it. But he had quite a bit of a library there, and I grabbed two or three. This particular book was one of the King’s Treasury of Literature Series. In fact, we studied that when I did the Intermediate.
One of the books for study, wasn’t that book, but it was a book of that series. But this had four short stories by Conrad. Conrad’s a good writer and they were good stories. It was only small and you could carry it without too much trouble. I think I got another one, too.
I forget what the other one was. So I got hold of that. And, of course, other people got books. We used to swap them around. Until my eyesight went, of course, then I couldn’t read it anyway.
Just take us through that journey from when the surrender was made official,
and the process that took place from there?
Well, we were told we had to lay down our arms. We scrounged what tucker we could get hold of, but that wasn’t very much. And then, in due course, we started on this jolly long march – Of course, one of the troubles with it was, all the Allied soldiers on Singapore Island were basically going to the one place.
So you had one of the worst things for a route march. You had the business of marching for a kilometre and then having to stop, because we were all bunching up. And this went on and on. You were carrying all your gear. What you didn’t have on that march, you didn’t have. Finish. So you loaded yourself up, and I was always one for loading myself up,
I’m afraid. I had collected a few tools. I had a pair of pliers, I had a penknife which my brother had given me and which I still have. That’s got a story of its own. And, oh, a couple of other things that I got hold of, which were enormously useful in days to come.
So, I got hold of those. We started on the march. My feet were always a nuisance; they never took kindly to army boots. This long march played hell with them, and I was limping away. I remember Dave wanting to carry my pack for me, which I wouldn’t let him do. It was all he could do to carry his own.
But that was Dave. That was what you did for your mate, if you could. But we marched through the streets. We had to go through Singapore itself. We marched through the streets. And there were Chinese out, wanting to give us water, but of course there were guards all around. The Japs, they hated the Chinese. I didn’t see it. It mightn’t have happened by then,
but not many days later, the Japs decapitated a few Chinese and put their heads on spikes in the street and that sort of dreadful business. The Japs didn’t like the Chinese, and the Malays they turned. I’m only talking generally, I don’t say they all did, but the Malays turned against us a bit.
So that was very sad. People almost started to go through the fence, almost from the time there was one. When we got to the barracks, by the time we got there it was well after dark, and we couldn’t see to go into this hut –
Sorry, we’re out of tape.
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0856 Tape 05
Gordon, we’ve got to where the Allied forces had surrendered, and you were marching. And you had mentioned that some of the forces had actually seen the heads of Chinese on poles.
Obviously you must have realised that you were walking into a very, very dire situation. Can you walk us through what you were thinking and feeling as you were taking those steps? What you were walking towards?
Well, it was a case of wondering what was ahead. Because at that stage we hadn’t learned just how brutal the Japs could be.
During the walk from the tennis court to the barracks, the main thing was how the blazes am I going to get there? Carrying all our gear, and our feet were sore, and don’t forget it was after six weeks or eight weeks of action. Battle action is very wearing. You’re constantly in a state of fright
and recovery and anxiety and keeping your eyes peeled and looking where to dive if a plane comes over. Planes come over like that. They’re not there. Then the bombs are dropping. It’s worse now, of course. But it was bad enough then. So that mentally, you are pretty worn out. It’s not like I guess it was in the First War, which was much worse in another way, but troops were taken away from the front line and put into billets.
We had nowhere to go, except for Singapore Island. We were still basically surrounded by the enemy until the last day. So it is a time of pretty severe mental strain, wondering what is going to happen. On the march itself, the main thing was about getting there. Because it was a long way and
we were battle weary and we were carrying all our gear.
How long was the march?
Oh, it all happened in one day. But I mean, seventeen miles is not a tremendous distance for a soldier to march, but normally you would march about three kilometres, three and a half
kilometres an hour, maybe four, if you were just marching. The trouble was, of course, the hold ups. You were stopping and starting and stopping and starting and that has an effect on your circulation, too, of course. And also on your feet and generally it’s a pretty wearing set-up. Apart from the fact that you’re demoralised in that situation, and you don’t know what you’re going to.
We didn’t know. Our officers might have known, we didn’t know where we were actually heading for.
Can you talk about that feeling of demoralisation? Did it wear you down more? (BREAK)
– the thought. You are talking about something that happened sixty years ago. The thought utmost in our minds was,
“What are our survival chances?” Prisoners of war aren’t looked on very kindly by the people who make them prisoners. They’re a nuisance. If they want to be reasonable about it, they’ve got to be fed. There was a convention, but the Japs didn’t subscribe to the convention, about how prisoners of war should be treated. You’re really going into a very
unknown situation as a prisoner of war, with a crowd like Japan. I think even the Germans had some adherence to the convention, but the Japs made no bones about it. “It’s nothing do with us.” Of course, we learnt a lot more about that later on. There was a certain amount of worry from that respect about how we would be treated. It is a fact,
I believe, that the general who took Singapore, and who was at a conference regarding what happened to us, put his foot down and said, “I will not have these men massacred.” Now, I can’t verify that, but I have been told, that was
one thing that happened.
That was one of his conditions of surrender?
No. The conditions of surrender are always unequivocal. Unconditional surrender, it was in this case. But when, obviously, you capture eighty or a hundred thousand men, you’ve got to do something with them. They’re there. They’ve got to be fed, or starved or got rid of.
The story seemed to be that some of the other Japanese people who were involved in the conference said, “There’s only thing to do with these people, and that’s get rid of them.” But this chappy wasn’t going to be in it. He said that wasn’t on. Now I can’t verify that, but I have heard that was the case. That was
a long while after the war that I heard that.
Instead, you might say it was a slow death for some people rather than a quick death –
It was a jolly slow death for quite a lot of people, but that’s a little bit different from a massacre. And that was very largely in the hands of other people. We were in a different command. Later on, they had two commands looking after the building of the railway. One looked after the Burma
end, and one looked after the Thai end. And they remained separate all the time. They retained, from what I believe from other fellows, their own identity after the war. Their own identity with the Japanese of course, when they got back to Singapore, as quite a few did. By and large, they went back to their old units.
But, I don’t know whether this is the right place to tell it. But there is a book, written by one of the battalion people, about people who stayed in Changi. When I say Changi, I mean Selarang. Changi is a district by the way.
The Changi jail is in the Changi district, and the Changi Barracks are in the Changi district, so when people talk about being a prisoner in Changi, for the first two and a half to three years, Changi meant the Selarang Barracks. In the last year of so, the Japanese wanted the Selarang Barracks for their own troops I believe, and they emptied the Changi Jail. And
so the troops who were down there, by and large went into the jail. They slept in cells and that sort of thing. And that’s where they’re talking about putting up a memorial chapel. I think it might be there. I think they want to demolish the jail, but I think there’s efforts – something came up at RSL [Returned and Services League] yesterday, that a plea be made to the Singapore government,
to leave the chapel, or to rebuild it somewhere. But that’s a distinction where a lot of people get confused. They say, “You were in Changi.” Well, I was never in Changi, only in the Changi district, in the Selarang Barracks. They were big barracks there. There were a lot of British soldiers stationed there, before the war started.
So after you’ve marched, what happened next?
We got to the barracks after dark. We left where we were camped, it might have been ten o’ clock, but it was after dark when we got to the barracks. There was no lights, and we just threw ourselves down and slept where we could. And then in the morning, we were allocated
rooms for different sections, in the actual building. Which was in quite good nick. I think it had a bit of shell damage at one end, but it was quite easy to accommodate a couple of hundred people there.
Who was giving you the orders?
Oh, they all come from our own command. The Japs – they got orders from
the AIF command, and then they were passed down to company commanding officers. As far as I know. They didn’t deal directly with the Japanese at that stage. Later, in smaller camps, they did. When we went up to Mergui, we had a lieutenant colonel in charge of us, and the Japs dealt with him. Basically.
They could still interfere with us. But by and large, orders came through him. Apart from a harangue by the Japanese commander, on parade in the morning, or something like that. But by and large, the instructions were given to the colonel and he was supposed to make sure that we adhered to them. So he was a mouthpiece for the Jap commander. He
had no option, of course.
So we’re back in the barracks –
We settled into the barracks pretty quickly, and I found a bit of stuff to make a bed, which meant I didn’t have to sleep on the floor. It was only a stretcher type of thing. And being for British troops, they had a separate kitchen, or a row of kitchens.
The barracks – I don’t know whether it was six or eight semi-detached units. I’m not sure whether upstairs were separate from downstairs or not. They did have a common staircase. Because the British troops, they were there for a long time.
These were obviously married quarters. So we made ourselves fairly comfortable there. The cookhouses were outside. They would have had native cooks, probably supplied by the army. So that became our cookhouse. We started off with hot water for sterilising our mess gear. You
never went to mess without sterilising your mess gear in boiling water, and sterilising it after. And if you had any facilities for it, you put it away. In a cloth bag or something.
Are you talking about a bowl?
I’m talking about all your eating gear. Because flies are deadly over there. Hygiene, very, very early became a major item.
In fact, the AIF command saw to it that – There were a number of sign writers amongst the troops; particularly the camouflage people were able to do signs and things. There were signs all over the camp: “Dysentery is causing death. Keep your mess gear covered.” And we dug a big pit, at the end of this hut,
with a timber top and a lid that could be removed. What scraps you had, and they were precious few, they went down there. The unfortunate thing was there had to be a latrine trench dug pretty close to the same area, because it had to be where the fellows could go at night. So it was
a bit uncomfortably close to the building, but there was no help for that. So we just settled in. We used what they called mess boxes. It was a timber box, about that long, that wide and about that deep, with a pinched lid, and they used some of those.
They cut the appropriate size hole in the top, and the back part acted as a lid, so that was a good protection against the flies. But then, flies over there, when there’s any food around, soon breed very fast. So all those things hit us in the first few days. They had to.
Otherwise, people would go down very, very fast. Anyway, we soon settled in there and within a week or so, they started a few concerts, impromptu concerts. You’ve got to realise
that in an army that size, no matter what you wanted done, you would be able to find somebody who could do it. And so they had people who could put on little plays, or play readings. They didn’t actually learn their parts, or some might have. They were play readings. The AIF were pretty good at improvisation, so some sort of dressing up was done.
We had a couple of debates amongst our own fellows. And if it was a concert, it was usually the other engineering unit and ourselves would get together. You’re talking about five hundred men in that case. And that went on quite happily, for a few weeks. And then they started classes
of different sorts. There was a maths class and a book-keeping class and they were just getting going, ultimately. Long after I left, they got going what was known as the University of Changi. And one of the colonels, or a brigadier, he was a big man in government health back here.
He organised this. And they called him Chancellor of Changi. There’s a bit about him in some of the magazines of those days, after the war. And they finished up; they had all sorts of things going. But of course, we missed out on that because about the middle of April, this story
got around about an overseas party – we had all sorts of things going on at night. People had nowhere to go at night. They couldn’t read. And dusk comes down pretty quickly there, but fellows would sit around and yarn, and anybody who came past, they would be asking, “Got any good oil, mate?” And some people risked their
lives going through the fence, even at that stage. And the natives would tell them something, and that used to be passed on. And secret radios came about very quickly. They had to be put together, because don’t forget, there were no transistors in those days. They had to be battery run. There was a problem getting batteries and there was a problem getting parts.
But of course there were some pretty wizard electronics people in the signals units. It’s amazing how many secret radios there would have been. But what came over those was strictly for the officers, and rightly so. Because if it got out, it was just death for anybody caught with a secret radio. I have in my diary
that I saw one, I don’t remember seeing it. Because the first few weeks in Selarang, we hardly saw a Jap. We were inside the wire. And by and large, they didn’t wander around inside the wire. Not much anyway. But very soon there were working parties required for the docks, for loading their ships and clearing away stuff, and that sort of thing.
So that took quite a few fellows away. And of course there was an enormous number of sick and wounded in the big barracks – they had a huge barracks square, surrounded by a tremendous building. Which would have held a lot of people in the ordinary case. It might have held a whole battalion. Well, that’s a thousand men. They held a lot more with POWs of course, because they would have just been jammed together.
But that was the hospital where all the battle casualties went and that sort of thing. So things sort of settled down to a bit of a routine like that. And we could wander from part of the camp to the other, if you had a mate somewhere. You could find out where such and such a unit was, and go around and dig him out.
So, at that stage, did you feel like you hadn’t actually ended up in
that bad a place?
Well, from a food point of view it was pretty dreadful. Because for the first fortnight we got no rice. We had to live on our own rations, doled out by the Japs. So you would get for the evening meal at night, you might get an army biscuit,
the proverbial army biscuit which is as hard as a disk of steel. So you might get an army biscuit, and perhaps a tin of bully beef between six. Normally a soldier would eat a tin of bully beef at one meal. And that went on for the first fortnight. Then we started to get a limited amount of rice. But nothing else.
Or very little else.
So you lived on rice and bully beef through that time?
Well, rice and captured rations. It wasn’t always bully beef. It might have been – army rations had bully beef and Irish stew, and those sort of things. They would have been typical army rations. That was for the first fortnight, then we started to get rice. I don’t know why they delayed so long with the rice, because there was plenty of rice around.
Just getting a couple more details about the camp. You spoke about entertainment. Can you tell us what plays were put on and what kind of debates you had?
I couldn’t tell you without looking it up. There was a big concert, quite a big open air concert,
after a couple of weeks. There was one item I remember. There was a poem; I don’t know whether Rudyard Kipling wrote it, but it’s called The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God. It starts off, “There’s a green eyed, yellow idol somewhere north of Kathmandu.”
But it was misinterpreted. “There’s a green eyed, yellow bastard somewhere north of Singapore.” All those sorts of things, which the fellows, of course, loved to do. If a Jap was listening, he would have to know good English to pick it up. And I don’t know that any of them were at those concerts. But they could have been. We always loved
to take a rise out of them that way. And of course, it cheered them up. Later on, when we’re talking about the railway, I’ll tell you about our first Christmas there. It was quite something in that respect, too. Of course, we were short of water in Singapore. There was no tap water. There was a minuscule stream. It was little more than a drain. It was just seepage.
If you chose your time, you could get enough water to have a sort of a wash. I used to go a big later in the morning. The officers used to go down as a group early in the piece. You’d give it a bit of time after they went for it to recover, perhaps, and then go down and have a bit of a wash. Sometimes, you had to use what was in your water bottle. There
was always boiling water in Singapore and Changi. You could get it every mealtime, there was boiling water to fill your water bottle. But apart from that, it was a pretty tame existence. I had these few books, and other people had books, and we used to swap them around. And they had these book-keeping classes I went to.
Or you’d have a rest, or think about home, all sorts of things like that. That brings me to another very important thing. I don’t know how other people got on, but of course, Australia didn’t know how we were getting on, and we didn’t know how they were getting on. But I used to lay awake at night wondering until I realised
that I would go mad. I just had to take a grip of myself. And I learned to switch off. I would literally switch off.
How do you do that?
If you don’t in that situation, you would go mad. And some fellows in those situations I think did. And they probably had more reason to go mad then me.
I wasn’t married, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. But there were people that had wives and children to worry about. We didn’t know what was happening in Australia. And we didn’t know how they were managing financially, and those sort of things. They were very real worries for people when there’s no communication.
How long was it since you had had communication from your family at that point?
I think got some letters during the last couple of weeks. The army mail system was pretty good. How on earth they found you – They would go the headquarters company, and of course it was the headquarter’s company’s job to know where everybody was. So I don’t know when I got my last letter,
but it would have been quite old when I got it, of course. Because with the fall of Singapore, mail would have stopped, and probably stopped well before that. But I got some then, before the fall of Singapore. In the last couple of weeks. But after that I didn’t get any more for eighteen months. And then it was that sort of old.
Before you learned to switch off, who was it that you were thinking most about?
Oh, well, I was thinking of my mother and wondering where my brother was and thinking about my girlfriend; that sort of thing. Wondering when it was all going to end.
Where was your brother at that time?
Well, I don’t think I knew.
I think he had joined up the local artillery unit. Conscription came in, you see, and he would have been pulled in on that, anyway, and allocated wherever the army wanted. And I think it might have been the local artillery unit, because there was an artillery unit at Chatswood.
Which was actually where we went in this day boy caper, we went to the artillery barracks there, it was then on Warrane Road, Willoughby. I think that’s where he was. But then, later on, he transferred to another crowd, because he wanted to get in the navy, and he missed out because the navy requires perfect eyesight. And his eyesight was jolly good,
but perfect eyesight means, the bottom line, without glasses, and not everybody can do that, so he missed out on that. But he finished up, he got into a crowd called the water transport, and they were ultimately involved in running motor landing craft between North Queensland, like Townsville or
Cairns. Between there and Port Moresby or Lae, in New Guinea.
Back to Changi. Can you talk about your last days there and how you came to leave?
Well, after we had been there a while, this rumour got around, that first of all we were going to be exchanged, and that sounded pretty unlikely, but you know, those things can happen.
But then that didn’t materialise, and nobody really knew where it was. I’m not sure if our officers knew, but it didn’t get down to us. And then it was announced that there was going to be an overseas working party –
Who announced that?
Our commanding officer. We didn’t have any parades, but it got around.
Then there was a selection process. Our own medical officer would check us out, and I was a bit afraid that I mightn’t be on it, because I had a nasty sore on my ankle and they weren’t looking to take anybody with things like that. But the departure date was put off, so that the
final selection was also put off, and by the time that happened, I was able to produce a reasonable foot so I was allowed to go, for which I was heartily thankful. Because that is one of the things that sometimes saved your life. Because a lot of those that didn’t go, finished up in Borneo. And there was a massacre in Borneo. Out of two thousand and six people. And a whole lot of those were fellows from our unit
that went to Borneo. They were massacred.
Where did that happen?
That happened in Sandakan. Towards the end of the war, or in the last few months, they were sent on a two hundred kilometre march, I think, carrying rice, through jungle and rough country. And if they fell, they were shot.
Six escaped by crawling into the jungle and luckily falling into the hands of friendly natives. Dreadful disaster this. There are special memorials about that.
You wouldn’t have known at the time that this was going to happen. You didn’t know about the Sandakan March of course –
That was the end of the war –
But you were saying that you were very keen to leave, because the
people that were left behind had an even worse fate than you had. But at the time you wouldn’t have known that. So why were you so keen – ?
We had a worse fate than them. The ones who were left behind. We didn’t know that either. The reason why I wanted to go was because the commanding officer and the lieutenant that was in charge of our section, was also going. And people I knew and friends were going.
You wanted to stay with the crowd that you knew. It was very important in a POW situation, that you had a friend. That saved many a life.
And you still had your friends from –
I still had several friends. My friend from Griffith, that’s where Dave came from.
He got into it, and two or three other people that I was pretty friendly with got onto it. So I was glad to be with them. In due course, on the 15th of May, 1942, we were taken into Singapore Docks –
Our crowd was the last on board. There were these two ships. One was called the Toyohashi Maru, all Japanese ships are called ‘Maru’, because that means something self-contained they tell me. And an emporium, a big store, is called a Maru because it is sort of a self-contained entity. It’s got everything it needs to survive.
It’s a bit like a ship on land; I suppose that’s the way they look at it. I think the other one was the Celebes Maru, I’m not sure. We got on board that boat, after being on the docks for the whole day. I remember resting, if you can call it resting, on stacks of coke.
Now, if you want to find something uncomfortable to rest on, try a stack of coke, because it sticks into you all over, especially if there’s no fat. Eventually we went onboard. But as luck would have it, being the last on board, there were so many fellows in the hold, we couldn’t stay in the hold. So we went as deck cargo. Well, that was infinitely better than being in the hold. Because when you’re in the hold,
you were sitting side by side. You had a groundsheet space if you were lucky. We were deck cargo. Of course, we got smothered in coal dust because the ship had coaled while it was in Singapore, but at least we had plenty of fresh air. There was an awning, because it rains nearly everyday up there; we were getting a bit of shelter under the awning.
And so, we took off, and wondered where we were heading. We pulled out of Singapore Harbour and very smartly turned to starboard, which is right, and headed up between the Malayan Peninsula and Sumatra. There are parts of that where you can see land on both sides. It was quite narrow.
Who was in control of you on the ship? And who put you on the ship?
The Japs put us on the ship, and we had our own officers there. But by and large there were Jap guards on the ship. You could talk to one another and some people were allowed up on deck. But by and large, it was a Jap ship, with Japanese soldiers and sailors on it, and
if there had been any playing up, there wouldn’t have been any argument, and we didn’t have any arms or anything like that, of course. We had pretty horrible rice, and that caused a bit of diarrhoea very early in the piece. Anyway, we called in at the port of Medan, which is on the northern part of Sumatra. We picked up another
ship there, and also picked up some Japanese soldiers and a bit of gear. Then we proceeded further north until we came to Victoria Point. Now Victoria Point is the most southern tip of Burma, so we put off a thousand men there. Then sailed onto the next spot, which was – I think we had a night and a day.
We got there in the evening, so I think it might have been part of a day and a night, and the next day we got there in the evening. But it was too late to do anything that night, so we stayed on board that night. We were told that we would be the party getting off in the morning.
What was the morale at the time, between the POWs?
What was your morale?
Very open-minded. We didn’t know what we were going to, of course. Because up until then, we hadn’t seen much of the Japs. Some of the fellows who had been on working parties into Singapore, of course, had seen a bit more. They had seen bashings and beatings and things, and a few of them had tried stealing food and a lot got away with it.
Believe me, when it comes to stealing tucker, nobody can do it better than Australians. But you can still get caught. There were a few bashings over that. But we hadn’t seen any of that, not in the camp itself. The penalty for being caught outside the wire was to be shot. But fellows still did it, you know. They had talked to the natives and
got a bit of news. Tobacco was the thing that was dreadfully short for smokers. I never smoked. But tobacco was dreadfully short. I think cigarette papers were, too. So fellows would go through for that. And of course, when you first start to have restricted tucker, you get dreadfully hungry. Army tucker might not be manna from heaven,
but even rice will do something about filling an empty tummy. It doesn’t last long, because so much of it is water. But it’s better than nothing. But when it’s cut down and then when you’ve got to work on it, you really start to feel the pinch. And that took quite a while to get used to.
I think we’ve run out of tape –
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 06
Gordon, if you can just give me an idea, an impression of what you think your health was like, just prior to landing on Burma. Because I recall you mentioned that you were sitting on the pile of coke, and it was particularly uncomfortable because you had very little fat coverage –
Well, of course, I never did have anyway, have very much. That was all right, except it was very wearing being in the sun all day like that.
We weren’t too bad when we got on board the boat. Of course, the sun went down not too long after. We were at sea, too, so you always get a bit of a breeze. So that was all right. So then we went up to the tip of Sumatra, to this place called Medan. We were there for a day and bit, I think, to pick
up some Jap soldiers and some army equipment, then we went on to this Victoria Point place and dropped off a thousand fellows there, then proceeded to go up to Mergui. The day after we arrived there, we arrived in late afternoon, and I was saying about this sun on this golden pagoda –
or it had gold leaf on it. A very wonderful sight, and I think it might have been lit up at night, too. We got ashore the next morning; we had to scale down a rope ladder. I don’t know whether we had our gear on, or whether that was lowered down. Anyway,
the major said goodbye to us on the deck, and said to us, I remember, we had been prisoners of war for three months now, and there were a few lessons. And one was that, when the Japs said they wanted something it was best to get it, because if they didn’t get it they responded with brutality. He wished us all good luck and so we went
down and went ashore. We spent the rest of the morning unloading forty four gallon drums of petrol or oil. The Japs provided nothing over this. They came in a barge, and were rolled by hand up the incline on the jetty, until somebody spotted a piece of rope and then of course you put the
rope down and roll the drum onto it and pull the rope, and it comes up ever so much more easily. So we were doing that for a big part of the day, then we finished up going to this school. We hadn’t had anything to eat all day. It was a very nice school, in terms of schools over there, but vastly overcrowded by the number of people, there were about fifteen hundred of us. There were
five hundred from one of the other ships, they came up from Java, and a thousand of us. There was nothing to eat. Before we could have anything to eat, they had to get hold of some tomahawks and cut these drums, with a tomahawk and hammer, and cut these drums from forty four into twenty two sort of thing, and use them to cook the rice. But they were oil and petrol drums,
so they had to have water boiled in them first. You had to get some bricks or stones and stand them up on that, and fill them with water, which had to be carted, then get a fire underneath and boil them. I would think they might have had to boil them two or three times. It was a pretty dreadful taste, and it gets into the seams of the drum. It could make you sick anyway.
It was jolly late at night before we got any rice. Then we were crowded into this place – you couldn’t have put a ten cent piece down between the bed spaces. There were no walking spaces at night. Daytime of course, the beds were rolled up, but no walking spaces at night. You just had to step over somebody. If you had an urgent call at night, well, you just had to keep on stepping over somebody
until you came to the stairs on the veranda, if you were upstairs. Find your way to the latrine and find your way back. So that was okay. For some of us, it wasn’t okay at all. They got pretty sick. Those sort of conditions, it takes about five minutes before you get sick. We went to work on this aerodrome. We were chipping the
grass. The natives were breaking metal. It wasn’t really terribly hard work. But they kept you at it. You couldn’t stop. The trick was to make it look as though you were doing something all the time. Another chap and I wandered off a little bit one day to go to toilet
amongst a group of trees, and there was a stream there. And my friend had a drink. I didn’t. He didn’t live to regret it, but he lived to think about it for a few days, because he could have easily picked up cholera, but he didn’t. In fact, I think it was
a bit before cholera season. But it was a very, very silly thing to do. But of course we didn’t know that much about cholera at that stage. We became a lot more cholera conscious later on. But he got away with it, and he got back to Australia eventually. The work wasn’t too bad there. We had a band in this group of three thousand men,
had one of the army bands with them. One of the battalions had its own band. So we had a bit of a band concert, and a few impromptu items. The Japs, of course, they always liked to hear a bit of music. So we had that. Then after
a month or so I suppose it was, I went down with a bit of dysentery, or a mighty heavy attack of diahorrea. And I spent nearly the whole night standing up the latrines. They weren’t pans, they were floor. They often are in those countries. So you couldn’t sort of sit on it and relax. You had to
crouch on it when you had to crouch and then you had to stand up. It was a very wearing business. I fronted up to the doctor in the morning and he took one look at me and put me in the hospital. And so we went over there, lying on the floor on groundsheets and blankets. I was very sick for a few days.
I got something else. I got dreadful pains in my tummy, which they put down to some sort of colic. I don’t know what it was, but I was groaning aloud. I think they were a bit worried about it, but they seemed to know what it was. And orderly came and sat by me for an hour or two. But it did pass.
Every day you had to sit on a toilet. They had chairs made into toilets. All these places have a veranda. So off the veranda, and in fact, in the rain, if there was rain, because the eaves of the huts, although they were big, they weren’t big enough to cover it. They had
these couple of what they called stool chairs, so you could do what you had to do and the doctor could have a look and see how your motions were. It must have been nice for him. Anyway, I got up to forty a day, which is pretty wearing, but some got up to more than that. Eventually mine did subside.
One of the things that we got there. They must have got some flour from somewhere, or else brought it from the local baker. But we got a small bun, about that size. A round bread roll. I think there was a little bit of butter on it, too. That was the first butter we had tasted since before the fall of Singapore.
So that tasted pretty good. Of course, there wasn’t any more. And I suspect it was obtained, because of this informal Red Cross fund that the officers made with a bit of their Japanese pay. So that was one of the last one of those I had for a jolly long time. But it was very good. Then I was put on
a supplementary diet, again provided by this fund, of, I think, an egg and a banana a day, or something like that; which was wonderful. It wasn’t much really, but it was wonderful. I was on that for a couple of weeks. Then I felt not too bad, and I went out to work again, a few more times. And then of course the move started.
We were only there three months. We got this three month syndrome. Three months from the fall of Singapore till the first working party, both on the fifteenth of the month. You can imagine what the troops did with that. And then when we were leaving Mergui, that was going to be on the fifteenth of the month, but in fact that was delayed because the boat was delayed, or maybe there were subs in the area.
You’ve got to realise that the southern part of Burma, is really on the Bay of Bengal, and of course, there could have been anything in the Bay of Bengal. British subs, Japanese subs, you name it, it could have been there. So there might have been a scare. But anyway, the boat was delayed.
Eventually we got on board and we were very, very crowded.
Was this the entire group that you had arrived in Mergui with?
No. The boat wouldn’t hold that many. We had several trips. I think the boat might have had four or five hundred crammed onto it. But it was a relatively small boat. We think the boat we left Singapore in was about six to eight thousand tons. This one wouldn’t have been,
I don’t know that this one would have been much bigger than a Manly ferry. But the Japanese had hundreds of these small ships. Pretty ancient small ships at that, but they had hundreds of them. They were steam driven, which meant they were coal fired. Anyway, we were in the hold, with a limited number of people on deck at a time.
Did you notice the change in morale, from the time the blokes got to Mergui, up until the time they left?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think even then we knew for certain what we were going to. And even then, we hadn’t seen the worst conditions. Australians are pretty resilient, you know. The thing was about
Mergui, was that there were seventeen deaths at Mergui, amongst fifteen hundred people. I think there was one American, five Australians and all the rest were Poms. They didn’t wear well. And we put it down to the fact that they were war babies,
or near war babies, from World War I.
And what was the cause of death in those situations?
I would say by and large gastric of one sort of another. The stage when people died of ulcers and things, it didn’t happen – I doubt that it would have been malaria, because I don’t think the mosquitoes were too bad down there, because we were sort of in the town,
and the British I think had kept a bit of an eye on mozzies and it wasn't that long since they left. I would say, by and large, it was gastric troubles of one sort of another. There are some nasty forms of dysentery about.
Bearing that in mind Gordon, did you have a stage with your dysentery episode where you thought that perhaps it was getting too serious?
Well, forty a day is a lot of times to go to the toilet.
Because you don’t pass much, you only pass liquid, really. There was some native brew. I don’t know whether you know the mangostene? There’s a tropical fruit called mangostenes, and that is supposed to have some kind of beneficial effect for gastric trouble.
Maybe it was a native remedy, I don’t know. I mean, you don’t take much in when you were as sick as I was. But I wasn’t all that sick compared to some people. I can remember some of the British, in the same room as me, going, “Oh dear. Oh dear.
Oh dear.” They’d go like that by the hour. And nine times out of ten they died. That was a bit of a sign of just about giving up. So you were face to face with that sort of thing, all the time. They were definitely not in the same class as the Aussies for being able to take it rough, and this was shown later on, too.
Anyway, we eventually got away from Mergui. We first saw a really decent bashing there. If you’ve seen the Bridge on the River Kwai, you will see that the interpreter got bashed, pretty severely. The interpreter has
a most unenviable position, because he has to pass on the message from our colonel to the Japs colonel. And of course, our colonel couldn’t afford to pull any punches. “You want these people to work? You better treat them a bit better.” And the Japs don’t like it. But the intermediate collects the blame. This poor fellow at Mergui,
he got bashed and he got put in some sort of a thing, and I think he was the one they were picturing in the Bridge on the River Kwai. Because what happened to him, happened to this fellow. To some extent, he brought a bit of it on himself. He was a very strong willed bloke. We were supposed to salute the guard when we went out the gate.
Normally we would be marched out and given ‘eyes right’ or something. But of course he was dealing with them individually and he had a great objection to saluting. You can imagine a British permanent army soldier about this high, saluting a Jap colonel about this high. It would go a bit against the grain. But he had to do it.
He didn’t do it for a while, and he got some dreadful bashings. Plus they didn’t like the things that he had to say to them. He was a great bloke. He came out to Australia after the war. I didn’t see him, but all the fellows were all over him when he came out here. They worshipped him. Anybody who stood up to the Japs like that was worshipped automatically. So that’s one thing that happened.
We learnt a bit about bashing. And of course, the other thing we learnt was that there were two fellows, because of the tucker being short, went through the fence to try and get a bit of food from the natives, and they got caught, and they were shot. That’s dreadful. That upset our officers. They weren’t shot in front of our officers, but they were shown the graves.
Of course, they were given a court martial, and our people were represented at the court-martial and said, “These fellows weren’t trying to escape at all. They were trying to get food because you don’t give us enough food.” Of course, that doesn’t go down very well with the Japs. It’s my private view – because this happened in three places.
The people at Victoria Point, the first people that got off, they had somebody who was shot, for something the same. The people who went to Tavoy, which was the crowd who were dropped off after we were, in other words the last crowd on the ship, they had a hell of a time. And some of them reckoned the way they were going they wouldn’t live anyway. So they pinched a truck.
They had nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to go in Lower Burma. Down south there were other places. You’ve got a dreadful range of mountains down there, which are sort of like the tail end of the Himalayas. Not as high, but they are rugged enough. Going north, of course, you were going towards the bigger towns like Normee and Rangoon, so
there’s no joy up there. Anyway, the Japs got hold of them. And all this shooting business seemed, in retrospect, to have happened in the first couple of months, after we were in Burma. So one draws the logical conclusion that the poor fellow who did it, had no chance, because it was a planned – fellows take note of this,
this is what we’re going to do to you if you try to escape. Because other people tried to escape later on and they were shot. Anyway, we got on this boat – I didn’t tell you about the latrine system on the ships, did I? Well, the toilet system on the boats like that for us, was
a timber box about five feet square, slung over the side of the boat, there would be a couple of them, with the centre board knocked out, and you climbed over the rail into the box, did your stuff through the opening, and climbed back on. If you were unfortunate enough to be down in the hold,
you couldn’t get up. So what happened there was, there was a fellow stationed on the hatch at the top of the ladder, and somebody would give ‘ahoy!’, and a bucket would be slung down on the end of a rope, and the bucket would be passed onto the appropriate fellow. He would do what he had to do, give ‘ahoy!’, and the bucket would be pulled up again and emptied over the side. So those
were the toilet conditions. Somebody wrote a poem about it, which I think was about the trip in the boat, but I remember it saying that,
"The outboard latrines Were the cutest we had seen."
But we sort of got used to it. On a small boat like we were on, you could have easily had your behind washed by a wave.
It didn’t happen, but the water wasn’t that far away. Anyway, we got up to Tavoy, or to the entrance of the Tavoy River, eventually. We got out of this boat and we had
to go up the river to the town, and they had a huge boat, a barge I suppose they would call it. It was like a giant rowing boat. Just like that. No bottom boards, just coming down like this. It must have been ten or fifteen feet across.
No boards on the bottom. We were so crowded. It was a most uncomfortable business. The tide was out, so it couldn’t go anywhere. So we stayed standing in the thing for hours, until the tide came in. It was dreadfully uncomfortable. Anyway, we finally got out, and we got out at the town jetty, then we had a march
of a few kilometres to this Catholic school where we were billeted. It would have been a lovely place in peacetime. We marched through the town. It was quite a nice little town. Huts built up on timbers, like all those huts are, cool underneath.
And a ladder to climb up into them. Quite a pretty little town in a way. And we went out to this school, and we settled in there. It was
near the local hospital. There was also a pagoda at the back of it, which was interesting, because the pagodas have little bells or pieces of glass that tinkle in the wind. It was quite an Oriental magic in a way, if it had been anywhere else. You could hear this tinkling in the wind.
So we settled in there, and then some of us had to move out to the aerodrome, and we were quartered for two or three weeks in some huts, where normally the visitors from the few flights that came through would be quartered. As I think I mentioned, there was a visitors’ book there with Kingsford Smith’s signature in it,
which somebody sadly smoked. We were there for two or three weeks, then we went back to this school. And that was about sometime in November. Now the first Tuesday in November is a very special day in Australia. It was Melbourne Cup Day,
so somebody conceived the idea – it was decided that we would have a Melbourne Cup, and they had to ask the Japanese commander, and he said, “Oh yes, you can have a day off for the Melbourne Cup.”
And there wasn’t too much work to do at that stage, anyway. So there was a fellow in our unit who was a great cyclist. He used to in for road racing, he was a little chap. And he thought that Nelson might be a good horse, so he came and asked me if I would be his horse in the Melbourne Cup
So, I’m one for a lark, so I said, “Yes, all right.” And we used to practice. But the doctor had specified that the track should only be about a hundred metres, because he was concerned about people straining ourselves. So everybody was quite happy about that, and then in due course, names appeared.
There was a great deal of ingenuity in the names. Like, ‘Hopeful Out Of Burma By Easter’. All those sort of things. Mine was ‘Quick Off The Mark By Starter Out Of Gun’. Or something like that.
And they bet on it. We could buy these Burmese cheroots. Like miniature cigars. Very popular up there. Even youngsters in mother’s arms could be sometimes seen smoking these jolly things. So betting took place on the various horses, in the terms of so many cheroots. We had a
British naval warrant officer there, who had his own jacket and looked the part. He became the ‘Governor General’. One of the concert party who had been with us, had some props, which included ladies clothing. So one of the fellows got dressed up
as Mrs Governor General. There was a great deal of betting going on. And people thought I might be pretty good because I was tall and thin and I had long legs, and they knew I could move around pretty fast. I don’t know how many there were in the race, but there were a jolly lot. There might have been twenty, which meant forty people altogether.
So we lined up amongst great excitement, and the starter gave a shout and we were off. I kept up with the mob until we were about halfway down, then someone in front of me fell, and I fell over him, and somebody fell over me. It was a shambles of legs and arms and by the time we sorted ourselves out, the Melbourne Cup of 1942 was over. And we didn’t win it.
Anyway, there was a prize presented by the ‘Governor General’ to the winning horse and the winning jockey. There were other events, too, all these foot races and things. It was a bit of a Gala Day. Then there was a concert in the school hall, a big assembly hall.
Everybody who could possibly go went. There was one Jap guard at it. And he must have felt dreadfully uncomfortable. And the boys talked him into doing some sort of an act, and he did some sort of a dancey sort of thing. But it was quite a good concert.
But there was what turned out to be a very sad happening there, because a particular friend of mine, who in civvy [civilian] life would have had quite a nice voice, he sang My Blue Heaven. And of course, he sang this because,
well, he could sing it anyway, but you could tell all the time, we knew after he left Australia, his wife had had a baby. He hadn’t been married too long before we left. So that was all right. I thought Frank would be thinking of his wife and the baby. But the sad sequel to it was within about twelve months
Frank had died, on the railway. Anyway, we had quite a good day on the Melbourne Cup, which I always remember every Melbourne Cup Day. In fact, I wrote a story about it. Vet Affairs [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] ran an essay competition for a number of years. I think it was the one on the Melbourne Cup – I had two published; I think one was on the Melbourne Cup.
So that gave us a bit of spirit. It takes an awful lot to crush Australians, you know. It takes an awful lot to crush them. But anyway, a very sad thing happened. We had a sergeant, who was
quite a nice bloke. He was the staff sergeant; he looked after the office side of our section. What the engineers call a platoon. The infantry have a section, which is a quarter platoon. We have a section which is a whole – about
fifty odd men, I think. So, he was the headquarters fellow for our group. I don’t know what he got there. He went to hospital there, they asked for people who could spare a bit of their rice for him, and quite a lot of us offered, but it didn’t do any good. He died.
Rather interesting that years after I was in hospital down here, with a hernia operation, and the fellow in the bed next to me – you talk in the hospital with people like that. They knew I was a prisoner of war and we were exchanging all sorts of stories. And he said, “I knew a fellow that was a prisoner of war over there.
But he didn’t come back. I lived in the same street as his parents. I didn’t like to ask them.” He said, “I don’t suppose you’d know?” I said, “There were three thousand of us in that camp, and I only knew a couple of dozen. What was his name?” He told me. I said, “He was one of our sergeants.” And that was the fellow who died. So I’d made a note of it in my diary and I did a photostat of it and posted it to him. It’s amazing, isn’t it?
I struck a few things like that. Anyway, we eventually left Tavoy, and we had to go by road to the beginning of the line. So I think a convoy of about ten or twelve trucks, I suppose. We didn’t all go at once. There were twenty in each truck,
which was pretty crowded for a proper size army truck. So we wound our way around the very windy road from Tavoy to this place called Ye. Ye was a small town in those days, which was the end of the railway line, which ran down the west coast of Lower Burma from Rangoon through Mawlamyaing and through Thanbyuzayat, which is where the railway started for us,
and down to Ye. I think they’ve extended it right down now. But it was a terminus then. So we were dropped off there from the trucks, and we spent a night at Ye, and then the next day we had to march from Ye to the end of the railway. And it was pretty dreadful because the Brits had blown all the bridges before they left.
So you couldn’t go by train. You had to walk along the railway line. But every time we came to a bridge, we had to be ferried across in native canoes, which would only hold one or two. Strictly dangerous operation. You had all your gear on your back. If the canoe tipped up, you would have had it. You might as well have had lead tied around your legs.
Anyway, we survived that. But my feet got into a dreadful mess. And the trouble was you couldn’t walk on sleepers. Some might have. But six foot people can’t. The sleepers were
too close to step on each one, and two far apart to step on every alternate one. So that meant a very mixed sort of thing. You had to hobble. My boots rubbed me terribly. At the end of the first day, I was a wreck. Of course, I was carrying all my worldly possessions, too.
And I started off the second day with my feet in a mess, and it wasn’t long before I was limping –
Well, just change the tape.
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 07
Gordon, you were talking about walking along the railway tracks of the Burma railway to get to the camp where you ended up, and how your feet were absolutely killing you. Can you pick up the story?
Yes, well, there was also a
trolley pushed by natives, for the officers baggage and the minute records and those sorts of things. It was piled high, but after a while I was at the end of this long straggling queue. I caught up with them at the next bridge that was down.
So after that, another chap and myself were given a ride on the trolley, with the natives to push us. That carried me on for a while. But then, other people needed it, too. So I would be emptied off, and somebody else had a go. We had two nights on this march.
Eventually, of course, we came to the end of the line. This camp at Thanbyuzayat, POW camp, was right on the railway, right on the siding where the line branched off to go south east to Thailand. So the whole team
had to wait while I limped in with a solitary guard, to the acclamation of everybody. I was very lucky because if the guard had been nasty he could have decided to give me a prod or something like that. Anyway, we got there and in due course got counted and were sent off to our huts. There were a lot of huts there. It was a very big base camp.
I remember waking up the next morning to the sound of rifle fire and I asked the fellow next to me what that was, and he said some fellows were caught trying to escape and that was the firing squad. Which is a very sobering sound, I can assure you. They were shot inside the camp, I think. There was another fellow shot a little while later.
And he was actually a rubber planter from Burma, who had joined the equivalent of the Burmese CMF, and had been picked up and put into that camp. He hadn’t come up with us, but they shoved them all in the one place. And he knew the country.
He and another fellow got within half a days journey – because the Japs were fighting on the Indian front, at this stage. And he and this other chap got within half a day’s journey of being free, and I think they must have let their guard down a bit or something, and somebody got onto them and there were quite a few Burmese who had been brought by the Japs to be police,
and they caught him and brought him back to this camp. He was given a sort of a court martial and was sentenced to be shot and duly was. It was very sad, really. But it did serve as a warning, that whether it is right or wrong, is not the point. The Japs said they would do it, and if you were caught you can expect it.
Long before this I decided there was no way that Gordon Nelson was going to be trying to escape. It’s a nasty thing to happen. Anyway, I was only in that camp for a few days, and my feet had recovered a bit. Most of our group had been sent to the
Twenty Six Kilometre Camp. That’s twenty six kilometres from the base camp. Which was starting to get into the mountains then, because this sort of spur, I suppose you would call it, or sub-branch from the Himalayas came down there. There were hills, according to the map, there were hills about a couple of thousand metres high. Roughly of the order of Kosciusko.
Of course it’s all as wild country as you could see. This Twenty Six Kilometre Camp was in the foothills of these mountains, and there were two camps. The railway hadn’t got to it at that stage. But a road went through the floor of the camp, and every time a truck went along the road,
clouds of fine white dust rose. The huts had been occupied by local people, to which our colonel said, “No, that shouldn’t happen.” But it did happen. And there was a fairly steep hill on both sides of the camp. Fellows would go up to the top, there was a track there, and they said they could see the sea,
which wasn’t all that far away there. I tried to get up but I couldn’t. All the way up the sides of this hill, you could see where they got very, very shallow graves. Because the ground was very hard, and sometimes there would be a hand sticking out or something like that, where the natives had died. Of course, the danger of being in a camp where natives are,
is that they aren’t over fussy with hygiene you see, and this is how you get cholera. Cholera is a deadly disease. It’s absolutely frightening the way cholera can decimate a camp. But we didn’t have any cholera then. So we went out to this Twenty Six Camp, and we were engaged in building a huge cutting.
If you go down into town by train, you will see there’s a pretty substantial cutting between Roseville and Chatswood. This cutting would be bigger than that. Fortunately in soil, not in rock, but dug completely by hand. We were in teams of fifty. Each one under a Japanese –
Japanese engineers were looking after the construction, so it would be a Japanese sapper I suppose, or somebody in the Japanese engineering unit, I imagine. And they would measure out the amount of soil to be dug for each fifty man group. And initially it was a cubic metre a day per man. Which was fifty cubic metres. Now,
that’s no problem to anybody. But it wasn’t as good as that, because the soil that was dug out, had to be put somewhere, and the somewhere was the end of the cutting. And the end of the cutting of course got further away the further you dug. So we were divided up into groups, which might have been, say, sixteen men on picks and shovels or hoes. They had a
very heavy hoe called a ‘chunkel’ but it was just like a flat blade on a long handle. The natives used those a lot in their fields, because you could dig it into soft soil and you tip it up and it brings up a great chunk of dirt, sort of like the way you can with a fork. So we had those. If you had a team of fifty, you might have
forty four or forty six with a bamboo pole, in pairs, on their shoulders and a rice sack slung by ropes at the four corners. Then the other fourteen or sixteen shared the pick and the hoe, and they dug the soil, and one of them loaded it onto the sack. So you spent the day marching
slowly between where digging was and tipping it over the end of the cutting. You couldn’t stop. If you stopped, you were noticed and you would get a bellow from the guard. And then every now and then, of course, the fellows on the digging would change over, and this went on all day. There was a smoko in the morning for about ten minutes.
There was nothing to eat with it, unless you had something of your own. A banana or something, if you were lucky. And you had your water bottle. We worked, by and large, in shorts and bare backs, and if you had any brains you wore your digger’s hat. Everybody didn’t have boots. I don’t think I wore my boots, because they played up so much with my heels.
But I did have a pair of sandals, which I was very proud of, I had made them myself at Tavoy, with a piece of old rubber hosing and some hide from one of the animals. We were allowed an animal, an ox, of some sort. You might get one to a thousand men. You wouldn’t get much meat out of it,
but I got a bit of hide from the skin of one that was slaughtered. Some of the fellows told me how to cure it, and soak it in water, and beat it with a hammer or something like that, and that softened it, and I cut it with my ever faithful pen knife. And luckily I got onto a piece of old corrugated rubber hose at the aerodrome.
So I split that and made some wire staples and stapled the leather to the hose, the hose was underneath, and made some straps out of an old hat band, and got a couple of buckles from an old belt and made myself a pair of sandals, which I had for a long time.
Of course, they didn’t give much protection to your feet. But in a sense, you could deal with it. You had to have it, and you had to watch yourself, of course, digging, but just trudging with the bag or pole, sandals were as good as anything else. Probably better. Because dirt could get down in between your boots and your skin, and that wasn’t a good thing either. So we used to trot along doing this all day. And you made some great friends.
People tended to get very confidential over what they said; if you stuck to your same mate each day. You learnt about their girlfriends and their wives and what they’d done at school, and that sort of thing. I had friends, I’ve lost touch with them now, but I had friends I kept in touch with for years.
Were they all Australians?
Yes. There were a few Poms in the camp, but basically they were all Australians; what was known as A Force, which was the crowd that went up from Singapore to Tavoy and Mergui –
Was your best mate Dave still with you at that time?
Yes, Dave was there. But the sickness rate multiplied almost overnight.
To start with, rations weren’t very great. There was no special hygiene. You had a slip trench with some boards across it. It was the dry season, so water was scarce. The Japs had their camp at the end of the valley, where the stream was. The stream came down the side of the mountain.
So they had first call on the water. And our kitchen had the next, and anything that was left was for us. We always had boiled drinking water. But there wasn’t much else – you couldn’t have a shower. I was a bit lucky.
I had a friend who was in the workshop. The Japs allowed a workshop, so they had a little bit of a workshop in Tavoy, where a friend of mine made me a decent sized billy. I think it held the best part of a gallon. So I carried this, so where there
was water available, I could get a billy full of water and use it to give my face a rinse in the morning. Otherwise you had no option but to use your water bottle. They used to try to hang bottles with phenol in them, near the latrines, so after you had been there, you could at least put some disinfectant on your hands. If there was water, it would be fine, but if there wasn’t –
so you very quickly learned, that you had to be absolutely rigid about hygiene. It was death not to be. Especially about sterilising your gear. I had a cloth bag, mother had made it before I went away, and I always kept my mess gear in that. That kept the flies off it.
That was all we had to eat. We would stagger back to camp at the end of the day. It wasn’t too bad when it was a metre a day. But, of course, Australians being as they were, they got stuck into this. And when we started off, of course we would get up at the crack of dawn, we were on Tokyo time, and we’d get up at the
crack of dawn and have a breakfast of sloppy rice, and go to the latrines if we wanted to, and then it was on parade and off to work. Before we went to work the Japanese commander would come out and ask, “How many men?” And our colonel would say
“Three hundred,” or whatever it was. We were separate from the people on the other side of the line. They had a separate chap in charge of them. And he would say, “Not enough, I’ll look.” So all the sick were dragged out from the hut, and they would be paraded, and he would go around with a creature who was called a doctor, and our doctor would go around with him, but he didn’t take much notice of him.
He, of course, would explain very carefully to the interpreter what this particular man had. If it was something like an ulcer, there was a chance that he would be sent back to his hut. If it was malaria and you weren’t doing a shiver, well, you didn’t have malaria. As for things like bad eyesight, well,
that just didn’t exist. That didn’t stop you doing anything. So then he would pick out maybe another hundred men, and they would be sent off to their huts to get their mess gear and they’d follow the rest of us up. And carry on digging for the day, and they’d be given their own quota of work to do. We didn’t take our midday rice out with us,
that was brought out from the camp. That would be dished out, then a half-drum of watery stew would be brought out as well. That was lunch, and we would have I suppose we had an hour for lunch. A reasonable time, because the heat of the day – It’s really hot up there.
And then it was back to work. There was no smoko in the afternoon. You worked until the job was over. And then you went back. There was a stream, a decent stream there where we were digging this cutting, and a lot of fellows used to have a wash there.
So we’d wander back a kilometre or so, and it would be late afternoon. It got later each day, as they put the amount of dirt up. As the soil got dug faster, so they put it up. If you fellows are getting finished at three o’ clock, that’s too early, so do two cubic metres a day, and then it was three.
And long after I was finished on the job, I think they were doing four and five cubic metres a day, and that was a hell of a lot. Especially when you might have to cart it fifty yards in a rice sack, slung onto a bamboo pole. Of course the more that went on, the more fellows fell by the wayside.
I developed what was relatively a rare complaint, which is known as ‘Happy Feet,’ and this consisted of the most agonising pains in the soles of your feet that you can imagine. You couldn’t walk on your feet. You had to walk like that. And it hit you at night. And we used to tramp around the huts at night –
Usually between each row of huts there would be a fire, and fellows with this complaint would sit around a fire then go for a walk, then sit around the fire again, and by the time dawn came they were nearly dead on their feet and went to sleep. On this rough bamboo platform, with bamboo of various sizes next to one another,
and one night, I had a friend who was a medical orderly. He took pity on me one night, and he said, “How are your feet?” I said, “Oh, no good.” And he said, “Take that.” And he gave me a little tiny tablet. He said, “Put that under your tongue before you go to sleep.” So I put that under my tongue. I think it must have been opium, I don’t know. But I went off. I said, “How will I get up
if I want to go to the toilet?” He said, “You can get up all right.” So I put that under my tongue and went to sleep, that night. You didn’t get any more. And ultimately, I just got so worn down that I was put on the list to go back into the base camp.
And as you were getting worn down, were you getting harassed by the Japanese guards to work harder? What happened to you if they thought you slacked off?
When you got to certain stage, I think the doctor was able to put up a pretty good fight. You see, there’s a certain amount of morality involved. If you didn’t go to work, and you could, and somebody else who couldn’t, did, that was not on. So most fellows, I hesitate to say all, but most fellows went
to work until they really felt that they couldn’t do it any more, without a break. I did that, but it eventually got to the stage where you weren’t much help if you did go to work, because you really couldn’t – You were counted in the team, but when you’ve got feet like mine, you can’t traipse backwards and forwards with a bag and pole, loaded with half a dozen shovel fulls of dirt all day.
I wouldn’t have been able to do it. So we had our own sick parade of course, and the doctor only needed to take a look at you to see how you were. I was put on light duties of a sort. That consisted of going through the rice in the
kitchen store. It was terrible rice, it was full of dirt and weevils. So we used to spread it out and pick out what we could, to make it a little bit better. If you got one of these things in your mouth it was dreadful. So I did that for a few days and ultimately
I was put on a list to go back into the base camp at Thanbyuzayat.
How do you actually get ‘Happy Feet’?
It would be a malnutritional complaint. I think it’s a Vitamin B/Iron deficiency. I don’t know whether they ever really knew. I have a friend at church, she had the same thing. It certainly wasn’t malnutrition in her case.
But the symptoms were just the same. My feet had a numb feeling, they’re not numb, but they have a numb feeling. Even now if I clench my toes like that they have a numb feeling. Something happened to the nerves in my feet. When I eventually got to the base camp again,
one of the tests they did, you sat on the end of a platform and your feet dangled over the edge like this. The doctor would tap your legs. If you tap somebody’s leg when it’s swinging free, if you tap the right spot it will go like that. It’s a reflex action. Mine didn’t. You couldn’t get a kick out of mine. But I must tell you about this Christmas because this is quite something –
And that happened soon after we got there, because I didn’t go out to this camp until sometime in December, so I was still working all right when it came to Christmas Eve. Of course, our colonel used all his endeavours to get us a day off at Christmas. He said it was a festival that Australians had,
and it was always a holiday in Australia. So we were given the day off, on Christmas Day, and the cooks got hold of extra stuff, with some of this money. I’m sure the Japs didn’t give us anything. They got hold of a bit of extra stuff, and turned rice into cakes with rice flour,
using all the ingenuity they could, and a bit of sugar and that thing. Because all we had for breakfast was plain, sloppy rice. It wasn’t hard boiled rice. It was rice that had been boiled with excess water. So it became like a pretty tasteless porridge. There was nothing else with it. Most of the other meals
had something else with it which was called a stew, but it wasn’t. It was something to help the rice down. So they made their bit of extra tucker, and we had this for tea that night, and then there was a concert, with both sides of the road.
So altogether, there would have been a couple of thousand men there, and we just sat on the lower slopes of these hills. There was a low stage there. We started off by singing They’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain When They Come. But that isn’t what we sang, that was just the tune. Because what we
were singing was,
They’ll be flying Flying Fortresses when they come,
They’ll be dropping down the thousand pounders when they come –
And all sorts of verses like this, with the Jap guards sitting and listening, but not knowing of course what it was all about. Then there were a few other things. A few smart cracks at the Japs.
Then the colonel gave us a pep talk, and he spoke of a nightingale that sang in the dark. He had a message of hope. This was of course the secret radio. Anyway, then
after the concert, it went on a bit, a fellow got up on the stage and of course at this point in time it was nearly dark, and we were in a valley anyway. And this fellow, without any music, sang –
wonderful. He gave his voice singing to a thousand men in the open, without any amplification. He just gave it all he had. Then when that finished, there was a flicker of light down near the stage,
and a cross of fire was raised, way up in the air. The padre, he had organised the concert, he was a great chap. He was a Methodist chaplain by the name of Keith Matheson. He was actually the naval padre on the Perth.
We all looked up at this cross, as the flames burnt, and then the flames died and we just looked – it was bamboo, and the red shape of a cross was there, in glowing red embers, and they gradually died and nobody said a word.
We just got up and went back to our huts. It was wonderful inspiration. And that was our first Christmas. The second one I will tell you about later. The second one was, in another way, just as inspiring. But there was a lot of dirt moved between
the first Christmas in 1942, and the second one in 1943. And a little while after that I was sent back into the base camp, because my feet got worse. The only treatment we could get there was not working. It was a rest camp. There was a sick ward where people with dysentery and severe malaria went. I had already had a couple of attacks
of malaria, but I was to get many more. So I went back there, and my friend Arthur was back there. We had been separated for a while and I didn’t know where he was. Anyway, it so happened that I was in a hut only a few – the huts were a hundred metres long and held about
two hundred men and they had a deck on each side, and a central aisle, then halfway down there was an opening at each end. No doors. Big palm leaf huts with a big palm leaf overhang. They did have a shallow drain. The drain would be about a foot wide and six inches deep.
I don’t think the drain led anywhere; there was nowhere much for it to go. But they had it there. I gradually picked up. I was put on an extra diet. A couple of eggs and a banana. I think I weighed about fifty kilos, like a lot of others, but there wasn’t anything much they could do. Eventually I
recovered a bit, and caught up with Arthur, of course. He said, “We ought to go into business.” Because fellows did all sorts of things. They rolled cigarettes and things like that and sold them. Our pay was, I think, ten dollars a day, when we got it. They sold a little
packet of cigarettes, five cigarettes for five cents. It was called a ‘kati’, but I think it was about a kilo of a very course tobacco. You could get cigarette papers, too, but I got into that later. At this stage, the rice was pretty tasteless, and I had this
lovely billy. So Arthur said, “What about making some tindergar syrup?” Well, tindergar, you got it in slabs. It was about that long and that wide and about half an inch thick. And I think you got five slabs, and they dissolved in hot water and made a sweet syrup. I said, “I haven’t got any money.”
Because I hadn’t worked. But Arthur was a pretty shrewd cookie and he had some money. And the officers used to come in sometimes and give a bit of a hand out. I know our CO did, but that was a bit after. Arthur said, “If I buy some tindergar, we can make some syrup over the cookhouse fire,
and sell it with the rice in the morning.” So I found an old condensed milk tin and a bit of bamboo and made a little ladle of it, and we bought this stuff. The billy had a lid, so that was good; we stood it on the embers of the cookhouse fire after the evening meal and made sure it boiled up.
And then in the morning, Arthur would come and give me a shake, before reveille, because breakfast was very soon after reveille. And I’d get up and wash my face with a spoonful of water from the water bottle, and grab the ladle and the billy can and I’d walk down the hut, calling my wares. “Five cents for tindergar. Five cents for tindergar.”
And fellows would call out and I’d give them a ladle and they’d give me five cents. We made enough that way to pay for the tindergar and have some ourselves. We had a mutual friend who was in the hospital with dysentery, we’d give him some, and enough money to buy another packet the next day. So this went on very happily, for several weeks anyway.
Nobody kicked up a fuss about it, and nobody got sick about it and it certainly got the rice down. Anyway, one day when I was a bit better, this would have been around about April I think, they had a kitchen garden in the camp. We didn’t get any of the veggies, but we would chip away at it and that sort of thing.
We were there one day and we heard the sound of aeroplane engines. We heard them in the distance. Then sometime later we were out there and we heard the drone of engines and they flew over the camp. We weren’t
taking any notice. “Oh, they’d only be Jap planes.” But would you believe it, they had red, white and blue under their wings and we went mad, and waved and shouted and the guards screamed and ordered us back into the hut. So we went back into the hut, and we thought that was the end of it. But they came around again, and dropped a stick of bombs across the hut.
One of them landed on Arthur’s bed space, which was about from here to the rail outside from where I was sleeping. Arthur wasn’t there. He was in one of the only slip trenches that had been dug. You could only dig a slip trench if you could get a hold of a pick and shovel and dig it yourself, and that was if you were well enough. We didn’t reckon they were worth bothering
about anyway, because we didn’t think of this sort of thing happening. There was a water tower in the camp, and we had some fellows working on the water tower, and we think they were bombing the water tower because they thought that maybe it was a machine gun post or something.
Who were they?
The planes, though?
They were British planes. They were coming from India. Well, I imagine they were coming from India. I don’t think they were coming from a carrier, not at that stage of the war. Anyway, we went back into the garden a few days later and they did it again. And this time
more fellows were killed. And frightened. You can’t do anything. There’s nowhere to go in POW camp. The Japs had huts with their own soldiers in it, in the same camp. So we were in a military establishment, within almost jumping distance of a major railway junction. So the colonel told the Jap commander if he wanted to get his railway, he had better get the camp empty –
Interviewee: Gordon Nelson Archive ID 0854 Tape 08
So if you could pick up the story from where you left off, and tell us how things developed from there until, basically, the end of the war?
We were sent down the line to another camp. From this camp, I was drafted to another job, a bit further on still. Which was supposed to be carrying ballast to the tracks, which of course were being made all the time.
We were very lucky, because the spot where we moved to, a Japanese railway workshop moved in, and so instead of being a ballast carrying crew, which would have not been very nice at all, because ballast isn’t like soil.
It’s hard to handle, hard to dig and heavy to carry. We were switched to being labourers in this workshop. Which had the other advantage that it was under cover. Now the wet season of 1943 would have been responsible for more deaths than any other period on the railway. There were fellows working up to their knees in slush.
They were building bridges, they were laying tracks, they were doing all the railway work in other camps, and we were under cover. So it was just one of those things that we had no say over, and we were doing that for several months. The bombing I think was in April or May,
and then we went to this other camp and we didn’t actually leave it until December, when we went to the 105 Camp, which was one of the worst camps and close to the Thai border, way up in the mountains. A dreadful, dreadful camp;
a tremendous amount of sickness there. They had five deaths a day while we were there. You could get very nasty illnesses, nasty infections. There was a friend of mine, we were carrying water one day, he was wearing his boots and he rubbed a blister on his heel, and he showed me. I said, “You
better take care of that.” The next day it was inflamed and the doctor told him to keep off it. Then he was put into the camp hospital, it tuned into an ulcer, it spread from his ankle to his knee and he died in a fortnight. And he was typical. I was very sick there. I got a dreadful attack of malaria.
I can remember one night I was in the hospital hut and somebody called my name. The hut was dark. There was a little tin with oil in it and a wick for fellows who wanted to light their smokes and that sort of thing. I could tell it was Arthur. So I said “Here, Arthur,” and he found me.
He said, “Give us your Dixie.” So I gave him my dixie and he poured something into it and he said, “Get that into you.” I didn’t know what it was, but it was hot and very nice. I said, “What is it, Arthur?” He said, “Tripe”, he said, “I was able to scrounge some.” The cattle they killed didn’t go very far, but they didn’t always use the offal part of it.
And Arthur had got hold of this tripe, and that was the nicest thing I’d taken. And the whole thing about it was Arthur could have had it, too. So that was the sort of thing that people did. Well, it wasn’t long before then that we had a Christmas concert there, which I was pretty sick at. But you went there if you possibly could. And the
moving thing that occurred there, one of the last items they sang, this concert party sort of choir that they had got up was Look For The Silver Lining. It was like singing in hell, really, because that was a dreadful camp. Four times a day, the bugle sounded for a funeral.
There were always grave diggers employed digging graves. And it was better when I was there than it had been earlier on. I don’t know if cholera had broken out there, but it had broken out in some of the nearby camps. But it wasn’t long after that that the railway line had been finished.
There had been a ceremony to declare it open, where prisoners of war drove in the last spike, and I think it was painted with gold paint, or some nonsense like that. And that was near a place called the Three Pagodas Pass, which was about a hundred and twelve kilometres from the Burma end, and I suppose that would be the peak of the mountain ranges.
I had a niece over there and she got a photo. There were these three white obelisks, like little pagodas. Just after the train left the 105, we passed this Three Pagodas Pass, and I was able to sit up, I was pretty sick, but I could sit up and see these things
flash by. It took us two days and one night to get where we were going, down the Thai side, and to a camp which was actually on the River Kwai. The railway line didn’t go past the camp at that stage. I think there was several hundred men on the train.
Only two were carried off it on stretchers, and I was one. So I went straight into the hospital part, and this was a big camp. But of course the railway was finished then. There was maintenance work and a lot of men were being brought back. So I was in hospital for a quite a long time there. And then my name was put on a list,
to go to a big hospital base camp at a place called Nakhon Pathom. It’s way down past where the railway line turns off eastward to go to Bangkok. It was a very big camp. And I was lucky to miss out. If I hadn’t been selected in advance to go to that camp,
I probably would have been sent to Japan. Because I had recovered pretty well. It wasn’t such a bad malaria area, but once your name was on the list, nobody altered it. The list was prepared months before anybody went there. And I can remember fellows saying as I went out the gate, with all my gear, with others of course, they felt
they’d have a go at you, because you looked pretty fit, and you hadn’t done any work for months. Fellows weren’t slow to have a go if they thought you had worked your way onto the camp. Of course it was completely in the hands of the doctors who went; it was nothing to do with me. And when the list was made, I probably weighed about fifty or sixty kilograms and was still recovering.
So we went there and that was really a rest camp. There was nothing much to do except get as well as you could. There was no real work there, except that one of the things that we did work on was building the wall around the camp. This big wall, about three metres high and three metres wide.
I think I worked on the wall, I don’t think I worked on digging the drain. So I was there for the next Christmas, which wasn’t too bad a Christmas because I had recovered a bit then, with better food. Not so many people being sick and the rations were marginally better. The rations were
never much good, but they were marginally better then. I picked up again and after Christmas I was sent back to a camp near the one on the River Kwai. I worked on the bridge on the River Kwai, for only a couple of days, before I was sent to this other camp. But this was a new camp,
and they wanted people to go up the line again, to work on a big viaduct which had been bombed. We were to be a portage party there. Trucks would come in. The Japs were pulling out by then. We would carry rice or whatever it was in the truck, we’d carry it down
to the river and load it onto barges and it would be ferried across the other side and unloaded by somebody else. That was pretty heavy work and the viaduct was bombed again while we were there. But fortunately they flew a couple of circles around before they bombed it, so we were able to get well and truly away. Nobody hurt on that occasion. We were there for a couple of weeks until the viaduct was repaired. Then we went back
to this place called Tha Khanun, which was on the river, further down, towards the sea, than where the Kwai Bridge was. We used to do a bit of work around the camp, there wasn’t a lot to do.
One day, I was picked out to go on a barge party, to go back up to this big camp called Chungkai, on the other side of the river from where I had been before, to get some rice. Of course, that camp had been evacuated.
It was pretty heavy going. Rice sacks, I think they weighed a hundred and fifty pound or something. It took two men to lift them onto your back. You had to carry them down a slippery river track to the barge. Anyway, we came back
down to the barge that night and unloaded the rice onto a big dray, which had been made in the camp, in the camp workshop. We carted the rice back to the camp. There was a narrow lane way between the banana plantation, connecting the camp to the river. They said, “There’s an impromptu concert on tonight.”
So after tea we went over to this little stage. About halfway through there was a chap came on, dressed in evening dress, made out of hession and scraps, and another came on dressed as a lady in crinoline. And a third fellow came on
in evening dress and he was playing the violin. They started playing Beethoven’s Minuet in G. And we sat there, listening. The officer had gone from the camp then. We only had medical officers and we were under a Pommy sergeant major, actually. And as we listened to this thing, we saw the sergeant major come over to the platform.
He got up on the platform and the violinist stopped playing and the dancers stopped dancing, and he just stood there. Then he said, “It’s over. The war is over.” Of course, we erupted. Within five minutes someone was waving a Union Jack from that stage.
It was punishment. You didn’t have a Union Jack. That was no-no. You could have got shot for it. Somebody had carried it. So we sang Land of Hope and Glory and the National Anthem. I think we sang Advance Australia Fair as well. And that was it. The war was over.
The next day we went down to the river. We didn’t have any money, but a little native market had sprung up, with the natives selling stuff. In a couple of weeks’ time we had a commemoration, thanksgiving service. Which I couldn’t go to because I had been given camp duties that day. Which was a bit galling for me, because I had always attended church services,
but I wouldn’t get out of a job because of it. It was pretty rough luck because I always supported the padre. We were there for another four weeks. Supplies were dropped by air, to much excitement. Some of it without parachutes, which didn’t do it much good. Then we made our way into Bangkok, over broken railway bridges.
We spent ten days in Bangkok, and then were flown to Singapore and almost as soon as I got to Singapore, I got malaria and went to hospital. I think I mentioned before that my name appeared in the Herald as a casualty. So my auntie cabled the CO of the hospital and said, “What’s happened to Gordon?”
And he came and found me and told me I was going home. When we were going to the airport, there were about twenty of us in the back of a truck, being driven by a native driver. We were going across the airstrip, and there was nobody on the gate, we were going across the airstrip, and in the middle of the airstrip the fool stalled the engine.
And we looked and there was a plane, twenty feet up, coming to land on the airstrip. So we got ready to jump off the truck, but fortunately the driver got the truck going again. But we could have all been killed. A British officer ran out and said, “You bloody fool!”
But the point was that nobody was on the gate to stop anybody coming in. But there would be no plane there one minute, and a plane the next. So that was on route to Singapore. When the CO of the hospital there got this cable, he said, “You’re going home on the next flight.” I said I didn’t want to. He said, “Well you are anyway.” He could have said, “Auntie says so.”
Why didn’t you want to, Gordon?
I wanted to go home with my mates. You get very close to people under these circumstances. It was goodbye forever to most of those fellows. I never saw some of them again. I never saw Harry again. I wrote to him, but he was a Victorian and I never went down for a long time.
We got home. It was a DC-3 and they didn’t fly at night. We called in at Borneo where a chap from the church happened to be adjutant of an artillery battery there. I rang him up from the hospital and he came to see me, which was nice. We went on our way and we got to
Higginsfield, which is the northern most airfield on the top of Cape York. And went on to Brisbane the next day. And, of course, ran into this jolly storm, just out of landing at Brisbane, and had to turn back and landed at Maryborough, which was quite frightening, because there was a sixty mile an hour cross-wind, and it was dark.
The planes didn’t land in the dark if they could help it in those days. Anyway, we survived that, and the next day we went back to Brisbane and refuelled and went down to Sydney. I was evacuated as sick; I was taken to Concord Hospital, and was waiting in the admittance room.
There was a young doctor there, obviously quite a new graduate. A lady doctor. And a couple of clerks at the desk, taking names, and that sort of thing. I was just waiting to be called up. I was just called up and I was standing in front of the doctor, when the girl at the desk said,
“Your Auntie’s here,” or, “Sister Bush is here.” So I thought, to hell with the doctor, and I went round to the door to meet, and we put our arms around each other and walked up to the doctor together. And I was home. I got leave that night,
rang home and mother had some friends who had a car, and they drove her out, and picked me up and I was home that night. The grandparents were all right and everybody saw me again, and was very thankful. I had to front up to the hospital the next morning. I wasn’t too fussed about when I got back to the hospital,
but I got there about half past eight or a bit later. They were in the middle of the daily medical inspection and I was roundly ticked off for being late and told I’d be put on a charge sheet if it happened again; having been away for four years and not having any leave for three and a half of them, which didn’t impress me very much. So that was the story. And then, of course, other things happened.
There was a Thanksgiving service on the 15th of February in St Andrew’s Cathedral, because that was the anniversary of the fall of Singapore, so I went to that. And sitting about four rows in front of me, was my friend Arthur. So,
we had a great meeting after that. Ultimately I was sent up to Lady Gowrie [nursing home], and they appointed a committee to see that all the eye cases were fixed up. I told them I wanted to do engineering and they said, “You will have to pass the medical.” The medical was really only satisfying the – but the eye specialist –
He was the sort of fellow who said, “Give it a go, you can’t come to any harm by giving it a go.” So I did a quick twelve month matric course at the tech, which was fixed up for returning ex-servicemen who wanted to go to uni. If you joined the AIF before 21, you had an absolute right to go. I did the twelve months – Of course a lot of fellows went straight there
if they had done the leaving before they joined up, which quite a lot had. So I paddled through the first year. I got a few defers in first year. The uni was very co-operative and very understanding about it. But I had four defers and I got through those, and I had a couple in second year. The ‘Drawing and Design’ lecturer told me that in
the first two or three years, he had been able to pick my drawings. One of the outside lecturers picked my eyesight, because I drew at eight inches. I didn’t have the special glasses that I have now. I don’t know that I had any, at that stage – (BREAK)
I finished the course in four years and graduated in 1952, and was given, actually
a special handshake by the dean, who had some idea of the struggle. I finished up, I got a job with the Electricity Commission, and I stayed with them for eight years. I actually wanted to do civil engineering and of course I went straight to the Main Roads Board, because the OC of the unit was then commissioner for Main Roads.
That was when I was ultimately discharged from the army after the twelve months, because I couldn’t start studying straight away. So he arranged for me to work in their laboratory. Then I was sent as a chain man on one of those survey teams. That was down
Mittagong and Wollongong. And I worked there until the end of the year, then the matric classes started at tech. A twelve month preparatory course for ex-servicemen. So I said a quick goodbye to the DMR [Department of Main Roads] and did the matric course. I did Maths 1, Maths 2, Chemistry and Physics.
Maths 2 was my best subject. I got malaria the day of Maths 2 and I could hardly do anything with it. So I got Bs in the other three, but I’d got a special exemption from Sydney Uni anyway, so I went there. They picked it in the drawing office. They were very good to all ex-servicemen. They had a number of defers.
You didn’t have to be a POW, any ex-servicemen. If he needed three defers in first year, he got it. And if he sometimes failed in his defer, he was still allowed to go along and carry it. They were very good, and the lecturers were very good, and went overboard to help you. So I finished up graduating with all the rest.
The same time. And got a special congratulatory handshake from the Dean, who was a chap by the name of David Myers. I wrote to him a couple of years ago, just to say hello and tell him that I had been made a fellow of the Institution of Engineers, which is about as high as you could go. They invited me to be a fellow.
I had been doing a bit of work for them, interviewing graduate students and that sort of thing. They said, “We would like to put you up as a fellow.” And asked me to give them a CV, so I did that and it got passed, which was very nice to me, because everybody isn’t a fellow. There are people who are given honorary fellowships and that sort of thing.
I think I sort of earnt mine. But that’s about the story. I worked for the Electricity Commission for eight years, then I went to the Glassworks. I became the senior combustion engineer there, or I finished up a technical consultant there.
What do you think it was that helped you survive that incredible experience?
I think it was because I was what they called a wishful hoper. You had to hope all the time.
I guess it’s partly because there was a lot of people praying for me. I’m sure of that. But there’s a lot of hit and miss in this survival business. I tried to take as much care of myself as I could. But you can’t keep mosquitoes away when there’s no mosquito net. You can’t do much about that.
You can’t do much about ulcers. You get scratches on your leg – One of the things that saved me was being in this workshop for this dreadful 1943 year. That’s about it. I had good mates. You needed good mates. I had good mates who helped me and I helped them when I could. And tried not to do anything silly
like escape, or take any unnecessary risks. That’s about it. Lots of fellows who were far more worthy than me, didn’t make it. My young friend who sang in Mergui, it was just bad luck. He was sent to the jungle and died. I don’t know even what he died from. But there
were so many things you could die from. You had malaria, dysentery, beriberi, ulcers which spread like cancers over your legs. Typhus – those were just a few. Any tropical disease that was there. There’s two sorts of malaria. The cerebral malaria is quite deadly.
I got the mild type. There’s got to be some sort of good fortune in it, or something. I couldn’t have done any more. All the fellows that went to that camp, who were transferred to the workshop, they were all given a special dispensation as far as
the angel of death was concerned. Because we were in favoured conditions, and we thought we were doing it tough. Until the brigadier came past once and he was doing a visit with the Japs, checking on us, and we complained bitterly. He said, “Well, I take your complaints on board, fellows. Your conditions aren’t much good. But you ought to see some of the others.” And of course, later on we did.
I think that was really one of the things that saved my life to a large extent. And then of course, missing out going to Singapore and going on a trip to Japan. It didn’t matter if you were sick or well, if the ship was sunk, that was virtually curtains. That’s the same with the fellows who went on the death march in Borneo. You couldn’t do much about it yourself.
your faith a big comfort through these experiences?
Oh yes. You’ve got to say that. I do have to say that as far as the troops were concerned, church services were not well attended. But there was an awful lot of Christianity shown, between mates; people looking after their mates and that sort of thing. Fellows who were real rough diamonds, who
wouldn’t have been seen inside a church, but they did an awful lot of very Christian things.
Gordon, how do you feel about the Japanese and the experience that you had with them? And how do you feel about them now?
Well, I would have had to come to terms with them anyway, because
twelve months after I got home I got married, and I got a house in Treatts Road, Lindfield, which is sheer luck, because my father-in-law was a minister who brought it for retirement and he had tenants in it, and he couldn’t get them out. They did get out for me, be it very reluctantly and leaving a lot of rent. But the people who were there, then, nice people who were friends of mine.
Then this lady’s husband died and she moved away. The people next door but one brought the house and let it. Who were the tenants? A Japanese coal miner. And I had to live with that. And they were nice people. And his wife was particularly nice. I didn’t see much of him, but she was quite nice.
The people on the other side who owned the house took him to task because they treat their wives a bit roughly. They heard him going on at his wife. They said, “Look, you can do what you like to your wife when you’re in Japan, but don’t do it here.” So that smartened him up. There were another couple that came after this chap, and they were quite all right. When my wife died,
I don’t know if somebody wrote to them and told them, but they thought it was me and they wrote to her saying they were sorry that I had died. I wrote back to them and said it wasn’t me, it was her. I didn’t hear anything more from them. But they weren’t all that hard to get on with. My friend Arthur, of course, he had a dreadful time in Japan with them. He got really knocked about, and
of course, he was on this boat that went to Japan, and he was one of the few people to survive and he used to get terribly upset with the Japs. I managed to control my feeling, to some extent. And in fact, there’s a Christian Japanese chap, I don’t know whether he will come again,
but he was sort of adopted by the church and he came out to Sydney a few times. He was an English teacher in Japan. He had a bit of a lonely time, I think. Not here, but out there. He was welcomed here. And he used to ask after me. I never went out with him or anything like that.
It didn’t worry me that he was here. So in some ways, people think I’m a bit remarkable. I don’t say much about it, because I’m afraid a lot of my friends have very hard feelings about it. And it depends a bit on your feelings. I mean, Marion’s feelings are much harder than mine. My mother’s would have been hard.
If somebody had died and was left there, and you know they died of malnutrition and ill-treatment and that sort of thing, it’s a different complex to if you survived. People can say, “Well, thank God he’s back.” But when they die – I had the very sad job of writing to an English friend, who
gave me a letter to his wife, in case he died. He did die. And I had the sad job of writing to his wife, and sending this letter to her. There was a lot of parcels sent from Australia to England after the war. And I sent some to my friend in Scotland. You’d get this box, and you’d get a big twenty six ounce fruit tin.
And empty the fruit out and put eggs in it and pour molten dripping over it, and seal it and put it in a parcel with other things, and send it. I used to send a few parcels like this over to this chap’s wife.
If you have one final comment that you would like to make about your
war experience that you haven’t told us yet?
Well, I gave an address to our Probus club three years ago, and I finished up saying, “Well, it was a hell of an experience, but I wouldn’t have missed it for quids.”
NOTE: Mr. Nelson has provided the following small amount of additional printed material which he requested be added to his transcript.
Archive ID 0854 – Gordon NELSON. Additional material added to interview transcript.
To a prisoner of war working on the Burma/Thailand railway line, nothing could have been more important to his survival than the medical care available. The conditions for work, the food supplied by the Japanese, the general living conditions and medical treatment available all contributed to the high death and sickness rate among Allied prisoners and even more so for the thousands of conscripted native labourers.
The fact that so many POWs survived the dreadful monsoon seasons, particularly in 1943, can only be attributed to one group of people. These were the army doctors, aided by padres and other medical personnel. The senior medical officer on the Death Railway was Lt. Colonel Coates, ably assisted by all other medical staff. The work of these men became legendary among the troops and scores of men owe their lives to how they managed with the minimum medical equipment and even less medical supplies. Operations were performed on rough bamboo operating tables with, if available, a large mosquito net enclosing them to hopefully keep off the flies. Operations to remove legs due to vicious tropical ulcers which could start with a scratch or blister from a boot and spread from ankle to knee, caused many a hapless patient to require, especially if gangrene set in, the removal of the affected limb. Operations of this kind were carried out with the minimum of anaesthetic, enough with luck, to cover at least the worst of the procedure.
As senior surgeon, Coates carried out scores of these operations ably assisted by other surgeons such as Major A Hobbs, Major Ted Fisher, Major Chalmers and Captain Gordon Cumming who was more closely associated with the group. However names in this context are really not required. The remarks about the self sacrifice and dedication apply to all medical officers. Frequently these men were deeply moved and upset about their inability to do more to ease the suffering of the troops under their care. I quote a moving story as an example.
In one dreadful camp, Coates was called by an orderly to the bedspace of a man who had lost a leg due to a huge tropical ulcer. The orderly unwrapped the dirty bloodstained cloth, being the only available bandage, to show him the stump of the leg. As he replaced the rag after the inspection, he noticed something warm and wet falling onto his wrist. Looking up, he saw tears in the doctor’s eyes as he said, ‘There’s nothing I can do for him, lad. The skin around the leg won’t hold any more’ (Hall, 1996).
Fortunate indeed were those of us who, after the war, were able to contact a former POW doctor or at least one with active service experience, as his GP [General Practitioner], these men having some understanding of the extent of our special problems. It would, I believe, have been very difficult for other doctors to fully appreciate some of the worries facing their returned wartime patients.
Hall, Leslie G. (1996) The Blue Haze: POWs on the Burma Railway, Kenthurst NSW: Kangaroo Press.