Review Essay: Australian Prisoners of War in the Pacific

Eras Journal – Grant, L: Review Essay

Review Essay:
  • Gavan Daws,Prisoners of the Japanese: Pows of World War Ii in the Pacific, Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2004, Isbn 1920769129
  • Cameron Forbes,Hellfire:Australia, Japan and the Prisoners of War, Sydney, Macmillan, 2005, Isbn 1405036508
  • Brian Macarthur,Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45, London, Time Warner, 2005, Isbn 0316861421

The commercial popularity of Australian wartime history has seen the recent release of three works documenting the plight of prisoners of war in the Pacific during the Second World War. At a time when publication on the history of Australians at war has been dominated by writers outside the academy, and the history of Australian wartime exploits and rhetoric surrounding the commemorations of Anzac Day have been written in the context of the broad nationalistic themes inherent in the Anzac legend, the publication for the first time in Australia of Gavan Daws’Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific is a timely addition to the scholarship on prisoners of war in Asia during the Second World War.

Whereas the story of Australian prisoners of the Japanese in popular memory clings to the myth that Australians survived imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese at a better rate than prisoners of other nations because of their mateship, Daws’ account of the prisoners’ suffering is placed within an international context. In what was essentially a shared experience, Australian writers, including memoirists, historians and politicians, have attempted to find something distinctive in the way in which Australian men and women lived, died and survived the ordeal of wartime internment. This is reflected clearly in a speech by Prime Minister John Howard at the opening of the Kachanburi War Cemetery in Thailand on Anzac Day, 1998, when he recounted a story that:

As an English officer stood in the driving rain and watched a group of Australians sing, as they trudged back exhausted from their work he asked, ‘Just what is it that these Australians have?’ The answer, plain now as then, was that they had each other – they had their mates. Mateship, courage and compassion, these are enduring qualities – the qualities of our nation. They are the essence of a nation’s past and a hope for its future.

Thus in popular Australian memory the prisoners’ story has been written in a manner that reflects the prisoners’ ability to uphold the quintessential values represented within the Anzac tradition; often clinging to the myth of a superior survival rate. Daws’ book provides a great lesson to Australian audiences, by not focussing solely on aspects such as mateship but revealing the complexities of prison camp survival.

The concept of mateship, however, is clearly present in accounts of Daws’ Australian, American, British and Dutch POWs, although the workings of the mateship ethos, camp social structures and the ability to survive are in fact much more dynamic and complex than a narrow parochial focus on mateship can yield. Described in terms of tribes and sub-tribes, Daws reveals that the workings of the mateship ethos often existed on previous friendships and were based on convenience. An example of men pooling together their resources to increase their chances of survival is the case of two Americans, one blind and one legless. The legless man would guide the blind man as the blind man towed him on a dolly. When the blindness of the blind man was deemed hysterical by a doctor and his eyesight returned, the legless man was dumped, left to dolly himself to the chow line. Mercenary selfishness is the underlying theme of the camps described in Daws’ book. Racketeering, gambling, and the exploitation of the weak by the strong are all elements of camp life and survival. The message portrayed by Daws is that men would look after members of their tribe but outsiders would have to look after themselves. “The question of all questions in the camps” writes Daws, was “who could be trusted? And not only about food, but about anything.” Such a tale is in stark contrast to the Australian popular perception of internment focussing on mateship and social cohesion as a means for survival. This provides a great lesson to Australian audiences, by revealing the complexities of prison camp survival. This is perhaps highlighted most bluntly by the story of an American, Forrest Knox, who had to kill a crazed fellow prisoner while being transported on a ‘hellship’ in order to save his own, and others’ lives. The narrative of Daws’ book is written in a style and pace pleasing to the reader, making the work both accessible to the general public and academia and, although frustrated on occasion by the use of language obviously aimed at the American market, Daws is still able to discuss the issues at hand with great delicacy and detail.

Alternatively, Cameron Forbes’ Hellfire: Australia, Japan and the Prisoners of War returns the story of Australian prisoners of war to the constructed post-war narrative of captivity developed by the first wave of memoirists in the 1950s, focussing on the prisoners ability to uphold the qualities inherent in the Anzac mythology; resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness, egalitarian social organization, humour and mateship. The driving force of Forbes’ book are the personal anecdotes drawn from a variety of sources and interviews. While Forbes’ ability to tell the stories of his interview subjects is the overwhelming strength of the book, his lack of acknowledgement of the developments within historical scholarship on Australian prisoners of war since the 1980s makes for a somewhat ‘light-weight’ approach to the subject matter. Considering that in the context of narratives of men and nations at war the inaction and passivity of the POW carries a certain baggage, a discussion of such developments is especially relevant when considering Forbes’ attempt to restore the status of ex-prisoners to that of ex-soldier.

British author Brian MacArthur’s contribution to the history of Allied prisoners during the Pacific War, Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45, like Daws’ Prisoners of the Japanese, puts the story of POWs in an international context by discussing the experiences of prisoners from Britain, Australia and America. MacArthur’s work is more or less a collection of testimony collated from the vast number of diaries and memoirs published by ex-prisoners and much of the narrative of the tale is thus told in the words of the prisoners themselves. A frustration, however, is MacArthur’s tendency to leave chapters open ended, failing to dissect the range of issues raised and discussed by the various voices of captivity cited in his book. In noting that thieves, racketeers, and black marketeers flourished in all the prison camps of Asia, MacArthur singles out the Americans who, he states, acted like the Mafia. Citing Americans as especially immoral suggests, as in Australian narratives, a certain tension may exist in British reminisces and discussions of prison camp life in Asia.

A valuable source for academia while remaining accessible to the general reader makes Gavan Daws’ Prisoners of the Japanese the pick of the most recent collection of publications on wartime internment in Asia Pacific during the Second World War.

Lachlan Grant

School of Historical Studies, Monash University