Education Activity: prisoners of the Japanese

Read the story of George Aspinall: a soldier, a prisoner and a photographer then choose one of the activities.

Student activities based on the story of George Aspinall.

  • Read more about George's wartime experiences in the book Changi Photographer: George Aspinall's record of captivity by Tim Bowden.1 What did being strong mean for prisoners of war?

  • Hungry and starving prisoners were constantly thinking about food. George talks a lot about the food they had, mainly rice with occasional vegetables or meat, the struggle to get more food and the detailed process of ensuring that all men had the same amount. Ask each child to bring in one simple item of food. Assemble all the food in the middle and then ask the group to redistribute it so everyone gives an equivalent amount. Or prepare the standard prisoner meal of rice and vegetables. George talks about getting perhaps half a pint of rice per day. Imagine eating this every day. How could you improve the taste or vary the meal?

  • Hold a class debate on the issue of signing the no-escape clause. Two teams could argue from the perspectives of the Allies and Japanese. Or select teams to represent the different viewpoints within the Allied camp.

  • Look at the visual records kept by prisoners of war. George was one of very few that was able to take photographs, but others painted and drew. Murray Griffin was an official war artist and spent three and a half years in captivity at Singapore. Alan Comber was a prisoner of war in Germany who survived imprisonment and forced marches across Europe at the end of the war. War artists have also depicted prisoners of war from many nationalities. Search the Art database to view works of art on prisoners and by prisoners.

AWM ART25104
Murray Griffin, Hospital ward, Thailand railway
brush and brown ink and wash over pencil, heightened with white
Dimensions 35.1 x 51.2 cm, [1946]
AWM ART25104

  • Create your own photographic record. Take five photographs around the school that would show people in 60 years time what school life was like in 2002. Or using the Memorial's Photograph database create an album or display which illustrates the daily life of prisoners of war (in any country and of any nationality.)

  • Research the experiences of prisoners of war and based on what you have learnt, create a diary. Edward "Weary" Dunlop, Roy Mills, Ray Parkin and Stan Arneil are all ex-prisoners of war that have written books about their experiences. Think carefully about what you would consider important to record in your diary.

  • For senior students - conduct research into the treatment of prisoners of war and how they comply or conflict with the Geneva Convention.

George Aspinall: a soldier, a prisoner and a photographer

George Aspinall was an Australian soldier. Like many soldiers he was also a keen photographer. However what started out as a hobby became an important and rare record of the terrible conditions endured by Australian prisoners of war under Japanese captivity.

George Aspinall joined the Australian Imperial Force at 17 years of age, serving in Singapore and Malaya from August 1941. Using his new camera, he was soon snapping pictures of rickshaws, mosques and carts pulled by yaks as well as portraits of his unit. During these first months, he also befriended the owner of a local processing shop and learnt how to develop and print his own film. He enjoyed his new hobby but the only audience he had in mind was his family and friends back home.

In December 1941 Japan invaded Malaya. After a desperate, short campaign, the British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to Japan at Singapore and George found himself a prisoner of war. Looking through his kit he realised he still had his camera. Away from the eyes of Japanese guards (and his own officers), he took photographs of prisoner life; men eating their meagre, never-varying meals of rice, the crowded sleeping quarters and wrecked guns, a reminder of the recent campaign.

Wanting to continue with his photography, George built a hiding place for his camera in a pocket on his belt. However he realised that he needed to develop his film as it wouldn't last in the tropical conditions. Working on the docks, he scrounged photographic materials. (George had a talent for "scrounging" and also managed to steal and install two radios within prisoner-of-war camps.) Now he had the tools of the trade, George set up his own darkroom and through trial and error developed his photographs.

George took a total of 100 photographs during the next two years but his most famous photographs were of a three day confrontation between prisoners and captors. In September 1942, the Japanese commanders demanded that prisoners sign a no-escape clause. Refusing to do so, over 15,000 British, Indian and Australian troops, including hospital patients, were forced to assemble at Selarang Barracks which normally housed about 1,200 men. There were no toilets and only one water tap and the barracks became a breeding ground for disease. It was only on the third day after four men were executed and with the risk of illness, that it was decided to sign the documents. On the second day of the incident, George climbed to the top of one of the buildings and captured this remarkable scene, eventually taking eight photographs from different angles.

AWM 106530
Changi, Singapore, 4 September 1942. AIF and British prisoners of war at Selarang Barracks. In the foreground are make-shift shelters constructed by cooks alongside a water truck. Troops in left background are queueing at the regimental aid post for what little treatment is available. The photogrpah was secretly taken by an Australian prisoner of war during his period of captivity by the Japanese in Malaya and concealed in the false bottom of a water bottle which was later presented to the Australian War Memorial. Photographer: George Aspinall
AWM 106530

In April 1943 George joined F Force that was headed to Thailand. The men were initially told that this was a rest camp but after a long train journey and a forced march into the mountains they were ordered to work on the Japanese railway joining Thailand to Burma. On starvation rations and weakened by tropical diseases, the men slaved up to 13 hours a day on the railway. Japanese and Korean guards were particularly brutal and George never knew when he was next going to be beaten.

Hundreds of thousands of prisoners and forced Asian labourers perished on the Burma-Thai Railway. Among the Australian prisoners working on the railway, one in three died. George became determined to record what was being done. At great personal risk, he took photographs of the march into the mountains, seriously ill patients declared fit to work and of the tropical ulcers that attacked nearly every man. One of the saddest photographs George took was of a group of tents where the medical officers did what they could to treat the prisoners. The photograph only showed three tents in a jungle clearing. But to George, who had spent time helping the medicos, it held traumatic memories of suffering and death.

After eight months, the remaining members of F Force returned to Singapore. By this time the prisoners were being subjected to rigorous searches and on the return journey George destroyed his beloved camera. But he still had his film and continued to make prints back in Changi Gaol.

George survived the war and arrived in Sydney in September 1945. His photographs were recovered from a secret hiding place in Changi and used as legal evidence in the War Crimes Trial at Rabaul. But most importantly his photographs are an important social record. They are one of the ways that we can begin to understand what it might have been like to be a prisoner of war.

Artworks by Murray Griffin

AWM ART25081
Murray Griffin, Working on a Thailand railway cutting, July 1943
brush and ink and wash over pencil, dimensions 36 x 53.6 cm
AWM ART25081

AWM ART25093
Murray Griffin, Halt for midday rice
brush and brown ink and wash heightened with white, over pencil
Dimensions 46.8 x 36.4 cm [1944]
AWM ART25093

Reference:

[1] Bowden, Tim. Changi photographer : George Aspinall's record of captivity, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. [1984]