Memory, methodology, and myth: some of the challenges of writing Australian prisoner of war history
Rosalind Hearder

Dr Rosalind Hearder completed her History PhD at the University of Melbourne, on the roles and experiences of Australian medical personnel in Japanese captivity during the Second World War, for which she was awarded the C.E.W. Bean Prize. She has taught at the University of Melbourne and worked at the Australian War Memorial, most recently as a member of an Australian National University–Australian War Memorial team writing the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping and Post–Cold War Operations. Rosalind is currently a 2006-2007 Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar, based at the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). There, she is building on her PhD research, and teaching a course on the history of military medicine since 1850.

One day in 1999, I found myself in northern New South Wales, interviewing a former Australian Second World War prisoner of the Japanese – a lovely man who was anxious to help and who congratulated me for wanting to write about the experience of Australian prisoners of war. After a three-hour interview, I asked him what he thought about a young person such as myself wanting to write about this topic. He leaned towards me and said very gently, ‘Girly, you’ll never get it right!’

His words echoed in my head many times throughout the rest of my PhD. There are various challenges that are common to all military historians but this paper will explore a few of the particular ones of prisoner-of-war history. I will also examine some of the iconic representations of the Australian Second World War prisoner-of-war experience in the public domain, and identify some areas that could be further developed to give a more balanced view of this important and interesting part of the Australian military story.

As Joan Beaumont has commented, it is only in recent years that Australian prisoners of war of Second World War have become a focus of serious research by Australian historians.[1] Operational history has remained at the forefront – the events, strategies, and personalities that shaped the course of the war and ultimately affected its outcome. This early relative absence of interest in prisoner-of-war history implies that captivity represented a situation of stasis – men were imprisoned and nothing changed except that some lived and some died. Nothing could be further from the truth. Constant change and flux characterised the prisoner-of-war experience – from locations, supplies of food, and medications to ever-changing captors. Quality of leadership and morale depended on how long men had been in captivity and the kinds of conditions in which they were forced to live.

Many Australian ex–prisoners of war have felt a sense of neglect by the military history community, enhancing their common feelings of isolation from other Second World War veterans. Yet, as Hank Nelson has pointed out, there is a significant difference between the expectations of prisoners of war and the reality of their representation in postwar Australia.[2] Drama, human suffering, and survival in extreme situations have wide appeal, and many Australian prisoner-of-war stories have become best sellers.[3] Even so, today the vast majority of books written about the Australian prisoner-of-war experience, however, continue to be written by ex-prisoners themselves.

Methodological challenges

For the historian who wants to engage with prisoner of war–related research, there are some significant methodological challenges. The first relates to memory. Australian prisoners of the Japanese found themselves in diverse locations and climates and with varying groups of captors, scattered throughout South-east Asia and Japan. Some moved frequently from camp to camp, and sometimes between different countries. Recollections of captivity can therefore become a blur of different camps and captors.

As well, on a practical level, due to the circumstances of captivity, much documentation did not survive. For the most part, the Japanese forbade all prisoners from keeping written records, conducted constant searches, and severely punished the offenders.[4] As a result, if memories are contradictory, there may be few corroborating records made at the time. For example, this lack of access to paper and writing implements had significant ramifications for prisoner-of-war doctors in recording medical notes, which they of course wanted to retain for postwar evidence of Japanese mistreatment. In light of these restrictions, Major A.L. Dunlop, RAMC, described the necessary short cuts taken in medical records: “Each patient is shown as suffering from the disease which was considered to be the most important. For this reason these statistics give a very conservative view of the number of cases of any one particular disease occurring.”[5] Some doctors only held medical notes for a short time, before erasing them all and starting again on the same paper.

As a result of this relative lack of documentation made during captivity, research into Australian prisoner-of-war experiences often requires oral history. In interviewing survivors, the manifold problems of using this historical method come into play, particularly as memories of captivity can still be very traumatic. Roy Mills, a former Australian prisoner-of-war doctor in Japanese captivity, initially refused to be interviewed for my study. Two years later, after I had interviewed many of his friends and colleagues, he contacted me and said he was ready. Mills, who had been interviewed many times before about his experiences, wrote to me after the first time I visited him about the anxiety that the memories still produced: “We look forward to your next visit. I was exhausted for two days after the last, but the biggest factor was the mental preparation and lack of sleep on the night preceding – it is silly, but it happens.”[6]

The effect of trauma on memory suppression is also a factor that must be taken into account. One British former prisoner-of-war doctor, for example, when I asked him about any personal physical abuse he had received as a prisoner, said that he could only remember being hit once, and that he could not understand why so many people claimed they had been frequently beaten by the Japanese.[7] Luckily, he had kept his captivity diary, which I read. It documented several incidents of physical brutality against him. I asked him why there was a discrepancy. After a long pause, he answered, “By suppressing it, I made it disappear and therefore it didn’t exist, therefore I didn’t have to worry about it.”[8]

While interviews with survivors provide much useful new material, there are some inherent problems. Perhaps the most significant for contemporary studies is the problem of “memory proportionality” – studies primarily reflect the memories of those who are still alive, and who were therefore the youngest and usually junior in rank in captivity. In the case of doctors for example, those I interviewed were mostly in their early twenties as prisoners and being less medically experienced, often sought more conservative medical treatments than prisoner-of-war colleagues who were experienced surgeons. While this is a problem true of all Second World War studies involving oral history, prisoners of war are a smaller group, and the harsh toll on health that captivity took on their bodies means many have died earlier than other Second World War veterans.

Another methodological challenge is the unspoken but unbreakable bonds of group loyalty between Australian ex–prisoners of war. Like many veterans, but I would argue particularly with ex–prisoners of war, survivors are often reluctant to criticise each other. A common statement is that captivity “brought out the best and worst in every man”, making ex-prisoners reluctant to judge others’ behaviour. To do so is to invite possible judgement upon themselves. For example, one ex-prisoner I interviewed stated that the men in his camp were little better than criminals and “mateship” was a myth – that in captivity everyone was out for themselves. In the next breath, he said how close everyone was and that the Australians always looked after each other. The first part was said vehemently, while the following statement seemed flat and rehearsed. On the occasions ex–prisoners of war do criticise others, subjects rarely give any identifying information. This is of course only when it comes to Australians – it is always open season on British or Dutch prisoners!

People who experience something as a group have a collective as well as personal memory, and the lines between them may blur. For decades, many of these men spoke about captivity as little as possible, and often only with each other, such as at regular regiment or battalion reunions. Time and trauma often dull clarity of recollection, to the extent that some ex–prisoners of war may recount events now in very precise detail, even when they were not present. They may simply have heard a particular story so often that it becomes unconsciously incorporated into the schema of their own experience. A concrete example of group memory is the work of the war artist Murray Griffin. As a prisoner, he drew and painted what he saw around him, but also captured scenes such as work parties on the Burma–Thailand Railway. These have become famous images of the experience, yet Griffin was never there himself, but painted from stories told by others.[9]

Some ex–prisoners of war also have specific agendas that can distort what they may say. They may have axes to grind revolving around issues of compensation by the Japanese, or criticisms of government agencies for the way they dealt with postwar prisoner-of-war needs.[10]

Another challenge for the historian writing about the Australian prisoner-of-war experience is the inherent pressure of writing about subjects, some of whom inevitably become friends and maintain contact long after the interview is over. When writing about extremely sensitive and personal areas, there is an awareness that anything one uses, should it be made public, will be read by the interviewees or their families. The pressure to ”get it right” for subjects can sometimes feel more important than getting it right for history.

While oral history presents such methodological complexities for the historian, its value should not be discounted as an inaccurate source. As Joy Damousi has written, the process of gathering personal narratives through interviews allows an insight that transcends just the received information, and opens up new lines of enquiry. Individual unconscious choices of “ambivalences, absences, and inconsistencies” add interesting layers and weight to what is expressed, and “draw the listener to these aspects of the ‘unexpressed story’”.[11] The process of analysing what individuals emphasize, reinterpret, and abandon from their memories in order to create a shared identity with others can be important in understanding their interpretation of an experience.[12] Trauma and its recollection is not something that can be easily understood and incorporated into a study. Merely the process of remembering periods of captivity or specific events can be so painful for survivors to discuss that it is impossible to articulate them. They remain unexpressed and hidden from the larger narrative. Yet however flawed its process, hearing and recording these stories is more important than not having them at all.

The mythologies of captivity

Twenty years ago, Hank Nelson described the public’s understanding of the Australian prisoner-of-war experience as being “a compound of Hogan’s heroes and A town like Alice”, with great gaps between their own memories and popular knowledge.[13] In some ways, little has changed. The enduring and iconic public representations of Australian captivity continue to focus on three areas: Changi, the Burma–Thai Railway, and Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop. The constant rehashing of these three aspects often serves to overlook the stories of prisoners in other locations, and add to a lack of understanding about the whole experience.


It is a common misconception that Changi camp in Singapore epitomised the horror and deprivation of Japanese captivity. It is almost always described as a “hell-camp”, reflecting the lack of popular understanding of the differences between camps, or how prisoners of war describe it themselves. The most recent example of this, the 2002 ABC miniseries Changi, was riddled with inaccuracies and perpetuated several myths about life in that camp for Australians.

In reality, Changi was, for the most part, the best place to be as an Allied prisoner. While it housed many thousands of Australian, British, and Dutch prisoners at any given time, Australians at Changi were well organised, with a complex and efficient military administration and the closest thing to a normal military hierarchy, where a prisoner could go months without interacting with his captors, and where food and medical stores were relatively well-supplied. Prisoner-of-war doctor Captain Victor Brand commented: “They talk about the ‘infamous Changi Hospital’; well that’s nonsense. Changi was a very pleasant spot. The only trouble of course was the lack of food. But compared to other places it was a tremendous place.”[14] When he returned to Changi from the railway, Captain Colin Juttner described his reaction: “They just piled this good food into us, which was terrific … they looked so marvellous themselves. They looked so pink and white, it was like coming home.”[15] When Australian soldier Stan Arneil returned to Changi in December 1943, his feelings were encapsulated in the expression, “Ah Changi! You were heaven to us then!”[16]

In popular understanding however, Changi continues to stand out as “the one place-name likely to evoke associations of emaciation and atrocity in the minds of most people”.[17] Although it is a mystery why Changi continues to have this reputation, there are some explanations for why it has such a high profile. Almost all Australian prisoners passed through Changi between 1942 and 1945, and most Australian prisoners were in Changi or on Singapore Island when the war ended. Conditions at Changi in 1945 were also the worst they had ever been in terms of food supplies and chronic disease, mostly because of the state of returning work parties from other Asian camps. Perhaps the most recent stories of survivors in Changi permeated the common memory more than those that preceded 1945. This was also compounded by repatriation teams and war correspondents first reaching Changi.

The Burma–Thailand Railway

Apart from Changi, it is the camps occupied during the building of the Burma–Thailand Railway from 1942–43 that remain most resonant for Australians, as Kent Fedeorowich has written, “to the exclusion of all the other places and circumstances where Australian troops were held captive.”[18] The railway experience weighs heavily in Australian memories of captivity, and in many ways, understandably. It accounted for a third of the total number of 8,000 Australian prisoner-of-war deaths, and a quarter of all Allied deaths at Japanese hands during the war. Going from Changi to the conditions on the railway was arguably the greatest shock Australian prisoners experienced during captivity, and for officers and doctors, marked a significant change to their roles and responsibilities. In his war crimes statement, Lieutenant Colonel Albert Coates reported that until early 1943 he saw his captors’ attitude as “easy-going neglect”. He then stated, “but nothing compared with [1943]: Deliberate neglect, deprivation, starvation, denial of drugs, denial of all equipment, and denial of facilities.”[19]

But it must not be forgotten that only one-third of Australian prisoners experienced the railway. Yet the images of those camps, such as those of Murray Griffin and artist Jack Chalker are frequently used to encapsulate the entire Australian experience of Japanese captivity. Australians were prisoners in several other areas – Java, Sumatra, Japan, Borneo, Manchuria, Formosa (now Taiwan), Ambon and Hainan Islands, each with their own unique experiences, challenges, and trials. In terms of mortality rates alone, Borneo and Ambon represented the highest proportional loss of Australian lives of all Japanese camps.

But how many Australian people know about the experiences of all those other prisoners? It is time for camps such as in Kobe, Java, or Mukden to be better publicly known. They are no less worth study than the Railway, and the men who survived and those who died in these other camps are no less important.

Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop

Today, if you ask the average Australian to name a figure from Second World War, nine times out of ten it will be Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop. So why Dunlop? How did a non-combatant medical officer who was a prisoner of war become probably the recognisable war hero in Australia? And why was he singled out among 106 Australian doctors who all did much the same work in captivity, endured the same hardships and personal pressures, and many of whom also went on to prestigious postwar medical careers?

To some extent, the script of Dunlop as an Australian hero was already in place before the war: a country boy who had worked hard to put himself through medicine; a rugby and boxing star; a list of achievements fronted by a handsome and charismatic man. During captivity, Dunlop was well-liked by those colleagues who knew him, and was highly praised in the reports written by British doctors he worked with, as were many other Australian medical personnel. Dunlop was admired by many for his leadership qualities, but among prisoners of war his reputation did not particularly extend past those who knew him personally. I have met hundreds of ex–prisoners of war who never met him and instead wanted to tell me stories about “their” doctors.

Consider this citation: This officer was “repeatedly beaten and knocked about because of the strong stand he took regarding sick and ailing men, he never weakened, and a great deal of credit goes to him for the few deaths recorded in this particular camp”.[20] It sounds like something you would read about Dunlop, but it is actually about Captain John Akeroyd, an Australian prisoner-of-war doctor who cared for prisoners in Japan.

There are thousands of fascinating stories of the work and contributions of other Australian prisoner-of-war doctors – something Dunlop was always quick to point out. Surgeon-Lieutenant Samuel Stening survived the sinking of HMAS Perth and became the only Australian naval medical officer in Japanese captivity. He also spent his years as a prisoner in Japan: in one camp he was the sole medical officer; in another he was systematically brutalized by his captors; and in another, saved lives by discovering that the sulpha drugs distributed by the Japanese were resulting in kidney failure in patients due to their weakened states.[21]

In Melbourne there is a large statue dedicated to Dunlop near the Shrine of Remembrance, and on the steps leading up to his standing figure are the names of other doctors who were prisoners of the Japanese. Only one of the many errors made in this list of engraved names is that Stening’s is not one of them.

Captain Domenic Picone and Captain John Oakeshott both worked in Borneo to keep prisoners alive and both died just days before the end of the war. They were only two of the total of ten Australian doctors who died during captivity. Captain William Aitken battled the cruelty of the Japanese on Ambon, and Captain Des Brennan worked in Manchuria to keep prisoners from dying of pneumonia. There are also countless stories of bravery and ingenuity among the other 43 Australian doctors who worked on the Burma–Thailand Railway.

I do not say this in any way to diminish Dunlop’s great and deserved place in Australian history. What I think is not generally well understood is that Dunlop’s fame and reputation arose more out of what he did after the war. He was one of the first to recognise that the Repatriation Commission (later the Department of Veterans’ Affairs) had made medical and psychological assessments of prisoners of war too soon after liberation, and he and other former prisoner-of-war doctors spearheaded campaigns to receive official recognition of the connection between captivity and ongoing health problems.[22] By also being willing to speak at countless prisoner-of-war reunions and anniversaries of significant dates, Dunlop helped to constantly bring attention to the continuing suffering of ex–prisoners of war. Although many people focus on his wartime experience, this is where I believe Dunlop made a greater contribution.

Yet there is a larger issue to explore with Dunlop’s current prominent role in Australian memory. His fame signified a great shift in Australian attitudes to war after Vietnam – the focus changing from celebrating soldiers in combat situations to celebrating a non-combatant for humanitarian work he had done in a different war context. Although it had begun with Simpson and his donkey, Dunlop today represents the ultimate demilitarisation of the Australian war hero.

Future directions

What is the future for prisoner-of-war history scholarship? Some recent studies, such as Rob Havers’ scholarly book on Changi and Michael McKernan’s excellent book on the effects on prisoner-of-war families and the postwar legacies of captivity, are starting to challenge mythologies and diversify knowledge of the experience.[23] But there are many other areas in which some excellent further work could be done.

One of the most important areas is the medical story of captivity. The vast majority of Australian and British prisoners of war who survived captivity attributed their return to their doctors and orderlies. Yet until now, the medical group that has received an amazing, and I would argue disproportionate, amount of attention is the small group of Australian nurses who were in Japanese internee camps and were limited in the medical work they did. It is equally important for there to be more research done on the medical and psychological ramifications of captivity in the postwar decades.

There is a lack of broad scholarship in cross-cultural aspects of captivity between the various allied forces. Major studies tend to follow national lines, with relationships between the Allied groups only mentioned occasionally, and usually perpetuate stereotypes about the behaviours and motivations of various groups, without regard to differences of location or camp, standards of health, or leadership. It is also essential to study other Allied sources to evaluate how other prisoner groups saw Australians. For example, while the Dutch are usually the whipping boys of Allied descriptions of behaviour in captivity, Dutch accounts are some of the most poignant in their evaluations of other cultural groups. And despite their less-than-savoury depiction in many Australian, British, and American accounts, Dutch mortality rates were the lowest of all groups in captivity. As well, crucial information about different aspects of the prisoner-of-war experience can be gained from other Allied sources. In my study, British prisoner-of-war doctors’ records filled important gaps in information where no Australian documents survived from a particular camp or period.

Apart from research into inter-Allied relationships, there is also scope for in-depth research on relationships between ranks and how military hierarchies reacted to the stresses of captivity. How did ideas of leadership and authority evolve over three and a half years across different camps? How did the interaction between officers of different nationalities influence prisoners’ perceptions of rank and authority? In many camps, due to their critical roles, Australian doctors often became unofficial commanders. Was this the same situation across all national groups? These are questions that go to the heart of the effects of captivity on military structures, and ultimately how they remained intact or broke down.

Finally, if ex–prisoners of war of the Japanese feel neglected, spare a thought for those 8,000 Australians who were prisoners of war in the European theatre. It is a common belief that those men had it much easier than Japanese prisoners of war, from satisfactory food and medical supplies to comparatively good relations with their captors. While there is truth in these generalisations, constant comparisons between the two groups only serve to diminish the experience of European prisoners of war. A 1947 Repatriation Commission report reinforced this view, with comments such as, “Living conditions and clothing in Europe were, in general, far better than in the Far East … insofar as the [European prisoners of war] are concerned, they cannot be regarded as calling for special care or consideration.”[24] The experiences of the two groups were so different as to make comparison pointless and insulting for European prisoners of war whose main historical function seems to be to show how much easier captivity was for them than their Far East counterparts. Australians held in European camps deserve their own dedicated studies.


Although there may be some significant challenges in undertaking Second World War prisoner-of-war history, it is an area in which much more interesting research can be done and insights gained. It is one of the most brutal chapters in Australian history, and continues to be very significant for former prisoners of war and their families.

Australian prisoners’ successes and failures in captivity, their selflessness and pettiness in struggling to stay alive, doctors facing overwhelming odds without any of the tools of their trade, and officers trying to maintain a sense of discipline and structure – these are all fascinating area for historians in which to judge the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian military, and more basically, human nature. Historians writing about Australian Second World War prisoners may not always “get it right”, but I hope many continue to try.

© Rosalind Hearder


[1] See Hank Nelson, Prisoners of war: Australians under Nippon (Sydney: ABC Enterprises for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2001); Joan Beaumont, Gull Force – survival and leadership in captivity 1941–1945 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988); Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson, eds., The Burma-Thailand Railway: memory and history (St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 1993).

[2] McCormack and Nelson, The Burma-Thailand Railway: memory and history, 153.

[3] Some well-known examples are Rohan Rivett’s Behind bamboo (1946), Russell Braddon’s The naked island (1952), Betty Jeffrey’s White coolies (1954), Ray Parkin’s memoir trilogy Out of the smoke, into the smother, and The sword and the blossom (1960s), and Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop’s The war diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand railway, 1942-1945 (1986).

[4] Lieutenant Colonel Albert E. Coates, “Experience as a POW in Burma and Thailand, general report on medical aspects of POW's treatment by Japanese, 1944”, 23 September 1945, AWM 54 554/17/3, Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra.

[5] Major A.L. Dunlop RAMC, “Brief history of Base Hospital Chungkai POW Camp, Siam. Report on diet, malnutrition, hygiene, 1942”, 23 September 1945, AWM 54 554/5/2, AWM, 1.

[6] Dr Roy Mills, letter to author, 15 March 1999.

[7] Dr Bill Hetreed, taped interview with author, Coombe Keynes, Dorset, UK, 28–30 June 1999.

[8] Ibid.

[9] M. Higgins, et al., “Showing people captivity”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 14 (April 1989): 6.

[10] Geoffrey Gill, “Disease and death on the Burma-Thai Railway”, Medical Historian, no. 8 (1995/1996): 55-63.

[11] Joy Damousi, Living with the aftermath: trauma, nostalgia and grief in postwar Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 3.

[12] David Thelen, ed., Memory and American history (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), xiii.

[13] Nelson, Prisoners of war, 4.

[14] Dr Victor Brand, taped interview with author, Melbourne, 16 April 1999.

[15] Dr Colin Juttner, Taped interview with author, Adelaide, 4 November 1998.

[16] Stan F. Arneil, One man’s war (Sydney: Alternative Publishing Co-operative, 1980), 155.

[17] Hank Nelson, “Travelling in memories: Australian prisoners of the Japanese, forty years after the fall of Singapore”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 3 (October 1983): 21.

[18] Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich, eds. Prisoners of war and their captors in World War II (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1996), 3.

[19] Lieutenant Colonel A.E. Coates, War crimes trials statement, 10 April 1947, AWM 54 1010/4/33, AWM.

[20] Major Robert V. Glasgow, citation for MBE, in service record of Captain John Finch Akeroyd VX18194, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[21]“Conversation with Surg-Lt-Commander S.E.L. Stening”, in “Personal narratives of Navy medical officers, their experiences in action and POW camps”, AWM 54 481/1/12, AWM. See also Allan S. Walker, Middle East and Far East (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1953), 655, and Surgeon-Lieutenant S.E.L. Stening, War crimes trials statement, undated, AWM 54 1010/4/133, AWM.

[22]“Report of the Repatriation Committee on repatriated prisoners of war”, 4 July 1947, AWM 54 838/3/12, AWM, 1.

[23] R.P.W. Havers, Reassessing the Japanese prisoner of war experience: the Changi POW camp, Singapore, 1942-5 (London; New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003); Michael McKernan, This war never ends – the pain of separation and return ( St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001).

[24]“Report of the Repatriation Committee on repatriated prisoners of war”.