Of love and war
When Robert Towers went away to war he gave his sweetheart a small silver brooch as a token of their love.
He had made the brooch by cutting out the Australian coat of arms from the centre of an Australian florin, a coin worth two shillings.
Before he left in July 1941, he gave the brooch to his girlfriend, Lois Henriksen, and placed the outer section of the florin around his neck with his identity discs.
He told her when the two parts were together once more, the war would be over, and they would be together forever. But it was not to be.
A winch driver from Beech Forest, Victoria, Bob enlisted in July 1940. He went on to serve with the 2/29th Battalion in Malaya and was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in February 1942.
Lois heard nothing more until 1945 when she was working with the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service in a hospital ward in Victoria, caring for ex-prisoners of war.
One of the men had been in a prisoner of war camp with Bob in Japan, and had been with him when he died of illness on 8 November 1943.
Lois gave the man Bob’s mother’s address, and he passed it on to an officer who had brought Bob’s belongings home with him after the war.
When Lois went to see Bob’s mother, she found the matching part of her florin among his carefully preserved possessions, and his mother gave it to her.
The war was finally over, and the two pieces were joined once more, but Lois and Bob would never be together again.
More than 75 years later, the brooch and the pendant are part of the National Collection at the Australian War Memorial, a powerful reminder of love and loss during the Second World War.
For Curator Dianne Rutherford, the story is particularly poignant.
“It's quite an amazing item with a very, very sad story,” Rutherford said.
“It's just an old coin – a silver florin – and Robert Towers had the coat of arms cut out of it to make the brooch.
“The records suggest he actually did it himself, and there's a lovely photograph of him wearing the pendant with two other members of his unit.
“It's all quite sad, because both of the fellows in the photograph with him died in Malaya quite early on in the war.
“Bob’s listed as missing on the 16th of February 1942, and becomes a prisoner in Singapore.
“We’re not sure what happens to him while he's in Singapore. Whether he ends up staying there for most of the time or whether he's sent to work on the Burma–Thailand Railway or anything like that, we just don't know.
“His records are very hard to read, and the next account of him is that he dies in Japan.
“He was part of J Force. They were shipped from Singapore to Japan in May 1943 and they arrived in Japan on the 7th of June 1943.
“The ship they were on was called the Wales Maru. There were 900 prisoners on the ship, and about two or three hundred were Australian.
“A lot of the Australians were convalescents and they had been at sea for over 20 days. They spent most of their time down in the hatch, down below decks.
“It was particularly humid, and because the hatch was closed a lot of the time, the guys who were just below the top deck felt the heat even more.
“For the guys further down below deck, it wasn't quite as hot, but it was a lot more humid, and apparently all the perspiration from that top level would come down on to the guys below.
“They were given two meals a day, which was just soggy rice and weak cabbage ... and then, as the voyage continued, the rice started to develop mildew, and it became more and more disgusting.
“They did have a number of stops at different locations along the way, and they actually ended up with some bananas, which would have been an absolute treat – although I’m not sure what it would have done to their insides, to be honest with you.”
The men were only allowed up on to the deck a couple of times when it rained.
“They were taken up in groups, and they were able to wash themselves down a bit, but the conditions were just deplorable,” Rutherford said.
“You can imagine ... the tiny spaces, the humidity, the stench ... it must have been just awful.
“You've got people with dysentery, and all manner of different illnesses, and there’s no proper sanitary facilities, or anything like that.
“For the 23 days that they were travelling, they were just kept in deplorable conditions.
“You've got men who were already weakened from being prisoners in Singapore, and then they live through this for nearly a month.
“They were sent to Japan to work in Japanese industries – so in mines, smelting works, shipyards, that kind of thing. But some of the prisoners did forestry, and the loading and unloading of ships.
“Bob ends up in Kobe, and he died in early November, just six months after arriving in Japan.
“They were coming into winter, and he died of pneumonia and pleurisy, although some Japanese records say it was bronchitis. His body’s cremated and his remains are identified after the war because of a plaque on the urn.
“But his family and Lois know nothing of this. He’s taken prisoner in Singapore, and they are hearing nothing really.
“We don't know whether he managed to get any correspondence through to them at all – we just don't know – but I suspect he didn’t.
“It's nearly two years after he's taken prisoner before there's any confirmation at all of what happened to him.
“It’s not until October 1943 that his family finally gets confirmation he's a prisoner of war, but of course, he's dead within about three weeks of this report.
“And this isn't uncommon. The families at home, particularly the families of the prisoners of the Japanese, just know nothing of who lived and who died.”
Today, Bob’s remains are interred at the Yokohama Cemetery in Japan.
His sweetheart Lois had joined the Australian Women's Medical Service two days after she turned 18.
“And that's how she found out,” Rutherford said. “One of the ex-POWS there knew him and knew that their commanding officer had brought Bob's effects back.
“The men had so little left that all these little personal things became so important to them.
“It reminds you of home. It reminds you of loved ones. It reminds you of all of that. And it helps to keep your morale up when you need it most.
“It must have been just devastating for Bob’s family. To find out that he’s alive, that he’s a prisoner of war, and to have this hope ... only to find out he actually died a few weeks after they were able to confirm he was a prisoner of the Japanese.
“It’s one of the things I think people today can’t really understand... If something happens in another country now, we all hear about it within a few minutes or hours. But for people living through the First and Second World Wars, it could be months or years before they found out what happened to a loved one, and sometimes never.
“It's not until late 1945 that Bob’s family finally find out what happened to him. You just can’t imagine what it must have been like to have that worry and that hope for all those years – and for it to come to essentially nothing right at the end.
“Bob’s hope was that when those two pieces of the silver florin were joined, he and Lois would be together, and they would be able to move on with their lives, but of course, that didn't happen.
“The two pieces were finally together again, but Lois was alone, and Bob was dead.”
In 1946, Lois married another ex-serviceman, forestry officer Arthur Percival Rourke. She donated the pendant and the brooch to the Memorial in 1998.
“It's a very special object with a very special story,” Rutherford said.
“Lois’s life went on, but she kept this memory of Bob with her, and then she eventually donated it to the Memorial, which is lovely because it means their story still lives on, even though Bob didn't have that opportunity.
“It’s the story of not knowing, of hope and love, and all the rest of it.
“But in this case, it eventually came to nothing.
“It's always so tragic when you see these stories, there's so much sadness, but there's also positivity in how life goes on.
“Lois did get married and she did have a family of her own. She died in 2012. She had two children, and by the time she died, she had three grandchildren and several great grandchildren...
“And Bob hasn't been forgotten.
“She obviously remembered him for the rest of her life.”