General information about Australian prisoners of the Japanese

Over 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war of the Japanese in south-east Asia : Army (about 21,000); RAN (354); and RAAF (373). The Army prisoners were largely from the 8th Division captured at the fall of Singapore . Australian troops were also captured on Java, Timor, Ambon and New Britain. Prisoners of war were formed into work parties to provide forced labour for the Japanese army. Throughout the war, Changi in Singapore was the main camp from which working parties were sent to other destinations and through which prisoners of war captured in other areas were staged.

Australian prisoners of war were sent from Singapore to:

  • Burma : A Force
  • Thailand : D, F, H, Forces and K and L Forces (medical forces)
  • Japan : C, G and J Forces; Senior Officers Party
  • Borneo : B and E Forces
  • Manchuria, Indochina, Formosa and Korea .

By September 1945, Australian prisoners of war were scattered widely across south-east Asia . The largest group was congregated on Singapore Island and Johore (5,549); but 4,830 were distributed in several camps and in a number of working parties in Thailand and remote areas of Burma. In addition, 265 were in French Indo-China; about 750 were distributed throughout the islands of the Netherlands East Indies, with 385 in Java and 243 in Sumatra; about 100 were on Ambon; two were at Macassar; seven on Bali; another 150 were at Kuching in British North Borneo. About 2,700 were distributed between Japan, Korea and Manchuria, while about 200 remained on Hainan Island.

The railway workers were organised by the Japanese into “groups” or “branches”; some branches had as few as 2,000 workers, others as many as 12,000. Two prisoner-of-war groups - nos. 3 and 5 - functioned on the Thanbyuzayat side of the railway; four - nos. 1,2,4 and 6, plus about 10,000 workers who came under Malayan prisoner-of-war administration - worked forward from Bampong in Thailand.

Of the 22,376 Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, some 8,031 died while in captivity. After the end of the war, War Crimes Trials were held to investigate reports of atrocities, massacres and other causes of death.

Note: The spelling of place and ship names may vary: e.g., Kanchanaburi (Kanburi); Formosa (Taiwan); Korea (Chosen); Tantui (Tan Toey or Tantoei) camp; Rokuyo Maru (Rokyu Maru).

Ambon (Amboina, Gull Force)

In December 1941, an Australian force known as Gull Force sailed for Ambon Island in the Netherlands East Indies (present-day Indonesia). The force of 1,090 was made up of the 2/21st Battalion and C troop 18th Anti-Tank Battery, three sections of the 2/11th Field Coy, one section Australian Army Service Corps, 2/12th Field Ambulance Detachment, 23rd Special Dental Unit, and 104 Light Aid Detachment.

Over 200 Australians were massacred at Laha, Ambon, on 6 February and between 15 and 20 February 1942 .

By February 1942, Gull Force was in captivity at Tantui (on Ambon). In October 1942 the prisoners were divided into two groups. One group was transported to Hainan Island aboard the Taiko Maru, disembarking on 5 November 1942 and being imprisoned in Haicho Camp (Colonel W. J. R. Scott's Force). The other group remained on Ambon .

Of the 263 prisoners of war sent to Hainan Island, 182 were still alive at the end of the war. They returned to Australia on HMS Vindex and the hospital ship Jerusalemme. Those who remained on Ambon returned, via Morotai, on HMAS Glenelg, Junee, Cootamundra and Latrobe, or went directly to Sydney on the hospital ship Wanganella.

Borneo (Sandakan, Kuching)

The Japanese conquered British and Dutch Borneo early in 1942. B and E Forces were sent by ship from Changi to Borneo . B Force (1,496-strong) included 145 officers and medical staff. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A. W. Walsh of the 2/10th Field Regiment, it left Singapore in the Ubi Maru on 8 July 1942 and after a nine-day journey in poor conditions disembarked at Sandakan . E Force embarked on the steamer de Klerk on 29 March 1943 . It contained 500 British prisoners, who disembarked at Kuching, and 500 Australian prisoners, who were sent to Berhala Island (North Borneo). In early June 1943, E Force was moved to Sandakan .

Prisoners in B and E Forces included troops from the 2/18th, 2/19th, 2/20th, 2/26th, 2/29th, 2/30th Battalions, 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, and the 2/10th Field Ambulance. There were four main camps in Borneo : Sandakan , Kuching, Labuan and Jesselton. Of these, Sandakan contained the majority of Australians. Captain Hoshijima Susumi commanded Sandakan Camp. In January 1945 the first forced march to Ranau occurred, and the second in May 1945. Of the 2,500 Australian and British prisoners of war, only six Australians survived these “death marches”.

Burma–Thailand Railway

In all, 9,500 Australian prisoners of war worked on the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway, which ran from Bampong, Thailand, to Thanbyuzayat, Burma . Building commenced at each end of the railway. Altogether, 2,646 Australians died working on the railway. Prisoners in Changi were divided into forces to work on the railway in either Burma or Thailand. The railway was completed on 16 October 1943.


A Force, 3,000-strong and commanded by Brigadier A. L. Varley, was the first Australian group to leave Singapore for Burma, on 14 May 1942. It was drawn principally from the 22nd Australian Brigade (Varley was promoted to Brigadier by Gordon Bennett in February 1942 and given command of this brigade), the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion (under Major C. E. Green), and 2/30th Battalion (under Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Ramsay), with a medical group drawn mostly from the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (under Lieutenant Colonel T. Hamilton). A Force sailed in the Celebes Maru on 15 May 1942 , from Singapore to Victoria Point, in Burma, where Green's battalion and some other groups (a total of 1,017) disembarked. Ramsey's Force (1,000-strong) traveled to Mergui and the remainder continued to the Burma Peninsula near Tavoy. After constructing airfields, A Force moved to Thanbyuzayat.

Prisoners of war from Java (Williams Force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. M. Williams, and Black Force, including 593 Australians commanded by Lieutenant Colonel C. M. Black) travelled via Singapore and thence to Moulmein, arriving in Burma on 29-30 October 1942. Williams Force was based at Tanyin and Black Force at Beke Taung camp at Kilo 40. In October 1942 survivors from the HMAS Perth were shipped to Singapore, and then to Burma. In October 1942, 385 Australians, commanded by Major L.J. Robertson, left Java on board the Moji Maru ; they joined up with A Force on 17 January 1943.

In all, 479 Australian soldiers died on the Burma section of the railway. Following its completion, in October 1943, A Force returned to Singapore.

Map of Burma-Thai railway.


The majority of Australian prisoners from Changi and Java were sent to Thailand to assist in the building of the railway. D, F, H Forces and K and L Forces (Medical) left Changi in 1942-43 for Thailand. Prisoners of war were also transported from Java. Hospitals were established at Tanbaya, Tarsau, Kanburi, Nakom Paton and Tamuan.

Dunlop Force, commanded by Colonel E. E. “Weary” Dunlop, arrived at Konyu, in Thailand, from Java in January 1943. It was divided into two battalions, each 450-strong: O battalion (commanded by Major H. G. Grenier) and P battalion (commanded by Major F. A. Woods). Dunlop Force was the first group of Australians to reach the southern end of the railway. Captain J. L. Hands commanded A battalion (337-strong), and the Dutch R battalion also came under Dunlop's command. The force eventually moved to Hintok.

D Force (2,242-strong under Lieutenant Colonel C. A. McEachern) left Changi for Bampong in four groups between 14 and 18 March 1943. Later, D Force moved to Hintok (to work on Pack of Cards Bridge), where McEachern took over the command of Dunlop Force. D Force was also stationed at Kanburi, Tarsau and Konyu, where they worked on Hell Fire Pass.

F Force, a mixed Allied force including 3,662 Australians under Lieutenant Colonel S. W. Harris (18th British Division) left Changi for Thailand on 16 April 1943. Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Kappe commanded the Australians. Transported by train to Bampong, F Force then marched to Nieke, some 180 miles north and thence to Lower Songkurai. At the end of May, F Force was distributed among five main camps, with 1,800 Australians at Lower Songkurai, 393 at Upper Songkurai and 700 at Konkoita. Some 1,438 men of F Force did not return.

H Force, including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant Colonel R. F. Oakes, left Changi on 5 May 1943. From Bampong, they marched 140 kilometres north to Tarsau. H Force joined D Force in cutting Hell Fire Pass; 179 men in H Force died.

K and L medical forces left Changi in June and August 1943 for Thailand. These personnel were used as labourers in various hospitals along the railway. Major B. H. Anderson commanded K Force, including 5 medical officers and 50 other ranks. Major A. L. Andrews commanded the AIF party of 3 officers and 70 other ranks included in L Force.

The railway was completed on 16 October 1943 . Most prisoners were returned to Changi and some were sent as technical workers to Japan between April and June 1944 to work in heavy industry. They were concentrated in Saigon before moving to Japan. Some were returned to Singapore for shipping; others stayed at Saigon until the end of the war.

Map of D, F and H Force camps.

Hainan Island

On 25 October 1942 , 263 prisoners of war (under Lieutenant Colonel W. R. J. Scott) were transferred from Ambon to Hainan Island in the Taiko Maru . Conditions on Hainan Island were primitive and barbaric, and at the end of the war, only 182 were alive. See also Ambon entry


For Formosa (Taiwan), Korea (Chosen) and Manchuria see Senior Officers' Party entry

The movement of Australian prisoners to Japan, Formosa and Korea began in 1942, continued during 1943, and was intensified in 1944 following the completion of the Burma-Thailand Railway. By early 1945 there were nearly 3,000 Australian prisoners of war in Japan. The main parties of Australian prisoners of war are as follows.

In June and July 1942 two drafts of the Australians captured on New Britain embarked for Japan. One draft, containing about 60 officers and 19 Australian women (including 6 Army nurses) led by Colonel J. J. Scanlan, reached Japan safely. The 19 Australian women who reached Japan from New Britain with Scanlan's party in July 1942 were at length tranferred to a camp at Totsuka, about 20 miles from Yokaham, where they remained until the end of the war. Forty five officers (including Colonel Scanlan) were taken to Nisi Asi-Betu [Nishi Ashi-Betu], on Hokkaido to work in the coalmine.

The other draft of 1,050 prisoners (including about 200 civilians) sailed in the Montevideo Maru , from Rabaul, destined for Japan. The ship was sunk by an American submarine off Luzon in the South China Sea on 1 July 1942. No prisoners of war survived the sinking.

See entry under New Britain and New Ireland

C Force, including 563 Australians under Lieutenant Colonel A. E. Robertson left Singapore on 28 November 1942. The force was sub divided: Captain J. Paterson's group (about 250) was sent to Kobe Kawasaki camp, and Robertson's (about 300) went to Naoetsu camp (No. 4 Branch Tokyo Camp).

G Force, including 200 Australians under Major R. Glasgow, was formed at Changi and sailed from Singapore for Japan on 26 April 1943 on the Kyokko Maru. At Moji, the Australians were taken to Taisho sub-camp, one of a group of camps round Osaka and Kobe.

J Force, including 300 Australians under Lieutenant Colonel L. J. A. Byrne, sailed from Singapore on 16 May 43. At Moji the Australians in J Force were divided into two parties, one being sent to Moji, the other to Kobe.

In June 1944, 267 Australians from Java and Timor were sent to Japan via Singapore and Takao, in Formosa. Their transport ship, the Tamahoko Maru, was sunk by an American submarine on 24 June 1944 . Of the 267 Australians, only 73 survived, and they were taken to Nagasaki .

On 1 July 1944, a group of 2,250 (including 1,000 Australians) under Major R. Newton left Singapore for Japan. They arrived in September 1944; some 200 were sent to Nagasaki to work on the docks.

A force of 2,300 prisoners commanded by Brigadier A. L. Varley left Singapore on 6 September 1944. These men had previously worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway. A group of 649 Australians embarked on the Rokyo Maru ; the Kachidiko Maru , carrying some 1,000 British prisoners of war, was also in the convoy. Off Hainan Island , both vessels were sunk by an American submarine: 503 AIF, 33 RAN and 7 RAAF personnel were lost on the Rokyo Maru; 80 survivors were picked up by American submarines. Those picked up by the Japanese were sent to the Kawasaki group of factories, and Moji and Sakata prison camps.

In 1945 only one party of Australians reached Japan from Singapore. This party of 600 Australians arrived at Moji on 15 January 1945 and were then sent to separate destinations.

Map of Japan. (299.58 KB)
Map of Japan.

Java and Timor

Black Force, under Brigadier A. S. Blackburn (7th Division), became prisoners of the Japanese after Java fell on 9 March 1942. Other Australians captured on Timor (from 2/40th Infantry Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel W. W. Leggatt, which was a component of Sparrow Force) were transferred to Java and Singapore, and thence to Thailand, Japan and elsewhere.

Australian troops were imprisoned in several camps in Java, the main ones were as follows:

Bandung camp, under Lieutenant Colonel E. E. “Weary” Dunlop. In October 1942 this group and others were moved to Makasura, near Batavia. In January 1943, as part of the 900-strong Dunlop Force (under Lieutenant Colonel Dunlop) the prisoners were transported from Java to Konyu, Thailand, via Singapore.

Bicycle Camp, Batavia. Brigadier A. S. Blackburn was the senior officer there. Black Force included 300 Australian seamen from HMAS Perth . On 4 August 1942, 20 officers and 20 NCOs under Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt arrived from Timor. On 11 October 1942, a group of 362 Australians (under Major L. J. Robertson) embarked for an unknown destination (it was A Force in Burma). In November 1942 prisoners from Bicycle Camp moved to Makasura (under Lieutenant Colonel Dunlop). Some six Java parties moved through Changi on their way to join other forces. Dunlop was commander of the sixth Java party.

Other camps were at Serang, Leles and Garut.

New Britain (Rabaul) and New Ireland (Kavieng)

The 2/22nd Battalion (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel H. H. Carr) and attached units were sent to New Britain as Lark Force to protect airfields at Lakunai and Vunakanau and seaplane anchorage. In October 1941 Colonel J. J. Scanlan took over the HQ New Guinea area. No. 1 Independent Company commanded by Major J. Edmonds-Wilson was sent to New Ireland and was dispersed along the chain of islands: Tulagi, Vila, Buka, Manus, and Bougainville. New Britain and New Ireland were invaded by the Japanese on 23 January 1942. Some troops escaped, but 1,049 Australians were captured on New Britain. Troops from New Ireland who were taken prisoner were sent to Rabaul.

In June and July 1942 an attempt was made to transfer the Australians to Japan in two drafts. One draft, containing about 60 officers and 19 Australian women (including 6 Army nurses), arrived safely (it left Rabaul on 6 July 1942 under Colonel Scanlan and reached Yokohama on the 15 July).

The other draft made up mainly of troops of the 2/22nd Battalion and 1st Independent Company (but also containing about 200 civilians) sailed in the Montevideo Maru, which was sunk off Luzon in the South China Sea on 1 July 42. There were no survivors among the prisoners.

Another 160 were killed in massacres at Tol Plantation, New Britain .

Senior Officers' Party, Korea (Chosen, Jinsen), Manchuria, and Taiwan (Formosa)

The Senior Officers' Party, made up of officers, engineers and technicians, left Singapore on 16 August 1942. The party included Major General C. A. Callaghan and 13 Australian senior officers. They were taken to Takao, Karenko, and other prison camps on Formosa, where they stayed until November 1944 when they were taken to Mukden, in Manchuria, via Japan. The engineers and technicians stayed at Takao until November 1942, when they were shipped to Moji and imprisoned at Yokohama.

The second group, a working party including 6 Australian officers and 90 men, was taken first to Takao, and then to Fusan and Seoul in Korea. In September 1943 one Australian officer and 50 men were transferred to Konan, also in Korea.

Singapore (Changi and Singapore Island)

Changi was the main prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. Some 14,972 Australians captured at the fall of Singapore were imprisoned there(as drafts were sent away, the numbers at Changi declined, then after the completion of the Burma-Thailand Railway, numbers rose again). Lieutenant Colonel F. G. “Black Jack” Galleghan of the 2/30th Battalion was commander of the AIF in Changi. Many work forces were assembled in Changi before being sent to the Burma-Thailand Railway and other work camps. It was also used as a staging camp for those captured elsewhere.

Prisoners were used on heavy labouring works in and around Singapore. Tasks included road-building, freight-moving, mine removal and work in chemical factories. These troops suffered from diseases such as beriberi, malaria, and dysentery. Prisoners of war were sent to the following camps around Singapore: Great World, Adam Park No. 1, Bukit Timah No 5, Thomson Road No. 3, Lornie Road, Serangoon Road, Adam Park No. 4, Woodlands, Pasir Pajang, River Valley Road, Havelock Road, and Blakang Mati; and in Malaya to Johore Bahru, Mersing, and Endau.

Sumatra (including nurses)

The main prisoner-of-war camp on Sumatra was at Palembang. In 1942 about 60 Australians were imprisoned there, but by the end of the war there were 243.

On 12 February 1942 just before the capitulation at Singapore 65 Australian nurses embarked on the Vyner Brooke. On 14 February the Vyner Brooke was sunk just off Banka Island; 22 nurses made it to land but were shot by Japanese soldiers. The only nurse to survive was Sister Vivian Bullwinkel; after ten days of freedom she was captured and imprisoned at Muntok. The nurses were moved from Muntok to Palembang , then to Muntok again and finally Lubuk Linggau. At the end of the war, only 24 nurses returned to Australia, the rest having died in captivity.

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