Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war


Ambon and Hainan

Unknown to the Allies, prisoners were held at isolated camps on Ambon, in Indonesia, and Hainan, an island off the south coast of China.

Just over a thousand Australians, members of Gull Force, had been forced to surrender on Ambon in February 1942. By war’s end more than two-thirds of them were dead. At first, conditions were reasonable; later, treatment in Tantui camp deteriorated. Starvation and brutality prevailed. Some prisoners died in Allied raids on a Japanese bomb dump located next to the camp and others in medical “experiments”. A survivor described their hopelessness toward the end: “The men knew they were dying”.

Some of the Ambon prisoners were transported to Hainan. There they were forced to work like slaves. Many died of hunger, disease and beatings. On Hainan the prisoners’ discipline came close to collapse.

Their ordeal, often overlooked, was second only to Sandakan, the worst of all camps.

“We all wished to God it had never happened”

Captive officers had little but the power of their personality to enforce the discipline prisoners needed to survive. The Japanese sought to diminish the officers’ authority by humiliating them. On Hainan, Lieutenant Colonel William Scott sought to maintain discipline by sending prisoners who broke Australian military law to be punished by Japanese guards.

Some were badly beaten. The practice embittered relations between officers and men, turning prisoner against prisoner for decades after. Reflecting on the consequences, one officer said, “we all wished to God it had never happened”.


Lieutenant Colonel William Scott, DSO, the Australian senior officer of the prisoners on Hainan. Decorated for leadership in the First World War, Scott took command on Ambon only days before the Japanese landing. The circumstances of commanding in captivity confronted him with a wretched if not impossible task. Taken at the war’s end, this photograph suggests the burden of command he had carried during the three and a half years of captivity.


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Ikeuchi Masakiyo (right), responsible for the wretched conditions in the Tantui prison camp on Ambon, photographed during the war crimes trials in 1945. A prisoner explained: “He either started it, goaded it, reported it, or did nothing to stop it”.

Bakli Bay camp, Hainan: A member of the 2/21st Battalion two weeks after the war’s end, showing the effects of dysentery and malnutrition. “Jeez, they worked us like slaves”, a prisoner remembered.


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Tantui camp, Ambon: Three-quarters of the prisoners of war there had died by the time the camp was liberated.

Bakli Bay camp, Hainan: Australian and Dutch prisoners in the camp’s kitchen two weeks after the war’s end. “If it looked like you could eat it, even a bit of pumpkin skin, you’d grab it and eat it. You’d just eat it raw, you got that hungry.”


Bakli Bay camp, Hainan: The ramshackle prisoners’ barracks, with a vegetable plot in the foreground.


Members of the machine-gun platoon of the 2/21st Battalion who shared Hut 9 in the Tantui camp on Ambon signed this signal flag. Two-thirds of these men died in captivity. The hut itself was destroyed by Allied aircraft when they unwittingly attacked the unmarked camp in 1945.



Prisoners of the Japanese