Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war



If any of us get out of here this atrocity must be reported.
Captain Rod Jeffrey on witnessing the death of Gunner Albert Cleary at Ranau, March 1945

Prisoners had a fierce desire to live, and to make sure that even if they did not, their story would survive. Many kept diaries, invariably written in secret, often in minute writing. Discovery often meant punishment, even death.

Why did men and women go to such lengths to record their experiences? To record was a kind of resistance: to document was a kind of memorial. They made sure that even if they died, their writings, made on the backs of cigarette packets, on scraps and sheets of all kinds, would constitute a testament to what prisoners had endured and survived.

Today, those writings form the key evidence for our understanding of the prisoners’ experience.

AWM RC00974
A portion of a secret diary kept by Dr Rowley Richards on the Burma–Thailand Railway.(250Kb PDF file)

Japanese survey photo group

Japanese soldiers also felt the need to record the war. These images, taken on the Burma–Thailand Railway, most probably by a member of a Japanese film crew, must have first been intended as a record of achievement and service. In the 1970s, a member of a Japanese veterans’ tour gave prints from the original footage to an Australian ex-prisoner of war when they met by chance in Thailand. The photographs are now further evidence of what the men endured.


Prisoners of war laying railway track, about 1943.


Mock funeral of a prisoner of war, staged for propaganda purposes.


A Japanese crew filming prisoners of war entering a “bar”. The bar was non-existent; the film was most likely intended for propaganda purposes.

Prisoners of the Japanese