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By Nathan Hancock

Continued from front page

The teenage girl’s mother refused to believe that anyone could have lived through and survived in the conditions that were a way of life as a Japanese prisoner of war. She could not comprehend the way in which the Allied prisoners were treated; the beatings and executions by the guards, the deprivation of food and the labor camps in which the sick and injured were forced to work to make up diminishing work party numbers.

“I just told her Madam; I can assure you that what your daughter read in those books is true, they were written by men I worked with. And yes, we did not live in those conditions, all we could do is to try and survive in them,” said the 87 year-old Werribee resident.

Mr. Henderson, a former member of the No.1 Squadron R.A.A.F, became the only remaining ex-prisoner of war from the small farming community of Donald in country Victoria last year, where he grew up as a young boy. He was captured by the Japanese on the island of Java in March 1942, living and working on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway and in various prison camps in the Asia-Pacific region for almost four years. To survive he relied on mate ship, determination and the hope that one day, he will again touch foot on Australian soil.

Mr. Henderson lived and survived in the cramped and diseased ridden hulls of the Japanese ships that horded Allied prisoners to various prison camps in the Pacific. He served time in Changi Prison, the Bicycle Camp and towards the end of the war building camouflaged airstrips for the Japanese in the dense jungle of Thailand. But his closest brush with death came on the Thai-Burma Railway, which accounted for the single largest number of deaths of Australian prisoners by the Japanese.

There are less than 2, 500 ex-Japanese prisoners of war remaining in Australia and Mr. Henderson is the only member of the captured No.1 Squadron who still attends the annual gathering at the Shrine of Remembrance to honor the men that never made it home. This is his story.

Edgar Henderson enlisted in the R.A.A.F as a 20 year-old in 1935. After initial training as a wireless operator, Warrant Officer Henderson was posted to the No.1 Squadron’s Sembawang air base on Singapore Island in July 1940. However, when the No.1 Squadron was transferred to the southern island of Malaya 12 months later, Mr. Henderson remained behind in a Singapore hospital, eventually rejoining his mates in September 1941.

The No.1 Squadron was equipped with 300 personnel and a dozen-twin engine American made Hudson bombers, which flew reconnaissance missions up and down the east coast of Malaya.

On the 6th of December 1941, a routine reconnaissance flight spotted a fleet of Japanese troop ships, destroyers and cruisers heading for the east coast of Malaya. A ground defense force made up of Indian infantryman began organizing beach defenses for the island that day, constructing machine-gun posts and rolling out razor wire in reparation for the imminent Japanese invasion.

“It was about one o’clock in the morning on the 8th of December and all of a sudden I could hear gunfire and shouting. Then a voice came over the speaker saying that the Japanese were attacking us and they were landing on the beach. It was still dark and the Japanese were shooting at anything that moved. They wanted the airstrip you see.”

The Japanese invasion fleet attacked the Squadron on the eastern beach of Malaya about an hour and 20 minutes before the famous airborne attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. They were the first attacked as part of a mounting Japanese invasion force whose aim was to establish a platform to successfully invade Australia. (The International Date Line runs through the centre of the Pacific Ocean, even though the No. 1 Squadron was attacked on the 8th of December- west side, it was in fact, the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor-east side.)

The Indian Infantry Regiment assigned to protect the airbase fought a gallant defense against superior numbers. The Indians killed an estimated 1, 000 Japanese troops in what became a desperate effort to defend the one-mile stretch of land between the No.1 Squadron’s Koto Bahru airstrip and the landing beach to the east. At the break of dawn however, the fighting intensified.

“At 8 o’clock in the morning our first aircraft flew off to bomb the Japanese. We kept refueling the Hudson’s (bombers) and we ended up sinking one of their ships and setting a troop ship on fire. The Hudson’s also began strafing and bombing the beach landing parties and even if they weren’t accurate in hitting the landing boats the wave created from the bomb tipped the Japanese troops over and into the sea.”

The Hudson’s primary function in the Air Force was general reconnaissance and utility transport. Although it was powered by twin Cyclone engines, each of 1200hp and equipped with seven mounted .303 machine guns and a 730kg bomb load, the bombers were no match against the capable Japanese destroyers. Consequently, two bombers who “probably got a bit too close to the Japanese ships” were shot down off the coast of Malaya on that fateful day.

It was initially believed that all eight airmen perished in the encounter with the Japanese Navy, however it was later discovered that Flying Officer Don Dowie was the sole survivor. The Japanese captured Dowie two days after the No. 1 Squadron had evacuated the airbase at Koto Bahru. The South Australian was found floating in the sea aboard a native canoe, earning him the dubious distinction of being the first Australian prisoner of war captured by the Japanese. His mates only learnt of his ordeal 10 months later after a surprise reunion in Changi.

The emergence of daylight became an advantage to the invading Japanese and they began using their fighter planes to strafe the machine-gun posts and buildings that were dispersed around the airstrip. The Indian Regiment continued to resist for the remainder of the day but when another five grounded Hudson bombers were destroyed, Air Force Command in Singapore issued the order to retreat. In one day, the No.1 Squadron had been reduced from 12 planes to just five and not one of them left the airfield unscathed.

“We got the order to retreat, our commanding officer stating that we were not an infantry unit and that we should make our own way to safety. The plan was to fall back to the No.8 Squadron base at Kuantan, 70 miles south of Koto Bahru. We loaded up our tools and the wounded in the remaining five planes and they headed off for the No.8 Squadron base. None of the planes left the airstrip unscathed; they were all riddled with bullet holes.”

It would be more than three months before the Japanese captured the remaining members of the depleted No.1 Squadron, targeting the illusive Australians as they shifted around various island airstrips in a daring effort to protect the Pacific gateway to Australia. The Japanese invasion forces overwhelmed the undermanned Australians at No.8 Squadron airbase in southern Malaya. The Kuantan airbase was besieged by the unrelenting Japanese, forcing the No.1 and No.8 Squadrons to retreat further to Singapore.

“On arrival at Singapore pilots were dispatched to Darwin to bring back Hudson aircraft to build the Squadron to reasonable strength again.”

Although the Pacific War had only just begun, the severely undermanned Australian squadrons operating at less than full operational capacity suffered under the intense Japanese attack. It was almost impossible for the men of No. 1 Squadron to defend their Singapore airstrip whilst launching successful attacks against the Japanese. Again, they were left with no option but to retreat further to the western island of Sumatra.

“We arrived in Sumatra and joined the British R.A.F. Although we had few planes we still flew assaults against the Japanese from a secret, camouflaged airstrip near the British airbase known as P.1. Our airbase was known as P.2 and we were there for about a week until Japanese paratroopers raided the British airstrip, eventually discovering ours. We lost four planes and the British lost about 60 men that day.”

“We had no choice but to make our way to the southern coast of Sumatra to a town called Ostenhaven. I was in charge of about 30 men at this stage and we were hitching rides with the locals in trucks and cars, whatever was available. Of course I was one of the last to get a ride, having made sure the men were well on their way to the coast. About four other blokes and I got a ride with the local native people who were also fleeing the island.”

“From Ostenhaven what was left of the Squadron caught a ride on the Scottish vessel, Yoma, to the nearby island of Java. We arrived at an airstrip at Buntenyorg (now Bugor), about 60 miles south of the capital Jakarta. There we met up with three other retreating Australian squadrons that were part of the R.A.A.F Wing in Malaya. The No.8 Squadron had three planes, No.21 and No.453 had none and we only had two Hudson’s left. We had been on the run for around three months now and some of the men were getting struck down with malaria and dengue fever.”

With only five Hudson bombers between four Australian squadrons, Air Force Command in Melbourne ordered No.1 Squadron to take control of the remaining aircraft, resulting in the majority of the remaining personnel from the four squadrons to be sent home to Australia. Those ordered home, including members of the No.1 Squadron, were ultimately saved from Japanese capture. Edgar Henderson remained in Java.

“I remained at Buntenyorg airstrip with some of the other men from No.1 Squadron. We only had five planes to maintain you see, three from No.8 Squadron and two from ours, so there was no need for the other men. It was about March 1942 at this stage and on the first day we launched an attack against the Japanese two planes were shot down.”

“We were now down to just the three planes. We couldn’t resist the Japanese attacks without a full strength squadron and we received orders the following day that we were to rendezvous with a squadron of Catalina’s (boat planes) on the south coast of Java to take us home to Australia. There were about 180 of us and we loaded up a truck full of rations and headed off. But the Catalina’s never showed up. We found out later that they had been destroyed when the Japanese bombed Broome. It is interesting to note that only one of the original Hudson planes in our No.1 Squadron that left Australia in 1940 made it back home.”

The Dutch surrendered the island of Java to the Japanese on the 8th of March 1942, leaving the remaining 180 members of the resilient No.1 Squadron to the mercy of the enemy- and the invading Japanese one strategic step closer to Australia. The group of sick, tired and wounded men survived nearly two weeks in the jungle waiting undetected.

They were eventually discovered on the 20th March and were delivered an ultimatum by the Japanese; surrender or face the infantry.

“We were taken under Japanese escort on the 20th March 1942 and they were good enough to allow us to keep our ration truck. We were placed in a school ground for two days, as the Japanese didn’t know what to do with us. From there we were marched about 12 miles to Leles, where 3, 000 other Australian prisoners of war were being held. We were glad to be with our own mob.”

With a sudden influx of prisoners, the Japanese began preparing a prison camp based at the island’s capital city, Jakarta. The Bicycle Camp was only equipped to accommodate 600 men but more than 3, 500 Allied prisoners were initially interned there after capture in Java in early 1942.

“We were sleeping on verandas which wasn’t too bad at the beginning but when the rain blew in from the side we would get soaking wet. Our main job was to load Dutch valuables onto ships to be taken back to Japan. We were mainly loading electrical items. Some of the other boys were made to fill in bomb raid trenches. I don’t know what we would have done if we got raided.”

Edgar Henderson lived and worked at the Bicycle Camp for about eight months before boarding the Japanese ship King Kong Maru, which horded around 2, 500 prisoners to Changi Prison in Singapore. The sick and injured Allied prisoners were boarded down in the cargo hulls of the ships amongst the bilge water, living in spaces so confined that few men could have the luxury of lying down in comfort, let alone the dignity of reasonable sanitation.

Water and food aboard the ship was restricted and prisoners were given short periods of time above board, usually as little as 15 minutes. In some cases misbehavior or non-compliance with rules upon the discretion of the Japanese guards would result in torture or death. It has been well documented by historians such as Lord Russell of Liverpool that executions by decapitation were carried out on some Japanese ships carrying prisoners of war.

Allied attacks on Japanese ships carrying prisoners also became increasingly dangerous, as neither Allied or Axis governments would agree to distinctive markings for ships carrying prisoners of war. Around 1, 600 Australian prisoners died as a result of Allied attacks on Japanese ships including two Donald district servicemen, Mr. Harry Willey and Mr. Elvin Barker. They are both listed as ‘lost at sea.’

Mr. Henderson was interned in the barracks of Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison during the later months of 1942, spending three days in the jail, which he described as “much better living than the Bicycle Camp at Jakarta.”

“After Changi we were shipped out west to Rangoon in Burma aboard another hell ship, the Maybashi Maru. After spending one day in Rangoon we shipped out again, this time on the Yinagatu Maru where we were taken further to a jail at Moulmein. We spent three days at Moulmein jail before starting work on the Thai-Burma Railway in November 1942.”

Edgar Henderson was amongst a 1, 000 prisoner work party to begin work on the Thai-Burma Railway in southern Burma. The 400 km railway dubbed the ‘railway of death’ was created with primitive tools and pure physical stamina, with each mile of its construction claiming the lives of 64 Allied prisoners and 250 native slaves.

“We lived off about 90% light brown rice. Most of the men became sick with malaria and dengue fever and other such common illnesses, but each morning we still had to present about 800 men to work. It didn’t matter if you were too sick to move let alone work, the Japanese guards would come and get you to make up the work numbers. In our case, when the railway was completed there was only about 40 to 50 fit men to work, the rest were skeletons.”

“We soon learnt the familiar click of the safety catch coming off the Japanese guard’s rifle. They would always come at you in pairs, with one man standing guard with the rifle whilst the other would bash our mates. If you tried to interfere and help your mate you would be shot. A Sergeant in the Army made this mistake at the 26km camp and tried to help his mate who was being bashed across the head. He was quickly marched into the jungle and we heard a single shot. The Japanese guards came back and said he tried to escape so they had no choice but to shoot him. The camp commander and interpreter inspected the body and the poor bloke had powder burns on the back of his head. He had been executed.”

The Burma side of the railway was completed in October 1943, finishing high in the ranges dividing Burma and Thailand. The prisoners were forced to cut timber from the surrounding jungle to power a steam train that would take them to Thailand. Mr. Henderson spent new years day 1944 forced onto the train bound for Thailand by the prodding of Japanese bayonets.

“I was put to work making bricks at Tamarkan camp which was situated at the River Kwai. I spent three months in the camp hospital suffering dengue fever and malaria and was lucky that the Japanese weren’t calling on the sick to work at this time. I had the narrowest escape in the war at Tamarkan camp. Towards the end of 1944 the Allies began bombing the railway line and particularly the bridges. A United States bomber was heading straight for our camp and he dropped a bomb 100 yards from us, then 75, then 50 and then 25 yards away. We lost 13 men and 19 wounded that day. Had he had five bombs on board, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The Japanese evacuated the camp at Tamarkan on completion of the railway at the end of 1944, in which time over 13, 000 Australians worked on what many historians argue as a remarkable engineering achievement in some of the most horrible conditions endured by Australian prisoners.

“After 12 months at Tamarkan I was put in charge of about 500 men and we were sent to Katchu Camp in southern Thailand to build camouflaged airstrips in the jungle. We were there for about five months. At the end of the war in 1945 we were sent to Singapore and we boarded Australian troop ships to take us home. Although many of us were sick we didn’t want to spend time in hospital, we just wanted to get home. So we puffed out our chests and pushed out our chins, saying we were all right. Before I left the for the war I weighed 65kg, when I returned home I weighed about 45kg.”

Edgar Henderson spent 10 days in a Perth hospital due to illness resulting from the living and working conditions endured on the Thai-Burma Railway. He was only awarded a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Allowance 35 years after leaving the R.A.A.F in 1947.

“When I arrived home in Australia I never wanted to see the place again. But as publicity about what we went through grew in the 1960’s and with Weary Dunlop going back, I decided to make the journey. My first trip was in 1971 and my last was in 1999. I still hate the Japanese military but I have nothing against the Japanese civilians.”

Mr. Henderson believes that for Australia to prosper in the future, we all must adopt the spirit of the Anzac.

“I would just like to say to the civilians of Australia that if they wish to progress into the future, they must adopt the spirit of the Anzac, the mate ship and determination that kept us alive. It is much easier to accomplish something when you have the support of your mates and for us to achieve and get along better, we must support one another.”

An appeal to fund a memorial of national significance to honour and remember Australia’s ex-prisoners of war was launched by the Hon. Bruce Scott, former Minister for Veteran Affairs, on the 23rd of July 1999.

The $1.9 million memorial will built in the Botanical Gardens, Ballarat, relying on the donations from the Australian community. The appeal co-coordinator, Mr. Les Kennedy, said although the government has donated about $250, 000 more is still needed.

“We rely on ordinary people to donate money and although the government has been forthcoming with funding, we have only managed to raise $700, 000 of the $1.9 million needed. We have received donations from family members of ex-p.o.w’s from across Australia, but the likes of businesses and schools are not responding the way we thought they would.”

“We are just about to begin stage one of the construction phase but without further assistance from the government and more donations from the community it is hard to give a date on when the memorial will be completed. It is frustrating because I get families calling and asking when it will be finished but the fact is I simply don’t know when it will be,” Mr. Kennedy said. Werribee.

The landscaped memorial will span 130m in length with a wall height of 1.6m, consisting of a large reflective pool, eight basalt obelisks up to 4m high and paving stones cut in the shape of sleepers to signify the sacrifice made on the Thai-Burma Railway. The names of prison camps will be engraved in the basalt obelisks and the names of those who died in captivity are to be engraved in a polished black granite wall.

The memorial will have an emphasis on a journey of remembrance and tranquility, providing a place of contemplation for the families and the community to remember the 35, 000 Australians taken prisoner of war since Australia’s first conflict, the Boer War.

For more information on how to donate to the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial Appeal: contact Les Kennedy on 0418 503 202 or the Ballarat R.S.L on (03) 5332 3300.


-The Thai-Burma Railway accounted for the single largest number of deaths of Australian prisoners by the Japanese during World War Two. Over 13, 000 Australians worked on the railway and more than a third of all Australian prisoner deaths in the Pacific were on or immediate result of, working on the railway.

-The Thai-Burma Railway was created with primitive tools and pure physical stamina with each mile of its construction claiming the lives of 64 Allied prisoners and 250 native slaves.

-Only six of the 2, 500 prisoners at Sandakan in mid 1943 survived the war. Many of the ill and starving men died in the death marches to Ranau in early 1945- more than 250 km of steep and muddy track.

-The 807 members of Gull Force, (of which former Donald resident the late Barclay White was a member), who survived the Japanese invasion of Ambon in January-February 1942 and the subsequent massacre at Laha, were initially treated well. But in October 1942 they were divided and two thirds that remained on Ambon (including Barclay White) 77% died as the prisoners were starved and worked to death in the last year of the war. Barclay White was one of the ‘lucky’ few to survive.

-Conditions on board the ‘hell ship’ voyages to Japan, as elsewhere in Asia, were wretched. Sanitation was primitive and food and water supplies restricted, with voyages lasting up to 70 days.

-About 1, 600 Australian prisoners were sunk by Allied attacks, (Including former Donald residents Harry Willey and Elvin Barker who are listed as ‘lost at sea.’), because no government, Allied or Axis, would agree to special markings for ships carrying prisoners.

*Source- Professor Joan Beaumont, Head of the School of Australian and International Studies at Deakin University.

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Page Last Updated: 9/1/2002
C 2002 L Munro