Malaya 1942 – 1956

One of the stories my uncle Laurence Turner wrote when he was the Melbourne Herald correspondent ‘with the Australian troops in Malaya’ 1955-56 was headlined ‘Ghost camp in Malaya’. It was published on 1 or 2 February 1956.

laurence 2RAR

Laurence Turner (right) with 2RAR on patrol 1955

The story is listed in the Herald by-line file cards now at the State Library of Victoria, but not in the microfilmed copy of the paper. Luckily a battered copy of the story was found in my uncle’s papers. Perhaps the microfilmed copy was only published in an early (or late) edition of the Herald.

In January 1956, Turner ventured south to Singapore and some of the places in Malaya where Australians fought in 1942. He’d written about schools in Singapore, the Kranji war cemetery, Raffles hotel and other matters – none of which seem to have been used by the Herald, but may have been picked up by the Sun News-Pictorial Melbourne, the West Australian, Brisbane Courier-Mail, Adelaide News or the Sydney Morning Herald.

In his five months with 2RAR in Malaya, he scooped AAP-Reuters with stories on the first ambush of Australian troops, the death of Sergeant Cecil Anderson, the January 1956 peace talks at Baling, the bungling of housing for  the families of  Australian troops and the shoddy conditions of Australian troops, including the docking of the Malaya allowance of soldiers while ill or wounded in hospital. His stories were influential in improving conditions for the men and their families for the duration.

A keen student of Australian military history, Turner visited the Second World War sites in Malaya – Parit Sulong where 107 Australian wounded were massacred by the Japanese on 22 January 1942, and the site of the successful ambush at the Gemenceh River near Gemas on 12 January 1942.

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In  January 1956 Turner met Michael Mathews a high school teacher at Batu Pahat, now (and then) a small coastal town between Johore Bahru and Malacca.

In late 1941 it was the main Australian base in Malaya.

The men Mr Mathews met were mostly from the 2/30th Battalion and the 2/10th Field Ambulance, part of the tragic 8th Division. They had arrived in Singapore in August 1941, stayed at Birdwood Camp at Changi, and then moved some 90 kilometres to Batu Pahat in late September.

The 2/10th supported the 2/30th in January 1942 in the first Australian action against the Japanese – at the famous ambush on 12 January at Gemas on the Gemenceh River.

The 2/10th Field Ambulance was formed in 1940 and comprised 292 all ranks. Only 131 men returned after the war –  they were killed in action or died as prisoners of war at Sandakan or on the Thai Burma Railway.  [And 22 were detached as part of Lark Force on Rabaul, where 15 were either murdered at the Tol Plantation massacre on 4 February 1942 or lost on the Montevideo Maru 22 June 1942.]

The 2/30th suffered 20 killed or missing believed dead and 58 wounded in Malaya in January. The Japanese casualties were thought to be about 1,000. After the surrender in Singapore, 1150 of the 2/30th were made prisoners of war. Many were sent to work on the Burma-Thailand railway, others to Borneo, or Japan. Over 300 men from the 2/30th died during captivity.

‘Mr Mathews still talks of “My friends, the Diggers.”  Then he says sadly:  “I wonder what happened to them all?”

Turner recorded nine names but couldn’t answer Mathew’s question. I have details of what happened to eight of the nine.

One name I have so far been unable to track down is NX 4377 Pte D.O.R Blair, C Coy 2/30th Bn.

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Christmas card 1956 from Michael Mathews to Laurence Turner and Bruce Reddaway, Herald photographer.

Batu Pahat— In the dusk, at the foot of the jungle-clad hills near this Malayan coastal town, a middle aged man, pipe in mouth, can sometimes be seen walking slowly through the waist-high undergrowth.

Here and there he’ll shake his head as he kicks his shoe at a particular spot. If you look closely enough, you’ll see tears in his eyes  …

Mr Mathews was a high school teacher, still talks of “My friends, the Diggers.”

Then he says sadly: “I wonder what happened to them all?”

Mathews house was just outside then main gate of the camp  – on Turner’s visit several of the camp buildings were still standing.

‘His place became ‘open house’ to the Diggers. An AIF doctor attended one of Mr Mathews’ children when she was sick; an AIF padre christened another … He had Christmas dinner 1941 with the Australians. Many of the men he sat joking with around the mess table were dead a few weeks later.

‘Poor old Mick O’Hara … fine  fellow … was always at my place .. died while a prisoner in Japan, I think.

‘And the doctor, Captain Hazelton … he came out in the middle of the night to attend my sick daughter… good of him. Wonder where HE ended up?

‘Then there was Staff-Sergeant Mortimer and a chap named Nathan. We had some wonderful times together. Could you find out if they ever got back to Australia?

… Mr Mathews takes a bundle of letters from his pocket. I note down the names of some of the Diggers to whom he had written letters he never posted.

‘NX 595093, George H Blues … NX37745 George Aspinall, NX 38845 Michael O’Hara, Francis D Deanes …

‘I wonder what happened to them? Those poor Australians … we saw many of them floating dead in the river after the Japs had bound their wrists and ankles with wire, then bayoneted them and thrown them in the water … terrible…’

George Henry Aspinall  NX37745 2/30 Battalion


George Aspinall

George Aspinall was the ‘Changi Photographer.’ Aspinall recounts in Tim Bowden’s terrific book Changi Photographer (George Aspinall’s Record of  Captivity 1984) how while the 2/30th were at Birdwood Camp he used to visit Wong Yeow’s photographic shop in Changi village and learned to process his own film. After the war it was named the George Camera Shop and was still there when I visited in the late 1990s.

Aspinall’s skills later enabled him to take and print his extraordinary images of captivity at Changi and on the Thai Burma Railway. Aspinall scrounged some x-ray film and chemicals while working around Singapore, before working on the railway from April to November 1943. He survived, and died in 1991.

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D Company, 2/30 Battalion (Photo from Changi Photographer, Tim Bowden)

Aspinall also took a number of photographs of his comrades at Batu Pahat, before they were made prisoner. This one is of 13 members of D Company, 2/3o Battalion.

 Aspinall is standing on the far right.

George Choat (second from left, standing) was killed in action on 15 January 1942 and is remembered on the Singapore Memorial.

Allan Ray Cox  (fifth from left standing) died on the railway and is buried at Thanbyuzayat in Burma.

Norman Sydney Grist (front row, far left) died at Ranau on 10 July 1945, Borneo after the death march Sandakan and is remembered on then Labuan Memorial. He was too ill to attempt the escape from Ranau – six escapees survived of 2434 prisoners at Sandakan.

Jim Baird (third from left front row) died when the Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed by USS Sealion 12 September 1944, en route from Singapore to Japan. It carried no Red Cross markings -1159 POWs died.

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Sapper Christopher Arthur Nathan VX16789 2/10 Field Regiment

Nathan was one of six 2/10 Field Regiment who were in F Force sent to work on the Thai-Burma Railway from Changi in April 1943. There were 7000 men in F Force – 3600 British and 3400 Australian allegedly moving to a place where food was more plentiful than in Changi – a holiday camp.  Instead their destination was the Thai Burma Railway. Within eight months nearly 50 per cent were dead.

Private George Castle  (HQ 8 Division) arrived in early September 1943 at the F Force Hospital at Tanbaya, which was at the 420 km peg of the railway, 70 km from the Thai border at Three Pagodas pass. He wrote: ‘stricken men were found with gaping ulcers in legs, arms & backsides. Almost every man in that ward of thirty had ulcers, malaria and dysentery – their only relief was a merciful death. (in Heroes of F Force, ed Don Wall 1993)

On 9 September Castle wrote ‘Beri Beri has reached heart so if I don’t get vitamins soon will not need them.’ Chris Nathan lay in that ward or another nearby on that day, 9 September 1943 He died, Castle survived.

Chris Nathan is buried at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, south of Moulmein in Burma. Of the 834 officers and men of the 2/10 Field Regiment who became prisoners, 270 died.

Corporal George Haldane Blues NX 59093 2/10 Field Ambulance

George Blues was one of 14 2/10 FA sent from Singapore to Japan as part of the C Force, arriving on 7  December 1942.  He was in the group that went to Kobe where they were forced to work in the Kawasaki shipyards – and were starved and suffered innumerable beatings from Japanese and Korean guards.

George Blues survived, but Private George ‘Slim’ Dunne (C Force) did not. 2/10th Field Ambulance comrades Private Roy Rigelsford  NX27158

and WOII Joseph ‘Till” Tosi NX 51987 were also sent to Japan after working on the railway, in A Force. They are all buried in the Yokohama War Cemetery.

Sergeant Henry William Mortimer NX26393 2/10 Field Ambulance

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Henry Mortimer

Sergeant Mortimer was one of over 2000 Allied prisoners of war held in the Sandakan POW camp in north Borneo, having been transferred there from Singapore as a part of B Force. The 1494 POW’s that made up B Force, were transported from Changi on 7 July 1942 on board the tramp ship Ubi Maru, arriving in Sandakan Harbour on 18 July 1942. Sergeant Mortimer, aged 47, died as a prisoner of the Japanese on 17 February 1945 at Sandakan. He was the son of Henry Walter and Emily Jane Mortimer, and the husband of Veronica Beatrice Mortimer, of Lakemba, NSW. He is remembered on the Labuan Memorial. 

Captain Alan Richard Hazelton, 2/10 Field Ambulance

Captain (later Major) Alan Richard Hazelton, of C Company, 2/10 Field Ambulance, was the Senior Medical Officer for ‘D Force’ in camps along the Burma-Thai railway and at Nakom Pathom Base Camp in Thailand. Hazelton was born in Sydney in November 1915 and enlisted in the Medical Corps on 25 July 1940.

Colonel ‘Weary’ Dunlop was CO of various hospitals along the railway. Hazelton was one of his deputies at Tarsau in November 1943. In July, on a visit to the terrible Konyu camp Weary noted ‘Konyu is a real camp of death … the officers are living right up against an open latrine used by the hospital dysentery cases, so it is no wonder they are having trouble.  … Hazelton was at Konyu, looking pale, yellow and very tired.’

Weary: ‘Those in the medical services had the stimulus of the dark needs of a deluge of piteously ill men, and most doctors were fearless in approaches to our captors. However, much of the salvage of sick and broken men was achieved by securing the involvement of the whole stricken force in the sharing of slender resources, money and food, and contributing ingenious improvisations and gifts of labours of love out of their ebbing energy.’ (War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, 1986)

Hazelton survived and returned to Australia after the war.

Michael O’Hara NX38895 2/10 Field Ambulance
P02467.372 Mick O'Hara

Mick O’Hara

Private Michael Thomas O’Hara was sent to Sandakan in  B Force in July 1942. Private O’Hara, aged 34, died on 29 May 1945. He was the son of Charles Andrew and Margaret O’Hara, of Mayfield, NSW.  On 29 May 536 prisoners were sent on the second march to Ranau; 288 sick were left behind. (Lynette Ramsay Silver, Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence 1998) We don’t know whether Mick died on the march or at the camp: Lynette Silver, after her exhaustive enquires into the Sandakan tragedy, has his death date as ‘presumed’ to be on 29 May. He is remembered on the Labuan Memorial.

Earlier at Batu Pahat Mick O’Hara, a teetotaller, was involved with three mates, in an escapade involving beer, a lighted cigarette and burning mosquito nets in their tent- and the disappearance of the evidentiary beer bottles.(Medical Soldiers ed Ray Connolly and Bob Wilson 1985)

The three pals  were Privates Frank Deans,  Hugh  Stone and Bren Leahy.

Private Francis Davidson Deans  NX 38917 Malaya 2/10 Field Ambulance. Frank Deans, born in 1908, was a Sydney police constable who enlisted on 10 July 1941 and survived Changi and F Force on the Thai Burma Railway.  Wal Buckley (NX 46754 in Medical Doctors p 254) tells a story about Frank Dean and his ‘territory yarns’.

‘I camped at Tambaya one night and there were a lot of Pommies listening intently and Frank, knowing this, said if any of you British boys are contemplating emigrating to Australia, there’s one thing to be  wary of. Yeah Frank, what’s that? Just don’t annoy those Artesian Bores.

WhenPrivate Brendon Timothy Joseph Leahy NX36161 was paraded before Major Hazelton the incriminating beer bottles had disappeared. After the incident he was known as Torchy Leahy. He also survived the war.

Private Hugh Dalrymple Stone NX2710 was part of B Force and died at Sandakan on 12 May 1945. He is remembered on the Labuan Memorial. His father also WOII Hugh Dalrymple Stone (1887-1947) was a Gallipoli veteran (17th Battalion) and served with the 14th Light Horse in Palestine. He re-enlisted in 1940-2 for home service.

In February 1956 Mrs Little of Dandenong wrote to Turner, ‘ I have read with great interest your article … My friend Mick O’Hara died a p.o.w. but I would like to contact Mr Mathews – would it be possible to write to him.

I have a beautiful little dish and chop sticks, a gift his family sent me, also a number of snaps of them.’

I wonder whether Uncle Laurence replied.