Remembering POWs in the Pacific, WWII: Two Stories from 2/10 Field Regiment

Of the 30,000 Australian service personnel who became prisoners of war (POWs) in World War Two (WWII), 22,000 were captives of the Empire of Japan. These POWs and other civilians were detained in camps or used as forced labour across the Asia-Pacific region, from Burma to Japan, Singapore to New Britain, Formosa to Timor. By the end of WWII, almost a third of these Australian POWs in the Pacific had perished and many of those who survived would live with lifelong scars, both physical and psychological. Their stories often feature brutal conquest and suffering, yet POWs did more than just endure traumatic experiences; they also demonstrated resourcefulness, a spirit of defiance and camaraderie. Ultimately, through their service and fight for survival, they inculcated an imperative to value our shared humanity and the dignity of life, even in times of war.

One of those who became a POW was Queenslander William Shaw Thompson whose story is featured in the collection of personal stories displayed at the Anzac Square Memorial Galleries.

Portrait of William Shaw Thompson c.1941, courtesy Thompson Family.

“Bill” Thompson was a storekeeper from Acland, near Toowoomba, when he enlisted for service in the AIF in WWII, aged just 21. Bill became a gunner with 2/10 Field Regiment and marked his 23rd birthday in Singapore on 9 February 1942, the day the Japanese Imperial Guards advanced towards the Australian forces on Singapore island, just a few months into the War in the Pacific. After the Allied surrender on Singapore, Bill Thompson would endure three-and-a-half terrible years as a POW, one of 15,000 Australians who suffered that fate on Singapore. Bill described some of what he went through in a letter home in 1945 that concluded "I won't tell you any more of my experiences, mother, as I think they are better forgotten". But those experiences included forced labour constructing the infamous Thai-Burma railway. 

Hundreds of thousands of POWs (including Australians and British), as well as civilian forced labourers from countries occupied by Japan, laboured day and night between 1942 and 1944 to construct this stretch of railway, over 400 kilometres in length, spanning Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). The workers and prisoners received inadequate food, clothing and medical treatment and were issued only the most basic tools to carve their way through rock and construct hundreds of bridges across extremely difficult jungle terrain. When their clothes wore out, they often worked in rags, or nearly naked. Tens of thousands died from exhaustion, abuse, malnutrition and disease; one estimate is 102,000 lives lost or “a life for every [railway] sleeper” . The official figure given for Australian POWs who died during construction is close to 2,700 lives lost. Bill Thompson estimated 200 of those in his labour unit of 500 (or 40%) did not “pull through”. The construction of the railway was prosecuted as a war crime after the end of WWII.
 

Sketch of a POW on the Thai-Burma Railway, from The Courier-Mail, 15 August 1947, p.2.

Bill’s letter, held by State Library of Queensland, and displayed at Anzac Square, reveals how thoughts of home and family helped him endure his ordeal. Having survived the war, he hoped for news about friends and looked forward to being back with those he loved. Like many of his fellow POWs, the horrors he endured made clear the values he held dear and had sought to defend through his service. Bill returned to Queensland after the war, where he lived a long life, albeit in the shadow of those wartime experiences, passing away in 2010.  

You can hear Bill’s full letter read out via the interactive Anzac Stories voice activation (visit here for details).

Extract from letter written by World War II soldier William Shaw Thompson to his parents, waiting to be recovered from a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Thailand.

Another POW whose values, like mateship and defiance, were evident in his service, was Thomas Hussey, a labourer originally from Mackay who became another gunner with the 2/10 Field Regiment. Tom was taken POW in Singapore and endured servitude on the railway as well, but he also spent long stretches of the war back in Selarang Barracks at Changi on Singapore. At Selarang, POWs managed to maintain somewhat better conditions than in labour detachments, especially earlier in the war. Amidst the privations and drudgery, POWs were also able to organise themselves to “keep busy” with classes, crafts and even entertainment. 

Tom, who had a gift for ventriloquism, was also a member of an AIF Concert Party, and his group staged regular concerts and plays, using props and sets that they managed to smuggle into the camp. (They even managed to find and bring in a piano.) Tom made his own “dummy” doll, named Joey, for his ventriloquist act, using materials scrounged from the camp and even cuttings of his own distinctive red hair. When Tom became one of the first Australian POWs evacuated from Singapore after the war, he was photographed alongside Joey.

Gunner T. Hussey and “Joey”, photographed after release from Changi prison, 1945, courtesy Australian War Memorial 116036.

Through their service to their nation and each other, in frontline action, during captivity and also after the war, POWs like Bill and Tom contributed a lasting legacy, demonstrating the complexity attached to concepts like service and “fighting to preserve our values and way of life”. By commemorating their service on occasions like Remembrance Day, we not only preserve their stories and the memories of those who were lost, but also highlight the sanctity of those ordinary acts of living they valued most, and sought to preserve in their darkest hours; acts that are never more important nor challenging to uphold than in theatres of war.

You can read more Queensland POW stories here:

  • Jack Flynn, POW and forced labourer on the Thai-Burma railway: Blog
  • Alan Groom, RAF pilot, from Auchenflower in Brisbane: Blog

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