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Australian Optimism Survived Through Years of Adversity

By ROHAN D. RIVETT, formerly of THE ARGUS, who was sole Brit- ish war correspondent among the prisoners in Burma and Siam, and who has just returned after three and a half years in the hands of the Japanese.

Despite the brutalities of our cap- tors, and the sordidness of our cap- tivity under the Japanese, the morale of the prisoners along the Burma-Thai railway was never broken, and remained high through- out. Incurable optimists of all nations in all camps constantly as- serted that it was only a question of "a few weeks more." Undeterred by repeated disproofs, many con- tinued to talk in this fashion from the days of the first big Russian successes at Stalingrad, and Mont- gomery's drive from Alexandria, until they finally tasted the sweets of successful prophecy in August, 1945, with heads "bloody but   unbowed."       Even when things were blackest during the rainy season of 1943, the constant reception of news from the outside world by means of the jungle radios had an incalculable effect on the fighting spirit of thousands of men slowly rotting in the so-called "hospital huts." There wasn't really a great deal to laugh at during our first l8 months along the line, but inter-Allied banter and wisecrack- ing, generally given and accepted in the best of spirit, was ceaseless, Our few hundred US representatives were survivors of the cruiser Hous- ton, sunk with HMAS Perth in Sunda Strait, after a heroic action on February 28, 1942, and men of the 131st US Field Regiment, on Java. When cash and food of all kinds ran low in the Batavia POW camp in 1942, the Yanks made a general round-up of all stray cats in the camp area. Next day, for the price of 2 guilders 50 cents, you could buy roasted "Alley rabbit," stuffed with onions, from enterpris- ing American vendors.


The Americans were always busy trying to "sell" all things Ameri- can to the British and Australian troops. On one celebrated occa- sion a truck full of Americans going up jungle in Burma called out to a group of Aussies working along the road, "Cheer up, lads, Uncle Sam will be here any day now." Quick as a flash came an Austra- lian's response: "Good lord! Is he a prisoner too?"

About this time we were told that when the railway was finished we were all being shipped to Japan to work in Japanese factories. Our Australian camp commander, Colonel C. M. Black, of Bondi, Syd- ney, advised the senior American officer to take out a form of shark proof insurance for his Americans, in case our own submarines sank the Japanese ship. Colonel Black suggested that all Americans should have painted on the fleshiest por- tion of their anatomy the words, "We won the war." "You see," said the Colonel pleasantly, "even the sharks won't swallow that."

The Korean guards and Japanese officers and NCO's provided us with a continual fund of jokes and laughs, thanks to their utter lack of a sense of humour, and their amazing stupidity. In Burma, early in 1943, the guards kept telling pris- oners about the terrific bombings of Australia by their heroic "Wild Eagles." "Darwin, bomb-bomb bomb, Townsville bomb-bomb bomb, Sydney, bomb-bomb-bomb."

The Aussies took all this with more than a pinch of salt, and they would then chime in, "What about Wanta- badgeree?" Without a second's hesitation the guard would nod his head. "Yes, plenty Nippon bomb bomb" The Australian: "What about Phar Lap?" The Japanese: Yes, bomb-bomb-bomb."

One Japanese at the Kun Knit Kway camp, in Burma, kept trying

to get a rise from some Australians with stories of the colossal damage done to Sydney by the small Jap- anese submarines which got through the boom. He said finally, "You know centre 'support' Sydney   bridge? Nippon torpedo. All finish." The Australians tried to explain that Sydney bridge had no pylons, the Japanese remained dogmatic. An exasperated Aussie finally went out and dug from his kit a post- card picture of the suspension bridge "There you are," he said,

there's no ------ pylon." For a   moment the Nippon was dumb- founded at this apparent loss of face. Then he rallied-Japanese fashion-"Ah!" he said, "they build big support after you prisoner."


Names bestowed on notorious guards were eloquent of fertile   minds, despite all the drudgery. "We had the BB (no explanation neces- sary), and the BBC that is the BB's Cobber. We had notorious "bash artists" in Liverlips, a gigantic Korean, with hideouts fea- tures; The Undertaker, who   bayoneted two officers to death: Peanut who graduated to 'Dillin- ger after a particularly atrocious murder of an Australian NCO; Pin- head, Mickey Mouse, The   Snipe, The Snake, The Bull, The   Frog, Dogface, and dozens more, whose brutalities and beastliness will never be understood by the strange people who think the Japanese "such a courteous little fellow," and who say " We just don't understand him." Even on days of heartbreaking toil   in the mud and tropical rainstorms.

we had our laughs. One day a 20 year-old seaman of Perth drove a spike in crookedly. One of the   engineers rushed at him and swung a murderous blow at his head with an iron bar. The Perth boy ducked and the Japanese overbalanced and crashed face downwards down 15ft of railway embankment. He lost not only some skin, but also   considerable "face" with his fellow Japanese. However, the sequel was not funny. Later that day the Perth boy was seized by two guards, dragged away into the jungle, and beaten up with rifle butts, his jaw being smashed in three places.

In May, 1944, the Japanese let us send a card home, but no message was allowed except the names of various people to whom you sent your love. Hundreds of prisoners, by a remarkable coincidence, listed three common relatives-Uncle Sam, Uncle Joe, and Auntie Winnie. The Japanese censors must have found this   far too subtle, because the cards duly got home.

At every stage along the line the Australians, at the risk of the most brutal punishments, outwitted and fooled their ignorant guards. Dozens of "traders" took their lives in their hands to break out of camps at night with piles of irreplaceable clothing and personal valuables to sell to the local Burmese or Thais for food or money. To be caught outside the prison camps in most cases meant certain death, but dozens of men risked their lives to get sorely needed funds to help sick comrades dying for lack of food in the "hospital" huts.

In Burma we had one exceptional Korean christened "George," who   was despised and ostracised by his fellow-Japanese, but who was very popular with the prisoners. One day he caught a big American trading with a Burmese in an ox cart on the side of the road in violation of the strictly enforced Japanese rule. Both the American and the Bur- mese expected a merciless beating up "George" came along, shook his head, and said. "Someone must get slappy-slappy." Then, after a long pause, he walked slowly around the cart and kicked the ox in the ribs.

"OK." said "George," "all go



"George" was rather sceptical about all the Japanese propaganda. One day, after Thanbyuzayat, the Japan- ese base in Burma, had been heavily bombed by Liberators, he said, "All British planes shot down, all Ameri- can planes shot down, last week's paper. Then what blanky planes bombed Thanbyuzayat?"

The Japanese propaganda news- papers like Greater Asia, published in Rangoon in English, were an un- ending source of amusement. Their stories went from the wildly improb- able to the utterly impossible with- out the journalists concerned batting an eyelid. By the time of what the Japanese called "the third battle of the Gilbert Islands" they had   destroyed three times as many American battleships and twice as many   American aircraft-carriers as the United States had ever built.

They told us in a much-headlined article how the gallant pilot of a Japanese plane, being out of ammunition, flung his rice cake at the   huge pursuing Liberator, thus causing the cowardly American pilot to   dive into the sea. They told us how one intrepid "Wild Eagle," also out of bombs and ammunition, dived at a British destroyer, drew out his sword as he swept passed the bridge, and leaning out of his cockpit neatly decapitated the commander of  

the destroyer.

On another occasion a Japanese pilot forced the pilot of a British machine to land his plane in the jungle, merely by shaking his fists in a threatening fashion at his enemy. The gallent Japanese then landed his own plane, jumped out, seized the wretched Britisher, tied him up with jungle vines, and marched him, as a captive, back through the jungle to the nearest Japanese aerodrome.

They told us of feats against over- whelming odds which made the most monstrous efforts of Goebbels trivial by comparison. The best method of dealing with Japanese communiques was to divide the reported Allied losses by 10 and take the Japanese losses as the figure quoted for Allied The ability to laugh at adversity and deprivation, the power of mocking, the extremes of their own   wretchedness, did not fail the Australians in even the toughest circumstances.   Time and again in the   jungle camps it was a case of:

"I tell ye not for your comfort, Yea, not for your desire,

Save that the sky grows darker yet, And the sea rises higher."

But, the boys just grumbled, swore, and went on with the job, having an unconquerable conviction that the day of liberation could not be  

long deferred.