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Pacific FrontFebruary 1942

Australian POW

Rowley Richards
He was one of 60,000 allied troops who surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore. An Australian doctor, he vividly describes the horror of imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese.

Rowley Richards’ words are read by Simon Burke.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: Rowley Richards, an Australian doctor, served during the war as a captain in the Medical Corps in the Australian army. He took part in the bitter retreat at the beginning of 1942 down the Malay Peninsula towards Singapore. 

Words of Rowley Richards: I think it was six or seven weeks to get from the far north right down to Singapore till the war finished. We were only in direct contact with the Japanese for one month. So from our point of view it was a pretty short duration, but it was literally go, go, go. I mean, we were on the move all the time, and when the final capitulation came we were mortified. We were prepared to fight on, but quite frankly we were all exhausted and, I was going to say almost relieved, that this moving and fighting was going to stop. We were realistic and we realised that there was no way that we could keep going. The civilian population were in a dreadful state, and probably the key thing was that the Japanese held the reservoirs of water. In other words, they controlled the water supply for Singapore Island and so they were in control. We realised that we had no way of continuing, but we were mortified that we had to surrender, and we were prepared, as I said, to fight on. 

Laurence Rees: Eventually, Rowley Richards and his comrades were put to work on the infamous railway the Japanese wanted built through Thailand and Burma. 

Words of Rowley Richards: 'Indescribable' is the best way to describe it. In the wet season it was just mud and slush everywhere, and I think it’s important to realise there was a difference between Burma and Thailand which we learned later. In Thailand the railway followed the main river Kwai, from the Burmese border almost right down to Bangkok, and that river was navigable. The roads often were in a pretty horrible state. But there was boats going up and down all the time with supplies and there were villages all along the way, whereas in Burma it was just a jungle track. They couldn’t get these little ox carts which carried our rations from base camp up into the working camps and while there were piles of food in the base camps along the way rotting, we were starving, yeah, that, that was pretty grim. Being wet all the time, again, was pretty grim. 

What happened was that after a fairly short period of time everybody, and by that I mean literally 99.9 per cent of the troops, had malaria, dysentery, beriberi, which is a vitamin deficiency disease, as a regular thing. But malaria, for instance, is characterised by shivering, very high temperature and violent shivering, which is pretty grim. Dysentery is frequent bowel actions. There’d be ten, fifteen, twenty motions a day, which would be fairly normal. Cholera made dysentery look like constipation, in that there would be a motion every, ten, fifteen minutes, literally. That would go on for hours until the patient died. Then there was beriberi where the tissues, the legs swelled up, the tummy swelled up, yeah, a retention of fluid that was. 

Oh, smallpox! Where there were sores all over them, and so it went on. Oh, the other condition which was pretty grim was tropical ulcers. Remember that our boots that we started off with from Singapore very soon rotted in the heat and wet and humid conditions, so that most of us acquired or made from the teak wood which is very, very hard, clogs, you know, little wooden clogs as footwear. That was all we had, no socks or anything to protect our calves and shins. And it was very easy to knock the shins to form a little ulcer which would become a bigger ulcer. 

Laurence Rees: As a doctor in the prison camp, Rowley Richards bore an enormous amount of responsibility. 

Words of Rowley Richards: There’s no question about being desensitized. But I think it was more a positive thing, that we were busy finding solutions to problems and doing the best we could. Now, post-war, I’ve realised that we were playing, what I call playing god. We had - the medical officers had - what I was going to say is the power of life and death over every man in the camp. It was a case of we had to make a decision to send one man to work or keep another man in the camp on no duties. Looking back on that, that was a terrible responsibility which we had, but at the time we were just doing our job, we didn’t think about it. And I guess if we made the wrong decision and sent the wrong person out to work and he died, there was no point in, I was going to say, crying over spilt milk. You did, we did, the best we could, and we just had to get on with it, carry on with the next one. 

It was a case of, I was going to say, a constant mental battle with the Japs. They would demand, say, so many hundred to go to work. We would provide less than that number, and sometimes we’d get away with it, other times they would have - the Japanese themselves or the Koreans - would put on a sick parade and line the men up whom I’d said were unfit for work. And they would come up to the first one and I’d say, ‘It’s malaria, five days no duty.’ ‘Oh no, two days.’ ‘No, alright, four days.’ ‘No, three days.’ And we’d have this little, I was going to say a game, although it wasn’t very funny. 

And we’d finally have the auction and we’d settle on, say, three days or two days, and then we’d go onto the next one. But when I came to some, somebody who didn’t have much to show, and this happened with beriberi, cardiac beriberi, and there was nothing much to see, but it was potentially fatal, I would say to the Jap, 'This man very sick, he cannot go work. If you send this man to work and he dies, after the war my number one, being, you know, the Governor General or the Prime Minister, will say to me why did that man die? And I would say because Yamamoto sent him to work. My number one will talk to your number one and you will be punished.' And this worked on most occasions. But there was particularly one occasion where I’d terrified the bloke so much that he just went berserk and gave me a hell of a beating. On this particular occasion he broke some front teeth - he made a job of it. But fortunately that was rare for me. I’d frequently get a belt across the back with a bamboo stick, rod, whereas the troops, you know, the poor buggers on the railway, they were copping it all the time every day. 

There were the occasional ones that showed some sort of compassion. They claimed to be Christians and were not quite so cruel, sadistic as the others. But there were some who were sadistic and cruel all the time, and they were known, they had nicknames, well, most of them, like, BB, the Boy Bastard, BBC, the Boy Bastard's Cobber, and so it went on, you know. They earned their titles by their cruelty and sadistic behaviour. 

Laurence Rees: But still, even living with this horror, according to Dr Richards, the Australians never lost their sense of comradeship.

Words of Rowley Richards: It didn’t matter how tough the situation was there’d always be the voice from the back with some witty comment which would break up the tension. And the ‘mateship’, as we call it, was a very, very important factor in survival. For instance, I never saw an Australian, sick Australian who didn’t have somebody looking after him. Now that did not apply with the other nationalities, the Brits, the Americans or the Dutch. And they often commented on the fact that the Australians did look after one another. That was terribly important.

Generally speaking the British just could plain not understand that Australian officers and Australian men could be on an egalitarian basis. They regarded that as poor discipline and all the rest of it. But what they didn’t realise was that with the Australians you would get a whole football club, for instance, would volunteer together, and you would have possibly a bank manager as a private under a bank teller who was a sergeant. Now, that’s a hard thing for people to understand. Now, when they were on parade and fighting, they recognised and respected rank and despite the fact that the Australians have a reputation of being undisciplined they did, in fact, respect the officers and the NCOs who earned that respect. Whereas with the British troops, there was no such understanding that you could have on parade two brothers, for instance, you might have one who’s a private and the other one who’s a lieutenant. Obviously on parade that one would be the lieutenant and the other one would be a private. But when parade was off they were brothers again. 

Laurence Rees: Towards the end of the war, Rowley Richards and his unit were sent to Japan on one of the infamous Japanese prison ships. And in the process he survived sinking by submarine, was recaptured by the Japanese and ended up in a prisoner of war camp on the Japanese home islands. It was here, in August 1945, that he at last received the news he had been longing for.

Words of Rowley Richards: One morning there were no working parties sent out, and later on the Japanese came on parade. They put a table out on the parade ground and on it a wireless set, not a radio a wireless set, and the voice came on which was obviously the Emperor. There was much bowing and sighing and bowing going on, then not very long it quietened down and then they were just, frankly, crying. And you didn’t have to be Einstein to realise that the war was over. When the war was finished in Japan, and we were moving out of camp, we commandeered sake from a sake factory which was just across the road and distributed a bottle of it - a litre bottle per man. And it’s dynamite. Obviously there was much singing and lots of drunks around the place, and there were only - by this time - there were only about 22, I think, Australians left. And I spent most of the day with them drinking and singing and getting full, and in the evening when I went to my Mess, my evening meal with the other four officers - the Brits - they ostracised me for drinking with the troops. ‘Not done old boy, not done old boy.’