Fate of POWs in Pacific

The fall of Singapore occurred on 15 February 1942 when all Allied troops were ordered to lay down their arms at 8.30pm. Some 15,000 Australians became Prisoners of War (POW) on Singapore.

Besides Singapore, other Australians were captured in Java, Timor, Ambon and New Britain. Some 8,000 Australians lost their lives while in Japanese captivity. This figure represents nearly a quarter of Australian deaths in the Second World War.

31 January 2020

Changi

Changi, on the north-east of Singapore Island, was the largest POW camp. For many Changi was a transit stop as working parties began to be dispatched to other areas. In February 1942 there were around 15,000 Australians in Changi, but by mid-1943 less than 2,500 remained due to the constant transition to other camps and work sites.

By comparison with death rates at camps on the Thai-Burma Railway and other places such as Ambon and Borneo, the POW death rate at Changi was relatively low.  By August 1945, however, conditions in Changi Gaol had significantly deteriorated as more than 5,000 Allied POWs were being forced to live in a prison built to hold 650.  Three or four men were frequently crowded into one small cell. Changi was liberated by troops of the 5th Indian Division on 5 September 1945 and within a week the POWs were being repatriated back to Australia.

Thai-Burma Railway

To maintain their armies in Burma, the Japanese decided to construct a railway, 420km long, through jungles and mountains from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Work on the line began in October 1942, and the railway was constructed from both the Thai and Burmese ends.

POWs suffered greatly while working on the Thai-Burma Railway. Cramped sea and rail journeys followed by long marches meant prisoners were exhausted before they reached their camps. Meagre rations caused starvation and prisoners were regularly beaten while being forced to carry out extremely hard labour, sometimes almost around the clock. A lack of basic medical equipment and supplies meant that men fell prey to all manner of tropical illness as well as cholera.

Of the 60,000 Allied POWs who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway, some 12,500 died, many from disease, starvation and ill-treatment. A great many more Asian labourers, estimated at 75,000, also lost their lives while working on this railway.

Sandakan

In 1942, some of the soldiers captured at the fall of Singapore were sent to Sandakan in Borneo to build an airstrip. The prisoners were subjected to appalling conditions and repeated bashings. By late 1944, fearing Allied landings on Borneo’s coast, the Japanese decided to send more than 2,000 Australian and British prisoners westward to Ranau.

Prisoners, most weak and sick, staggered for some 260 kilometres along jungle tracks. Many died on the way, those unable to continue were killed and those too weak to march were left behind in Sandakan. Of some 2,500 Allied prisoners held at Sandakan and Ranau in the first half of 1945, only six, all Australians, survived the war.

Fast Facts

Australians who served

  • Some 20,000 Australians served in the Malayan Campaign and the Battle for Singapore

Casualties

  • More than 1,800 Australians died during Malayan Campaign and the Battle for Singapore
  • More than 1,400 Australians were wounded
  • Some 15,000 Australians became Prisoners of War with the fall of Singapore

Specific medals

  • Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson received the first Victoria Cross to an Australian during the war in the Pacific for his role in the Battle of Muar River. He was taken into captivity on 15 February 1942 when British forces surrendered. He was released in August 1945.

Cemeteries

  • More than 4,400 Commonwealth and Allied soldiers are buried at Kranji War Cemetery
  • More than 850 remain unidentified in unmarked graves
  • More than 2,500 Australian soldiers are buried at Kranji, or remembered on the Singapore Memorial to the Missing

More information