[St Clements Monastery, Galong]
Every man who worked on the railway, in whichever section, would have an automatic passport to Heaven. They have all done the requisite stretch in Hell.
[Private Max McGee, 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, quoted in Australians on the Burma Thailand Railway: 1942-1943, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, 2003].
In 1952, returned prisoner of war (POW) and Burma–Thailand railway survivor, Father John Kennedy, applied to the Prisoners of War Trust Fund for a grant ‘for sustenance’. He explained in his application that
… since the war I have not been able to fulfill my duties as a missionary priest.
[Item V1725 Series B503 NAA]
Despite his circumstances and the valuable role he had fulfilled during his years as a POW, the trustees decided that he was ineligible for a grant from the POW Trust Fund. His application form, now in the Australian Archives in Canberra, states that the decision of the Trustees on 18 March 1953, was ‘no grants’. Father Kennedy’s wartime experiences are representative of many of the thousands of Allied POWs captured by the Japanese except that his role was not a combat role.
John Phillip Kennedy was almost 45 years old when he enlisted as a chaplain to the 2/40th Battalion AIF, part of the 23rd Infantry Brigade. His brigade was shipped to the Northern Territory where they marked time in Darwin awaiting their travel orders while Japan’s entry into the war became more and more certain. On 8 December 1941, the day that Japan entered the war, the men in the 2/40th, part of the 1400-strong Sparrow Force, sailed from Darwin to reinforce the small Dutch garrison in western Timor.
[B503, Item V1725, NAA]
Sparrow Force disembarked in Koepang on 12 December and two months later, on 20 February, the Japanese invaded the island. Most of the 2/40th Battalion (including Father Kennedy) was forced to surrender on 23 February 1942.
Father Kennedy’s service records note that he was posted missing on 22 February 1942, that he became a prisoner of war in Timor and that on 10 September 1945, he was liberated from Mukden in Manchuria. What happened to him during those three and a half years?
A small mess tin or dixie that was found among his personal items after his death in 1978 reveals much about his experiences during those years. He has engraved the names of many of the places where he was imprisoned on the small container that he carried with him throughout the war.
On Timor, Father John or ‘Pop’ as he was called by the Protestant POWs, was instrumental in helping the doctors with the wounded and burying the dead. He also designed a church which the men ‘constructed of coconut trees and leaves and completed with altar and seats.’ There he held Mass every morning and Rosary each evening as well as concerts, debating competitions and other entertainment for the men. In September 1942, the men were moved to Java and the POW camp at Tangjong-Priok (now Jakarta) where he set up a small chapel, even procuring an organ and encouraging the men to form a choir.
Early in January 1943, many of the men captured on Timor, together with men from the 7th Australian Division who had been captured on Java, were removed from Tangjong-Priok. Under the leadership of Colonel ‘Weary’ Dunlop they were loaded on to an old tramp ship and taken to Changi Barracks in Singapore.
On 19 January 1943, after just a week in Singapore, the men were packed into railway trucks for the journey to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand railway that the Japanese were building. This group, members of Dunlop Force, was the first large group of Australians to travel to Thailand. They were in poor condition and had few possessions and many went off with only the most meagre clothing. This group of almost 2000 Australians worked on central sections of the railway around Konyu, Hintok and Kinsayok. Father Kennedy was assigned to ‘Q’ Battalion which was mainly British troops with a few Dutchmen and Australians. Once again he managed to organise a small church for the men, near the river there.
Father Kennedy and the other POWs suffered from malaria, beri-beri and dysentery and lived in appalling conditions. Despite that, he continued to perform his religious duties while providing unflagging support to all the prisoners, both Catholic and non-Catholic. He was popular with all the men and they delighted in his colourful language. During a cholera outbreak on the railway he attempted to strengthen the men’s morale and reinforce their will to stay alive by shouting to a group of prisoners:
I don’t care if you go crook at me, or call me a bloody sky pilot, but a lot of you blokes are dropping your bundle. It’s about time you pulled your bloody finger out and got stuck into it.
[Quoted in Peter Henning, The Doomed Battalion, The Australian 2/40th Battalion 1940-45, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1995, p 209]
Early in 1944, after the railway had been completed, the Japanese moved Father Kennedy’s group back to Tamuan, Thailand, to a vast camp area there. But in June they moved again. Work parties for Japan were put into trucks back to Singapore and in early July ‘Pop’ was once again on an old rusty freighter, the Rushin Maru, heading to Japan via Manila, Formosa and Okinawa. From there he was shipped to a POW camp at Mukden in China where he remained until his liberation on 10 September 1945. Father Kennedy was one of the thousands of Allied POWs transported around the Asia-Pacific region on Japanese ships, many of whom died at sea. The transport ships were not identified as carrying POWs and a number of the Japanese ships were sunk by Allied submarines with much loss of life.
Father Kennedy was discharged from the AIF on 11 January 1946. He returned to Galong, New South Wales, where he lived in the small hermitage cottage in the grounds of the St Clement’s Monastery.
Although we don’t know a lot about his experiences during these years, we do know that Father Kennedy was so damaged by his wartime experiences that he was unable to practise fully as a priest when he returned to the Redemptorist Order after the war.
After his return, he gave up his public work as a missionary priest. Instead, Father Kennedy sought solace in his work in the monastery garden and farm and in his personal relationships there. He also maintained contact with other members of the 2/40th Battalion, even travelling to Tasmania for a reunion with them in 1978, just months before his death on 25 October that year. Father Kennedy died at Galong where he was buried with full military honours in the Galong Cemetery.
[Max Barrett, C.SS.R. Galong Cemetery, Church Archivists’ Press, Virginia, Queensland. 1995, pp 47-52]