We were very excited. Were looking out the heads and couldn’t see anything, and then suddenly we saw this tiny little ship coming in, and then another one and another one. The first that came in was the [HMAS] Glenelg, then the Cootamundra, Junee and Latrobe. And each of us was allocated to a corvette.
[Jack Panaotie, Gull Force survivor, In Captivity: Australian Prisoners of War in the 20th Century, Commonwealth Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, 1999.]
Once the official Japanese surrender formalities at Tokyo Bay had been completed, the recovery of the POWs began. At last, the thousands of men and women who had been in Japanese prison camps for up to three and a half years were liberated. Royal Australian Navy ships, AIF troops and RAAF personnel waiting at surrender points around the south-west Pacific area moved into the Japanese occupied areas to formalise regional surrenders and to liberate the POWs and internees. Some of the POWs held in camps in Japan and Korea were liberated by American and Russian troops.
[Fawcett family collection]
Captain Wilf Fawcett, 8th Division Signals, was one of a small group of Australians imprisoned for three years in the Keijo camp in Korea.
As you may have gathered from my other scrappy notes, wires etc, sent as opportunity offered, we were liberated by US troops on (I think) Sunday 9 Sep, and within a few hours had travelled by train to the port of Jinsen where we embarked and spent a night on a U.S. hospital ship. Next morning, bathed, fed & fumigated we transferred to a U.S Transport (the ‘Noble’ P.A. 218). All the ship’s staff were wonderfully hospitable. On arrival at Manila we came by bus some 20 miles to this camp, where we were met by Australians who first gave us a meal and then quartered us… It was a wonderful feeling to be among our own people once again. Then to top it off I found awaiting me letters from home.
[Captain Wilf Fawcett, lettercard to his family from 3 Australian PW Reception Camp, Manila, 27 September 1945.]
Planning for their rescue had begun in 1942 and by August 1945, many of the recovery teams had already set up reception depots in strategic areas. A special organisation for the Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees (RAPWI) had been created to cope with the recovery of thousands of Allied prisoners during the weeks after the Japanese surrender. RAPWI personnel were not only to take control of the prisoner of war camps and care for the newly recovered ex-prisoners but also to recover any surviving camp records of prisoners and apprehend any enemy personnel charged with maltreatment of their prisoners. Critically important was the dispatch of nominal rolls to the various Allied governments so that waiting families could finally be notified of the fate of family members.
During the weeks after the surrender, RAN ships transported thousands of Australian POWs in the south-west Pacific area to the RAPWI reception camps in Singapore, Labuan, Morotai and the Philippines.
Before they boarded the evacuation ships the POWs were 'processed'. They received medical attention, they were de-loused, bathed, re-clothed and, if they were well enough, they were interrogated about their experiences. The ex-prisoners were fed high fat diets - 'much more food than most of us can eat' – many of them putting on kilos within days of their rescue. Once they had been 'fattened up', and their bodies rid of the more obvious and debilitating prison camp afflictions, they were sent on to Australia by sea and air. Nearly 15,000 ex-POWs arrived home during September and October 1945. They wondered what sort of reception they would receive and what they would find when they got there.
For many of the returned prisoners their liberation was just the beginning. Now they were returning home to live with family and friends they had not seen for up to five years and coming back to a country that had changed dramatically during their years of captivity.
Once the repatriation of the surviving POWs and internees had been completed, the Australian men and women serving in Borneo, Papua and New Guinea were able to come home. During the last months of 1945 and the early months of 1946, many of the Australian troops, aircrews and ships returned. A number of personnel remained on active service for some months after the end of the war in the Pacific, some even moving on to Japan to serve with BCOF (British Commonwealth Occupation Force)
Captain Maurie Arvier, 2/10th Field Regiment, was released from Lintang POW Camp at Kuching. He was one of the officers removed from the Sandakan POW camp in north-east Borneo when the Japanese discovered the underground network in July 1943.
Australian troops, from the 9th Division, liberated the Kuching camp on 11 September 1945. The POWS were removed to the 9th Division Prisoner of War and Internees Reception unit on the hospital ship Wanagella for their voyage first to Labuan, and then to Australia.
To begin with, together with the rest of the officers from Kuching, I am on this hospital ship with its nose pointed towards Labuan. The authorities have seen fit to treat us all as hospital cases! – consequently from the stinking bug-infested 3/4 of an acre where we spent the last 23 months, we have now the unbelievable luxuries of cups and saucers, clean (& white) sheets, women’s voices, soap and toilet gear ad lib, news from a loudspeaker, paper and pencils, tiled bathrooms, porcelain water closets and toilet paper… in fact everything we see is so new and fresh and clean, yet seems part of a forgotten age.
[Don’t worry about me: Wartime letters of the 8th Division A.I.F., collected and edited by Robyn Arvier, Launceston, 2004]