Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

Tape of 14

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What was it like for this young boy of 18 to be setting off? You've got as far as Darwin. What were you feeling about this? Was it the adventure you'd hoped for?

Well, can I say this about travel, that I'd never travelled any further south than Port Kembla, north, Newcastle, and west, Katoomba. And I got on that train at Alexandria Railway Station and went right across, stopped at Broken Hill, and then from there down to Terowie in South Australia, and then right up again on the old, what they now call the Ghan, up to Alice Springs and then of course after leaving Alice we then transferred into trucks and it was a dirt road between Alice Springs and Birdum, and we would do 200 miles a day. And that journey is still with me today, particularly the sunsets in the Northern Territory. In late July it was so magnificent, you know, their sunsets are so beautiful. And what we would do because we were sitting in the back, we would have red dust, about a quarter of an inch of red dust on us, and we'd have to wash this red dust off in the bore water and of course your hair would stand up as straight as a poker because of the harshness of the bore water and using this bore water in washing yourself. From there of course we went to Birdum and then, in those days, there was a railway line from Birdum up to Darwin, so we would trans-ship again into cattle trucks and up to Birdum, right up to Darwin. So we arrived in Darwin in early August 1941. So it was a great -- that in itself was a great adventure for me personally. But for the next four months we stayed in Darwin and I was stationed at Larrakey Barracks and that was a very interesting experience in itself.

Why was it interesting?

Well, of course I started fighting again, and I had two fights in Darwin, one with Jimmy Gray and another one with Danny Holden and [laughs] they're a story in themselves.

Why, did you win, or ...?

Yeah well, the one with Jimmy Grey, which was the first, I was well ahead, I knocked him down a couple of times in the earlier rounds, and then there must have been a lot of betting. He was a waterside worker at that time and all the civilians and waterside workers in Darwin were on Grey because they thought it was gonna be a great bet but when Grey could see I was gonna win the fight, he goes over and clocks the referee and of course the referee has ruled it out, a no-fight, and of course all bets were off. But the next fight I fought, I fought Danny Holden who was a much more scientific fighter, and I fought him over 10 three-minute rounds and I won that too. So ...

Do you think ...

... so, and I was getting good money for both fights, I might say.

Did this make you a bit of a hero with your mates?

Oh ye, well, I don't know about hero, but I was certainly fairly popular amongst my mates and I was well-known of course in Darwin at that time because I was a fairly well-known fighter at that time.

And so this was all reinforcing your feeling that when the war was over that's where you were going to go?

Yes. Actually, just before -- of course you know the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and on the 7th of December, but in Australia it was the 8th of December and on that day we got our marching orders -- and exactly on that day I received a letter from a promoter who had promoted my fights in the Sydney sports arena, had the authority of the police, had the authority of the government, or the Army, to bring me back to have a charity fight with Cec Overall, who was then one of the best fighters in Australia at that time. But I was so much in a hurry to get across to go to the war that I didn't bother about, I didn't answer, Charlie Lucas who was the promoter, until I'd got to Timor. I wrote and said I couldn't come.

So that wasn't a difficult decision for you?

No, no, of course. That's the trouble. Once you get into the Army, the Army blokes want to get into a fight -- if there's gonna be a fight, they wanna be in it. It's a mentality one has; it's very difficult to be able to overcome patriotism.

And that's something you really understand from your own experience?

Personally. Very much so. Very much so.

So when did you get to Timor?

The eighth and we were there, landed on the 12th. And there was another ship came over with us and the independent company that we were landed at Koepang on the western end of the island of Timor and of course the independent company then went up to Dili. And a lot of people don't realise that we invaded a neutral Portuguese East Timor. We were invited into Dutch West Timor by the Dutch Government, the Dutch authorities, but on the Portuguese end we invaded that and in fact the East Timorese have suffered a great deal because of the invasion at that time, because you know during the time of our invasion of that country from '42 or really late '41 through to '45, something like 40 to 50,000 of their people were either killed or starved by the Japanese during that occupation period, out of a population of 650,000 people. Now they suffered that because they protected our people in the hills for a year after, all through 1941, the end of '41 and right through 1942, until submarines took our forces off East Timor.

Why did we invade?

Well, I think, I mean, you've got to ask the Army that at that time but they just thought the Japanese may invade. But in fact if you look at the question of history, the Japanese didn't occupy Macau in China, they left that neutral right through and of course at that time the Portuguese Government was a neo-Fascist-type government and therefore why would they need to invade East Timor? But I think our military strategists determined that we should occupy East Timor, and we did. Now they suffered, even though they were the ones that protected our troops for so long, they suffered more -- if you give comparisons, for instance, the way the East Timorese suffered during the war years. They lost between 40 and 50,000 people out of a population of about 650,000. We lost 27,000 killed in action or died as prisoners of war out of a population of between seven to eight million people. So you can see the magnitude of the loss of the East Timorese. We in Australia owe a great moral debt to those East Timorese. We've never paid that debt. We've failed them so long, so many times. We are even failing them today by not dealing with their question, raising their question, in the United Nations. We've never given any leadership and support of the East Timorese people.

What about your own experience of Timor? What happened after you landed?

Well, we of course proved and calibrated our guns, which were the six-inch guns, at Koepang Bay, and there was a 5th column or rumours that the Japanese were landing on the other side of the island all our infantry went round of course to combat those soldiers. The artillery unit at Koepang was sent to a place called Babaoe where the Japanese had landed paratroops and so we were made into a kind of infantry, untrained I might tell you, and we were at this village of Babaoe to take on these Japanese paratroops. And I tell this story that ummm I always remember that they had little one-man mortars and, you know, the mortar goes off and then there's an echo comes back and you say, 'Well that's them,' and then you'd hear the reply 'And that's us' and that's how much I knew about mortars. But I was there a couple of hours, must have been on the fringe a couple of hours, and I said to my two mates, one was Babe Daniels was with me, but I can't recall who the other person was, but I said to him, 'Look, I'd better go down and see what's happening' so as I got down, we were on a incline, we were up above the village, and as I got down ... I could see the trucks pulling out. So I sang out to my mates, 'Look, they're pulling out.' Well, those two blokes moved so fast they both beat me down and we got the last truck out of Babaoe, and I can tell you 'old somebody' was looking after me at that time, because it was only fate that really allowed me to go down; otherwise I would have been butchered and I would never have seen … because they took no prisoners, they just killed them. So I was very, very lucky.

And where did that then take you to?

Well, it then took us back of course [and] we decided that we would not prove and calibrate our guns. Then the infantry came, knew that it was only a 5th column kind of story that they were landing on the other side, and the infantry used their forces to try to remove those 500-odd Japanese paratroops; in a four-day battle we eventually obliterated the whole lot of them. In fact, I found the fighting on Timor chaotic and I thought to myself -- of course we were only odd bits of course, attached to people -- where's all this great Anzac tradition and we've always been bred that, you know, the Australian soldier, what we did on Anzacs, and what wonderful heroes we were and of course it really started to have some doubts in my mind about this. Anyway, eventually I was sitting with a group of men and a Bren Gun Carrier came up and said, 'Look we want somebody to load a Lewis gun, anybody volunteer?' I said, 'I'll volunteer,' so I got in for centre at this kind of narrow slit Bren Gun Carrier. I must say, the only armoured division, armoured, protection we had, was two Bren Gun Carriers. And this carrier was so ill-equipped they had Lewis guns; they had Vickers guns on the front and on the top they had this Lewis gun which was a relic of the First World War. And there, it's a round cam that you had to put, slide up, into it to, to kind of rotate it so you could put the bullets in. And they didn't have anything to put in the cam so I had to put my finger in, and I tell you it was pretty raw, but as I turned the cam I'd kind of load the ammunition. And as fast as I'd load 'em and give 'em to this mate of mine, a bloke name of West, he would fire these at the other blokes. We had gone up to this road at a place called Asau Ridge and it we'd retaken Babau and it was beyond Babau, this place Asau Ridge, and I was just watching this -- his name was, the old CO, Bill Leggatt, he later became a prominent Liberal member of parliament, but he was a courageous old … all the guts in the world, and we were in the centre on this road and we were of course attracting some attention from the machine-gun entrenchments of the Japanese that were dug in. And you could feel the bullets belting off the side of the carrier. By the way, the top's wide open, but just the same if you got down low enough you had some protection. But old Bill Leggatt's out in the middle of the road [laughs] with no protection or just giving instruction to the leadership of this infantry battalion. I saw these Aussie blokes of the second 40th battalion just marching up the slope as cool as cucumbers, see them take over the Japanese and bayonet them and -- real courage, I mean you just couldn't help but admire them.

Were you thinking at all then about ...

… So that gave me back this love of courage, of our Australianism and you know it was just so gutsy, you just couldn't go and see it on movies, you see it in black and white, in real, real life. And so, that really rekindled my faith in the courage of Australians and fighters. And as we drove through this little village of Asau you could see where our blokes had been taken over. There were dead blokes in the back of trucks who'd been shot up and were all dead and some of our blokes had been told that [the Japanese had] got medical orderlies and hung them up. Of course we did some brutal things to them too, to the Japanese after that. After Asau.

What kind of brutal things?

Well, the killing that went on, the burning that went on, I mean just in the heat of war some brutal things are done.

Tom, what did you think about the fact that you were killing?

Well ...

At the time.

It's the strange thing, when you're in the heat of war you don't really worry about -- it's either them or us, I mean, you don't really worry about compassion even, it's just a survival kind of situation that goes on. And in fact you admire blokes, to see one killing another. I mean, I admire to this day those 2nd 40th blokes that walked up that Asau Ridge and, in front of machine-guns, entrenched machine-guns, and just bayoneting -- you know I, I saw that as courage. You know, I hate war, but I still admire the courage and guts of those blokes.

And that's really understandable, but what I'm interested in is what was going on in your head, your 18-year-old head, about what you were doing in relation to the Japanese?

Well, beat the bastards, that was the real thing. I just really didn't -- we just had to beat 'em, that's all there was to it, we didn't know where we were going. I mean, you've got to remember, at a lower level, you don't know what's going on, you don't know what the officers have got in mind, what the plan was. All we knew was that there was this long single road and that, unlike Dili where the mountains practically come down right to the sea and therefore our people could retreat into the mountains, we had to go along this long way and we didn't realise [until] after we'd taken over Asau Ridge and Asau Village that there was nothing between us and the mountains, and we waited all night there because there was this single road running through this, something like I suppose kilometres-wise about 40-odd kilometres from the mountains, from the coast down to Usapa Bisar at Koepang up to the mountains, and of course Babau was in the centre of that and they tried to stop our retreat to go to the mountains. Well, we'd broken through them and in breaking through to them we just stayed there and what happened was, the following morning we -- I might say that we had on our trucks everything we possessed, this long line of military along this one road. If you went off you got bogged in the paddy fields and we had something like 150 dead we were carrying, we had about 40 per cent casualties of that thousand-odd Australian infantry people and the following morning the Japanese had come up on our tail, and at first the lack of communication again, or garbling of communication, they said, somebody said, 'The Yanks are coming,' and then said, 'the tanks are coming,' so the first rumour was the Yanks were coming, the Yanks had arrived to save us, you see, but in fact what it was the Japanese tanks that had come up under our rear and they had given us, our officers, a certain period of time to determine whether they would surrender or not. And of course they made the decision that they would surrender. After we had surrendered, and the Japanese advanced through our troops, to my surprise they all looked alike, they all looked like little buggers. That was the first thing, was what little buggers they were, and how much alike they were. And anyway, as they went through our troops and of course we were all there, then 27 Japanese bombers came over us and just dropped bombs on the Japanese as well as us. And of course a lot of the Japanese were killed as well as a lot of our own people during that bombing raid. Luckily for me, one of my mates was hit, was near me, but luckily for me I, we were … mud and of course just lifted us up, but that was all, there was no ...

So what ...

But again I survived.

So what would have happened if your leaders had had the wit to retreat to the mountains?

Well, one doesn't know what may have occurred then. Of course we may have linked up, ultimately linked up, with the independent companies and fought in the mountains. I just don't know. But that was the plan. But unfortunately the people who were at the camp base at a place called Champlong did not communicate down with the troops, and they just kinda looked after themselves and off they went. It was a brigadier, by the way. And seemed to look after themselves and survived; in fact he eventually contacted, he caught up with, the independent company, this brigadier, and actually got off, ultimately off, Timor. But , no anyway, we would have had some much bloody, longer, fighting if we'd got into the mountains, but we didn't get into the mountains and that's another story.

How did you feel about the surrender?

Well, I just took it in my stride myself. I think most of us at the time thought it was good that the war, you know, that at least the fighting was over and we were still surviving -- and of course that's when the real struggle started from there on.

Before you leave the active war, were you scared at all?

No, I was not frightened, I've never really been frightened when bombs have been dropping around me; the only time I panicked was once in my -- what happened is that we arrived as I said in Timor on the 12th of December '41. And from January the 19th, 1942 right through to February the 19th we got either a bombing raid or a strafing raid every day in our position at Koepang. And on one occasion when I heard the Zeros coming in and the air-raid sirens, I tried to run across that plateau to get to the foot of the mountain, or hill, slight hill, where we were in our camp, and that was the longest 100 yards I ever ran in my life and I realise that it was stupidity, that I should have just dropped there and then because if they drop bombs, the coral and other things would cut you to pieces, but if you went down you got a better opportunity of surviving either strafing or bombing. So that is the only time that I can ever stress that I panicked and that I wasn't in control of myself during the war years. But every other time I was bombed or strafed, and I was bombed and strafed on so many occasions, I was always in control of my faculties, and I kept my cool.

Why was that?

I don't know. It's just, I think it's a part of my moral strength, I think that I've got more moral strength than I've got physical strength, even though I wasn't, you know, without physical courage, but I think I've got more moral courage and I've never been fearful of death or men or issues or Japanese, or anything the whole of my life. I've faced what I had to face.

You had a great deal of confidence in your own physical fitness and your size and your strength as well, didn't you?

Well, you see my mate, I'll never forget, I had a great mate by the name of Doug Smith and Doug said to me one day, 'It's alright for you, you just stick to it and you can fight. You can stand up to those people.' And I said, 'Look, it's not a matter of that. It's a matter of having the courage … ' I mean, I just feel I've got guts without having to do that, and I've found in life that, you know, whether I had to stand up to Whitlam, or to Hawke, or in my Woolworth days, or even my fighting Packer and Fairfax, I mean, I fought 'em and that was all there was about it and that's it. And I just wouldn't bend to the system, and in fact I think I haven't used it excessively, but I don't think I've ever bent to the system. And I think that's it's that inner moral courage, maybe that confidence my mother gave me, I just don't know but it's always been there. And I think I've always had more moral courage than I've had physical courage. Because there are some things I wouldn't do physically, which I might do morally.

Did the surrender to the Japanese leave the men with any sense of failure?

No, it didn't really. I don't think they thought that they were at fault, or that they'd let anyone down. As I said earlier, we had 150 dead, killed in action, we had 40 per cent casualties. They really, the 2nd 40th infantry battalion as I said earlier -- great courageous fighters. I think we protected and fared very well under the circumstances. And I think there was a general feeling, in fact, the Japanese wouldn't believe that there were only about a thousand-odd men on the island, because we'd killed the 500 Japanese, paratroopers, see, they were all dead. And the Japanese frontline troops treated us very well in those early periods. The first nine months of the war there was no real excessive brutality. Although, if somebody escaped from the camp, they were either killed by the Indigenous people or they would be dealt with by the Japanese, other Japanese military. I mean, we knew that some of our blokes were out in the wild. And we know now that they were assassinated but I didn't know of any executions or saw any executions in my time. The first nine months was reasonable treatment by the Japanese. The discipline was hard, like fairly firm. But the food was poor and that's when the malnutrition started to set in. And, you don't realise it, but when you don't get the right type of vitamins, its particularly the scrotum, I mean male scrotum, and woman's genitals must do the same thing, I mean with vitamin deficiency, those women that suffered as prisoners of war must have gone through hell, they must have gone through a much tougher period than males. Because of the vitamin deficiencies, I mean ...

What effect did it have on the scrotum?

Well, we'd been prisoners for nine months in Timor when they'd trans-shipped us to Java. By the way, when we went to from Koepang we didn't go straight to Surabaya. They took us along to Dili. We no sooner landed in Dili than the iron Lockheed Hudsons started bombing us and of course it wasn't until years later, when I read a book on East Timor that [I found] it was our independent company up in the mountains that were notifying Hong Kong, notifying Darwin, that a ship was in the harbour at Dili and consequently we were bombed. Then we went from there to Surabaya and there were torpedo attacks in that period then too. And then when we got from Surabaya we went right along that north coast and one of the things that I saw in Surabaya of course was about 70 to 80-odd ships scuttled in the harbour and again you could see the effects of the war there. And we went along the coast, the north coast of Java, to Batavia [now Jakarta] station, and then down to what they call the dock areas of Batavia or Tanjung Priok, and we lived in a horse stable there. And it was, you know, these little Timor ponies that used to carry the rickshaw type of little taxis, they used to live there before us. And I might say [laughs] the bugs and the lice and that were something from that period. But I often laugh about this experience, about the scrotum; talk about women talking their complaints. Well, the scrotum was so sore that we couldn't even put trousers on, we just had a bit of a lap-lap round us you see and the first discussion when you'd meet a mate, or meet a mate you hadn't seen for a little while, and you'd say, 'How's your scrotum?' [laughs] They'd pull back the lap-lap and they'd get the scrotum in their hand for examination. Well, every quack, every bloke was a quack, and they had a special solution to it, they used everything to try and solve these problems. But in fact you couldn't solve it at all, you had to solve it internally with food, and it wasn't until we got to Singapore three months later that we were able to get things like Marmite and Vegemite and some of these other things from the Red Cross because the Japanese, the prisoners of war in Singapore, had had Red Cross parcels and we were able to get some of the nourishing food and [vitamin] B1 and the right deficiency to kind of heal up the scrotums. It's painful, I tell you. Painful.

So the whole experience in Timor and your period of active service had taught you a great admiration for the courage of the men and a certain scepticism about the ability of the leaders to organise things?

Yes, I didn't see … although I must say, in fairness to Leggatt, I think Leggatt remained the CO at Timor and once we were in prison camp I think that there was certainly some discipline there, and I think some leadership, 'cause everybody respected Leggatt, and certainly respected the officers of the 2nd 40th battalion. As a matter of fact, at that time John Carrick was also an officer and he was with an anti-tank unit and when Leggatt was taken earlier off Timor, they took the senior officers off Timor, he took John Carrick with him, he was then a Lieutenant. But I only heard good things of Carrick as an officer, so ...

Later a Liberal ...

Yeah, later to become a Liberal minister. And in fact, I heard some of my blokes tried to turn the bucket on him, and I said, 'Well, I've never heard a bad thing said against him,' and generally, there's one thing about prison camp or the Army, if an officer's on the nose, you knew about it. And I never heard a hard thing said about Carrick, ever. So Leggatt I would say was a good officer, but I never saw real leadership from officer corps until I really came with the corps up against Weary and what happened here was that Weary Dunlop had been in the Middle East and he'd been shipped off to Java. In fact, if any group of people was sacrificed, it was that last group of people that was sent to Java. And the historical archives can deal with that. They should never have been put off. But thank goodness because a man like Dunlop was some human inspiration to us. Now he was on Java and of course when we came across from Timor we were on Tanjung Priok. They were a camp called Cycle Camp. But when our boat, when we went to Singapore, we went on the same ship but little did we know one another, because one group was in one hold and another group was in another hold. And even in Singapore I'd heard about this Dunlop, but I'd never met him or seen him. But after a fortnight in Singapore, in Changi, we were put on Malayan goods trucks -- now they were steel-sided trucks (they are still about by the way) and they are about a quarter-inch-thick steel on either side and they got kind of an iron roof. And if you touch 'em in the daytime, they'll burn you. On the other hand, if you touch 'em at night-time they'll freeze you. But we used to have 30-odd blokes in there. And it took us from five to seven days to go from Singapore up to Bampong, which is just short of, about 50 or 60 kilometres south of Bangkok. And there we were taken off. And of course we went by trucks then to ... Tarsau Camp.

[end of tape]

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