Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

Tape of 14

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Being moved from Timor up through Java to Singapore and then on to Burma, did you have any idea where you were going?

No, not really. In fact, even when we got to the Burma-Thailand railway we didn't even know what we had to do. There were some rumours that we were going to build a road, normal weather road, but later on [chuckles] we gradually found out exactly what it was. What happened was that after they left, we left the train at Bampong, we went by truck, we were lucky, we went by truck from there to Tarsau and then from Tarsau up to Konyu [River Camp]. And it was at Konyu Camp where our crowd were split up and luckily for me I was a part of that group that marched into Konyu Camp a couple of weeks or a few days after Weary Dunlop had marched into Konyu. And so I was under Weary Dunlop's leadership from January 26th, 1943 right through to the middle of about June of 1944.

And why was that so lucky?

Well, because of his outstanding leadership. I mean, he really was, or turned out to be, a remarkable man. We'd only heard rumours about it. When we first went into Konyu Camp it was just a big open space, about twice the size -- it had been cleared from the jungle -- of two big football grounds. And we had to build our own adobe huts to stay there. And it was at that time that I linked up with a group of other people that were originally in Weary's group that had come from Java. One was Bill Belford who was a Spitfire pilot. Another one was Kevin Wylie and the other one was [Donald] 'Scorp' Stuart, who later became quite a famous author. And we decided, the four of us, we decided we wanted to escape. And we'd heard rumours that the British were pushing from ... the Indian border down through an area between oilfields, between Mandalay and Rangoon. And so we had decided that we really would like to set out a plan. We had set up catapults and we were practising how to kill wild fowl and things like that and live off the bush, and we decided we should really have a discussion with the colonel and we went and saw Colonel Dunlop, and Bill Wearne was there also. And Weary gave us a great hearing. Or 'The Colonel' as we always called him; in fact I always called him The Colonel right until after I was a member of parliament. And anyway, The Colonel gave us a good hearing but Bill Wearne got stuck into us and told us it was just an adventurous proposition and we didn't have firm information that the British were making any advances and it was an impossible task and the reprisals that would be taken. So we left of course not so very cranky with The Colonel but very cranky with Bill Wearne. [laughs] Of course we found, if one reads the diaries, they had a radio at that time, they knew exactly what was happening. Certainly the British were making no advances beyond the India-Burma border. And so there was no more talk about escape from there on. But the great part of Dunlop's leadership, I came into contact with it, was at the Hintok Mountain Road Camp, which a lot of people call the Hintok Road Camp, and we were there for most of 1943, and it was the second half of '43 that the serious deaths occurred. But in our camp we were a bit different than most other camps. Weary would, he had the Japanese, to cover a sham. Under the Geneva Convention, they had paid the officers and the medical orderlies a small allowance or an allowance of money. And the men who went out to work were paid a small wage. What Weary would do, [he] would pool the great bulk of that wealth into a central fund and with the money from that we would go out and get people to trade with the Thai traders and the Chinese traders and get medical supplies and food to look after our sick and our needy. And we worked in our camp by the strong looking after the weak, the young looking after the old and the fit looking after the sick, and of course collectivising our wealth. And I give the example in my maiden speech of where, just before the wet season came in, about 400 Britishers came in out of H Force and for temporary arrangements they had tents. The officers took the best tents, the senior NCOs took the next best and the men got the dregs. And you know, within six weeks less than 50 of those men marched out and less than half of those survived ultimately. They either died of cholera or dysentery and, I said in my maiden speech, that only a creek divided us: on the one side the law of the jungle prevailed and on the other side the principles of socialism. Of course, these days I talk, I don't want to upset a lot of servicemen and then I just talk about the collective spirit, but we worked together under Weary. And it was that great collective spirit. And Weary's recognised my concept of that collectivism many times since. Now, really, the tragedy of that, to see the deaths, to walk over those dead people, particularly those Britishers. They would lie out in the mud of a morning where you have to go to work and it was such a depressing figure. The cholera is such a terrifying complaint. I mean, I'm a born optimist, I always thought I'd make it. The only time I had any doubt in my mind was during this cholera period because you would leave work of a morning and then return home at night and one of your mates had aged 40 to 50 years in a day, in less than a day. And they dehydrated that kind of greyish green colour. You know, their eyes had sunk back in, their temples had sunk in and there was this tragic look about them, that they would discharge fluid from the mouth and from the penis and from the rear, and the only way that you could get it back in was to strap them down and put distilled water saline into their veins and of course that's what Weary and his other doctors did. We had two other doctors with Weary, a Dr Arthur Moon, and a Dr Ewen Corlette. They'd all, the three of them, been in the Middle East together and they came out. And they were all, they were, magnificent people. In fact, the more I read Weary's diaries, the more I understood, and particularly Sue Ebury's biography of Weary, I understood more about it. In fact, I thought Weary's diaries understated our problems but Sue's book develops more fully in private discussion both with Weary and with those people who Sue had discussed the problem with. And I think that any person that really wants to know more about the struggles of that railway, that biography of Weary really sets it out very clearly. And he, you know, his leadership was so … he was such an unassuming man, and very conservative too in so many ways. But a tenacious and driving force and the whole question of setting the example. I told the story recently of Jack Prescott who was a butcher by trade but he was our cook and we very rarely got fresh meat, but on this occasion we just got in some cattle and Jack knew where the best cut was so he just takes this lovely cut of meat, fillet steak, and takes it up to The Colonel and he says, 'Colonel, you got a lovely meal for the night.' And the Colonel says, 'Jack, you just put it back into the stew with the rest of the men's because that's the best we can do.' And of course Jack was telling this joke, this story -- against himself really. It was Weary's great strength that ... it was the service, it was his background and his training. And Sue Ebury in her book talks about this and she understands him so fully. Because you see it was that British tradition where in fact he'd got a lot of his training and his education, you know, before the war broke out [so] that he was instilled with many of the traditions: your men, your horse, your self, kind of mentality. [laughs] But here's me, I believe in the collective spirit. I argue so often, you know, why is it that when we are in crisis we need each other, we need each other to survive: when we're in flood, when we're in famine or we're in drought, or difficult economic circumstances, we seem to need each other, but for other times, for some reason or other, the individual, you know, is the supreme being. It's the collective being I really believe so very much and even though I made that simple speech and expression in my maiden speech, when they were writing the history of the Labor Party they said, 'Uren had a crude type of socialism.' Well, I might tell you that I've travelled a long way in my political spectrum but I still stand back to those basic fundamentals of life that it is right of the strong to look after the weak and the young to look after the old and the fit to look after the sick, and we should be a collective society surviving, because on this planet of ours we have got limited resources; we really need to work together and we need to build bridges between peoples and nations of the world. That's what life's all about. And that simple philosophy that I drew out of my experience of serving under Weary has grown. I mean, I picked a few other things up along the way in my lifetime but that had an enormous influence on the base and that's you know the compassion from my mother and those issues are so very important.

You were still very young at this stage, how old were you?

Yes, well, I was 20 years of age when I was taken prisoner; by this time I was 21. I was 21 when I walked into Weary's camp and he was I think 35 or 36. And, you don't realise, but you know, he seemed so much older, so much more worldly. In fact, I'd remembered as a young boy, as a young teenager, I'd seen Weary play rugby football on Manly Oval international, yeah. See, because Manly was the the heart of rugby union in those days. And he was a great footballer. I'd seen Orb, him playing with Orb Hodson, yeah. And other great players of that time. So I've got happy memories of Weary, and he still remains with me.

How did you avoid getting sick?

Well, nobody avoids getting sick. My major problems, I s'pose, arising out of prison life was, you know, malaria. I've had well over a hundred attacks of malaria. In fact, the last six months of the war, I had malaria like clockwork every 10 days. It was four days malaria, six days off, four days on, six days off. And generally when you get malaria you get the rigor, the strong rigor on the first day and then the next day you're weaker but then the third day you get the rigor again then the fourth day you seem to be alright. So I had a lot of days on my back, at least 400 days on my back, of sickness, on malaria alone, apart from amoebic dysentery and other things, but again you draw from sickness; it's the, it's a humbling effect. The person who led me into politics was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and I'd read all about Roosevelt, in his earlier years in the '30s and it was talk, you know, of the suffering of his polio and all that. Every time I got crook my mind would go back to Roosevelt on the one hand cursing Hitler on the other. It was strange but so much in my thoughts lying there, you know, thinking about how sick and how crook you were, my mind always travelled back to Roosevelt and my readings and my thoughts of Roosevelt and his struggles of rehabilitating America out of the great Depression, and the struggles [for] economic justice in his country under his new deal programs.

You had already been reading about that before war broke out?

Oh, oh yes, I was an avid reader. My Aunty Mary used to get the Saturday Evening Post and there was a syndicated article, I can't say who it was by, it was at least 12 articles in depth and I read every word of that. And lived, in many cases, every word of it, the struggles that went on within the cabinet itself. You had the social worker, Harry Hopkins, who said you really had to put money in the hands of workers or put food in their guts and clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet, [which] will help the economy to stimulate. And on the other hand there was Harold Ikes, who really was the Minister for the Interior, that built Boulder Dam, who was the real dour Scotsman, who believed in bricks and mortar. Well, be as it may, it would be wonderful in Australia if either of those two philosophies really functioned today, that they would be doing for the public good to get rid of the scourge of unemployment. But at least the the Minister for the Interior, Ikes, really wanted to built bricks and mortar and ultimately of course that's what Hopkins did as well, but it was the early stimulus that had to be created to get them out of that early Depression that was in America, and I used to read those arguments that went round the Roosevelt cabinet.

And so this was this sports-mad teenage boy in Harbord reading politics in his spare time?

No, by this time I'm more or less living a lot of my time with my Aunty Mary who lived in Five Dock. And my mother and father, as you know, had had moved in the late '30s down to Wollongong, so my second home apart from the Army was my aunty Mary.

And she was a bit of a thinker?

No, her husband earlier on was a traveller for Dewar's Whiskey and he used to get this Saturday Evening Post, and in those days it was quite a magazine, and anyway [there were] these wonderful Roosevelt stories that I read; every one of them.

So there you were in the prison camp, very sick, and thinking of the suffering, of Roosevelt and that political context. Now, but you didn't get cholera?

No, no, even when I did that, some of this was back in Timor. Some of that thinking that I told you was back in Timor. I was a very strong Christian, in fact I remained a Christian until I was 45 years of age. About 1964-65 I stepped away from my faith. I love men and women of goodwill and people of great Christian faith have been an inspiration to my life and Christ is one of them, I mean so, but I had moved away from my faith ultimately. In those early days I would get down and pray, kneel and pray, in front of my colleagues, there were about 30 of us in the huts together and then I found that I was praying mainly for myself and I hate hypocrisy. And I stopped praying [chuckles] and I don't think I ever went back to praying again whilst a prisoner of war, although my faith still remained with me. So that that was a part of me, it was in different parts of my prison life, but particularly I had a lot of malaria even in Timor and, because I'd got malaria within days of landing in Timor, even before the action broke out, I spent Christmas of 1941 in the Koepang Hospital, base hospital, with malaria, from then right through in fact until well after the war.

But you were afraid when you were in the camp in the Burma-Thailand railway that you might get cholera?

Well yes, that's the big question mark with everyone and it was the only time I was not confident of making it. I was always confident that I would get out of prison camp, but somehow or other you had little control over whether you would get that dreaded germ that would give you this terrible disease of cholera. And that really did always give me a fear and a fright. I mean, in many Army cases, for instance when I was in prison camp, I had many other complaints, like you know for instance dysentery. People look at these adobe huts but when you've got your slit trenches and we used to have latrines and in fact one of the great things about our camp was that our sanitary arrangements were set up much superior than most other camps. But for 15 months when I was on that railway line I never had a firm motion. I mean, there were times when what I would have to do, I would be on the slats, and you would sleep on the slats with just a blanket over it, and I used to have a four-gallon drum of kerosene at the bottom of the thing, and I'd have to get up and try to get to the toilet. Well, once you've left the hut it would be -- you might only get 10 or 15 feet and you would be nearly up to your knees in mud and before you would get there it would be oozing out of you and you just couldn't do a damn thing about it. And you are covered in mud, and you would have to come back and wash yourself. And that just wasn't one night, it was night after night after night after night, so that in itself, and I didn't know, I mean I knew I had dysentery, but I didn't know I had amoebic dysentery, but ultimately that's what I had. So I mean, I'm lucky, I'm just one of the lucky ones because I've got over all those things.

What was the work like?

Well, the work was extremely hard and heavy. I did do some of the embankment work but most of the time I was on the hammer-and-tap crews. And I, luckily for me, my partner was an old chap by the name of Harry Baker who'd been a cane-cutter in North Queensland. And they'd set a darg first of all. The darg is the contract, of 80 centimetres a hole and you could go home, and then they built it from 80 centimetres up to a metre then a metre 20, then a metre 50, two metres, two metres 50, three metres, a day, and then ultimately they made them work all day. But that was the contract work, under the Japanese. And of course some of the show-offs really got stuck into it and got home early and that was that and the weak, then they would blast, and of course the weak had to pick up the blast rock and put it into embankments, and some of those people would work from 16 to 20 hours a day. If you talk about the six kilometres, six or seven kilometres, they had to walk and work and then get home again, it was just hell for the sick and the weak, but I was always strong. But the great thing about Harry Baker was, he said, 'Look Tom, just take your time, let the hammer do the work' -- an eight-pound plumb hammer -- 'let the hammer do the work. Don't bust yourself, those blokes are busting their guts.' And of course, they did. They got sick and when they got sick they went down and they were the same as anybody else. But so Harry's guidance, and knowing how to do hard work, the science of an intelligent worker, could transfer his knowledge to me and that's what helped me survive. In such a way. So I owe a lot to Harry Baker.

So it was another instance of using your head rather than your brawn?

Yes, that's right. There's a way of doing hard work in a scientific way, and doing it in a foolish way. And taking your time about it.

Could you describe the daily life of the camp then?

Well, the daily life is -- first of all you would get up in the morning and very, very early, at daybreak, sometimes dark; it was still dark when you were awakened. And then you would line up and you would get pap. Now pap is just a kind of porridge, made out of rice and [you] keep on adding water and keep stirring it and stirring it. A bowl of pap would be your breakfast and then they would pack your lunch, would be a level pint of white rice and very little else. That was why you would get sick because there wasn't the vitamins to go with it. But the pap was just water and when you were walking -- you had to walk six or seven kilometres to work -- and I might say that the fluids go through you and by the time you've had two or three [laughs] wees on the way, your breakfast was gone. And you had to work virtually on an empty stomach. And the other cruel thing about walking to work, very few of us had our shoes left and either some would wrap bandages around our feet to try and stop us from sliding down the inclines, cos when you are going down, you are going down a path and it's wet and you know how slippery it gets … But the worst of it was when your feet would go right underneath and then you would drop down onto it and it would shake every bone in your body, I mean, really it was the most agonising experience, and you would go through this, and this is going out to work. And it's very hard to explain the hurt of that fall. But you just wouldn't do it once, you did it five, 10, 15, sometimes 20 times getting down a hill. That's the way it was. but then when you'd get out on the job you'd do this contract work and you'd be working and of course you'd be perspiring; you can imagine being in a cutting. If you look at Hellfire Pass, for instance, it's 50 metres in depth. And the heat of the tropical sun coming down on you and it's just oozing out of you, the perspiration. But then the next minute there's a cold tropical storm hits you and you're freezing. I mean, you're freezing cold. Going from that extreme heat to freezing from the rainiest, tropical rain. And then when your work was finished you would make your way home. Now I'm saying I was one of the lucky ones because, I suppose, there was a very rare occasion that I wasn't back home and showered and bathed and what have you at a reasonable time. But the other people that used to have to struggle in, they could struggle in at every hour of the morning, it was just a terrible thing, and of course the Japs were pressurising, you know, the doctors, Corlett and Moon and Dunlop, to keep the quota up, to keep the system moving. And of course where the Japanese say the Korean guards were the ones who [were cruel], not with us it wasn't, it was the Japanese engineers who were the cruel ones. They were the militarist animals. And their brutality was something vicious. And my feeling about the Japanese in the first two-and-a-half years I was a prisoner of war I felt so strongly against them that if I could have exterminated [them] from the planet I would have done so. I mean, I just would have exterminated every one of them, they were so vicious, so cruel and so sadistic. And it's not much good trying to describe their cruelty, because their, their, their cruelty is indescribable. That that's the brutality of the people. But you know it's strange, I didn't have much respect for the Dutch either. And yet here was this great hero of mine, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Dutchman. So I thought to myself, 'Gotta do a bit of thinking about that, Tom.' And as I went to Japan in the last 12 months of the war I was very lucky again. I went to a place called Saganosekei.

You were transferred out of the camp?

Well, first of all, after we went to Hintok Mountain Camp they took us down to Hintok River Camp and from there we went up to Kin Sayok, which is still further up towards Burma. I never got to Burma at all, I was on the Thai side all the time. And from Kin Sayok, that's when the railway was linked up, I saw the -- what do you call it? -- comfort women, go up through the trains there, and I saw the old F battalion, Australian POWs, come back in the trains, who marched up and really did it tough, they really suffered probably more than any other group of Australians. And then after having left Kin Sayok we went back down to what they called the rest camp at Tamuan. And that's when we started to get bananas and egg, fresh eggs and some nourishment and we started to get fit again. And I wasn't there too long when they started sending us off to Japan. And of course they sent us back down again, down through those inhuman Malayan railway carriages back down to Singapore. Didn't stay there very long. Then they put us on a tramp steamer. Was about four-and-a-half thousand tons. They put a thousand troops on there, and it took us 70 days to go from Singapore to Japan. Anyway, having got to Japan, I was sent to prison camp, Saganosekei. It actually is owned by the Nippon Steel Company I found out afterwards. But it was the manager who was there, spoke good English and he was a very cultured person, and very human person, and we also worked with old retired Japanese workers alongside us, even the Koreans, indentured labour. You've got to recognise that the Koreans were indentured labour and anyway I found that the compassion and the consideration of the old Japanese were so decent and at the end of it we worked three shifts and at the end of your shift you would go into the communal baths together, the Japanese, the Koreans and the Australians, all together, and there was a bridge of -- we didn't understand their language, they didn't understand ours, so the old body language started to come in and I found that bridge of understanding and I grew as a person in this period myself. And I found it wasn't the Japanese I hated but militarism and fascism and of course that's been my struggle all my life, against those aggressive people who want to be vicious to other individuals. One of the things I regret about Saganosekei … in 1960 for instance, I went back to Saganosekei and I told them about this manager and they arranged for me to see him. And I went to see him and he'd been purged by the MacArthur Government, because anybody that had had anything to do with POWs working under them were purged, for better or for worse. And the tragedy about this great compassionate man, he suffered just the same as others suffered. Some of them deserved to suffer but he should not have suffered and the trouble was that even when I came back -- I'd also gone to China at that time and I actually went to Japan for the sixth world conference against A and H bombs and of course went over to China later [chuckles], and when I came back to Australia I thought the the roof of Parliament House was going to fall in. Anyway. I really did try to make representation for his case, but I wasn't tenacious about it. Now normally I am a tenacious person, and one of my regrets in my life of people I've let down is this wonderful Japanese manager, who I think was a man of humanity, and a man of justice, and did the right thing by us and I let him down. [pause] I regret that.

When you say that he'd been purged, what did that mean?

Oh, lost his whole livelihood, nothing, no pension, no nothing. Completely purged.

So how was he living?

Oh, just by his family's charity.

He'd been turned into a sort of non-person?

Yes. At that time; of course I think things have changed since then. But that was the situation in 1960 and of course that was 15 years after the war. So you know, there's been some injustices done on both sides. But I don't like letting people down. I don't like letting the Australian people down, I don't like letting individuals down.

So, your feelings about the Japanese changed a lot through [your experience]?

Yes. I mean, they have changed a lot, in fact, even though they've changed a lot, even though I believe there's no progress in hate, I still believe that we must fight fascism and militarism and we must really I think [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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