Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

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Where were you when the war ended?

I was at a place called Omuta. About three months before the war ended they transferred us from Saganosekei. What occurred on Saganosekei is that when we first arrived there they had these old ornaments and that from China and bronze ornaments, and we used toss them into the furnace but in the end, with scrap, with all the scrap ...

To make metal?

Yeah, well, for the cartridge cases and of course in the end all they had was the soot that would come out of the furnace, they would sweep that up and put that back in the furnace. Oh we could see, three months before the war, that Japan was on its knees industrially. And then they moved us from there across to Omuta, which was about 80 kilometres as the crow flies from Nagasaki; it's in what they call the Fukuoka Group. And we were on lead smelting works, some of our fellas were in coal mines, but I was in the lead-smelting works for a while until I was given a job in the compound itself and it was really working in the compound itself that morning that I saw the blast of the second bomb. And we didn't see the mushroom cloud, but we saw the discolouration of the sky and it was that crimson colour, that beautiful sunset magnified about a hundred times over. And you could never really forget that graphic description, colour, of the sky that day.

Did you know what it was?

No. Nobody knew what that thing was. We thought it was a big ammunition dump or something like that. And then several days later the Japanese came in and said the big bomb, the war's all over, started bringing out the Red Cross parcels and so forth and soon after that General MacArthur had made an announcement over the air that the prisoners of war in Japan were to be the 'garrison' of Japan and they started planes flying over and parachutes started to float down with coloured parachutes, with these food canisters and all that and so we were quite on seventh heaven. Because I had worked in the camp just prior to the surrender, the American in charge there knew me, of course, knew that I was a fighter, said could I get three of my other mates because they were setting up what they called a garrison to police the town, so there was four of each denomination -- there was the Americans, the British, the Dutch, who was Indonesian and Dutch, and the Australians. And so we made what were called town marshals. And the very interesting thing about it was that we would really police the town and the brothels and the courts. In fact you would find ... the Japanese police would bring in the Japanese women with either some food or blankets or whatever had come down, because our blokes had bartered them with the Japanese to share the rights of their daughters and other such things. I mean, you've got no idea what fraternisation went on within that short period of time.

So, one minute you were a prisoner of war, slave labour, no more rights than a speck of dirt, and the next day you were warden of the town?

Yeah, well, the most interesting thing is Mitsubishi actually owned this mining area and was still one of the very few buildings standing in this city of Omuta, because the town had been burnt down in an incendiary bombing raid about a month before the war was ended. And half of our camp was burnt with it. But one of the palatial palaces or buildings, lovely big building, with this headquarters -- and I always remember the red upholstery in the seats and the red tablecloths and what have you. [chuckles] Anyway, we were served by the Japanese, prisoners one minute, being served off the next, I mean it was just ironical. But I'd become the super-democrat because what irritated me, in those days, I know there is this function of the Japanese bowing to one another as a matter of courtesy, but during the war years if you had a Japanese guard for instance on a public building and a woman went past it, they would stop, they would bow to the guard and then proceed. Or if the policeman was coming along for instance, they would stop and bow to the police. It looked subservient to me and so I banned [it] overnight; no more bowing in Omuta by the Japanese women. I didn't care if the Japanese men bowed, I just [thought that] the Japanese women shouldn't bow to men any more. So the judiciary, the police, would bring them in for punishment, the women, and I just couldn't find myself inflicting punishment, I just chastised them and say, 'Don't do it again,' and go home and let them take the thing to work with them. [laughs]

Was this because you were your mother's son, or was it because you were a bit horrified at the way women had been used and abused in the war?

Oh, I think that I've always been a driver for equality of the sexes and I've always respected women even though I've no doubt it's not without my mother's influence, but I've had enormous respect and I've found throughout my life my great friends have been women, more so than men. I've had some great men comrades, but I've found that most of my great friends have been women in my life. And still are, by the way.

Did the Allies use the Japanese women badly, do you think?

Well, I can't say that. Of any. At the time. All I can say is I don't think they treated them badly, I mean, I never saw anything bad. In fact, I think there was very little VD, for instance, transferred from our people if they went into the brothels or if they fraternised with Japanese women. There was very little VD reported amongst our prisoners of war at the end of the war, particularly amongst our group, but certainly if I may take you back to my Japanese experience, my early experience of Japanese prison camp, again the question of Timor, [then] what had happened is that just a few days before the battle started, opened up on the 19th of February 1942 in Timor, about 100 Britishers had come over to us. They had travelled for three months going from England round the Cape of Good Hope, up to Java, stayed there a few nights and then transferred across to us just before the action broke out. Soon after we'd gone into prison camp, 20 per cent of them were put into sick bay with VD. They'd got it, they'd got it in Jakarta, the venereal disease. Now this was not the case as I know it with those people that had relationships, sexual relationships in Japan; in fact there was a certain cleanliness and a certain -- I mean you got a receipt, I understand, where you could trace back the person involved if there was any conditions involved. I think there was a kind of good relationship. There were funny incidents. For instance, I told you about the pap situation. Well, when we were in prison camp in the early part of it, when we got to Omuta, when I was still working at the lead smelting works, the town had been burnt down and what would happen, we'd get on a tram one end and we'd go down from one end of the city -- we were on one end and the industrial centre was down the other -- and that end survived, but the township was flattened. In one night. Just burnt with incendiaries. Well, because we wouldn't hold, it's just impossible to hold your bladder, and there was a canal there and once they'd get out of the tram they'd let that go and stand on the edge of the canal and do their business. And the Japanese women used to -- because they had no homes they'd dug caves into the side of the clay mountains -- they'd all come out and they thought [laughs] it was a great act every morning; they'd watch the Australians pee into the canal. So y'know that's what you get, cross-fertilisation with human beings.

How did it feel to be a young man, a warden of a town at that stage, with the war over?

I was only there for about, I'd say, a week. It was an interesting experience and [chuckles] I suppose I never felt a big shot or anything, I never had tickets on myself, I've always kept my feet on the ground. But I just felt compassion for people who had suffered, really. I didn't feel any brutality at all to anyone.

And you said that you 'understand' that the brothels gave a receipt. You didn't ever use the facilities that were provided for the soldiers?

No, the reason being was -- well first of all let me put it this way. First of all I've always been a romantic and if I was to have sex I wanted the other person to have me just as I would want them. But I'd also remind, was always imprinted in my mind, the experience of these 100-odd, the percentage of these 100-odd Britishers, who'd got VD in a couple of overnight stays in Jakarta. So that never ever left me [chuckles].

When war was over and you looked back on it, knowing you were going to be going home, what do you think you actually got out of the total experience in a positive way?

Well, I wrote a letter to a dear friend recently. Because you see in a period of life I think that one can talk about oneself a little bit too much. And I'm going through a period of my life, particularly, I've just come back from Vietnam and (in) Vietnam I did a lot more reading about Ho Chi Minh and I think he was one of the great humble men, a very humble man, and I think greatness really is humility. And I've really tried to look at myself in a much more self-critical sort of way to stop blowing your bugles about what you've done [chuckles], Tom. And it's the service of the human family, service to is what it's all about. Now, in a way, I think there was a certain arrogance because where I'd lived by a certain principle that my mother's and my Christian philosophy had put into me, and I'd lived up to those ideals, in my own way I really felt a little smug that I'd 'made it', you know, in such a way, in such a principled way, without bending the knee. In fact, I think I'm a bit critical of myself about that certain smugness.

A little bit of self-righteousness?

Yeah well, I was a bit of a purist as a young man. And I mean, don't get me wrong, in prison camp, because I thought I was a bit bigger than most people, and stronger and fitter than most people, if I had to go, there was a log, in prisoner of war camp, and there was two ends of the log, I'd pick up the heavy end as a matter of responsibility. And I'd do things which I thought was my responsibility. In fact, in some ways, without being an elected leader, I just arbitrarily said, 'Well look, we know who's crook, we know who's sick, he can't carry such-and-such a load,' and I'd delegate, 'Come on you big bugger,' or I'd call them some other adjective, 'you can carry that and I'll carry this and we'll help em home.' So there was a kind of a fairness; that philosophy in a way that old Weary had given me, you know, kept on going.

So you'd learnt that. And practiced it.

Well, it had grown in me, that that's what I felt I wanted to be.

So ...

But even today, you know, I'm still trying to do that, I'm still trying to serve it, but you've got to do it in such a way that you don't have to tell other people you do it. You know what I mean? I finished my book and I said it's my relationship with people, my greatest reward is that when you walk down the street it's the way people treat you, it's the look of their eyes and their faces, that give you strength, and I said Packer couldn't buy it with all his millions. Well, that's what life's about. It's about -- look, there is no greater public service, going into public life, to serve and give to your fellow human beings. If you are not even in public life, it's giving; giving in my view is the greatest strength you can do. And people say, 'Ohhh, you get hurt, giving.' To hell with that -- you just keep on giving. I'll tell you, in the long term you'll get paid back. I mean, I know I have. And it's not that I haven't been without sorrow in my life, I have, but life has been good to me, people have been good to me, and I feel so wonderful about the way people treat me in that way.

And the truth of the philosophy of giving was laid out for you, demonstrated for you, in that prisoner of war camp?

Well, the example was set, and you either be guided by that example, or you don't. And now, some ways there I'd drawn from Roosevelt, I'd drawn from my mother, in those early years. I'd drawn from Chaldjian who I worked with. There was another great person in my early army life called Norm Avery who I worked with. He himself, his philosophy, was that same giving, sharing, kind of broader philosophy -- tolerance, patience, good over evil. So you know those things all blended into my mind and helped mature and develop me.

And so you came back to Australia in your mid-20s with an enormous amount of experience behind you?

Well [laughs], I suppose, I s'pose it was a type of university degree, yes.

And with a certain amount of confidence in your ability to triumph, and to get things done that you wanted to get done.

Yeah well, in a way, where on the one hand I've had a certain security and confidence, on the other hand, I've always had a kind of, I suppose, an inferiority complex about the question of lack of formal education. And I couldn't apply for jobs, you know, and show any qualification. I'd left school at 13 and that's all I've got to show. And so I tried to get employment, so I first of all ...

Before we get to that, you'd come back to Australia. How did that happen, could you just describe your arrival?

Well, after we were in Japan, we decided they couldn't get the shipping into Nagasaki Bay because of the contamination and we had to wait until it was decontaminated, but we heard information that there were American B-17s which had been sent up to carry freight into a place called Kagoshima on the southern end of the tip of the island of Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, and that if you could get down there they would fly you out, and so I was due to go out and I got another attack of malaria. So my Scotch mate was Jock Cowie, who was in the Gordon Highlanders, and Babe Daniels, and another mate of mine called Sid Irons, they went on and I told 'em I'd meet up later. And so, instead of being on my back for four days I think I waited two days or maybe three days and when I thought I was right enough, up I went. I went with a group of Americans and we got by train nearly to Kagoshima, but then the bridge had been blown for the railway and the only way you could get over was by car, by truck, so we commandeered a truck. And we got over in this truck and when I first saw the Americans I thought they were men from Mars because they had the different helmet (when we became prisoners they had the same Tommy helmet as we had in the First World War). They changed their helmet. They were a very yellow colour because they had been on Atabrin to overcome the malaria. So they were the strangest looking people, I wondered who they were. So anyway, we went into this camp and they just fed us and looked after us and I'll never forget that night, the arguing with them; they said, 'our Navy did this' and 'our Navy did that, it's the greatest Navy in the world,' and of course everybody knows that the greatest navy in the world [is] the British Navy [laughs] -- the greatest in the world, talk about brainwashed [laughs] . Course, I found out later that all the things they were saying was on the knocker. So, there was that that experience. And I must say, their compassion and generosity was just wonderful. But if I can mention -- because our camp was about 1700 strong and it was Americans, British, Dutch and Australians, the Americans are the worst prisoners I've ever seen in my life. They were quislings of the worst type, snivelling, cringing, degrading individuals, you just could not imagine them. Not all, but the overwhelming majority of them. They would sell their own brother to survive. I mean, they were degrading people. And here I found that having gone through that experience and seen that and then seen this secure, generous Americans, and there's no doubt about it -- an American when he's secure, or any individual when they're secure, they can be so warm and generous and giving. So that in itself was an experience.

Why do you think the Americans showed up so badly in camp?

Well again, I think it's the survival of the fittest mentality amongst them. They never had the camaraderie. I mean not all Australian camps were as good as ours under Weary Dunlop, but be as it may, there is something about a camaraderie among Australians to one another, and even the British, there was a certain dignity amongst them to some extent, but I'm only talking about this experience I saw personally with the Americans in that camp. In fact, the CO of that camp, a Lieutenant Little, was court-martialled later. He was a regular officer and I don't know what the final outcome was, but he was court-martialled and put up before some tribunal for collaboration with the Japanese. Of course somebody must have charged him, somewhere in the system. But again it's the magnitude of the Americans. For instance, when we left Kagoshima we left very early in the morning and it was still dark and when we flew over Okinawa, you know, we could see the city, we thought it was the city of lights, but in fact it was all the ships in the bay. It was all the ships in the bay that were there.

The American Navy?

Yeah. All ready to invade Japan, of course. And there were thousands of ships! I mean you've got no idea. All these lights -- of course didn't know what they were and when we eventually went, flew out, it was daylight and you could see what they had done to Okinawa, the airstrips that they had done, the magnitude of work they'd done in such a short period of time. And you could see the might and the ingenuity and the organisation of [the] American war machine was such an impressive thing, it really was graphic in your mind, just to look down on to see their organisational base. And if I could just tell you a funny story about Okinawa. When you are up on the front lines they must had Red Cross huts that the men didn't have to buy anything, it was just go in and help yourself. Anyway, it was certainly help yourself with us. We were told and I had a pair of Air Force overalls and I tied a piece of string around it and in those days I loved chocolates and I got onto these Hershey chocolate bars. I went in and I filled up the whole of the top of [these overalls] [chuckles] with Hershey chocolate bars and of course from there we flew out to Clark Field in the Philippines. And we remained there 30 days. I was 10 stone when I was released. And within 30 days of remaining in Manila I was 14 stone. So, I put on a bit of weight within 30 days.

All chocolate?

Yeah, most of it Hershey chocolate bars. And the interesting thing was that there were some great songs, the Andrews Sisters' Rum & Coca Cola, they played that from morning noon and night. It was quite a song for us.

You were on your way home?


How did you feel?

Great. We actually waited as I say the 30 days in Manila and the HMS Formidable took us, stripped down, and we were all taken aboard ...

[coughs] I'm awfully sorry, I've been trying to stop that happening. [coughs] I got one of those tickles and I've been sitting there. [coughs]

Well, we went out on the HMS Formidable, and they stripped it down and we sailed, the captain told us exactly what day we'd come in, what time of the day, and he said we would sail through Sydney Heads at 8am the morning of the 13th of October, 1945, and we did that right to the second. Now we sailed off, of course it was a wonderful feeling going up the harbour and then pulling in at Circular Quay docks and there was one sign there, 'Welcome Home Tom Uren,' and it wasn't my mother, it was my Aunty Mary, but we weren't allowed to meet our loved ones at the Circular Quay dock, we were to meet them out at Ingleburn. So they put us straight on to buses and we were sent out to Ingleburn and it's a funny feeling about freedom. It was really going along Parramatta Road, of all places, in this double-decker bus, and I'm on the top deck, that I started to feel, you know, I got this feeling of freedom. Now it's ironical because first of all I was not a member of a political party, I was going out to an area which I never dreamed I would represent for about a third of a century, and there I am with this wonderful feeling of freedom and of course when we got to Ingleburn I met all my family and all my loved ones and we went back to Five Dock to my Aunty Mary's place, where the Urens and Miller clan just met and welcomed me home. We were all there, everyone was there, except my younger brother Les, who was on service up in Mount Morgan. I stayed for about a week and then I got permission to go up there. I'll never forget first of all flying up from Sydney to Brisbane. I think it was what they call a DC-4. It was stripped down. You had to have a blanket around you because there was no air-conditioning or anything. And you sit either side, and facing one another. That was my first air trip in Australia, although I'd flown in the B-17s from Kagoshima to Okinawa.

So here you were back in Australia, and you had to find your way, you had to decide what you were going to do next. Now with your lack of education, there was postwar reconstruction and some of the men were going and getting qualifications. Did you look at that at all?

No I didn't. No, I really went first of all to Jack Dunleavy's gymnasium, and that's where I started to train, right from the early part. And I kept on breaking down, in health, because of malaria. And there was a doctor at Repat given me called Alan McGuinness, who really became quite a renowned doctor in Australian profession. And he said to me, 'Tom look, if you really want to have a chance of making it then I suggest you have at least a year's lay-off, don't do anything for a year.' And that's what I did. And so for a year I just looked after myself and didn't do much -- but what occurred the first Christmas we got back, we arrived back in October, I had gone to visit my mother but I was a bit lost in so many ways. And around about Christmas time, I spent Christmas in hospital, with another malaria attack. It was where Merrylands Park is now and just off Woodville Road there, first of all there was an American naval hospital and then the Australian Army took it over later and I was in their hospital. And so that was in December but I got a telegram from my mate Babe Daniels (I was staying with [his] family) to come down to the south coast at Illawarra and they said 'come down' and I sent back a telegram, 'Is Patty Palmer free?'

Who's Patty Palmer?

Pattie Palmer is one of my POW mates' sisters. Billy Palmer was a part of the group. There was a group of us: there was Billy Dircks, there was Babe Daniels and there was Siddy Irons and myself. And we were real close mates in prison camp. And Billy had shown me this photograph during the war of this lovely brunette and lovely eyes and her name was Pattie Palmer, and I asked was she free, or was she connected? They said, 'Come down'. 'Course when I got there, I found out everybody was sweet on her. So, that's when my courting started. [laughs] And I'll never forget as long as I live, I was a terrible dancer, I only wriggle you see, and so the first time I get up on the dance floor on New Year's Eve night of 1945 to have this dance with Pattie Palmer. I'm so uptight that I've got her wrist in my hand I've got my arm around her and it's a waltz and I don't know how to waltz and I felt so awkward that when we all finished, Pattie in her mischievous way said to me, 'Do you think I can have my wrist back now?' [laughs] 'Or my hand back now?' Because I'd stopped the circulation of the blood in her hand because I'd held it so tightly. Well, I didn't think I was making much progress with her. But a couple of days later we, her Aunty Maisy and myself and Pattie went back on a train from Wollongong to Sydney, and we talked the whole way. And I think that was the beginning and I must say that I made a date with her the following night. I had to go home at her place; instead of taking her a present I used my ration cards to buy her a length of fresh material for her mother [laughs] and take home four yards of material. Her mother had been wonderful to me, by the way, during this New Year's Eve period. So I take home this four yards of dress material which was so, it was, like, you couldn't get it for hen's teeth.

That was a shrewd move.

[laughing] So I made a wonderful hit with my mother-in-law. And so that was the starting of our courting days. we courted one another, that was early January, we were engaged by the 8th of February and we waited 13 months, long engagement, before we were married -- and it was the longest 13 months I ever spent in my life.

And you'd never been in love before?

No. No. No. No. It's um, it's a remarkable thing. She's quite a remarkable woman, my wife. And she was a further part of my development of my life but she was very special. She's the nicest human being I've ever known.

What were you doing for a living at this time?

I was working as a clerk at the Department of Munitions and that was in [the] David Jones building and she was working in the other building at David Jones, so we used to see each other a fair bit at lunchtime, so we saw a fair bit of each other and we'd go to the pictures together in those days; she was a quite keen picture-goer. And we would go to the beaches on the weekend and we'd go down the south coast and meet my mother and father. It was a warm friendship, but 13 months is a hell of a long [INTERRUPTION]

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