We sailed from Suez on the troopship "Orcades" late in January 1942, reaching Colombo ten days later where we stayed for a day. No leave was granted and as we were supposedly under very tight and strict security. After leaving Colombo, we sailed south-east with no doubt in our minds that our next port of call would be Fremantle. However about three days later, when coming on deck after breakfast, Hugh Cory drew my attention to the fact that the sun had set on the starboard the previous day and risen this morning again on the starboard. This was soon realised by most of us and meant only one thing, that we were headed northwards.
Approximately five days later, we sighted land that turned out to be Sumatra. That same evening, we dropped anchor in the Sumatran Harbour of Oesthaven. On embarkation at Suez, we had on board the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. Both of these units had seen service in Syria. Now on arrival at Oesthaven, men from these units were assembled on deck with elements from my own 2/2nd A.C.C.S and were transferred by ship’s boat to shore. As I had previous infantry experience, I was attached to 2/2nd Pioneers.
Once ashore, we were loaded onto trucks and driven through the night over good bitumen roads as Oesthaven at that time was the major port for the oil city of Palembang. In the early hours, we finally arrived on the outskirts of Palembang. Here we were deployed around the town and oil-fields particularly. We still did not know what to expect, although news had filtered through that Singapore had already fallen or was in dire circumstances with little hope of survival. In this case we naturally thought the next Japanese move would be toward the chain of islands that made up the East Indies. No doubt rather vital to the stretched out Japanese lines of communication was the oil field at Palembang - hence our occupation there.
About mid morning the following day we heard the sounds of aircraft and then we saw them! By the time they were over Palembang they were fairly low and soon began discharging paratroopers. No sooner had these planes discharged their loads than another squadron would arrive with more paratroops, until there were virtually what seemed like, thousands of Japanese everywhere. As we were under Dutch administration our Commander had difficulty in relaying orders until eventually the position was so hopeless that it was decided to retreat along the road towards Oesthaven. I personally did not see a Japanese after they landed, but of course we all fired at them in the air. As to what toll was taken in this manner it would never be known.
With the knowledge that a Jap could be behind every tree, I was not sorry to be heading back. There were explosions as the Dutch authorities blew up all the oil-refinery installations before retreating and together with the noise of small arms fire, plus field weapons, it was chaotic. We had no idea how the battle was going as the Japanese were spread over such a wide area and to this day I do not know how many casualties we had or what happened to the wounded who had to be left behind. Trucks again began to pick us up and men crowded into each vehicle until all were vastly overloaded. Chaos reigned and all that afternoon and through the night we were stopping and starting as the road became jammed with retreating troops.
As in all battles and advances and particularly retreats, the "other ranks" have little idea of the set-up. Just take orders, sit and wait, do this, do that, and hope the top brass know their job! This was particularly the case during that night in Sumatra. I had previously been through a long retreat in the Western Desert and knew the traumas associated with such. As it turned out in this war I was never to be associated with an advancement unfortunately.
We eventually arrived back in Oesthaven around noon the following day. The natural attractive harbour was full of ships - mostly freighters and oil tankers with our "Orcades" being the largest of all. Ships’ lifeboats were all along the wharves and even tied up on the jungle shore. Some had engines but many only had oars. I managed to be fortunate enough to be assigned to a motorised one from "Orcades" and was soon aboard. We stayed in the harbour until nightfall and even as we sailed out, the harbour was still full of small craft ferrying troops to the various ships. I was never made aware of the casualties suffered by our particular group of men as I was an attached person to a group of men I scarcely knew or had a chance to get to know. Later on in various camps, I met up with the occasional chap who may have remembered me or I him during our mad scramble to and from Palembang. However I feel sure to this day many men were left to an unknown fate in Southern Sumatra. By the time our ship was outside the harbour and as it turned out, on its way to Batavia, I was once again reunited with my mates in the A.C.C.S.
We berthed in Batavia the following morning and prepared to disembark. Actually we left the ship three times, for no sooner were we on the wharf than we were ordered aboard again. Finally after the third disembarkation, we were marched to the station where we boarded the train for Bandoeng in Central Java. Because of its high elevation, Bandoeng was a popular place of residence for the Dutch as a cool change of climate from the hot and humid regions along the coast. To us it was also a welcome relief from our past couple of years in the Middle East and desert environment. It consisted of lush jungle, well kept streets and beautiful homes belonging to the mostly wealthy Dutch. Here, once we had established a forward hospital, we managed to forget the war for a few days.
It was perhaps a week after our hurried and disorganised departure from Sumatra that the Japanese invaded Java. Once again all troops were under Dutch administration and once again Australian commanders were hampered by Dutch rules and commands. Although the two Australian battalions and one American field regiment put up remarkable resistance to the determined invading Japanese, the ‘writing was on the wall’ well before the final capitulation on March 8, 1942.
It was about three days from this date before we saw our first Japanese in Bandoeng. They arrived in trucks and armoured vehicles, lined us up, counted us over and over and finally marched us all including doctors and nursing staff, to the civilian prison. We had no female nurses as these were never disembarked from the "Orcades". The wounded in the hospital were transported to civil hospitals in the town. So began the traumas, trials and horror of life as a Japanese POW. Unlike German POWs I had met in the Western Desert, these Japanese were so frighteningly different from those handsome, young, blond, German boys. A different culture and outlook on life in general and dressed in rough cloth uniforms and putties from boots to knees with cloth peaked caps covering a shaven head.
At the gaol we were placed in cells about ten to a cell normally meant for four. We were only allowed to take one haversack into which we crammed all we could. Eating utensils, spare clothes, shaving kit and if possible a blanket was included. Here we were introduced to our jailers whom we would grow to detest for the remainder of our POW existence - KOREANS!! Japanese officers would be in charge, but Koreans would be our immediate "bosses". A Korean can never carry any rank in the Japanese Army and was used solely for guarding purposes and transportation of materials to the front line. Always a rear echelon soldier and not overly popular with the Japanese soldier and in many cases openly despised.
River Kwai Bridge