Prisoners of War, Prisoners of Peace: Captivity, Homecoming, and Memory in World War II

By Bob Moore; Barbara Hately-Broad | Go to book overview

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Prisoners of War in
Australian National Memory

Joan Beaumont

It is a remarkable fact that, until quite recently, World War II was marginalized in Australian national memory by World War I. The war of 1939–45 was, in global terms, the more catastrophic conflict, and in contrast to the war of 1914 18, it confronted Australia in early 1942 with its first loss of civilian lives to aerial bombing and the very real threat of invasion. Despite this, the conflict has played a secondary role in ritual and war commemoration at the national level. Moreover, the details of the war - its major battles, campaigns and contours - are comparatively unknown among the younger generation of Australians.1 There are many reasons for these phenomena, which are beyond the scope of this study. However, the key point, for the purposes of this volume, is that POWs have been an exception to this rule of national amnesia - or more particularly, prisoners of the Japanese have been so.

Why? In the first instance, it needs to be stressed that the experience of captivity in the Asia-Pacific region from 1941 to 1945 was a remarkably dominant one for Australian personnel who served in that theatre of operations. More than 21,000 Australians were captured by the Japanese. This was almost three times the number captured by the Axis powers in the Mediterranean and Europe.2 While these numbers are small compared to the millions of men and women who were taken prisoner in Europe, particularly on the Eastern front, POWs constituted about 25 per cent of the deaths suffered by Australia during World War II. Moreover, some 7,600 prisoners - or almost a third of those captured by the Japanese - died in captivity. In contrast, only 3.2 per cent of men interned by the European Axis powers died in captivity.

The total Australian death toll in World War II was, in fact, only in the order of 30,000,3 from a population of about 7 million, a statistic that accounts to some degree for the marginalization of this war in Australian memory, given that World War I, when the population was less than 5 million, saw combat deaths of more than 58,000. But the ratio between deaths in combat and deaths in captivity in the Asia-Pacific War was dramatically different from the other theatres of war in

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