Former POWs share wartime encounters

by Geoff Vivian

LOCAL man Neil McPherson is reminiscing over coffee with fellow former prisoner of war Harold Martin a few days before his 95th birthday last week.

He invited The Weekender to sit in and share his wartime memories.

“People say to me ‘do you hate the Japanese?’” he said.

“My son is a lawyer. He lives in Japan and married a Japanese midwife so I have two grandsons half-Japanese and half-Australian – that’s the answer.”

Neil was a shipping clerk in Perth when he enlisted in the Australian Army and found himself deployed in the Middle East.

“I was very fortunate; I got leave in Jerusalem and leave in Tel Aviv so I saw a bit of the country up there,” he said.

“Then I was posted to a Victorian unit and they were the first troops to be sent back to Australia when Japan came into the war.

“We were on the Orchades coming back. They diverted us to Java when Singapore fell and of course something like 54,000 Japanese troops landed on Java and there was 3,000 of us.”

The 19-year-old found himself working on the Burma end of the notorious Burma to Siam railway that claimed the lives of thousands of allied prisoners.

Although they never met at the time, Harold Martin also worked on the same end of the railway as Neil McPherson.

“I think I might have been born with the right genes,” Mr McPherson said.

“I was a 19-year-old and Harold was 23 so we had youth on our side.”

Neil was a group settler’s son from Margaret River where during the depression he frequently went to bed without a meal, so hunger pangs did not frighten him as a prisoner.

“I had malaria and dysentery and I escaped ulcers which were a terrific killer because once they amputate a limb you haven’t got much resistance to the different diseases,” he said.

“I escaped beri-beri which was another killer.

“Another thing that killed a lot of chaps was the stress – chaps with families at home, the worry about how their wife was coping on their own was instrumental in a lot of them dying.”

Both men were selected to go to Japan and work in a coal mine in Kyushu prefecture which Mr McPherson said probably saved their lives.

“I was fortunate that when I went to Japan I went to a little village,” he said.

“We were working in a coal mine but the village had never been bombed and the people probably didn’t hate the Americans and Australians as much as in other areas.

“Sharing the hazards of the mine with the Japanese miners created a certain amount of camaraderie.”

When Japan fell, the Americans dropped rations. Prisoners would often fill  haversacks and go hiking in the country visiting local farms and sharing their food.

“They showed us photos of their sons who were overseas. They were very pleasant times,” Mr McPherson said.

“I put on about three stone and when I got home people would say ‘I thought you were supposed to be hungry’.”The Hardie Group, Mr McPherson’s employer, had a surprise for him when he returned.

“The Reid family who owned
the company, made up the difference between their employees’ wages that they would have got if they’d continued on working,” he said.

“So when I got home there was something like five or six hundred pounds waiting for me which enabled me to buy land.

“I worked for them for 50 years.”

“I started work in Perth, transferred to head office in Melbourne, came back and became manager of our Perth branch where I started as a message boy 50 years before.”

Since moving to Albany several years ago Mr McPherson met Mr Martin for the first time.

As two of the hundreds of workers deployed on the railway they had not known each other and although Mr Martin was also selected for mine work in Japan his ship had been torpedoed.

“He survived being torpedoed in a prisoner-of-war ship and was in the water for six days,” Mr McPherson said.

He paid tribute to his friends’ ability to survive and support each other during their time in the prisoner-of-war camps.

“The greatest thing that could happen to the camp was if we had some Australian farmers there because they could turn their hands to anything,” he said.

“They could take a bit of barbed wire and turn it into something useful like crutches or something like that.”

Mr McPherson has been back to Thailand, the former Siam, twice and celebrated his birthday a few months after Mr Martin who is now 100.