Australian 8th Division in Changi Prison

This is a story told by Chaplain L. Marsden to the Catholic Weekly in November 15, 1945.


THE CATHOLIC WEEKLY is proud to present today this story of the Catholic men of Australia’s Eighth Division, as told by one of their own Chaplains, the Rev. Father L. Marsden, S.M. The valiant Eighth was swept into captivity at the fall of Singapore, after a bitter defence of the Malayan Peninsula, against picked Guards Divisions of the Imperial Japanese Army. Many stories of their experiences have since been told, but this story is unique. It is told by one of that select band of men whose lives were devoted to the spiritual welfare of the best of Australia’s sons. He gave it for publication unwillingly because he believed others could say so much more. Be that as it may, we feel sure that what follows will be an inspiration to Australians and a comfort to those whose dear ones will never return.


(As told to the editor of the Catholic Weekly)

Although Australia was taking the war seriously during the last months of 1939 and all through 1940, not even the most far-sighted people really anticipated war coming to our shores.

When the first Australian troops embarked on the Queen Mary on February 3, 1941, and learned that their destination was Malaya, they, at least, realised that war was not solely the affair of Europe and Africa.

And in spite of the bombing of Darwin, Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour, and the Battle of the Coral Sea, one feels that returning P.O.W.’s of the 8th Division, and the small number of 6th and 7th Division troops that were caught in Java, are the only ones in Australia today who vividly realise what humiliation and suffering was spared Australia by the fact that no Japanese troops marched on our soil.

Back at last from Malaya, and walking in carefree Australian Cities and towns, one is sure that the people will never know what they have been saved from, and, please Cod, the experience of the Phillipines, Malaya, and the Netherlands Indies during 1942-5 will never be Australia’s in the years ahead.

With that first brigade (the 22nd) of Australians destined for Malaya there were three priests – Fathers Con. Sexton (2/20 Bn.), of Rose Bay, and St. Benedict’s parishes; Bernard Quirk, O.R.M. (2/4 C.C.S.), of Waverley; and Harry Smith, S.M. (10th A.G.H.), of St. Patrick’s Church Hill.

On Good Friday morning of 1941, Father Brendan John Rodgers, O.F.M., sailed from Sydney with the 2/2 Convalescent Depot. In July of the same year Fathers “Mick” Dolan and “Paddy” Walsh, both of Rockhampton Diocese, were on their way with the 27th Brigade. The 13th A.G.H., to which I was attached as Chaplain, followed from Sydney on August 29.changi_chap1

Father O’Donovan, O.F.M. (Waverley) joined us in December, and the last priest to join us was Father Corry, O.P., who came over on the Aquitania with the 2/4 M.G.Bn., which was just in time to take part in the last week’s fighting on Singapore Island.

In early 1943, after 12 months in Changi Prison Camp, we had a fleeting visit from Father Kennedy, M.S.C., who was taken prisoner in Timor, and was passing through Singapore to the Thailand-Burma Railway affair. We never saw, but frequently heard news of, Father Tom Elliott, who had been taken prisoner in Java with 6th Division troops.

The 13th A.G.H. was hurriedly formed in Melbourne, and embarked for Malaya within eight days of formation. Maybe, there was a Japanese “scare” at the time, but, however that may be, we found on arrival at Singapore that the social life was undisturbed, and that hospital units were the last things wanted in that gay Eastern city. The staff and accommodation of the 10th A.C.H. at Malacca were easily able to cope with the routine sickness amongst Australian troops. Consequently, for two months after our arrival, we were barracked at St.Patrick’s College, and our days were pleasantly filled with a little work, a little play, and, for those who were interested in the problems of the teeming millions of the East, fascinating excursions into Singapore’s squalid Chinatown.

changi_chap2But these pleasant days soon came to an end, and in November we were posted to our first operational station. We left the comfortable conditions of St. Patrick’s, with its beautiful grounds and private beach, and crossed the causeway to the State of Johore, on the peninsula of Malaya. On the fringes of the jungle we found our new “home”. It was a very large modern mental hospital. The former occupants had vacated one half of this building, but as soon as the war commenced we were forced to take more and more of the wards, until all the former patients were herded into one small corner of the establishment.

During the first weeks here life was that of a military hospital in any peaceful-part of Australia. But soon a change took place. Without a declaration of war, Japan had loosed its powerful war machine against unsuspecting Pearl Harbour, and unprepared Singapore. What happened between December 8, 1941, and February 15, 1942, is, bit by bit, becoming general knowledge, and some day the full story will be given to the world in official history.

The loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse shocked us beyond all description. In the first hours of war the Japanese fleet air arm, with their “crazy old planes of bamboo” had inflicted perhaps the greatest humiliation on the Royal Navy in its long and glorious history. They had done in a matter of hours what veteran aces of the German Luftwaffe had failed to do in a year of ceaseless fighting. We knew well enough now that our enemy was efficient, determined and fanatically courageous.

Soon the British and Indian land forces were thrown into confusion and retreat by superior forces in men and armament. When some British staff officer announced to the world that we would fight “every inch down the mainland”, it did not convey to us a picture of British grimness and courage in face of overwhelming force, but merely that we were inevitably committed to a policy of retreat before the picked Imperial Guards of the Emperor of Japan.

And retreat we did. Soon it was the turn of the A.I.F. We tried to boost the local morale by claiming that one Australian was the equal of ten Japanese troops. Indeed, even without these rather boastful statements, the confidence of the local people in the courage and fighting qualities of the A.I.F. was astonishing. They literally thought that the moment the Australians went into action the tide of battle would turn.

Each of us will, for his own particular reasons, recall that night when we received our first Battle casualties.

I was reminded, as one is so often reminded in war time that, the world, after all, is a very small place, indeed. The men were those of the 2/30 Bn. who had been wounded in the initial encounter or Australian and Japanese troops at Gemas, on the mainland of Malaya.

In the early hours of the morning, the ambulances drove in, and the weary, wounded men were literally taken into the arms of our efficient, indefatigable and heroic nurses and medical orderlies, who soon had them bathed and “pyjamaed” and between clean, linen sheets, or else waiting in the resuscitation ward for immediate operation.

While doctors, nurses and orderlies were going about their work, the Chaplains were expected to dodge in and out, and do their job without causing delay or inconvenience to the doctors and their assistants.

At the same time they were expected to help in any way they could with the hospital duties.

In war time the names of all one’s friends and even casual acquaintances seem to crowd into one’s mind, and as soon as one hears or sees a name on an identification card one immediately tries to place that person. On this night, as usual, I was doing a first hurried round of the wounded to give the Last Sacraments to the urgent cases. I stooped over one prone figure on a stretcher, and read his identification papers – Brennan, 2/30 Bn.- R.C. That must be the name of scores or Diggers, but somehow feeling that my question would be answered in the affirmative, I whispered in this Digger’s ear: Come from Blacktown?”


“Go to Christian Brothers’, Lewisham?”


We had only been together through five ears of schooling at the Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham; sat side by side in class; travelled trains together, got into the same mischief together. So those “first” Last Sacraments have vivid memories for me. As it happened, they were not really the Last Sacraments, for we patched up Digger Brennan, and sent him to Australia on the last hospital ship to leave Singapore before capitulation in 1942.

But in those days one had little time for reminiscences of school days. The Japanese had prepared and planned for this campaign and because of our unpreparedness they were soon calling the tune.

They quickly penetrated into the A.I.F. defensive position. Soon the 10th A.G.H. at Malacca was forced to prepare for evacuation and re-establishment on Singapore Island. They sent their patients to us, but we had no sooner absorbed the huge influx of patients from Malacca than it was our turn to evacuate, and we providentially returned to St. Patrick’s College in Singapore, where we remained until the capitulation.

The, days before the fighting ended will never be forgotten by the man and women staffing the 10th and 13th Hospitals.

Ambulances bringing, battle casualties formed an unending procession……. Frantic efforts were being made to get the nurses away from the island……

Catholic medical personnel were always of great help to the hospital priests; but this can also be said for all medical staff of whatever creed during those days when the battle casualties were coming in.

On one occasion I had done one of those hurried emergency rounds, and was about to go to some other part of the hospital, when Matron Drummond drew my attention to one man who, she said, was a Catholic. I thought I knew my Catholics, so I checked the casualty lists, and found that he was not a Catholic.

However, Matron insisted, and based her assertion on the fact that the man had a Rosary round his neck. That settled all argument. The man was unconscious, so he was given Conditional Absolution and Extreme Unction.

Some time later he regained consciousness for a few moments, and on being questioned, in a whisper replied that he was not a Catholic, but his wife was, and had given him the Rosary before sailing from Australia.

When asked about his own affairs, he said he would like to become a Catholic before he died. That “operation” was only a matter of minutes, and although he gave us many anxious moments during 15 months of convalescence, he eventually did get well, and came home with other survivors of the “Lost Division.”

The short, fierce battle for Malaya and Singapore Island, the key to the Pacific, soon came to an end with British, Indian and Australian troops beaten to their knees in humiliation and defeat.

But they were not disgraced, and not demoralised, as was to be proved over and over again during the three-and-a-half years under the heel of a barbarous and pagan conqueror.

During the first days of capitulation, we thought the Japanese were going to justify the boast that they were a civilised and cultured race. It seems that the barbarity and beastliness of their troops in Hong Kong had even shocked the Imperial Japanese Army authorities and they were determined that there would not be similar disgraceful behaviour in Singapore, the next British city to fall to their conquering front-line troops.

If this, was the aim of the l.J.A. Command they were fairly successful, but even they were not able to prevent the terrible massacre at the Alexander British Military Hospital, when blood-crazed Japanese soldiery raced through the wards bayoneting patients and staff indiscriminately.

Perhaps the worst incident in this orgy of blood occurred when Japanese troops rushed into an operating theatre, bayoneting the surgeon and his attendants, killing several of the latter outright, and finally bayoneting the patient on the table.

Fortunately for us, the 10th A.G.H. was at this time in the centre of Singapore and I.J.A. troops were under control before they had penetrated that far into the city.

Although safe from the barbarity and personal violence of front-line troops, the 10th A.G.H. and 2/2 convalescent Depot were in the centre of the heaviest I.J.A. bombing and shelling. Shells actually landed in the makeshift wards in the dress circle of the Cathay Theatre, and nine Australian soldiers were killed.

Apparently, some I.J.A. commanders were somewhat humane, or, at least, aware of the importance of world opinion, for the movement of wounded men and hospital equipment to the P.O.W camp was orderly, and at no time were we molested by Japanese troops. Perhaps this considerate treatment was merely part of the Japanese policy of getting 58,OOO prisoners of war to their camp with the least possible trouble to themselves.

One cannot pass on to the captivity period without saying a word about our Australian nurses. Their devotion to duty was, and always will be, beyond all words of praise. When ordered to return to Australia with the last shipload of wounded, they protested most vehemently, and desired nothing more than to remain at their posts, and risk any hardship and humiliation in the fulfilment of their duty.

But wiser counsels prevailed, and those of us who sent them off did so with mixed feelings. We felt that their troubles were only beginning when they left us to run the gauntlet to Australia through mined sea-lanes, a powerful and unopposed navy, and an efficient and brutal air force.

We also knew that we were losing the greatest morale builders in the 8th Division.

Australia has known for a long time that our effort to save our nurses from humiliation and privation ended in tragedy. The ship with the last contingent of nurses was sunk off Palambang, Sumatra. Of the 65 nurses on this ship, three were drowned, and 30 who were injured in the sinking were captured by Japanese troops, who ordered them to walk back into the surf and machine-gunned them to death as they waded into the deep water.

The 32 who were uninjured, became prisoners on Sumatra, and were subjected to almost unbearable privations and humiliations during three-and-a-half years, and the 24 who have at last returned to their homeland and dear ones had the sad task of burying with their own hands eight of their number who failed to survive the three last months of captivity.

These nurses suffered terribly, and many paid the supreme sacrifice, but always, in life and in death, the displayed all the best and most noble qualities of Australian womanhood, and when we read of the atrocities of Manila we realise that God was watching over our own Australian girls, and we are greatful for that protection.

After the surrender of the Japanese this year, when the 14th A.G.H. was posted to Singapore, to care for the sick prisoners of war, requests came from all parts of the Pacific from the lucky ones who got away safely, asking permission to join the A.A.M.C., going back to Singapore. Unfortunately, only a few of them were able to join this unit; but the second greatest day for us, greater than the arrival of Lord Louis Mountbatten and his army, was the return of our nurses. And the greatest day of all was the arrival of the 24 prisoner-nurses from Sumatra to the 14th A.G.H. to be taken care of by their comrades, who had come back to nurse them.

From the day of our arrival in the Changi prison camp, I was attached to the Australian Hospital. We had between 800 and 1000 patients, the majority of them being battle casualties.

Hardly a day went by without a death, and then to make matters worse, dysentery broke out, killing many of the wounded who otherwise had a good chance of recovery.

One of the unforgettable features of life in the Changi was the manner in which our Catholic soldiers lived up to their religious obligations. Just before the capitulation we had received a large quantity of altar wine from the Cusa Chaplains’ Unit in Sydney, and we were thus assured of daily Mass for many months to come.

The garrison church in the Changi prison camp had received three direct hits, and had been utterly devastated. We lost no time in looking round for new church sites, but in the meantime the Catholic Boys gathered together at convenient places and times for the celebration of Mass and the recitation of the Rosary.

The camp had been divided into areas, and in a very short period Father Bourke, C.SS.R., a New Zealand chaplain, had built a church, which he dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, had established a branch of the Legion of Mary, and instituted a regular Question Box session.

The Senior A.I.F. Chaplain, Father M. Dolan, was working on a chapel in the Australian area, dedicated to St. Francis Xavier. In the 11th Indian Division Area, Father Kennedv, S.J., had dedicated a church to St.Ignatius Lovola, and in the British 18th Division Area, Father Jackson, O.F.M., had set up his church under the patronage of Our Lady of Lourdes.

The material for the church in the hospital area was obtained at night. Every evening a few of the men would creep through the wire surrounding the camp, and bring back all the wood that they could find. During these scrounging operations, an unused military hut was completely dismantled, and brought back to the hospital.

By July of 1942 our chapel had been built and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. It was complete even to the stained Class windows, which had been salvaged from the ruins of the old garrison church. Sufficient tiles had been found around the camp to cover the floor completely.

While the building had been in progress a choir had been formed under the direction of W/O Nicholas, an Indian medical officer, who was an expert on Gregorian Chant. For our first Solemn High Mass this choir rendered the Missa de Angelis and in a very short time built up a very creditable repertoire of sacred music.

All the camp chapels were opened with great solemnity, and we quickly settled down to a regular routine

In our hospital chapel, we had three Masses every day, beginning at 6.30 a.m. for, beside myself, there were two Irish priests attached to the British wing. The Rosary was recited publicly every night, discussion groups were arranged, and instructions were given twice weekly. Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament was given on Wednesday and Sunday nights, and once every month we had Solemn High Mass.

Outside the hospital area the camp routine seemed fairly smooth. The Japanese formed men into working parties to go into Singapore. These troops were quartered in the city area, and their work consisted of looting all foreign stores and loading the stolen goods on ships to Japan.

Priests went into Singapore with these parties, and chapels were established at the different camps. Father Bourke was given a pass by the Japanese to move from camp to camp, and in the early days not only did he do his usual duties as a chaplain, but conducted regular eight-day missions, bringing many back to the Faith and making converts.

So great was Father Bourke’s zeal that the Japanese became suspicious and sent him back to Changi. He was the first priest to go to Thailand, but before his departure he gave a mission in the hospital, which was attended by more than 400 every evening.