The End of Alf’s War

Earlier this year on Anzac Day my post “Aussie Sacrifices” focused on my late father, Alfred Ernest Morrison, and some of his wartime experiences, especially as a Japanese prison-of-war. We are now about to commemorate 75 years since the end of World War Two and within another three weeks on 6 September our family will also remember the passing of our father 25 years ago.

U.S.S. Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor

The war in the Pacific ended in practical terms with the unconditional surrender announcement by Emperor Hirohito on 15 August 1945, or as Americans prefer to commemorate with the signing of the surrender document on 2 September on the U.S.S Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Either way the end of hostilities set off celebrations throughout the world, and I would like to share more of my father’s story of those terrible times.

Alfred (Alf) Ernest Morrison grew up in Bankstown, New South Wales and although his parents had separated he was always close to his mother, Carrie, and had the support of a close extended family. It was not an easy time during those depression years in the working-class environment of Bankstown and despite liking to smoke and drink and to swear a little too much, the sense of family instilled in him a stable foundation.

NSW Protestant Churches Soccer Team, Queensland 1937 (Alf Morrison at top left)

He was an athletic young man through his school days and soccer was one of a number of sports he played. In 1937 at the age of 21 years he represented that New South protestant Churches team in Queensland. He served his apprenticeship to become a carpenter so when he enlisted in the army in 1940 he was fit, strong and healthy and this, together with the importance placed on mates in “the team”, would have undoubtedly stood him in good stead for what was about to follow.

Alf was in Singapore with the 2/12 Field Company, Eighth Division when it fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, starting exactly three and half years of captivity along with thousands of other Allied prisoners. The Fall of Singapore led to much uncertainty and worry for the fate of service men and women and it appears that little news of Alf reached home for a year or more.

Alf’s army service records show that Carrie first formally inquired about Alf only a month after the fall of Singapore and five months later he was reported missing and it wasn’t until September 1943 that he was officially known to be a prisoner-of-war.

When this information reached home, Alf would have already been with F Force on the Thailand-Burma railway for five months. F Force ended up at Sonkurai No, 3 Camp  229.20 km in Thailand mainly for construction of foundations of a big railway bridge across the river. Kami Sonkurai was the most remote of the POW camps on the rail line and had the highest death rate of all POW camps. There, rations were grossly inadequate, with almost no medical supplies and very little kitchen equipment or containers. A cholera epidemic at the camp was a particular problem. In the 1995 Changi Diary we read how “We learned the value of discipline … We learned to see the difference between good hygiene and bad” and this saved many lives among the Aussie POWs especially.

It was said that “next to cholera, tropical ulcers were the the worst thing to happen to you” (Bowden, Tim, Changi Photographer). During his time on the railway, Alf suffered from tropical ulcers on both feet, which could have easily led to amputation, but certainly resulted in bad scarring. On the completion of the ‘Railway’ POWs were transported first to Kanburi recovery camp and then by December 1943 back to Changi where they remained until the Japanese surrender.

His service records indicate that a card was received from Malaya in October 1944, and the next item on this record card, corroborated by a letter from a Hexham radio enthusiast listening to a Singapore station, was of a message home from Alf stating that he was “well and in good spirits”.

20 February 1945

Word of the Japanese surrender filtered into Changi in the middle of August 1945 as did more plentiful Red Cross supplies, but it was not until a pamphlet drop from Allied planes on 28 August that POWs truly knew the war was over. The pamphlet emphasised that “if you have been starved or underfed for long periods DO NOT eat large quantities of solid food, fruit or vegetables at first.”The next few weeks enabled the ex-POWs some time to recover before being shipped home.

On 21 September, Alf embarked on the liner Largs Bay heading Australia. His telegram home was dated 25 September, but this belated message was probably due to the large volume of telegrams being sent by the men.

Heading home

The Largs Bay docked at No. 11 Wharf, Wolloomooloo on 10 October 1945. The public was not allowed on the wharf itself but big crowds with their flags and confetti gave the home-comers a joyous welcome. The men were bused to camp at Ingleburn for their final assessment before greetings relatives and friends.

Welcome home picnic for Alf at Ingleburn with family and friends.

An Australian Women’s Weekly article on 27 October, which also included a photo (similar to the above) of Alf’s family gathering at Ingleburn, spoke of more than 5000 people being present to welcome home about 1000 returned prisoners of war. By this time the returned prisoners having had two months of recovery were in a pleasantly healthy condition.

Within a year Alf had married Bankstown girl, Norma Bray, who through the next forty-nine years was a loving wife, mother to their children and Alf’s carer as the effects of his incarceration manifested themselves. Of the two it was probably Norma who was less forgiving of the Japanese as she witnessed Alf’s deterioration. However maintaining contact with members of his old unit throughout his life and a long-anticipated trip to Thailand seemed to bring a degree of closure. Although hostilities ceased in August 1945, I have no doubt that Alf’s War only finished with his death in 1995.

Alf and Norma visiting Kanburi War Cemetery

So, with due respect to all who served in World War Two, at this time I believe it is fitting that we commemorate the sacrifices of all those who served in the Pacific war against Japan. Alf’s War is just one example of those sacrifices.

The world has moved on in the last 75 years and old enemies are now friends and allies, which is probably as it should be if we want a peaceful future. My own concerns about Japan, its people and the War were laid to rest when I visited a few years ago, and assigned to history … but Kipling’s words should live forever…

LEST WE FORGET

Aussie Sacrifices

What extraordinary times we are currently experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the significant events of modern times. Around the world people are being told by their governments of the need to make sacrifices in order to combat this Corona virus. To many, the imposed restrictions are seen as a virtual infringement on their personal liberties, impinging on individual rights, their lifestyle and for many their employment. In the main, these sacrifices have been borne well by the Australian community; a testament to our dichotomous culture of individualistic larrykinism and a communal spirit of “mateship.” The underlying acknowledgement of the need for a disciplined approach to this challenge, shown by the average citizen and the nation’s leaders appears to be making the sacrifices worthwhile.

Sapper Alfred Ernest Morrison

But today my mind also goes to other Aussie sacrifices as we prepare for a very different Anzac Day tomorrow. This day is important to a vast number of Australian (and or course New Zealanders) but it will be a very private Anzac Day this year while we are ‘social distancing.’ My private reflections will be of the sacrifices made by my own father, Alfred Ernest Morrison, in WW2.

At the age of 24, Alf was tall and athletic, a good all round sportsman. Sapper Morrison (NX300730) after enlisting in the 8th Division A.I.F. in June 1940, trained at Liverpool and Bathurst before sailing to Singapore with the 2/12 Field Company in August 1941. Not long after his arrival the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. This was closely followed by attacks on Malaya and Singapore leading to the Fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 and his capture and internment as a prisoners of war (POW).

He returned home after the war in October 1945 and throughout his life he spoke very little of his wartime experiences, but the following accounts from various authors illustrate some of the sacrifices he and thousands of other made, for us.

Map of the Railway and the POW Camps (for 70th Anniversary of the Thai-Burma Railway, Australian Railway Museum, 2013)

Changi Gaol was home for thousands of Allied prisoners for three and half years except for external work parties. Various “Forces” were dispatched to Japan, Borneo, Thailand and Burma to provide ‘slave’ labour for the Japanese war effort. In April 1942 Alf was part of the 7,000 strong “F” Force (3,444 British and nearly 3,600 Australians) that left Changi to work on the notorious Thailand to Burma railway, proposed to facilitate the invasion of India. “F” Force was later described as being “nine months of hell” and suffered the highest percentage of deaths of any Force on the railway.

The railway was 415km (258m) long starting at Ban Pong in Thailand and finishing at Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Between 180,000 and 250,000 civilian labourers and about 61,000 Allied prisoners of war worked as forced (slave) labourers during its construction and about 90,000 civilian labourers and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners died.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Railway)

“The work was so physically exhausting that some men died at work and were carried back to camp to be cremated. The work involved digging the cuttings, building the embankments and keeping the roads between camps open by cutting logs and laying them on the mud to make a ‘corduroy’ road.”
(Arneil, Stan, ‘One Man’s War’, Macmillan, Sydney, 1980, p.92)

When the remnants of “F” Force returned to Changi just prior to Christmas 1942, Arneil recalls that they were “… at the very end of our physical resources…” and that at Changi “We have at last fallen into a prisoners paradise…”

“All prisoners of the Japanese wherever they were starved to the brink of death and thus we were not shocked by emaciated bodies.  … Even so, we were totally unprepared for the human wreckage which returned to Changi as the survivors of “F” Force. In the trucks sat slowing moving skeletons emaciated almost beyond belief, many with dreadful sores and peeling skin, some unable to move and others so light that a Changi prisoner had no difficulty in lifting them.”
(Wall, Don, “Heros of F Force”, 1993, p.140)

The survivors of “F” Force (like so many of those that have served our country) displayed the discipline and comradeship that has been an inspiration and a further example of the Anzac spirit. On the Thai-Burma railway:

Anzac Day March

“… The Australians concentrated solely on the business of living, almost ‘willing’ themselves to live.”
(Arneil, p.91)

On Anzac Day 2020, remembering the sacrifices that my father and others made for us, puts our current predicament into some sort of perspective. Of course the Covid-19 pandemic brings some loss of lives, hardships and sacrifices to the high standard of living. However the example of the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparent has surely made it possible for us to endure this current situation and look forward positively to the future.

William Ernest Morrison (1884 – 1951)

My grandfather William Ernest (Ernie) Morrison died when I was four years old and I had never met him because he and my grandmother had separated when my father was only twelve years old. Family members have indicated that he was a gentlemanly type who was generally well liked but because of such an early estrangement, little of the real details is known about him and his life. What we do know has been pieced together from oral history of family members and online records as more become available. My most recent discovery was a most exciting one, but before I get to that I will give a broad outline of his history.

William Ernest Morrison

We know he was born on the Isle of Man in 1884 and his father had become a gardener on the large estate of Kentraugh and then at Government House (see my previous post for John Morrison). The 1901 census shows the family living at Kentraugh: John and his wife Margaret (nee Christian) and children John James, William Ernest, Lydia Christian, Edith May and Thomas Henry. Ernie, aged 16 years was shown as also working as a gardener. The next record of Ernie was when he married my grandmother Elizabeth Caroline Marian Thomasina (Briscoe) Ramsden, known as Carrie, in 1912 at Campsie, New South Wales. How and when he arrived in Australia had always been unknown until this latest discovery.

Following the marriage the couple initially lived with Carrie’s widowed mother on her 13 acre farm at East Hill, near Bankstown some 20 kilometres southwest of Sydney. Ernie apparently worked on the property for a while, since his occupation was given as farmer when he married. There, the couple had two children, firstly Lydia Emily Christian and then my father Alfred Ernest, but shortly before his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Briscoe, died in 1917, the extended family had moved into town at Leonard Street, Bankstown. When Alfred was born Ernie was recorded as being a stonemason.

By the early 1920s the family had moved again to a larger house in nearby Restwell Street, called Ellan Vannin but known as “The Ranch”. The large block included a tennis court where family and friends played and socialised. Also in this period Ernie established a fuel and produce business near the railway station in Bankstown with a succession of partners over several years, and there are a number of photographs of him and his delivery wagon. The business wasn’t to last more than a few years however and it has been suggested that Ernie was not a hard enough businessman, but somewhat of a “soft touch” in those difficult post-WW1 times, incurring too many bad debts to sustain the business. Whether this was a contributing factor is not known, but within a few years his marriage had failed and he had left Bankstown.

Produce Store in Bankstown, 1923

Ernie tried to meet and stay in contact with his children but this seems to have been denied by Carrie unbeknown to Lydia and Alfred although one remaining letter makes it clear that he missed his children but did not want to return to Bankstown.

Since that separation little is known of Ernie’s life except he worked at Sydney’s Central railway station as a “grill cook” until heart problems forced him to retire at the age of 61 years. It appears that he lived alone, renting a room in Riley Street, Sydney. in 1951 at the age of 67 his heart problems ended his life. His cremation was apparently attended only by his landlady and a small memorial plaque can be found at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.

Nowadays among the advice given to researchers includes: revisiting sources periodically, and especially online resources which are continually be added to. Also to break through a brick wall in the family tree it can help to “go around the wall” by researching other family members such as siblings. My discovery resulted from following these bits of advice.

By researching his older brother I found a John James Morrison who in 1902 he had enlisted in the Manchester Regiment. His home address was shown and Kentraugh, his next of kin were parents John and Maggie Morrison, and was also his brother “Earnest”. This was definitely our John James. The surprise was that next the Ernie’s name was “Royal Marines”.

The next step was the records from the UK National Archives where I found a page about William Ernest Morrison. He had enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Portsmouth Division, in September 1901 only a couple of months after his seventeenth birthday. The records showed that he served seven years on a number of ships. Firstly, there was the HMS Majestic, a battleship stationed mainly in the Mediterranean Sea, next was the sister ship HMS Caesar which was the flagship of the Channel Fleet, and lastly the cruiser HMS Powerful. The most exciting news was that Powerful became the flagship of the Australia Station (prior to the formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911), stationed in Sydney.

HMS Powerful (circa 1905)

This reasons for him deciding to stay in Sydney when he was discharged from service  in 1908 will never be known, but he must have seen a future for himself there. His life was not a very happy one, however the fact of his military service and how he came to Australia contributes greatly towards to our knowledge of my grandfather.