Repatriation of Australian POWs from South East Asia began 18 August 1945 and by 10 October 18,500 men had been evacuated from Thailand.
On 16 September 1945 Major Windsor AAMC from 2/14th Australian General Hospital was flown by a Douglas C47 to Pakan Baroe to assess the situation of POWs in Sumatra. He immediately reported back that although morale was good, conditions under which the 169 Australian POWs were living were unbearable. The hospital was in poor condition and immediate evacuation by air was recommended.
It was thus decided to make Sumatra the No. 1 priority ahead of Thailand. It is worthwhile to remember the 220 kilometre railway project had just been completed. The POWs were in a terrible state.
At Pakan Baroe all motor transport, mostly in a state of disrepair was mustered to transport the worst cases from hospital to the airfield 5 kilometres away. By 16 September the equivalent of 3 planeloads of POWs were at the airfield awaiting evacuation to Singapore. When the rescue planes arrived at Pakan Baroe and saw the state of men who had been working on the Sumatra railway, they were reduced to tears.
Prior to Japan’s surrender, the POWs were forced to eat fungus and bark from trees just to keep themselves alive. At this time there was little to be had in the way of food supplies for anybody, including the Japanese.
The first aircraft returned to Singapore on the same day but did not return to Sumatra for the second evacuation flight. The RAAF had been directed that no further aircraft were to be sent to Pakan Baroe. Windsor immediately ordered a C47 aircraft return to Sumatra to at least evacuate one more load of sick men, who otherwise would have been forced to remain out in the open at night because they were too frail to return the 5 kilometres to the Hospital Camp.
Further enquiries and conference about this event revealed the British DDMS cancelled all flights believing there was not sufficient accommodation on Singapore!
It was pointed out the fragile condition of not only Australian POWs, but the British too and it was imperative they be airlifted to Singapore as soon as possible. The mercy flights continued on 17 September evacuating all the British and Australian POWs from Sumatra.
The Australians on arrival at Singapore were admitted to 2/14th Australian General Hospital for immediate care. Several men from 2/4th were flown directly from Singapore to Guildford Airport a week later on 24 September, 1945. These men were Richard ‘Win’ Annear, Noel Banks and ‘Squasher’ Squance.
Alf Burgess returned onboard 1st Netherlands Military Hospital ship Oranje, Arthur Magill returned onboard Arawa and Cecil Quinn returned on the Highland Chieftain.
There were two deaths in Sumatra – Robert McAskil died cardiac beri beri working on the railway at 106 km point on 28 March 1945, and Harold Vernon Booth died of beri beri on 15 April 1945 at No. 2 Hospital Camp, Tengkirang about 5 kilometres south of Pakan Baroe.
Harold BoothRobert McAskil