The Soldier's Details
- First Name:
- Frederick Noel
- Nick Name:
- Regimental #:
- 'E' Company, Special Reseve Battalion, No. 1 Platoon.
- Place of Birth:
- Liverpool, England
- Father's Name:
- Not Known
- Mothers's Name:
- Elizabeth Matthews
- Church of England
- Pre-war Occupation:
- Selarang Camp Changi, Adam Park, Johore Bahru, Selarang Barracks Changi, River Valley Trtansit Camp
- 'D' Force Thailand, S Battalion
- Camps Thailand:
- Tarsau, Kanu II, Hintok River Camp, Kinsaiyok, Tarsau, Tamuang
- Camps Japan:
- Yamane, Nihama
- 3/8657, 8814, 1667
- Rashin Maru Party
- Return Details 1945:
- Wakayama-Okinawa, USS Sanctuary, Okinawa-Manila, USS Bingham, Manila-Sydney, HMS Speaker Sydney, Sydney-Melbourne-Perth by troop train.
Matthews was born to a young single mother in Liverpool. She fortunately lived with her parents and siblings and with assistance from her mother, never gave her son Noel for adoption. When he was about 7 or 8 years old, Elizabeth Mathews was told of an organisation called Fairbridge Children, run by Kingsley Fairbridge. Noel was at an impressionable age and getting into trouble with local children residing around the docks of Liverpool. She accepted an opportunity for Noel to go to Australia as a Kingsley Fairbridge Farm Schoolboy.
He always believed he was fortunate to live in Australia! He arrived in Australia 14/5/1931 on ‘Largs Bay’ aged 8 years. Also on board was Reginald Gerald Tooze WX16323. They were housed in ‘Nelson’ Cottage.
Cowboy was with ‘E’ Force during the fight to save Singapore. Most of ‘E’ Force was made up of reinforcements, too many very young men with insufficient training and for some, had enlisted in 1941 as late as November/December.
Please read further details of the demise of ‘E’ Force from the writing of Saggers as they ran into a Japanese ambush at South West Bukit Timah, losing most of the officers and too many young men. Only 88 of the 200 men survived. Cowboy says he was lucky. Those still alive ran for safety, scattering in all directions. He ran into Don Company, which was made up mostly of well trained machine gunners, having trained at Woodville SA, and Darwin. He remained with them during the last three days of fighting.
Cowboy said “I was lucky – during the ambush, everybody ran in different directions, some straight into the Japanese. I ran straight into ‘D’ Coy, 2/4th”.
Approximate date of Camps:
17.02.42 Changi, Singapore
23.03.42 Johore Bahru, Malaysia
04.04.42 Adam Park, Singapore
06.11.42 Syme Road, Singapore
29.12.42 Changi, Singapoe
14.03.43 Left Changi, Singapore by train for Thailand.
18.03.43 Bampong, Thailand (then end of Rail link)
19.03.43 Kanchanaburi, Thailand by trucks.
25.04.43 Kanu 2
10.03.44 Tamuang – selected fit to work Japan ‘Rashin Maru’ Party
26.06.44 River Valley Road Transit Camp, Singapore
01.07.44 Embarked for Japan – 70 day sea journey to Moji.
Yamane Copper Mine, Shikoku Island
Nihama Copper Refinery Shikoko Island
12.09.45 Released at Niihama
Return Details: Nihama to main Island of Honshu by ferry
Wakayama via Osaka by train.
Hospital ship USS ‘Sanctuary’ to Okinowa
‘Liberty’ ship to Manila
Train from Sydney to Melbourne (one of many former POWS who refused to board very overcrowded ship ‘Dominion Monarch’ in Sydney – Cowboy’s record says he was AWL).
Melbourne to Perth by Civilian DC 6 Airliner
Once released from his Japanese POW Camp, Cowboy’s journey home to Australia from Manila was via ‘Speaker’ sailing into Sydney. The men were supposed to board ‘Dominion Monarch’ at Sydney, however Cowboy was one many former POWs who walked off due to severe overcrowding. After what they had survived, they were not going to sail on an overcrowded ship, probably without bunks. This large number of former POWs sought alternative transport. The next leg was via train from Sydney to Melbourne to Perth. Cowboy at arrived at Perth by train where all former POWs and 2/4th boys all piled out, crazy with excitement (and probably anxiety) to meet with their families for the first time in almost 4 years – with no family to great him and no family home to go to, Cowboy was a little overwhelmed.
He had been waiting 4 years to “go home” – being an Old Fairbridgian and barely 18 years old when he left WA, he certainly didn’t have anybody waiting to meet him or a family home to make his way to.
The men soon departed with their families – an unexpected voice loudly called out “Come on Cowboy, you are coming home with me”. It was the voice of Harold Jacobs WX10804. Harold had realised Cowboy’s dilemma and acted with sensitivity and kindness.
Cowboy was to spend a few days with Harold Jacobs and his family before he headed off and made his way back to Fairbridge!! The men continued to look out for each other.
At Pinjarra he was to once again able to call Fairbridge his ‘home’ although he had not lived there since he was 14, when he was sent out to work at his first job.
The Old Fairbridgians Club house had been established to provide accommodation for former students (female and male). The top floor of the 2 story building was a dormitory and became filled with returned servicemen and servicewomen who had survived the war.
Cowboy never forgot Harold’s act of kindness at that memorable time in his life.
Above: Cowboy with his close Fairbridge mate, Bill Tatchell. Tatchell was standing next to Cowboy at Northam when a dividing line was ‘drawn’ between two men standing in line by an officer. Bill went off with another Battalion and survived the war. Cowboy was sent to 2/4th.
Cowboy enlisted at Claremont on 13th October 1941. At 18 years he was underage. He was excited, no more milking cows a nd getting up at 4.00 seven days a week, free from ties and responsibilities to Fairbridge and best of all, a chance to travel the world! (Officially Fairbridge students were Wards of the State until 21 years old) It was a rather exciting time – had they known what was ahead of them perhaps they would have absconded and forgotten about the few months training ahead of them!
Developments on the Malaysian war front changed the initial planned direction for those in Northam and elsewhere. The Australian Government’s War Cabinet made the disastrous decision to redirect the well trained 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion then stationed in Darwin and destined for the Middle East, to Malaysia to support the ill fated Australian 8th Division which with the British was already in rapid retreat from the advancing Japanese Imperial Army.
Cowboy now training with 28th Battalion, was one amongst 300 raw recruits ordered onto the parade ground at Northam Army Camp Dec 1941. A senior officer divided the men into two groups of 150 each. The cut-off point was between Cowboy 17000 and his best mate from Fairbridge who was No 17001 (Bill Tatchell). With his group of 150 men Cowboy was informed they were to take a few days leave, return to Northam and prepare for overseas service. (2/4th sent to Singapore and other 150 men were going to Middle East.) The best mates parted company. Tatchell survived.
Cowboy, as a 2/4th Reinforcements was soon prepared to train from Northam to Perth. There was no time for marching and who knows whether they were sufficiently fit! Certainly were not well trained. Included were soldiers who enlisted as late as November 1941. There was never an official photograph of the reinforcements , or ‘E’ Coy. There had been no time.
It was not until the reinforcements arrived in Fremantle and saw the ‘Aquitania’ anchored in Gage Roads did they realise they were to board this huge ship.
It was now 15th January 1942.
The reinforcements boarded pontoons packed with supplies, sailed to ‘Aquitania’ where mayhem met them! Large numbers of men on-board ‘Aquitania’ were attempting to go AWOL to see their families. It was a frightening experience as the pontoons bounced around on the water with those illegally climbing down from the ship’s portholes and other outlets whilst the recruits were ordered to climb on-board. In the meantime, supplies were being transferred onboard.
The ‘Aquitania’ sailed the following day, 16th January. 90 odd machine gunners failed to reboard in time, many of who were locked up by over zealous local police, unable to persuade their gaol-keepers to allow them to leave.
A month later Cowboy was a POW of the Imperial Japanese Army.
The fighting to defend Singapore barely lasted two weeks but in that time ‘E’ Company (made up of mostly reinforcements) suffered the largest number of deaths, including several young men from Fairbridge. It had been a terrifying ordeal amidst the mayhem of the Allied Forces fighting to defend Singapore. The 2/4th MGB did not fight as a Battalion, instead the Companies were sent to various locations to support 8th Division.
Following capitulation in Singapore 15 Feb 1942 Cowboy was sent to Changi (Selarang Barracks) initially, then with work parties to Adam Park, Johore Bahru, Sime Road and back to Changi before departing by train for Thailand.
Cowboy was selected to go to Thailand to work on the railway with ‘D’ Force, S Battalion. ‘D’ Force was made up of 5,000 Australian and British soldiers who left Singapore between 14-23 March 1943. This Force was divided into 3 sections: S Battalion commanded by Lt. Col McEachern; T Battalion commanded by Major E J Quick and U Battalion commanded by Capt.Reg Newton. Overall joint command was Australian Lt. Col McEachern and British Lt Col GG Carpenter.
‘D’ Force worked over a large area of the railway between Tarsau and Rin Tin in Thailand. Many of the men worked on the Konyu Cutting (Hellfire Pass). The largest group of 2/4th men together were selected for ‘D’ Force.
The train journey from Singapore was a hellish one. POWS were crowded into small trucks squeezed in by their Japanese guards for what was to a 5-day 4-night rail trip to Bampong, Thailand. The days were stinking hot and the men found the nights freezing cold. Without sufficient room the men were forced to take turns to lie down. They stayed overnight at Konma transit camp and headed out the next day on a 49 km trip by truck to Kanchanaburi.
Initially they were trucked to Tarsau via Tardun where they worked clearing a path for the future railway line for a few weeks. Working at Tarsau did not prepare them for what was ahead. The Hellfire Pass Cutting. Cowboy arrived with S Battalion at Konyu II on 25 April 1943. This was hell. Most without shoes, clothes and dressed only in ‘Jap Happys’ they were every day subjected to injury from flying stone flint as they proceeded with ‘hammer & tap’ day in and day out. Food was minimal and beatings frequent. The trek every day day from their camp was long and tortuous for the ill and injured as they returned at night. Beatings and tropical illnesses including cholera raged through the camp taking lives.
Cowboy was teamed up with ‘KK’ MacDonald WX8621 to work hammer & tap. Cowboy was probably one of the youngest and ‘KK’ considered an older soldier at 25 years! Everybody loved ‘KK’ he was a popular bloke. In November 1943 Cowboy was on ‘tap’ – holding the spike to the rock face while ‘KK’ had the hammer. Cowboy got the shock of his life as he felt hammer smash into his fist and looked up to see ‘KK’ falling to the ground. A Japanese guard immediately ran over thinking the POWs were fooling around. Of course they weren’t. ‘KK’ was lying unconscious. The guard recognised another cholera victim, and ordered McDonald be carried back to Camp.
Cowboy was devastated and shocked as were all the blokes. KK was never to be seen again.
The men arrived back at Camp to discover KK had been evacuated (to Tarsau Hospital Camp) where he died on 25 November 1943, aged 25 years. Cowboy was always grateful that they heard news of KK’s death, because mostly when the sick were evacuated those left behind never heard anything further.
The men suffered beri beri, dysentery, ulcers and endless tropical diseases compounded by lack of food and medicine. The POWs were subject to bashings by the Japanese and Korean guards. They required no reason to lash out at a POW and were struck with unexpected violence and rifle butts.
From Konyu II he was sent to Hintok, Kinsaiyok and Tamurang.
It was at Tamurang during June 1944 and after the Railway line was completed that Cowboy was selected to go to Japan with ‘Rashin Maru’ Party later to be named ‘Byoki Maru’ the sick ship. They were later entrained to Singapore.
The men who made up ‘D’ Force S Battalion did not always remain together nor move to the same camps. Sometimes mates met up several months later. The Japanese ensured POWs were regularly split up.
Sickness often kept patients behind to recover whilst the remaining POWs moved on. Small groups of POWs were often ordered to move to other camps (leaving behind the main group) sometimes these camp sites provided minimal accommodation of sorts – often in poor condition and even no shelter. The POWs may be gone for a couple of days, or move onto another POW group Camp. Remember Camps and locations did not have signs to tell the POWs where they were – Japanese Guards did not tell them and their knowledge was limited.
In fact many camp names were unknown to POWs. Camps were given various names, pronunciations and spelling. If there were Camp names (and there were not) who could read Japanese or Thai?
Cowboy left Tamurang on 21st June 1944 in a party of 900 Australians, travelling by train arriving Singapore 26th June and were marched to River Valley Camp. He had worked 18 months on the Burma-Thai Railway and survived.
The POWs knew of the Allied attacks on Japanese shipping and also knew of the sinking of several POW ships.
Several days later on 1st July 1944 the group was marched to Singapore docks from River Valley Road Barracks. They were shocked to see the ship they were to board to take them to Japan. The ‘Rashin’ Maru had sustained obvious damage from Allied bombing. Worse still it was a rust bucket and an old ship (from 1921) The Australians quickly renamed the ship Byoki Maru. The sick ship. They boarded knowing there was every chance they may never reach Japan.
It was to be a 70-day very long and at times danger-filled journey to Japan. The ‘Rashin’ Maru sailed at 5pm arriving four days later at Miri, Borneo. Two days later on 10th July 1944 the ship anchored off Miri and sailed 12th July headed for Manila and arriving 16th July. This was a terrible time for the POWs with the extreme humidity. They were allowed on deck for short periods of time, but it was so hot standing on the deck the men didn’t know which was worse – inside the hull expiring or outside roasting.
August departing at 10pm. The ‘Rashin’ Maru had attempted several times to leave Manila but returned to harbour because of American submarine attacks. The ship finally sailed on 9th August 1944.
10th August they encountered a submarine attack. The captain took the ship close to shore anchored for 2 days.
13th August a terrific storm hit the coast and ‘Rashin’ Maru was forced to leave the convoy again that night to seek shelter near a small island.
11th August ‘Rashin’ Maru anchored half day off south Formosa.
16th August arrived Keelung, North Formosa.
27th August sailed from Keelung at 9am and returned.
28th August ‘Rashin’ Maru sailed 9am.
30th August Anchored at Nowa.
1st September sailed from Nowa.
3rd September anchored off Isle of Keesu. 4th September sailed.
6th September Anchored Kokoshima. Arrived Moji 7th September.
8th September 1944 disembarked and marched to stables and divided into work parties. The POWs were shocked they had actually arrived safely in Japan and now faced the cold Japanese winter temperatures. They had only known tropical weather for the past 3 years after Thailand and Singapore.
Australian POWs had zero knowledge of Japanese culture and Japan.
Japan was to have the coldest winter in 30 years.
But first ‘Cowboy’ had to deal with his health. He had developed a ‘blind’ ulcer behind one of his knees! Of all the luck – he was never once sick whilst on the Railway.
(Mycobacterium ulcerans, also known as Buruli or Bairnsdale ulcer, is caused by a bacterium thought to live in the environment. It produces a toxin damaging to the skin and underlying tissues. The infection usually begins as a painless spot or pimple which slowly grows bigger and forms an ulcer – if not treated it ‘eats’ away through the flesh to the bone. Buruli ulcer usually progresses slowly over several weeks. Occasionally it can develop more rapidly. An ulcer may not be initially present. It can occur anywhere on the body but it is most common on exposed areas of the limbs, such as ankles, back of calf, around the knee, or forearms or around the elbow.)
He was sent to a nearby Japanese Hospital to be operated on. Nobody spoke english and he was sent alone. He never really commented on this experience but the consequences plagued him all of his life. He required shoes to be made for him to accommodate one large/swollen foot and wore stockings to his thigh to restrict the swelling of leg veins. Things worsened with age.
Cowboy & Marion
Cowboy passed away aged 80yrs, December 3 2003, at Claremont, WA.
Cowboy carried this photograph with ‘Betty Oldfield’ written across the back throughout the war and returned home with it intact. He had never met Betty. In 1942 as his train from Northam passed through the hills on their journey to Fremantle and ‘Aquitania’ the train travelled slowly though the small towns – the townspeople and young girls waved and sometimes passed momentos to the young soldiers. Cowboy acquired Betty Oldfield’s photo at one of those small towns such as Mundaring.
Cowboy and Marion Matthews finally met up with Betty Oldfield one day in the 1990’s at Anzac House. Waiting in line to order their lunch they heard somebody say “Betty Oldfield” – she was standing in line! Cowboy introduced himself and told the story of how she had been ‘with him’ throughout his terrible days as a POW on the Burma-Thai Railway and Japan!
Fate is a strange thing. The chances of this situation occurring is extremely rare. Betty Oldfield could have married, changed her name, moved interstate or overseas and could have been dead.
Borehole Bulletin July 1992
Borehole Bulletin October 1992
The following letter was addressed to Ted Wallin, (editor of Borehole) written by John Waddell from Newdegate.
‘Just a note to say good’day and some information on Bill ‘Jeep’ Breed’s 90th birthday in June. Hoping all is well with you as it is with Beth and I, we are shifting to Mandurah next month so may get to a few more shows.
Bill is keeping well and has a marvellous spirit for his age. His party, organised by Poll Findlay’s daughter Marg and husband Merve Saunders, was very well done. Plenty of food and drinks all day and plenty of chance to talk.
Around 35 people turned up over the day and included Bill’s friends from Perth and Newdegate, also many cards, etc. a very nice one from Dick Ridgwell which was very much appreciated by Bill. ‘Cowboy’ Matthews rang him but I was the only 2/4th present.
Bill also had a phone call from a doctor who treated him for a few years, from Cocos Island where he is now on holiday and said he’ll be back next year to see Bill.
Everyone enjoyed the party, especially Bill, who was as bright as a button at 10 o’clock at night when we left.”
Below: Cowboy records his age on enlistment on 13 Oct 1941 at Claremont as being 22 years old born in 1918. In fact he was born Dec 1923.
Initially he joined 2/28th. Was ‘scooped up’ with reinforcements, he was transferred to 2/4th 2 Jan 1942 and sent to ‘Aquitania’ to join the Battalion. The reinforcements stood to attention at Northam – a senior officer passed in front of the new recruits counting, until he reached Cowboy WX17000 and stopped. They were to transfer to 2/4th.
From WX17001 the recruits remained with 2/28th. Standing next to Cowboy was he closest friend from Fairbridge. WX17001 joined 28th Btn.
Below: Refused to sail on the ‘Dominion Monarch’ to sail from Perth back to Perth 1945. Cowboy was only one of a number of 2/4th boys, possibly 15-17 who did this – the number of returning POWs and soldiers far outnumbered the facilities of ‘Dominion Monarch’ – i.e. they had to settle for sailing back to Perth camped on deck. The former POWs were livid – they hadn’t spent the last 3.5 years as POWs of Japan to spend several days and nights camped on the ship deck, exposed to the Great Australian Bight weather conditions.
Instead the group of POWs took a flight from Melbourne back to Perth on 12 November 1945.
Below: Discharged from AIF Cowboy provides his age as 22 years 11 months! The problem with his left leg would plague him all his life. Whilst in Japan he was taken to a Japanese Hospital to have a ‘blind’ abscess/ulcer operated on. This had developed at the rear of his knee whilst sailing to Japan.
The operation was undertaken without any translation or exchange between Cowboy and nursing staff. He was returned to camp unable to walk let alone stand. Once he was considered ‘fit’ he had to work in Camp kitchen being unable to walk distances.
Below: Cowboy and Marion with their six grandchildren (probably late 1980’s)
- Adam Park Camp - Singapore
- Johore Bahru, - Malaysia
- River Valley Road Camp - Singapore
- Selarang Barracks Changi - Singapore
- Selarang Camp Changi - Singapore
- Hintok River Camp, 158k - Thailand
- Kanu II, 152.30k - Thailand
- Kinsaiyok Main, 170.2k - Thailand
- Tamarkan, Tha Makham 56k - Thailand
- Tamuang, Tha Muang 39k - Thailand
- Tarsau, Tha Sao 125k - Thailand
- Nihama, Hiroshima #2-B- Japan
- Yamane, Hiroshima #3-D - Japan