Bill’s lost medals
During the 1970s Mrs Jean Attenborough moved from her home to Aged Care at Leederville. With no alternative Jean carried valuable documents and her son’s precious medals in her handbag. Imagine her devastation when she discovered her only son Bill’s medals stolen. She was not to be consoled and remained heartbroken.
The Attenborough family advertised Jean’s loss and in later years, the medals were included on websites listing lost medals – but were never recovered.
Jean would never again see these medals which meant so much to her.
Bill Attenborough had died of acute enteritis (starvation) as a POW of Japan at No. 1 Camp Ranau Camp, Borneo on 12 April 1945 aged 28 years. He had left Sandakan during late January on the First March to Ranau. He reached Ranau when so many died on this treacherous mountainous jungle track. For those who reached Ranau they faced further enforced ‘marches’ carrying heavy loads for the Japanese to locations near Ranau.
Almost 50 years later during late March 2021 the 2/4th website received an exciting email – Bill Attenborough’s medals had been found!!!
While clearing out his elderly parent’s home a son found the medals and searched online to discover the story of the theft – provided to us by Bill’s great niece Bernadette, not so long ago. Bernadette is one of Jean’s granddaughters. Her mother Beryl the only sibling of Bill.
The parents often attended Gregson’s auctions during the 1980’s and it is believed one of their many purchases included the Attenborough’s medals. The Auctioneers would bundle small items into boxes – the buyer would never know all the contents until later having decided to purchase one of the larger items near the top. The family were not collectors of military items – the medals had sat boxed and in storage all these years unseen by anybody.
With failing health the parents and sons generously agreed to return the medals to the Attenborough family.
Bernadette Cowley of Melbourne, receives in the post her great Uncle Bill’s medals
Bill Attenborough died of acute enteritis (starvation) as a POW of Japan at No. 1 Camp Ranau, Borneo on 12 April 1945 aged 28 years. He had arrived from Singapore with ‘B’
Force Borneo 18 July 1942 one of 1495 Australian POWs. You can read further about ‘B’ Force Borneo
Attenborough initially enlisted AIF 6 Aug 1940, later joining 2/4th’s ‘D’ Coy as a Driver. Also standing in the enlistment line was Tommy Lewis. He joined ‘D’ Coy 14 Platoon as a Despatch Rider.
Lewis and Attenborough had not seen each other since a attending school as young boys at Nilup. The friendship was quickly renewed. Attenborough frequently visited the Lewis family home.
2/4th mates from Northam often included Fotheringham (‘B’ Coy Rangetaker) and George Glass, Driver with Battalion HQ.
Glass was AWOL at Fremantle, failing to re-board ‘Aquitania’ before sailing for Singapore, he sailed later and in fact went to Java. Glass went on to work on the Burma end of the Railway. It is not known whether Lewis and Glass saw each other in Singapore. It is probably not likely.
At Singapore a decision was made to create a further machine gun platoon – Tom Lewis was switched to No. 16 Platoon, with Commanding Officer Sgt Arbery (formerly 13 Platoon). Also in No. 16 Platoon was one of his best mates Bill Attenborough (from 15 Platoon).
Tom was shell shocked at 14/2/1942.
He was evacuated to Australian General Hospital at Roberts Barracks Changi on 18/11/1942 with an early case of encephalitis caused by mosquitos. Attenborough was known to visit his mate Tommy regularly and was distressed Lewis was not recovering. The Australian doctors warned Attenborough it was unlikely Lewis would recover.
With this shocking news Fotheringham and Attenborough decided to join ‘B’ Force Borneo and sailed to Sandakan, Borneo departing Singapore 8 Jul 1942 where three years later they died separately during 1945.
He had left Sandakan during late January on the First March to Ranau. He reached Ranau when so many had died on this treacherous mountainous jungle track – weak from starvation, exhaustion and numerous illnesses. There were five 2/4th men who survived to reach Ranau and Bill’s death was the last. It is very likely he witnessed final moments of his 2/4th mates as well as those of other POWs.
Right: Tom Fotheringham, who died 7 June 1945 on the Sandakan-Ranau track at Murawatto, in vicinity of 42 mile peg, near the track to Beluran on Second March.
Tom was aged 24 years.
Born in Newcastle, England in 1921, Fotheringham was a Rangetaker with ‘B’ Coy.
Tom came to Australia with his parents and siblings in 1924- in the same year the family took up land with Group Settlement No. 52 Lennox, Loc. 2395 near Busselton in 26 May 1924.
Ron Page WX4934 died on 17 Feb 1945
Tom Dorizzi WX12884 died on 11 March 1945
Reg Ferguson WX7999 died on 23 March 1945 (both Dorizzi and Ferguson came from Toodyay)
Claude Nash WX17363 died on 23 March 1945 same day as Reg Ferguson
Bill Attenborough WX7444 died on 12 Apr 1945
Once at Ranau the emaciated and sick POWs faced further enforced ‘marches’ carrying heavy loads for the Japanese to locations closer to Ranau, all the while receiving minimal or no food or medicines. They were dying of starvation and severe illnesses.
Bill was born 1917 to Rippon Attenborough and Maude Mary Jane (Jean) Bailley who married 1916 Warragul, Victoria. He had a sister Beryl. The marriage broke down and Jean with her two children moved to WA travelling with her mother and two brothers – from Victoria on a bullock train. The whole family took up residency in WA.
As a young lad Bill Attenborough had met with Tommy Lewis at Nilup School. Bill with his sister Beryl and mother had come to Karridale (now Alexander Bridge) to live. His mother was the only wage-earner in the family and a soul parent. It would have been a challenging role for Jean, particularly in those times. The Lewis family had migrated from England and taken up land under the Group Settlement Scheme. Theirs was also a ‘tough’ life.
The Lewis family left their farm and relocated in Perth.
It wasn’t until the two young men were enlisting did they meet up again. They were lining up to enlist at Claremont. The childhood friendship was renewed and Bill with other 2/4th men visited frequently the Lewis family home.
Tommy Lewis continued to fight for life for the next 3+ years until he was repatriated home when the war finished. Tragically Tommy returned home to his family just the shell of the man who they knew and loved. He was unable to speak and barely able to walk. Tom spent years in rehabilitation. Please read further about Tom Lewis who defied all odds.
Bill’s mother Jean and family waited for his return, but instead received a briefly worded official telegram advising Bill had died as POW at Borneo on 12 April 1945. He was 28 years old.
Throughout her life Jean Attenborough and other Sandakan/Borneo families likewise never ever received any further information – Most did not know where Borneo was, why the men were there, what they died of – absolutely nothing. The decision not to inform the families of Sandakan POWs of their lives and deaths was shameful – was it right for the Australian Government to withhold this shocking information?