Rev Dr JKW Mathieson OBE

James Keith Wilson Mathieson
(1907-1971), was born in Camperdown Victoria, on 14 June 1907, to James Charles Mathieson and Emily Martha Mathieson (nee Wilson). While a student at Mont Albert Central School he was awarded a scholarship to the then prestigious Melbourne High School. 1n 1929, Mathieson entered the Methodist Ministry and shortly thereafter became a student at Queen’s College, Melbourne University. In 1931, he attained second class Honours in Philosophy and Advanced Logic. 

n 1932, he was awarded the Hastie Scholarship for Philosophy. In that year, he was also awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honours (BA Hon). After a further year of study, he was awarded the degree of Master of Arts (MA).

To comply with a requirement of the Methodist Ministry, Mathieson attended the Melbourne College of Divinity. In March 1939, he satisfactorily completed all examinations for the degree of Bachelor of Divinity (BD) from this institution. Following his ordination, Mathieson served as Reverend Mathieson in the rural parishes of Monbulk, Alexandra, and the Grampians town of Cavendish. On 1 February 1941, Mathieson was appointed as a Chaplain ‘for temporary service with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN)’. He was then appointed to HMAS Cerberus, additional, for service orientation, the issue of kit, and to carry out pastoral duties as required.

On 13 November 1941, Mathieson was appointed to the shore establishment HMAS Penguin as ‘Port Chaplain’ based at the Naval Dockyard, Garden Island, Sydney. In his first confidential report as a Temporary Chaplain, it was noted on 9 November 1941 by the Commanding Officer of HMAS Cerberus, Captain G D Yates, RN, that, in his view, Mathieson was:

‘A very pleasing personality, who carries out his duties with sincerity and zeal. He has a quiet unassuming manner and is well liked by officers and men. With more experience should make an excellent Naval Chaplain. He has conducted himself with sincerity and zeal to my entire satisfaction.’

HMAS Hobart (1)

On 11 February 1942, Mathieson was appointed as Chaplain to the light cruiser, HMAS Hobart. On this occasion, it was noted by the Commanding Officer of HMAS Penguin, Captain J C D Esdaile OBE, RAN, that after barely three months under his command, he considered Mathieson to be:

‘A very capable and efficient Officer, diligent and possessing initiative and good judgement. He is quick to learn and is likely to develop with experience. He has ability above the average and high academic education which he is still trying to improve. I have had no opportunity to learn of his ability on foreign languages or proficiency in the arts, but he has mentioned playing games. He is physically able to undertake any work that may be allotted to him. He has an even temperament and is able to attract confidence to my entire satisfaction.’

Upon his arrival in Fremantle, Western Australia, Mathieson reported in to the RANs shore base HMAS Leeuwin, only to be informed that Hobart was not due to arrive in port for at least another three weeks. In the interim, he joined up with a fellow Methodist, Reverend W E Freeman of the Fremantle Methodist Mission and went fishing. It was during the afternoon of 17 February 1942, while he and Freeman were tending their fishing lines, that the light cruiser HMAS Perth returned to port. In company with his friend, Mathieson went to call on Perth’s Chaplain, R ‘Barney’ Bevington, to ask him out for dinner ashore, only to be told the ship was under sailing orders and they would be departing ‘within the hour’. When Bevington was informed that Mathieson was onboard, he rushed to the upper deck to inform his fellow Chaplain that he was supposed to be ‘sailing with us in half an hour.’ Mathieson was shocked. He had received no instructions to join Perth. As far as he knew, he was still down to join Hobart some two to three weeks later.

To clarify the situation beyond doubt, Bevington sought confirmation from the newly promoted executive officer, Commander W H Martin, RAN. Martin had just recently joined the cruiser himself; however, he was able to confirm the order that Mathieson was to join Perth ‘in transit’ to join Hobart at the port of Tanjong Priok, Java, ‘at the first available opportunity’. Somehow, Leeuwin had failed to inform Mathieson that his orders had been revised. As Mathieson later recorded, ‘Thus I was shanghaied. A rapid rush to the parsonage and back to the ship and I was ready to go onboard.’ At 17:55, after a turnaround time of less than four hours, the cruiser was steaming back out through the Fremantle breakwater, heading north. Mathieson had embarked on a life changing journey which would take him through many unavoidable ordeals, yet to be experienced by Perth and her crew.

HMAS Perth (I)

On 31 January, Perth had sailed from Sydney, reaching Fremantle at 12:50 on 8 February, securing alongside to refuel. The next day, the cruiser was ordered to proceed to Batavia, departing Fremantle at 11:00, with her speed of advance reduced to 17 knots to conserve fuel. At 00:30 of the middle watch, orders were received to return to Fremantle, arriving back alongside at 14:00. Perth remained alongside until Saturday 14 February, sailing at 00:30, then heading southwards to rendezvous with a convoy of five empty tankers and one merchant ship loaded with general cargo, escorted by HMAS Adelaide. On Perth’s arrival, Adelaide then proceeded to Fremantle to refuel. The convoy was heading for the port of Oosthaven, Sumatra, supposedly to obtain as much oil from the Netherlands East Indies storage facilities as they could before the Japanese invaded.

Before Adelaide departed on 15 February, arrangements were made with Perth for Adelaide to re-join the convoy during the forenoon watch on the 17th. Upon Adelaide’s arrival, Perth set sail for Fremantle at high speed. At the same time the convoy was separated. The five tankers had been ordered to immediately change course and proceed directly to Fremantle. The Dutch cargo ship - SS s. Jacob - continued on her northward passage escorted by Adelaide, with Perth’s amphibian aircraft carrying out aerial reconnaissance to the north and west of the two ships during the remainder of the forenoon. Perth arrived at Fremantle at 14:30 with refuelling beginning almost straight away. However, due to a delay in the fuelling process, Perth did not set sail again until just on 18:00, with a breathless Mathieson now embarked in the cruiser. It was not until some four hours later that Perth took over escort duties from Adelaide.

While Perth was refuelling, information was received in the ship that another two Dutch merchant ships - SS Swartenhondt and SS Karsik - would attempt to catch up and join Perth during the forenoon watch of 19 February. At 11:00 on 20 January, an unidentified merchant ship was sighted fine off the port bow. Perth immediately closed up at action stations to investigate, with Mathieson joining Bevington at the Chaplain’s action station, located in the forward Sick Bay. Perth’s caution was justified by the recent loss of HMAS Sydney. Mathieson was to later recall, ‘it was this earlier fatal action which kept us from sneaking in too close.’ This observation suggests it was a well-founded theory amongst Perth’s ship’s company, that the lack of distance from the German raider Kormoran during that recent close fought action, was the main reason Sydney was lost with no survivors. The merchant ship was identified as the small British Phosphate Commission (BPC) vessel TSS Islander. The inter-island trader had departed Christmas Island on 18 February, and was heading south to Fremantle to escape an expected Japanese invasion of the island - with 49 civilian evacuees on board.

At 2100 on 21 February, a signal was received in Perth ordering her to reverse course with the convoy, and return with it to Fremantle. At 09:00 the next day, a signal was received from Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) to Admiralty, enquiring as to whether or not Perth was still required with the hastily assembled America-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) task force? This signal was superseded at 14:00 by a priority signal from Commodore John Collins RAN, Commodore Commanding China Force (CCCF) to Perth, ordering her to turn the convoy about, with further orders that the three Dutch merchant ships were to return to Fremantle. Perth was then to proceed to Batavia ‘with all despatch.’ Course was then set northwards for Sunda Strait at a speed of advance of 28 knots. In this regard, Mathieson was to later write:

‘Yet again, Perth’s orders were changed and her captain was directed to return to Fremantle. We sailed south but overnight the orders were altered for a third time. Next morning the sun was coming up as usual, but from the starboard. We had turned once more and were on our way northward. The vibration of the ship told of increased speed and the great stern wave billowing up behind showing we were on our way in a hurry, something like 28 knots.’

At 18:30 on 23 February, Java Head light was sighted. Many signals referring to ships’ movements through Sunda Strait during the night had been intercepted, but none had made mention of Perth. As a consequence, radio silence was broken, and a signal sent from Perth to CCCF and HMAS Maryborough, who - going by the number of signals mentioned above, was patrolling Sunda Strait - giving an estimated time of arrival (ETA) of Perth’s reaching Tanjong Priok, at 06:30 the next day. Speed was then reduced to comply with this timing. At 06:30 on the 24th, Perth made contact with an examination vessel off Tanjong Priok and was boarded by a Dutch officer who explained the safe passage through the protective minefield. Perth then came to anchor outside the harbour at 08:00 to await a pilot. Anchor was weighed at 09:00. The cruiser then proceeded slowly into harbour, securing alongside Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) War Sirdar at 10:00 to refuel.

At 14:15 an air raid warning was sounded. An attack at 15:30 on Perth by one aircraft making a shallow dive from straight ahead was scared off by a salvo of fire from ‘B’ turret, which appeared to ‘encourage’ the pilot to release his bombs early. This aircraft was also hit by Perth’s close range anti-aircraft guns, and was last seen beating a hasty retreat, pouring smoke and obviously badly damaged.

Early in the morning of 25 February, HMAS Hobart arrived at Tanjong Priok and secured alongside War Sirdar to refuel. As Mathieson later recalled: ‘While I was standing on deck, an officer touched me on the shoulder and pointed to the harbour entrance, ‘There’s your ship arriving Bish!’ While Hobart was refuelling, Mathieson, and one other officer who had been appointed to Hobart - Paymaster Lieutenant Commander P I Owen, RAN - were in the process of being taken across by Perth’s motor cutter to their newly arrived ship. Another in the cutter at the time was Perth’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant M Highton, RN, who was intending to pay a courtesy call to his opposite number in Hobart. An air raid warning was sounded at 09:00, with an attack on the harbour about an hour later. Mathieson later recalled: ‘We set out to make the few hundred yards and were more than half way there when someone noticed the Red Flag flying on Perth. If we had not had ‘Guns’ with us we might have gone on, but perforce we had to return.’ For better or for worse, both Mathieson and Owen were now inextricably linked to Perth.

Three fighters made a low flying machine gun attack on the wharf adjacent to Perth. War Sirdar was struck by a bomb which then forced Hobart to shift to an anchorage outside the harbour. At 12:30, a short time after the air raid had ceased, orders were received by all ABDA ships in Tanjong Priok Harbour, to raise steam and report when ready for sea. Perth sailed at 15:00 in company with HM Ships Exeter, Jupiter, Electra and Encounter, with orders to proceed eastwards at 20 knots. Hobart was expected to catch up with the force when her fuelling was completed. During the evening, more orders were received in Perth to join with the Allied Squadron in the East Java Sea, at a set rendezvous nominated by the Squadron Commander - Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN) - which was later revealed by signal as Surabaya Harbour.

On 26 February, Perth arrived at the approaches to the eastern entrance of Surabaya at midday, anchoring two miles north of the naval dockyard at 16:00. Perth’s Commanding Officer, Captain H M Waller, DSO*, RAN, then proceeded ashore for a conference with Admiral Doorman, and the Commanding Officers of all Allied ships present. A berth alongside was made available to Perth, but as orders were received in the ship to be ready to sail at 18:00, there was not enough time to top up with fuel. Perth sailed at 19:30 in company with the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the American cruiser USS Houston; HM cruiser Exeter; two Dutch destroyers, Kortenaer and Witte de With; four USN destroyers, Alden, John D Edwards, John D Ford and Paul Jones; and three HM destroyers, Electra, Jupiter and Encounter. By 22:00, all ships in the Squadron had cleared the protective minefields and settled on an easterly course, running parallel to the north coast of Madura Island, with a speed of advance set at 20 knots.

On 27 February, the Squadron’s course was altered 180° just on 01:00. Daylight saw the Squadron again off Surabaya. However, a westerly course continued for the next four hours, then reversed back to Surabaya. During the forenoon, enemy aircraft continued to shadow the Squadron, with a few bombs being dropped intermittently by these planes flying at high altitude. But no concentrated attacks by enemy aircraft was attempted, and no direct hits were incurred. Later in the day, the ABDA Squadron was totally decimated during a one-sided seven-hour action, dubbed the Battle of the Java Sea. Communication problems played a large part in the Allies’ loss. The Japanese invasion of Java continued unabated. It had only been delayed by one day by this action. Houston and Perth would evade being sunk by Japanese naval forces on this occasion. Breaking off the action, both cruisers arrived back at Tanjong Priok during the afternoon of the 28th. It was hoped that they could refuel, but Perth was limited to 300 tons, which brought her furnace fuel oil capacity to just over fifty percent.

It was quite evident that the destruction of warehouses and port installations was well underway. So, the chance was taken to embark anything of use close to the ship that might prove useful. This included naval and other stores addressed care of HMS Terror, Singapore, and 24 wooden lifesaving rafts. Orders were received to sail at 18:00. Due to an impending air-raid, and circumstances beyond their immediate control, both Perth and Houston finally cast of at about 19:00. Course was set westward towards Sunda Strait, Perth leading, with Houston trailing about half a mile astern. While passing through the protective minefields a signal was received in Perth quoting an aerial reconnaissance report - sent at 16:00 - of an enemy convoy some 50 miles north-east of Batavia, steering west. This led the command in Perth to believe there were no enemy ships in the immediate area. Both ships’ companies were closed up at action stations, and when Perth reached open water, the order was given to increase speed to 22 knots, hoping to round St Nicholas Point within the next few hours.

The two chaplains met in Bevington’s cabin, where they prayed together. When closed up in tropical climes, it was oppressively hot below decks. Mathieson was tossing up whether or not to remove his ‘blimp’ [lifejacket] as it was tight around his waist, causing him to sweat profusely. He had already removed his identity disc from around his neck, as it was chafing his neck under his rolled-down anti- flash hood. Both men then parted. Bevington went to his action station in the Sick Bay, and Mathieson went to his in the Wardroom. The two chaplains were destined by fate to never meet again.

The ship’s company paused to listen to Waller speak on the ship’s main broadcast. Mathieson heard this speech with a certain amount of endogenous trepidation:

‘He told us we would proceed through Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap and then ‘with a bit of luck’ to Australia. It was a cheerful speech, but he struck an ominous note when he gave an outline of what his orders would be if it became necessary to abandon ship. ‘Prepare to abandon ship’, ‘Stand by to abandon ship’, ‘Abandon ship.’ Had he a feeling of what was to follow - for up to this time we had not been touched and all hopes were high. Had the luck changed?’

At about 23:00, an unidentified vessel was detected at five miles distant, close to St. Nicholas Point. When challenged, it proved to be a Japanese destroyer and was immediately engaged. The two Allied cruisers had inadvertently run into a large enemy invasion convoy bound for West Java - consisting of 50 transport ships, escorted by eight destroyers and two heavy cruisers - entering Bantam Bay.

Almost immediat­­ely, numerous Japanese destroyers surrounded the two Allied ships, forcing Perth to divide her main armament fire control to enable more than one target to be engaged. Just after midnight the gunnery officer reported that Perth had used up all of her 6-inch ammunition, and was down to firing practice rounds. Noting this, Waller decided to attempt to force a passage through Sunda Strait. He ordered full speed and altered course direct for Toppers Island. Perth had steadied on this course just after midnight when she was hit by a torpedo on the starboard side, adjacent to the forward machinery spaces. Waller was heard to remark ‘Well, that’s torn it’. He then ordered the pipe to be made ‘prepare to abandon ship.’ A few moments later, Perth was hit by another torpedo on the starboard side alongside ‘A’ turret. Waller then gave the order to abandon ship. Approximately ten minutes later a third torpedo hit well aft on the starboard side. This was followed by a fourth which hit on the port side, amidships. Perth then righted herself, heeled over to port and sank at about 00:25, 1 March 1942.

Most of Perth’s ship’s company - or those who were able - abandoned the cruiser between the second and third torpedo strikes. However, it is doubtful if any of the ship’s boats were lowered, although many of the salvaged wooden life-rafts and ship’s Carley floats were. While those who could abandoned ship, Perth was still under fire from several destroyers firing at close range, with many hits sustained, and many more casualties incurred. In Mathieson’s case, he nearly didn’t make it out at all:

‘From the wardroom we moved out to the iron ladder leading up to the hatch above. Already men from deeper in the ship were climbing up. The ladder was full. We stood waiting as the figure at the head of the ladder hit back the ‘dogs’ securing the hatch. They did not move. ‘Hit them the opposite way,’ someone growled. The lad did so, and the steel clanked, the hatch burst back. Up we went with all speed into the cooler air of the moonlit night. The ship was lying over to starboard. The enemy were black blotches on the calm sea. A few men were getting Carley floats over the side. We partly inflated our blimps, took a look at the water far below, took another look at the vessels that were still firing, took a desperate breath and jumped.

‘In the water I felt I would never return to the surface. Somehow, I had gone over to far and become caught in the stream from the screws, being tumbled over and over in endless slow Catherine wheels. Once I opened my mouth and took in a large quantity of ocean. Again, I held my bursting breath. Suddenly I was on the surface. I got back my breath and completed the inflation of my blimp. The first sensation was of peace and ease. I could never have dreamed that one could feel so secure by reason of a lifebelt. It was like being in an armchair. Near at hand was an empty Carley float. I struck out for it. I was second to reach it. Soon it was overcrowded.’

Once the battle had ceased, it was a balmy night, warm and moonlit on a very calm sea. The Chaplain’s Carley float now held twenty men, and was only moving slightly with the swell. Mathieson was nursing dying Signalman Walter Hopton, who had no visible signs of injury. He had been caught in the water by the blast of the last torpedo to hit Perth. Hopton had turned nineteen just three weeks before. He died peacefully. Mathieson then commended him to God as they committed his body to the deep. His place was then taken up by Lieutenant David McWilliams, who also passed away sometime later. He too was committed to the sea with the same due reverence by Mathieson. Others who would succumb to their wounds before they finally reached land, were Able Seamen (AB) Verdun Maxwell, George Lawson and Robert Williams.

When the sun rose next morning, there were still many survivors in the water. As Mathieson later recorded: ‘As far as the eye could see were odds and ends of wreckage, Carley floats and rafts. Eager shouts were exchanged over the water, a yell of joy as someone found a cobber unhurt. Some cheerful and often ribald and profane.’ Mathieson’s float drifted tauntingly close to Sangiang Island but the swift flowing current proved too strong. Many floats and rafts drifted close to both Toppers and Sangiang islands. Chaplain Bevington was on a raft which also came close to Sangiang. He had sighted a boat on the beach and, being the strong swimmer that he was, attempted to swim to shore. However, he disappeared, and would never be seen again. Mathieson’s Carley float was sighted by an enemy destroyer, but then it was approached by two Perth sailors - AB Joe Deegan, and Gunner (T) Len Smith - in a salvaged 16-foot Japanese lifeboat. These two men had been charged by the Japanese captain to pick up survivors of the action, then ferry them back to the destroyer.

To Mathieson, rescue was very welcome; ‘Prisoners we would be, but at least there was a chance for life itself. We waited our turn.’ But, just as the lifeboat came alongside the destroyer to offload, its captain received an air-raid warning and left without taking anymore survivors on board. Those in the lifeboat were left stark naked. The Japanese had ordered them to strip and ditch their oil-soaked clothing so as not to stain their decks with toxic furnace fuel oil. The only person who didn’t comply was Mathieson, who chose to keep his shirt on. As time passed under the tropical sun, the Chaplain’s shirt did more than its fair share as it was passed from man to man to give some brief relief from the sun. It was 04:00 the following day, Monday 2 March, before they reached a small beach a few miles from Labuan on the west coast of Java. By the time they made landfall, two more men from Perth had died. Later that morning, Mathieson presided over a very strange burial. The men had used their hands with which to dig a grave. He was to later record: ‘Then followed one of the strangest and most pathetic funerals of all time. The lad we buried was naked, the congregation was naked, the officiating chaplain likewise. There under the palms of the Java Coast.’ Afterwards, the survivors said a prayer for their own survival and lay down to sleep. Several of them went exploring the nearby area returning sometime later with coconuts and a few sarongs from a nearby village. The sarongs were distributed by lot, with Mathieson being a lucky recipient. The remainder emulated Adam and Eve and made aprons out of vines and leaves for themselves. They had been trekking for a couple of days, carrying their wounded, always looking for food and water, and keeping an eye out for potential attackers. When they found a railway line, they followed it until the Japanese picked them up and marched them to Serang. There was little fight left in any of them.

By 9 March, many survivors from both Perth and Houston were being held in two rundown buildings in Serang, the town’s native cinema and its jail. Here they remained for forty days amidst the heat, filth, starvation and death. Mathison spent time in both the jail and the cinema. By the end of the second week, there were fifteen hundred or more men crammed into the cinema building. This number was given by journalist Rohan Rivett, who was also interned there. Rivett vividly remembered Mathieson, who by now was ‘thin, bearded with a bandaged foot.’ As they introduced themselves to each other they realised ‘they had both been at Queen’s’. Just for a moment, the two men must have been taken back to the stability of their beloved Melbourne.

There was no such stability in the Japanese regime at Serang. While Japan had signed the Geneva Convention, they had not ratified it. As a consequence, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) felt they had no obligation to care for, or keep alive any prisoner of war (POW) under their control. These conditions led to the further loss of shipmates, as seriously injured and weakened survivors succumbed to the deprivations inflicted upon them. Rations, such as they were, consisted of a small portion of the poorest quality rice, and the occasional small bread roll. Boiled water was doled out indiscriminately from a kerosine tin, with many missing out altogether. They were not permitted to wash their hands and faces, and were made to sit at attention without talking, all the time threatened by soldiers from the cinema’s balcony with machine guns. There was no medical care, despite these men suffering from burns, shrapnel wounds, or with broken limbs. Later, there was some basic medical attention, which meant that after a cursory inspection by a Japanese medical assistant, a few bandages were handed out. Crossing the surrounding rubble in bare feet to go to the latrines was agony, as were the incredibly foul smells and the number of maggots thriving in the open pit. One of Mathieson’s feet became infected quite badly, but he regarded this as being a reasonably small problem when compared to the injuries of many others.

After several weeks, the Australian and American officers were transferred to local jail among convicts, other POWs and Dutch civilians. Each of the cells had many more prisoners than the twenty it was designed to hold. With thirty-five prisoners in Mathieson’s cell, finding space for everyone to lie down on the hard concrete was difficult. However, the biggest problem the prisoners had after this and water, was getting enough food. They were given two meals a day, usually a bowl of rice with either seaweed, meat (which was usually bad) or peanuts in it. These meals were the eagerly awaited highlights of the day for hungry men. The nausea of an empty stomach became a familiar pain to all. That Easter, courtesy of one of the Javanese guards, each man in Mathieson’s cell received a duck egg. In tune with the occasion, the chaplain led them in an Easter service. As Mathison was to later recall:

‘Religion was very real to us in those days. One officer said to me one day ‘By cripes Bish, I’ve done some praying lately - a bit of religion doesn’t hurt a man - I’ll be more careful in the future.’ At the request of those in our cell too every evening, I read a portion of scripture and we discussed it, finishing with prayers for ourselves, our home-folks and for final victory.’

Dysentery soon cast a pall of pain and distress over all the prisoners at Serang. It was only after two incarcerated medical officers made representations to the camp administration that the prisoners were allowed to take over the kitchen from the local Javanese. But this was far too late for some, as the prisoners were informed, they were to be moved to ‘a good camp’ elsewhere. On 13 April 1942, they were moved from Serang to Batavia. Mathieson was to later write that his experiences at Serang were the lowest of the low points of his three-year internment as a POW. ‘Even at 105 Kilo camp in Burma, were we prisoners to fall quite so low. Later camps saw many more deaths and more apprehension, or disaster, but for discomfort, nagging hunger and wretchedness of being, those six weeks in Serang will never be forgotten.’

After the atrocious conditions of Serang, Batavia was completely different. It gave Mathieson and his fellow POWs one of their more positive experiences of Japanese captivity. For the first time since being captured they were provided with plentiful supplies of food, partially due to the Australian soldiers refusing to eat the rice provided, preferring to live off their field rations, of which there was copious amounts. The camp was sub-divided into several separate compounds, open during the day but closed at night. POWs enjoyed a certain degree of freedom. Mathieson particularly enjoyed being able to lie on the grass of the officers’ compound at night and gaze at the stars, or sitting under a tree and reading a book. They were issued with soap so that they could finally wash away the fuel oil still caked on certain parts of their bodies. Initially, POWs were not required to work other than cleaning the camp and filling in slit trenches left by the original defenders. However, work outside the camp was soon organised by the Japanese. Fit POWs would spend two or three days a week working on the wharves, or refurbishing local parks. It was during this time that POWs began to experience the signs of cultural and social tensions between them and their captors. Face slapping, the much-resented practice of binta, with its obvious racial overtones of superiority over Asia’s former imperial masters, was quite common, especially as a punishment for not saluting a Japanese soldier or official, a stipulation which was often violently enforced. For Mathieson, saluting one’s captors ‘was a mania with the Japanese.’ He often experienced the grim and painful repercussions of not obeying this ‘mania’, and he sensed that it could get worse with lower ranked guards, especially when a Japanese officer was present.

Mathieson was not the only chaplain in the camp; however, he was the only naval one. The more senior chaplain was the Anglican, Frank Kellow, from the 2nd/2nd Pioneers, who Mathieson considered was the perfect leader for the predominately army population in the camp. The Pioneers had built a chapel, which included an altar and a lectern, with a crucifix fixed above the altar. Communion services were held on a regular basis, as were morning and evening prayers, and bible studies groups. In keeping with the Sabbath, there was a purely voluntary but still well-attended church parade, with an excellent choir coming from amongst the men themselves. Both chaplains were also involved in visiting the sick and wounded in hospital. They would also call on men in their compound, giving succour to those who needed their leadership and spiritual guidance.

What Mathieson also discovered during his time at Batavia was that there were a few Japanese Christians. One of these men came to choir practice and asked for a hymn sheet so he could join in as well. But, after this one occasion, he was never seen again. Another Japanese Christian was Igaki, the Japanese officers’ cook, who, when the opportunity arose, took it upon himself to give the prisoners any scraps and leftovers he might have had. On one occasion, Igaki went to Mathieson’s compound, and made it known that he wished to speak with the chaplain in private. He asked the chaplain - as best he could - if he was a Protestant chaplain, and on being assured that Mathieson was, then said: ‘Bokashi, our countries fight, but you, me Christian, we friends?’ Igaki then produced his Japanese New Testament, and they read the scripture together. This combined bible reading would continue for several weeks until the Japanese camp administration tightened regulations on such activities, making it very dangerous for them to meet. Igaki met with Mathieson one more time to give him two small parcels, one with cigarettes and notepaper, while the other was a roasted duck! Sixteen naval men in Mathieson’s accommodation made short work of this rare treat and it was gone in a matter of moments, although this occasion would remain in the chaplain’s memory forever.

In October 1942, the POWs at Batavia received word from the Japanese that they were to be moved. Because food was such an important part of their survival, they made up packs of vegetables from their gardens, and tinned foodstuffs issued to them at one can per man. On 8 October, a contingent of some fifteen hundred POWs departed, including 884 Australian army personnel from ‘Williams Force’ under Lt. Colonel John Williams, CO of the 2nd/2nd Pioneers, it also included many of the Perth and Houston survivors. These men were marched from the camp to a nearby railway station, and from there to the wharves at Batavia. They were then crowded into the four holds of a large Japanese troop transport vessel, SS Kenkon Maru [built in1934], with the destination given as Singapore, arriving there three days later. Only one POW passed away during this comparatively short voyage.

Travelling by sea was fraught with danger for POWs, as none of the warring nations would agree to free passage of any Japanese ships purportedly carrying POWs. However, it was later officially recorded that on 21 January 1943, when serving in her intended role as a troop transport, the Kenkon Maru was attacked by torpedoes from the US submarine USS Gato, and sank off the coast of New Georgia, Solomon Islands.

Upon their arrival in Singapore, the POWs were disembarked and then loaded into open trucks which took them through Singapore city to a former hospital in the substantial POW compound cordoned off around Changi Jail. This compound covered over ten square miles and was the central clearance point for all Allied POWs in the South East Asian region. It held approximately fifty thousand Allied POWs when the Batavia contingent arrived. The British and Australian officers, who had surrendered with almost complete kits, were not impressed with the naval ‘rabble.’ But, as an indication of their service pride, these men marched in formation past the senior Australian officer only to have him blast their officers ‘for their disgraceful dress and their Japanese salute.’ He was later bluntly informed that ‘it was impossible to survive a ship’s sinking with full uniform, and that their salute was the correct naval one with palm facing inward.’ The new prisoners laid out their meagre possessions on the concrete floors of the jail. Mathieson’s personal kit comprised of a Japanese straw hat, and a rice bag, with a smaller rice bag containing an army tunic, a spare shirt, an enamel plate, a spoon and a mug made from a discarded tin, a few notebooks, a packet of typed hymn sheets, and a bible given to him at Batavia. The newcomers were surprised by the absence of the Japanese, who had delegated the task of organising the POW compound to the senior Allied officers. The next day, there was an issue of Red Cross parcels, the last the POWs were to receive for some considerable time. What was valued most was blank postcards on which they could write a message home of twenty words. Mathieson wrote: ‘Prisoner-of-war, surprisingly good health. Hope you are well.’ This rather bland message of only ten words would be eventually received by his wife twelve months later.

Changi became a dispersal point for Perth survivors, with several being kept at Singapore, where others were being sent off by ship to become slave workers in Japan. However, on Wednesday 14 October, most of the remaining Perth and Houston survivors were marched out of Changi to be re-embarked in another ship; the aged and decrepit Japanese merchant vessel, SS Maebashi Maru [built in 1921]. She was described by all who were forced to sail in her as ‘A Hell Ship.’ These men were crammed into each of the hot and stinking holds below the waterline, with little or no room for everyone to lie down at the same time. The conditions for these men below decks were much worse than those experienced in the Kenkon Maru. Milliaria (heat rash) soon developed from the very hot and humid conditions, along with diarrhoea and dysentery adding to their misery. The only relief some received was when permission was given for the very sick to come up on deck and lay down in the fresh sea air and sunshine on the hatch covers. On Sunday 18 October, Mathieson tried in vain to hold a brief prayer service.

On Thursday 22 October, Maebashi Maru arrived at the port of Rangoon, Burma, where all POWs were eventually disembarked, having spent another hellish night in the ship. Being alongside and not moving, there was not even a breeze to soothe their tortured bodies. Mosquitoes and no drinking water only added to their woes. They were eventually transferred to a smaller vessel for the trip up river on the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers. Following this short journey, they were off-loaded at night onto a pontoon barge near the town of Moulmein. In daylight they were shifted to the local jail where Perth survivors were kept together in what used to be the prison hospital. Five days after their arrival in Burma, on Tuesday 27 October, Mathieson officiated over the funeral service and burial of one of his close friends, Corporal Vaudan Heggaton. Heggaton had been very concerned about Mathieson’s health and wellbeing in Batavia, and when he was ill during the voyage in Maebashi Maru, from Singapore to Burma. Six men volunteered to form the funeral party and carry the heavy coffin half a mile to the European cemetery, the road to which was lined with many of his comrades, paying their last respects. The funeral party were amazed upon their return to find that a caring guard then showed them where they could have a shower, and even provided the men with soap, followed afterwards by a meal of bananas.

Paymaster Lieutenant Commander Ralph Lowe, RAN, took charge of the Perth group and ordered a church parade the following Sunday, their first in Burma. On Monday 3 November 1942, they were marched to a nearby railway station to be transported to Thanbyuzayat, some seventy kilometres further to the south. Upon their arrival, the POWs learned they were to be part of a workforce constructing a rail line to link Burma with the Bangkok to Singapore railway line. In theory, this was to provide the logistical support for the intended Japanese offensive into Burma, then further onwards into British ruled India. However, on this occasion, Mathieson made the journey to Thanbyuzayat with other sick POWs, in a truck. Dysentery had laid him low once more, which, in turn, had reduced his body weight to barely nine stone.

A Japanese labour camp at Thanbyuzayat 

The Japanese camp commander divided newly arrived POWs into Williams and Black groups, designated as such by the surnames of two Australian Lieutenant Colonels, Jack Williams and Chris Black, who were the respective senior officers. Most of the Perth survivors were conscripted into the Williams group. Both groups were then further broken down into sub-groups. But Mathieson eventually found himself conscripted into the Ramsay sub-group of Black’s main group, which was led by Lieutenant Colonel George Ramsay. They were then sent to a large compound comprising of twelve native bamboo and atap longhouses, adjacent to a clearing that had some crude workshops, and stack upon stack of roughly hewn timber railway sleepers. The recently arrived POWs were confined to the eastern end of the camp, whereas the Japanese, and senior POWs of colonel and above, were billeted at the western end, while there were also several longhouses which acted as a very primitive hospital. Being open to the elements, the ‘hospital’ per se, was soon invaded by all forms of vermin. There was the continual foul stench of infected wounds, which were treated by POW medical staff as best they could because dressings, drugs and basic medical instruments were almost non-existent.

Soon after their arrival, Perth survivors and men from the 2nd/2nd Pioneers were assigned to work at 35 Kilo Camp. Because the Pioneers had their own chaplain, Mathieson would eventually be sent to 40 Kilo Camp. However, he could not go immediately because he was still suffering badly from dysentery. With drastically reduced rations and such crude conditions deaths - caused by starvation, malaria, dysentery, brutal treatment and many random executions - were inevitable. As a consequence, the rudimentary burial ground grew exponentially. On Friday 20 November, after a second medical assessment, Mathieson was permitted to join his unit at 40 Kilo camp. The camp itself was casually supervised by a Japanese corporal and several soldiers, but the work of the POWs and conscripted labourers was strictly overseen by Japanese engineers. On Mathieson’s first day, he had to conduct a service and the burial of a soldier from one of the other army units. The ‘hospital’ hut was run by Dr John Higgins, who waged a constant battle against deadly dysentery and mosquito-borne malaria. Advanced cases were sent back to Thanbyuzayat, where many would eventually die. Each day Mathieson would visit the camp hospital, as well as the POWs accommodation, as work on the line progressed towards 35 Kilo camp. He also went along the line in the mornings to look in on the working parties and get to know the men. Many POWs were determined to retain the identity of their corps or ship, which became part of the POWs culture. Several Perth sailors made cap tally-bands for their hats, although the yellow HMAS Perth was barely discernible on the green army hats, they all wore.

Mathieson began to conduct informal church services using a large outdoor stage which had been constructed by the pioneers, for periodic concerts. And, while numbers attending was acceptable, there were not as many as attended concerts. An empty longhouse was located for evening prayers, with the Roman Catholics using the other end for evening rosary, separated by a screen. Mathieson assisted in setting up this space, attending the rosary once himself to make sure the space was adequate. A separate night was set aside for a discussion group, with a wide- ranging choice of subjects. According to Mathieson, religion, combined with the heroic efforts of the medical staff and the entertainment program, were the ‘great factors which played a tremendous part in the sustaining of morale.’

In December 1942, Korean guards arrived at the camp, bringing with them a reign of brutality not previously experienced to any great extent before. Leaving the camp - except for bathing and going to the well for water - was not permitted. Later in the month the camp was moved back to 26 Kilo. It became known as camp Kun Knit Kway, adopting the name from a nearby Burmese village. Ramsay’s group, including Mathieson, was detained there until Thursday 1 April 1943. Working parties were widely dispersed over several kilometres, working as best they could with wheelbarrows and hand tools in the steamy tropical heat, constructing bridges, clearing sites of dense jungle, and excavating cuttings. There was some small recompense when the men received the paltry pay the Japanese had promised them; they were able to buy a few necessities of life - duck eggs, smoked fish, onions, bananas and, for the smokers, small Burmese cigarillos. However, while conditions in the camp were fairly reasonable, the hospital was always full, as the malnourished succumbed to beriberi, mosquito borne malaria and dysentery, as well as the oppressive pain of tropical ulcers. For once, Mathieson was free of the pain and discomfort of diarrhoea, although he did have some very painful ulcers but thought little of them when compared to others, some of whom had infected and oozing ulcers over the whole of their lower body.

The first Christmas for POWs in the fairly reasonable conditions of Kun Knit Kway, was a surprisingly Christian one. Some of the men spent days rehearsing Christmas carols. The pioneers erected a temporary stage on which the choir would perform, and, during the darkness of Christmas eve as the choir began to sing ‘O come all ye faithful’, a cross completely covered in combustible cladding was lit. Of this occasion, Mathieson was to later write that:

‘There blazed against the darkness the essential symbol of Christianity, the Cross. There, in the wilds of Burma, in a prison camp, the cross flamed forth and the Christmas songs were sung … many of us wondered just what passed through the minds of the watching Japanese guards, and of the Burmese looking from their ox-carts on the road outside.’

During the early hours of Christmas day, a Korean guard, who professed to be a Christian, approached Mathieson and gave him a small hand towel as a Christmas present. This guard had allowed the choir to practice unhindered when he found them in a forbidden area of the camp. Mathieson would make use of the towel as part of his communion linen whenever he celebrated Holy Communion, wherever that might be. The guard told Mathieson in stilted English, ‘Christmas, friends, church, Sunday school, presents, everybody happy. Burma - no Christmas, no church, no friends, very hot, no good.’ A short time later Mathieson was stopped by a POW who gave him a small white cross he had carved for the Communion altar. Mathieson was able to preserve this token until it was confiscated during one of his last Japanese searches. Most POWs attended Christmas service, partly due to the Japanese allowing it as a day off work, but primarily because of an acknowledgement by many of the POWs that the day was a Christian festival, celebrating the birth of Christ. After the church service, the common thought was Christmas dinner, and the cooks excelled themselves with the scanty rations. Many managed to supplement the festivities with delicacies bartered from the native Burmese. The medical officer and Mathieson shared an elderly chicken, with the chaplain ‘deferring to the doctor’s greater anatomical knowledge, letting him kill, pluck and clean the bird.’ After an afternoon nap, the day ended with an evening concert. But there would be nothing like it again for the next three years of captivity.

Mathieson’s other duties included holding services on each rest day, supposedly every ten days, but this proved to be a very arbitrary period. He also held short services commemorating the deaths of prisoners, baptising a number of POWs. However, it was his discussion groups where Mathieson felt he did his best work with men who were comparatively healthy under a regime where work finished at dusk. Hospital and longhouse visits were a regular part of his daily routine, as was helping the cooks in the kitchen, gathering wood for fires, and carting water for domestic and other purposes. This voluntary labour enabled Mathieson to mix with the other prisoners and earn their respect and confidence.

By Thursday 1 April, all POWs had been moved to 75 Kilo Camp near the Burmese village of Meiloe. While the camp was set in beautiful surroundings, it would prove to be a barbaric place for the new arrival of POWs. From here on, ‘Speedo’ was enforced. The Japanese were determined to complete the railroad before the end of 1943, regardless of the cost in prisoners’ lives that the strictly enforced work regime would cause. Men worked into the night, and in some instances right through until dawn. Lighting was provided by large bamboo fires and small generators. Even the seriously ill were often driven by the guards to work. Mathieson believed ‘that in 1943 it was Japanese policy to supply the prisoners with the minimum of food and medicines, so as to work them to death, and, finally, to liquidate the survivors.’

Prisoners at 75 Kilo were divided into three work parties, one erecting a bridge over the nearby river, the second excavating a cutting through a hilly knoll outside the camp, with the third creating an embankment via which to link the other two jobs. Mathieson was determined to get out amongst the men and when he did, he marvelled at their resilience and good spirit - despite illness and exhaustion - to take an interest in other natural things besides themselves. Even though the men had little energy, they still enjoyed swimming in the river. A choir was formed and sang during Easter, which just happened to coincide with Anzac Day. The Japanese were cajoled into allowing an Anzac Day service after they were told it was for the men to honour the war dead. A memorial cross was erected, then there was a general parade and wreaths were laid at the foot of the cross, with those present marching past them. On completion of the Anzac Day ceremony, Mathieson preached a fitting homily to the occasion.

As conditions and illness worsened, Mathieson’s longhouse visitations became more personal. The incapacitated and seriously ill still wanted some form of religious involvement. Malnutrition was also a very serious problem with them. However, the Japanese finally agreed to issue the very sick with rice gruel, the administration of which became Mathieson’s responsibility. He would go down to the kitchen with an assistant and collect a large receptacle of boiled rice, from which each of the seriously ill received a cupful. But men still died of malnutrition and starvation, so a burial ground/cemetery was marked out. On Sunday 9 May 1943, the first funeral was held for two soldiers, who both died of dysentery. Mathieson took both services, even though one of the soldiers was of the Catholic faith. They were the first two of many deaths which he would commend to God before they were properly buried.

On Friday 14 May, the POWs were moved a further thirty kilometres into the jungle. The malnourished made their effortful way as best they could, mostly in small irregular groups, but almost always in weary silence. Those who lagged behind were beaten with rifle butts and made to move faster, or suffer more than they already had. There were brief rest stops during the night, until at dawn they arrived and were halted at 90 Kilo Camp, where they were expected to get some sleep. No sooner had they got their heads down, than they were rousted out again by the guards. The nearby village was badly infected with cholera, so the POWs had to move another five kilometres to 95 Kilo Camp, which was reached during a tropical downpour. There they were finally permitted to sleep as best they could, but in the open. The longhouses for prisoners were occupied by Japanese soldiers who, in turn, were slogging their way by foot to the combat areas of Burma.

Later in the morning, in continuous drizzle, and along churned up muddy roads, the POWs continued their arduous trek to their next destination, 105 Kilo Camp. Mathieson found that imagining he was having a conversation with his wife helped to keep his mind off the road and keep going until they came across 100 Kilo Camp. It was here that they discovered several of their former shipmates from Perth and Houston. The last five kilometres was an ordeal for many of them. One Japanese guard carried gear for some of the most incapacitated men, but this was a rarity. 105 Kilo Camp was in a small clearing in the middle of heavy dank jungle, but it had no kitchens for the POWs. However, there were sheltered latrines at the rear of each longhouse. These were quickly turned into kitchens, and new slit trenches were dug for latrines further down the hill. Water for the POWs had to be carried from a stream some four hundred metres away, down a steep slope. The rains became heavier, pouring in torrents through the flimsy atap roofs, never allowing clothing to dry, turning low lying land into bogs, and tracks into fast running streams. But work on the train line continued unabated.

At the beginning of his time at 105 Kilo Camp, Mathieson would go out on the line with the men as he had done previously, but on one occasion he was hauled up roughly by the Japanese guards, along with other officers, for not saluting as and when required. This situation was only defused when Mathieson was paraded before Colonel Ramsay, chastised by him for his indiscretion, and fined three days’ pay. Mathieson was to later write: ‘I claim to be the only naval Chaplain who has been put on the mat and fined by his Commanding Officer.’ However, his expeditions out to the line were curtailed shortly thereafter by the Japanese. He could only get out of the camp periodically if he was in charge of a working party. It was probably during one of these periods in the jungle with his men that he contracted malaria.

The already inadequate food supplies became even more scarce. Impassable roads meant that animals for slaughter almost disappeared, with the substitute tinned meat being either spoilt or inedible. The few cattle that did get through - driven by prisoner drovers - were consumed straight away, offal and all. But these few emaciated beasts were unable to provide much nourishment for a thousand men. Lizards, snakes and rats became edible items, supplemented by rice with some finely sliced vegetables, such as radish and beans. It was not long before grubs and weevils alive in these ingredients were also consumed with everything else. Another alternative food source was the risky practice of trading with the local Burmese, if you could afford to pay or barter. Mathieson did. On one occasion, he purchased a pot of jam for some exorbitant price, to discover that it was made in his home state of Victoria. The jar’s paper wrapper became a prized reminder of home, and filled him with hope of one day making it back to Australia.

On several occasions when famine appeared to be a distinct reality, some POWs were forced to trudge back to 95 Kilo Camp for supplies. The journey offered a diversion, although carrying supplies on their backs for the return trek back to 105 Kilo Camp was quite gruelling. Mathieson did this several times, as it gave him time to mingle with the men after his forced confinement. Some years later Mathieson found that one of the younger POWs had described the chaplain’s efforts as having been undertaken in boots with no soles, even though he had boots as good as anyone else’s at that particular point in time. Mathieson later commented rather laconically, ‘So, grows one’s reputation.’

Predictably, there was a rapid reduction in the POWs’ health conditions under the flagrantly debilitating and starvation regime of the Japanese. Slaves of little or no value to their captors would be worked to death just to complete the railway line, and the captive POWs had virtually no resistance to the devastation inflicted on them by these conditions. While malaria was ever present, there were some stocks of quinine at 105 Kilo Camp. Dysentery was the main cause of death among the POWs, as it subjected their emaciated bodies to other illnesses and disease. Under medical guidance, the Australian contingent attempted to keep their conditions sanitary. Those less able were tasked with swatting flies and other creepy crawlies in the kitchens; drinking water was boiled; and a large pot of water was kept on the boil in each longhouse to sterilise personal eating utensils. The Australians became known for their insistence on cleanliness. The sights, smells and sounds of dysentery became one of the most unpleasant recollections associated with 105 Kilo Camp.

Ulcers were the result of scratches and abrasions, or splinters of bamboo piercing the skin. In their weakened condition, these could spread quite rapidly in POWs. The foul odour from these ulcers made the ‘hospital’ longhouse quite sickening to those suffering from this affliction, along with medical staff and visitors like Mathieson. Surgery without anaesthetics went back to the days when ulcers were scraped out with spoons, with maggots being used to clean wounds. The doctors were quite nauseated by this, but they persevered. On one occasion, Mathison had to absent himself, having been overcome by the totality of this most horrible ordeal.

With the arrival of the monsoon season came cholera. In the nearby Burmese village near 105 Kilo, it was rumoured one hundred people had died overnight. However, the Japanese feared cholera and the risk of infection from their prisoner workforce. Consequently, all POWs of 105 Kilo were inoculated. They would not have to experience the great numbers of deaths recorded in other nearby camps or villages. But despite these precautions, death was a constant companion in the POW camps. Initially the onsite burial grounds became bigger and bigger, and by the time Mathieson left 105 Kilo there were over one hundred graves. There were more than twice as many when the camp was finally abandoned. Burial services were of necessity brief, as the freshly cleared jungle undergrowth was swarming with mosquitoes. When taking the time to reflect on the many needless deaths of good honest men he had known and respected, Mathieson confessed to asking himself: ‘Are these not good reasons for hating the Japanese forever?’

And yet there were men who defied death and retained their dignity and sense of humour. But inevitably, there were some who could no longer face the terrible lives they were forced to endure and took their own lives. In another camp, when a Perth survivor suicided, the camp chaplain, an army padre, would not bury him with Christian rites. So, his fellow Perth survivors took it upon themselves and gave their shipmate a ‘modified’ naval funeral. This was at a time when many Christian churches condemned suicide as a sin. Some chaplains obviously felt that adherence to their religion’s dogma superseded pastoral obligations.

Morale in the camp was retained in many and various ways. Rohan Rivett, who was captured and imprisoned with Mathieson, ran quizzes in the hospital. Mathieson received three letters intending to read them one at a time over three days, but could not resist the temptation, and read them all at the one time. Rivett produced a newsletter based on the news contained in letters the POWs received, which added to the news already circulating from those who managed the hidden radio. Mathieson was once asked about his thought on men using pages from their bibles for cigarette paper. He suggested the men undertake to read the page first before they used it this way, believing it would at least ensure the bible was read.

Mathieson would celebrate Holy Communion, while at another makeshift altar Father Frank Corry held Mass for those of the Catholic faith. Both chaplains also held services in the hospital longhouse. On one occasion Mathieson set up his Communion vessels on the bamboo sleeping platform. The service continued on while the medical orderlies went about their duties, dysentery patients made their way to the latrines, and the stench of tropical ulcers filled the air amid the sounds of constant rain. A man died during the service, and his body was carried out as Holy Communion was administered from patient to patient. Mathieson suggested to Corry they institute evening prayers in the hospital longhouse subject to the doctors’ approval. They kept these services very brief, just a few verses of scripture and a short prayer. Mathieson was asked in front of the patients to increase the service, and to then make some comment on the scripture which had just been read. He wavered somewhat on the suggestion, conscious of the notion that there might be some among the sick and dying who would not want this. Then one of the ‘hard men’ among them asked him: ‘What makes you think we mightn’t want it?’ Mathieson asked for a show of hands as he left. The decision was unanimous in favour, so he prepared a longer service for the next night. Later, one of the medical staff said to him: ‘Padre, I’ve never seen such a change of atmosphere as occurred in the ward with the introduction of evening prayers. Now, afterwards, the men just turn over quietly and go to sleep.’

On Tuesday 19 October 1943, despite Japanese brutality, slavery, starvation and death, the railway line - which was thought almost impossible to construct - was completed. As a consequence, the Japanese celebrated, which also meant that the POWs were expected to share in their captors’ triumph. The Burma railway line cost the lives of twelve thousand, three hundred and thirty-nine Allied POWs, which included two thousand, eight hundred and fifteen Australians - among whom were fifty-seven Perth sailors of the two hundred and seventy-two survivors - who had been forced to work on building this railway line. Japanese celebrations at every camp on the line began with memorials to those who died during its construction. Mathieson was sent by rail to 114 Kilo Camp to conduct the service there. The memorial services and the erection of crosses appeared to the POWs as an insincere attempt by the Japanese to conceal the inhumane treatment meted out to their prisoners during the line’s construction.

On Friday 31 December 1943, relief from the many horrors of the Burma rail line came about when the POWs of 105 Kilo were transported, by train this time - rather than a death march - to Tamarkan, Thailand. The new camp, five kilometres from the village of Kanchanaburi, was the base camp for the Thailand end of the Thai-Burma railway. They arrived there two days later. Travelling in the closed- in wagons was not too onerous for those still warm, upright and lucid, but when Mathieson visited the sick and infirm in the hospital cars during a wayside stop, he found the stench atrocious. These men were laid in stretchers side-by-side at each end of the car, with a doctor or medical orderly in the middle. While there were no deaths recorded on this trip, there were on those that followed. The jarring and jolting of the train’s movement increased the discomfort of already very sick men. On day two of the journey, all POWs suffered from lack of food and water. That second night they arrived at their unknown destination, to rise the next morning and find they were at a camp which was completely different from their most recent stinking hellhole.

The large camp was in open country, which was much different from the stifling, encroaching jungles of Burma. It was here that the men had the most agreeable conditions they had known since their departure from Batavia in October 1942. Their rice ration also included a stew rich with mixed vegetables. There was a canteen where they could spend their paltry sums of Japanese occupation money. The Australian POWs soon found ways to improve upon their lot. One ‘firm’ sold coffee with an apt sales pitch which said: ‘Don’t laugh at our coffee you may be old and weak yourself someday,’ another sold cigarettes. They also established a library, a barber’s shop, held concerts and church services. Even so, the nearby enormous steel bridge - constructed by POWs - created a real threat from Allied bombing of which the Japanese were well aware. It was the main reason why they had sited the POW camp so near it. They had hoped the Allies would not bomb the bridge with their own men confined in such close proximity to it.

But the gathering of such large numbers of POWs in the camp quickly exhausted the local food supply; as a consequence, food became a major problem once more. Slave labour again proved deadly as POWs were sent into the jungle to repair the railway tracks and infrastructure wrecked by Allied bombing. Debilitated, sick, worn-out men, found the never-ending head counts and endless searches by the Japanese, a punishing abuse of power, with every POW - including the sick and infirm - held at attention for hours in the blazing tropical sun. Mathieson was one of those from the camp who offered to meet the returning working parties, describing them as:

‘Malodorous, ragged, sick, wounded, dying, some delirious, all worn out and thin, they would arrive in the middle of the night. But for their unquenched spirit they would have made a very pitiful sight. Moving among them with water bottle or cigarettes, one found one’s compassion mingled with much admiration for their endurance and sheer ‘guts’.

In June of 1944 Mathieson became extremely ill with a form of tachycardia, which, in turn, was complicated by dengue fever. For several months he came very close to death. He also experienced the kindness and support of friends who helped him to survive. Frank Corry made him his first visit each morning. He had so many friends and visitors they had to be asked to stop. The sole shipment of Red Cross medicines gave Mathieson the digitalis he needed to fully recover; and many others received life-saving medications as well. But because it was the only shipment they received; sick men would continue to die for the lack of effective treatment. The painful walking shuffle to the burial ground, bearing the body of a deceased comrade/shipmate, had to be done by relays of weak and sickly men, as there was no transport for this purpose. Before Corry’s arrival, Mathieson would conduct and read the service for both Protestant and Catholic burials.

Throughout 1944, the Japanese forces in Burma were suffering losses and tactical defeats at the hands of the Allies. To bolster their local defences, they had POWs dig anti-aircraft gun emplacements in the camp, and a deep wide trench around it, with the earth being used both as a parapet, and as gun emplacements at each corner. The POWs feared that the trenches could be used for mass graves, if the Japanese decided to execute all their prisoners. Slit trenches were also dug around the longhouses, and on Sunday 26 November 1944, the predicted aerial attack on the bridge was proven right. While still recovering from his latest bout of illness, Mathieson found he could move with some alacrity, along with everyone else, when forced to seek shelter in the trenches. However, some POWs were either killed or maimed when a corner of the camp took a direct hit from a bomb which had overshot the prime target. Surviving POWs had to stop their frantic efforts to rescue any survivors because of Japanese insistence on yet another head count. Eventually, work resumed to recover any bodies and rescue possible survivors. Their efforts continued into the night, supported by Mathieson and Corry, who provided cigarettes to the wounded and helped to wash down those dug out but not seriously hurt. At dawn it was a sobering sight; sixteen POWs’ bodies were laid out in ranks before a funeral procession of their friends/shipmates took them to the burial ground/cemetery. Still more air raids killed and maimed other POWs, without demolishing the bridge. It was quite distressing to see these men killed by the unavoidable actions of the Allies, as well as by the deliberate actions of the Japanese. However, Japanese resupply of both logistics and manpower was thrown into complete disarray by these bombings, although many POWs took joyless satisfaction from this. One estimate of POWs killed by Allied bombing on the Burma-Thailand railway was put at about eight hundred.

In mid-December 1944, Mathieson received instructions from his immediate superior to go to Chung Kai, the original base camp at the Thailand end of the Burma-Thailand railway, where vast numbers of sick and infirm were being sent. Chung Kai was almost six kilometres north of Tamarkan, and had no bridges as bombing targets. Anxious former Tamarkan POWs found a certain composure concerning the Allied bombing among the prisoners already there. Chung Kai was definitely more relaxed. POWs were able to swim and fish in the river, and carry out clandestine bartering and trade with the local Thais. There was even a chapel built of bamboo complete with a rudimentary organ. It was set up in the Anglican style with altar, credence table and communion rail. However, when Mathieson arrived the chapel was only used for holding Anglican services, with Methodists and Presbyterians holding their services on the camp stage. It was quite obvious that ecumenical cooperation was not as advanced as it was among the Australians.

Travelling down river by barge, Mathieson went back to Tamarkan to celebrate Christmas Communion and officiate at a church parade for the many POWs still there. The tensions of war at Tamarkan were much more substantial than those at Chung Kai. Christmas services were held in the middle of an open field, with those participating keeping one eye on the sky, and the other on the nearby air raid trenches. Each POW knelt to receive their Christmas Communion as Mathieson and a British army officer - who was an Anglican clergyman in his pre-war civilian life - shared the religious proceedings. Upon completion of the service and homily, there was a well-rehearsed pantomime complete with a Christmas theme, followed by an exceptional Christmas dinner. On Boxing Day, Mathieson returned to Chung Kai.

Upon the arrival of Colonel Ishii at Tamarkan in early 1945 to take command of the POW camps in the immediate area, the more relaxed lifestyle at Chung Kai was noticeably changed. Forced labour of POWs increased, as did bashings by the guards. Trading with the native populace was forbidden. Work was begun on digging another perimeter trench, clearing bamboo, and establishing another trench which divided Tamarkan camp in two. Allied aircraft intensified their bombing raids on the Tamarkan bridge, with POWs being used as disposal teams for any unexploded bombs. Casualties among the POWs increased at every camp along the line as it too was extensively bombed. In February, all senior Allied officers were separated from their men. However, the majority of doctors and chaplains remained. Most of those considered fit by the Japanese were sent south to a camp at Rat Buri to build a new airstrip. Chung Kai was subsequently converted into more of a hospital and a rest and rehabilitation camp than it had been in the past, with a vast improvement of conditions being apparent.

In the first week of May 1945, news filtered through that, on 7 May, Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces. However, this news resulted in a greater intensity of searches by the Japanese. Mathieson became quite anxious about his diaries and books being discovered. There was also much uncertainty among the POWs regarding the eventual intentions of the Japanese regarding their fate, which dramatically increased the levels of endogenous trepidation amongst them. A constant stream of Japanese wounded came south from Burma, with less logistics and replacement troops going north. Mathieson celebrated his 38th birthday on 14 June 1945, receiving a card from his wife wishing him happy birthday, which had been sent by her for the previous year.

The Japanese divided the POWs into groups of ‘sick’ and ‘well’. The ‘well’ were sent further south in Thailand to Tha Muang camp, situated inland from the Mekong River. The remainder - which included Mathieson who had a severe case of hives on his hands and feet and could not walk without severe irritation - were herded onto barges to follow. When they departed, there were one thousand three hundred left behind in the Chung Kai camp’s burial ground/cemetery.

Tha Muang camp was large and surrounded by a deep trench. However, it was more open than Chung Kai. Mathieson and Corry shared an alcove in the officers’ longhouse. As had always been their practice, the two chaplains spent most of their time visiting the hospital longhouse to offer succour to the many sick and wounded POWs who had been sent back from repairing bomb damage to the Burma-Thai railway line and its infrastructure. Mathieson conducted his final camp funeral service on Wednesday 13 June 1945. On their own volition, the Perth survivors initiated a weekly meeting to keep the concept of mateship alive, and to emphasise how mateship was the one tangible thing that was helping them all cope.

The burning question foremost in every survivor’s conscious was how would the Japanese react to any news of an Allied victory in the Pacific? Their guards had often suggested that all POWs would be liquidated should the Allied advance come to close to their camp. In July 1945, a visit to the camp by a Japanese general was forecast, which sent the camp administration into a frenzy. Work was started on landscaping the grounds, sports arenas were laid out, a chapel was planned, longhouses repaired, new kitchens built. The POWs were issued with Red Cross parcels, towels, singlets and new loin cloths. A week later, five hundred new library books arrived. The general’s visit never eventuated, but in his place the end of hostilities was announced. Mathieson immediately headed for the hospital to confirm the good news. By Tuesday 21 August, the former prisoners were free to wander beyond the camp. Quite understandably, rumours began to circulate about the arrangements - yet to be made - for their repatriation back to their homes and families. Each man was permitted to send a telegram home from one of four brief suggested texts. Mathieson sent a No. 2 message to his wife: ‘Safe and well, fondest love.’

On Saturday 1 September 1945, Red Cross aircraft overflew Tha Muang camp, dropping parcels of food, medical supplies, new uniforms and other essentials by parachute, a process which was repeated several times over the next two weeks. The first Allied military personnel to enter the camp were two paratroopers who brought a radio with them so that the camp leaders could make direct contact with their own respective military authorities. In a matter of days, they were replaced by a group led by a British major, who had the responsibility of inspecting the camps and disarming the Japanese. There were still some five hundred men in hospital receiving much needed medical care, and about two thousand who still carried symptoms of various diseases, but most of these were now in recovery mode.

On Wednesday 19 September, the Australians at Tha Muang began their journey home. On arrival at Bangkok, they found one reason for the delay in their long- awaited repatriation. The mouth of the port of Bangkok had been mined, and no shipping could get in or get out. Mathieson was reunited with a few officers from Perth who were being accommodated in the overcrowded Oriental Hotel. After years of rice, they were now having duck, prawns, beans and other greens to eat. They even managed to share a rare bottle of Australian beer between eight of them, drinking it out of champagne glasses. On Sunday, Mathieson and several of his shipmates walked some distance to attend the re-opened Protestant church of Bangkok. Eventually, Mathieson and another former Perth officer were given permission to travel to Singapore. He was to spend a great amount of time giving valuable information he had compiled about ex-Perth POWs to Royal Australian Navy intelligence officers. As a consequence, many of the memories of his time in captivity came flooding back causing Mathieson to become very anxious and depressed. So much so, it was recommended by the medical staff that he be hospitalised for a few days to help him regain his normal unflappable composure.

A billet was found for Mathieson on the hospital ship Manunda, which was to leave Singapore on Wednesday 8 October. He was the only naval officer among many army and air force officers being repatriated to Australia. After a brief stop at Fremantle, Manunda steamed eastward to Melbourne. Upon arrival at Port Melbourne, the army major in charge of repatriates insisted that Mathieson follow the army personnel, but he was in fact whisked off first, courtesy of an armed naval patrol and Senior Chaplain W H Henderson, RAN, who informed the major in no uncertain terms that they had come onboard for ‘the Naval Personnel.’ Mathieson was driven to HMAS Lonsdale, where both his brother-in-law and Chaplain General T C Rintoul were waiting. Henderson looked at Mathieson’s army style uniform and suggested: ‘We can do better than that.’ He then took Mathieson home for a shower and a shave, and fitted him out with one of his own naval uniforms. They then drove to Canterbury. There at the gate was his wife whom he had not seen for almost four years, and at the front door was his mother. He was home.

In October 1945, Mathieson was appointed to HMAS Lonsdale, additional, for leave and other administrative purposes, following his long term of imprisonment by the Japanese (March 1942 to August 1945). On 14 March 1946, He was appointed to HMAS Kuttabul as Port Chaplain and placed of the list of Permanent Naval Force (PNF) officers, with a backdate seniority of 1 February 1942.

On 12 April 1949, Mathieson was appointed the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. Upon his appointment, the following Confidential Report was raised, which reads thus: ‘An ideal Port Chaplain who has the confidence of Officers and Men. He was untiring in his efforts to improve the lot of Naval and ex-Naval personnel, and I know from talks with many ex-prisoners of war in what high esteem he was regarded by them. He has conducted himself to my entire satisfaction.’ Signed: G D Moore, CBE, RAN, A/Rear Admiral, Flag Officer in Command New South Wales.

On 26 October 1949, ‘On supersession of Commanding Officers’, the following Confidential Report on Mathieson was raised, which reads thus: ‘He carried out all his duties in a most satisfactory manner, and sets a good example expected from his cloth. He interests himself in the Ship’s Company in a tactful manner, and has its confidence particularly in private affairs. He has made a valuable contribution to the welfare and happiness of the Ship, and has not spared himself in the process.’ Signed: H M Burrell, Captain, RAN. Countersigned: J A S Eccles, CBE, RAN, Rear Admiral, Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet.

On 31 January 1950, Mathieson was appointed to the shore establishment HMAS Penguin, additional, ‘for demobilisation procedure, Resignation Accepted.’ Upon this appointment, the following Confidential Report was raised which reads thus: ‘A most excellent Chaplain in every way who will be greatly missed by Officers and Men in the ship. Invariably sympathetic and sound. I have not known him to overlook a detail. Extremely firm with ratings who attempt to bounce him, and commands the highest respect from both officers and men. His services were always simple and inspiring. An excellent messmate with good influence. He has conducted himself to my complete satisfaction.’ Signed: G C Oldham, Captain, DSC, RAN. Countersigned: J A S Eccles CBE, RAN, Rear Admiral, Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet.

On his departure from the Royal Australian Navy, Mathieson returned to the Methodist Ministry. He then undertook further studies into the needs of orphan children. This study was carried out at Melbourne University over a four-year period leading to him being awarded the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in 1960. The title of his thesis was: ‘Worlds away? A survey of needs and facilities for the training of cottage parents of three children’s homes, Burwood, Victoria.’

On 20 December 1971, Reverend Dr. James Keith Wilson Mathieson, OBE, passed away peacefully, aged 64.


Select Bibliography:

Carlton, Mike, Cruiser, The Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and Her Crew, Heinemann, 2010. McKie, Ronald, Proud Echo, Angus & Robertson, 1953.

Melbourne University, University Calendar, Diplomas and Degrees Conferred 1960, p.583. National Archives of Australia, NAA: A6769, Bevington Ronald Sutton.

National Archives of Australia, NAA: A6769, Mathieson, James Keith Wilson.

National Archives of Australia, NAA: A3978, Mathieson J K W, Officers Personal Record.

National Archives of Australia, NAA: MP1185/8, 1932/2/200, Loss of HMAS Perth, by Lieutenant Commander John Alexander Harper, Royal Navy (RN).

National Archives of Australia, NAA: MP1185/9, 567/201/82, Survivors of HMAS Perth - Narrative of Experiences as Prisoners of War in Java, Burma and Siam, by Lieutenant- Commander (S) RFM Lowe.

National Archives of Australia, NAA: A6769, Lowe Ralph Frank Marston. Parkin, Ray, Ray Parkin’s Wartime Trilogy, Melbourne University Press, 1999.

Report of Proceedings, HMAS Perth, AWM292/3, September 1939 to February 1942 War Diary, by Lieutenant Commander John Alexander Harper, Royal Navy (RN).

Rivett, Rohan D, Behind Bamboo, An Inside Story of Japanese Prison Camps, Angus & Robertson, 1946.

Spurling, Kathryn, Cruel Conflict, The Triumph and Tragedy of HMAS Perth, New Holland, 2008.

Strong, Rowan, Chaplains in the Royal Australian Navy, UNSW Press, 2012.

Whiting, Brendan, Ship of Courage, The Epic Story of HMAS Perth and Her Crew. Allen & Unwin, 1994.

Wright, Pattie, Ray Parkin’s Odyssey, Macmillan, 2012.


Article written by Dr. John Carroll