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Australian soldiers posthumously awarded for their bravery as World War II POWs

Donna Coutts, August 28, 2018 7:00PM Kids News

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Prisoners of War at Changi in Singapore in 1943 during World War II. Picture: Australian War Memorial media_cameraPrisoners of War at Changi in Singapore in 1943 during World War II. Picture: Australian War Memorial


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Twenty-eight Australian World War II soldiers will be posthumously* awarded for their bravery 73 years after the end of the war.

Minister for Defence Personnel* Darren Chester announced that the soldiers, who were all prisoners of war, died while escaping prisoner-of-war camps or after being recaptured*. Their families will be awarded the Commendation for Gallantry on the soldiers’ behalf*.

“Today we recognise the bravery and courage of these servicemen* and their heroic* attempts to escape the often horrific* conditions of captivity* in the Far East* during World War II,” Minister Chester said.

SEPTEMBER 9, 1945 : POWs at Changi Prison following 09/09/45 liberation by the allies. Pic Australian War Memorial. Australia / Armed Forces / Veteran / POW / World War Two (WWII). media_cameraThere were more than 22,000 Australians taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. This is a photo of a group of Australian prisoners who survived. It was taken on September 9, 1945, the day they were liberated from Changi Prison, Singapore. Picture: Australian War Memorial

They were imprisoned in camps run by Japan’s soldiers, who Australian soldiers fought during World War II. The camps were throughout the Pacific region, including in Java, Dutch Timor and Burma, as well as along the Burma-Thailand Railway, Ambon, Sandakan, Singapore, Sumatra, Japan, Northern Celebes and New Britain.

December 1999 Testle bridge near Kensoyak on the Thai-Burma railway. One trestle bridge near Hintok further down the line was known  by the POWs as the "pack of cards" bridge because of its regular collapses. (WWII) /prisoners of war /japan media_cameraThis is a bridge on the Burma-Thailand Railway, built by hand by prisoners of war in World War II. Many of the prisoners were Australian. You can see how tall the bridge is by looking at the train at the top.

Conditions in these prisoner-of-war camps were terrible. There wasn’t enough to eat or clean water to drink and shelter was very basic. The soldiers who guarded them could be violent and the soldiers had to work very hard even if they were sick or injured. There weren’t enough medicines or proper medical equipment for treatment. Many prisoners of war died while imprisoned and many who escaped were recaptured.

Australian prisoners of war (POWs) who suffered terrible hardships at the hands of the Japanese on the Burma-Thai (or Siam) railway in 1940s photo during World War II (Two). pic Australian War Memorial, taken from the 2003 book 'One Fourteenth of an Elephant'. media_cameraStarving Australian prisoners of war suffered terrible hardships on the Burma-Thailand Railway and at many other locations. Picture: Australian War Memorial

As the 28 men all died between 1942 and 1945, which is at least 73 years ago, the awards will be presented to their families. But first the families must get in touch with the Australian Government’s Department of Defence.

“I am calling on the next of kin* of these 28 servicemen to come forward and register their details with the Department of Defence, so they can be invited to accept the Commendation for Gallantry on behalf of the servicemen,” Minister Chester said.

The Department of Defence has a list of the soldiers’ names at


A prisoner of war (POW) is someone who is held in a prison camp or jail during a war by soldiers on the other side of the fighting.

POWs are often forced to work for the soldiers keeping them prisoner.

During World War I, there were thought to be eight million POWs. There were also many millions of POWs in World War II.

There are international agreements about how POWs should be treated, including that they should be given enough food. The main one is called the Geneva Convention. Not all countries sign or follow the rules of the Geneva Convention and POWs in wars are sometimes killed or treated very badly.

There were 22,376 Australian POWs held by the Japanese forces in World War II, including women who were Australian Army nurses.

ANZAC Diaries media_cameraPrivate Edwin Phelps’ diary. You can read about his experiences as a prisoner of war below.


Private Edwin Phelps was an Australian soldier in World War I and was captured by the German army during the battle of ­Bullecourt, France, in April 1917. He kept a diary of his experience as a POW. He wrote:

“We were all, wounded and unwounded alike, forced to march seven miles (11km) behind the German lines and then our own artillery* opened up fire, and many of our own men were killed. We were searched and anything of value taken from us. I managed to slip my wallet down my trouser leg so that remained in my ­possession.”

A wound to Private Phelps’s leg was dressed “German fashion — with paper bandages, as linen* was too scarce*” to be used on prisoners.

He described the treatment ­received at a prisoner’s hospital as “intolerable*”.

“Our wounds were only dressed with a little ointment* and paper bandages. We were subjected to all sorts of taunts* and harsh treatment,” he wrote.

Diary entries describe the “scarcely edible*” food, including black bread, soup “flavoured with grubs” and black coffee made from acorns.


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  • posthumously: after death
  • personnel: staff
  • recaptured: captured again
  • behalf: for someone else
  • servicemen: men in the armed services, such as the army, navy or air force
  • heroic: being a hero
  • horrific: shockingly awful
  • captivity: kept prisoner
  • Far East: another name for part of Asia
  • next of kin: closest relative
  • artillery: gunfire or bombing
  • linen: fabric used for bandages
  • scarce: rare
  • intolerable: not bearable
  • ointment: medical cream
  • taunts: insults
  • edible: can eat it; scarcely edible means you can hardly eat it



  1. What does posthumously mean?
  2. What is the name of the bravery award?
  3. What made these prison camps bad places to be?
  4. What is the Geneva Convention?
  5. Why would there have been Australian female POWs?


1. War Heroes

Imagine that one of these 28 brave soldiers set to receive this prestige bravery award, was your grandfather. Use the information contained in the Kids News story and soldier’s diary entry to write a short acceptance speech as if you were to receive this award on your family’s behalf. Include some details of your ‘grandfather’s’ service (can be made up but has to relate to the facts of who’s being awarded these medals) and what it means to your family that they are honoured in this way.

2. Extension: Work with a partner and write a list of qualities it would take for the soldiers and army nurses to survive those Prisoner of War camps for years on end. Compare your qualities with another group and add to your own list.

Time: Allow 25 minutes
Curriculum Links: English, History

After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: If you could have asked one of the 28 Australian soldiers a question about their experiences during World War II, what it have been? What would you most like to know more about? Use full sentences. No one-word answers.

Extra Reading in history