My mum recently forwarded an email from my great uncle (grandmothers brother) Harry Sunderland, a man which I respect and love dearly for all he has done for our family. Within the email was the story written by Harry about their late brother – Ayrton Sunderland and his journey as a prisoner of war during WW2.
As a child I spent a lot of time on my grandmothers farm on few occasions I remember hearing Ayrtons name in passing. Later in life when I had moved to Sydney my youngest brother spent a great deal of time with my grandmother in her last few years. She told him many stories of the old days and some were about her brother Ayrton. From my brothers conversations I found out that he went to war but I had never known more then that until now. This post details the story of Ayrton Sunderland in the words of my great uncle Harry Sunderland. I am posting this to preserve Ayrtons memory and my family history.
The title of this post and remaining content are Harry’s words from the aforementioned email:
I checking through some history and relatives have often asked me about my Late Brother, Ayrton Sunderland who was a prisoner of war during WW2 and whilst being transported by unmarked ship by the Japanese to Japan to carry out further work, the ship was torpedoed by the Americans…… These records are taken from information retained by my Late Mother and some from the internet.
Our kindest regards Heather and Harry.
Mums and Ayrtons Stories
I can remember when I was going to Primary School having to listen to the wireless about stories of people who went to war and their parent’s anxious wait for any kind of news about their son or sons. After we heard the stories the children who could afford six pence bought a cloth Anzac badge to wear at the Anzac Day Ceremony. This money went to help the Legacy Club care for children whose fathers were killed during the war.This story is about Ayrton Gibson Sunderland which is Harry and Mary’s brother and Di’s uncle.
Ayrton lived on a farm in Nimbin not far from Casino when the war started he enlisted into the Army in Nimbin on the 4th June 1940 and did his Army training at Paddington, Sydney.
His army mates nicknamed him Ben and this was the name he was known as for the rest of his war life.
Sometimes Ben had week end leave. He visited some of his relations in Sydney. One of his relations wrote to his mother and father telling them of his news and how splendid he looked they said that he has turned into a lovely handsome polite man which all the girls were in love with. They all went to the Saturday night movie together.
(We must remember that not many people had phones in those days and mail was the only way they could receive information about their loved ones.)
Like all the solders Ben loved receiving news of his home town. He wrote to his family thanking them for the papers they sent to him (Northern Star). In one of the papers they told about Nimbin having trouble with the Italians which Australians called Dagos. A number of Dagos were taken to court for insulting words.
Ben wrote back and said that he hoped the Dagos were not like the Dagos in Sydney they hate solders and do everything but spit on us and it is because of the Dagos that all leave has been cancelled.
He said he received Nancy’s socks and are very nice. (Nancy and Ben became engaged) He said his mates have all got blisters on their feet and wanted to know why he hasn’t any. Ben told them that he doesn’t wash his feet. His mates thought this was true so they didn’t wash their feet. After 4 days the smell was so great he had to tell them the truth. He also wrote that the bugs were so bad they were getting into the ink bottle. (those days people wrote with ink and pen).
After the training at Paddington Ben joined the 2/15th Field Regiment at Rosebery Racecourse Sydney. The regiment began training at Ingleburn with 18 pounder guns the type used during the First World War, and many of which, as noted comically in the regiment’s history, were “older than the gunners”.
In January 1941 the regiment moved into the new camp in Holsworthy. Ben sent a Mother’s Day greeting from this Camp.
Ben finally got some leave and went home to his family.
On 29 July the regiment left Sydney on board the troop ship Katoomba for Perth.
They were put on a ship called “Sibajak” Which were a part of a Convoy of ships that left Australia for an unknown destination. Ben and his friends were horrified when they saw the sleeping quarters on board the Sibajak.
Unlike the Katoomba where there was plenty of room and good food. The Sibajak had rows and rows of hammocks so close together that if you had to go to the toilet during the night you would not be able to find your hammock.
It was very hot and stuffy inside the ship and the food was terrible. One of the soldiers died from sea sickness and a server tummy bug.
The ship went through heavy seas and half way to Singapore the soldiers were told where they were going. Some soldiers were shocked but others were expecting to go to Singapore.
Even though they were on a ship with rough seas they had to practise shooting. Balloons were flown in the sky as targets for the solders.
On the 15th August they arrived at the harbor of Singapore. There were a lot of ships anchored outside the port one was a Japanese Tanker flying the Rising Sun flag. No doubt they reported the Convoy to Tokyo.
Many soldiers became sick with tropical sickness and the Wanganella was converted into a hospital ship.
The 2/15th went into camp at Nee Soon, Singapore, where the men trained and were able to familiarize themselves with the jungle. It was not until 23 November the regiment received its first 25-pounders. Shortly afterwards a new battery, the 65th Battery, was formed.
Ben had some leave in Singapore and wrote to his family and sent this picture.
Ben also managed to send some letters home.
Ben sent a Christmas Greeting home to his family.
Christmas Day was the first time the soldiers had Christmas away from home. Some soldiers were lucky enough to receive parcels and mail from home.
Dec. 29, 1941 The Regt came under fire for the first time. The night of Jan 30/31, 1942 saw the 2/15 Regt leave the mainland of MALAYA and cross over the CAUSEWAY to SINGAPORE Island.
Feb 8, 1942. Jap shelling in the Regt area was by now so intense that it was almost impossible to leave the protection of the slit trenches. Heavy rain had fallen during the last couple of days and trenches and bomb shelters were flooded.
Feb 15, 1942 At 1045 hours the CO was called to TANGLIN Barracks and informed by the A/CRA Lt Col McEachern of dropped messages by the Japanese calling for the British Army to surrender in the interests of humanity and to save the civil population from further slaughter and suffering.
At 1830 hours the CO was again called to TANGLIN Barracks and informed that a surrender had been arranged.
The order issued to the Regt in connection with capitulation may be summarised as follows:
Strictest discipline and control of troops to be maintained. Officers to move about amongst the men and keep control. Japanese Officers must be saluted by those inferior in rank. Care to be observed that disparaging remarks were not to be made in hearing of Japs, as many of them spoke English.
Warning was also given that the Japs were rounding up stragglers and that no one was to make any attempt to escape.
Feb 17, 1942. The Japanese ordered the prisoners to commence to march to CHANGI at 1530 hours, a distance of 16 miles. Each man carried all his private gear, water bottle and two days rations.
Staff cars carried officers of the rank of Brigadier or over. All others marched with the men. Just as the column was about to move off, a verbal message was received by the CO to leave behind all vehicles except the water carts. This was ignored and the vehicles laden with gear and food moved with the column and arrived intact at CHANGI with their loads, which in the weeks and months to follow were a very valuable addition to the meagre rations and medical supplies issued to POW’s by the Imperial Japanese Army.
In the early hours of Feb 18, 1942 the 2/15 Field Regiment arrived at hutted camp, very much damaged by fire, and entered into occupation of that portion of CHANGI known as BIRDWOOD CAMP.
The Japanese wanted to build a railway line between Bangkok, Thailand and Myanmar to support its forces. They had about 18000 Asian Labourers they told these Asian Labourers that they would pay them so they could get them into the jungle to work on the railway as soon as they arrived they were treated the same way as the POW’s. The Japs had no intention of paying them.
More men were needed to build the railway so they made the POW’s work on the railway. There sent 60,000 Allied POW’s to work on this railway.
An estimated 9,000 Asian Labourers and 16,000 Allied POW’s died as a direct result of the project. (2,815 Australian soldiers were killed. This is why the Burma Railway is referred to the Death Railway.
Ben and his mates were some of the POW’s that were made to work on this Railway. For 5 days and nights prisoners were packed into steel freight cars 36 to a car with only enough room to crouch down, in the stinking heat and humidity with only one opening for ventilation. Illness, particularly dysentery became common.
When the train stopped they were made to walk 190 miles to the site where they would work on the railway.
George Aspinal was one of the soldiers who wrote a diary and took pictures whenever possible. This is his diary (source – http://www.abc.net.au/changi/history/burma.htm)
We used to cover about twenty-five or thirty miles each night. We tried to get some sleep during the day, but it was usually impossible because the Japanese always wanted to have a tenko – a check parade. So every few hours they would line everybody up and count them to see if they were all there. There was nothing much in the way of huts in the staging camps, and we used to try and snatch a few hours’ sleep under a bush or anything with a bit of shade.
If any straggler did fall behind, he got belted by the Japanese guards. I’m sure a number who could not keep up were beaten and left to die in the jungle. Some of the people who dropped back were never seen again and we did hear shots fired on a number of occasions. The guards might have been firing at wild animals, but we suspected a number of our people were shot.
The Japanese considered these men fit for work. The man on the right can’t do his shorts up because his stomach is swollen with beriberi. Ossie Jackson (centre) has wet beriberi in his legs, which are virtually the same diameter from his ankle up to his thighs. Benjamin Pearce (left) is also suffering malnutrition and beriberi.
Conditions working on the railway were horrendous. POW’s were given even less food than they had been getting in Changi, and they were forced to work in two 12 hour shifts. Cholera, beriberi and tropical ulcers were common.
Tropical ulcers were a constant problem for men on the railway. Few if any had boots and the constantly wet conditions meant that any scratch could quickly turn into an ulcer. There was little available to treat ulcers. Often the rotting flesh was scooped out with a sharpened spoon or men were told to stand in a river to let flesh eating fish pick at the rotting flesh. Sometimes ulcers could get so big that amputation was the only option. Few survived the shock.
These were some of the last pictures George was able to take with his camera. The railway was completed in November 1943. The survivors, including George were then sent back to Changi. It was on the way back that his group were searched by the Kempei Tai, the Japanese military police. They were much more thorough in their searching than the guards and George could well have been caught with his camera.
This photograph brings back many traumatic memories. It shows the cholera isolation hospital area at Shimo Sonkurai No 1 camp. Cholera patients were housed under canvas on the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. A mosquito net was hung over the cross bar above the table to try and keep the blowflies away. The box on the table contains what surgical instruments were available. If someone died, the body was carried on a bamboo stretcher (there is one to the right of the hospital tent) over to the small holding tent on the right. Later the bodies were burned in an area towards the back right-hand-side of the picture.
I decided to break my camera up. I pulled it to pieces as much as I could, broke it up, mutilated it, and threw it down a deep well… and that was the end of the camera.
After the part of the railway line that Ben and his mates were working on was finished they were sent on a Japanese Hell Ship to work in the Japanese mines. (This was approx. May 1942).
A hell ship is a ship with extremely unpleasant living conditions or with a reputation for cruelty among the crew. It now generally refers to the ships used by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army to transport Allied prisoners of war (POWs)
Many died due to asphyxia (Their body was deprived of oxygen) prisoners were often crammed into cargo holds with little air, food or water for journeys that would last weeks, with little food and water starvation or dysentery was common. These unmarked prisoner transports were targeted as enemy ships by Allied submarines and aircraft.
More than 20,000 Allied POWs died at sea when the transport ships carrying them were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft. Although Allied headquarters often knew of the presence of POWs through radio interception and code breaking, the ships were sunk because interdiction of critical strategic materials was more important than the deaths of prisoners-of-war.
Unfortunately Ben was one of these many soldiers who lost his life when a USA Submarine sank the Hell Ship which he was on.
His parents were notified that he was missing and they searched desperately for and information about their son.
The soldiers were who were found were transferred to a hospital in Australia.
Ayrton (Ben) sister Mary worked in a hospital as a nurse. This was the same hospital that the survivors were sent to.
Mary was on night shift (in those days they didn’t have electric lights and the nurses carried lanterns. The nurses had name tags and one of the soldiers asked Mary if she had a brother who was a POW.
He told her that Ben survived the ship being torpedo and managed to make a raft out of some wood floating in the water. Unfortunately he floated in a different direction to the ones who were rescued and wasn’t seen again.
Meanwhile Ben’s parents were doing some investigating on their own they found out that Fred Mills was one of the soldiers that was in Ben’s unit and wrote to him seeking information on their son. Fred wrote back to them:-
I received you letter and will try to tell you what happened.
I know for a fact the Ben (as we called your son) received some mail in February’44 and July 44 and from memory I think we sent 3 cards home only.
We were sunk 200 miles off the coast and I’m afraid there was no chance of reaching land unless one had a boat.
I saw Ben on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd days missed him on the 4th and saw him again on the 5th day in the water.
He was sitting on his raft and was taking the whole show very quietly.
A typhoon then started and separated us again.
I was rescued the next day by a submarine and they searched the area for two days and then had to leave owing to shortage of fuel. Before they left they threw tins of food and water over in case anybody may have been alive, and unfortunately missed.
Trusting this helps you in your sad loss in such of a fine son. I will close now offering you my deepest sympathy.
Ayrton’s parents received the dreaded telegram (during the war a telegram was sent to love ones by the Ministry for the Army informing them that their loved one was missing or killed. This caused great stress on the love ones as they dreaded the telegram man coming to their homes some people fainted when the saw the telegram man and some even had heart attacks).
It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that NX27932 Gunner Ayrton Gibson Sunderland previously reported missing believed deceased is now reported became missing and is for official purposes presumed to be dead on 16th September 1944 and desire to convey to you the profound sympathy of the Minister of the Army.
After the families were informed of their loved ones it was common to put the soldiers names who were casualties of war in the Newspaper.
They also received this scroll.
After the war his parents were informed that his name would go on the honour wall at the Canberra War Memorial including a little vase to place a Poppy into.
Poppies are flowers which is used to remember all the fallen soldiers in all wars. Poppies are red and the redness of the flower stands for all the blood that was spilt during all wars. This tradition comes from World War 1.
The eastern gallery is covered with the names of those who died in World War II and more recent conflicts.
Ayton’s plague reads
GUNNER AYRTON GIBSON
SERVICE NUMBER NX27932
UNIT 2/15 FIELD REGIMENT RAA
DATE OF DEATH: 16 SEPTEMBER 1944
COMMEMORATED ON PANEL 17
CONFLICT SECOND WORLD WAR, 1939-1945
Ben’s parents also received medals which Ben had earned during his time in the Army.
Ayrtons/Bens family photo [Note: Flo is my grandmother and Harry, the young boy, infront of her is the author of this post about Ayrton (ben)]
His family donated a lectern to the Nimbin Church of England in remembrance of Ben (This was the church that Ben was christened)
There is also a memorial stone in Labuan Memorial cemetery Malaya of Ayrton