John James FLYNN had tried his hand at many things as a young man, delivering telegrams, a stock and station hand in Western Queensland and packing meat at Borthwicks Meat Works at Murarrie. One of 7 children, his widowed father and aunt struggled to bring up their young family during the depression years between the two world wars.
Jack stepped forward in July 1940 and volunteered to join the Army where he flourished, a keen athlete, he was selected to attend a specialist Physical Training Instructors course in Victoria, but after injuring himself earned himself an early discharge.
Undaunted, he made a pest of himself until he was once again taken into the ranks in May the next year, serving with the 2/105 General Transport Company AASC, leaving Sydney for the Middle East in November 1941. Here his skills as a driver were put to good use, as they transported troops and equipment to support the infantry and pioneer battalions.
With the build up of Japanese troops in the Pacific region and the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, many units were ordered to return to Australia. The 2/105th left Egypt onboard the ‘Orcades’ on 1 February 1942, but before they reached Australia the ship was diverted to Batavia to support the Dutch.
Australian troops were organized into one force under Brigadier Arthur Blackburn. Men of the 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion, 2/2 Pioneers, some Royal Australian Engineers, a Casualty Clearance Station and two transport companies including the 2/105th and Jack Flynn took on the advancing Japanese Imperial Force.
Now known as the Battle of Java the troops were out numbered and under-equipped to fight on. The allies surrendered on 8 March 1942, the day that Jack Flynn was reported ‘Missing believed to be POW’. Later intelligence showed that Jack was interned in Southern Burma, at Moulmein Camp.
Jack wrote a letter home, which is held among the treasured collections of the State Library of Queensland. Undated, he wrote there were 20,000 prisoners, Australians, Dutch, English and Americans, and with his tongue fully in-his-cheek that “the Japanese Commander sincerely hopes and endeavours to treat prisoners kindly”.
Jack was most likely hinting at the real conditions by using language that fooled his captors – such as “very plain huts” – “the climate is good” and “food, medicine, food”. It was from here that Jack and his fellow POWs were forced to work on the infamous Burma-Thai railway under deplorable conditions.
Jack Flynn’s letter home
But it is not this story that I need to tell you. Jack Flynn survived the ordeals that many didn’t, of starvation, torture, disease and slave labour during the construction of the B-T Railway. When it was completed the Japanese Army sought other ways to employ prisoners. They chose the fittest of the survivors to work in the coal mines of Japan. Jack was among 1,300, of whom 649 were Australian prisoners crammed on board the Rakuyo Maru in September 1944, as part of a convoy bound for Japan.
The ships were sighted in the Luzon Strait by three US Navy submarines. Unaware they were being used as prisoner transports, they fired upon and sunk the convoy.
Japanese vessels came to retrieve their own survivors, but they left any prisoners to take their chances. Covered in oil from a tanker that had also been sunk, without water or life rafts, they struggled to keep alive, clutching to makeshift rafts, for many days.
Fortunately the US submarines returned to the scene and noticed men waving to them, too small to be Japanese and calling out in English “please help us”. They threw out lines and sailors from the subs jumped into the water to save them.
Jack was one of the last groups to be rescued, they had been 6 days at sea. Already weakened and malnourished they were initially taken to Saipan an American base in the Mariana Islands, then to California for further treatment.
US National Archives have film of this most fortunate rescue, taken from cameras mounted on the submarine periscopes. This footage has now been posted to YouTube.
When these Australian POWs, arrived back in Australia, they provided the first authentic news about the terrible conditions and high death rate among the POWs who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway.
By October 1944 Jack Flynn had returned to Brisbane and like all returned POWs was granted 2 months special leave, but was in and out of medical care for many months, most particularly with recurring bouts of Malaria.
Yet in August 1945 Jack was once again onboard a ship, bound for Singapore. Having heard of groups being sent to help assist the repatriation of POWs at war’s end, Jack Flynn sought inclusion in the ‘2 Australian Prisoner of war Reception Group’, in his words to assist those comrades who he left behind.
The Australian War Memorial has footage of this group in which Jack Flynn is featured:
While Jack was still with the army he married Freda (Sandy) Frost in 1946 who had nursed him during his early repatriation they had daughters Patricia and Margaret.
Jack Flynn recorded his experiences in a self-published memoir that is held at the State Library of Queensland as well as the Australian War Memorial.
Read more …
- SERVICE RECORD: FLYNN, John James
- Reminiscence of John James Flynn P9405472 FLY [SLQ]
- OM73-41 M. Howie papers [Matthew Howie]
Marg Powell | Anzac Square Project | State Library of Queensland