When I climbed into the bus it was near full. Onboard were the most amazing survivors – crew of the first HMAS Perth. I knew these men well by now after many interviews for my book Cruel Conflict: the triumphs and tragedies of HMAS Perth 1. I had delighted in their company and been inspired by their stories. I looked around for a seat and there were a few shouts: ‘Here Kath’, with a glint in their eye as they indicated their knee. Old sailors; well they just get older, but rarely lose that mischievous glint.
I sat in an empty seat beside one of the Franks. There were many Franks, but this blog is about just two; Frank Chattaway and Frank McGovern, remarkable men with fascinating stories. Both were survivors of not only their ship’s sinking but dreadful years slaving on the Burma Thailand railway as prisoners (POWs) of the Japanese in World War II.
In February 1942, the Australian cruiser Perth was sent to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as Japanese forces threatened. Australian authorities realized by then that the Japanese advance had been so swift that South East Asia was lost, but still they despatched one of Australia’s major warships to appease Dutch authorities in the East Indies. On 27 February Perth was part of the Dutch, British and American warships trying to stop a massive Japanese armada in The Battle of Java Sea. The fleet, poorly led by a Dutch Admiral with no war experience, was overwhelmed and the only ships to escape were Perth and USS Houston. Captain Hector Waller (RAN) was assured that Sunda Strait was clear by Dutch Intelligence, so he intended to take Perth and Houston through the Strait to Australia. The Perth crew were mostly war volunteers, young men in their late teens and early twenties, totally unprepared for what they were exposed to. The intelligence report was totally false and at 0100 on 1 March 1942 after a heroic battle, both Allied cruisers were sunk by a enormous Japanese fleet. One Australian sailor recalled: ‘The din was terrifying and every now and again the ship lurched when hit by shell fire or torpedo’. Of the Perth crew of 681, 361 perished in the battle or went down with their ship. The remaining 320 struggled to escape the currents, wreckage and oil only to be captured by Japanese soldiers.
Able Seaman Frank McGovern lost his brother Able Seaman Vincent McGovern when the ship went down and the ensuing years he remembered as, ‘hell on earth’. The approximately 22,000 Australian servicemen captured by the Japanese suffered terrible deprivation as they slaved on the railway and in Japanese factories and coalmines. Through malnutrition, disease, and ill treatment, 13,872, one third of the Australian POWs, died. Of the 320 Perth crew, 106 died as POWs, 45 who survived the dreadful railway, perished when the transport taking them to Japan to labour in the coalmines, was mistakenly torpedoed by a USN submarine.
Able Seaman Frank Chattaway, was born in Junee, NSW. He was a teacher at the Grong Grong School when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in August 1941 as a 20-year-old. His soldier brother, Jim, had already been killed near Tobruk. Frank couldn’t swim so he hoped whatever ship he was on didn’t sink. Frank Chattaway was the only member of his Perth six-inch gun crew to survive the battle in Sunda Strait. ‘After a short but fervent prayer, I jumped over the side’, having ensured his lifejacket was fastened tightly first. As he thrashed in the water another sailor grabbed him and pulled him onto a raft. As the sun rose an island was sighted and those on the raft decided they would swim for it. Frank was the only one to decline – he couldn’t swim. In their attempt the sailors were caught by the strong current and swept out to sea. Frank Chattaway survived because he couldn’t swim!
The ensuing years as a POW working on the Burma-Thai railway tested Frank to the limit. Realizing he needed to keep his mind busy, and having been a mathematics teacher, he conjured up mathematical puzzles with which he pestered fellow POWs. He was then sent to a coal mine in Japan and barely stayed alive. When the surrender finally came he had buried too many of his mates and physically ‘I resembled a ghost’.
On returning to Australia Frank married Nell and had two daughters and a son. Sadly, Nell died of cancer and Frank married Jan. He retired from teaching in March 1982,when Headmaster of Goulburn High School. In February 2010 Frank Chattaway turned 90 and artist Margaret Hadfield presented him with a portrait – the then and now of his life.
The story, of Frank McGovern, was truly unbelievable. Each time I asked him details I had to ask him to pause – too much incredible information and, I had run out of fingers for how many times Frank ‘Mac’ could/should have died. Saddened by the realization that his brother Vincent, had died with Perth Frank ‘Mac’ was all the more, determined to stay alive – his mother could not lose two sons.
He found himself a POW of the Japanese and sent to the Thai/Burma railway. So many POWs could not endure those years. It made little sense, it was not the religious ones, the fit ones, the short ones, who survived – they all suffered the same appalling treatment, and death seemed indiscriminate. Frank ‘Mac’ figures he should really have died too. He was then a ‘chosen one’ the Japanese terminology for the chosen fittest POWs selected to then travel to Japan to slave in coalmines and factories.
Frank and other Perth sailors were part of contingent of 1,318 Australian and British POWs forced into the fetid hold of the Rakuyo Maru. On the morning of 12 September 1944, the convoy was attacked by American submarines in the South China Sea. Prisoners were able to evacuate the ship. Japanese warships collected their own survivors but initially left the POWs in the water. Frank ‘Mac’ took charge of a lifeboat. Another sailor, a good mate, called to Frank to join him on his lifeboat. Frank began to do just that, but soldiers beat him to it and the boat was full. Frank returned to his own. The boats took different directions and his mate’s lifeboat and all within were machine gunned by a Japanese destroyer. Later a more benevolent Japanese captain collected Frank and others from the water.
He was again very fortunate, because many who were left in the oily ocean died. Some 150 POWs were rescued days later by the very submarines which had sunk them and around 500 were collected by Japanese warships. An estimated 1,159 POWs in the Rakuyo Maru died.
Frank McGovern continued his ‘hell on earth’ years in Japan, more of his Perth mates died of disease, beatings and malnutrition. The Allied bombing of Japanese cities killed more. POW camps were unmarked. Frank and a Perth sailor stood talked after a hard day’s labour. Bombs fell, his mate was killed. Frank regained consciousness to find himself in water, unable to move his legs. He was pulled from the wreckage and left between other injured POWs. ‘That was a long night’. As dawn came the other POWs were dead and he was dragged to a hospital – a hospital by name only. There was no treatment given Frank for his broken back and barely any water or food for he and the other two injured POWs with him. On the eighth day one POW was taken to the operating theatre and died. The next day the same thing happened. There was a shortage of blood in Japan and it had been decided POWs could be drained of theirs. Frank decided he was next and struggled to his feet assuring his captors he could work – with a broken back. He was spared and returned to a POW enclosure.
Surrender finally came and the United States Air Force began to drop food parcels to the POWs. These came in massive drums. On hearing the aircraft, the POWs ran outside and waved. The drums were released and fell to the earth. One dropped onto the POW beside Frank. Frank McGovern decided he would take shelter. ‘You know Kath, I had been through a lot and I wasn’t going to be taken out of this world by a bloody food parcel!’
Frank returned, married, had a family and as of 2021 was 101 years young.
Two amazing Franks, with Frank McGovern and Frank Chattaway left and equally amazing Gavin Campbell.
Kathryn Spurling, Cruel Conflict: the triumphs and tragedies of HMAS Perth I, New Holland, 2011. Also soon to be released updated and enlarged: HMAS Perth I: triumphs and tragedies, Ebook, Missing Pages, 2021