Wal Williams cheated death throughout World War II — in combat, as a prisoner of the Japanese, even at the hands of his own side.
But the main factors ensuring his survival, on an epic three-year journey from Australia’s greatest military disaster to eventual victory 75 years ago this month, were not fighting skills or basic training.
“A bowl of rice and a sense of humour,” the former infantryman says, without hesitation, when asked how he kept alive following the Fall of Singapore in 1942; when Wal became one of 80,000 Allies, among them 15,000 Australians, taken into captivity after British commanders surrendered the supposedly impregnable island fortress to a numerically inferior Japanese force.
Rice, as he took every opportunity to keep physically strong in an existence marked by starvation, squalor, disease and violent, unpredictable captors. And humour gave Wal the mental will to survive an ordeal that 7000 fellow Australians, and tens of thousands of other Allies, could not.
“We had to make our own humour,” he says. “Things would get tough and you might go for months with no humour, but you had to see the funny side of something.”
And he did. The energetic 98-year-old, a natural raconteur, punctuates his stories of incredible suffering and endurance with comedic anecdotes — beams of light cutting through a dark, dark time.
There’s the Japanese guard on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, frustrated at his POW labourers’ sawing technique, who jumps on a massive log to show them how it’s done — and in a moment worthy of Looney Tunes, forgets he’s on the wrong end and saws his own perch off, tumbling down the rocky hillside.
“He must have fallen about 20 to 30 feet,” Wal chuckles. “We all cheered as if Liverpool had won the finals while he shook his fist at us.”
Or a squeamish Wal helping at an amputation in his Burmese prison camp’s primitive hospital, where doctors seen as heroes by the men did their best with no drugs and homemade equipment. Amid the vile jungle conditions, the young amputee looks at the doctor’s cigar and quips, “That’s not very hygienic.”
Little did he know. “All we had was the saw from the cookhouse,” Wal relates with grim relish. “The doctor said to the orderly ‘Take this back to the cookhouse’ when he’d finished sawing.”
There’s even laughter in life-and-death moments. Wal recalls a brave comrade trying to help a stricken Korean woman after their ship, part of a convoy taking prisoners to Japan, is torpedoed by a US submarine. “He was stark naked except for a hat — when he realised, he grabbed his hat off and held it in front of his privates. I couldn’t help but laugh, even in adverse conditions.”
It’s an attitude that Wal reckons serves him to this day, at his retirement home in Narrabeen, Sydney — and that the world could do well to adopt in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
But of course this story is as tragic as it is comic. Wal gets emotional as he describes coming home at the end of the war as “like walking into another world.”
Incredibly, none of his family asked about his experiences. Ever.
“All of my life it has bugged me to think that I went through all of that and none of my family ever quizzed me about it,” he says. “It felt bloody awful, I do not think I ever got over it.”
He notes that his own father, a wounded Gallipoli veteran, never spoke about his war either. Wal has since been told parents of returning WWII POWs were advised not to discuss the war with their sons — but he urged families with relatives of his age to talk to them, now before it is too late, about their own war experiences. He thinks they will appreciate it.
“Absolutely ask them,” he says. “It is so important to remember.”
Ahead of the VP (Victory in the Pacific) Day 75th anniversary on August 15, he also encouraged all Australians to watch the new virtual reality film on the Fall of Singapore by Anzac360, a ground-breaking project between News Corp Australia and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That chaotic, desperate final battle — which ultimately changed the world order and forever altered Wal’s life — began on February 8, 1942 with a night-time waterborne assault on the poorly defended beach where Wal was stationed and ended with capitulation a week later.
Wal’s first brushes with death came then: hit by a grenade that only gave him a flesh wound; a piece of artillery shrapnel that ripped through his helmet but didn’t pierce his skull; and, lost in the darkness, finding himself “walking shoulder to shoulder” with aggressive Japanese troops who somehow failed to realise his nationality.
For the defeat, Wal squarely blames ill-prepared, bungling Pom commanders.
“They seemed to have a defeatist attitude. You can feel it and it’s the sort of thing that catches on.” However, he did not expect the surrender. “I had never felt so low. I felt as though we had failed.”
The question of who was really to blame is addressed in the Anzac360 film. And Wal’s journey from that moment — a journey that brings him home to marry, raise a son and start a business — is the very opposite of failure.
Sent to toil on the Death Railway, where 90,000 fellow forced labourers died from disease, malnutrition and brutality, he survived.
Shipped to Japan itself, his vessel was torpedoed, leaving Wal in the water for 12 hours, where his skills as a NSW schoolboy swimming champ came to the fore. Japanese attempts to hit the US submarine with depth charges would have killed Wal, if not for a mate floating nearby, who shouted to flip on his back, “else the pressure would have ruptured our stomachs”.
Most of the last year of Wal’s war was at an engineering factory in Kawasaki, an area bombed into obliteration by the Americans. During a night raid, Wal’s prison camp went up in a bombing firestorm, with prisoners and guards fleeing together to a swamp and seeing dawn break on ruined desolation as far as the eye could see.
“We would have burned. The only reason I got out of that was the guards — the bloke in charge threw open the gates. It gave us a 50-50 chance.”
Rice, humour … and perhaps a guardian angel.
A UNIQUE LOOK INTO OUR ANZAC PAST
COMMENT by Anzac360’s JUSTIN LEES
Spending time with men like Walter Williams and his fellow Death Railway survivor Jim Kerr is the greatest privilege of this job.
Doing so as part of the Anzac360 project, which lets Australians visit the locations of our most important World War One and Two stories in virtual reality, makes it feel even more worthwhile.
Our latest video, on the Fall of Singapore, was the most challenging yet — and was almost called off at the very last minute due to COVID-19 travel bans.
But this story is too important not to cover. So we adapted: using a crew already in Singapore for our 360-degree ground and drone shots, while the phenomenally talented production team in Sydney worked magic with greenscreen and graphics.
The result is even better than we could have hoped: stunning use of archive footage and in-studio effects, all underpinned by the usual on-site footage that puts the viewer right in the geographical heart of the story.
At a time when none of us can travel, such virtual tours acquire a new significance. The free Anzac360 app will take you to the WWI fields of France and Belgium; to the WWII experiences of Hellfire Pass, the Sandakan Death March and now to Singapore.
In the words of Darren Chester, Minister for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs which produces these videos with News Corp: “More than one million Australians served during the Second World War and Wal William’s inspirational story demonstrates the debt of gratitude we owe them. Thank you for your service.
“The Fall of Singapore story is an important addition to the Anzac 360 virtual reality app series already produced, and is very timely when Australians cannot travel overseas to visit these sites or pay their respects.”
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