ON REMEMBRANCE Day, Trafalgar war veteran Jack Cooper vows never to forget, writes SARAH HUDSON
Even now, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Jack Cooper still wells up with emotion when remembering his three-plus years as a prisoner of war.
"You could ask me what I did yesterday and I couldn't remember," says the 89-year-old from Trafalgar in Gippsland.
"But a lot of the memories of back then are still fresh. Memories of people getting belted with a bamboo rod for no reason at all."
Eyes reddening, fingers flicking distractedly through his old war photos, Jack's voice trails off as - for the umpteenth time in his long life - he transports himself to his youthful, war-torn self.
"We never talked about it when we came back, only among ourselves. People wouldn't believe it when we told them, so what was the point of telling them?
"There was no counselling or anything, so we just got on with life. But over the years I've talked more. We want people to know because it's history."
Jack, who grew up on a dairy farm at Dollar in Gippsland and spent his adult years on a dairy farm in Thorpdale, signed up for the Army as an 18-year-old in 1941, while his brother Ray - later declared missing in action - was fighting in Malaya.
Private Cooper had served barely a year in the 2/29th battalion - landing in Singapore in October 1941 - before he became a Japanese prisoner of war at the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942.
What followed were years of trauma that re-telling and imagination do little justice to, and differ from the traumas experienced by soldiers at the front line.
Jack was sent to the notorious Changi prison for three months, then Burma, where prisoners worked on repairing aerodromes. Then came work on the Thai-Burma Railway, also called the Death Railway.
How many camps he lived in is not clear, as Jack loses count after about 10. What he does remember is the rice, and plenty of it.
"We'd have a mugful of rice for breakfast, which we called pap. We'd have boiled rice at midday with maybe a bit of jam floating around in the water.
"At night, we'd come back and have a mug of rice and, if we were lucky, a bit of vegetables and meat. I saw people die of starvation, cholera. We were all malnourished. I had beriberi, malaria, ringworm, dysentery.
"We started each day about 6am. We were given a specific job and we didn't stop until we finished it. Sometimes we'd work 18 hours."
Four years to the day that he landed in Singapore, Jack returned to the Asian country a free man in October 1945, arriving in Melbourne at the end of that month.
After the initial euphoria of arrival, meeting relatives and catching up, Jack found himself isolated in the first few years and admits he drank too much.
His first marriage didn't last and he had many jobs around rural Victoria before marrying second wife Beryl in 1956, who "kept me under control".
The two settled on a Thorpdale dairy farm, ("being on the farm kept me out of trouble"), where they continued for 40 years until Beryl's death in 1997 and Jack's retirement to Trafalgar.
Jack says the greatest help through his life has come from being a member of the Ex-POW and Relatives Association of Victoria. He started the Latrobe Valley sub-group in 1954.
It is with those ex-POWs that he returned to Asia, first in the early '70s, and the last time in 1998. They were, he says, painful but healing trips.
These days, Jack spends his time with his daughter, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren, as well as taking part in the RSL and local groups.
He drives, mowed the law until his legs gave him trouble, and is unsure how he will celebrate his 90th birthday in January.
He thinks there's not enough respect among the younger generation, there should be more discipline and, as for war, "I don't believe in it. I think a lot of wars can and should be avoided".
"We weren't recognised by the Government at the time either. Soldiers were paid three shillings a day. But they didn't pay prisoners of war a thing when we came back to Australia."
He says this has changed and he now has an extra $500 in his bank every fortnight as a result.
- Remembrance Day today marks 94 years since the end of World War I.