The Accidental Soldier
Reflections on the
Second World War Years
by Chang Sow Khong
Chang Sow Khong was born in 1924. He attended the Pasar Road Primary School and in 1937 transferred to Standard Six in the V.I. He was the Shaw House Athletics Captain in 1940 and organized excursions for the school Geographical Society as well. He was also a School Prefect under School Captain S. ("Spitfire") Ratnam. When he finished his School Certificate examinations at age 16 in December 1940, Malaya was at still at peace although war was raging in Europe. Sow Khong could not have imagined that in less than 15 months war would come to the Pacific and he would be a soldier in the Australian Army!
y final year in the V.I. was 1940 when I sat for the Cambridge School Certificate examinations at the end of the year. When we received our examination results in March 1941, we were advised that, unlike previous years, Britain would not be accepting students from overseas because of the on-going war against Germany. I now had to decide on alternative places to go for my further studies. After considering countries like Canada, Australia and the USA, I decided on Australia.
My results from the Senior Cambridge Examination were good enough to earn me an exemption from the matriculation examination. So I applied to read medicine at Sydney University and was accepted for the term commencing March 1942. That was many months away but I thought it would be useful to go as soon as possible to Australia. However, not having any relatives or friends in Australia, I looked for a boarding school as a base. The idea was that I would pay boarding fees but I would not participate in the scholastic curriculum. This would give me a free hand to explore Sydney during the day.
I was attracted to St Ignatius College, a Jesuit School situated on the Hawkesbury River on 108 acres of grounds. It had a rowing club. I wrote to them and they accepted me on the aforementioned terms. The next step was to get to Sydney. I booked myself on a Dutch ship M.S. Boissevain which left Klang in the second half of July 1941 and arrived in Sydney on 15th August 1941. Designed in 1937, the Boissevain was later converted to an Australian hospital ship and was used, after the war, to repatriate former Dutch and British POWs from the Dutch East Indies.
At St Ignatius two events stand out in my memory. One was to rise and shower and breakfast with the priests in winter time at 5:30 a.m. and the other to sink an eight (an eight-man rowing boat) in the Parramatta River! We were on a practice row and a strong wind blew up. The choppy waters swamped the boat and there was little the crew could do about it. There were thousands of jelly fish in the river but, fortunately, they were not the stinging variety. We had to swim and tow the boat back to the boat shed.
In November 1941, I moved to a boarding house in Kirribilli. This was situated in Carabella Street which is a short walk to Milsonís Point Ferry terminal which goes to Circular Quay. Kirribilli is where the Prime Minister of Australia has his official residence.
Events outside peaceful Australia soon caught up with us. December 1941 was a terrible month. The rapid fall of Malaya and Singapore meant my source of funding was cut off. I was now stranded at the age of seventeen in Australia, without anyone to turn to. The survival instinct kicked in. At that time I had never worked before and therefore had no experience whatsoever in any occupation. So I took a job as an office boy in a chartered accountantís firm. The salary plus the funds which I still had in hand kept me going.
In mid-March 1942, just after my eighteenth birthday, I enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). I felt I had to do something about the war which had engulfed the Pacific including my homeland. The Japanese, having conquered most of Southeast Asia, were now pushing southwards towards Australia. I was sent to Bonegilla Camp near the border town of Albury between Victoria and New South Wales for initial training. Post war this camp was used to house migrants from Europe, principally Italians and Greeks. We trained on the 18 pounder guns from World War One. There was a shortage of 25 pounders which were an improved model. (18 and 25 pounders refer to the weight of the shots which were fired.)
We were gradually toughened up with route marches and towards the end of our training I could complete a 25 mile route march in a day with a full pack on my back. Included in our training was swimming across a river. In our case it was the Murray River just below the Hume Weir dam. The water was cold as it was winter time and the river fast flowing. There were two men to a team. You laid a waterproof ground sheet on the ground. Then you placed two rifles lengthwise about 10 to 12 inches apart on the ground sheet. The two shoulder packs were placed on top of the rifles and the sides of the ground sheet lifted up and folded around the rifles and back packs and tied down. A second ground sheet would be used to wrap the bundle from the top, forming a waterproof bundle which could float on the water. The two men on the team would hang on the bundle and paddle across the river, whether they could swim or not. We did suffer one drowning fatality during these training exercises.
Advanced training was carried out at the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. There, we were equipped with new 25 pounders, ammunition trailers and back-up ammunition. Mobility was one of the best attributes of the 25 pounders; so we were constantly setting up gun emplacements, stockpiling ammunition, putting up camouflage nets and reversing the process when moving out to a new position. Ammunition was packed in metal boxes with four shells to a box. This meant that each box weighed just over 100 lbs. As my body weight at that time was just 126 lbs, it required quite a bit of effort on my part to carry the box. But with constant practice I learned to handle it.
Even as I trained, Australia had been under threat of sea invasion since early 1942, but at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, the US Navy and Australian Air Forces dispersed a Japanese invasion fleet headed for Australia.
On completion of my training, I was assigned to the 2/5th Field Regiment, 7th Division, AIF, and embarked with them in September from Cairns for the coastal town of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Our Regiment had distinguished itself the year before in North Africa fighting in Tobruk and El-Alamein. In fact one of its members, Roden Cutler, had won a Victoria Cross in North Africa, the only Australian artilleryman to do so. He was later knighted and served fifteen years as Governor of New South Wales.
A mountain range, the Owen Stanley Range, extends from the east to the west dividing PNG into well-defined north and south sectors. In the north sector, the Japanese land forces were far from defeated. They had already occupied the towns of Lae and Salamaua. From there in July 1942 they had sent forces southwards to land at the village of Gona at the northern end of the Kokoda Trail, a narrow trail that wound its way across the 13,000 foot Owen Stanley Range leading southwestwards towards Port Moresby. The implications were chilling. If the Japanese ever took Port Moresby they would have a springboard from which to attack the Australian mainland just 300 miles to the south.
From Port Moresby we were deployed further east to defend Milne Bay on the eastern tip of PNG where the Japanese had also landed troops in an attempt to seize the airfield there. If they had succeeded they could have a chance to outflank the Australian defenders at Port Moresby. Fortunately, on the Kokoda Trail, after two months of fierce fighting, the Australians managed to halt the Japanese advance to within 30 miles of Port Moresby and gradually pushed them northwards and into the sea. After this the Americans joined in the fight and used PNG as a base for their planes. At Milne Bay the Australians chalked up the first major land success in the Pacific War against the Japanese, a feat that helped raised the morale of Allied forces elsewhere.
The Australians designed a short 25 pounder for the New Guinea operations. The barrel was shortened and the gun broken into five or six pieces which could be separately parachuted into a battle zone. The gunners would parachute down with these gun components, collect and assemble the pieces and be ready for action in a relatively short time. The 2/4th and our 2/5th Field Regiments trained on this new gun but the 2/4th got the honour of going into action in this fashion at the battle at Markham Valley to retake Lae and Salamaua.
I served in New Guinea for nearly two years during which the Japanese forces in the Pacific were gradually whittled down in many fierce battles in the Western Pacific and the tide finally turned against them. At Milne Bay our units were bombed on occasion by Japanese planes flying in from their bases at Rabaul in New Britain and at Bougainville in the western Solomons.
In Milne Bay there are some copra plantations. For many years after the war you could see the coconut palms standing stark and erect but without tops. How did this come about? Well, during the New Guinea campaign, Japanese snipers hid in the tops of coconut palms and shot at Australian troops. The Australian Air Force was asked to help. They had a specifically designed two-engined fighter called the Beaufighter which was nicknamed "Whispering Death" because the engines were relatively quiet. This fighter had six wing-mounted machine guns and four cannons under the fuselage nose, which proved deadly in strafing operations. The pilots would fly back and forth at tree top height with machine guns blazing. This quickly disposed of the Japanese snipers but in the process many coconut palms were unavoidably beheaded!
In 1944, I applied for and was accepted as an officer in the Intelligence Unit just prior to the 2/5th Field Regiment moving to Borneo. The Intelligence Unit went by the name of Allied Geographical Section (AGS). It was based in Brisbane and was attached to G2, which in turn was part of General MacArthurís Headquarters. The principal function at AGS was photo-interpretation and intelligence briefing for the troops on invasion destinations.
However, two weeks after arrival at Brisbane, I collapsed at a tram stop and woke up at Redfern Military Hospital where I was diagnosed with malignant tertiary malaria. The insidious hazards of my New Guinea tour of duty had finally caught up with me! I had neglected on occasion to take my anti-malarial tablets in PNG. It was four weeks before I was discharged to resume my duties. The war was by now going well for the Allies in the Pacific and the American Commander General MacArthur was slowly tightening the noose around Japan, bypassing or liberating conquered territories one island at a time.
Soon after Manila was recaptured in March 1945, AGS was moved there on the heels of General MacArthur. We camped around the Santa Ana racecourse in the centre of which was a small prison holding Japanese prisoners awaiting interrogation. As intelligence officers, we were privy to the latest reconnaissance photographs flown directly to us from the shrinking front lines by the US Air Force who now ruled the skies. In early August 1945, we became the first in the world to see and assess the aerial photos of the devastation caused by the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was dumbfounded at the unbelievable destruction wrought by these strange new weapons. These photos would eventually be published around the world and become the icons of a fearful nuclear age. I was in Manila when Japan finally surrendered. Soon after I returned to Melbourne where I was promoted to sergeant. I was only 21 years of age.
In Melbourne, I applied for a scholarship to pursue a commerce course at Melbourne University under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Medicine was now out of the question because of my wasted years. I also applied for admittance to Melbourne University. I was successful in both endeavours. After getting a discharge from the army in December 1945, I was able to begin my university course without any assistance from my parents.
Chang Sow Khong stayed on in Australia upon graduation to gain experience and eventually returned to Malaya in 1952. He worked in various positions in the banking industry including Bank Negara Malaysia and served on the Board of Governors of Pasar Road School. An accomplished golfer, he was Captain of the Royal Selangor Golf Club and was non-playing Captain of the victorious Malaysian team at the 1966 South East Asian Amateur Golf Team Championship for the Putra Trophy in Thailand. He is now retired in Melbourne and still enjoys the occasional game of golf.
UPDATE - 1
Old Victorian Yee Sek Kum was so moved by Chang Sow Khong's above memoirs that he and several Old Boys and an Old Girl and their spouses met with and honoured the Old Soldier at a Melbourne restaurant on October 19, 2005.
Standing: 1964 School Capt Phua Juay Chee, Yee Sek Kum, Ho Yik Chee, Margaret Chee, Sylvia Yee, Chee Yue Poy, Marie Wong
Seated: Irene Choo, Chooi-Hon Ho, Chang Sow Khong, 1960 School Capt Choo Min Hsiung, Wong Cheng Lim.
UPDATE - 2
The following email was received on February 15, 2006:
Dear Mr. Chee Min,
While searching on the internet for the name Boissevain I came upon this incredible story of Chang Sow Khong. I now know (just more than 60 years later !!) that I have to be grateful to Mr. Sow Khong for his efforts to fight against the Japanese invaders.
In very short: together with my mother, two brothers and one sister I stayed in different concentration-camps on the island of Java (former Dutch East Indies) during the years 1942-1946. At the start of the Japanese invasion my father was taken prisoner and excecuted (on the island of Celebes). On the 19th of January 1946 we boarded m. v. Boissevain in the port of Tandjung Priok (former Batavia, now Jakarta) as former Internees. At that time I was a 10 year old boy. On board m. v. Boissevain also were taken released Allied Prisoners of War. Port of destination was Amsterdam (arriving date 16-02-1946, that will be exactly 60 years ago by to-morrow!).
Wishing you and, of course, Mr. Sow Khong all the best,
Abraham Jansen (retired marine-engineer)
UPDATE - 3
Chang Sow Khong (centre) with the veterans in the Anzac Day parade in Melbourne on April 25, 2006.
UPDATE - 4
Chang Sow Khong passed away in Melbourne on April 29, 2009. His last contact with ex-Victorians was when he attended the VIOS Reunion in Melbourne the previous year in October.
Last update: May 1, 2009.
Pagekeeper: Chung Chee Min