Prisoner of war's letters reveal longing for home and family
An Australian army slouch hat tumbling lazily down an Adelaide road is Peter Corey’s only clear memory of his father leaving for war.
“We were catching the tram into the city, and around about Nottage Terrace his hat blew off,” Mr Corey recalled.
“The conductor stopped the tram while dad raced back to get his hat. That’s about all I remember.”
Peter Corey was four at the time.
He would be almost eight years old — another whole life time — before he saw his father, staff Sergeant Jack Corey, again.
By contrast, Mr Corey’s memories of the day his dad came home are vivid.
“The platform at the station was crowded, but I actually picked him out on the train looking out the window as the train pulled in,” he said.
“I wanted to leave mum and run to him. I would have reached him and he would have picked me up and given me a good hug.”
Jack Corey was taken prisoner when Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942.
Britain’s then prime minister, Winston Churchill, described it as the “worst disaster and the greatest capitulation in British history”.
Along with tens of thousands of other allied soldiers — British, Indian and Australian — Jack Corey was sent to the notorious Changi prison.
Letters donated to Canberra’s War Memorial
It would be months before people back home learnt about their fate, according to the Australian War Memorial’s doctor Lachlan Grant.
“During the Second World War when 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war, they literally disappeared for three-and-a-half years,” Dr Grant said.
“The first mail delivery to the Australians in Changi arrived in March 1943, so that’s over 12 months after they’d been imprisoned.
“There was very little contact and, in some cases, no contact at all.”
But Jack Corey was one of the lucky ones and managed to maintain correspondence with his family back home.
Most of those letters are now with the War Memorial in Canberra.
Peter Corey recently gifted them to the institution because he feared for their future without expert care.
“If we’d kept them at home, they’d have just disintegrated,” he said.
While the pages are now fragile, the sentiments they convey are as clear and strong as they were 75 years ago.
In one letter, Jack Corey writes to his young son: “Your dad is quite lonely without you. Can you still climb? I would like to feel you climbing on my shoulders now.”
Through all his letters, Jack Corey weaves a common thread: writing of the little things that, in total, make a family life.
“It was his way of trying to keep a family life going and also boosting mum up. I think that was important to him,” Peter Corey said.
“He was very tender with his writing.”
Mr Corey asks whether his son is remembering to oil the wheels on his bike, whether he’s been having ice-cream and, of course, whether he is being good for his mother.
The soldier also sought to make his circumstances, both before and during Changi, more familiar to his worried loved ones.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of little boys and girls in this locality. They all play like you do, possibly some of the same games you play at,” Mr Corey wrote.
That speaks to a curious meshing of interests between the prisoners and their captors: neither the Japanese nor the Australians wanted the outside world to know of Changi’s conditions.
“The Japanese censored what the prisoners wrote, but there was a lot of self-censorship going on too,” Dr Grant said.
“At the end of the day they didn’t want their families back home worrying about them in their situation as well,. They wanted their families to think that they were fit and healthy, which was not the reality.”
Soldiers improvised to write to their families
Peter Corey said his family never knew what went on in Changi until they read Jack Corey’s diary after he returned to Australia.
“You know, I never recall him speaking about it either,” Mr Corey said.
While the soldiers needed to be cautious about what they wrote, they needed to be masters of improvisation when it came to what they wrote on, and indeed, with.
Pen and paper were in short supply.
“They had lead pencils that were, obviously, very prized assets and sometimes they’d write with bits of coal,” Dr Grant said.
“But it was paper that was in great shortage.
“They would make their own paper, so they’d use any kinds of scraps available … Changi was a civilian jail before the war, so they ended up using the back of all the prison records from the 1930s.”
Jack Corey always took special care in his letters to ask whether his son had received lots of Christmas presents and if he’d enjoyed unwrapping them.
But one Christmas in particular, the imprisoned soldier outdid himself and wrote a letter on the back of a label from a tin of Chinese-made jam.
The image on the front made it an obvious choice to delight a little boy.
“Dear Peter, this looks like a Chinese Father Christmas,” the letter said.
“I don’t know what the writing is, but it is most likely something about Christmas.”
Peter Corey said his father went on to live a happy life once the war ended and was re-united with his family.
Sadly though, it was not a long life. Jack Corey died in 1962, aged just 53.
Jack Corey remembered through great-grandson
Peter Corey believes one of his father’s stand-out features, apart from his beautiful letters, was his ability to live without carrying a grudge.
“He just got on with living,” he said.
“In one letter Dad wrote about talking with a Japanese guard.
“I think Dad showed him [the guard] my photo and he probably showed dad photos of his children.
“Dad said children are the same all over and you live on and you forget.”
It’s fitting then that Jack Corey — the man who forgave — is remembered through a child.
Peter Corey’s son married a Japanese woman and they live in Tokyo with their three children.
The oldest, a boy, is just about to celebrate his 11th birthday.
He’s called Jack, named for his great-grandfather.