Bob Miller was born in Broomehill, Western Australia on 1 December 1916. At a young age he lost both parents. His father had decided that he would be educated at a Catholic College Aquinas, although he attended church at St George's Cathedral.
In the early 1930s Bob became a merchant seaman. When war broke out in 1939 he tried to enlist in the RAAF, but, when his enlistment was delayed he joined the RANVR. He was one of 20 ratings from Australia (4 from each State) chosen to travel to England to undertake Officer Training. Prior to leaving Australia he met Nancy Pearson and they married.
After arrival in Scotland, he was moved to Portsmouth with the aim of moving to HMS King Alfred, at Hove near Brighton, to do his Officer Training. The training was interrupted by events involving the war, as the trainees were required to do fire fighting and other community support work. He tired of waiting and when the opportunity of crewing four new small craft for the Royal Navy in Singapore, he took the opportunity to get closer to home. It was agreed by the Australian authorities that he would complete his Officer Training at Flinders Naval Depot.
The ships which were crewed were wooden hulled vessels (see left) and Bob's ship had the identification ML 432. Prior to the fall of Singapore the ship repeatedly moved up the west coast of Malaya collecting stranded soldiers and moving them back to Singapore. The ship also ventured into the Johore Straits. This resulted in the ship being fired on by the Japs with the hull being holed and one engine being disabled. Around 11 February the crew of his ship was tasked to assist civilians boarding ships for evacuation from Singapore. On one occasion Bob was assisting a mother to board with her children. He was carrying a baby at the time when a bombing raid occurred of the wharf. Every one went for cover. When the raid was over Bob was unable to locate the mother. He asked other women to take the child without success. In desperation, he gave the child to the ship's Purser. Whether there was ever a reunion of mother and babe is not known.
On Friday 13 February the ship was told to evacuate some soldiers from Singapore. There were two officers of board and Bob was the coxswain. At 2200 hours the ship moved off. The harbour was lit by oil tank fires on either side of the harbour whilst the whole area was shrouded in smoke. Suddenly ML 432 rose in the bow throwing all to the deck. The vessel had ridden up the stern of a Royal Navy tug, suffering damage to it's bow at the same time.
There were many craft of varied classes in the Durien Straits. A Japanese spotter plane flew over the Straits. Later aircraft bombed and sank most of the water craft and then machine gunned survivors in the water.
In the early morning of 18 February, in the vicinity of Banka Island they sighted a large vessel which they assumed to be a Dutch Cruiser which they thought they were to rendezvous with. They signalled the larger ship. But, it's response was to fire two 6-8 inch shells at them. It was a Japanese cruiser. The first shot passed over the ship, but, the second landed on the near side and the concussion sprang the wooden planking of ML 432. They beached the ship and the crew and evacuees (12 Royal Navy and 55 Army) became Prisoners of War. - Reference "The Story of Changi -Singapore" by Captain David Nelson SSVF p231.
The survivors were then locked in a big hall. The Japs took some away and it seems they were interrogated and shot. Later the Japs used the survivors to bring stores ashore. Provision of food to the POWs was very scanty.
Later they were shifted to Palembang on Sumatra. Initialled they were quartered in the Chungwah School house and then built a camp to accommodate Dutch, British and Australian POWs. They then worked on extending an airfield. (See picture left of an attap hut, with bamboo frames). (Prior to the Allied capitulation there had been two airstrips in the vicinity of Palembang - P1 and P2. The POWs were possibly working on one of these).
Food was rationed to the camp on the basis of rice for every POW who passed the main gate on a working party. The total ration was then shared between all in the camp, including the sick. However, the supply of food was quite irregular and at one stage they only received corn. The corn, even when cooked for extended periods, was so tough that it could not be eaten and had then to be ground to a powder. On another occasion they were given dried tapioca. Occasionally they were given fish on the basis of 3 to 4 kilo of fish for 800 men.
There was no Medical Officer in the camp. However, there was a RAMC Corporal Felton in the camp. He worked wonders with limited medical supplies. He even had to do amputations without anaesthetic. Felton improvised his treatment of the men for a complaint which in Singapore was called "Bukit Timah Balls". This was a vitamin deficiency disease where the testicles became inflamed and the surrounding area red and very sore with a pussy discharge. The improvised treatment was to split a large bamboo and mount it on a bamboo trestle at about "Bum" height. The bamboo trough which was formed, was filled with artesian bore water and the men straddled the bamboo trough. They gained relief and the artesian bore water apparently had some medicinal qualities and the complaint cleared up. (If only they had a camera. However, see artwork below!) Men also chewed a tree bark and ate charcoal to treat some complaints.
(I am indebted to Fred Ransome Smith (Formerly Lt Fred "Smugder" Smith of 5th Suffolk Regiment and a POW), age 91 years, who has produced this depiction of Corporal (RAMC) Felton's improvised treatment for Scrotal Dermatitis. Fred has produced two books of his drawings showing conditions on the Burma Thailand Railway. He is currently working on a "Book of Horrors")
The officer in charge of the camp was a Royal Navy officer Commander Reid, who ran the camp along the lines of a naval barracks. There were a number of HMAS Perth men in the camp. They were Max Jagger, Ben Chaffey, Stan Roberts, Tag Wallace, Shorty Pascoe and Joe Hurst.
Frequently the men were required to carry stores for the Japs from the river to the camp. On of the worst tasks was carrying cement. Often the bags were split and the cement powder burnt the men's backs. The sick formed the burial parties. Such burials were effected in very shallow graves.
Relations between the various nationalities were less than harmonious. At one stage the camp was bombed and a crater, which filled with water, became the source of water for washing themselves.
In 1945 there were 4/5 deaths each day. The inmates were simply worn out. Few had any clothes and most suffered from malaria, beriberi, ringworms, dysentery and numerous other complaints.
The period from 13 August 1945 is best illustrated by the words recorded in Bob Miller's diary (in pencil with small writing).
The pilot who flew the men to Singapore signed an occupation force currency note issued by the Japanese and recorded his name, address and a good luck message. (Note the date 19 September 1945).
Subsequently, Bob returned to Australia on the Highland Chieftain. On the voyage from Singapore to Sydney via Darwin he put on 12-15 lbs. Whilst in Darwin he sent a telegram to his wife. Finally, when in Sydney he and Joe Hurst approached the RAF and managed to get on a flight to Perth departing at 4 AM the next day. They slept on the floor of the RAF office to ensure they did not miss the flight.
Bob Miller was discharged from the Royal Australian Navy (RANVR) on 14 February 1946.
(This sketch, probably drawn around August/September 1945 in a camp called "Sungi Ron", shows Bob Miller (right) and Corporal Ernest Alfred Yeatman 2/20 Battalion 8th Australian Division. The Artist was a British serviceman Rex Spencer. The caption reads- "depicting all the luxuries/necessities they did not enjoy whilst in captivity").
Article written by Lt Col Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (JP) following doing a video interview with Bob Miller at his home near Mandurah in Western Australia April 2007.