Alex White was working on a property outside Bowral when he decided to enlist. “I’d been cutting firewood when the boss asked me to stop what I was doing and trim the pine trees. I told him ‘No’, that I was off to join the Army.”
Alex “Snow” White travelled up to Sydney and enlisted on 17 September 1941, the day before his 20th birthday. Then he was off to Dubbo Army Camp for training.
Wayne Dowsett's portrait of Alex White
“We did a hell of a lot of training. I was one of 40 ‘tough guys’ who they picked out. We weren’t just learning to march. We were learning how to build timber bridges and how to place explosives to blow them up.
“We trained in hand-to-hand combat. We had a 40 minute session with each instructor. When you did a 40 minute spell with the bayonet instructor you really knew it. We had two dummies stuffed with straw, one laying down and one hanging up. It was in and out, in and out with the bayonet, three or four times.”
Alex was transferred to Sydney and placed in the 2nd/19th Battalion. “We travelled in a big steamboat to Sumatra and then by cattle boats up a little stream south of Sumatra to Singapore. The day we arrived in Singapore harbour was the only day the Japanese weren’t bombing it.”
“Next we took a train from Singapore to Malaya. We were ambushed from overhead by an American plane. They didn’t realise there were Australians on board. They were firing at us with machine guns.”
“That was my introduction to the war. Ducking and weaving among the rubber trees trying to avoid the American fire.”
Alex was placed in the 2nd/19th Battalion C-Company. The company was known as “The Pioneer Platoon”. They were the first to enter enemy terrain – building walking bridges for the battalion to cross – and the last to leave, blowing up the bridges to prevent the Japanese from accessing them.
“We were fighting on the swampy west coast of Singapore. We spent half the time up to our necks in swamps. We were still fighting when the Pommies surrendered.”
On 15 February 1942, Alex White became a Japanese prisoner of war. “First they put us in Changi and then so many camps after that.”
Alex White with his fellow prisoners of war
Alex has stark memories of a time in camp. “A young girl, about eight years old, would sneak eggs and things under the wire. One day she was coming through the barbed wire with cigarettes and eggs for the prisoners when one of the Korean guards shot her. The camp rioted.”
Alex was one of the prisoners sent to work on the Burma railway. “It is a hell of a long way from Burma to Bangkok and it is bloody hot.”
“The Japanese would give you a job to do, like digging a hole. If someone refused to work, the Japanese would belt you all under the ear. The treatment you got depended on the unit you were in. The 12th/19th Battalion was a top quality unit, we did the work and got on well.
“We helped each other out. As we marched, we had to count from one to 20 in Japanese. If you made a mistake, the guards would flog you with a bamboo stick. We put the guys who could count in Japanese on the outside, and if we did an about turn those guys would run around so they would be on the outside again.”
(Alex can still count to 20 in Japanese.)
Alex White's prison hut in the Tamuang, Thailand camp along the Burma-Siam Railway
Alex spent more than three years as a prisoner of war.
“When we had done all the work that the Japanese wanted us to do, they were going to execute the POWs and destroy all the camps. But after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the Japanese surrendered and we were saved.”
From the date of the surrender on 15 August 1945, it was another four or more weeks before the POWs were well enough to return to Australia. “We were brought back to Singapore to be fed up. We were really thin, only 35 or 40 kilograms. They didn’t want to jeopardise our health transporting us like that. For the first three weeks, we had no solid foods.”
Once he was deemed fit enough, Alex travelled home to Australia aboard an English freighter. “We had a great time coming back. The thing that has really stayed in my memory was my first sight of Australia in over five years. Coming through the Sydney heads, I knew I had made it.”
“The hard training and the time we had in the war made us tough. It made us better able to survive back in Australia.”