Many times over the years as I have worked on this wonderful Taiwan POW project, people have asked if I had any family connections to the Far East POWs, if I had any relatives who were prisoners of war, and why I was doing so much to try to tell their story. I always replied that I did not have any relatives who were Far East POWs, and that all my relatives were involved in the war in Europe - as most of the Canadian servicemen were.
The reason why I work so hard at telling the FEPOWs story is because as a young boy I found out that I had a number of uncles who had been in the First and Second World Wars and they - and all the veterans, deserve to be honoured and remembered. Several were on the Western Front in the trenches and also at Galipoli in WWI. One uncle died at the battle of the Somme and another died in the Middle East after being awarded a military cross. Several more were involved in the Second World War as well, including one who died at Normandy on D-Day, and all through those early years I was grateful to them for their service and sacrifice for my freedom. I determined way back then that someday I would do something “tangible” to really say thanks to the veterans for all they have done for us.
So in 1996 when we discovered the story of the Kinkaseki POW Camp I knew this was my chance to do something to honour and remember the men who had suffered as POWs on Taiwan those many years ago. I became involved with the POW work for the next few years, and then in 2000, while doing some research on my family tree on my mother’s side with the help of a cousin in Canada, I got a real surprise, I found out that in fact I did have a family connection to the FEPOWs after all. Here’s how -
My mother’s family - surnamed Cobon, came from Norfolk in England, and like every family tree, had branches of relatives seemingly everywhere. While some members emigrated to Canada in the late 1800’s, one of my grandfather’s uncles emigrated to Australia in 1876 and settled in the northern state of Queensland.
As I checked this out further I received some correspondence from a distant uncle in Brisbane who supplied me with a complete chart of the Aussie portion of the family tree. Listed over to one side on one of the pages was the notation “John and Burke Cobon – twin brothers, died as POWs”. I was immediately interested in who this was and their story, and after talking with the family and doing a lot more research, I was finally able to piece the story together.
It turns out that my mother had two twin cousins - John James Cobon and Temple Burkitt Cobon, born in 1918, who volunteered in 1940 with the 2/10th Field Reg’t. R.A.A. at the start of the war. After training, they were part of the 22nd Brigade, 8th Division AIF which was sent to Singapore in February 1941. They took part in the battle for Malaya and Singapore - always staying together, and finally were taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. Within several months they were sent to Burma as part of “A” Force to work on that end of the infamous Death Railway. They worked their way down the line, as part of the main track-laying party and finally finished up at Tha Makam in Thailand where the main bridge over the Kwai River was built. During all this time they managed to stay together and looked out for each other. Their mates said they were “inseparable”.
Following the completion of the Railway, the twin brothers were sent back to Singapore in June 1944, and in early September were put on the hellship Rakuyo Maru for transportation to Japan. On September 12th while making its way through the South China Sea, the Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed and sunk by the American submarine USS Sealion II and 1,159 POWs were lost when the Japanese left them to die. One can read accounts of this terrible tragedy in several books, among those the excellent book by Don Wall titled “Heroes at Sea”. There are also many references on the internet.
Australian POWs laying track n Burma.
The story has been related by some of the survivors that after the sinking of the ship John was spotted in the water floating on some wreckage and was invited by his mates to join a larger raft where he would be safer, but he replied that he couldn’t as he had to find his brother. Neither were ever seen or heard of again! They were only 26 years old when they died.
My relatives in Australia sent me the photograph of my distant uncles (pictured below) who are remembered on Panel 2 of the Memorial in the Labuan War Cemetery in Sabah Malaysia, formerly North Borneo.
REMEMBERING. . .
There’s still a bit more to the story however, and I’d like to share a little of what’s been done to remember “the boys” as they are affectionately remembered by the family.
In 2006 when the World War II Hellships Memorial was dedicated at Subic Bay in the Philippines, I was privileged to be able to attend that event and also take a short ride out on Olongapo Bay in a banca boat with a group of other POW family members who had lost relatives on the hellships, to lay flowers on the water in memory of those who died. So in addition to being remembered on the Labuan Memorial, they are also honoured at the WWII Hellships Memorial.
Laying flowers on the waters of Olongapo Bay for the POWs. The World War II Hellships Memorial, Subic Bay, P.I.
Then in February 2009 I took a trip to Thailand to visit my good friend and fellow historian Rod Beattie at the Thai-Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi near the Bridge on the River Kwai. As always whenever I visit Rod, we spend a day or so up country exploring the Railway like a pair of Indiana Jones’s which is always an enjoyable experience. I had been telling Rod about my uncles prior to my visit so he got the idea to show me some of the places where they would have laboured while on the Railway.
We drove north up towards the Burma border and at one point Rod pulled the Land Rover off the road into a tapioca plantation that had just been harvested. The old bed of the Railway could be clearly observed running across the field where we stood and Rod pointed out that this would have been the area where the boys worked as part of that track-laying squad. Then he got his metal detector out of the back of the vehicle and began to scan the ground. Pretty soon we heard a loud “beep” and began to dig. It didn’t take long to unearth several railway spikes that had formerly held the track in place. Rod picked up a couple and handed them to me and said, “who knows, but maybe your cousins drove these very spikes”. I was humbled and thankful to be in this place where they had been those many years ago. We dug up a few more spikes and later after returning home I sent two to my uncle in Brisbane for the family. He has since mounted them in a lovely shadow box display which will stay in the family for generations to come in memory of John and Burke.
Rod Beattie digging for rail spikes. The location of one of the POW camps where the Cobon brothers stayed.
Rod and I continued our journey further up-country stopping at various places where the No. 1 Track-Laying Group worked and at the locations of their former camps along the line as they moved southward laying track towards the north-bound force moving up from Thailand. I believe I experienced the same feelings that our POW guests and their families have when they visit Taiwan and I take them to the areas where they were more than 60 years ago as well.
My uncle has also told me that there is a beautiful memorial to the men who had attended the local school in Brisbane and gave their lives in the service of their country, and John and Burke’s names are on that memorial as well.
Memorial to the Cobon brothers and their schoolmates who made the supreme sacrifice for their country.
Finally, I received some photos of my uncles’ names on the Memorial at the Labuan War Cemetery courtesy of my friend Tony Buckley, who has photographed thousands of war graves in Asia.
(Above) The Labuan War Cemetery and Memorial
(Right) The Cobon brothers' names on the Labuan Memorial
(Left) John and Burke's names on the memorial wall at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
EPILOGUE: In July 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my Australian relatives living in the Brisbane area, especially an uncle who is the brother of the Cobon twins, and I was able to learn more about them. There is a lovely framed tribute to the "boys" in my uncle's home. They are certainly not forgotten by their loved ones!
So I DO have a very personal relationship to some FEPOWs after all, and I want to continue to do all I can to make sure that their story - and that of all the former POWs, is told and that they are Never Forgotten!