The Dunera Boys

The New South Wales outback town of Hay became a hive of activity during the Second World War when the government of the day commissioned a prisoner of war camp to be built there.

The criteria for a POW camp needed to be followed:-

1. It had to be built on an area that was flat.
2. It had to be built far from the coast
3. It had to have roads and a railway leading to it
4. It had to be built on a soil that wasn’t sandy, so that tunnels couldn’t be dug.

The isolated NSW town of Hay fitted the bill perfectly. Three camps were built numbered 6, 7 and 8, plus a camp for the Australian 16th Batallion which was made up of mainly WW1 veterans.

The British Government secretly shipped out European Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 to Australia, having originally told them they would be going to Canada. They arrived on board the transport ship ‘Dunera’, and it was claimed, by the authorities, that these men were ‘enemy aliens’. They were, in fact, German and Austrian Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazis. They were mostly professionals and had feared for their lives in their home countries and were seeking a safe refuge in England.

Two kilometres out of Cowra, NSW, a POW Camp was built to hold incoming prisoners of war: Japanese soldiers captured in Borneo and New Guinea, Italians captured in North Africa, Indonesians who were activists against the Dutch, not actually prisoners of war, but political prisoners who were eventually freed and allowed to settle elsewhere in Australia. Read more …

These refugees were the first arrivals at the camp, but were shortly followed by Italian and Japanese internees: Men who had lived and worked in Australia, but because of the war were now considered to be of ‘suspicious origin’ and not to be trusted. They were rounded up and packed off to Hay. At a later stage Italian prisoners from the Africa campaign joined them, as did Japanese POWs. All in all, approximately 2000 Jews, 2000 Italians and 3000 Japanese spent time at Hay during the war years.

Australian army policy was to keep them active and in high spirits in order to maintain a healthy and relatively peaceful camp. Each group was encouraged to govern themselves and to deal with internal squabbles, which they did. The Italians worked on neighbouring farms and were given a suprising amount of freedom. They were able to mingle with locals and many of the wooden toys they made in their leisure time were given away to local children.

The Jewish internees started a farm specifically to address the problem of providing kosher food. They worked to make the farm self sufficient and in the 10 months from 1st July 1943 to 30th April 1944 they provided 1 million pounds of vegetables, 41,000 gallons of milk and 1.2 million hen’s eggs, plus cotton and wheat. In the winter of 1943, 10 acres of camp farmland produced 1,700lbs of shelled peas per acre. All produce that wasn’t needed for the camp was sent off to sustain other areas. An incredible effort to help boost Australia’s wartime economy.

They also organised university style lectures, soccer teams and a theatre group. They printed their own newspaper and their own scripts.

The Japanese held theatrical concerts, often celebrating Japanese National Holidays. A lot of the Japanese internees had been working in Broome or Thursday Island as pearl divers, and one of these men was asked to help recover the body of a young local girl who had drowned in the Murrumbidgee River. These internees were eventually sent to Japan after the war had ended. A huge oversight on the part of the government, as many of them had never been to Japan and a lot of them didn’t speak the language. They were in fact Australian born. Japanese POW numbers were boosted in 1944 when some of the escapees from the Cowra Breakout [Cowra] were relocated to Hay. By then a lot of the Italians had left, having been moved on.

A lot of the Jewish internees were also moved. Some into the cities to help in the tailoring industry and translating etc., some of them joined the Australian Army, in an unarmed capacity, working mainly in ordnance and supply as members of the 8th Australian Employment company. After the war, many elected to stay on in Australia.

An Italian soldier Lt. Edgardo Simone was the only person to escape from Hay. As a soldier he thought it his duty to try to escape, and he did try – frequently. However; if he was taken outside the camp for work and the guards asked for a promise that he wouldn’t try to escape them, he always kept his word. On his successful escape, he worked his way along the Murrumbidgee River down to Melbourne where he found work as a salesman. He was so successful he even won a ‘salesman of the month’ award before being spotted by an alert policeman and returned to the military. Years later he returned to Hay intending to follow the exact route he had taken on his escape, however he found the going much too difficult due to recent rains having made the vegetation too thick to negotiate, and when he spotted a distant farmhouse he made his way there and decided not to continue any further.

The internment camps have now been dismantled, but remain part of Australia’s history. The rusting ‘Dunera’, was scuttled and sunk at sea.

A museum has been set up at Hay in a couple of railways carriages at the now unused railway station telling the story.

The Dunera Boys who remained in Australia after the war now hold annual reunions at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, where there is a memorial plaque mounted outside.

The story of the Dunera Boys is heralded as a successful immigration story with many of those staying on in Australia after the war becoming notable politicians, artists and businessmen, including a Nobel prize winner, all of them now proud Aussies.

Val and George

© Val and George

Sources and Further Reading

Personal notes from trip to museum

A Legend Down Under