Australian civilian internees of the Japanese
Christina Twomey is Senior Lecturer in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University in Melbourne. Dr Twomey was the 2004 winner of the National Archives' Margaret George Award for her research into the experiences of Australian civilians interned by the Japanese in World War II.
The Civilian Internees Trust Fund
In 1952 the Menzies Government established the Civilian Internees Trust Fund, which was created by the sale of frozen Japanese assets in Australia. Former internees of the Japanese, or the dependants of those who died as a result of internment, were eligible to claim a cash grant from this fund. Applicants were required to fill in forms detailing their biographical details and those of their dependants. Migrants to Australia were required to give details of their arrival dates and the names of the ships they travelled on.
Some internees confined themselves to the form, while others entered into correspondence with the secretary of the fund. Their letters are often poignant discussions of their experiences of captivity. Approximately 360 applications were made to the fund by former internees or their dependants. Records containing these applications can be found on RecordSearch, the National Archives’ online records database, by using the internees’ or the dependants’ names as keywords. A table listing recording agencies and series of interest to researchers in this field is included at the end of this article.
Enemy property claims files
Records held by the National Archives cover both the frozen assets of Japanese interned in Australia during the war and compensation claims for war damages made by Australian civilians interned by the Japanese.
The compensation claims relate to property lost, damaged or destroyed in Japanese-occupied territories throughout World War II. Most applicants were to be disappointed, because the peace treaty negotiated with Japan did not include provision for compensation to internees. Australian civilians interned in Thailand, however, often received substantial sums because a separate peace treaty was negotiated with the Thai Government.
Although these files are ostensibly about financial matters, in their correspondence claimants sometimes discuss internment and their feelings and frustrations about their losses and sacrifice. Some files are merely balance sheets of financial losses, but contain valuable information for family historians about assets; other records contain extensive correspondence.
The National Archives Reference Service should be contacted for information about locating specific records about individuals.
Key government departments
Australian civilians detained overseas during World War II came to the attention, and were the concern, of many different Australian Government departments. Early on in the war an exchange of civilian internees occurred between Japan and Australia, while the International Red Cross, representatives of neutral countries and other agencies monitored the condition of remaining internees as far as they were able and reported on them to the Australian Government. Concerned relatives and support associations wrote to government departments inquiring after their loved ones.
At war’s end, internees had to be located, deaths accounted for, survivors debriefed, relief and repatriation arranged, and accommodation found in Australia for those without friends and family. Lists of recovered internees were prepared and these often recorded family details, dates of birth, religious affiliation and other particulars about internees. These diverse activities, both during the war and immediately afterwards, cut across a range of government departments, including Territories, External Affairs, Defence, the Army and Social Services, as well as the Attorney-General’s Department. The National Archives holds records created by these departments containing material relating to civilian internees.
Australian internees also came to the attention of agencies such as the Australian Legation in China and the Australian High Commission in the United Kingdom. The files of the Australian Legation are particularly rich, because immediately following the cessation of hostilities Australian government representatives visited internees in camps and set up hostel accommodation for them upon their release. An especially diligent Australian Army officer in Shanghai drew up very complete and extensive lists of internees held there.
Information on internees captured in Australia’s external territories is particularly detailed. Australian internees who were members of the New Guinea Public Service had personnel files. Almost 200 Australian male internees from New Guinea perished when the Montevideo Maru, which was transporting them to the Philippines, was torpedoed by an American submarine in 1942. Most Australian women and children in New Guinea were evacuated prior to the invasion; the National Archives holds evacuee records for them, which can be located with the assistance of the National Archives Reference Service.
The widows and dependants of men who died during internment were eventually eligible to receive the New Guinea civilian war pension, and there are files relating to the administration of individual pensions. Widows and dependants were also able to claim monetary compensation from the Civilian Internees Trust Fund, and records of these claims are an excellent complement to material available in the External Territories files. Those who had property lost or damaged in the territories were able to claim compensation from the War Damage Commission, and internees and their dependants also submitted claims to that agency.
Civilian internees were also the victims of war crimes and a few were the subject of intelligence investigations after the war, as in cases of suspected collaboration and people pursued for debts incurred to Swiss authorities while in internment camps. These matters are referred to in series dealing with war crimes and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which are held by the National Archives.
Key record series in the National Archives
The tables below list some of the main record series that deal with internees of the Japanese during World War II. Each table lists the records of one government agency.
The tables are linked to the National Archives collection database, RecordSearch. In RecordSearch you can locate more information about the records.