Aorangi and the Fall of Singapore

t2992aorangiAs bombs rained down, making the air black with choking gunpowder, smoke, and shrapnel, Singapore the “Gibraltar of the East” tottered on the brink. Then on the 15th of February 1942 – 75 years ago today – the unimaginable happened and Singapore fell to the marauding Japanese. It was the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. About 80,000 British, Indian, and Australian troops became prisoners of war. Each was a loved member of a family, and with a different story to tell. Australia itself was now at the mercy of the winds of war.

Lin Barclay was the youngest of five brothers to enlist in the Australian Army. He was only 18 so lied and added 3 years to his age so he’d be posted overseas. Three days after he’d signed up, his brother Arthur was killed in action in Greece. Lin was sent to Singapore with the 4th Anti Tank Regiment, and in late January 1942 as the Japanese Imperial Army sliced down the Malayan peninsula, fate gave her gentle smile. Lin became gravely ill and was returned to Australia. A fortnight later, the Australians had their backs to the wall and the Battle of Singapore began.

In the mad rush to board ships crammed into Singapore Harbour, Sid “Snow” Missen kissed his wife Paula farewell, and tightly hugged his children John, aged 3, and daughter Rose-Maree, a babe in arms. He was the underground mine manager with the Australian Gold Mining Company in Pahang, and had decided to stay to face the enemy. He’d joined the 4th Pahang Battalion, Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, and didn’t know if he’d ever see his family again. The ship Aorangi (pictured) slipped out of Singapore with a large number of women and children being evacuated to Australia. The island state was then coming under heavy attack. Neither Sidney’s date nor location of death is certain. The National Archives in the United Kingdom says, “Last seen at Rengat, Sumatra. Presumed killed 19.2.42 Sumatra.” But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records merely state between 3rd September 1939 and 31st December 1947. Because 1947 is outside the date range stipulated by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Sid is not acknowledged in their records.

The battle was in full cry when Sister Vera Torney was among 2,154 civilians, nurses, and RAF, crammed aboard the the frozen meat cooler cargo vessel Empire Star, three days before the fall. The ship was normally meant to carry just 20 passengers. Yes, twenty. The Empire Star came under heavy attack and received three direct hits. During one of the raids, Vera came on deck to attend to the wounded, and shielded her patients by covering them with her own body. She was later appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her actions. Other nurses also attached to the 13th Australian General Hospital, who were aboard another ship, were not so lucky. They became victims of the Japanese in the infamous Banka Island Massacre.

Hec Graham was engaged to be married to Val when he left for Singapore. He was only 19 and added 2 years to his age so he could go overseas. He was there for the Fall of Singapore on the 15th of February, and as a private with the 2/9 Field Ambulance, was taken prisoner. Six years later as the war was coming to a close in 1945, his life ended, probably executed by the Japanese following the first Sandakan death march. He never did marry Val.

On this landmark memorial day of the Fall of Singapore, Lin, Sid, Vera, and Hec, each with different stories, are all remembered as heroes. They are also all members of my family. Three years after the war ended, the ship Aorangi – the same vessel that evacuated Sid’s family to safety – eerily played another fateful role. She transported dad to America in 1948, which was a trip that shaped the rest of his life.

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