My ancestors didn’t serve in Australia (or New Zealand's) military forces. My grandparents were of an age where they were too young for the first world war, too old for the second. I know of many people in my broader family tree who served, but none who lost their lives. My family seems to be remarkably fortunate in that its young men came home.
This doesn't mean that they, or their families, did not suffer hardship or were unaffected by the war. Let me tell you what I have learned about Uncle Jack.
Aircraftman Leonard John Couper Lee
Leonard John Couper “Jack” Lee was my grandfather’s younger brother. Having years earlier been rejected for service (“undersized”) he enlisted with the R.A.A.F as a trainee electrician on 29 November 1940 for “the duration of the War and a period of 12 months thereafter”. Training started two weeks later, on 16 December 1940. He passed his final course on 22 August 1941 and was listed as an Electrical Fitter. His course assessment noted that he was a "Good type - young and well mannered - good appearance and speaks well."
Uncle Jack left Perth for Malaya on 10 October 1941, arriving on 20 October 1941 in the role of ground crew for R.A.A.F. No. 1 Squadron. He would have barely had time to find his feet in a Unit where it was acknowledged that efficiency and training had slipped, due to an outbreak of dysentery, before the Pacific War began.
No. 1 Squadron was the first to see action in the Pacific, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 8 December 1841. The Squadron was forced to relocate from Kota Bharu, Malaya to Palembang, Sumatra, as Japanese forces advanced along the Malay peninsula, and again to Semplak, Java when Japanese paratroopers landed at Palembang.
Some of the Squadron were able to be evacuated, but 180 members remained.
After weeks of heavy bombing, and exhausting relocations, Uncle Jack was taken with the rest of his unit as a prisoner of war.
The Family’s Perspective
When Uncle Jack went to war, he left behind him parents, siblings, his extended family, and his young wife. What an anxious time it must have been, particularly as news of the treatment of Japanese prisoners of war filtered back to the Australian public.
I don’t know all the information the family may have had access to, but I do know they received the following communications, copied to his R.A.A.F. casualty file.
Reported Missing – new received 13 March 1942
This letter is to confirm the telegram from
this Department dated the 13th March, 1942, informing
you that your husband, Aircraftmen Class 1 L.J.Cooper Lee,
has been reported missing as a result of the invasion
of Java by the Japanese.
Although your husband has been reported
missing he is not necessarily killed or wounded and,
in view of this it may be of assistance to you in
your anxiety to know what action is taken to trace
missing members of the Air Force. I am, therefore,
forwarding herewith a leaflet which gives full
information concerning this matter. You will see
from the leaflet that any further information
received will be conveyed to you immediately.
I desire to extend to you the sincere
sympathy of the Department in the anxiety you are
Confirmed prisoner of war – news received 27 June 1943
I desire to confirm the telegram from this Department
dated 27th June, 1943, informing you that your husband,
Aircraftman Leonard John Cooper Lee, is a prisoner of war in
This information was received from the International
Red Cross Committee, Geneva, quoting Tokio information.
It is regretted that at present your husband’s
place of internment as a prisoner of war is not known in this
I am forwarding herewith a leaflet which has been
issued by the Australian Red Cross Society setting out the
procedure to be followed in sending communications to prisoners
of war in the Far East. Should you desire any further
information regarding the method of communicating with your
husband, it is suggested that you get in touch with the
Australian Red Cross Society, Spring Street, Melbourne, or
with any of its State bureaux.
Location determined – news received around end July 1943
I refer to previous communications concerning your husband, Aircraftman Leonard John Cooper Lee, who is a prisoner of war in Japanese hands.
I desire to inform you that information has now been received stating that your husband’s place of internment is in Java.
The above was dated 22 July 1943.
News? Or Propaganda? – News received around end July 1944
I refer to previous communications from this
Department concerning your husband, Aircraftman Leonard John
I desire to inform you that your husband’s name
was mentioned in a radio broadcast from Batavia on the 30th
The enemy radio announcer gave your husbands
correct name and also your address and a letter purporting
to have come from him was transmitted over the radio. The
following is the text of the letter as received in Australia :
|“Dear Nora, Well another New Year is here and it finds|
us still separated, but I am sincerely hoping and
trusting that we will be together before the next.
I wish you all the very best for your birthday of
this month and also send birthday greetings to Beth
and Mum. I have not had the good fortune to receive
any mail from you since the first lot came in, dated
June and July ‘42, but as I know you write regularly
I keep hoping and expect one of these days to receive
quite a lot. I am still fairly fit and as comfortable
as circumstances permit. I am working regularly each
day as a ...... and find that this helps to pass the
time away, which after all is the main thing. I sincerely
hope, sweetheart, that you are keeping well and not
worrying about me. I am hoping each day for ...... and
try to see the best side of things. I hope all things at
home are still running smoothly for you and that you
are enjoying the best of health. Please convey my love
to Aunt Helen, Joyce and all at home and tell them not
to worry as I am doing alright. Remember me to all
friends. Trusting that I will soon be home again and
sending you all my love, I remain your loving husband,
reserve in accepting the contents of the letter. This may not
be entirely authentic in as much as it emanates from an enemy
source and does not come through the recognised International
channels for the distribution of information concerning
prisoners of war. Furthermore, the letter may have been
altered for propaganda purposes, as it was transmitted in
the course of a Japanese propaganda programme.
Followed by another letter late in November 1944 advising of a similar broadcast. Some of the names mentioned are familiar to me, others not – but I haven’t researched his wife’s family. Norma’s birthday was in January so the letter was broadcast many months later. What would the family have made of this news?
Coming home – News received early October 1945
DESIRE TO ADVISE THAT YOUR HUSBAND A.C.l. LEONARD JOHN COOPER LEE EMBARKED FOR AUSTRALIA BY SEA ON THE TAMAROA ON 29TH SEPTEMBER STOP DETAILS TIME AND PLACE ARRIVAL WILL BE CONVEYED IMMEDIATELY RECEIVED
Four years after he left for Malaya, Uncle Jack came home to his young wife. They raised children who eventually had children of their own. He passed away in 1995. My mother told me, when I was of an age to be learning about such things at school, that he had spent four years as a Japanese prisoner of war but it was something he never spoke about. I hate to imagine what he went through during almost four years of captivity.
So many young men and women didn’t come home.
Lest we forget.
Australian War Memorial, 1 Squadron RAAF | The Australian War Memorial, Second World War Unit History, accessed 22 April 2011.
NAA: A705, 166/24/623; LEE, Leonard John Cooper - (Sergeant); Service Number - 19824; File type - Casualty - Repatriation; Place - Java, Netherlands East Indies; Date - 8 March 1942
NAA: A9186, 1, images 219 to 227; RAAF Unit History sheets (Form A50) [Operations Record Book - Forms A50 and A51] Number 1 Squadron
Jul 25 - Feb 46
NAA: A9301, 19824; LEE LEONARD JOHN COUPER : Service Number - 19824 : Date of birth - 28 Oct 1912 : Place of birth - OAKLEIGH VIC : Place of enlistment - MELBOURNE : Next of Kin - LEE NORMA