Frank McGovern the last survivor

In February 1942, PERTH joined the Allied Fleet defending the Dutch East Indies, (now Indonesia) and saw action in the Battle of the Java Sea on 27th February 1942.

HMAS PERTH and USS HOUSTONhaving survived that battle, were ordered south. Sailing in company, PERTH and HOUSTON encountered a large Japanese invasion fleet in the Sunda Strait on the night of 28th February. Despite gallant efforts both PERTH and HOUSTON succumbed to superior forces and were sunk shortly after midnight on the 1st March.

Frank survived the sinking and after many hours in the water finally made it ashore where he was captured by the Japanese and made a Prisoner of War (POW). He was then sent to Singapore and interned in Changi Prison Camp. Shortly thereafter he was selected to work on the infamous Thai-Burma railway, where he endured horrific conditions.

Following completion of the railway, Frank was taken to Saigon to await transportation to Japan. The US Navy had blockaded the Mekong Delta, so Frank was taken back to Changi from where he boarded the Japanese freighter, Rakuyo Maru, in September 1944, one of two ships carrying about 2,200 British and Australian POW’s destined for Japan. On the night of 12th September both ships were attacked and sunk by US submarines. Some 1,700 POW’s lost their lives, either killed or drowned as a result. Some were fortunate to be rescued by US submarines. Frank was not among them, being one of about 300 picked up by a Japanese destroyer and transported to Japan as forced labour. Frank’s internment camp was destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo March 1945. Frank was then sent to work in a steel mill, however the steel mill was bombed on the night of 13th July. Three of Frank’s mates were killed during the air raid, in which Frank also suffered a fractured spine.

While in the internment camp Frank and his fellow POW’s saw a bright flash in the skies from the direction of Hiroshima which turned out to be one of the two atomic bombs dropped by the Americans that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Upon hearing of the Japanese surrender and the disappearance of the guards, the POW’s painted PW on the roof of their building. The Americans dropped food and leaflets advising the prisoners to remain where they were until rescued.

After spending some time recuperating in hospital Frank returned home on 17th September,1945. It was a bittersweet moment when he learned that his brother, Vincent, had been killed in action during the Sunda Strait action.

In the aftermath of his war and POW experiences Frank found it difficult to assimilate with people who had not shared his experiences, so he formed the HMAS PERTH and Naval POW’s Association.

Members of his Association met on a monthly basis to provide ongoing companionship and support to each other until their numbers had dwindled to so few that Frank amalgamated his Association with the HMAS PERTH National Association in 1998.

In three and half years, from February 1942 to September 1945, Frank endured two horrendous naval battles, the sinking of two ships, the horrors of being a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma railway, and forced labour in Japan. His experiences and fortitude were unique.

However, his lasting legacy is the support that he gave to his fellow former prisoners of war in an era when there was little support for veterans, let alone former prisoners of war. Prisoners of war in the community was a new phenomenon in Australia in the aftermath of World War II. Many of their experiences were not understood by the public and government. Their repatriation was not properly informed or resourced either by previous experience or detailed analysis. There was also at the time, a reluctance by many POWs to discuss their ordeals, residual effects and potential needs with those that hadn’t had a similar experience.

It was left to men, like Frank, who although only in his late 20s, perceived the need for companionship and support among his fellow POW’s.

It is testament to Frank’s foresight, compassion and endeavour that his HMAS PERTH and Naval POW’s Association continued to provide a unique support network to former POWs, that had not been available elsewhere, for more than 50 years.

The HMAS PERTH National Association was more than willing to take over the mantle from Frank’s organisation in 1998, while Frank remained an active and valuable contributor to the Association’s support for its World War II veterans, especially the former POWs, Vietnam veterans and those of more recent conflicts.”



David Nicolson

Publicity Officer for the HMAS Perth (I) Memorial Foundation Inc.