It was a dark day in Australia’s wartime history when Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942. Among 100,000 Allied troops, some 15,000 Australians were made prisoners of war.
One of those Australians was Sergeant Alan Clark. A clerk before the war and serving with 2 Echelon Malaya, the significance of Alan’s efforts while held at Changi POW camp is now only coming to light, eight decades later.
Born in Sandringham in 1912, Alan was living in Werribee when he enlisted in the Army in 1940. Joining the 8th Division, Alan embarked for Malaya in early 1941.
In the wake of the Allied capitulation, Alan collected what few possessions he could. Along with thousands of others, he marched to Changi, a 25 square kilometer base made up of several POW and internee camps. From there, Allied POWs were sent around the Pacific on working parties to places such as Borneo, Japan, and the infamous Thai-Burma Railway.
Among Alan’s possessions was a typewriter which he used to record the details of all the 8th Division personnel held in camp, at great risk to himself. His recordkeeping began soon after capture, documenting the service details of each person, the movement of fellow POWs around the Pacific, and their fate if known.
Alan remained at Changi until the Japanese surrender of August 1945, working on the docks and building a nearby airfield. It was Alan’s importance as recordkeeper that kept him in Changi - Australian officers in charge of their own refused to allow him to be shipped off like so many thousands of others.
When Alan was liberated, he returned to Werribee weighing a mere 44 kilos. He lived with his wife, Betty, who had served as a nurse during the war.
To keep the Japanese unaware of the Alan's typewriter and documentation, they were buried in watertight containers when the prisoners were moved from Changi’s old barracks to the actual prison complex. Retrieved after war’s end in 1945, these records ensured that the fate of the missing and killed could be revealed. Alan himself assisted the War Records Office in Melbourne with the lists and public enquiries.
After WWII, Alan became Memorabilia Officer at Werribee RSL, looking after the Sub-Branch's memorabilia, which included his own. Kept in “Alan’s cupboard,” his records, along with his typewriter, his medals, paybook and other historically significant items, are safely held there.
“Alan was a bowerbird,” says Werribee RSL President, Daryl Ryan, with a smile.
"He was 96 when he passed away about a decade ago and legally blind, but when he was alive, he would still come in every day and sit down with a magnifying glass and read through the records."
Current Memorabilia Officer at Werribee RSL Sub-Branch, Merv Clifton, said that there are hundreds of pages of records from Changi.
“There are three sections. Army records, Air Force records, and Navy records. It has their names, their ranks, whether they were killed or transferred to other camps.”
A project to preserve and digitise Alan’s records for future generations has been underway for a few years, each page digitised with the help of the local library and Wyndham City Council.
"We have a wonderful working relationship with our library, especially the one at Hopper’s Crossing and the ladies there, as well as our local Council."
The original pages are extremely fragile. After digitisation, they are returned to the protection of a lockable fireproof safe.
“The library holds a digitised copy of the records, so if you want to ring and check the name of a certain person, they will look it up for you and will give you the information.”
The importance of this wartime history, and Alan’s experience as a POW, is not lost on the Werribee RSL.
“What we’ve got to remember is that it is history, and it could be lost,” said Daryl. “It’s one of the reasons the library came to us and offered to have the records digitised, because of the value of them.
"However, the original documents and the typewriter are to be kept here, at the Werribee RSL. To separate them from the RSL, from Alan, would be criminal."
Merv said that it is daunting to follow Alan as Memorabilia Officer.
Though Alan passed away several years ago, his legacy remains strong at Werribee RSL. His member number has been retired, and his collection will remain there.
"Alan wanted his collection to remain at Werribee RSL, and it will remain here as long as the RSL is here."