Sketches show life in prisoner of war camp

17:00, Apr 22 2014
Bill Bourke
TELLING SKETCH: A self-portrait drawn by Bill Bourke while he was a prisoner of war during World War II. The faint writing across his chest says ‘‘Get me out’’.

Bill Bourke's sketches give a rare glimpse into a World War II prison camp through the eyes of someone who was there.

The sailor's drawings show the conditions in the Japanese-controlled camps, striking portraits of his fellow servicemen, and cartoons about daily life as a prisoner of war between 1942 and 1945.

Bill Bourke joined the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1940.

bill bourke
LOOKING BACK: William Bourke says the sketches his father did while he was a prisoner of war have helped him to understand his experience.

The 26-year-old from Herne Bay was captured by Japanese forces at the end of the Battle of Singapore in February, 1942.

He was held at three POW camps in Indonesia before being liberated at the end of World War II.

Conditions in the camps were dire and by August 1945 as many as five prisoners were dying each day from starvation or disease, Bill's son William Bourke says.


"My father said that had they stayed another month or two and they would have died. They were extremely lucky to survive," the Glendowie resident says.

The sketches may feature in a future episode of Tony Robinson's Tour of Duty .

Bill Bourke had worked as a draftsman and stonemason before enlisting in the navy.

Sketching helped to keep him going in the camps, William Bourke says.

"He once told me to pass the time you had to keep busy. He spent all of his spare time drawing and making things."

William Bourke is not sure how his father kept the drawings safe during his time as a prisoner of war. Bill Bourke died in 1984 and rarely talked about the war.

The sketches have helped William Bourke to understand his father's experiences.

"He and a friend made a pact that they wouldn't talk about the horrors," William Bourke says.

"I think they just wanted to put it out of their minds.

"In later life he did unwind a bit."

Englishman Ray Stubbs was imprisoned with Bill Bourke. In 1995 he wrote a book about his time as a prisoner.

William Bourke tracked down Stubbs after his mother saw an article about the book.

"It was really the first information I'd had about the camps," he says.

He was later able to send Stubbs a copy of a portrait Bill Bourke had drawn of him.

In later years he has connected with relatives of other prisoners and has been able to share his father's drawings with them.

East And Bays Courier