Outbreak of War
After the outbreak of war, like many other young Australians Eric Hooper quickly signed up with the voluntary Militia forces on Jan 3, 1940.
Initially Eric joined the 8th Light Horse in June 1940. As a farmer and skilled horseman, the Light Horse was a perfect fit for Eric. He joined the Light Horse for initial training at the sea side town of Torquay. The Torquay camp consisted 5000 men and 2000 horses.
After 10 weeks the camp was closed due to adverse conditions and the fact the horses where destroying the local flora. Rumours were also circulating that horses would be ineffective in modern warfare. Many of the men decided to join other army units that were more likely to see action. Eric was transferred to the 2/2 Pioneer Battalion and moved to Puckapunyal to continue his army training. After 9 months of training the battalion was called up to assist in the Syrian/Lebanon campaign.
After travelling on the “Queen Mary” for over a month from Perth, Eric arrived in Syria. The battalion camp at Hill 95 was one of several large Australian camps in the area. After less than a month fortifying their position, news came that the battalion were being called into action, to attack the Vichy French as part of the Exporter force. After four or five days of preparation A & B companies were given orders to move forward with C & D companies acting as reinforcements in the coming days.
The following bitterly contested conflict only lasted 5 weeks, but the battalion acquitted themselves well in many actions of the campaign and had earned their first battle honours. After spending a few months repairing roads and fortifications. The men were then ordered to get their kits together, and boarded HMT Orcades, not knowing their next destination.
Operation Black force
Many of the men thought optimistically they would be heading home, but once the threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia became apparent they were shipped to Java, in a controversial decision to back up the Dutch forces in the area. After landing Eric’s unit fought fiercely against the Japanese, despite being issued outdated weapons and, on some occasions, using Biblical, hand to hand combat methods. Almost as outdated as the weapons issued to the Pioneers was the intelligence they received about Japanese strength on the Island. On March 3rd the Dutch reported that there were no Japanese on Java, but the next day 5 Japanese tanks attacked a bridge the Pioneers were guarding, and a ferocious battle took place. The pioneers killed over 500 Japanese and were commended from their bravery from other American units that were also on Java. The battle also led the Japanese to believe there was a much larger force on Java then there actually was. This convinced the Japanese to send a much larger force to Java and helped considerably slow the Japanese march to Australia.
On March 8th the Dutch decided to capitulate, and the Australians, being under Dutch command, had no choice but to surrender as well. On March 9, the Battalion was ordered to withdraw, and to destroy or disable all weapons and vehicles. The men were now cut off from the outside world and were taken as prisoners by the Japanese.
Different POW camps in Java
After being captured Eric spent time at several different POW camps around Java including The Bicycle camp, Makasura Camp, Tandjong Priok, Serang and the ADEK Camp. The 3 years he spent on Java Eric was underfed, heavily beaten several times for trivial reasons and was worked relentlessly while living in cramped, unhygienic conditions.
In early 1944, when the tide of war was turning in the Allies favour, many POW’s were sent to Japan to help in the war effort. In May 1944, Eric boarded a ship to Singapore on route to Nagasaki to work in the Mitsubishi shipyard. Eric’s ship, The Tamahoko Maru left Takao on June 22nd and sailed for two days before disaster struck on June 24th, approx. 40 miles south of Nagasaki when a large explosion woke the men as another ship in the convoy had been struck by a torpedo, moments later another torpedo hit the Tamahoko Maru, on the starboard side. The explosion instantly killed a number of men on board, with falling debris killing many more. Escape by those below was made by means of the iron ladders under the hatches, or, for the most part, by being washed out to sea. It has been estimated that the ship sank in less than 2 minutes. Eric luckily survived by floating on debris before being picked up by a Japanese whaling ship. From there he was shipped to camp Fukuoka 14.
Fukuoka 14 and the Atomic Bomb
Eric survived over a year over nonstop work and hellish conditions at Fukuoka. He then witnessed firsthand the devastation of the atomic bomb which ultimately saved his life. After being rescued by US soldiers, Eric arrived back in Australia in October 1945.
Eric took up a position as an apprentice carpenter in Melbourne, before moving back to the family farm in Goorambat in Central Victoria in 1954. There, he started a new farm named ‘Yasume’ which was Japanese for “Stand at Ease” or “Resting day”. He married fiancé Molly and had four children, Sandra, Wendy, Kevin & Wayne.
Despite contracting Dysentery and Beri Beri while in the POW camps, which was common among malnourished POW’s, Eric returned relatively physically unscathed from his time at war. He also showed no adverse effects from radiation from the atomic bomb. But like many returning service men & woman, Eric struggled to put the memories of war behind him.
Eric was burdened by terrible nightmares the remainder of his life and outlined in his POW trust fund application struggled with anger issues and a lack of confidence. Like many soldiers, Eric rarely spoke about the war, it was only in the last few years of his life, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war that Eric opened up about his experiences. Sadly, Eric died after a short illness in 1998, surrounded by family.