Four years of my life

02. 17NEWSFACING a firing squad after months of torture and deprivation, WWII POW John Milton Mews escaped death only because Hitler’s orders to shoot him were not followed.

Now 92, the Fremantle-born father of three and grandfather of six who suffers dementia and plays golf when he can says he wants to forget his years in a German POW camp.

“I don’t dwell on the past very much,” former prisoner 39 told the Herald during lunch at his daughter Jane’s house.

“Terrible things happened the whole time I was there.”

About 30km northeast of Bremen, Marlag undo Milag Nord was a camp for men of the British merchant and Royal navies. Of more than 5000 Allied merchantmen captured by the Germans, most were held at the camp.

Published in the Herald for the first time since his release in April 1945, Mr Mews’ family has released photographs of the liberated camp, showing deserted barracks and watch towers overlooking barbed wire fences and dirt tracks.

In one of a set of six black and white stills, people in heavy coats and beanies mill around in the cold on empty snow-covered fields.

Mr Mews’ career at sea was delayed on August 14, 1941, when his ship Australind was sunk by the German raider Komet near the Galapagos islands. He spent five months imprisoned under the raider’s gun decks, many prisoners going deaf from the sound of its booming guns.

Mr Mews, “lost two good teeth routed out with a lever—no anaesthetic because I complained of a toothache”.

He says early days in the German camp were bad because food parcels from the Red Cross did not arrive, many prisoners were put to work hungry and dehydrated.

“In late 1941 with the storm troopers in charge of the camp we were often tortured, brutalised,” he wrote after the war. “I survived being sentenced to death with the rest of our camp because Hitler’s orders were not carried out.”

Soon after liberation, he says: “I declared myself fit whereas in actual fact I was a nervous wreck,” his disabilities a result of losing, “four years of the best years of my life”.

Mr Mews says he went back to sea after returning to WA, trying to forget the war years, “including the 112 days locked below the gun decks of a German armed cruiser”.

He says corresponding with family and friends had been important, particularly early in the war: “I enjoyed a bit of mail, we didn’t get much of it.”

Brushing his captain’s hat, he says, “the very day I got in from England … please forgive me, my memory is shot to bits … was the very day the Japanese capitulated.”


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