VALE – TOM UREN

TOM UREN 1921–2015 The Hon. Tom Uren AC has died at age 93. Tom Uren left school at 13, became a boxer, was fighting World War II in Timor on his 21st birthday, spent his next three birthdays as a prisoner of the Japanese in Timor, Singapore, on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway and at a copper smelting works Saganoseki in Japan. He saw the sky change colour over Nagasaki after the atom bomb was dropped. Early Years. Tom was born in Balmain on May 25, 1921 to Tom Uren Sen. and his wife, formerly Agnes Miller. He carried Cornish and Celtic blood from his father's family, and Jewish and English from his paternal grandmother. After the family moved to Harbord when he was five, Tom walked barefooted to the local primary school, before being made to wear shoes to Manly Intermediate High. He left school during the Depression, because his father, a former jockey and jack-of-all trades, was out of work. Young Tom helped classify rabbit and kangaroo skins, sold newspapers and caddied on golf courses. He gave all his earnings to his mother, a former barmaid, because they were poor. He became a surf lifesaver, rugby league forward and learnt to box at Jack Dunleavy's gymnasium, perhaps driven by the fact that one of his father's cousins, Tommy Uren, was anotable boxer. War Years. Tom had applied to join the army in May 1939 and was accepted soon after World War II broke out in September, but took leave to fight for the Australian heavyweight title in 1940, aged 19. (He had been suffering from the flu and, although he knocked Billy Britt down inthe sixth round, was beaten in the seventh). Tom went to Darwin, then to Timor in December 1941 with the 2/1 Heavy Battery. He had heard the stories of Australian courage at Gallipoli and in France in World War I, but what he saw in Timor was confusion. As the Australian force was being over-run in February 1942, Tom volunteered to go forward in a vehicle armed with a single Bren gun to support a Tasmanian battalion, the 2/40th, which was making what has been described as the last bayonet charge in Australian military history. Witnessing the Australian advance up Oesaoe ridge under machine-gun fire marked the 20- year-old for life. Forced to surrender, the prisoners were in prison camps in Timor for some time before being taken early in 1943 to Singapore, from where Tom was loaded into a railway goods truck and ended up at Konyu River camp, where the surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Edward "Weary" Dunlop was commanding officer of the men slaving to build the Burma-Thailand railway for the Japanese. Tom moved later to the Hintok camps. He worked on the Hammer and Tap cutting among other sites. One man is said to have died for every sleeper laid on the railway. Tom prayed every day, frightened that cholera would take him, as it had so many others. Yet he rejoiced in the Australian egalitarianism. He believed that the British officers cared above all for themselves, while Dunlop and other officers funded what passed for a hospital. At completion of the railway work, Tom was transported on a Hell Ship in 1944 to work in a copper smelting plant at Saganoseki, Japan, owned by the Nippon Steel Company. Conditions were terrible with the basic huts located on the slag heaps of the smelting works. ”Beds” were mats full of lice. Toilets were pits which had to be cleaned out every ten days. Food was very scarce for both prisoners and the local population. Despite the conditions and strict discipline there was little of the brutality that characterised the Burma- Thailand railway and earlier camps. The prisoners were eventually moved to a POW camp at Omuta in the Fukuoka group of prison camps to work in coal mines. With the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb a form of freedom came. Tom never forgot the colour of the sky over Nagasaki after the atom bomb was dropped: "We didn't hear any noise, just witnessed that vivid crimson sky." Liberation. Tom had an American friend in the camp who was part of a group appointed to set up an authority to administer and run the city of Omuta, looking after courts, police and administration building. After a period Tom joined a group of Americans travelling by train to Kagoshima and by plane to Okinawa and then to Manila in the Phillipines. From there he travelled on the HMS Formidable to Sydney. Post War. Tom met Patricia Palmer (her brother had shown him her photograph when they were prisoners) and they married in 1947. (Patricia died of breast cancer in 1981). They moved to Port Kembla where Tom worked at the steel works. He later attempted to resurrect his boxing career including a trip England, working his passage by ship as a stoker. After limited success (wartime malaria had left effects) he returned to Sydney by sea working as a donkey-greaser. He came home, worked as a labourer, then as a trainee executive at Woolworths. He decided to join the Labor Party in 1951 on the way from Lithgow, where he managed the Woolworths store, to Bathurst for the funeral of Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister. His political views were founded on his mother's sense of social justice, Weary Dunlop's example of leadership and F.D. Roosevelt's New Deal. He was to add Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela to his list of influences. Living in Guildford, he won the western Sydney seat of Reid in 1958. When he retired from Parliament in 1990, he had been father of the House for eight years. Tom quietly married Christine Logan, a singer in the Australian Opera, in 1992. They lived in Balmain, with Christine's daughter, Ruby, in a house designed by Richard Le Plastrier. The house cost so much in the end, with timber from Western Australia, that Tom lived for some years in the basement, with lodgers upstairs. Tom Uren was made an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1993, then a Commander in 2013. On Anzac Day 2011, near his 90th birthday, he returned to Hellfire Pass, on the Burma Thailand railway, with the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce and her party of exPOWs. Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced at that time that the government would meet Uren's long campaign for a supplementary payment to Australia's 900 surviving prisoners from World War II and the Korean war. Tom Uren, a Life Member of the Burma Thailand Railway Memorial Association, is survived by Christine and Ruby, and his adopted children, Michael and Heather.

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