My Brothers

My two brothers, older brother Robert and twin brother Thomas, both served in World War II.

Bob was a soldier in the 34th Fortress Engineers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He had been posted to Rabaul as part of Lark Force and was one of the soldiers responsible for the emplacement of two ‘cannons’ at Praed Point, the entrance to Simpson Harbour, Rabaul, on New Britain island, New Guinea.

Ironically, after many months of training and then deployment to Rabaul, with its inevitable boredom prior to the outbreak of the Pacific war on 7 December 1941, the whole of the 34th Fortress Engineers (who were disparagingly referred to as ‘chocos’, that is ‘chocolate soldiers’ or men who did not fight) of the pre-war Militia, had at last been allowed to join the AIF with the coveted ‘X’ added to a new ‘dog-tag’ service number, and the coveted grey edging round their uniform patches. They had then been organised for repatriation back to Australia, to be retrained for desert conditions before redeployment to the Middle East war-front. Alas, too late! The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and invaded Rabaul six weeks later, which sealed their fate.

Bob, who by this time was a Sergeant and had been recommended for officer training, was captured during the fall of Rabaul on 23 January 1942, held prisoner and half-starved at the Malaguna Road camp until he was put on the Japanese prisoner-of-war ship Montevideo Maru in late June.

Robert Burrowes 17Feb1918 - 1Jul1942

Robert Burrowes 17 Feb 1918 – 1 Jul 1942

On 1 July 1942, the unmarked and unescorted Montevideo Maru was torpedoed off Luzon by the USS Sturgeon. The ship sank in six minutes. All 1,053 Australian prisoners of war were killed: it was Australia’s largest single loss of life in a single incident during the entire war. You can see Bob’s name on the Montevideo Maru nominal roll and read his final letter below. My older son is named after my older brother.

Montevideo Maru

Montevideo Maru. Photo: Australian War Memorial

Tom joined the RAAF Cadet Corp (for those under 18-years-old), and was then called up into the RAAF when the war was declared in September 1939. He wanted to be a pilot but was rejected because he had rheumatic fever as a child. Instead, he became a WAG (Wireless/Air Gunner). He was originally going to England via Canada but was redeployed to Vivigani (Goodenough) Island after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Beaufort Bombers of RAAF 100 Squadron

Tom thus became a wireless air gunner on a Beaufort Bomber (popularly but irreverently known as ‘flying coffins’) in the RAAF’s 100 Squadron. Together with his fellow crew members – Flt. Sgt. John Eardley Kenny 415663 (pilot), Flt. Sgt. John Arthur Davies 427446 and Flt. Sgt. Murray Fairbairn 409528 – Tom took off for his first bombing mission over Rabaul on 14 December 1943, in adverse weather conditions. He was in one of five planes that did not return. At the age of 20, Tom would never celebrate his 21st birthday.

A Beaufort Bomber of the kind in which Tom was killed.

A Beaufort Bomber of the kind in which Tom was killed.

After the war, Tom was declared KIA by ‘flying battle’.

You can read Tom’s final letter below. My younger son is named after my twin brother.

Thomas Burrowes 29Mar1923 - 14Dec1943

Thomas Burrowes 29 Mar 1923 – 14 Dec 1943

We know somewhat more about Bob’s death from various sources including accounts by escapees from Rabaul and official Australian and Japanese government sources.

Robert Burrowes on 'Montevideo Maru' roll

Robert Burrowes on Montevideo Maru roll


This letter was written while Bob was held prisoner in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Rabaul. It has been written to meet strict guidelines issued by the Japanese and it has been censored. The letter was in a bag of mail that was air-dropped over Port Moresby by the Japanese. The sinking of the Montevideo Maru, with Bob aboard, was not confirmed until after the war ended. The family received no news about Bob after his capture, apart from this letter, for nearly four years.

It should be noted that all prisoners had been directed by the Japanese to write that they were okay and in ‘the care’ of the Japanese. That was a load of crap! The prisoners were ill-treated, killed if defiant, half starved with no medical supplies, and put to hard labour as slaves to unload ships and dig tunnels. Over 180 prisoners were massacred and even the majority of the surviving 400 escapees who reached Australia were deemed unfit to carry out their ongoing service duty.

Sgt Robert Burrowes

Sgt Robert Burrowes

Received 22 September 1942 [noted by Pat, the elder of our two older sisters]

R. Burrowes

Dear Folks

Bob on his bike just before the war

Just a short note to let you know I’m alright. I am a prisoner under the care of the Japanese.

I can only write one letter so will you let Heather [1] know. Also Sgt. Ellis Queenscliff and anyone else.

I hope you are all O.K. and haven’t been worrying too much. Get Jim out if you possibly can. [2]

Keep the old bike in good nick as I will need it again. I’ll sign off now.

Don’t worry. Cheerio.

Keep collecting allotment.

Robert Burrowes

Mrs A Burrowes [3]
28 Park Road
Middle Park

[1] Heather was Bob’s girlfriend

[2] Having experienced the real horror of war, Bob wanted our family to ‘get Jim out’. But I had enlisted and was already up in Queensland when news of Bob’s capture came through in this letter.

[3] Alice was our mother.

My son, Bob, and I point at my brother Bob’s name on the POW Memorial, Ballarat, Australia on 4 February 2018.


This letter was written the night before Tom flew his first – and final – mission. The final paragraph and postscripts were written on the morning of the day he was killed.

Flight Sgt Thomas Burrowes

Flight Sgt Thomas Burrowes


409504 F/Sgt Burrowes T.


Dear Helen [1]

Received your very welcome letter yesterday – I received about 7 in two days but none at all for the four previous days. By the way, your letter was censored, not that it matters any, as you did not have anything in it bar personal news.

No Helen this little boy has not yet been in combat but most of my cobbers have. So far we have missed out on the fun but I guess it won’t be for long. By the way Bob is quite handy to our camp and I have been going to go across and see him a few times now, each time I’ve been going to, something unforeseen crops up, and I have to put it off. However, will be seeing him before very long. I saw him in the distance last week but I could not go over and talk to him as I was on a job at the time. He seemed to be happy enough. [2]

The twins! Tom, on the right, and me in 1942.

I have now visited all the groups of islands that Jim visited but of course I didn’t take so long over it. Perhaps I’ll be seeing Jim shortly. Does he know my address. I won’t be changing it for a long time now. Hope he gets his two stripes. It was tough luck Ces getting Malaria.

This Southport seems to be a popular sort of place to spend a weekend. Jim, you and a few of our boys have all spent some time there and enjoyed it.

We received a comforts fund issue of 2 cakes of soap, a few sheets of writing paper and a few envelopes. Not nearly a sufficient quantity. I wish they would have some on sale in the canteen. I now have envelopes to see me through for a while.

Tuesday. No more news Helen, no time to write any more. Will remember you to Bob tonight after tea. I will be seeing him. [3] Till next time.

Lots of love

Tom XX

P.S. Don’t say anything to Mum about me seeing Bob tonight Helen as you know what she thinks of him. [4]

P.P.S. We have experienced an air raid but can’t tell you when.

P.P.S. Buy Pat a Xmas present – something you can decide on yourself – about one pound.



[1] Helen was the younger of our two older sisters.

[2] Tom was obviously not allowed to reveal military plans in case his letter fell into Japanese hands. However, he and the family knew that Bob had been posted to Rabaul, so when he mentions that ‘Bob is quite handy to our camp’, he is telling the family that he is not far from Rabaul. Thus, all references to Bob in this paragraph are really telling the family things in relation to Rabaul.

[3] Note by Pat, the older of our two older sisters: Indicates they were going to bomb Rabaul.

[4] Note by Pat: Mum adored Bob, perhaps the most. (The reason for the comment is that Tom didn’t want his mother to know, and worry, about the fact that he would be in combat.)


This letter was written after I returned from the war but no word of Bob’s fate had yet reached Australia.

To V50814
Sgt. Burrowes Robert
34th Fortress Coy R.A.E.
Last heard of at Rabaul

J. Burrowes
28 Park Rd
Middle Park S.C.6
Victoria Aust

No word received Bob. All well here and thinking of you constantly and praying for the day when it will all be over.