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Hugh Vincent Clarke (1919–1996)

by Chris Coulthard-Clark

from Australian

Hugh Clarke knew more about the horrors of war than most people, having survived 3½ years as a captive of the Japanese during World War II. His experiences shaped the rest of his life, providing the focus for a writing career that earned him much acclaim.

But what was remarkable to anybody who knew Clarke was the extent to which he transcended this trauma and kept his humanity intact. Always forthright and direct in his dealings, he nonetheless retained a sense of compassion and interest in other people that was as engaging as his friendly manner. 

Perhaps he owed his survival in the war to the knowledge and skills derived from his youth, when the Clarke family, a large, Irish-Catholic band of first-generation Australians, endured severe hardship in the Great Depression in the 1930s. It was a story he later chronicled in print as The Broke and The Broken published in 1982. 

Born in Queensland in 1919, Clarke had not long left school and found work with the Queensland Main Roads Commission as a cadet surveyor when the war began. Enlisting in 1940, he was a bombardier in the 2/10th Field Regiment that accompanied the Australian Imperial Force 8th Division to Singapore. With 15,000 other Australians he became a prisoner of war upon the British surrender in February 1942 and was just one of more than 50,000 men confined initially at Changi. 

In March 1943, he joined Allied captives used by the Japanese as slave labour in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand railway. Initially employed in the Kanchanaburi area of western Thailand, in April he was included in a party of 380 Australians marched north to Konyu and set to work digging a cutting at what became known as Hell Fire Pass. 

The cutting was completed by August, but not before the Japanese had resorted to making inhuman demands on their prisoners. Nearly 70 men had been beaten to death by guards, and others died of starvation, sickness and exhaustion. Of the men who originally accompanied Clarke to the area, only about 50 were still among the workforce. 

In September 1944, Clarke was among 1000 Australian POWs who arrived in Japan after a voyage lasting 70 days. With about 200 others he was sent to Nagasaki to work in the vast dockyards that occupied Koyagi Island in the bay. In June 1945, he was moved to Nakama, and found himself working in an unsafe coalmine beneath a lake. 

To escape this situation, a few weeks later he answered a call made by the Japanese for experienced oil drillers. He was accepted, he later asserted, on the strength of what he could describe from having once seen an artesian bore being drilled in central Queensland. Soon afterwards he was sent to Fukuoka on the west coast of Kyushu, where he was in charge of a group waiting for transportation to Manchuria. He later related volunteering for this task as the most stupid decision he ever made in his life, but it ensured that he was well away from Nagaski when the second atomic bomb was dropped on August 9. 

Clarke returned to Australia in October, and underwent a period of restless dislocation in which he attempted to find his feet in civilian life. It was many months before he resumed his surveying career and he later admitted that his erratic behaviour in the next few years — including "a hasty marriage doomed from the start" — was the despair of family and friends. 

In 1947 he joined the survey section of the Department of the Interior in Canberra. He started writing short stories and articles, many of which were published in The Bulletin and other journals, understandably drawing on his POW experiences — both his own and those of his comrades — as subject matter. His first book, The Tub, published in 1962 and often reprinted, also dealt with this theme. 

Clarke was appointed publications officer of the Department of Territories in 1961 and a few years later became that organisation's director of information and publicity. As a result of the considerable period he spent on visits to Papua New Guinea, he began a growing interest and involvement in that territory. At trade fairs in England, Europe and Japan, he assisted in promoting PNG products such as tea, coffee and timber. 

Throughout this period he continued to write. In 1962 publishing Break Out, an account of the famous mass escape of Japanese POWs from Cowra in 1944, written with a Japanese co-author. It was republished in 1994 as Escape to Death. There was also Sydney by Stealth (1966) an account of the raid by Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour in May 1942 — also written in collaboration with a Japanese author — and The Long Arm (1974), a true story of a Northern Territory policeman. 

After PNG received self-government in 1973, the Department of Territories disbanded and Clarke transferred to Aboriginal Affairs to head that department's public relations area. Ill health forced his retirement in 1977. He continued to write, however, producing many of the titles by which he became best known. These include Last Stop Nagasaki! (1984), Twilight Liberation (1985), and A Life for Every Sleeper (1985) as well as a volume in the Time Life series titled Prisoners of War (1988). 

If his writing showed a cathartic preoccupation with the dreadful wartime experiences of his 20s, the content of his books said a lot more about the man. As John Iremonger, during the 1980s, observed "Through all his books he revealed a real concern for others — his mates who suffered and survived around him, and even his captors and tormentors. He and his mates endured appalling suffering and yet, without any fuss or false sentiment and often with a wry humour. Hugh's reflections on that time were about compassion and forgiveness. 

One measure of this quality in his writing remains the fact that several of his books including The Tub and Last Stop Nagasaki!, have been translated and published within Japan. 

Clarke did not hesitate to urge his fellow Australians to show bigness of spirit in dealing with the past. When the question of erecting a memorial to the Japanese submariners involved in the Sydney raid in 1942 became the focus of public controversy several years ago, he used his typewriter with telling effect in letters written to several newspapers, urging that old animosities be forgotten. 

Clarke always proudly maintained that the turning point in recovering from his ordeal had been his marriage in 1961 to Patricia, a journalist who in retirement has also become a much-published author. She survives him, along with four sons and a daughter.

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Citation details

Chris Coulthard-Clark, 'Clarke, Hugh Vincent (1919–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 November, 1919
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


28 November, 1996 (aged 77)
Woden, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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