Hero to zero: the lies of a 'POW'
October 3, 2009
''The days dragged on, slowly, relentlessly. Solitary confinement was becoming unbearable, as was the daily sight of stretcher-borne bodies being carted unceremoniously along the corridor …''
Blood on the Rising Sun, John McGregor
THIS was life inside Outram Road Jail, a Singaporean punishment compound, during the Second World War. Cyril Gilbert, a survivor of the Burma-Thailand railway atrocities, calls it ''the worst jail there ever was''.
And it is where Gilbert's close friend, Rex Crane, has told family, friends and authorities he was incarcerated after being captured by the Japanese in May 1942.
Gilbert and many others believed that, at just 15, Crane was one of Australia's youngest POWs.
Crane, now 83, has been on the highest level of service pension since 1988 and is the federal president of the Prisoners of War Association of Australia.
And Arthur Rex Crane is a fraud.
''It looks like the past has caught up, doesn't it?'' he said when The Age confronted him this week.
For more than 20 years, Crane has lived as the survivor of a horrific war-time ordeal. To his wife and children, to his friends, to the hundreds of members of the association he led, Rex Crane was a hero.
He had told them that since 1938 his family had lived in Malaya, where his father William worked at the Raub Australia goldmine. He maintained that after the Japanese landed in Singapore in December 1941, his father took his mother Florence and sister Delsa back to Prospect in Adelaide.
But 15-year-old Rex and his 19-year-old brother Raymond, he swore, were abandoned in Malaya in the face of enemy invasion.
He claimed he was forced to enlist in a volunteer militia and later joined a behind-enemy-lines guerilla unit run by British intelligence. Raymond survived the war and died in 2007, he said.
Crane told of being captured by Japanese soldiers and sent to Outram Road Jail, later being sent to the Burma-Thailand railway, where more than 2600 Australians perished.
In these years, he had told his friends, he had survived unspeakable things. The soles of his feet were hammered, he said, and he got the dreaded ''rice treatment'', his stomach pumped full of uncooked rice and water before it was stomped on by guards.
Worst of all, though, was the day he was crucified, with one of his hands nailed to a tree and his head smashed by a soldier wielding a baseball bat.
But there were gaping holes in his tale. Electoral rolls put his family in Prospect, Adelaide, from the late 1930s, right through the war. His brother, Raymond, was alive and well living in Utah. And state records placed Rex Crane at Adelaide High School until well into 1941.
''It is me living a lie, isn't it?'' he sighed down the phone when challenged about his past. ''Oh shit. I am going to have to resign from everything. And then I'm buggered if I know what's going to happen from now on. I can see me doing 15 to 20 years here.''
Liz Heagney, official researcher for the Australian ex-POW memorial in Victoria, said she felt ''utter disgust''.
''He has desecrated the memory of all of those guys that were heroes,'' she said.
In February, military historian and author Lynette Silver took her seat at an official service at Ballarat's prisoner-of-war memorial.
Silver knew Fred Hodel, the previous president of the ex-POW Association, pretty well. But Hodel had stood aside and it was the new association's president who was to thank Silver for delivering the keynote address.
Her blood ran cold when Crane was introduced to the lectern as one of Australia's youngest POWs, who had not only fought in a secret ''stay-behind'' party in Malaya but had been imprisoned in Outram Road Jail.
For years, Silver had taken a particular interest in these sabotage guerilla units that operated behind Japanese lines, and ''I knew the names of all involved''.
''We were asked to believe that someone aged 15 was with the stay-behind people. But I knew that no Australians were put in with stay-behinds,'' she said.
Listening to Rex Crane that Sunday, Silver realised the man was lying. ''I also knew that he definitely could not have been in Outram Road Jail. We have got the complete list of people who went into that jail. I knew that Rex Crane was definitely not on the list.''
She enlisted two friends, Di Elliott and Jenny Sandercock. Elliott's father had been a POW on the Burma-Thailand railway and Sandercock's father-in-law had died at the infamous Sandakan POW camp. It was their painstaking efforts that brought Crane undone this week.
On Wednesday, The Age phoned him to seek a plausible explanation. There was none. ''I suppose it was just a sort of fantasy,'' he eventually said.
Since 1988, Crane has been receiving the top pension awarded to returned servicemen. He has received at least $380,000, as well as a bonus $25,000 ex gratia payment made to former wartime prisoners, as well as a Commonwealth Gold Card covering all medical expenses.
''It got to the stage where people push you,'' Crane said. ''You don't have a pension?'' he said others asked him. ''They knew people in Veterans' Affairs, and they asked me to go in. And I could not go in there and say this is all bullshit. So I went all the way with it.''
Crane admitted this week that he had copies of several famous books on prisoners of war in Malaya, including The Jungle is Neutral, by Freddie Spencer Chapman, which details the adventures of a stay-behind party.
''I put up a scheme,'' Chapman wrote, ''the substance of which was that a chain of small self-contained European parties should be installed in the jungle at strategic points.'' Crane had claimed he was one of these men, and that he was attached to Spencer's forces before being captured and sent to Outram Road Jail.
It was a claim that would have required expertise to disprove. Chapman names many men in his book, but official lists are difficult to find because these parties operated in secret.
Silver, Elliott and Sandercock trawled service records. They read through the infamous ''Pudu Roll'', a list of captured soldiers typed on toilet paper in 1942 by an Australian officer in Kuala Lumpur's Pudu Jail. In Hobart, they found a list of every Australian who had served with the volunteer forces in Malaya and returned home. And they checked the list of names of Outram Road Jail inmates at an archive in Canberra.
Crane's name was absent from all of them.
Crane might also have been aware of the story of ''Ringer'' Edwards. The Fremantle-born soldier and two others were sentenced to death while on the Burma-Thailand railway for killing cattle for food. James Bourke, in Prisoners of the Japanese writes: ''Bound at the wrists with fencing wire, the men were suspended from a tree and beaten with a baseball bat. When Edwards managed to free his right hand, his punishment was continued with the fencing wire driven through his palms.''
Crane had told his mates an almost identical story: he has a damaged eye and a scar on one hand. Crane said this week: ''I did have an injury to the palm. A nail had gone through the hand, but not as a POW.''
The injuries probably occurred after 1978, because for the 15 years before then Crane ran the Globe Hotel at Yongala, on the edge of the South Australian scrub. One of the Globe's regulars, Bob Miller, says he never saw a scar on Crane's hand as he passed him his beer. ''He didn't talk about the war at all.''
There were two ''Eureka'' moments for the three women as they continued their investigation. The first came on March 8 when Silver picked up the phone and dialled a number in Utah. Knowing that Crane's brother Raymond had settled in Calgary, she had previously cold-called entries in the Calgary white pages asking about Raymond Crane. One of the voices at the end of the line said, ''Yes, that's my father. He lives in Salt Lake City.'' This was Crane's ''dead'' brother.
When Silver called Raymond Crane, the 87-year-old was happy to talk about his family back home. ''The entire family lived at 53 Gordon Street, Prospect, for the whole of the war,'' he said.
A few weeks ago Sandercock got more proof: Crane's Adelaide High School report card from 1941, the year he was meant to be living in Malaya, and forced to enlist.
Crane's real story is far more pedestrian.
Born into a Mormon family, he attended Nailsworth Central School before moving up to Adelaide High between 1939 and 1941. After completing just one term in his final year, Crane said he left to seek work.
''I went into boilermaking,'' he said. And what did he do in the years between leaving school and buying the Globe Hotel? ''I did all sorts of things.''
Pressed as to why he had chosen to live such a giant lie, he said: ''It might sound naive but I always wished I had been able to get into the army and that I could join.
''I tried to join as a youngster … Half-a-dozen of us, we rode our bikes down to the navy depot and we were turned away.''
Cyril Gilbert was bewildered when told of Crane's lies. ''I'm not angry. I'm astonished.''
After confessing first to The Age, then a few hours later to his wife, Crane on Thursday did the same at the Veterans' Affairs offices.
He expects to lose his house and may also face prosecution.
''I have always just been hoping that I would peg out and that would be it and no one would know the difference.''