Aubrey Bryan Huruata Kenny


Aubrey Kenny was born in Johnsonville, in 1923. When his father died, the family came to Picton to join the extended family. He came to Nelson in 1996.  

Aubrey enlisted into the Navy in 1940, aged 17, at the start of World War Two.  His father had served New Zealand in World War One and Aubrey, like thousands of young men and women, joined to fight a war in foreign fields.

Aubrey Kenny, with friend Sonny Murphy in 1940. Click image to enlarge

Serving on board HMS Stronghold, Aubrey was among those escorting the ship Zaandam, which was loaded with women, children, the sick, the wounded and survivors of diverse units from around Tjilajap - an American base at the time. 

Naval reports say that, on 2 March 1942, a Japanese task group consisting of the heavy cruiser Maya and the destroyers Arashi and Nowaki belonging to a Japanese carrier force operating south of Java, discovered and sank HMS Stronghold, fleeing from Tjilatjap to Australia. Stronghold sank at 1858 hours at position 12º20'S, 112º00E. About fifty survivors were picked up by the small Dutch merchant ship Bintoehan, which later transferred them to the Maya.

Aubrey was picked up after treading water for approximately 23 hours. His years as a Japanese Prisoner of War began initially at the Macassar Camp.

The Japanese had not recognised the third Geneva Convention, of 1931. This extended the existing humanitarian treaties for times of war, which established the Red Cross service at the end of the 19th Century, to the protection of those held as Prisoners of War.  Red Cross parcels never made it to Japanese camps; medicine was denied and torture was a daily part of the lives of those held in camps by the Japanese.  The men and women of these camps were starved to such an extent that many were half their body weight when finally released. Aubrey himself, a tall man, weighed five stone four ounces on release and was 1.5 inches shorter.

Aubrey said, ‘Jokes were important for survival. Jokes and discussions, arguments, even.  My buddy was a Catholic, I never believed in God, I believed in myself and we used to argue all the time, have these discussions.  We made a pact that we would never stop finding the humour in what was happening to us.  It helped us survive.'

HMS Stronghold. Naval
Click image to enlarge

Aubrey was one of the 100 Prisoners of War selected from the Macassar Camp, in the Celebes, now Sulawesi, in January 1943 for work at Pomalaa Camp, situated in the region on the edge of jungle in a mosquito swamp area. They went there in January 1943.

Their task at Pomalaa was to reclaim a salt marsh, and dig a dam. They dug in slime and mud from 7am until 5pm. They had no medicines and a large number already had malaria. About 50 had ulcers and septic wounds. All were passed fit for draft by visual inspection of a Japanese doctor, with no reference to their past history. They lived in rough wooden huts covered with palm leaves. Bed boards secured to a raised framework gave two foot six inches per man. Sanitary and hygiene arrangements were primitive and insufficient. Food was strictly rationed and consisted of about two ounces of rice, poor quality vegetables, ¾ ounce of sugar, and two ounces of coffee each day. An erratic supply of fresh and salt fish and a few salt eggs were provided from time to time. Some buffalo meat was given after a strong protest by the men.

By the end of August 1943, only 19 men were fit for work. As a result of representations and protests, made continually to Naval and Civilian authorities, the camp was finally inspected by a Japanese Officer. This resulted in a supply of food and quinine and removal of the men to Macassar in September 1943.

Of the 184 survivors who returned to Macassar in September 1943, only 28 could walk more than a short distance, 68 were incapable of walking at all and 16 were dangerously ill.  Aubrey was one of those handful who survived and, when he was released and returned to New Zealand, he carried in him the tropical diseases which went unrecognised until the last few years of his life.

Aubrey died in 2008, aged 85. Throughout his life he retained the good humour, the courage and the dignity that saw him through those terrible years in Indonesian POW camps.  He is buried at the Fairhall Cemetery in Blenheim.

His story, and that of his closest friend Sonny Murphy, was featured at ‘Lest We Forget' interactive Pacific War Display by Dramatix in Nelson in 2013.

2013. Updated May 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Interview with Aubrey Kenny, 2008
  • T.J. Ramsay interview with Kenny in 2008

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