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Clarke, Hugh Vincent (1919–1996)

by Michael McKernan

This article was published online in 2021

Hugh Vincent Clarke (1919–1996), soldier, public servant, and writer, was born on 27 November 1919 in Brisbane, eldest of eight children of Irish-born parents Patrick John Clarke, draper and publican, and his wife Kate, née Goggin. The family moved around southern Queensland as Patrick managed a succession of pubs. Hugh attended several State and Catholic schools, and in 1934 won a State scholarship to St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, Brisbane. At the end of 1935, tiring of a ‘cramped life’ (Clarke 1982, 71) without an income, he commenced employment retailing menswear. Mindful of how the Depression made his father ‘obsessed with security for his children’ (Clarke 1982, vii), in 1936 he secured a clerical position in the Queensland Justice Department. Three years later he became a cadet surveyor with the Queensland Main Roads Commission.

The worsening position of the Allies in World War II led Clarke to defy his father and enlist in the Australian Imperial Force on 25 July 1940. He was posted to the 2/10th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, as a surveyor. His unit arrived at Singapore in February 1941 and he was promoted to acting bombardier in March. Deployed to Malacca, the regiment went into action on 21 January 1942, before retreating to Singapore. After the British surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February, Clarke was held at Changi prisoner of war camp and the Great World Amusement Park, but in March 1943 left for Thailand with ‘D’ Force to help build the notorious Burma-Thailand Railway. Allied prisoners were shocked by the brutality of the Japanese and Korean guards, and physical conditions, though endurable at first, became atrocious after the monsoon broke in May.

In June 1944 Clarke and the remnants of ‘D’ Force were returned to Singapore. Three months later, following a hazardous seventy-day sea journey, he arrived at Nagasaki, Japan, where he was a riveter in shipbuilding yards. From June 1945 he worked in a coal mine at Nakama, but was transferred to Fukuoka after successfully volunteering to be an oil-rigger in Manchuria by falsely claiming Queensland experience. He recalled this as ‘my most stupid decision’ (1985, 154), but escaping the dangerous mine probably saved his life. While in Fukuoka awaiting a ship to Manchuria news arrived of the end of the war.

Arriving home in Brisbane in October 1945 and discharged the following month, Clarke found it impossible to settle. After living in ‘almost monastic solitude’ (Clarke 1985, 157) on a sheep station in southern Queensland, he began to travel widely. He gradually realised ‘that no matter how badly off I might think I was I could never again descend to the depths of despair and degradation’ (Clarke 1985, 158) endured as a prisoner. Nonetheless, he was aware that his mental health was fragile. At the direction of the Commonwealth Department of Repatriation, he became a patient at the Repatriation Hospital, Concord, Sydney, and at least once accepted electric shock therapy. Writing articles and stories about the war, based on his experiences and drawing on characters he had known, proved more therapeutic, and led to a writing career that brought him success and recognition.

On 3 February 1947 Clarke married Barbara Patricia Wraith, a typist, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. The marriage was dissolved in August 1955. In September 1947 he joined the survey branch of the Department of the Interior in Canberra. He subsequently served in the Department of Territories, where in 1967 he became director of its information and publicity unit. From 1973 he served in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. But he needed to write, and found that his public service career could be combined with this activity. From the early 1950s he published many short stories and reviews in returned service journals, the Bulletin, and newspapers, and in 1963 produced his only novel, The Tub, based on his wartime experiences, and which went through multiple reprints.

From the mid-1960s Clarke turned to non-fiction. Aided by trips to Japan, wartime hatreds faded, and one of his publishers, John Iremonger, remarked that his writings ‘were about compassion and forgiveness’ (Coulthard-Clark 1996, 12). He had a Japanese collaborator for Break-out! (1965), an account of the 1944 Cowra breakout by Japanese prisoners, and for To Sydney by Stealth (1966), about the 1942 midget submarine attacks. Retirement from the public service in June 1976 due to ill-health enabled him to produce an impressive array of new titles, including Last Stop Nagasaki! (1984) on Allied prisoners held in that city, and, with Colin Burgess, Barbed Wire and Bamboo: Australian POWs in Europe, North Africa, Singapore, Thailand and Japan (1992). In leading the ‘second wave’ of prisoner of war writers, he opened up such new themes as the difficulty returnees faced in adjusting to civilian life, and encouraged other writers to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the long term nature of the personal experience of captivity. His The Long Arm: A Biography of a Northern Territory Policeman (1974) was a significant source on Northern Territory history.

On 6 June 1961 at the Canberra Registry Office Clarke had married Mary Patricia Ryan, a journalist and historian. He finally found true happiness from the company of his children and from this marriage, which he saw as ‘the turning point in recovering from his ordeal’ (Coulthard-Clark 1996, 12). Short, wiry, extraordinarily energetic, and gregarious, he treated his many devoted readers with respect and affection, and felt energised by their responses. Following a short illness, he died in Canberra on 28 November 1996 and was buried, survived by his wife and their two sons and one daughter, and the two sons of his first marriage.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Clarke, Hugh V. Interview by Hank Nelson and Tim Bowden, 18 March 1983. Australian War Memorial
  • Clarke, Hugh V. The Broke and the Broken: Life in the Great Depression. Spring Hill, Qld: Boolarong, 1982
  • Clarke, Hugh V. Twilight Liberation: Australian Prisoners of War Between Hiroshima and Home. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1985
  • Clarke, Patricia. Personal communication
  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris. ‘Writer’s Career Shaped by War.’ Australian, 17 December 1996, 12
  • McKernan, Michael. This War Never Ends: The Pain of Separation and Return. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX17307
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9747, Papers of Hugh Clarke
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael McKernan, 'Clarke, Hugh Vincent (1919–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clarke-hugh-vincent-1560/text39020, published online 2021, accessed online 19 October 2021.

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