Feature

This PoW found peace on the line

A LIFE WELL LIVED: Changi POW Bill Fitch at home in Kingscliff with wife Muriel.
A LIFE WELL LIVED: Changi POW Bill Fitch at home in Kingscliff with wife Muriel. Blainey Woodham

BILL Fitch was four when he caught his first fish, an Australian salmon.

That catch at his home town of Bega on the South Coast was the intro to a life on the water and fishing, professionally, for pleasure. It possibly even saved his life.

Bill's father's work took the family to the northern suburbs of Sydney and Manly, where he learnt to swim.

His "lesson" consisted of his father taking him into deep water at Manly and leaving him to his own resources.

"I didn't think I would do it again," Bill said. "But I did."

Now 91 and living in Kingscliff with a failing short-term memory but a keen recollection of his early years, Bill remembers as a seven-year-old rowing a dinghy under the ferry wharf at Manly while his father gathered red crabs from around the pylons for bait.

They would then row out to North Head, anchor close to the rocks and his dad would drop a line over the side and pull in blue groper.

Much of Bill's spare time was spent fishing open waters in flimsy boats that would be deemed crazy today.

He loved fishing for luderick and one memorable catch in his teenage years was 149 good-sized fish in one outing. He released them.

A local doctor who fished with his father piqued Bill's interest as a 16-year-old in becoming a volunteer ambulance officer with the St John's Ambulance brigade.

As the world became embroiled in the Second World War and the Japanese were advancing towards Australia, he enticed Bill to bump his age up a year or two so he could enlist in the army medical corps.

He celebrated his 21st birthday as a prisoner of war.

As a medical orderly in Malaysia with the 2/3rd Motor Ambulance Convoy with K Force, Bill was captured by the

Bill Fitch enlisted in the Australian Army medical corps at the age of 17.
Bill Fitch enlisted in the Australian Army medical corps at the age of 17. CONTRIBUTED

Japanese and sent to Changi prison camp and the notorious Thai-Burma railway line. He was assigned to look after an enormous workforce of locals and had to dig their graves when they died, which they did in thousands after succumbing to cholera, smallpox, dysentery, malaria and ill-treatment by their captors.

Bill was in various camps and because of his association with the locals, at one stage didn't speak English for 12 months.

At the camps he developed "pretty crook ulcers" on his leg and part of his self-prescribed treatment was to sit with his leg in the River Kwai so that the fish could come and eat the rotting flesh away from the wounds.

"It used to hurt a fair bit," Bill said.

"The hairs on every part of your body would stand on end."

The Japanese used the fish for the dinner table, gathering them as they floated up after being killed by dynamiting in the river for the railway construction.

Bill would wait until nightfall and jump into the river and take any fish the Japanese missed back to camp to supplement the inmates' meagre diet. On one memorable "fishing expedition" he saw a large fish struggling on the surface and jumped into the swiftly running river to retrieve it. The fish was well on the way to recovering from the blast.

As he grabbed it by the tail, it headed to the depths, taking him to the limits of his breath before running out of fight and Bill swam it back to the surface.

"I just hung on and went with it," Bill said. "I thought I was going to lose it."

He had been carried about 200m by the current. He made his way to the bank where a PoW, a doctor named Harry was waiting to help.

"Harry had a bamboo pole and we got the fish out of the river and stuck the pole through its gills.

"We had the pole on our shoulders and the tail dragging on the ground," Bill recalled. "The guards didn't know we had the fish until we neared the camp. They ordered us to drop it, which we did, because if we didn't we would cop it.

The Jap took it from us and he brought us back a little fish about 20cm long as a replacement. At least we didn't starve.

On arriving in Sydney after three and a half years as a PoW his once-proud 6ft-plus (1.8m) frame had been reduced to a mere six stone (38kg). He took a long time to recover.

He took his father's advice to just "get on with it", aided by a return to his passion: the sea, fishing and boats.

Bill married, settled down in Dee Why and his professional and recreational life once again revolved around fishing, working as a deckhand on a number of game-fishing boats and fishing whenever he found a spare moment.

His first game fish was a 12.7kg bluefin tuna, caught on a 9kg line. It was the catalyst for a passion to catch fish as big as possible on light tackle. As a member of the Sydney Game Fishing Club, which he joined in 1955, he captured his first black marlin off Port Stephens which turned out to be an Australian game fishing record. Over 17 years with the Sydney Game Fishing Club he held many positions and was awarded life membership in 1967.

Over the ensuing years Bill became known throughout the country for his exploits and knowledge of fishing with a

Bill with a 25kg sailfish caught on a 5.5kg line, one of his many records.
Bill with a 25kg sailfish caught on a 5.5kg line, one of his many records. CONTRIBUTED

light line and rod. One of his greatest achievements was landing a 50kg marlin on a 5.5kg line in 1966.

In 1972, he headed north to Australia's game-fishing capital, Cairns, where he worked on charter boats, made a name for himself as a rod builder and still managed to pursue his love for light-tackle fishing.

Over the following years there was little to do with fishing that Bill Fitch hasn't pursued and been successful in achieving, including being fishing consultant and editor with a large international publishing house.

He has held at least 13 Australian Game Fishing records.

He returned to Sydney and in 1981completed a three-year course in Marine Biology at Sydney University while living on Bill's 30ft ketch, the Mistress May in Sydney's Pittwater.

Ten years ago Bill and Muriel, his wife of 22 years, settled in Kingscliff, where they are living out their retirement.

It is a while since Bill's age and illness stopped him fishing, but mention of the word brings a spark to his eye and a smile on his face.

Topics:  bill fitch, changi, fishing, world war 2


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