Born on 24 May 1894 at Lang Lang, Victoria, Jim Cullen was the great yarn-spinner and larrikin of the AE2, both attributes which he displayed frequently during his three and a half years in captivity in Turkey.
One of seven children in a large Catholic family, he grew up on a farm outside Perth, WA. All four boys in the family served in WWI. Cullen was selected as crew to join the new AE2 submarine, going aboard in Sydney as a 19-year-old stoker.
As a POW, Cullen was sent to Belemedik as one of a Catholic group. This peculiar separation was the result of intensive lobbying of Enver Pasha and the Turkish government by the Catholic Apostolic Representative in Constantinople, Monsignor Dolci, to try to secure more favourable treatment for his flock, which also included a large number of French submariners.
It’s thought that Cullen spoke German, which would have been a great advantage in the camp. AIF Corporal George Kerr’s shorthand diaries record many personal details of life in the prison camps. In December 1915 Kerr wrote that Jim had an ‘amazing ability as a yarn-spinner … most of Cullen’s stories were an hour’s vigil’.
One tale concerned a goat which followed the sailors into a hotel, demanded beer, and when it did not receive it, signalled its despair by butting whoever was shouting. But the best [story] of all was a cockatoo which had for its vocabulary two very objectionable words. One day the bird got covered with coal tar, and one of the men received orders to have the bird cleaned before devotions the next morning. He cleaned it, but dipped it in caustic soda, which took all the feathers off the poor thing. At devotions next morning, there was the bird sitting on the floor by our mess table without a feather on, except two on the head, and uttering very bad words, which, in the circumstances, we found appropriate.
Cullen and Kerr soon became regular, boisterous and indulgent drinking partners. This led to boxing matches and fights which caused gradual mental and physical deterioration. From this low point onwards, Cullen left Kerr’s group in that mess and was next recorded as working in the hospital at Belemedik under the protection of an outstanding POW doctor, Captain Clifford of the Indian Army.
Cullen contracted malaria during an epidemic which swept the camp at this time. He was next assigned to a group working along the railway line at Kelebek, which included the AE2’s John Wheat and a Private Samson of the AIF. The three began to hatch an escape plan after secretly building a boat; they hoped to reach the coast some 35 miles away. It took the trio three months, working secretly at night, to construct the boat from stolen materials, all of which had to be carefully hidden away every day. They did escape on the night of 29 April 1918 and almost made it to the coast, but were at the last minute foiled, both by incredibly heavy rain and by Cullen falling ill with an attack of malaria. They were forced to return to camp, where Cullen was able to hide his absence as he worked separately from the others at the hospital. Both Wheat and Samson, however, were punished.
Cullen was released from the camp at the end of 1918, still far from well. He arrived safely back in England but was hospitalised for many months. He never returned to his family home but re-enlisted in the RAN for a further five years’ service in 1919. He left Australia to live and work in New Zealand some time during the 1930s. He was killed in an earthquake in New Zealand in 1945, aged 61.