John Wheat was one of the most complex and interesting of the AE2 ratings. He tried twice to escape from POW camp, later writing in minute detail of his experiences.
Born on 3 August 1893 in Sale, Victoria, Wheat grew up on a small holding in Gippsland, where he and his brothers cleared virgin bush to establish a dairy herd. He joined the RAN soon after his eighteenth birthday in 1911, and on 22 February 1913 volunteered for seven years’ service as a submariner on the navy’s new AE2. His diary records his emotion at losing AE2: ‘She had been my home for nearly eighteen months, and I missed her … ’
Wheat’s first escape attempt was made in mid August 1916, with AE2’s Alex Nichols. Assigned to a tunnel camp at Haçikiri, 12 miles from Belemedik, they carefully investigated the terrain and found that they were about 45 miles from the coast—but would have to cross wild mountains to reach it. They set off with pilfered food and high hopes, but found the ravines, cliffs and gullies impenetrable. There was no water, food or shelter, and they were attacked by wild dogs. They finally reached the sea near Mersina (Içel) and made a raft, only to find it could not take their weight. ‘It was a huge disappointment,’ wrote Wheat. They were able to buy some food from locals, but then their luck ran out. Nichols was badly stung by a scorpion, and could hardly walk as they made their way to Tarsus. With both men weak and hungry, they decided to head back to the Baghdad rail line, where they met a party of English prisoners who gave them food. They were arrested by a sentry and paraded before a camp commandant ‘who flew into such a temper he could hardly speak’ at their audacity. Wheat and Nichols had been away for 19 days.
Both were severely punished. Tied up and locked in vermin-infested dark holes for many days, they were then marched back to Belemedik and imprisoned again. Nichols suffered a severe attack of malaria, and collapsed while being questioned. Then, bizarrely, both were released after promising not to escape again.
Wheat was sent back to Afion Kara Hissar which was suffering under the command of a particularly brutal Turkish commandant. Wheat wrote of him: ‘He would send for the youngest prisoners to have secret and private interviews … conduct and morality so bestial and unnatural that … a revolt throughout the camp seemed imminent.’ The commandant was eventually found out and removed.
Wheat was again sent back to the Taurus Mountains, this time to Bör, near Niğde on the northern side of the mountains, where he spent some time recovering from bouts of malaria. The climate was very hot, and the food so bad that Wheat wrote ‘we wouldn’t give [it] to dogs in Australia’. After transfer to a railway repair workshop, he began to plan another escape, fearing that he would not survive these conditions.
With AE2’s Jim Cullen and a soldier, Private Samson, Wheat began to collect items to build a collapsible boat. The project took the men seven months, working on it in secret at night.
Throughout the night of 29 April 1918, they carried the boat in pieces across rough country, then slept all the next day. The following night there was a thunderstorm, and the heavy rain continued all through the next day. They had reached flat ground but the continuous rain had turned the fields they were crossing into muddy bogs, and their food was saturated.
Cullen had an attack of malaria that night, and they were forced to leave the boat in the middle of a wheat field and return to their camp near Kelebek. Cullen had been working for the Indian Army doctor, Captain Clifford, who had been able to conceal his absence. But Wheat and Samson were not so lucky. Both were thrown into the ‘Black Hole of Gelebek’—an infamous, filthy dungeon crawling with lice and fleas. Captain Clifford finally rescued them, but both were so unfit that they were sent back to Afion Kara Hissar in May 1918.
Wheat was selected for exchange of 1000 men for enemy prisoners in October 1918, and made his way to Smyrna (Izmir) where he wrote that he was ‘overjoyed to see the Australian hospital ship, Kanowna’. It took him to Alexandria and then to London, before returning with its load of prisoners of war to Australia.
Wheat recovered quickly, and served again in the RAN until the end of February 1920, when he left Australia for Singapore to work for the British India Navigation Company, where he rose to the rank of officer. In 1923 he married Matron Marie Hunstone, a nurse who had worked in Mesopotamia during the war and had received several awards for valour.
John and Marie Wheat returned to Australia after some years, and lived in a number of NSW coastal towns. They visited England in 1950, and met up with Captain Stoker. John Wheat died in the 1950s, at which time Marie moved back to Derbyshire to live with her family.