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australian rowers profiles and history

Sgt Geoffrey T Hastie

Mercantile Rowing Club (VIC)

Geoffrey Theo Hastie, 9 Jan 1918 - 20 July 1945

Geoff was a very active member of the Club who served as Vice-Captain in the 1939-40 season.

He was one of at least four Mercantile members who died at the hands of the Japanese as POWs. He is also one of at least three club members who joined 2/21 Battalion, part of Gull Force, and died as POWs at Ambon, with one (not Hastie) being killed in the infamous Ambon massacre in February 1942.

He initially enlisted in Surrey Hill Battalion in 1938. It would appear that this was more like a Reservist style Battalion which was a support company. The medical Officer who inspected him was none other than famous King's Cup oarsman, Clive Disher. He was tall for his time being 6' 2" tall. Geoffrey enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces on 15th July 1940 as a young single man. He rose from the rank of private through to Sergeant. He died at the hands of the Japanese whilst a prisoner of war and is buried at the Ambon War Cemetry. 

The 2/21st Battalion arrived on Ambon in December 1941 where they created Gull Force with a number of smaller units. Gull Force's combined strength was 1,131 men, and when a Japanese force numbering 20,000 landed on Ambon, they were inevitably overwhelmed. Only an estimated 54 Australians were killed in the fighting on Ambon, though another 229 men were massacred after surrendering. Over 800 members of Gull Force became prisoners of war and endured three years of forced labour, starvation and brutality. Only 300 of these men would survive to make it home to Australia as the conditions for the prisoners on Ambon were poor and they suffered the highest death rate of any group of Australian prisoners of war during the conflict. The Battalion website states: [O]f the 528 men who stayed on Ambon only 119 survived, the rest died of starvation, overwork, disease and brutality.

Sadly he could not survive another month until August 1945 when WWII effectively ended with the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He became one of the 500 POWs who died at the hands of the Japanese. To survive that long required luck and importantly, enormous mental and physical reserves.

2 / 21st Bn. B Company. Photo taken before embarkation
Geoff Hastie is in the second row from the front, sixth from the right

The Club received a surprise bequest from Geoff in 1946. The annual report records as follows: .... a cheque for 50 pounds has been received from the Estate of the late Geoff Hastie for the purchase of a boat. Geoff, who was a successful maiden and junior oarsman, and vice-captain prior to his enlistment, was always a keen club man and an energetic executive officer. That his thoughts were of the Club, even as he left Australia on Active Service, is shown by this legacy.

Andrew Guerin
March 2023

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