Saved from execution by a wartime double agent, Patricia Dennis tells ALANA MITCHELSON that living on borrowed time has driven her on to new challenges.
The glamourous life of modelling across Europe and appearing as a special guest on evening television programs during the 1950s and ‘60s could not have been further removed from Patricia Dennis’ early life when her family was incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines.
Ms Dennis spent three and a half years of her childhood living in squalid conditions under the constant and heavy surveillance of Japanese soldiers.
Now 82 years old and having found peace in her retreat home among the greenery of Beaconsfield, Ms Dennis has documented her life in a memoir, Hell to Happiness.
“We all suffered from malnutrition in the camp,” she said.
“We got skinnier and skinnier – our ribs stuck out like skeletons. We lost all shape in our bodies. We were so weak that we would have to often lie down.
“The Japanese guards would eat fruit and us kids would watch, hopeful, through a barbed wire fence.
“We were given two-and-a-half ounces of rice to last the whole day. Kids would hang around to scrape the burnt rice off the vats for a little bit of extra food.”
Ms Dennis has taken nothing in her life for granted, always reminding her daughters to never waste food. She noted that, even today, she is a slow eater.
The mother of four perceives life as a blessing.
“I’ve always had a strong belief in the angels. I believe they’ve always been with me, that we’re never alone,” Ms Dennis said.
“There were so many moments when I could have been killed. Sometimes I wonder why I am still alive when really I shouldn’t be.
“I have a tremendous sense of gratitude. Life is exceptionally valuable. People died to save us.
“I think that drove me to make everything I did in my life a success; to give the best of myself.”
As it became clearer that there was to be a war in the Pacific, Ms Dennis’ father told his wife and children to pack their bags.
They were to leave Manila the following day.
“But that night we were woken to the sound of bombs,” Ms Dennis said.
“It was quite terrifying. The sky was ablaze with colour and explosions. We made the decision to flee to the countryside to be out of the range of fire and lucky we had done so because our house was burnt to the ground.
“But it was not long before the Japanese found us.”
Packed in like sardines into large army trucks, the Dennis family was taken to the University of Santo Tomas which – with its 10-feet high concrete walls and great big iron bar gates – became an ideal site for the Japanese to corral their prisoners of war. At one stage there were 7000 people incarcerated there at the one time.
“There were a lot of children at the camp,” Ms Dennis said.
“We walked around in bare feet because we didn’t have shoes and we wore very sparse clothes that would just fall to pieces on you.
“There was no real family life. Men were separated on a different floor from the women and children.
“We were held in lecture rooms. I can still picture the sea of canvas stretchers.
“Guards would come in every day to check everyone was there and we were expected to bow right down to them.”
Ms Dennis admitted that during her time at the camp, there was “nothing terribly concrete to be hopeful about” and described their rescue by United States troops as a “miracle”.
The Americans had devised a surprise evening attack in late January of 1945.
Ms Dennis closed her eyes as she recounted the horrors of their escape.
“It became quite explosive. There were lots of bombs going off and we got caught in the crossfire. The sound was deafening,” she said.
“We were all crowding into the staircase, absolutely terrified.
“Five hundred people were killed or badly maimed that night.”
They were then placed on a US troop ship that needed to travel through enemy infested water before reaching Australia.
The fear did not leave them until they safely set foot on Australian soil, with other ships in their convoy not having been so fortunate.
Ms Dennis described the feeling upon landing in Australia as being “intoxicated with joy out of our minds”.
Her younger sister had forgotten what a bath looked like.
It would not be until years later that she would discover that an order had been issued for the beheading of all prisoners of war at their camp and that a double agent had alerted US troops.
They were rescued hours before the planned execution.
Arriving in Australia at age 10, Ms Dennis could not read, write or spell and lacked a proper education.
And, despite her success in later life, she always felt as though she was “playing catch up”.
Ms Dennis found herself drawn to the modelling industry and after winning the national title for the Australian Beach Girl quest in 1955, became the cover girl on the front page of many women’s magazines.
She later scored her own weekly TV segment covering women’s issues on Hal Todd’s Midday Show, a dancing role in the BBC film Vanity Fair, and TV roles in The Secret Life of Us and Something in the Air.
She first moved to Beaconsfield in 1961, seemingly living two contrasting lives – a life in the TV spotlight and life on the farm.
Not one to be idle, Ms Dennis returned to modelling at age 50, began a Jumbuk Bed and Breakfast in Yinnar at age 69 and is currently, at age 82, painting a collection of artworks.
“I have always looked forward rather than dwell on my past, but I’ve always felt grateful to be alive,” she said.
“I’ve always found challenges very stimulating and I’ve never been frightened of things that I find challenging.
“I think I’ve found that living on borrowed time will sharpen your appreciation for life.”
For more information, visit helltohappiness.com.
Originally published at Pakenham Gazette.