Rowley Richards was born in Sydney in 1916. He attended the following schools as a youngster,-Dobroyd Point Infants, Petersham Primary, Summer Hill intermediate, Fort Street Boys’ High.
Rowley became a medical student at Sydney University in 1934. Whilst at University he joined the Militia in the Artillery and received his first appointment into the 2/15 Field Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant RAA and subsequently with the rank of Captain AAMC.
With the outbreak of war Rowley was posted as Regimental Medical Officer with the 2/15 Field Regiment. The Unit was deployed to Malaya in August 1941. During the defence and withdrawal down the Malayan Peninsular the unit was in support of 27 Brigade. In the vicinity of Muar and Gemas there were many casualties amongst the allies. Along with other medical officers, Rowley was involved in the treatment of the casualties. Eventually , the allies retreated to Singapore Island and in due course capitulation took place 15 February 1942.
In May 1942, Rowley was one of 12 Australian Medical Officers who became part of A Force. Lt Col Albert Coates later arrived with 500 British from Java. A Force was a force of 3,000 Australian POWs. The Japanese Imperial Army moved the force to Burma in rusty old tramp ships. They were crammed in the ships holds in atrocious conditions. The force was deployed at a number of locations along the Burma Coast and Rowley was at Tavoy. Other officers located at Tavoy were Brigadier Varley, Colonel Charles Anderson VC and Captain Bill Drower (a British officer, who was fluent in Japanese and was an interpreter) , there were also a number of other medical officers from the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station. The main work here was to repair the aerodrome. It was at Tavoy that 8 members of the 2/4 Anti Tank Regiment escaped, were captured and subsequently executed.
In October 1942 the bulk of the force moved to Thanbyuzayat and construction of the Railway from the north commenced. Rowley became a member of Anderson Force, commanded by Lt Col Charles Anderson VC. His relationship with his commander was difficult. Their roles were so different. Rowley hell bent on the care of his sick patients. Anderson trying to play the balancing act of satisfying the demands of the Japanese engineers for more men on the work parties. They were often in conflict with each other. Rowley was in support of Anderson Force for the entire period that they were in Burma, except for a period of 6 weeks, when by order of the Japanese Commander all three medical officers with the mobile elements were exchanged with other medical officers from the CCS at Thanbyuzayat for a rest. His senior medical orderly, Sergeant Jim Armstrong, was very relieved and Roy Whitecross, who was working in the RAP, suggests in his book “Slaves of the Son of Heaven” page 98 that without the rest Rowley would have died. It should be noted that Rowley is loud in his praise of his medical orderlies, in particular, Jim Armstrong & “Pinky” Rhodes. Rowley kept records of all the deaths of the men under his direct care. It is of interest that Rowley had no amputations from tropical ulcer. He prescribed painstaking care of the ulcers, rather than to spooning/scraping treatment favoured by some others. He had to turn his hand to dentistry on occasion. His tools were a small pair of practically useless forceps, a pair of mechanics pliers and a pair on pincers. He was bashed by the Japanese or the Korean guards on a number of occasions and lost bits of his front teeth. He was in one of the camps where a Japanese soldier (who became known by the POWs as “Dillinger”) killed a POW.
When the Railway lines were joined on 17 October 1943, Anderson Force was working in the near vicinity. Following this, Rowley was moved with others to Tamakan, at the Southern end of the line. By comparison with conditions up the line, Tamakan was like a paradise. On arrival at Tamakan, Rowley was given a great welcome by two medical officers from Dunlop Force, Arthur Moon & Ewen Corlette.
Subsequently, Rowley became a medical officer accompanying those POWs selected to go to Japan. From Tamakan they were moved to Saigon for shipment to Japan and they were there for about 3 months. Whilst there Rowley was approached by British Officers, who had been in Saigon for the period of their incarceration, and asked to have the Australian troops stop telling lies about conditions on the railway line. They could not accept that conditions were as bad as stated.
Subsequently, the Japanese were not able to ship the POWs from Saigon and they were returned to Singapore by train. It was whilst in Singapore that Rowley buried his records and diary in a cemetery. They remained there until they were retrieved after the war by the War Graves Commission and returned to him ion 15 February, 1947..
The POWs were on the Rakuyo Maru, en route to Japan, when it was torpedoed by American submarines. Along with other officers Rowley had developed an evacuation plan in case the ship was torpedoed. Rowley was one of the last to leave the ship and ended up in a group of lifeboats. They were intent on getting to China (an estimated journey of 10/12 days). After some days in the lifeboats they were rescued by Japanese corvettes. Subsequently Rowley ended up in Sakata POW Camp in Japan. Together with a British medical officer, Jim Roulston, Rowley cared for 290 men in this camp. Both these officers were themselves in poor health but applied themselves, together with three British medical orderlies, to the care of all in the camp.
Following the end of the war, Rowley returned to Australia and was discharged in December 1945. In 1946 he resumed work as a resident doctor in Sydney and in 1948 went into general practice. In 1946 he and Beth married and in 2004 they reside in Beacon Hill, Sydney. Post war Rowley served in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) for around 12 years. Amongst other things, he was also a driving force behind the City to Surf (Fun Run) in Sydney.
Rowley pays tribute to the medical orderlies, the volunteers who helped their mates and to the men who improvised and made things for the care and comfort of their fellow POWs. He acknowledges the efforts of all the medical officers, but, singles out Lt Col Albert (Bertie) Coates for special mention, as the “greatest”.
Notes prepared by Lt Col Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired)