On 17 October 2003, it will be 60 years since the completion of the infamous Burma Thailand Railway. This was a single- track railway 421 kms long, constructed by the Imperial Japanese Army, which connected the rail systems of Burma and Thailand. More than 60,000 Prisoners of War (POW) and a huge number of natives were used in the construction. It is assessed that around 13,000 POWs died over a period of around 16 months. Around 90,000 of the natives are estimated to have died. The deaths were caused by endemic diseases (malaria, dysentery, pellagra, cholera), starvation, exhaustion and beatings.
Amongst the West Australians who laboured on the railway, were 4 men who were or became solicitors and one who became a magistrate. They were Captain George Gwynne, Lieutenants Jim Lalor, Ross Ambrose, Bernie O’Sullivan and James Wilson.
Their details are as follows:-
Bernard (Bernie) O’Sullivan was a Lieutenant in the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion. (Pre-war he had enlisted in the 28th Battalion as a member of the Militia). 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion landed in Singapore on 25 January 1942. On 8 February the Japanese commenced their attack on Singapore Island and General Percival capitulated on 15 February 1942. The Allied servicemen became Prisoners of War (POW) that day.
In May 1943 Bernie was sent to Thailand as part of H Force
(3,000 POWs including 700 Australians). H Force was located at the southern
end of the Railway and was involved, amongst other things, in the notorious
Hellfire Pass. Bernie was in Malayan Hamlet with Major Bert Saggers (owner
of Saggers Shoe Store in Perth) and the Medical Officer was Kevin Fagen
(who was highly regarded by the POWs in this location). Work in Hellfire
Pass commenced on Anzac Day 1943. Hellfire Pass was a cutting which was
400m long and 18m in depth and was cut through solid rock by manual labour
using a technique known as “hammer and tap”. The cutting was
completed in twelve weeks at a cost of 400 lives. Bernie suffered from
cerebral malaria whist working on the line. On completion
Post war Bernie worked for a period as the Associate to Chief Justice Sir John Dwyer. He subsequently studied and passed the examinations for appointment as a magistrate. In 1953 he was appointed Magistrate at Cue. There followed time at Kalgoorlie, Narrogin, Northam and Perth. In 1967 he was appointed Chief Industrial Commissioner, retiring in 1981. For some 30 years he was President of the West Australian Football League Tribunal. Bernie, having been a Legacy Ward himself, was an active member of Legacy for many years. As a younger man he was involved in athletics and continued his association with the sport after the war. Bernie was awarded the Order of Australia in 1985. He passed away in 1996 aged 75.
George was sent to Thailand to work on the Railway April 1943 as a part of F Force. This was a force of 7,000 being 3,400 British and 3,600 Australians. This group is regarded as having the worst experience of all POWs. They marched 300km over 18 nights from their arrival point in Thailand to their work station. This was in temperatures over 40°C. The death rate within this group was 44% (59% British, 28% Australians). George worked closely with Major Bruce Hunt (a prominent Perth Doctor specializing in diabetes and generally regarded as the outstanding Medical Officer of F Force). He was at some stage working as the Ward Master in Hunt’s hospital facility, which was established at 50 kilo camp in Burma. In an article written for “The West Australian” on 29 November 1945, Bruce Hunt made mention of the many volunteers, including George, who worked in the wards in Burma. Of approximately 2,000 POW patients in this hospital facility, 750 died. Following completion of the Railway in October 1943, the bulk of the POWs were transported back to Singapore like cattle (the same as their move from Singapore to Thailand by rail around 12 months earlier). He spent some time, with Bernie O’Sullivan, employed on the Changi aerodrome. At all times George was prepared to place himself between the Japanese and the POWs and suffered bashings from the Japanese guards.
George served articles in the late 1920’s and became a partner in Parker and Parker in 1930. George and his wife Sheila had interests in the racing industry. The champion horse Raconteur was bred and raced by Sheila. At one stage pre war George was a leading amateur jockey. He was also a keen yachtsman and was Commodore of Royal Perth Yacht Club in mid 1930’s. George was an active member of Legacy for many years. He passed away in 1962.
Jim was sent to Burma as a part of 3,000 Australians in A Force. This force went to Burma around mid 1942 and commenced building the railway from the northern end in October 1942. The force remained on the line until completion at end 1943 and was then shifted to the southern end of the railway in Thailand.
Rohan Rivett in his book “Behind Bamboo” had
this to say of Jim.
Pre War Jim graduated in law and was in partnership with Max Kott when he enlisted. Post war he was a partner in the law firm Maxwell Lalor and Associates. He passed away in 1979 aged 67.
T.R. (Ross) Ambrose enlisted
in the AIF. Ross was an older man. On enlistment he was aged 35. He was
a reinforcement for the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion. He too became a POW
on 15th February 1942 in Singapore. As with Bernie O’Sullivan he
was sent to Thailand as a part of H Force. This group laboured on the
southern end of the Railway. 25% of this force died in Thailand. This
force left Thailand for Singapore in May 1943 and, like the others, was
transported 30 POW to a steel railway truck 18ft by 7ft. They had to take
turns to lie down. The journey lasted five days/4 nights. The following
are some anecdotes provided by Ross’s son David:
His sister Mrs. Deborah Carson was in Sydney when the POWs returned. They were reunited with relatives at the Sydney Show Grounds. She remembers that Ross was very wasted being only around 6 stone and he had dreadful sores (caused by 3-1/2 years of malnutrition as a POW).
Post war Ross became a Senior Partner in Jackson McDonald. He passed away in 1988.
As with Jim Lalor, Blue laboured on the Burma end of the line from mid 1942 to around January 1944. He was discharged from the army later than most in March 1946. There is an unconfirmed suggestion that he returned to Australia via England.
After the war he gained his matriculation in 1947 and graduated from University of Western Australia in 1953. Blue joined Joseph, Muir and Williams after his admission in 1955. Justice Robert Anderson had this to say about Blue: “He was a person who showed profound concern for his clients and displayed meticulous attention to detail”. Robert Meadows QC said “Blue was a marvelous chap who put new articled clerks at ease and made them most welcome”. Around 1963 he moved to Hong Kong where he became a magistrate and subsequently rose to higher judicial office. It is understood that he developed a deep interest in antiques. He was an extremely generous man and sponsored a number of Hong Kong students to study in Australia. He was a wonderful host to Western Australians passing through Hong Kong. Blue died around 1980 having never married.
As a related matter, Robert Mazza’s uncle Harry Mazza, a Lieutenant in 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion, died in the defence of Singapore.
Notes prepared by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley
RFD (Retired) JP E-mail email@example.com
The assistance of Harry Lodge, Ian Warner, Trevor O’Sullivan, Mrs. Val O’Sullivan, Mrs. Mollie Lalor, David Ambrose, Mrs. Deborah Carson, Mrs. Lillian Lee, Rory Argyle, Justice Robert Anderson, Robert Meadows QC and Geoffrey Kennedy QC is acknowledged.
FINAL VERSION 18/8/03