Ron Hassett (known a Scotty to friends) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England on 20 March 1922. As a teenager (16) he entered a training scheme, conducted by the Salvation Army in England, which prepared young men for a career in farming in Australia. He left England in December 1938 and arrived in Brisbane in January 1939. He then worked on farming properties in the Thangool area in Queensland.
The official records show that Ron enlisted into the AIF on 3 July 1941. (Ron contends that he actually enlisted during May 1941). Ron had undertaken first aid training in England and was allocated to the Medical Corps. He subsequently trained in Brisbane, Tamworth, Concord and Cowra. He was sent to Singapore. Movement was on the Aquitania from Sydney, via Fremantle and the troops were landed in Singapore on 24 January 1942. (They had been transferred to lighters to move into Singapore). He was initially at the General Base Depot at Johore and was then sent to Singapore Island Golf Club, as a reinforcement for the 2/19 Battalion. It was here that the General Base Depot established a “camp” hospital under command of Captain (Dr) Philip Millard.
After capitulation, he moved, with patients, to Selerang and Roberts Barracks where Ron was placed on the strength of the 2/13 Australian General Hospital. His first contact with Major Bruce Hunt (Medical Officer) was at the time of capitulation, but, he had closer contact later at Roberts Barracks Hospital and still later when they were both members of “F” Force working on the Burma Thailand Railway. He describes Hunt as “A Man amongst men”.
Ron worked at the Hospital facility at Roberts Barracks from May 1942 to April 1943. Then in April 1943, as a member of “F” Force, he travelled to Thailand to slave on the Burma Thailand Railway. “F” Force was a force of 7,000 POWs, comprising 3,400 British and 3,600 Australians. He was on the first of about 10 train loads of around 650 POWs sent to Thailand. The journey on the train is worth noting. The men were crammed 28/32 into steel rail trucks (approx 18 feet by 8 feet) for 5 days / 4 nights. The rail trucks only had a side door and ablutions had to be achieved through this door on the move. Food stops were spasmodic.
“F” Force on arrival at Banpong in Thailand was then forced to march around 280 kms in a northerly direction towards the border with Burma. The march took around 18 nights. Marching was at night as the day time temperatures were around 45 degrees Celsius. The monsoon season had commenced and they marched on mud tracks, sometimes sinking inches into the mud. Quite a number died during the march. Ron became a member of Pond’s (Commanding Officer of 2/29 Battalion) Party, a smaller element of “F” Force. This was a party of 712 POWs who collectively possibly had a harder time than all groups on the line. Once in northern Thailand they were moved many times. This necessitated carrying their tents, their sick and the Japanese tools with each move. The monsoon had, by this time, fully broken and the tracks were muddy. Many men were bare footed as they lost boots when stuck in the mud or the boots had rotted.
Whilst a member of Pond’s Party, Ron observed at close hand the work of Captain Roy Mills. Mills was the only Medical Officer with the party. He says Mills was an extremely dedicated doctor who should never be forgotten. (In 1994 Mills published his book “Doctor’s Diary and Memories” which provides detailed accounts of the conditions suffered by Pond’s Party).
Ron had the opportunity of observing the officers in Pond’s Party. Two who stood out in his mind were Captain Ben Barnett (Australian wicket keeper) and Captain Curlewis (later District Court Judge in New South Wales). He had contact with a number of other medical orderlies. Amongst them were George Beecham (2/10 Field Ambulance), Rex Marshall (2/3 Motor Ambulance Convoy), Geoff Vellacott (13 Australian General Hospital and also an unofficial chaplain) and Bob Peacock (2/9 Field Ambulance), “Tiny” Parker (13 AGH), Ben Beckham (10th AGH) and Sergeant Eddy Nutt (10 AGH).
He also recalls the Japanese commander of the group Lt Maruyama (Muriama), who he described as “an absolute bastard” and Sergeant Ioke. He remembers seeing Ioke bashing Roy Mills with a piece of burning wood. Whilst with the group (in the Takanun area) Ron accompanied the work parties when they worked on embankments, bridging, cuttings and working on roads/tracks.
Ron remembers that when the line was joined and the early trains moved into Burma, there was one carriage with Comfort Women on board for the Jap soldiers. He also recalls an incident in August 1943 when a land slide occurred in a cutting. Three of the POWs were buried. On this rare occasion the Japanese guards were outstanding in promptly dashing to the rescue, and digging with their hands to recover the men.
When the line was finished Pond’s Party moved from the northern end of the line to the Kanchanaburi area, then ultimately back to Singapore to Sime Road Camp. His return journey to Singapore was by train. When back in Singapore he was on working parties “P” (on the docks) and “X” (constructing Jap defences etc in the Jurong-Panjang area). Captain Roy Mills (although very ill) was the medical officer with these parties until he was sent to Changi Hospital where he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis.
Following the end of the war Ron returned to Australia and was discharged from the Army in Brisbane on 21 December 1945.
He subsequently studied and became a plumber, drainer, health inspector and obtained a Diploma in Tropical Hygiene. Ultimately he became the Chief Health Inspector for the Queensland Government. Ron also played 1st Division Soccer from 1946 to 1970 in South East Queensland. He represented Brisbane and Queensland. Also represented Australia on a tour to New Caledonia in 1950. He was also a soccer coach and referee in Brisbane.
Article prepared by Lt Col Peter Winstanley by telephone interview and exchange of correspondence. In 2007 Ron Hassett and his wife Val reside in Bundaberg, Queensland. In the early days of my interest in the Medical Officers on the Burma Thailand Railway, Ron was helpful in directing me to the following reference material,-