(This address was originally made at Thanbyuzayat 1 May 2003 and has been modified to apply generally to the Burma Thailand Railway)
We gather today to remember and honour all those who slaved, and those who died, on the Burma Thailand Railway as Prisoners of War of the Japanese over 60 years ago. We also remember those who have since died as a result of their experience.
Over 61,000 Allied POWS were sent by the Japanese to slave on this railway, together with over 200,000 Asian conscripted labourers (Coolies). Over 13,000 Allied POWs died on the railway and it is estimated that over 90,000 Coolies also died.
I pay special tribute to the Australians who were in my care and who died in spite of the TLC (tender loving care) given by my dedicated and compassionate Medical Orderlies and my own best efforts. The Medical Officers received kudos which rightly belonged to the Medical orderlies – they were the ones who did the hard work.
I admire those men for the ANZAC qualities they demonstrated – mateship, courage and bravery, indomitable spirit and determination, sense of humour, ability to improvise, and their never-ending hope and optimism.
Their mateship was legendary – I never once saw a sick Australian who did not have somebody to care for him.
They faced the terrors of cholera, dysentery, malaria, malnutrition, starvation and other tropical diseases, together with brutality and bashings, with remarkable courage and bravery.
They never lost their spirit to survive, their sense of humour and they never lost their hope of returning home to their loved-ones.
I have many, many memories of life, and death, on the Railway. One that stands out is our experience with the dreaded cholera which exemplified those qualities.
In May 1943 we moved into Taunzan at the 60 kilometre peg from Thanbyuzayat to find a filthy, muddy and dilapidated camp below a native Burmese camp and about 100 metres from a native Burmese cemetery with 150 to 200 open graves. Anderson Force shared this camp with Williams Force which I had also looked after while their Regimental Medical Officer, Lt Colonel Eadie, was away. On his return I took over the establishment and running of the isolation “hospital”
The entry in my diary of 12 May 1943 expresses the horror I felt:
For once we had cooperation from the Japanese, for they feared cholera as much as we did.
A special squad under Sgt Wilstencroft, an 8 Div Engineer, was detailed to convert a disused cattle pen into an isolation hospital. It was complete with fireplaces, latrines, and a series of separate decks, each carrying four to six patients at intervals of three or four metres. They were arranged so that patients with cholera, suspected cholera, dysentery, and severe diarrhoea could be formed into small groups, making for ease in isolation when any were found to be bacteriologically or clinically positive cases of cholera. There was no shortage of volunteer medical orderlies from both Anderson and Williams Forces to staff the isolation hospital.
This demonstrated the benefit of our previous training in hygiene discipline such as sterilizing the dixies before and after eating, the men’s ability to improvise, courage in facing the dreaded disease and true mateship in action.
The outcome – There were only four deaths from cholera in Anderson Force during the first four days followed by two further cases in July and three in September/ October, the latter being complicated by dysentery and malaria. The experience in Williams Force was similar but very different from that of some other forces.
On behalf of all the Allied Prisoners of War, and their families, I thank all who are responsible for assisting us to preserve the memories of these men. The cemeteries at Thanbyuzayat, Chungkai and Kanchanaburi are testimony to the release from suffering of so many. This area at Hellfire Pass is a representative symbol of the railway, without being able to depict the actual deplorable conditions suffered.
May they rest in peace.
Note from Lt Col Winstanley – In 2005 Rowley Richards published his story in a book titled “A Doctor’s War” ISBN 0 7322 8009 5. It is recommended.