Our large group of 46 people met in Bangkok on Mon 8th November and we commenced our travels together with a trip to Non Pladuk where the Thai Burma railway began.
We were honoured to have three ex-POWs in our group, John Parkes (from Sydney 8 Div Sigs and “F” Force), Bill Haskell (2/3 Machine Gun Battalion Syria, Java, “Dunlop” Force and Japan) and Don Lee (2/4 Machine Gun Battalion and “H” Force). John traveled with his wife Vera and 5 other family members, and Don and his wife Peggy with 5 family members.
Along the way John, Bill and Don related stories of mateship, of Japanese brutality, some acts of kindness by Japanese, sickness, the conditions in which they lived and worked, descriptions of the ingenious devices created out of jungle materials and scraps used for medical purposes or pure survival, long marches, and small miracles. Is seems disrespectful to list these stories as headings in a single sentence. However, we all listened avidly at the time and marveled at their courage, their strength of spirit and their ingenuity and were thankful that they were willing to share their experiences with us.
Angela Gunn, daughter of Dr Colin Juttner (Medical Officer “F” Force and in the most northern POW camp Kami Songkurai), also shared stories related by her father, and her memories of his long association with his batman, Barnie Woodbury, that lasted well after the war.
Glad Cowie and Gail Lubicz-Zaorski, widow and daughter of ex POW Harold Cowie and Noel and Ann Clarke, whose father and father-in-law was a POW (he survived having his leg amputated by Lt Col Coates in Burma) were on their first trip to the railway. Glad and Gail were fortunate to be taken to the site of Harold’s camp at Shimo Songkurai. This was arranged by the tour leader with Mr Rod Beattie (Rod is the Managing Director of Thailand Burma Railway Centre at Kanchanaburi). We exchanged two of Rod’s passengers for Glad and Gail for a couple of hours to facilitate their visit to Shimo Songkurai.
With visits to 2 JEATH museums and a walk over the Kwai River bridge we began to absorb the grueling journey of our predecessors. Our train ride from Kanchanaburi to Wampo offered us a view of the amazing construction of the railway around the mountainside, as well as enjoying the beautiful Thai countryside along the way. When the prisoners traveled from Singapore to Ban Pong they endured a five-day journey in rice wagons. The small discomforts we felt on our morning trip, such as diesel fumes and grit blowing into our faces in the open carriages, were nothing in comparison, and as the week progressed we reminded ourselves of how much comfort we enjoyed.
We gathered at Hellfire Pass for the Remembrance Day Service on 11th November. This was attended by schoolchildren, tourists, local dignitaries: the Governor of Kanchanaburi Province and his wife, Representatives of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce. The Australian Military Attache and some Embassy staff. Don Lee, who worked in Hellfire Pass for three of the four months of its construction, gave an outstanding address about the history of the railway, and his experience working on night shift in this Pass. Wreaths were laid. The sound of the Last Post blew from the top of the cliff through the stillness of the jungle, contributing to the solemn but wonderful occasion: our thanks to bugler, Garnet Buckley.
Many of us walked the trace from Hintok to Hellfire Pass, with Bill telling us along the way about how the bridges and embankments were constructed. Sick men, too ill to work on the railway, were made to roll drums of fuel down mountain slopes. We completed the last 100 metres of the walk barefoot as a symbolic gesture to our friends and fathers.
Our home for 4 days was at Home Phu Toey, and it was four days of being cared for, fed delicious food, entertained and pampered in a superb jungle setting by the river. We enjoyed the extensive gardens, the swimming pools, and the Weary Dunlop museum. The amazing sound and light show re-enacted the cruelty of the Japanese to the POWs and the bombing of the River Kwai bridge.
Our journey to the Three Pagoda Pass gave us an indication of the length of the railway in Thailand. This gave us an appreciation of the hardship experienced by the members on “F” Force, who were forced to march 300 kilometres to their workstations in northern Thailand. We visited the huge Khao Laem Dam, the hydro-electric scheme, whose waters now cover some of the campsites and railway. Especially important is the Konkoita camp, where the Burma and Thai railway constructions finally met.
Although the trip was dedicated to the railway and the many men who built it, we could not deny the tourist aspects of the journey: the superb scenery, interesting villages, elaborate temples and golden statues, the tiger farm, the elephant rides and the relaxing afternoon spent on rafts being towed down the river. We could not help but notice parts of the jungle that were still impenetrable, and marvel at the difficulty that the prisoners had, working in that country.
On our final day we had a quick visit to a recently discovered piece of railway between Kanyu and Kanchanaburi. Lying on the track was a jigsaw that someone had spilled – a concentration of pieces in one spot with many other pieces scattered in a wide perimeter.
It is symbolic of the task that Peter Winstanley, Rod Beattie, Bill Haskell and others have undertaken to collect pieces of information and relics of the railway, match them up, find people, trace connections, re-introduce people to each other, and explore the trace in Thailand. The jigsaw might never be 100% complete, but these remarkable and dedicated people are creating an increasingly clear picture and an outstanding experience of the Thai-Burma railway for people such as us to learn from and enjoy, and to honour our forbears. Thank you.