|Report on the DRA Remembrance Day
|Tour of Thailand, November 2005.
Friday 4th November.
People from NSW, Queensland, Victoria and some from WA were greeted by Ben at the airport late in the evening and were taken to the Ambassador where we were greeted by Peter, Helen & Max. We then settled down for the night and tried to catch up on some sleep.
Saturday 5th November.
The group assembled at 8.30am for the presentation of caps. I gave Peter copies of my dad’s memoirs for distribution as he saw fit. I gave a copy to the Ferriers as, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs, Don’s dad was in D force too.
We then enjoyed a day shopping, exploring the markets of Bangkok, chatting and resting as we waited for the rest of our tour group to arrive. On Saturday evening we all partook of a meal at the Ambassador having met the last of our group to arrive from Perth.
Sunday 6th November.
On Sunday morning at 7.30am we met for our trip to the Summer Palace, the ruins of the ancient capital, Ayutthaya and a cruise home on the Chayo Phraya River.
On Sunday evening we enjoyed a lively meal at the Cabbages & Condoms restaurant. Much delicious food was consumed and much conversation enjoyed as members of the tour became better acquainted.
Monday 7th November.
What a moving and emotional day! At 7.45am we set off from the Ambassador to Kanchanaburi and on the way visited the Nakhon Pathon Temple. We stopped at Non Pladuk station which was as far as the line went when the POWs were first transported to Thailand and where the line went north from Thailand towards Burma, and then on to Ban Pong station where the POWs were detrained after their journey from Singapore in rice trains. John Parkes shared with us his memories of being crowded into the trucks and how, if you had to answer a call of nature, your mates held onto your hands and feet as you relieved yourself out the door. He also extolled the virtues of the leaves of teak trees that made very good toilet paper!
On the station we photographed each other holding the Australian flag. Most moving of the photos were those of the three veterans who were touring with us: Bill Haskell (Dunlop Force), John Parkes (F Force) and Bill Lawson from England. It was indeed a privilege to be in the company of these men and to listen to their recounts of their experiences on the line. Our trip was greatly enriched by the experiences the three ex-POWs shared with us.
We then visited the war cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi. Bill Lawson, his son Derek and grandson Tony had the very emotional experience of visiting the grave of Bill’s best friend Derek, after whom his son was named, who died on the line. Derek is buried at Chungkai.
We lunched at the Bam Rim Kwei restaurant near the Bridge over the River Kwai and enjoyed not only the food but a couple of cool ales. After lunch many of us walked over the bridge and had a look at the pseudo JEATH museum. Most of us, of course, had a cursory look at the shops as well!
Back on the bus and we travelled to the real JEATH museum and spent some time there. Many of us purchased books from the stall there building up our collections and deepening our knowledge of the story of the railway.
We followed the line that afternoon to a cutting near Kanchanaburi on which Bill Lawson had worked. Because of the turmoil of emotions Bill Lawson felt seeing the cutting again it was Bill Haskell explained to us the hammer-tap method of digging out the cutting used by the prisoners on the railway. The enormity of the task was made very apparent as we gazed at the height and length of the cutting. His explanation was interrupted by a train passing through the cutting!
We proceeded to the cemetery at Kanchanaburi where we held a brief wreath laying ceremony. Dirk Arkeveld laid the wreath in memory of Fred Guilfoyle an ex-POW who died at Kami Songkurai camp. After the ceremony John Parkes took us to the graves of his two mates who had slept either side of him and had both died of cholera on the same day.
It was at the cemetery at Kanchanaburi that we newcomers met Rod Beattie, the Commonwealth War Graves Representative, for the first time. Rod addressed the group about camps in the area and told us of the relics he had collected from the various sites. His enthusiasm for the story of the railway quickly became apparent.
After a very full day we travelled to our overnight accommodation at the Pung Wann resort. Dinner for our group was held on the barge on the river and we were joined for dinner by Rod and his family as well as Vivatchai and his wife Gaye and other guests. We are, however, still waiting to witness Vivatchai’s Elvis impersonation!
Tuesday 8th November.
We were up early to check out of the resort and begin the day. We travelled firstly to Rod Beattie’s ‘Death Railway’ museum. The exhibits there are beautifully presented and I personally was able to pinpoint the places my dad mentions in his memoirs using the three dimensional map with its tiny lights. Having visited this museum I felt the story of the line would live on through its exhibits and dioramas. Rod’s enthusiasm is palpable as he tells of the archaeological sites in the old camps he has set up and is working through painstakingly, and of the relics he has already collected. He also told us of the ‘Holy Grail’ of the railway, an account put together by one of the medical officers, of the movements of all Australian men in and out of the camps while the line was being built. This account has been traced to England and Rod plans to follow it there in an effort to relocate it. The database he has built up lists the cause of death of Australian soldiers as well as where they are buried. This information has been of great comfort to families of these men.
The shop in the museum stocks numerous books and maps associated with the railway as well as Thai handcrafts. Many purchases were made that morning and many cappuccinos were consumed in the coffee shop. I gave Rod a copy of my dad’s memoirs and he has offered to help me incorporate photos once I have scanned it into my computer as he has so many digitised photographs of the line.
Next we made our way to the railway station and boarded the train. We travelled on the Death Railway up the line, over the Wampo viaduct on which Bill Lawson had worked, moving through peaceful rural scenes of northern Thailand. When we alighted from the train we walked back along the track to look more closely at the viaduct and at the cave which held a shrine to Buddha.
Lunch was at the restaurant overlooking the Wampo viaduct and after lunch we proceeded to the elephant park where many people took the opportunity of experiencing an elephant ride. Our elephant driver sang ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ in his first language as he guided his elephant along the paths. When I commented I liked his singing he proudly told me ‘Me Christian” and pulled out his laminated Burmese birth certificate to show me, explaining that he had no passport and therefore carried the certificate with him at all times.
We all watched the elephants do their tricks ‘massaging’ the backs of volunteers and taking money from tourists in exchange for bags of food or bottles of milk which the elephant happily ate or drank.
On our way to our accommodation at Home Phu Toey we stopped at an ATM and came away happily clutching handfuls of bhat. As someone remarked at least you feel as though you have a decent bankroll when withdrawing bhat.
Our bus trip was always made more enjoyable through song – either our practice of Advance Australia Fair and God Save the Queen (led by the lovely baritone voice of Bill Lawson) or singing along to the CD compiled by Greg Wilson. Bill Haskell often led the singing of wartime songs, teaching us the parodies composed by the POWs when working on the line. These sessions of song were often embellished by reminiscences of the ex-POWs who did so much to enrich our experience.
When we arrived at Home Phu Toey we were warmly welcomed by Khun Kanit who put on drinks for us before dinner.
Wednesday 9th November.
We were up bright and early on Wednesday to begin the long trek up to Three Pagodas Pass which is on the Thai / Burma border. Our first stop was the visit to Khao Laem Dam under which a section of the line is submerged. Ben warned us that the monkeys up at the dam wall were very active and to watch our belongings. Unfortunately we didn’t see any on that particular day!
At Takanun John Parkes and his family (Vera, Vanessa and niece Donna) transferred to a 4 wheel drive vehicle to seek out a ledge at Takanun that was very significant for him in his time up the line. The Japanese had herded a group of men to this ledge and had made them strip off all their clothes, including the ragged bandages covering ulcers that some men were wearing. The men believed they had reached the end of their lives and they shook hands with each other and exchanged farewells. The Japs watched them with a machine gun at each end of the line. Once they had said their goodbyes the Japs laughed and dismissed them, as Vera said ‘all for the sheer bastardry of it.’ The Parkes group travelled with Ben through some idyllic Thai farms. After a fairly challenging drive and walk through some dense jungle they found the ledge. It was an extremely emotional moment for all of them and photos were taken of John standing on the ledge. On a lighter side he resisted the temptation to strip off!
While this was happening the rest of the group had a look around the area and some of us climbed the chedi – 286 steps! We also walked across the suspension bridge over the river or sat in the air-conditioned comfort of the bus. Vanessa gave us an account of their journey when we were back on the bus and thanked everyone for their patience. I know the family group really appreciated the effort that everyone made to enable John to have this experience.
When they returned we continued on our journey to Three Pagodas Pass. We stopped at ‘Auntie Fatt’s’ and ate our packed lunch. This place was very close to the site of Songkurai POW camp. Here the Lawsons left a little poster explaining their journey incorporating a photo of Bill’s friend Derek nailed to a post. Despite the heavy rain we enjoyed our lunch supplemented with a beer purchased at Auntie Fatt’s shop.
We continued up to Three Pagodas Pass and stopped at the centre for the obligatory photos at the border and of course the mandatory shopping.
Our return trip was slowed by road works, further complicated by a heavy downpour of rain. Some excellent driving by our bus driver safely extricated our bus from a very dangerous stretch of road and delivered us back to Home Phu Toey for dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Thursday 10th November.
Our first stop on Thursday was to Hintok Road camp where we listened to Bill Haskell as he described life at the camp. He told us of the expertise of the medical officers and engineers in the camp who managed to construct a still to obtain distilled water to use for saline drips to combat the ravages of cholera. He also told us of the daily routine of the camp, with the men waking before dawn, swallowing a meagre breakfast and toiling all day in the tropical heat on the line. Their basic rice diet was to say the least inadequate, let alone the fact they were ill and the Japanese withheld medication. They usually returned to the camp well after dark having put in a 14 hour day.
From here we visited the hot springs and had a refreshing dip in the very hot water, complemented with a dip in the cold river.
Next we travelled to Sai Yok Yai waterfalls, the site of Kingsayok POW camp. Here some of us climbed up the hillside to where we could find traces of the line, in particular a multi-tiered ledge (bridge). At several places you could scrape the ground to uncover the ballast of the line just below the surface. We then moved onto the barge for lunch and were pulled up the River Kwai where we passed the Hintok River camp. Bill Haskell finally managed to slow the driver down and talked to us about some sites along the way.
When we arrived back at Home Phu Toey most of us took the opportunity to explore the grounds and to enjoy a swim. That night we were treated to a light and sound show about the Bridge over the River Kwai. We were joined for dinner by ex-POWs who were in Thailand for the Remembrance Day service, accompanied by Mark Sullivan, Secretary for the Department of Veteran Affairs. These included Fred Hodel, Cyril Gilbert, Roy Whitecross and Bill Flowers.
Friday 11th November.
This day was for me the highlight of the trip. It was a beautiful day and a day packed with emotion. We travelled early in the day to Hellfire Pass Museum so that we had enough time to peruse and appreciate the exhibits in the museum before our service started. Many people purchased books and DVDs (featuring ex-POWs including Bill Haskell) and most people enjoyed some reflection time on the balcony overlooking the valley.
Then, all wearing our tour shirts, caps and red poppies we moved down to the pass. The area had been cleared in the 1980s as the jungle had reclaimed the line when it fell into disuse. The ex-POWs told us of the 24 hour a day work that was carried out on the pass to ensure the line went through on schedule. The pass was named ‘Hellfire’ by the prisoners because of theburning torches fixed into the walls as they looked down on it from the top, and for the intense heat they experienced when down in the cutting.
The service began at the scheduled time, led by Peter, with various members of the tour group participating, readingpassages and poems. Wreaths were laid after the two minutes silence and then the highlight of the service came with Vanessa Wade reading her father’s story in his own words.
The cutting, previously chiselled away by the POWs, provided the most awe-inspiring setting for the service. The serene grandeur of the Thai landscape contrasted sharply with the evidence that remained of the brutality suffered by the prisoners of war.
After the conclusion of the service many people in the tour group discarded their shoes and successfully attempted the challenge: to walk for ten metres or more in bare feet on the ballast.
We then moved to lunch with the Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs group at a resort close by. We were welcomed by a band playing and were offered Crown lagers or glasses of wine and then sat down to a veritable feast. Mark Sullivan paid tribute to the ex-POWs for making the journey for Remembrance Day and praised the efforts of Peter Winstanley in the organisation of the service at Hellfire Pass.
We returned to Home Phu Toey to change into sturdy shoes to take on the 5km walk along the traces of the line in the area. We set off at Hintok Station and passed the site of the Pack of Cards Bridge and the Three Tier Bridge. Before setting off to climb over the embankments aided by the steps that have been installed, Bill Haskell talked to us about the work of the prisoners as they had to suspend themselves on the edge of the embankments, ‘like chimps’, carrying baskets of rocks. He stressed to us there were no steps then!
The walk, dubbed the Hellfire Pass Challenge by our group was completed in good time with Nathan fighting off a strong challenge by Matt and Neville, to come in first.
We returned to Home Phu Toey for a welcome meal and rest, emotionally and physically drained after a very momentous day.
Saturday 12th November.
We checked out of Home Phu Toey early the next morning and assembled for a group photograph. We were fondly farewelled by Khun Kanit and his wife Khun Oonjai.
We then moved to Tonchan ledge and those who had not walked on the ballast at Hellfire Pass and wanted to take up the challenge did so here. I took off my shoes once more and walked on the ballast there as this was one area where my dad was.
We journeyed from here to the Tiger Temple where we bravely patted large tigers and, with increased courage, held small ones.
We proceeded to Kanchanburi and lunched at Rod Beattie’s Death Railway Museum and after a break and a walk around the immediate area we hopped back on the bus and headed for Bangkok. On the way Bill Haskell and Bill Lawson once more led us in singing.
Our dinner at the Ambassador was the last group event as on Sunday morning we went our various ways. We left humbled, having had our lives enriched by hearing of the amazing experiences of the prisoners on the line. Our knowledge of the line was deepened and our desire to keep the story alive intensified by the sights we had seen.
A sincere thank you to all involved in the organisation of the tour. It was a truly uplifting experience.
Daughter of ex-POW William Clements Parker NX26087.