Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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Jack Thorpe’s Recollection Of Lt Col (Later Sir Albert) Coates
And Some Other Memories

This story took place at the 105 Kilo Camp in Burma. Jack was on a sick parade this morning, had a good dose of dysentery for the last few days, so he thought he had better go and see the Medical Officer Captain Claude Anderson (RMO 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion) and see what he could do. Jack says “well a bloody Jap guard came along and he thought he would do a bit of drafting before we got to the doctor. He came to me and I said to him that I had Tuksan Banjo (many times to the lavatory). With that he up with his rifle butt and whacked me in the mouth, well I fell down and the blokes on the sick parade yelled out “stay there Thorpie”, which I did. It was the worst thing I could have done. As it turned out, he gave me a jab in the bum with his bayonet. We were only wearing G strings at that time, and I suppose all my backside was exposed and his bayonet went up my orifice and drew blood. It really did not necessitate going to the hospital camp I don’t think, but the whole idea was to put the Jap in the bad books with his superiors. I was sent down to 55 kilo camp.”

Whilst in the 55 Camp Jack met Basil Clark out of the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion from Cadoux who he had known previously. Basil had a bad ulcer on his leg. The bottom half of the leg below the knee was 75% eaten away with gangrene, and he was in terrible pain. Jack was talking to Basil this day when the Medical Officer (doctor) came around doing his daily round. He examined Basil, looked at him and said, “That leg will have to come off Clark. If we leave it on you have got no chance, let me take it off and you have got better than 50% of getting home”. (The doctor was Lieutenant Colonel Albert Coates later Sir Albert Coates). Basil turned to Jack Thorpe and said, “What will I do Thorpie?” Jack said “You have got no options if you want to go home. Get it off.”

Colonel Coates came around the following morning and said to Basil “What is your decision Clark?” Basil said, “I will have it off”. Coates looked at Jack Thorpe and said, “I will get you to give me a hand Thorpe”. Basil said “Oh Thank you Jack”. The operation was to be done next morning about the same time. Next morning two orderlies arrived with the stretcher consisting of bamboo poles with two rice bags stretched over the two long poles. They took Basil to the operating theatre. Jack walked behind. The operating theatre was nothing more than a lean to at the end of the hut, with a dirt floor. There was a 44-gallon drum outside with a fire blazing. This was to burn the amputated limb. The Colonel called me outside, with two other blokes, and told us what he wanted. He explained that the anaesthetic he was using would only last a few minutes. Should Basil come out of his sleep, we were to restrain him as best we could to stop any movement, to enable the operation to be completed. The Colonel said that he may lapse back into unconsciousness. The medical orderlies, who were his permanent orderlies. prepared things in the operating theatre. Jack says, “Basil was good and he was very brave. As for the Colonel, he was unbelievable. It must be remembered he was a veteran of the WW1 and was not young. He was a nicotine slave, and before starting he lit up a Burmese Cheroot, put it between his teeth, took a look at his two orderlies, gave them a wink and started. The first incision was as quick as a flash and he had gone right round the leg and met where he had started”. Jack stated that he had never seen such co-ordination and precision as displayed by the Colonel and his orderlies that day. Jack said he was marvelous. Apparently, pre war, Coates lectured at the Medical School in Victoria. One of his students was Weary Dunlop.

(Here was Colonel Coates operating in the jungle of Burma. He had opportunities to return to Australia. Early in 1941, whilst serving in Malacca, he had to return to Australia to do definitive surgery on the Australian Ambassador to Japan, Sir John Latham. He returned to Singapore because of the imminent Japanese threat. Mention should be made to describe how Colonel Coates reached the northern end of the railway. When the fall of Singapore became imminent, Coates received an instruction from General Bennett, through the ADMS Colonel Derham, to join a ship carrying certain key personnel. He boarded Sui Kwong and, under mortar fire at dawn on 12 February 1942, passed through a minefield and reached ]ava. Whilst no further details are recorded in the Official War History, it is a reasonable conclusion that he had been selected as one of a number of key personnel to return to Australia. On arrival at Thambilahan on the east coast of Sumatra, with the help of colleagues, he operated on 15 of the worst casualties and put them in native huts. An emergency Medical facility was set up and, when the party left next day for Australia, Coates and others stayed, and in a week operated on some one hundred patients, about fifty major operations being performed with primitive instruments. As more wounded were brought in from other sunken ships, the medical party went up river on the 21 February and operated at a mission hospital. Coates then stayed and cared for 130 patients in a native hospital, many of whom he had previously operated upon. Whilst he was still caring for patients, on 17 March the Japanese arrived. Coates and a British doctor were the only medical officers left with 1500 POWs, 50 of whom were seriously wounded. Six weeks later, Coates was sent by ship to Burma with 500 British POWs in an overcrowded filthy Japanese transport, met up with other members of A Force, and became a crucial part of their medical team. Reproduced in part with permission of Dr Jim Dixon & Dr Bob Goodwin authors of “Medicos and Memories” ISBN 0 646 33478 6)

Jack says that the Colonel asked him to stay to give assistance with a similar operation the following day. This time on a man he did not know. Following this he left the 55 Kilo camp and did not see Basil Clark again until after the war when they returned to Fremantle. They both returned to Perth on the same day. The two of them were being processed at Karrakatta (receiving Leave Passes, updating pay books etc) when they met up with two other POWs. They were Sid Howard (an amputee who had a double amputation at Chungkai by the brilliant Canadian surgeon Capt Jacob Markowitz (RAMC)) and Arthur Morrison (2/4 Machine Gun Battalion-an Australian aborigine).

Whilst waiting for the bus at Karrakatta Jack said “where do you want your first drink back in Perth?”. They all said “the Alhambra Bars”. (The Alhambra Bars was a bar opposite the Perth Town Hall and patrons had to descend about 20 steps to get in.). Jack said that he thought it bloody stupid with two men on crutches and one leg each. They got to the bar and down the stairs OK and went to the bar and ordered four beers. Jack says “ the bloody bar maid wont serve us because we had a “black fella” with us. I said to her that Arthur Morrison (Snow White by nick name) had been in the King’s uniform for the last five years fighting for our country”. The bar maid said she would call the Police if we did not leave. Jack said to her that it was a bloody good idea to call the Police and waited at the bottom of the stairs for the arrival of the Police. When the Police arrived Jack explained the problem. The policeman went to the bar and told the bar maid to serve them and the first drinks were on him.

Whilst there, Basil read a letter he had received from his mother, which said that his girl friend of pre war days was working at the Mount Hospital. Basil asked Jack if he would ring her at the Hospital and tell her he had lost a leg and would she still like to see him? She said “yes’. Later they married and had several children. Basil returned to farming. Jack said that he regretted that he never got to see Basil again. He was occupied getting his own life in order. Basil’s wife became heavily involved with the RSL Woman’s Auxillary.

Jack Thorpe’s story related to Lt Col Peter Winstanley RFD (Retired) JP February 2004.

(Jack Thorpe was a Sergeant in the 105 General Transport Company. He was on the Burma end of he Burma Thailand Railway and in Japan as a POW. Post war he has been the President of the Three Springs (in Western Austraalia) R.S.L for about 40 years and was awarded the OAM in 2002. Over the past 15 years he has raised over $50,000 to send many young people (aged 14-16 years) from his District to the Burma Thailand Railway.)

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