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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VX39702 2/9 Field Ambulance

Frank Cahill was born in Melbourne on 1 July 1914.  His primary school education took place at St. Brendan's Catholic primary school in Wellington Street Flemington and his secondary education took place at St.Patrick's in East Melbourne.  He undertook medical studies at the Melbourne University Medical School entering university at 15 years of age and graduating in 1935 at the age of 21.  Frank still holds the record of the youngest doctor to have graduated from an Australian University.  He graduated along with Colin Juttner (later to become a fellow Medical Officer in 2/9 Field Ambulance, a Prisoner of War and later a member of "F" Force on the infamous Burma Thailand Railway).

Frank completed his residency at St. Vincent's hospital in East Melbourne.  In 1935 he was awarded the Michael Ryan scholarship in surgery, which was an award of £100 presented through the St. Vincent's clinical school of medicine and surgery.  The rules at that time prevented doctors under the age of 25 from practising surgery unless they had an overseas qualification.  Keen to study surgery, he travelled to London to complete his FRCS at Guy Hospital.  He was one of the youngest to have been granted the fellowship.  (Co-incidentally, his colleague Captain Colin Juttner was in the United Kingdom around the same time-  See Juttner story elsewhere).

Frank returned to Melbourne and was appointed a surgical clinical assistant (out patients) at St.Vincent's on the 31st March 1939.

On the outbreak of war, Frank enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces on 13th February 1941 and was appointed Captain (Medical Officer) in the 2/9 Field Ambulance.  (The writer is surprised that as a specialist he was not appointed with the rank of Major and on the staff of an Australian General Hospital).

On the 25th February 1941 he married Marjorie Mary Atchison, a nurse whom he had met while working at St. Vincent's Hospital.  After 1 day's honey moon in Lorne Victoria, he was called up and went to Sydney staying briefly at Manly with his mother and his new bride who had travelled with him.

The members of the 2/9 Field Ambulance boarded the Queen Mary and sailed from Sydney early in February 1941.  The ship proceeded to Fremantle without a stop at Melbourne or Adelaide.  On 16 February, the Queen Mary left a convoy in the Indian Ocean and proceeded to Singapore.  The remainder of the convoy proceeded to the Middle East.  Captain Frank Cahill left for Singapore on the troopship Zealandia arriving on the 9th June 1941.  It seems that Captain Cahill may have been a reinforcement.

The 2/9 Field Ambulance was deployed on the East Coast of Malaya and it is recorded in the book "Men of the Ninth" by, then, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Likeman p 129 that Captain Frank Cahill on around 14 January 1942 was with Head Quarters Company.  On 15 February he, with many others, became Prisoners of War and was incarcerated on Singapore Island..

In April 1943 Captain Frank Cahill was one of ten Australian Medical Officers who were sent to Thailand as part of a group known as "F" Force.  "F" Force was a party of 7,000 POWs comprising 3,400 British and 3,600 Australians.

This Force, endured a 4 night/5 day train trip from Singapore to a location called Banpong in Thailand.  On this train trip about 30 men were crammed into steel railway trucks about 18 feet by 7 feet.  The only ventilation was a sliding door in one side.  Meals (usually about a cup of rice, supplemented with a small amount of meat or seaweed) and toilet stops were spasmodic.  The force moved to Thailand in train loads of about 650 men at a time.  The Australians were first, followed by the British.

On arrival they were forced to march north about 270 kilometres, mainly on jungle tracks, towards the Burma border.  The march was at night, as the daytime temperatures were around 45 degrees Celsius and the monsoon rains were just starting.  By day they tried to find some shade and sleep.  However, for the Medical personnel there was little rest, as they attended to the sick, sore and lame.  The march lasted about 18 nights.

It is fortunate that Captain Roy Mills published extracts of his diary in a book titled "Doctor's Diary and Memoirs" ISBN0 646 19473 9 in 1994.  From this record it is possible to plot where Captain Frank Cahill was from time to time.

Entry for 23 May 1943 says -
"171 men off duty with dysentery or diarrhoea or convalescing- ………..
Fit men working on roads or bridges.
Have been very busy- No figures but cholera position reported under control from higher up. Believe Major Hunt, Lloyd Cahill and John Taylor went to No 1 Aust Camp whereas Major Stevens, Pete Hendry and Frank Cahill remained at no 4 Camp about 16 km N of here."   This would place Frank Cahill at Koncoita.

Entry for 16 June 1943 says -
"………… Capt Pete Hendry and Frank Cahill having gone to Nike ……."

Entry for 13 September 1943 -
"Major Hunt went to Burma with one other R.M.O. Capt F Cahill"

Entry for 26 November 1043 says -
"….. Tanbaya train arrived around 1130.  Major Bruce Hunt looking well - still had extrasystoles following cardiac beri beri. Capt Fred Stahl, Norm Couch, Geo Gwyne all looking well. 320 left behind including 107 fit men. Captain Frank Cahill & Assistant Surgeon Wolfe remained (at Tanbaya)."

The above mention of Tanbaya, signals an important part of the Frank Cahill story and his close association with Major Bruce Hunt.  Briefly, 'F" Force had such a high sickness and death rate that even the Japs finally conceded that something must be done.  It was agreed that around 2,000 of the sickest would be moved to a special hospital where they could recover.  However, defying logic, this hospital camp was located in Burma, just 50 km from where the railway started from the north.

To care for the nearly 2,000 there were only five Medical Officers - Major Bruce Hunt (AAMC), Captain Frank Cahill (AAMC), Major Bill Phillips (RAMC), Captain Emery (RAMC) and Warrant Officer (Assistant Surgeon) Patrick Wolfe (Indian Medical Service).  Frank Cahill was the sole surgeon.  There was also a group of men who worked hard to keep their fellow POWs alive.  This included Officers who became Wardmasters, Medical Orderlies and the volunteers, who were often convalescents.  One should not forget the sole Chaplain, who was a British officer Noel Duckworth.  Notwithstanding their efforts 671 died over a matter of 3 to 4 months.

Detail about this hospital camp is shown on the World Wide Web .  Fortunately the report of Major Bruce Hunt is published in detail on this website.  The report was written on 23 December 1943. Unfortunately, Hunt mentions a report by Capt F.J.Cahill concerning Tropical Ulcers.  This I have not been able to locate.  Below are extracts from the book "Clinical Problems of War" by Allan S Walker.  The extracts may have been based on Cahill's report (apologies for the medical terms). -

Page 509 "Captain F.J. Cahill, A.A.M.C., in reporting a series of 420 men suffering from tropical ulcers in Tanbaya camp hospital, described the almost incredibly unfavourable circumstances under which amputation became necessary for the rapid spreading of these ulcers.  The tibia was often exposed and wide-spread sepsis was very common.  Amputation was done on 40 men, at first as low a site as seemed advisable being chosen, but the site of election too often ran through an ulcerated area, and sloughing of flaps was frequent, often with secondary haemorrhage.  Cahill found the association of oedematous beriberi with acute ulcer was very often fatal, and in this condition amputation was abandoned.  The level of amputation was at mid-thigh in twenty-five cases and the upper third of the thigh in fourteen.  Though these men survived immediate operation, only four patients were still alive three months after the last operation.  Under more favourable conditions the hazard of spreading sepsis and chronic osteomyelitis in the lower limb could be reduced by an earlier and bolder policy of amputation at a reasonably high level before ulceration spread in the limb."

Page 600 "Captain F.J. Cahill, A.A.M.C., wrote a special report in March 1944 which describes well "tropical ulcers" as seen by only too many medical officers.  He emphasised the speed with which a small abrasion of the skin became infected and within 48 hours would appear as a sloughing ulcer involving fascial and muscular structures.  Sometimes a line of demarcation would be formed, with an associated zone of tissue reaction.  In debilitated patients no such reaction occurred, and death from toxaemia was frequent.  The pain was considerable, and sometimes intolerable, of a constant burning type, preventing sleep.  Muscular spasm was an important associated feature, leading not infrequently to contractures perpetuating flexion of the knee or dropped foot.  Where bone was near the surface, as in the front of the leg, the periosteum soon became necrotic, and the exposed bone eroded.  Sequestration of flakes of bone or even large parts of a diaphysis was not uncommon.  Favourable progress sometimes took place with granuation of the deeper tissues, but, even if bony sequestra separated, healing was very slow.  The growth of skin was exceedingly slow: an ulcer not much larger than an inch in diameter would take many weeks to close.  Pus formation did not occur in the most virulent ulcers, but in others it tracked along tissue planes for considerable distances, calling for incision and drainage.  Cahill remarked particularly on the rapid spread of tropical ulcers if the patient fell ill with malaria, or dysentery, when physical deterioration and death were not infrequent.  Beriberi was a frequent complicating factor also, and oedema whether due to protein or vitamin deficiency hastened the extension of ulcers.  One common and very serious combination was the infection of a subcutaneous bleb on the dorsum of an oedematous foot.  The skin and deeper tissues disappeared, leaving a foul ulcer, and the patient rapidly died from toxic absorption.  Secondary haemorrhage was fortunately rare, but very dangerous.

There was no question of the importance of the nutritional factor in the production and extension of these ulcers, but unfortunately it was largely outside the control of the medical services.  Treatment was therefore limited to local measures; it was never certain if the unfortunate patient would be allowed to rest, or be forced out to work.  It was in those camps where tropical ulcers appeared in their most severe form, that drugs and dressings were exceedingly scanty.  For example, four hundred men in all needed treatment in Tanbaya, and the quantities of antiseptics, sulphanilamide or even salt were totally inadequate.  Water sterilisation powder in solution was used as a dressing, but water too was limited in supply.  Sulphanilamide could be given only a restricted trial, but Cahill obtained excellent results, and thought that further supplies would have lowered the death rate substantially."

Page 602 "At Tanbaya 420 patients were treated for "tropical ulcer"; of these 250 died (60 per cent).  Two-thirds of the deaths were associated with the onset of intercurrent disease, in particular dysentery, beriberi, and malaria.  Amputation was performed on 40 patients with no immediate deaths.  Three months later, however, only four of these patients were still alive.  Cahill comments on "the amazing cheerfulness and fortitude of the patients in the ulcer wards - and the steadfast devotion to duty of so many of the workers" in these wards."

The book "Heroes of F Force" ISBN0 646 16047 8 published by the late Don Wall has a number of references to Captain Frank Cahill.

Page 5 - April 43 - Lt Bob Kelsey - "The first time I saw Captain Frank Cahill, AAMC, was on the short and very hot walk from the train to the huts waiting us at Banpong. I noticed a man dumping a portable typewriter beside the track, and asking him why he did so. It was Frank Cahill - he said he could carry it no further, so I picked it up for him, carried it on and handed it back to him when we reached our accommodation………..".  " I meant to illustrate his courage on the exhausting walk up the line, when we all were soon at the point of collapse. It was while I was lying on the track during one of our inexplicable breaks that  saw Frank Cahill, still plump and flabby as a result of never having indulged in physical exercise - certainly never on a route march wavering down the line of panting men asking if anyone needed help and asking "Any Complaints?" I thought, "Here is a better man than I am."
Page 91 - September 43 - "Stricken men were found with gaping ulcers on legs, arms and backsides. Almost every man in the ward of thirty had ulcers, malaria and dysentery - their only relief was a merciful death. Firstly began the clean up - blankets filled with lice - bed bugs ran unchecked through the bamboo slats - excreta ran underneath the hut.  The blankets were placed on the ant hills of the red ants who feasted on the lice and bugs; suppurating ulcers were scraped with spoons and those whose limbs were beyond repair were amputated by Capt  Frank Cahill with a carpenter's saw and the very little morphine to deaden the pain….."
Page 98 -November 43 -  Lt Bob Kelsey says - "I was searching in the rain forest for wild mushrooms to make soup for one of my men who could not eat rice, or would not, when I came into a small clearing. There I saw the camp surgeon Capt Frank Cahill on his knees praying. I backed away quietly. His was a terrible job. Forced to decide whether to operate, or rather amputate while there was still a chance of recovery, or wait until there was no alternative to amputating…………"

I will now quote from the unpublished Autobiography of Captain Fred Stahl - 8th Division Signals.  I would also mention that I feel this has a direct link to Lt Bob Kelsey quote of November 1943 (see above).-

The five amputations referred to in the diary entries were a part of a total of 40 resulting from tropical ulcers.  These occurred very frequently and followed upon small scratches or cuts, the skin of many of the POW appearing to possess little or no resistance to infecting organisms.  Quite a large proportion of the ulcers were horrifying severity - huge areas of skin, flesh and, in some cases, bone were eaten away.  Although Tanbaya was supposed to be a hospital camp no drug supplies of any kind were received from the Japanese until 5 November - three months after the hospital was established and only 19 days before the main body of surviving patients were evacuated.  The only dressings available were those made from the clothes of dead men, and in most cases the ulcers were bandaged with banana leaves.  It was not uncommon for blowflies to lay their maggots on the ulcer wounds a happening which was usually welcomed by the sick for the maggots ate only the purulent flesh and disposed of it in a much less painful way than the scaping with a spoon.

In these conditions it is not surprising that the only hope of saving lives of a large proportion of the ulcer patients lay in amputation.  Most ulcers occurred in the lower leg and particularly in the region of the ankle to knee.  In these cases amputation above the knee was imperative.  We had a first-class surgeon in the person of Frank Cahill, but he had no operating instruments. The Japs were unable to supply any, but agreed that Frank could visit an "A" Force camp at the 45 kilo mark to endeavour to obtain some.  He was successful in obtaining most of the essentials, but could not get a surgical saw.  A further appeal to our own Jap guard failed, but again the Nip engineers at the camp across the railway came to our aid, agreeing to make a carpenter's panel saw available from three to four p.m. each day.

There was an acute shortage of trained medical orderlies. Frank Cahill's only qualified assistant being a sergeant from the Australian Army Medical Corps………in the conditions existing at Tanbaya Frank readily accepted my offer to help in any way I could and, in fact,  I became one of his assistants at every operation, and also at several post mortems he performed.

The "Operating Theatre" was a small hut, about ten feet square, with bamboo sides and a floor of bamboo slats.  The roof was of Attap.  The operating table was made from bamboo, with the top also of bamboo slats.  Outside the door we built a fire to boil the water in which we sterilised the instruments, including the Japanese saw.  Fortunately, included in the medical supples laboriously carried from Changi and husbanded so carefully there was some Pentothal and Chloroform.  The former was used by the anaesthetist Captain E.J .Emery R.A.M.C. to induce unconsciousness, the patients then being kept under by ether.  Even in those daunting circumstances the skill of Capt Emery in anaesthesia was so great the no amputation patient- and many of these were appalling anaesthetic risks, died during an operation.

No praise can be too high for the work done by Frank Cahill in those primitive conditions.  Looking back on the circumstances under which he worked (he actually fell through the bamboo-slat floor in the middle of one operation) one wonders that he had any success at all.  Altogether he carried out 40 amputations- 39 legs and one arm.  But he operated against almost hopeless odds.  His patients were grossly undernourished, being long deprived of adequate protein and vitamins.  They had been forced to labour outrageously long hours in mud and filth, they were constantly exposed to trauma and infection, but, deprived of adequate drugs and dressings.  It is little wonder that ulceration and gangrene spread like wildfire and that by the time they reached the operating table their resistance to infection had already been reduced to a very low level.

Despite this not one patient died during an operation.  Sepsis in the stump was, however, extremely common, and one patient died within 24 hours of the operation.  Four more died during the next six days and thereafter the death rate steadily rose.  Intercurrent disease was particularly lethal amongst the amputees and finally only four of the forty survived.  Small though this proportion might appear, it is nevertheless a major triumph for the surgeon, for had the operations not been performed not one of the forty could have survived.

In Fred Stahl's autobiography there is mention of Frank having to use the Engineer's saw for the amputations.  It is not necessary to corroborate that story.

However, when I was in Adelaide June 07, Max Venables (one of only 3 people who I know was in Tanbaya Camp) informed me that he made mention of Captain (Dr) Frank Cahill and a saw in his book "From Wayville to Changi" ISBN 0 9579688-0-9.  The following is the appropriate extract from p154 of that book.

" Thursday 16 September 1943 - The saw that is being used for the amputations is just an ordinary hand saw, and is used for cutting bamboo, as well as cutting off limbs.  Feel a little silly in the head today.  Health fair.
On this day I was cutting two and three inch bamboos used to repair the attup huts, when at about 10am, Dr Cahill sent a message out that he wanted to use the saw.
I was using it so was detailed to return it to camp. I took it to the "Operating Theatre" which was a small lean-to in the open.  The doctor took the handsaw from me and dipped it into boiling water for a while.  Several orderlies held the man down by his head, arms and body as the doctor cut off his leg just below the knee.  He returned the saw into the bucket, gave it to me and I returned to the working party.  I don't know whether any anaesthetic was used but to my knowledge we had none.  The doctors did marvellous things with practically nothing, up there in that hell-hole."

It is known that Captain Frank Cahill remained at Tanbaya to care for the sick and dying after the Railway line became operational.  He followed into Thailand, probably early 1944 and subsequently moved back to Singapore along with all the survivors of "F" and "H" Force.

Captain Peter Hendry has told me that the Medical Officers who remained in Singapore relieved the "F" & "H" Force doctors of their duties on their return to Singapore.  This gave them the best chance of making a recovery. See below a picture of three"F" Force Medical Officers (left to right) Captains Frank Cahill, Victor Brand and Peter Hendry (there are separate articles about Victor Brand and Peter Hendry). This photograph was probably taken around September 1945, after the Japanese surrender.  Note - it was in front of the "AIF Embarkation Office".  I am indebted to Peter Hendry for supplying the photograph in July 2007.


Frank Cahill was liberated from Changi camp on the 14th September 1945 and repatriated to Australia on the troop ship Largs Bay.  On the 15th of November 1945 he assumed his role as clinical assistant to Dr. Robert Hadley, who on hearing that Frank had re-applied for his previous surgical position at St.Vincent's said 'He will be welcome as flowers in May'.  In December 1945 he was awarded the FRACS.  On the 15th April 1946 Frank was appointed surgeon to out patients at St.Vincent's and worked in an honorary capacity until 1956 when he assumed the role of surgeon for in-patients until his resignation on the 20th August 1961.  From 1946 to 1960 Frank also operated a private surgery practice in Collins Street Melbourne.

In 1962 he went into general practice in Hughesdale.  In the final years of his working life he undertook the role of Medical Officer for the Victorian Railways retiring in 1978.

In 1979 he moved to San Remo, Victoria with his wife where he died on the 2nd of September 1989.  Frank and Marjorie had six children; Peter, Mary, Anna, Eileen, Frank and Stephen. 

Frank Cahill will always be remembered by his colleagues, family and friends as a gentle man, who with courage, quietly went about his job of saving lives.

Article prepared by Lt Col Peter Winstanley with the assistance of Frank Cahill Junior, who accessed records at St Vincent's Hospital.  When at St Vincent's Frank Junior met a nun who had assisted Frank in theatre and was able to provide her observations.

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