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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Captain Thomas Le Gay BreretonThomas Le Gay Brereton was born in Sydney on 23 February 1913.  When attending Sydney University he initially did science, but changed to study medicine.  He received University blues for shooting.  In a separate competition, involving all British Empire countries, he received an Imperial award.  He graduated from Sydney University in 1938 and whilst there served in the Sydney University Regiment.

He enlisted in the AIF on 24 May 1941 and was appointed as a Medical Officer in the 2/10 Field Ambulance which moved to Malaya in 1941.  Whilst with the Field Ambulance, Tom was detached on a number of occasions to relieve as the Regimental Medical Officer with other units of the 8th Division.  Late in November Tom was transferred to the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station(CCS).  This gave him the opportunity to do some surgical work.  In a letter home to his mother he said "being in the CCS patients are kept longer and more elaborate treatment can be given…..".  In the same letter to his mother he told her to give his .303 rifle to the Army.  In another letter to his mother he made the following comment "Did an appendix…, the first surgery I have done since leaving Newcastle. I am afraid I did not do it very well. However, the patient is going well."

There are a number of references to Tom's contribution to the functioning of the CCS during the fighting withdrawal down the Malaya peninsular.  The following accounts are recorded in the book - Soldier Surgeon in Malaya - written by Lt Col Thomas Hamilton (Commanding Officer of the CCS)-

Following the heroic action by the Australians at Gemas, many casualties flooded into the 2/4 CCS and the surgeons such as Majors Hobbs, Krantz and Captain Brereton operated for many hours.  This, of course, had a flow on effect to all of the CCS staff.

The following comments are from Hamilton's book p63-
"From the room behind me came a barrage of snores. Major Fisher and the other officers were catching up with lost sleep. Captain Brereton's bulky form was enshrouded in a ghostly mist of mosquito-netting at the far end of the veranda
Tom vowed he liked sleeping there because he not only got more air, but could spring easily to the ladder leading to the slit trenches."
Another reference says p81-
"While awaiting Hall's arrival I had a phone call from the ADMS telling me the 2/10th Field Ambulance would be taking over the Mengkibol site. Major Krantz and Captain Brereton were to remain behind with a team of six orderlies in order to give surgical assistance to any wounded……………."
There is little recorded of Captain Brereton's time on the Burma Thailand Railway.
The writer is indebted to Dr (Captain) Peter Hendry for the following copy of an Obituary, given by Peter Hendry, which includes material which gives an indication of the esteem in which Thomas Le Gay Brereton was held.


I am grateful to Kitty for this opportunity to pay tribute to our dear friend and colleague Tom.

Thomas Le Gay Brereton was born in Sydney in May 1913 and was educated at the Knox Grammar School in Wahroonga.  My brother was in the same class and it was through him that I first came to know Tom.  They remained associated for many years.  Both went from Knox to the Sydney University and both were residents at St. Andrews College.  Tom studied Science and my brother studied Law.

Tom took an active part in University sporting life and distinguished himself by being awarded a rare University Blue in rifle shooting.

After Tom graduated in science he decided to do Medicine.  This was a strange decision for although he had never up till this time been attracted to the subject he said he felt compunction to do so.  It proved to be a good decision for he was an excellent physician and highly regarded by his patients and colleagues.

For my own part I was glad he did for this is how we came to be fellow students.  It was during these university days that I got to know Tom well.  We were together for some years and both graduated early in 1939.  We then lost contact for a while as Tom went on to do his early postgraduate training at Sydney Hospital whereas I went to Prince Henry Hospital.

One year later shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, Tom moved to Newcastle Hospital to continue his postgraduate training. It was not long before he realized the war was to be a long one and in line with many of his colleagues joined the medical corps.

In 1940 he was posted together with Dr. Roy Mills and myself to the 2/10 Field Ambulance which was under the command of Lt Colonel Mac Shepherd a well known Newcastle medical practitioner.

We were together until we arrived in Malaya late in 1941 when Tom sought a transfer to the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station under the late Lt Colonel Tom Hamilton.  Tom felt that there may be more scope to practice medicine in the CCS to which another well known Newcastle medical identity Major Carl Furner was already attached as a physician.  So we lost contact again.

The Malayan campaign was short but intense with many casualties and so the Field Ambulance and CCS were kept very busy.  Also both units were continuously forced to move and the CCS being in effect a small hospital this put a great strain on the medical staff.  Tom Hamilton loved to recall those days and would often comment on the courage and resourcefulness of his medical staff - of whom Tom was one - during those fateful weeks.

By February 1942 we were prisoners and Tom and I were together again for a short while.  Within a few months however the CCS was sent to Burma as part of the Japanese slave labour on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway and Tom went with them.

We are all well aware of the horrors of that dreadful ordeal and the deleterious effect it had on the health of our soldiers.  Tom was not to escape and the long standing diet deficiency left its stamp on him for the remainder of his life.  His eyesight was to be particularly affected as were the nerves to his muscles which never regained their original strength and grew weaker as the years went by.

After returning from the war Tom rejoined the Newcastle Hospital staff as a resident and was later appointed as Medical Registrar.  Putting his POW experiences behind him he returned to his studies and being a good student was soon admitted to Membership of the Royal Australian College of Physicians.

It was at an Anzac day reunion in 1946 that I caught up with Tom again.  He was most enthusiastic about the excellent Hospital in Newcastle and persuaded me to apply for the position of Clinical Pathologist.  That is how I came to Newcastle a move I have never regretted and I am eternally grateful to Tom for his advice.

Our friendship was re-established through the Hospital and I recall how on a Sunday afternoon we would often wander together along the beach and the breakwater to Nobbys and back.  Tom was a good thinker and I remember our earnest conversations with nostalgia.  They were never trivial and we often felt we'd solved our world's problems, at least in theory.

After receiving his Membership Tom went on leave to Great Britain to further his studies.  Although he gained much experience there he was unable to sit for his English Membership because of his eyes, a legacy of his prisoner of war days.

In England he saw much of Kitty and had things been as they are now would probably have seen a good deal more.  On his return they were married.

Tom only had two regrets that I knew of.  One was that he never married Kitty earlier.  The other, that he should have retired sooner.

Tom returned to Newcastle hospital and soon afterwards in 1953 left to enter private practice as a Physician.  He was appointed an Honorary Physician at the Newcastle Hospital and shortly afterwards at the Mater.  In 1968 Tom was honoured with the award of the Fellowship of the Royal Australian College of Physicians in recognition of his contribution to medicine.  He retired from his practice in 1982.

Tom was a member of Newcastle Legacy and served for a long time on the medical committee.  His contributions were of great assistance to the widows and orphans of deceased ex-service men.

Tom was always a bit of a loner.  He was not a socializer but rather enjoyed the simple things of life.  He loved his home and he liked nothing better than to work on his daughter's farm property near Clarencetown - such as sinking postholes by hand.  As his strength deteriorated he resented the fact that he was able to do less and less.

He loved the water and was a regular morning swimmer at Merewether baths until his legs became too weak, another legacy of his POW days.

He was a man with principles and stuck rigidly to them.  Tom did not attend church yet had his own religious convictions.  For instance Kitty told me that he rarely went to bed at night without saying his prayers.  Tom did not suffer fools gladly yet was able to meet his fellow man as equals no matter what their station in life.

He had a wry sense of humour and loved a joke.  I last saw Tom just a short time ago at the funeral service of his old Colonel Dr. Tom Hamilton.  He sat behind me with Kitty and we chuckled together over some of our war day's reminiscences.  He was in great spirits although his health was obviously deteriorating.

Tom was a good friend and colleague.  I believe his character is best summed up in the words of one of the privates who served under him during the war.  When I rang to tell him of Tom's death there was silence for a while and then he said.  "He'll go up there - he was a good man."

Following the completion of the Burma Thailand Railway in October 1943, the bulk of the surviving "A" Force POWs in Burma were moved to Thailand and were kept in the Tamakan/Kanburi (Kanchanaburi) area.  In 1945 a large number of the POWs were sent to Nakhon Nayok, north and east of Bangkok.  Lieutenant Gavin Campbell (survivor from HMAS Perth) was in this party and in 2007 he comments -

"I'll add what little I remember of him at the end and maybe you can use it. First I would like to offer one section about my time on the 'line in Burma.  This deals with my evacuation back to the 55 K camp to die of beriberi, but thanks to Col Coates and Captain Van Boxtel (Dutch chemist) I came through. While there I asked Col Coates about my leg (which was broken when the HMAS Perth was torpedoed on 28 February 1942) and whether I would have to have it broken and reset when we got back, he said "Laddie I've seen worse mends in Melbourne hospitals, leave it alone" and so I did despite the shortening of one leg.  Now for Tom:- "I remember Tom Brereton on the line when Anderson and Williams Forces were amalgamated due to shortage of numbers.  He, along with the other doctors, was dedicated to the easing of the suffering of the men.  He was compassionate in his dealings with their problems and suffered under the pressure of the Japanese to send men out to work who were not fit to work. He kept much to himself and was intense in his outlook of circumstances. He took things from day to day in a laid -back manner. From time to time he would come through the hut and spend time chatting. He was a very pleasant personality, with a resonant voice and a good sense of humour when he relaxed."

Neil MacPherson of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion captured in Java and sent up to Burma with Williams Force in October 1942 was sent down to Thanbyuzayat Base Hospital in December 1942 with acute conjunctivitis. Neil Comments -

"Major Ted Fisher was the Senior Officer in charge. There was little that could be done for conjunctivitis patients, except to protect our eyes from the cruel glare of the sun and give us rest. We were all also allowed to stand at the head of the queues for meals. Captain Thomas Le Gay Brereton NX76180 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station was my Doctor, and was most considerate towards the many conjunctivitis patients, no doubt he felt badly at having to send us back to the work force after our short period of treatment."

 Neil's discharge papers (from Thanbyuazayat Base Hospital) signed by Captain Le Gay Brereton follow-

 Captain Le Gay Breretons Discharge Papers

In 1996 the Royal Australian College of Physicians produced a book titled "The Long Days of Slavery".  The following is an extract;-

BRERETON, Thomas Le Gay b. 1913 d. 1990
BSc Syd(1934) MB BS Syd(1939) MRACP(1948) FRACP(1968)

After doing Science at the University of Sydney, he then decided to do medicine and did his residency at Sydney Hospital in 1939 before moving to Newcastle Hospital until enlistment in 1940. With Drs Roy Mills FRACP and Peter Hendry FRCPA he was posted to 2/10 Field Ambulance which later was sent with the 8th Division to Malaya. There he gained transfer to 2/4 CCS, thinking there would be more scope for medical practice. In that same unit was Carl Furner, a foundation Fellow of the College. Soon after the brief, brutal Malayan campaign, Tom was sent to care for the prisoners on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway. There his health suffered badly and he was only six stone at liberation. Ironically for a university blue in rifle shooting, his eyesight suffered badly from malnutrition: thereafter reading and patient care became difficult, time consuming tasks.

The book "Into the Smother" by Ray Parkin (HMAS Perth survivor) contains an appendix written by Lt Col Dunlop.  It has short comments about Captain Brereton which say-

"An epic story was a six weeks march of 800 British soldiers for some 600 km (375 miles) from Nakom Nyak (sic) to Pitsanloke carrying their sick on rice-sack stretchers. Due to the devoted work of the medical officers, Capt C.J.Poh SSUF (sic) and Capt T Brereton, AAMC, only three died on the march."

The above comments do not reveal the magnitude of what occurred. The march started in March 1945, with an advance party of 200 English troops moving north, accompanied by Captain Jim Marks RAMC. They were followed by the 800 referred to above. The group was made up of 700 English and 100 Australians. They were supported be Captain Brereton and Lt Poh SSVF and eight Medical Orderlies (Medical Officers in the Straits Settlements Voluntary Forces were commissioned with the rank of Lieutenant rather than Captain as was the practice in the English and Australian Forces).  It is worth noting the conditions- The men in the group were far from fit suffering from many complaints. They averaged only 10 KM per day and slept each night without shelter in heavy rain. They had limited transport and carried equipment on push carts. The sick were on lorries or litters. It would be impossible to describe the actual conditions nor to identify when they finally were all assembled in Pitsanloke.  Small pox also hit this group. (I have gleaned this information from AS Walkers book "Australians at War 1939-45 - Medical - Middle East and Far East". I assumed Walker must have interviewed Brereton. Thank goodness he did or this information would have been lost). It must be remembered that from 1943 Tom had lost a great deal of his vision due to vitamin deficiency. 

I will now move to a possibly lighter side of the story of Captain Thomas Le Gay Brereton. As noted above, the camp had been struck with smallpox.  He wrote a letter (probably on 2 September 45) to his mother as he sat on a runway waiting for a plane (for India), which never arrived.  Because of the small pox the authorities had become hostile (Tom's words) towards the camp. He said "Life has been so cheap in prison camps that we no longer worry about little things like that, but the British Army still takes a dim view of infectious diseases". He also said "I live with Jim Marks a Captain RAMC from Northern Ireland. We have been together for over a year now and get along well. We both received extra pay from the Nips on our last POW pay day and we are spending it as fast as we can on food. It (the currency) will be useless soon………

For some inexplicable reason Tom's next letter (7 September 1945) was from Labuan in Borneo.  He said "it (the stop in Labuan) will delay my return to you for a few days, but after 4 years I feel a few days does not matter much."  Whilst in Labuan he had contact with his relative Brigadier (Later Major General (Sir)) Victor Windeyer, who had earlier been in Singapore hoping to locate Tom.  It is not clear why or how, but he returns to Takri, Thailand. He wrote a further letter home on 20 September 1945 from Takri. There was much indecision as to his return route to Australia. Because the bulk of POWs he was with were English, it seemed he may return via Rangoon. Ultimately he returned to Australia, by plane Bangkok to Singapore and then ship to Sydney.

It is worth quoting verbatim from one of his letters to his mother dated 2 September 45, "You may have heard rather gruesome and distressing stories about the Japanese treatment of POWs. I am afraid you will find them all true."

Another interesting letter dated 9 February 1945 was written on Australian Red Cross Society paper by Sapper William Henry McKittrick NX33414 2/12 Field Company Engineers to Mrs Brereton.  Portion of the letter says  "To Mrs Brereton, Dear Madam, your letter was forwarded on to me ……………Captain Brereton was last seen by me at the 105 kilo camp in Burma, where he was the camp doctor. He had only then come up from the base camp which was comparatively comfortable. He was in good health and quite well and able to pull through. His spirits (meaning his morale) were good and I have no doubts about his ability to pull through……….".  One may ask how this letter was written by McKittrick in early 1945.  He had been on the Rakuyo Maru September 1944 when it was torpedoed by an American Submarine taking many POWs to Japan to provide labour for Japanese industry.  McKittrick was one of the fortunate ones to survive the sinking, then to survive in the water until a relatively small number were rescued by the same American submarines which had sunk the floating prisons.

  I am deeply indebted to Mrs Kit Brereton and her son John for access to the letters which Tom wrote to his mother, both pre and post war. In particular, the following two letters received from a Japanese soldier are extremely poignant.  The writer is Mr M Fujimoto, who clearly was a chemist pre and post war.  It could be that Tom had contact with Fujimoto in trying to obtain medicines etc.  It is clear from Fujimoto's letters that he respected Tom.  The fact that Tom sent food parcels to Fujimoto indicates his positive feelings.  Both these letters were written to Tom by Mr Fujimoto with the assistance of an interpreter/translator.

Read on and I defy anyone to say that they are not emotionally affected :-

"My Dear Dr T Le Gay Brereton. How are you getting along since I saw you last. Perhaps I suppose, you had already returned safely to your beloved native country and are now spending a sweet and comfortable life. Since I bade you farewell at Takuli station I stayed at Bisnuloke (sic) for about one month. Here I met Mr Zack, you see a good talker and official interpreter so-called and other persons. They departed cheerfully for Bangkok. After we had stayed at Nakon Nyork for about eight months, waiting and waiting for the day of return home, and at last of June. We came back to Japan and immediately were demobilized. Becoming a free person, what did I find in our native place? My home was burnt down by bombs and my family were missing. I was at a loss what to do for a time. But fortunately I met with my family in the country in good health. And now I am employed in a chemist's shop same as before the call, and my family- old father and mother, wife and son, all five are getting along cheerful and happy life even though foodstuffs and clothes are scarce. As you know from newspapers and radio news, the present conditions of the beaten Japan are miserable materially and morally. But that is the return of our invasion war, misled by the military clique. We should pay the penalty to the world from now on. Our new constitution which will be established nearly, prescribed the abandonment of war for the first time in the world. We should be born anew, as peace loved people and do our best to restore the prosperity of Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and the other cities and towns. The path of my life are full of difficulties of course, but they are not so much as the difficulties you have ever borne. So I am doing my business with all my might every day. If you had a chance to hear from the comrades I know, could you kindly remember me to them? Wishing you comfortable and prosperous life, I remain, Yours sincerely, M Fujimoto."

The second letter follows:-
"Dear Mt T Le Gay Brereton, I am very much pleased to receive your letter dated Feb 10, 1947 and I thank you very much for your cordial present which has duly arrived by parcel post.  The contents of the parcel were so nice that my family was wild with joy. I divided some food with my friend who is the translator of our letter. He was very glad, of course for the nice present. I was very pleased to read that you got back home safely and served at the New Castle (sic) Hospital where you worked before the war. I believe that you passed the examination already and wish you good promotion. Do you remember Mr Wilson? I heard from him recently. I was extremely sorry to hear that his father had died but was very glad that his wife and family were all safe and well. Last night I got up till late tasting the genuine coffee with milk which you kindly sent me. I recalled the memory of the coffee shops…………………… (indecipherable). Our country is now underway of striking recovery. There will be of course, much difficulties against us. But the new Constitution has become effective on May 3 which renounced the war for the first time in the world. We must work hard for the world peace. Hoping your happiness and good health, I remain, yours sincerely, (signature not visible) 3.6.47."
Doctor Thomas Le Gay Brereton's post war history is summarised in Dr Peter Hendry's Obituary above. 

Thomas Le Gau Brereton passed away on 17 August 1990..

Article written by Lt Col Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP with the assistance of Mrs Brereton and her son John in June 2007. I must alsothank and acknowledge the significant input by Dr Peter Hendry, Neil MacPherson and Gavin Campbell (all three ex POWs).

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