|LE GAY BRERETON THOMAS CAPTAIN NX76180
| 2/10 FIELD AMBULANCE AND 2/4 CASUALTY CLEARING STATION
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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
(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).