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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Alexander (Alex) White was born in Elsternwick a Melbourne suburb in Victoria on 21 September 1914 the first and only child of Myrtle (nee Glasson) and Alexander Henry White.  When he was only 10 months old, his father Lieutenant Colonel White of the Eighth Light Horse Regiment was killed leading his men in the battle of the Nek at Gallipoli.  He grew up in Hobart, and attended Hutchins School – he won an examination prize in 1921, and was Dux of the school in 1932. In 1922, his mother remarried; he was very close to his step-father, William McMinn.

He studied first year Science at Melbourne University in 1933 before transferring to Medicine the following year.  He lived at Ormond College during his Melbourne University years.  He met Ivy Jean Packer, his-wife-to-be, during their medical course.  Following his graduation in December 1939, he returned to Hobart as a resident medical officer at Royal Hobart Hospital.  He came back to Melbourne to marry Ivy Jean on April 4, 1941.  The reception was held at the Hotel Windsor, and the wedding was reported in Melbourne and Brisbane newspapers.  Ivy Jean graduated the following day.  They both went back to Hobart as resident medical officers.

He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces on 11 September 1941 and was appointed a Captain Medical Officer (MO). Enlistment took place in Hobart.  He sailed to Singapore on the Aquitania on January 10, 1942, arriving in Singapore on January 24, 1942.  He became a reinforcement medical officer to the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS).  (The 2/4 CCS had been raised in Brighton Camp, Hobart on 30 December 1940 and moved to Malaya earlier in 1941).  Captain White arrived with another reinforcement medical officer Captain G.D. (Don) Cumming.  The Commanding Officer of the 2/4 CCS Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Hamilton, in his book “Soldier Surgeon in Malaya” notes that the reinforcement MOs were very welcome.  The 2/4 CCS was deployed on the Malayan mainland in the traditional role of providing forward medical care to sick and wounded.  Thomas Hamilton made further comment about Alex .  In the first case, he mentions that Captain White had been detached from the CCS and allocated in support of a fighting unit.  It is later confirmed that Captain White returned to the CCS.

On 15 February 1942 Captain Alex White, with thousands of other Allied servicemen, became a Prisoner of War and was incarcerated in the Changi area at Selerang Barracks.  Then in May 1942, an Australian party of 3,000 was assembled from Singapore and sent to Burma in two ships (Toyohashi Maru and Celebes Maru).  Captain White was one of 12 medical officers allocated to support the force.  There was an unexpected addition of Lieutenant Colonel (later Sir) Albert Coates when he arrived in Burma from Medan in Sumatra in company with 500 British POWs (known as the British Sumatra Battalion).

The Australian POWs were landed on the coast of Burma at three locations in battalion groups of around 1,000.  One group, under command of Major Green – Commanding Officer of the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion, was landed at Victoria Point.  Another group of around 1,000 men was landed at Mergui under command of Lt Col Ramsay of 2/18 Battalion.  The final group of another 1,000 landed at Tavoy under Command of Lt Col Charles Anderson VC of the 2/19 Battalion.  Captain White was one of 2 or 3 MOs landed at Victoria Point, at the southern part of Burma.  One other MO at Victoria Point was definitely Captain Claude Anderson RMO 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion.  Some reports also record that Captain John Higgin was at Victoria Point.

The voyage to Victoria Point for Captain White was in the hold of a Japanese freighter, the Toyohashi Maru in a journey that lasted 10 days having a stop at the port of Medan, in Sumatra.  Claude Anderson (aged 97 in 2008 and living in Perth) clearly remembers being with Captain White at Victoria Point.  The late Phil Beilby (2/4 Machine Gun Battalion and who distinguished himself by carrying his clarinet with him until he was on the Rokuyo Maru when it was torpedoed in the South China Sea in September 1944) remembered lying on the rough concrete floor of a large shed or hanger at Victoria Point or later maybe at Tavoy.  He remembered that Captain White nudged him in the buttocks and told him to get up and stop feeling sorry for himself (Phil thought he was at the end of the world, little realising that things would get worse).  Phil Beilby mentioned that Captain White had a nickname of “Hoppy” amongst the boys.  He did, indeed, have a limp as a result of a congenital deformation which meant that one leg was significantly shorter than the other.  Leslie Hall in his book “Blue Haze” also places Captain White at Victoria Point.  There is mention of him, in the personal diary of Arthur Hodgson, being at Thanbyuzayat late October 1942.  All members of “A” Force passed through Thanbyuzayat around that time.  In any case as a Medical Officer of “A” Force he clearly was with the men in Burma.

He stayed at the Victoria Point aerodrome until August 8, then travelled to Tavoy, 200 miles further north.  There was a week’s stop there, then on to Ye for six weeks.  On September 22 left for Thanbyuzayat, 40km south of Moulemein.  He spent two months at the 4km camp on the Burma-Thailand railway, then a further 2 months at the 14km camp.  From there, he went to the 75km camp for two months, and then the 105km camp where he stayed 10 months.  [That information comes from his own writing held by his son and daughter.]

Bert Wall (WX 12989 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion and a survivor of the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru, but, who was picked up by the Japs and ended up in Sakata POW Camp Japan with Captain Rowley Richards) remembers a march from 75 km camp to 105 km camp in Burma.  Bert clearly recalls Captain White moving up and down the column of stragglers helping where he could.  A good description of this march appears in the record of Staff Sergeant F.J. Giles (whose story titled “The Lost Years” appears in the Books section of my Website).  “On 13 May we were suddenly taken off work, Burmese taking our place.  We then had to march to Camp Kilo 105.  That’s 30 kilometres, about 19 miles.  We marched through the rain carrying and helping our sick.  It took nearly two days to make it.  We camped in the rain on the side of the road with no shelter what so ever.  Those whose boots had rotted off suffered severely for under the mud of the road was a layer of sharp, flinty stones. ……….Our clothes were now reduced to a black G-string used by the Japanese.  We found Camp Kilo 105 to be another native cholera camp……it was full of dead coolies. We dragged out about sixty bodies and buried them.  There were already many buried in the nearby jungle and many more unburied that we only found from time to time further away where they had perished in their flight.     The doctors did their best.  They had no medicines, no instruments, but they worked day and night, often taking savage bashings from the Japanese when they tried to prevent their patients being dragged out to work.”

On May 4, 1943, confirmation was received in Australia that he was a prisoner of war. He was POW no. 1286. (See more comments on letters and cards below)

In March 1944, he left the camp (in Burma) and travelled over the Burma railway to Kanburi [?] camp in Thailand, 80km west of Bangkok.  He spent six months there, then went by rail to River Valley camp, Singapore.  He was there for four months. On February 2, 1945, he left on a Japanese freighter (possibly on the Haruyasa Maru) to Saigon.  He arrived on February 8. There were two other ships, both of which were torpedoed and sunk two days out of Saigon.  He spent three weeks on the wharf at Saigon before being moved to a rubber camp, Songthan (or Longthan) for two months.  He was sent to another camp (Lui-chang), 30 kms from Dalat.

The record of his time is in his own hand, and is written in the form of the story of the journey undertaken by his compass, which survived searchings and theft, and returned to Australia with him. He makes no mention in that record of what he undertook and endured.

There were four letters from him to his wife before he was captured, and five POW Japanese Army cards during his time as POW.  Not all are dated.  Two were sent from Moulmein in Burma.  One was a printed card, simply signed by him. The other was printed but contained more information in his own hand.  He had filled in the amount he was paid per month (122.5 rupees), and wrote he was with Meynall Davies (QX23974) and William McFarlane (VX46929 4th Anti Tank Regiment – died Japan 27 December 1944).  It was likely written at the end of 1942.  (It seems they were all in Burma).  One card was sent from No 3 Branch Thai War Prisoners Camp at Nike in Thailand.  It is not dated, but was sent near Christmas because the printed words end “with best wishes for a cheerful Christmas”.  There was also a card dated May 19, 1944.  The last was entirely in his own hand, dated August 21, 1945, and was sent from a POW Camp in Saigon.

After VP day, he left Saigon by air for Singapore via Bangkok.  He sailed for Australia on HMT Highland Chieftain, and arrived in Sydney on October 11, 1945.  There is a letter written to his wife, dated October 8, 1945 (HMT Highland Chieftain, off Great Sandy Island), and addressed to her at the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne, where his parents often stayed when they came to Melbourne from Hobart.  His handwriting is strong, and his mood very positive.  He wrote to her about his excitement about seeing her again, notes the work she had done as second-in-charge at the Royal Women’s Hospital, and his need to do a refresher course in medicine:  “Although I have been through six years I don’t know as much as a fourth year student, so am going to apply for a refresher course when I get back.  Heaven knows I need it.”

The family view is that his love for his wife kept him alive during his years as prisoner of war.  He ate whatever protein was available (weevils and insects in the rice), and noted later in his life that the men unable to do so did not survive.  He and others used to grow snails to eat.

HMT Highland Chieftain stopped in Darwin and in Brisbane. In Brisbane he was met by his sister-in-law Vera Packer, who noted that although he was very thin, he looked fitter and more alert than most of the other men, some of whom wandered aimlessly.  
After his return to Melbourne, he spent some time as a patient at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, then as a medical officer at Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.

He lived in Malvern, a Melbourne suburb, at that time, until moving to Wangaratta.  He was discharged from the Medical Corps on May 10, 1946.  He worked as a locum doctor for about 15 months at Wangaratta, in north-east Victoria.  They then moved to Melbourne, where he was a locum at Newport, an inner suburb.  They moved to Moorabbin, then regarded as an emerging suburb, and in 1949 established a general practice from their home.  He and his wife worked together until his death in 1969. Theirs was a seven-day a week practice, and they were on call 24 hours a day. He was passionate about electronics, building radios and record players at home.  He was also interested in photography and astronomy.

They had two children, Alexander William (born August 1946 in Melbourne) and Marjorie Jean (born November 1947 in Wangaratta).

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he attended Alfred Hospital every Friday afternoon as an Honorary Medical Officer.  He was highly regarded by his patients and his peers, and was noted for his sense of humour as well as his diagnostic skills.  He died at the Alfred Hospital on May 18, 1969 from pancreatic cancer that was probably a result of his years of starvation.  It had not been diagnosed correctly – his illness had been thought to be a stomach ulcer.

Article written by Lt Col Peter Winstanley over the period 2005 to 2008.  Significant assistance of Captain (Dr) Alex White’s Son Alex White, daughter Marjorie McPherson and his cousin Dr Gwynne Duigan is acknowledged.

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