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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by (Medical Officer) Peter Hendry
at Hellfire Pass, Thailand

Remembrance Day Address Hellfire Pass 2007

As we stand here today, in silence, we remember those service men and women of the Malayan Campaign, who, in their defence of Australia died or were captured and made Prisoners of War and, in particular, those who suffered and died on this infamous Railway.

There is a perception in some minds that the Malayan campaign was a pushover for the Japanese. I would like to correct that impression. I would like to remind you that France was captured by the German army within 6 weeks, Greece was captured in 4 weeks a total of 10 weeks. It took the Japanese army 10 weeks to capture Singapore! The army was never defeated, but, those in charge capitulated to save the civilians from the inevitable.

In the campaign Japan used 125,000 troops and had 15,000 in reserve. The allies used 88,000 and of these some 15,000 were Australians. The Japanese were superior in the air having 530 modern Zero aeroplanes whereas the allies had only158 ancient Hudsons and Vilderbeests. The Japanese had 174 tanks, the allies had none. 2,500 Australians were either killed in action, missing or died of wounds. I have no record of the Japanese losses but I believe it to be very much greater.

When the Japanese met resistance they would halt and hold their position, meantime sending excess troops around the flanks to cut off and prevent an allied retreat. The allies would have to withdraw. This happened at Gemas when the Japanese advance was halted by the Australian 30th Battalion, and again at Muar where the 19th and 29th Australian battalions were involved.  In the Japanese records of the campaign it is recorded that the toughest resistance was when they were halted by the Australians.

For the record, I was a member of the 2/10 Aust Field Ambulance a medical unit made up of men mainly from Newcastle and the North coast.  The total strength of the unit was 292, which included a detachment sent to Rabaul. Of the 292 members of the unit who embarked, 131 returned. The remainder 161 were either killed in action or died as POW’s of the Japanese. Some died in the infamous Tol Massacre near Rabaul, others on the Sandakan march in Borneo, and others slaving in Japan and on this Railway.

A short time after capitulation the POW’s were ordered to Changi, where the Australians were to occupy the peace time barracks of the Gordon Highlanders, commodious for a battalion but very crowded for more than ten times that number. There was insufficient water and far too few toilet facilities. Sleeping accommodation on cement floors was crowded. Food was sparse and consisted almost wholly of rice.

Soon various groups were sent off to work for the Japanese. Some were sent into Singapore to load goods from the various warehouses onto ships to send to Japan. I was the medical officer for one of these groups. Two groups named C Force and J Force were sent to Japan to work in the coal mines and in the naval dockyards. B Force, which included most of my unit, the 2/10 Field Ambulance., was sent to Borneo to build an aerodrome. A Force was sent by boat to Burma to work at that end of the infamous Railway. Together with the remainder of my unit I was sent on F Force to work up from the South.

It is not my intention today to dwell on the horror trip from Singapore to Thailand in the overcrowded steel trucks, nor on the 300 odd Km march at night to the top end of the railway, under frightful conditions of rain and mud, on difficult jungle tracks, as I am sure you are familiar with both.  However I would like to describe the conditions at Banpong the town at the end of the rail journey in Thailand, and the start point of the march. My main recollection is of mud, a ground fowled with faeces from over flowing latrines, discarded packs, personal clothing and other goods all scattered in dumps over the camp area. In Singapore we had been told we were to go to a country overflowing with milk and honey and to take all our possessions with us. We did, but on arrival we were told we would have to carry all our personal goods for a 300 km march. Hence the mess!

I would like to relate to you an interesting sidelight to this. I had purchased a pewter mug before the war, which I had intended as a gift on my return home. One of my unit had engraved it with some tropical scenes, my name, my unit, and the date 24th May 1942 which the older of you will remember as Empire Day. Naturally, to my great sorrow, I decided to discard it in Banpong. Some weeks later at Songkurai the so called death camp at the top end of the railway, when the personal goods of a dead soldier were being examined, there was the mug. I brought it home and it remains as a momento, not only of those horrible days, but also of mans folly.

Nor is it my intention to discuss the horrid diseases Dysentry, BeriBeri, Malaria, Tropical Ulcers and Cholera to which the malnourished and overworked troops were subjected, nor the crowded unhygienic huts in which they were housed, nor the mud and slush in which the huts were situated nor the lack of medicine all of which you are all undoubtedly familiar, but I will end this address with the reasons I believe so many were able to survive.

Firstly: Mateship! An Australian icon!  It was said that without a mate you would be lucky to survive. He looked after you when things were bad and vice versa. I have seen sick men, themselves at the point of exhaustion, carry the gear of a mate as well their own because he couldn’t. Men survived because their mate fed them and tendered them when they were ill.

Secondly: The medical orderlies. These men, often with little nursing experience, would care for the sick with tender loving care. They would carry the sick to the latrines, bathe them, wash them, and if they were too sick, bring them a bedpan made of bamboo. They would bathe their tropical ulcers and dress them with bandages made out of dead mans clothing, wash and boil them again and again. Finally encourage them to eat and feed them, even though they would resist. Doctors got much praise for their attention to the sick, but the medical orderlies disserved just as much praise or more. I feel privileged and honoured to have worked with them!  

Thirdly and finally - the best of all medicines – Laughter. I would like to end this address with a story. Knowing the value of making a patient laugh, I, together with some of the more musical members of my unit arranged concerts for the sick.

For example, one of the themes was Hawaiian. We would dress up in palm frond hula –hula skirts with coconut halves for boobs and, without any music, sing Hawaiian songs such as “To you sweetheart “halloa – halloa” from the bottom of my heart” and so on.

An Australian soldier wrote a book on his experiences on the Railway. He wrote that at one time he was at the point of despair. He was hungry, sick and exhausted. He had lost all his mates and was so depressed that he lay down in the mud to die. I quote. “The Medical Officer who ran the hospital came to pick me up. I refused to move, all I wanted to do was die. He had me carried to the hospital ward against my will. Soon after my arrival the MO and his staff began a concert. It was so stupid that I started to laugh. I never looked back.”

Lest we Forget

Written by Captain (Medical Officer) Peter Hendry NX35147 2/10 Field Ambulance
“F” Force at Songkurai POW Camp near the Burma border                 October 2007

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