Don Dowie (service no 4323) joined RAAF in 1938. He trained
as an aircraft metal rigger with the rank of AC 1. He was dux of his course.
In due course, he re-enlisted as a Air Cadet (service no now 649) at Point
Cook in 1939 and trained as a pilot. As a member of 1 Squadron he was
sent to Malaya during 1941
Don became part of “H” Force, which was sent to the southern end of the Burma Thailand Railway in May 1943. “H” Force was employed in the Konyu/Hintok area and worked on two huge cuttings and the Three Tier Bridge. There were two Australian Medical Officers (Majors Ernie Mardsen and Kevin Fagan) and one Dental Officer (Captain Mac Winchester) in the force. As part of “H” Force, there as one party which was composed entirely of officers. Don was in that group, which was known as the “Officers Party”. Don mentions other Medical Officers with “H” Force. They were John Diver (British) and Austin Best (British- pre war Resident Medical Officer on Christmas Island) and WO Briganza “Assistant Surgeon” (Indian Medical Services).
Initially Don was located at Tonchan South (north of Tarsau).
It was here that he witnessed a brutal bashing of Dr John Diver. Diver
had secretly given Medical assistance to a Japanese soldier who had fallen
out of the line-of-march as his group was marching towards Burma. The
soldier was totally exhausted and was lying in the jungle near death (subsequently
died). Don says Diver was a devoted doctor and a man of great courage.
Work in the Konyu/Hintok area was completed by August 1943 and the Japanese demanded a further party of 100 to be sent up north to join with “F” Force and bolster the effort up there. Major Kevin Fagan (Medical Officer) had to select the 100 fittest to go north. He had this to say, ”The worst experience I had was the job of choosing 100 of the survivors of the holocaust to go further up into Thailand to a place called Konkoita to help with a cutting which was behind schedule. There were about 300 of us left out of about 600 (Australians). …. I had to choose 100 men to march another 100 miles into the unknown, certainly to worse and not to better. I never saw any of those men again”. (When Kevin Fagan made this statement in an interview he probable did not realize that he had operated on Don Dowie at the Sime Road Camp, Singapore later in 1944). “I felt that I had come to the end at that stage because these were the fellows whom I had nursed through difficult times and there was a bond of affection between us. I would have understood if they’d cursed me, turned on their heels and walked away. Instead of that they came and shook hands with me and wished me good luck. And I found it necessary to walk into the jungle and weep for a while. …. Later on that day the Japanese medical officer came by, a pompous fellow who could speak quite good English. I said to him, “Unless you change your treatment of these prisoners they will all die.” He said, “That would be a very good thing; it would save the Japanese army much rice.”
Whilst Don was in the Konkoita area, he was in charge of a work party of around 20 men. The group was involved in building a short two-tiered bridge. This was being supervised by a Japanese engineer Lieutenant Shimitzu. Don says that Shimitzu was not a bad Jap, unlike most, and was a gentleman. The POWs had substantially finished the timber bridge and a team of Tamils was working on an adjacent cutting. When the Tamils broke through, the floor of the cutting was one metre below the bridge platform. There was much panic and loss of face for the engineer. The Jap engineer obtained differential pulleys and stays and had the workers support the bridge platform whilst others were required to cut down the vertical uprights. Don could see the pulleys were not strong enough and they eventually broke and the upper structure collapsed. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. There followed much face slapping to appease the Jap engineer’s frustration.
Upon completion of the Railway in October 1943, Don, as part of what survived of “H” Force, was returned to Singapore, where Major Fagan had to do an operation on his back. Following the War Don studied medicine and, in due course, became the Director, Medical Services, Department of Social Services South Australia. He and his wife Cynthia reside in Willunga in South Australia. In 2003 they visited the Australian War Memorial and viewed the engines of the aircraft that he was in on 8 December 1941. The engines were recovered in 1976 and are now on display at the AWM.
Notes prepared by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired)
JP following discussion with Doctor Dowie. (E-mail email@example.com)