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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Lt Col Albert Coates
(VX 503645) and the medical POW of the Burma-Thailand Railway

I wish to document something of the history of my grandfather, Sir Albert (Bertie) Coates, a most extraordinary Australian. Through his story I would like to reflect on some of the most remarkable aspects of the Australian experience in WWII, the activities of the medical staff throughout the grim days of the war in SEAsia.
Most Australians are familiar with the wartime history of Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. Yet many Australians are surprised to know that Dunlop was one of 43 Australian doctors, 6 dentists and 458 medical orderlies who became POW and worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. ‘Weary’’s story is well known of course. Less well known perhaps is the story of Sir Albert Coates, although for those familiar with the history of the Burma-Thailand railway, he also stands out as a legendary Australian, a hero, and he has a story that highlights the contribution of the many medical professionals who became POW.
Albert Coates was extraordinary from the start. Born in 1895, he was the first of 7 children. His grandfather arrived from England during the Victorian goldrushes, and they settled in the Ballarat area. As the family was of modest means, when young Albert completed his primary school, he was sent to work, initially apprenticed at 12 years old to a butcher, then to a book-binder, the latter giving him access to books to read. He was noted to be bright, and his primary school teacher, Mr Leslie Morshead , later Lt-Gen Sir Leslie Morshead, CO 9th Div AIF, offered to teach Albert at night school. He studied languages and sciences, and at 18 years sat the matriculation equivalent, receiving 5 distinctions. He left his apprenticeship and obtained work at the Melbourne and subsequently Wangaratta PO while he studied pre-med subjects to facilitate his enrollment in the University of Melbourne medical school.

In 1914 world war broke out, and shortly after young Albert enlisted in the AIF. He was considered too short for combat and so was eventually given the role of medical orderly. He was sent to Egypt in the first convoy from Albany, and he continued to learn various languages from the troops and civilians he met. His French and German became fluent. He was present at Gallipoli landing but the horses and wagons of the medical teams were not landed, and he watched from the ships for 18 long days before returning to Alexandria. When he eventually got onto the peninsular he served there for many months, until the final Australian evacuation in 1915. He continued service in Ypres and on the Somme. As a medical orderly in WWI he witnessed first-hand the horror that war brings. He taught himself Dutch and as his language skills became prominent, he was drafted for intelligence work. The British Army subsequently offered him a commission in the Intelligence section, after nearly executing him themselves in error.
The young Sgt Coates returned however to Australia in late 1918, enrolled at University and worked at the Post Office at night to put himself through medical school. He married in 1921 while a medical student. He graduated in 1924 with 1st class Hons in all subjects. He became a RMO at the Melbourne Hospital, and soon showed aptitude for anatomy and surgery. He was given the position of Stewart Lecturer in Anatomy in 1926. He subsequently became a specialist surgeon, joined the honorary staff at the Melbourne Hospital, and both worked and taught there. One of his students, and later staff colleagues, was ‘Weary’ Dunlop. His professional life blossomed, the only shadow in his life occuring in 1934 when his wife died after an operation. It was some time later that he remarried.

In 1939 war was declared again, and despite being nearly 45 years old, with 5 children to support, he enlisted in the 2nd AIF. The 8th Division sailed for Singapore in 1941, and Lt-Col Coates aboard the Queen Mary was Senior Surgeon of the 10th AGH in Malacca. In Malacca, he learned about tropical medicine first hand. Under Col E R White, clinical meetings were begun and the staff studied tropical ulcers, amoebic dysentery, malaria and other tropical syndromes in depth. Coates got permission, after much official resistance, to train a number of medical orderlies here. They eventually proved to be a great asset when the invasion came as most of the nurses were evacuated. During his time there, Coates was called to Singapore to perform emergency surgery on Australia’s Ambassador to Japan, Sir John Latham. He subsequently accompanied him to Melbourne to conduct definitive surgery for him. They became great friends. Coates managed three short weeks with his family before being urgently recalled to Malaya.

By January 1942, the Japanese were advancing quickly on Singapore, and the 10th AGH in Malacca was broken up. Coates was sent to 13th AGH in Singapore and he operated there on the troops returning from the advancing war front. The hospital was filled rapidly, patients even being nursed on the lawns. Unfortunately for the hospital, a battery unit was setup at one end of the garden and soon air-raids were occurring daily. Bombing around the hospital more than once meant pieces of roof would descend into the middle of the operating theatre. They often operated in total blackouts. One case Coates recalled of that time was a soldier with a sword cut from neck to buttock. While he was being sewn up he told Coates that he had, despite his fearsome wound, successfully dispatched his samurai assailant. In the four weeks before the British surrender and the Australians were ordered to lay down arms, 1789 Australians were killed in action in Malaya and another 1306 wounded.

Lt-Col AE Coates in uniform of the 2nd AIF,
with his trademark pipe.

Singapore fell in February 1942, and Coates was evacuated under mortar fire aboard the Sui Kwong with a large body of mainly British troops on a ship towards Java. The ship was bombed en-route and sunk, the majority of the troops being landed by life-raft on Sumatra. On arrival at Tembilahan, he operated on the worst 15 casualties and put them in native huts. Much of the party then left for Australia, but Coates stayed to tend to the sick and injured. He performed over 100 operations in the next week in a small Indonesian hospital. As more casualties began arriving, they moved up-river and operated at a mission hospital at Rengat. They then began a journey toward Padang, across country. Many of them had only the clothes in which they stood, many had no boots, and they had to sleep out. Like many of them, Coates not surprisingly got his first bout of dengue fever here. He was one of two doctors, and the only surgeon, for the 1500 troops, with about 50 serious cases. He was required to operate at various places at which they stopped through this journey, using local Dutch facilities. Another case he noted at this time was a woman with a large shrapnel wound of the buttock, which had severed her sciatic nerve, and associated pelvic abscess. Coates drained the abscess, and repaired the nerve as best he could in the village hospital. He met the woman after the war and was pleased to note she had only a slight drag of her toe. He had through this time, several chances to be evacuated but chose to continue to support and care for the troops in his immediate care, who otherwise would be left without any surgical care. Unfortunately by the time they reached Padang, the Japanese had captured Sumatra, and they were surrendered to the Japanese there. It was here that Coates received his first beating from the Japanese soldiers.

In May 1942, Coates with 500 British and 1000 Dutch POW, were sent to Medan and loaded onto a small coastal steamer and sent to Burma to join the 3000 Aussie POW of A-force who had been sent from Changi. There were twelve Australian doctors and two dentists already with this force. Initially there were rumours of road construction but it then became apparent that the Japanese wanted to build a railway from Thailand to Burma and that they intended to use the POW to do it in contravention to international conventions on POW. Little did they know then that the Japanese had no interest in the well being of the POW, in fact quite the contrary. The Japanese officers viewed the starvation, torture and neglect were justified in the service of their Emperor. Brigadier Varley was in charge of A force, and they were joined by more POW by Jan 1943. At the Thai end, 600 British POW under Major Sykes arrived in June 1942, and were soon joined by 3000 more British POW by August. The first teams had to build large camps at the ends of the line, smaller working camps in the jungle, and commence preparations for the work on the railway. Albert Coates was the senior surgeon at the Burma end, working under Lt-Col Thomas Hamilton, SMO. ‘Weary’ Dunlop, was a senior surgeon and CO for the first group of Australian POW to reach the southern end in Thailand in January 1943, the force pushed forward and later known as ‘Weary’s 1000’. In all, about 13,000 Australians worked on the railway, among some 60,000 POW and about 200,000 conscripted native labourers from various Asia countries. Some 2646 Aussie POW died among the 13,000 POW deaths in total, and at least 80,000 Asian labourers. The lower rate of deaths amongst POWs can be attributed to the presence of about 150 doctors, many British, 43 Australian, with some Dutch and one or two Americans, and the many medical orderlies, mostly volunteers, who worked on the railway, spread from Thailand to Burma, and who treated the injured and sick, and gradually developed systems for minimising infectious disease.

Conditions were appalling. Malaria was rife, the average attack rate was about 2 attacks per man per month. The Japanese only supplied limited quinine, so only severe cases were considered for treatment. Dengue fever and scrub typhus were common, and enteric illnesses such as dysentery and cholera took their toll. Large outbreaks of cholera would follow the rains. The Japanese were terrified of cholera, and one notorious case occurred when a POW was shot for having developed the disease. The Australian troops had been vaccinated against cholera, typhoid and smallpox, although only the smallpox vaccine was very efficacious. The Japanese provided booster vaccination against cholera for the Allied POW in the later stages, and they would often wear masks if cholera cases were apparent. Smallpox was reported at one camp, but the Japanese provided some vaccination for this too and it did not pose a serious threat for POW. The commonest causes of death of POW, were from malaria or dysentery. Accidents and injuries from the guards accounted for a lesser but important number, and suicide was a fortunately infrequent but terrible aspect of the degree of suffering. The weather was no friend to the POW, summer meant soaring temperatures and high humidity, monsoon meant constant soaking wet, and winter meant cold nights. Clothing rotted and most men were soon in loincloths only. Diphtheria and pneumonia occurred in the crowded conditions and appendicitis was not uncommon. The ever present threat from violent outbursts from the guards also meant constant management of a wide range of trauma.

Nutritional disease became common, neuritis, beri-beri, and pellagra due to poor diet. Men were fed a small amount of poor quality rice, with some gruel poured over the top. Vegetables were rare and when supplied were usually rotten. Red-Cross supplies were blocked and stockpiled by the Japanese who also refused to allow POW to buy supplemental food from local traders, as this would imply the Japanese were not providing enough. As the men lost weight, the Japanese would weigh them. They had arranged that food allowances were based on weight. Lighter men were given less food, so the effects of malnutrition and starvation accelerated as time went by.
Coates had identified that avitaminosis followed dysentery and he emphasised the importance of keeping the men fed. Sick men were encouraged to keep eating anything they could tolerate, Coates was often quoted for his aphorism, “Your ticket home is in the bottom of your dixie”
Another effect of the poor nutrition was to further impair the immune system, and so tropical ulcers became a life-threatening horror. Scratches, cuts and wounds become infected easily in the tropics, and when the immune system is weak, cellulitis and large tropical ulcers occur quickly, eating away the tissues to the bone. These rapidly would turn gangrenous, and death would inevitably follow. For men dressed in rags, often with no boots, working in the jungle meant always being cut and scratched. The only effective medicine available was topical iodoform which was occasionally available in minute amounts. In early days in at least one camp, the Japanese would offer it for sale to the POW in exchange for any valuables they may have still had, a ring, a watch or a pen.

The cholera block at Konyu camp c 1943
Fearful of cholera, the Japanese placed the cholera area away from the main camp, often in low, wet areas creating boggy, smelly and soiled grounds.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial Collection

In Burma, Coates was responsible for the major and some minor camps. He worked with Lt Col Hamilton, SMO, as well as Majors Ted Fisher from Sydney, Allan Hobbs and Sydney Krantz from Adelaide and W E Harris, a Brit. Fisher treated Coates for amoebic dysentery in Tavoy, luckily when some of the small supply of emetine was still available. He became a close companion and physician in the latter days of captivity. A large proportion of the Sumatra prisoners developed acute fulminant amoebic disease and many died. Two Dutch doctors Coates later recalled there were Maj Neileson and Capt Slaghter. Initially in Mergui, then in Tavoy, where camp base-hospitals were located, Coates performed a large number of operations. At one point it included finishing a botched appendix operation that the Japanese doctor was doing on one of their own men. He was stuck, and Coates finished the operation, allowing for some face-saving. The embarrassed Japanese doctor later gave him a tin of condensed milk and a pack of cigarettes, and an Aussie wag commented that it was probably his lowest fee ever.
An innovation at this time was the use of an ileostomy for amoebic dysentery. A Dutch soldier had developed peritonitis from a bowel perforation, and Coates performed this life-saving operation which was still somewhat experimental at that time. A flattened water bottle was adapted to cover the stoma. Coates was pleased to close the stoma on the same man two years later in Nakhon Pathom. This operation and the appendicostomy favoured by ‘Weary’ Dunlop became the standard treatments for toxic amoebic disease in the absence of specific medical therapy.

In February 1943, as the plans for the railway progressed, he was moved to Thanbyuzayat and first met the infamous Korean guards who would become such a torment for the POW. On the night before leaving with the last POW, mostly sick or incapacitated, with no equipment, Coates performed a successful appendicectomy on a POW using only a razor blade. An improvised stretcher was made for the patient to be carried on. They were then sent up the track, initially to Reptu at 30 kilo, where the “light sick” were housed. These were men who the Japanese considered not too sick for work, having only malaria, and malnutrition, although many could hardly stand. He reported the death rate amongst the native labourers was very high already here, bodies lay around commonly. At the 75 kilo camp conditions were the same and at one point of 1300 very sick men, the Japanese ordered 1000 to work.
While at 75 Kilo camp, and working as solo doctor, Coates was incapacitated with scrub-typhus and many of the men thought he would die. Although he could not stand, the Japanese sent him to run a new hospital camp 55 kilo at Kohn Kuhn where the main body of sick and injured would be taken. He was so sick, he had to be carried around the site while construction was completed and he examined the sick. He was forever grateful to two men who looked after him during his illness, Harold Buckley, who was suffering from malaria himself, and a Dutchman, Capt C J Van Bentinck who also provided great care.
This 55 kilo camp was to become a 1800 bed hospital camp for men too sick to work from up the line. Bamboo huts were constructed and a small operating theatre added, covered over with palm thatch, dirt floors, and bamboo table for surgery. There was no equipment, no supplies, as the Japanese refused to allow any, and no beds. They had no proper instruments, only a few artery forceps, a scalpel or two, sharpened table knives for amputations, bent forks for retractors, some darning needles, a kitchen saw and a curette which the Japanese had given as a joke. Coates had a spinal needle, which became the method for giving anaesthesia. There was no general anaesthesia and for minor procedures, like removing a gangrenous toe, no anaesthetic was available at all. Cleaning a leg ulcer meant three men holding down the patient. Saline irrigation was generally used to help clean the ulcers although the Dutch doctors favoured the use of maggots, and in Thailand by the Kwai Noi, patients immersed their limbs so the fish could clean the wounds. There was an initial small supply of quinine, no other drugs, just some meagre supplies that had been carried by POW. They began to make sutures from the lining of the gut of the water buffalo that were occasionally killed to make the meagre gruel. Thin strips were cut and washed, and soaked in iodine solution for a week before use.
When Coates recovered enough from the scrub-typhus he commenced surgery immediately and performed a wide range of operations here. Strangulated hernia reduction, tracheostomy for diphtheria, and ileostomy for toxic amoebic dysentery were all done here. The complications of tropical ulcers was ever present, one orderly who scratched his hand during a night-round of the patients developed gas gangrene and required an amputation. Coates performed 120 amputations for gangrenous lower limbs here. The judicial use of the curette probably saved many more limbs. Sometimes more than 50 men would have ulcers curetted in a day.

“Amputation ward” in bamboo hut in a POW hospital along the Burma-Thailand railway, c1943.
The POWs mostly had legs amputated because of uncontrollable tropical ulcers. All the hospital camps had these wards.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial Collection

Coates reflected later that his interest and knowledge of the history of surgery, of Pare, Hunter and of Lister, enabled him to perform the surgery and minimise infection in such primitive conditions. He adopted the Listerian circular amputation, taught to him by Hamilton Russell, a circular cut around the leg, then coning out of remnant flesh and bone. A boiled piece of the patient’s pants was inserted into the hole and the skin stitched loosely with cotton. Ox-gut sutures were used for ligating arteries. This was surgery from the days of Nelson and Wellington, and the only effective method when asepsis was not possible. It was reputed that his fastest amputation was completed in 8 minutes.
At this camp, there was one other doctor to help, initially Dr John Higgin, then Dr Claude Anderson from Western Australia who assisted at 60 amputations. There were some other key people like the Dutch chemist, Capt Van Boxtel, who developed a cocaine local anaesthetic from some cocaine tablets given to Coates by a dentist POW, Capt Stewart Simpson in Tavoy. Van Boxtel experimented to make a form which could be given as a spinal, allowing good pain relief for the operation, but allowing the muscles to move. Many a patient helped during their own operations. He also contributed to the extraction of emetine, a drug used for treating amoebic disease, from ipecacuanha tablets. This saved lives too.
Saline was made with distilled water and some baking soda, and given to cholera cases through fine bamboo cannulae to prevent dehydration. In certain severe cases, intraperitoneal injection was used.
Australian sapper Edward Dixon proved to be very inventive and devised a range of medical tools and devices to allow the surgery to be done, including the still to make some alcohol for washing the skin, and the surgeon’s hands, as well as water for the saline infusions. Dixon also made the surgical needles from the darning needles.
In late 1943, 2000 of the worst cases from up the railway were sent back to a new camp at 50 kilo mark at Tanbaya, and Coates inspected. Two Australian doctors, Maj Bruce Hunt and Capt Frank Cahill were looking after these men and had no equipment at all. Of the 2000 men, one in three died. Many of these men were victims of the “speedo” period, when in a hurry to complete the railway, the Japanese increased the workloads and introduced a “no work-no food” policy. Those who could work gave up one third of their meagre rations to feed those who could not work at all. The Japanese strategy of working the POW to death was hastened by the denial of food, clothing, shelter or medical care. During his time at 55 kilo camp Coates had the opportunity to inspect a Japanese hospital nearby and noted it to be lavishly stocked with medical supplies and equipment. It was around this time that Coates met with another revered medico, Dutchman Capt Henri Hekking, KNL.

When the 415 km of railway was joined in late 1943, moves began to shift the POW to a new camp to be made in Nakhon Pathom in Thailand. The Burma camps and hospitals were dismantled and the journey into Thailand was done by train. Coates recalled getting into a crowded railway truck and sitting on someone’s leg. On enquiring whose leg it was, the digger said “ It’s mine sir and that’s one leg your not going to take off!”
They traversed to Tamarkan camp where Coates met with Maj Arthur Moon, and then to Chungkai. Chungkai was just like 55kilo camp had been, and the hospital there was served by a British physician, Lt-Col Barrett, and Canadian surgeon, Capt Jacob Markowicz. At Chungkai, Coates first saw the blood transfusion method developed by Markowicz. Defibrination to prevent the clotting was done by stirring for 10 minutes with a bamboo switch, and proved to be very effective. The defibrinated blood was given through bamboo cannulae and rubber tubing taken from stethescopes.

In Nakhon Pathom, Coates, was appointed Chief Medical Officer, and was charged with developing the new hospital, and with Krantz and Capt McNeally to help he supervised as many of the POW arrived and they constructed a hospital of up to 10,000 beds. By January 1944, 50 large huts for up to 200 men were built, and separate medical huts were constructed. There were 1500 in the dysentery block alone. A general purpose medical committee was formed by Coates as CMO, Lt-Col Malcolm (British), and Lt-Col Larsen (Dutch), to direct medical policy.
They developed the blood transfusion service on a large scale by May, a device connected to bicycle pedals was made for stirring the blood, and over the next fourteen months, 1500 transfusions were given. Blood grouping was checked by eye, rhesus groups were unknown, but very few reactions were noted. They commenced weekly medical meetings. At the first meeting, 18 POW doctors were present, and they were joined by the arrival of Dunlop and 3 others in June. Dunlop was in charge of rehabilitation and physiotherapy of the hospital in addition to his surgical duties. Throughout 1944 combatant officers were gradually separated. By early 1945, the doctors were the senior ranks and COs of the camps. At its peak in 1945, Nakhon Pathom camp had 7353 POW and 35 doctors. It is interesting that the Australians asked to celebrate ANZAC day in 1944 and were surprised to be given permission by the Japanese. It is 60 years since that very service conducted by those still incarcerated in honour of the sacrifices in WWI.

The doctors now acted as a team and the burden of illness was still very great, as the men had survived to date more than two years of starvation and hard labour. Groups of survivors from up the line would arrive still in need of great care. The operating theatre remained busy, and a wide range of surgery was done, including 5 craniotomies, 3 laminectomies, 3 nephrectomies and 3 splenectomies. Some general anaesthesia was available with chloroform and an improvised mask, but all surgery below the nipple was done with spinal anaesthesia. This was not without potential problem too, and lessons were learned about this important technique. Red Cross ‘cutocaine’ was available from July 1944. Surgical alcohol was being made on a larger scale, sutures were still made from the gut of water buffalo. A suction device was made from an old Ovaltine tin, some leather from an ox and some stethescope rubber tubes. Instruments were still fashioned from bits and pieces, and rehabilitation equipment was devised under the guidance of Dunlop. Bamboo was used to make orthopoedic beds and even a dental chair. TB was treated with pneumothorax, and a laboratory for basic pathology work was developed. No x-ray was available so diagnosis relied on classical bedside symptoms and clinical signs.

Chief Medical Officer Lt-Col AE Coates operating on a POW.   The Medical Officer assisting with anaesthesia has not been positively identified.  However, there is a resemblance to Major Vincent Bennett, a British Medical Officer on the railway.  In April this officer accompanied a group of 1,000 convalescents from Nakhon Pathom to build an escape route for the Japanese called the Mergui Road.  Using spinal anaesthesia, the patient is awake.  An interested POW looks on from outside.  In total, 896 operations were performed here.

Three important improvisations were of particular note, all with Sapper Dixon’s contributions. First, an autoclave, for sterilising instruments was made from an old petrol drum and proved effective. Second,
proctoscopes, for examining the rectum, were made from tin with a small attached mirror for shining the sun where it normally would not.
Thirdly, Dixon made a circular saw with a treadle machine, and this was put to use for craniotomy. Coates performed this procedure on an American POW who had signs of a brain tumour, using bits of spoons for clips and dental forceps for bone nibblers. The unfortunate soldier survived the war, had further surgery in the US, and had several weeks with his family before succumbing to his illness.
Of 896 operations done at Nakhon Pathom camp hospital, there were only 18 deaths.

Of this time, Frank Foster described in his 1946 book about the railway, “Comrades in Bondage”:
“ The camp was commandered by a leading Melbourne surgeon, Lt-Col A E Coates, who had the happy knack of fusing medical men of all nationalities into a happy working clan. He was almost worshipped by the patients. Many of them with a leg or arm missing bore witness to his outstanding surgery in the Burmese jungle camps. ….. his work stands as a monument to skilled surgery under primitive jungle conditions. His operations, together with surgeons like Lt-Col Dunlop, Major Krantz, and Capt McConachie (British), astounded laymen as well as doctors at Nakhon Pathom. Removal of tumours, colostomy, and many other complicated operations held the Japanese spellbound, and won a respect for their skill. So human were these surgeons that they were not averse to any of us who were interested coming into the surgery and looking on”

Despite being CMO, Coates did a major proportion of the surgery here, Dunlop described him as ‘indefatigable”. Coates also wanted post-mortems to be done, to help the doctors learn about what could be done to save the living. The Japanese would not allow it however, as the few that were conducted showed too clearly the effects of the Japanese cruelty and neglect. Death certificates had to be marked as “malaria” as the cause of death, malnutrition, fatal injury from assault or suicide all had to be recorded as “malaria”.

In mid-August 1945 the Japanese surrendered, and freedom was finally won. The transition was joyous, and gradually the sick were able to be moved to Bangkok and homewards. Coates and the medical staff had access to the Thai hospitals, and some admitting and operating permission was obtained for Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok. Coates’ first patient was ‘Weary’ Dunlop who, in trying to open a much desired bottle of Fosters with a pocket-knife, cut the tendons in his hand and required repair.

Bangkok 15th September 1945.
Chief Medical Officer, Lt-Col AE Coates and Lt-Col EE Dunlop outside their medical headquarters, probably contemplating the return home.

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial Collection

Albert Coates returned from the war 32 kilos lighter, and went straight back to work at RMH. His family were waiting, and unknown to Coates, his eldest son had enlisted and served in PNG in the latter part of the war. He quickly settled back to family life and continued to lead a distinguished career. He was a key witness at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in ‘46, was awarded an OBE in ’47, was an RSL delegate at the signing of the Peace Treaty in the USA in ’51, was knighted by the Queen in ’55 and received an Hon Dr Laws in ’62 from University of Melbourne in its medical school centenary year. He worked as an honorary surgeon at RMH for 27 years and as Stewart Lecturer in Surgery, moulded the training of hundreds of young doctors and medical students. He was elected president of the Victorian AMA on two occasions.
He helped found the War Nurses Memorial Centre, and was a member and subsequently Chairman of the Board of Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne for many years, transforming it into a centre of excellence for infectious disease. He worked closely there with Matron Vivien Bullwinkle, sole survivor of the infamous Bangka Island massacre of 21 Australian nurses by the Japanese in 1942.

Albert Coates died at the RMH in 1977, survived by his wife, two sons (both doctors), three daughters, (two nurses and a teacher), as well as 20 grandchildren. A moving eulogy was given at his funeral by ‘Weary’ Dunlop, who concluded by saying:
“It is hard to imagine a man more fitted to be the image of a true Australian or a man more suitable as an Ambassador for our Nation. All in all I think we can say “There was a man, we may not see his like again””.

I had the pleasure and honour of knowing my Grandfather of course. I recall he was particularly pleased when I gained entry into medical school at his alma mater, the University of Melbourne. I know his latter life was moulded by his experiences during 3 years as a “Guest of the Emperor”. One story he related was of a dinner party in Melbourne after the war and being asked by a woman what he did in the war. When he replied that he had been a guest of the Emperor, she asked, “Oh, did you stay in the palace?” The fact that some authors suggest that Coates was probably responsible for saving more lives than any other on the Burma-Thailand railway, seemed to have passed this lady by.

There are obviously several reasons that cause us to lionise these special medical men. They provided an opportunity for life and survival in a place where death was a daily reality. They provided succour for the distress of the ill, injured and dying, and they formed a barrier of sorts between the Japanese and the men. They provided a constant example of dogged application and unreserved commitment to the support of every POW, to the interests of every single man as a person. And they became the leaders of the camps in seniority, in skills and in compassion. They encouraged great innovation and perseverance.
These 43 doctors, with their colleagues in support, nurses, medical orderlies, chemists and mechanics, demonstrated a rare heroism. They worked for their comrades, they saved lives, they made personal sacrifices, and some died, but they continued to inspire and create order amongst chaos.

All the Australian doctors and dentists on the Burma-Thailand Railway survived the railway, but not all survived the war. Those who survived were able to return to active civilian practice, many becoming well-known figures and specialists, contributing strongly in medical issues in the community and providing strong advocacy for the medical and social welfare of Australia's returned servicemen and women.
Everyone knows of the deserved recognition of ‘Weary’ Dunlop. Fewer know of his teacher, comrade, colleague and commanding officer, Albert ‘Bertie’ Coates. Even less know of the other 41 medicos, the dentists and the many medical orderlies who worked heroically on the Burma-Thailand railway. We should remember them too. Sixty years have passed since that time, almost a lifetime. Much gets forgotten, especially as the first hand witnesses are disappearing. Of the 21,467 Australians who became POW by the Japanese, 7,602 died in captivity, mostly from starvation and mistreatment following capture by the Japanese army. When we think about all of the POW involved in that terrible event, we should also remember all the medical heroes who allowed so many to return.
As I attended the 2004 ANZAC memorial service at Hellfire Pass, and we were remembering those people who gave so much, I was also thinking about my Grandfather, Albert Coates. He was of a very special few, a volunteer in both world-wars, a veteran of both the ANZAC campaign we were remembering and of the infamous railway where we stood. He was a great Australian, and he was one of many great Australians who gave selflessly for our future.

Dr Tony Gherardin, Australian Embassy Bangkok, November 2004

Australian doctors and dentists on the Burma-Thailand railway:

A Force, (3000 men), Burma
Lt-Col: T Hamilton (SMO), AE Coates, NB Eadie,
Maj: AF Hobbs, WE Fisher, JS Chalmers, SS Krantz
Capt: CRB Richards, CD Anderson, GD Cumming, TLG Brereton, JP Higgin, AJM White, ST Simpson (dentist), WJK Treveleven (dentist)

D Force , (5000 men), Thailand
Maj: AR Hazelton (SMO)
Capt: RG Parker, RG Wright, PT Millard, D Hinder, IL Duncan, LT Finimore (dentist)

Dunlop Force, (2000 men), Thailand
Lt-Col: EE Dunlop
Maj: AA Moon, EL Corlette, JER Clarke (dentist)
Capt: T Godlee

F-Force, (7000 men), Thailand
Maj: RH Stevens (SMO), BA Hunt, EA Rogers
Capt: RL Cahill, FJ Cahill, PIA Hendry, JL Taylor, RM Mills, V Brand, CP Juttner, RI Mannion (dentist)

H Force, (4000 men), Thailand
Maj: EA Marsden, KJ Fagan
Capt: MacK Winchester (dentist)

L Force, (medical only), Thailand
Maj: HL Andrews, PF Murphy, TP Crankshaw

K Force, (medical only), Thailand
Maj: BH Anderson, GFS Davies
Capt: TGH Hogg, JL Frew, EB Drevermann


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Coates AE, Rosenthal N. The Albert Coates Story, Melbourne , Hyland House, 1977

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Coates A E. Fundamental principles in medical practice. Med J Aust, 1946, Nov 30; 2(22):757-763

Coates A E. Surgery in Japanese prison camps. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery. 1946, Jan ;15(3):147-158

Duncan. I L. Life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Med J Aust 1982;1:302-306

Duncan I L. Makeshift Medicine. Combating disease in Japanese prison camps Med J Aust. 1983, Jan 8;1(1):29-32

Dunlop E E. The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway. 1942-1945. Melbourne, Thomas Nelson, 1986

Dunlop E E. Clinical lessons from prisoners of war hospitals in the Far East, Med J Aust,1946, June 1; 1(22):761-766

Dunlop E E. Medical experiences in Japanese captivity, British Medical Journal, 1946, Oct 5;474-786

Dunlop E E. Surgical treatment of dysenteric lesions of the bowel among allied prisoners of war in Burma and Thailand, British Medical Journal, 1946,Jan 26;1:124-127

Fagan K J. Surgical experiences as a prisoner of war. Med J Aust. 1946, June 1;1,(22): 775-6

Russell K F, Dunlop E E. Obituary- Sir Albert Coates. Med J Aust 1979, April 7;1(7):276-7

Walker A S Clinical Problems of War. Canberra Australian War Memorial, 1952 (Australian in the War of 1939-1945; series 5 (medical); vol 1)

Webb R. Sir Albert Coates 1895-1977, Aust NZJ Surg. 1988, May; 58(5):419-422

Further Reading:

Winstanley P G, Collected papers and articles, 2004, Perth,

Medicos and Memories, Further recollections of the 2/10th Field Regiment, Dr Jim Dixon and Dr Bob Goodwin, 2000, 2/10 Field Regiment Association

Comrades in Bondage, Frank Foster, Skeffington and Son, 1946

Behind Bamboo, Rohan D Rivett, Angus and Robertson, 1946

The Burma-Thailand Railway, Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson, Allen and Unwin, 1993

The Volunteer, The Diaries and Letters of AE Coates, First World war, Gherardin W (ed), Melbourne, 1995

Prisoners of the Japanese. POWs of WW2 in the Pacific, Gavan Daws, New York , William Morrow, 1994

POW: Prisoners of War. Australians Under Nippon, Hank Nelson, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1985

Note. This article was prepared by Dr Tony Gherardin, grandson of Lt Col (later Sir Albert) Coates.
The article is more comprehensive than anything I would have attempted. I thank Dr Gherardin who has agreed to my including it in my website.


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