Leslie Oswyn Sheridan Poidevin, MID, MD, MS, FRCOG.
“THIS WAS A MAN”
1). I have known Les Poidevin off and on since at least 12 December 1941 when we landed in Timor as ‘Sparrow Force’ (or Farce) responsible with ‘Gull Force’ on Ambon and ‘Lark Force’ on Rabaul being then the 23rd Brigade, 8th Division, of some total 5000 troops responsible for the “Forward Defence of Australia.” Les’ first casualty was (then Sergeant) Tom Uren who cut his foot as we were ‘slung off’ (literally) the landing barges into waist deep slimy water because our armed Merchant Cruiser HMAS “Westralia” was said to have been menaced by a Japanese Submarine in Koepang Bay.
2). Our small force of a thousand or so and without either air or sea support was overwhelmed by some 23,000 Japanese. Nevertheless, we killed over 1000 Japanese. They thought this was great as only 3,507 Japs were killed in the whole Malaya/Singapore campaign. It was actually because of this that the Japanese who had caused us to surrender on 23 February 1942 then went to our Base Hospital at Tjamplong where Les and his fellow MO had most bravely waited with our sick and injured while quite expecting to be massacred of course. They were then told “Prisoners on Ambon—all killed—rat-tat-tat—now prisoners on Timor—Japanese no kill—very kind. All men sit still,” These were the very same Japanese who had committed those Ambon massacres only some few weeks before.
3). Les has written accurately (and as engagingly as is possible) about our next four years as “Guests of the Imperial Japanese Army of Dai Nippon Gun” in his book “Samurais and Circumcism” dedicated to “Those we left behind”, including my own brother, and launched here in Adelaide by Weary Dunlop in 1985. I was able to let Les have some photographs, which had been hidden from the Japs, of Oesapa Besar POW camp in Timor He has also written a scholarly account titled “A Unique surgical experience in a WW II prisoner of war camp, Oesapa Besar Timor ”, ADF Health, Vol. 6, pp. 4-8, April 2005. Les has written that:-- “It became apparent that a gold tooth and a circumcised penis, in someone with the rank of Sergeant, would always take him to the head of the waiting queue at the Japanese brothels.” He was in great demand and he also writes that “They liked watching operations and came to calling me ‘The Potong doctor’”; Potong means “to cut” in Indonesian.
4). Les concluded that April 2005 paper of his with: --“Life as a prisoner of war was very hard, physically and mentally, but it had to be endured if there were to be a future. I now consider it to have been a great educational experience. We relied on our own inventiveness to solve our problems, to such an extent that, at the end of it all, I realised that no problem in the future could ever be too difficult. That thought stood me in good stead for the rest of my working life.”
5.). Well, Les was a HERO to us not only in Timor but also later in Java. A prime example of his raw medical initiative is given by his very early treatment of the generally fatal ‘malignant, or cerebral, malaria’. Our short sleeves and pants uniforms were, as distinct from those of the Japanese, completely unsatisfactory for primitive tropical Timor and we POW’S were almost immediately ridden with, among much else, malaria in all its strains. Les wondered if an intravenous injection of “quinine urethane”, a drug used for varicose veins, might help. He writes “The first case of unconsciousness became conscious within a few minutes. No further case of pyrexial unconsciousness died on Timor…Many lives were saved.,,,,, Some finished with clotted veins, a small price for a life.” Superb work! Les was recommended for a Decoration and, as you have heard, was awarded an MID “Mentioned in Dispatches”.
6). In 1990, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs published their pamphlet “Lifelong Captives” in which it is said, among much else, that:-- “Prisoners of War of the Japanese experienced conditions which today are almost unimaginable” and there is much clear evidence of that. Nevertheless, I have long admired Les Poidevin and many others of us who have never succumbed to those latter-day fictions of “guilt” and of “post-traumatic stress disorder” (invented only in 1956). As Les has written about our homecoming:-- “most of us really wondered what all the fuss (ie. about OUR mental state) was about. We had long since learnt to control ourselves. From the witnessing of the first beheading through the years of inhuman conditions and treatment, we had learnt self-control and a behavioural pattern for survival if at all possible.” Les also testifies that “In all my associations with returned prisoners of the Japanese I have found practically no mental ill-effects relating to the captivity.” and…. “The few subsequent psychiatric problems were due more to the problems here at home than to any hangover from POW camps.”
7). However, there seemed to be no such problems at home for Les Poidevin. Lady Edwina Mountbatten had asked Les to select 20 of our sickest and she had then flown them all out of Batavia as it then was known in her DC3 on 18 September 1945, already 34 days after VJ day. (She flew me out to Singapore 5 days later). Then, on one Sunday in early November, Les came to Adelaide to see his sister and he met Rosemarie Poole. On Monday he took her to dinner at the then South Australian Hotel and on Tuesday to a beach picnic tea at Moana. On Wednesday, she accepted his proposal of marriage. (Lightning Gonzales indeed !) Les wrote in 1980 that “Rosemarie has been my greatest asset in the last thirty-five years.” (Now of course 61 years.) Rosemarie and Les were married in 1946 with Jack Rymill as Best Man. I saw Jack and Tom Gilpin, both 2/3 Machine Gunner Lieutenants from Syria and Java POW’s , around Adelaide for some years. All three, being Jack, Tom and ‘Little Henry’ (as Les was then known to Jack Rymill) re-visited some of our Javanese POW camps in 1971, as you have heard from Prue.
(8). As you might well imagine, it was a matter of some amusement that one of our doctors was an O & G man. In my day there was of course only the one gender in our army although the number of genders is less clear today, at least to me. In any case Les was appointed on 1 July 1951 as the Medical Superintendent of the then Queen Victoria Maternity Home. He did a magnificent job and the more so on account of the then internecine local issues in the profession and indeed it is generally conceded that he did turn the Queen Vic. (as it was known) into a First Class Teaching Hospital. In any case, it was on 18 January 1952 that he was appointed Director of Obstetrics of the then to be Queen Elizabeth Hospital. He discharged that office and function in The University of Adelaide with great distinction until his retirement on 30 June 1969 in order to go farming.
9). It was on 27 January 2000 that I hosted a lunch for some 120 friends and colleagues in the Balcony Lounge of the Adelaide Hilton Hotel. I welcomed everyone, identified overseas and interstate guests and broadly identified special groups such as Ex POW’s and the like. Les and Rosemarie were there and he chose to speak extemporaneously. Among the many present was a very dear friend, the now late former Justice/ Chancellor/Governor/ Hon. Dame Roma Mitchell. Roma wrote to me saying, among other things, most approvingly, “Incidentally, wasn’t Dr Poidevin splendid? I don’t think that I have ever heard anyone describe the deprivation of liberty so poignantly.”
10). Well, Les of course then wrote and published six more books until in 1999 he published “What Happened Doctor” written in 1994/5 and dedicated with love to their two daughters Prue Carvell and Lindy Young and giving his heartfelt account of and misgivings for “The romance and turbulence of twentieth century medicine”.
11). Well, and on another subject, it is now some 20 or more years since Les and I, and others, began sharing, and publicly, serious mis-givings over the braggadocios of a fellow POW for some 3 years in Java, Laurens van der Post, and especially as variously expressed in his book “The Seed and the Sower” (Hogarth Press, 1963). van der Post first ingratiated himself to ‘Weary’Dunlop in Java and also indeed to the Japs and then after VJ Day to Mountbatten, both when he was Supremo and then later as Viceroy and Governor General of India, and then to Prince Charles, even becoming a god-father to William. It was vdP who was the Jungian ‘spook’ who had Charles on an Ouja board trying to call up the shard of the murdered Mountbatten. Les has written to me that “It (“The Seed and the Sower”) seems to be a mixture of his own biography and a novel and although well-written comes over as a bit of a jumble”.
12). However, Les’ “What happened Doctor” IS CLEARLY a novel and carrying, as Les says, “true portrayals taken from the lives of many doctors, including my own.” I have time for only one, albeit a most significant one, of many examples. The central character Andrew Sheridan shares MANY of the qualities and experiences of Leslie Oswyn Sheridan Poidevin. Most specifically, both are said to have failed to identify the malarial parasites in a slide of human blood cells in their Final Medical Viva in Sydney in the late 1930’s, a fact that Les Poidevin NEVER EVER forgot.
13). Ladies and gentlemen, I represent here today both Adelaide University and its governing body, the Council.
14). We will all miss Les but Rosemarie, Prue, Lindy and families most of all.
(15). Well, Les Poidevin was of course not Brutus but, Skakespearean ironies aside, as Shakespeare did have Mark Anthony to say
And finally, as the Roman poet Catullus said to his brother
© EHM E&OE. Harry Medlin.