William Fancourt Giffard Armit (Bill Armit)
By Christopher R Baxter OAM (Bill’s nephew), 1 April 2007
Every man who worked on the railway…would have an automatic passport to Heaven. They have all done the requisite stretch in Hell. - Private Max McGee, Second 3rd Machine Gun Battalion
Bill Armit’s family knew very little of his movements during the Second World War. Almost the only facts known were as follows. He enlisted in December 1941, and after three or four weeks’ training in late 1941 at Pukapunyal, Victoria, he left Sydney in January 1942 on a troop ship. They subsequently learnt that he’d gone to Singapore, which surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. In April 1942 the Army informed them that he was ‘missing’. They received two postcards from Bill, effectively saying only that he was ‘well’. Three years later, towards the end of the War, in April 1945 the Army informed them that Bill had ‘died of illness whilst a Prisoner of War in Japanese hands about September 1943’. A subsequent telegram from the Army simply confirmed his date of death as ‘4th Oct 1943’. After the War they learnt, fourth-hand, a little about Bill’s time in Singapore, that he was ‘eventually’ sent to the Burma Railway where, some time after August 1943 Bill ‘became ill and was sent back to a hospital at Kilo 55 [Khon Khan]’. The family subsequently learnt that Bill was buried in the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery (TWC), Burma, the location of which Bill’s mother determined, and visited, in 1954. This record seeks to ‘fill in some of the gaps’.
Bill’s service overseas in the Australian Army during the Second World War
Bill’s Service and Casualty Form lists the following:
On the troop ship from Australia, Bill made particular friends with Harold Martin and Donald Phillips, and they had decided to try to stay together and support each other. Shortly after the War Bill’s uncle (by marriage), First World War veteran, Colonel George Adams MC, interviewed Phillips’ father, Mr TCG Phillips of Sandringham, Victoria, to try to get news of what had happened to Bill. In an earlier meeting arranged by Red Cross, TCG Phillips had interviewed Harold Martin of 164 Bourke St, Kalgoorlie about his son, Donald Phillips, and Adams typed the following notes of TCG Phillips’ account of his interview with Martin. I have reproduced Adams’ notes in full as, with the exception of Bill’s two postcards quoted below, they are the only ‘personal’ information his family ever received about Bill.
Unit was landed from transports at Borneo and taken from there to Singapore in pig-boats. Soon after landing they were sent up country in Johore but shortly after returned to Singapore and set up their workshop at the Hume Pipe Works. They remained there till Feb 8th when the works were shelled and they were in Singapore until the capitulation of Feb 15th.
Both the Australian War Memorial and Rod Beattie, an authority on the Burma Railway and the curator of The Thailand–Burma Railway Centre at Kanchanaburi, Thailand, were able to confirm the following information about Phillips. Private Donald Charles Baxter (there’s a coincidence) Phillips, born 9 November 1921, Service no VX55827, of the Second 10th Ordnance Workshop Company, was a member of F Force, and died of dysentery at Upper Songkurai camp on 25 October 1943, aged only 21. His remains are in the TWC, grave no A12.D.18. (His original grave number, presumably at Upper Songkurai, was 300.) His Nominal Roll entry gives Sandringham as a community Roll of Honour location, but his birthplace as Northcote. His parents were Thomas and Ethel Phillips.
According to the Australian War Memorial, Private Harold David Martin, born 1 January 1917, Service no WX204, of the Second 10th Ordnance Workshop Company, enlisted on 11 December 1940. The locality of enlistment was Kalgoorlie. He was a POW at a camp in Thailand, was returned to Australia after the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru (see below), and was discharged on 17 May 1945 as a recovered casualty. I was unable to determine with certainty what Force Martin was in or where he was (mainly) based on the Railway but it is highly likely that he was in A Force. This is because Rod Beattie, and others, have advised that ‘The men on the Rakuyo Maru were all ex-Burma men’, that is A Force (plus Williams and Black Forces, and Tharp Force). (The reference above to his being at a POW camp in Thailand is not consistent with his being in A Force, but could well mean that he ended up in a camp in Thailand when the Railway was completed.) If he was in A Force, this would explain three claims in Martin’s statement that are not true of Bill:
1.They were at Changi POW camp for ‘three months’. This is true of A Force, only, which left Singapore in May 1942. Bill and Phillips were in F Force, which did not begin leaving Singapore until 16 April the following year, 1943.
2.‘Bill also became ill and was sent back…’ A Force, including Martin, had worked along the Railway from the Burma end (Kilo 0), whereas Bill and Phillips had come from the Thailand end (Kilo 415). From where Martin met Bill and Phillips at Kilo 118, Bill would have been sent forward to the hospital in Burma where he died, but for Martin, only, it would have been ‘back’.
3.Martin’s suggestion that Bill went to ‘a hospital at Kilo 55’ is incorrect, but an understandable error. There had long been a hospital at Kilo 55, but this was for Martin’s Force, A Force. Bill died at Tanbaya hospital (see below), which was at Kilo 50 and was for F Force, and was not established until the month in which Martin met Bill and Phillips at Kilo 118, so Martin probably didn’t even know of its existence.
All survivors of the Railway, including A Force (that had started from Burma), were evacuated from the Thailand end of the Railway some time after the Railway was completed on 17 October 1943. A diary entry of 21 September 1943 quoted in Heroes of F Force by Don Wall (see References, below) notes that A Force men working on the Railway were passing through the area of the F Force camp of Upper Songkurai at Kilo 118. Presumably this had been going on since the previous month when Martin met Bill and Phillips there. (It is also noted in Wall that A Force’s Commander, Brigadier Varley, had himself gone beyond this point, to Neike, by October 1943.)
The Australian War Memorial was unable to find Martin’s name in any F Force records (but says that the state of these is far from perfect).
Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 (Bill’s 27th birthday), at which time Bill and tens of thousands of other Allied soldiers became prisoners of war, many of them Australians.
Lt Col Peter Winstanley, an authority on the Burma Railway and the person behind the Web site www.pows-of-japan.net, wrote to me (5/2/2007) about Bill: ‘In all likelihood he sailed for Singpapore with many others on the Aquatania. That ship sailed initially from Port Moresby 4 January then to Sydney. Left Sydney 10 January direct to Fremantle arriving 15 January. Left Fremantle 16 January bound for Singapore. Short of Singapore, probably in the Sunda Straits on 20/21 January transhipped to Dutch small vessels (6) and moved into Singapore. Arrived Singapore 25 January.’ These dates correspond with those quoted from Bill’s Service and Casualty Form, above.
The Australian War Memorial wrote to me (6/2/2007):
The Australian War Memorial wrote to me again (8/2/2007):
Rod Beattie wrote to me (5/2/2007) about Bill:
Lower Songkurai campsite area, Thailand, today. Post-War Khao Laem Lake is visible, and the post-War village of Sangkhlburi is nearby. Bill was here from mid-May to late-July 1943. Photos: Rod Beattie
On 12/2/2007 Rod Beattie further advised:
Peter Winstanley wrote to me about Bill again on 8/2/2007:
Terry Beaton, an authority on the Burma Railway and the first Australian curator of Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, and historian accompanying Belmore Travel Anzac Day tours to the Burma Railway, wrote to me (11/2/2007) about Bill:
On 18/2/2007 Terry Beaton further advised:
There is general consistency between the above reports and such Army communications and records that Bill’s family has. And on 21/1/2007 the caretaker of the TWC told me that the graves in that cemetery contained only ashes. The information about Donald Phillips is significant, as his Force (F) and place of death (Upper Songkurai) help confirm that Bill was indeed in F Force and was in the Songkurai area.
The Army wrote to Bill’s father, W Duke Armit, on 14 April 1942—two months after the surrender of Singapore—saying that it had no definite information concerning Bill’s whereabouts or circumstances.
Only two postcards appear to have been received from Bill by his mother, Hester Armit:
One is undated: ‘Dear Mother, I am quite well and hope all of you are also. Don’t worry at all, we will be all right. Give my love to all at home. Cheerio. Love from Bill’
The other is dated 21.2.43 and reads: ‘Dear Mother, Am fit and well. Conditions fair. Would like parcels and mail. Love to all at home. Hope all well. Don’t worry. Bill’
Both cards include a fictitious line of address (‘2 Sweep St’ and ‘No 1 Sweep St’, respectively). Bill’s brother, John Armit, remembers the family learning from code in Bill’s correspondence that he was in Singapore (the troops’ destination had been a secret). ‘Sweep St’ may well have been that code. What the ‘street numbers’ meant is in the realm of conjecture: one possibility is that ‘No 1’ was Bill’s first correspondence from Singapore, and ‘2’ the second.
(It is interesting to note that the family of James Boyle [see References]—Boyle, like Bill, was in F Force—received just two postcards from him, the second also dated 21 February 1943. Boyle’s first card was sent on 2 July 1942. It is likely that postcards were sent in large batches, with Bill’s undated card possibly also being sent on 2 July 1942.)
Bill’s wartime companion Harold Martin was among POWs who had returned from the Burma Railway and were on the Japanese transport ship Rakuyo Maru headed for Japan when it was torpedoed by the USS Sealion II on 12 September 1944. He was picked up three days later by another submarine, the USS Pampanito, and subsequently returned to Australia. (In this notorious incident some POWs drowned, some—including one of the highest-ranking Australian POWs on the Railway, Brigadier Arthur Varley—were apparently machine-gunned in the water by the Japanese, some—including Rowley Richards—were rescued by the Japanese and taken to Japan, whilst others—including Martin—were rescued by US submarines.) In November 1944—more than one year after the Railway had been completed—the Australian public learnt through the POWs rescued by the US submarines of the existence of the Railway and of the deaths of an estimated 2000 Australian POWs on it.
The Army wrote to Bill’s father on 10 April 1945: ‘I regret having to inform you that during the interrogation of former Australian Prisoners of War in Japanese hands who were rescued after the sinking of a Japanese transport, uncorroborated information was supplied by a survivor to the effect that your son died of illness whilst a Prisoner of War in Japanese hands about September 1943.’
The Army subsequently sent a telegram to Bill’s father (date incomplete; ‘29th’): ‘…Armit WFG died of illness while prisoner of war on 4th October 1943…’
(Bill’s father died on 25 August 1945, ten days after Japan’s surrender.)
An Army form notes: ‘Died of illness whilst P/W (Beri Beri) (Dysentery)…4.10.43 BURMA’
An undated form from the Army notes that Bill ‘was awarded the following Campaign Stars and War Medals:- 1939/45 Star, Pacific Star, War Medal, Australia Service Medal’.
Bill’s Graves Registration form (held by the Office of Australian War Graves at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Woden ACT) lists the following:
There was a makeshift Allied field hospital at Kilo 50 on the Burma Railway (that is, 50 kilometres from the start of the Railway at Thanbyuzayat) which was a little north-west of the village of Tanbaya (also spelt Thanbaya and Tambaya), and was a hospital for members of F Force. It was known as Tanbaya hospital. Bill died here. (There was a second makeshift Allied field hospital at Kilo 55, Khon Khan, mainly used by A Force, a few kilometers south-east of the village of Tanbaya.) Mr U Thet Mon, resident caretaker of the TWC, told me that when soldiers died they were buried on the spot along the Railway in makeshift, (mostly) identified graves. These were exhumed by the Allies in 1945, the soldier’s remains burned, and, in the case of a soldier buried in Burma (or in Siam [now Thailand] between Three Pagodas Pass and Neike), his ashes reburied in the TWC.
After spending about 15 months as a POW in Singapore, for less than six months (until his death) Bill worked as forced labour under the Japanese on the construction of the notorious Burma Railway. This ran from Thanbyuzayat, Burma (now Myanmar), in the north-west, to near Ban Pong (Bampong), Siam, in the south-east. The railway was 415 kilometres long, 115 km being in Burma. The border between Myanmar and Thailand is at Three Pagodas Pass. Work commenced in June 1942 and was completed on 17 October 1943, with work carried out from opposite ends of the railway at the same time. Some 13,000 POWs died on the Railway as well as up to 100,000 civilian labourers. There are 3,770 Allied graves in the TWC and about twice this number in the two war cemeteries at the Thailand end of the Railway.
Plan of Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, Myanmar, where Bill’s ashes are buried. Reproduced from www.cwgc.org
Bill’s ashes are buried in the TWC (grave no A15.F.1), south-east Myanmar. Details can be found at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Web site, www.cwgc.org. The TWC is on the road to Kwaikkami (formerlyAmherst), on the western edge of Thanbyuzayat. The resident caretaker speaks good English and is very helpful. Thanbyuzayat (the population appears to be tens of thousands) is 64 kilometres south of Mawlamyne (formerly Moulmein), a city of 300,000 people, and is on a beautiful and well vegetated coastal plain at the foot of the hills between Myanmar and Thailand.
As well as the TWC, Bill’s name appears on war memorials in Ballarat, Canberra, Omeo and Swifts Creek.
Bill’s life in captivity
Bill arrived in Singapore on 25 or 26 January 1942, about three weeks before its capitulation. Apart from a brief excursion to Johore, Malaya, he probably remained confined to the island state until the surrender. The ‘last days of Singapore’ have been described as a nightmare, with the Japanese in almost complete command of the air, and bombing and shelling heavily.
After the surrender of Singapore, prisoners of war were housed on the Changi peninsula, near but not in the Changi Gaol, which was used for civilian prisoners. The AIF area was Selarang Barracks. The POWs went out each day on work parties around Singapore. Accommodation was crowded and food in short supply, but life was relatively tolerable. For most POWs this was about to change.
Starting on 14 May 1942, when A Force left, most POWs were divided into ‘Forces’ and dispatched to unannounced destinations as a source of labour to assist the Japanese war effort. Rumours abounded as to possible destinations and what might be expected there.
With 3662 Australians, including Bill, F Force contained more Australians than any of the other ‘Forces’. Because they had been promised by the Japanese that they were heading up north to ‘a land of milk and honey’, some men, particularly British, had been discharged from hospital in Singapore for the journey. However, medical officer Major Bruce Hunt, who was to be a great hero in the tragic story of F Force, is quoted in Wall (see References) as telling his men in Singapore: ‘We have been told we are going to a Convalescent Camp somewhere up north, the Commanding Officer believes it but I don’t. We will be going to a land where disease will be rife so prepare yourselves for the worst—you will encounter diseases you have never heard of and I fear for the future.’
Despite Hunt’s warning, when F Force left Singapore in 13 trains—with Australians in the first six—commencing on 16 April 1943 (this date is given on page 572 of the Official History but on page 525 it is given as 18 April), they would not have known that they were to go down in history as those who suffered as much or more than any Australian POWs on a project that would become infamous for the extent and horror of the suffering inflicted on the unfortunate souls forced to work on it, the notorious Burma Railway.
The brutality of the guards who loaded the POWs into enclosed steel rice trucks for the four- or five-day train journey to Ban Pong, Siam, might have been a warning. Into each truck, measuring just 3 x 6.5 metres, 30–35 men and all their possessions were loaded and the doors slammed shut. It was not possible to lie down, the ventilation was poor and the heat stifling. There was little food or water. There was no toilet and many men were already suffering from dysentery. Defecating involved sliding a door open and leaning out of the train—a particularly messy business for those with dysentery—as soot flew in the open door.
But on arrival in Pan Pong, near the south-eastern end of the Burma Railway, things only got worse. Here F Force was greeted by filth and stench, sickness, graves and brutality. Their captors were ill-prepared for their arrival. No shelter or transport was available and such currency that POWs held was useless. Because of the lack of transport, stores had to be abandoned. Tragically for many POWs, including Bill, 75 per cent of F Force’s medical supplies were left in Ban Pong, the Japanese never fulfilling their promise to bring them later. The POWs were then marched to their new ‘home’. The march took 17 days, or longer, mostly done at night. In near pitch-dark conditions snags and holes on the rough track, impassable to vehicles, resulted in many falls and some fractures. The sick and weak were assisted by their comrades. Some were carried. Bandits attacked stragglers, murdering 20 for their meager possessions. Mud and rain was almost unrelenting particularly when the monsoon broke in May, just after the first parties had completed the march. There were constant beatings by the Japanese and Korean guards, killing many POWs, including the sick. Forty per cent of the POWs were left at camps along the way, too weak to continue. Camps became worse, and more poorly supplied, towards the remote middle section of the Railway (described in Wall as ‘the area furthest from any signs of civilization, an area of real wilderness’). The 306 kilometer march ended in the Nieke area, near the Burmese border, where F Force was divided into five camps. One of the Australian camps was at Lower (Shimo) Songkurai, which was reached on 15–17 May (in the Official History; 19 May for Boyle’s group which left Singapore on the sixth train, with more to follow over ‘the following week’, and which took 21 days for the march), or later, and had 1800 POWs. Many of them were now barefoot and scantily clad in rags following the disintegration of their boots and clothes. The POWs and all their meager possessions were wet for days before and after arrival in this camp. This was to be Bill’s ‘home’ for the next two-and-a-half months.
Bill was at Lower (Shimo) Songkurai from mid-May to late-July 1943.
The camp was a depressing and squalid sight. The sick and exhausted POWs had to immediately repair the inadequate bamboo and palm-frond (attap) huts and build new ones. Because there was very little water, no washing was possible. Overcrowding was extreme, and the huts were not weatherproof. POWs had a single thin blanket each and slept on hard bamboo platforms. With flooded, open latrines, sanitation was appalling despite the strenuous efforts of medical- and other officers, who had grossly inadequate supplies of medicines, although the hospitals for the Japanese were well-equipped and -stocked with medicines. The POWs’ diet comprised tiny serves (with significantly less allowed for the sick) of mostly polished rice, much of it maggot-ridden, and watery stew—resulting in slow starvation and serious dietary deficiencies. Boyle tells how, initially, the cooks had to cook for 2000 men on open fires in torrential rain. The road from the south was impassable; by July 1943 there was terrible mud everywhere making it even more difficult to get food to Lower Songkurai. By June, a party had to march 16 kilometres to the ration camp every few days. Because of the terrain, distances and disease, escape was considered to be out of the question and no successful Australian escape from the Railway is recorded, although a number were shot for trying.
The Japanese camp commander was Lieutenant Fukuda. The most visible, and hated, guard at Lower Songkurai was a young Korean corporal, Consukei Toyama who, Boyle wrote, was ‘the curse of F Force, and was directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of lives as the result of his cruelty’. (Both men were sentenced to death [later commuted to imprisonment] in Singapore, in 1946, for war crimes. Thirty-one Japanese and Koreans were hanged, and about 80 others jailed for war crimes on the Railway.) Major Johnson was the senior Allied officer at Lower Songkurai. Lieutenant Colonel Kappe held this position from 1 July. Beaton (see References) describes Kappe as ineffectual, and dishonest; he was later revealed to have hoarded food and cigarettes for his own use. As was the case on the entire Railway, Boyle observed that the officers ‘seemed almost immune’ to disease. (Beaton suggests four reasons for this: 1. More rest possible [especially when ill]. 2. More and better food [officers were paid more]. 3. Their work was light and didn’t involve repeated bashings. 4. Favour [privileges].) Hidden radios (punishable by death) were a source of news to the POWs on the course of the War which, by mid-1943, provided some encouragement.
Those POWs the Japanese deemed capable of it, including the ‘light’ sick, were forced to do arduous, dangerous and unpleasant work on the Railway, commonly in torrential rain or blistering heat. Mechanical assistance was minimal, tools crude, the supervision brutal and the hours excessive. All POWs were beaten. (It has been claimed that on one bridge alone, the notorious Pack of Cards Bridge, further south than F Force’s territory, 31 POWs were killed in bridge collapses or falls from it, and 29 were beaten to death; and at the nearby Hellfire Pass 68 POWs were murdered under similar circumstances.) Despite vigorous, ongoing protest from doctors and other officers, pressure from the Japanese to hasten the completion of the Railway resulted in even sicker POWs being forced to work, and the work parties being driven even more brutally and for longer. This ‘speedo’ period was started in early 1943 and reached its deadly fever pitch as the Railway neared completion on 17 October. By August, F Force work parties were arriving back in camp at 2 am.
Under these conditions, and with grossly inadequate medical supplies, the POWs were reduced to ‘walking skeletons’, with sickness and death their constant companions. Major Bruce Hunt AAMC, of Perth—like Lieutenant Colonel Albert Coates at the 55 Kilo hospital camp, a First World War veteran—became the Senior Australian Medical Officer (of four) at Lower Songkurai and, from August, at Tanbaya hospital camp (at Kilo 50). The doctors were tested almost immediately, when the most feared of diseases on the Railway, cholera, broke out. F Force was hardest hit, with nine men lost to it in the first week at Lower Songkurai. Their bodies were cremated on ‘Cholera Hill’ (see sketch map). Boyle reports that on 30 May Majors Johnson, Hunt and Anderson formally complained to the Japanese Officer in Charge of Shimo Songkurai that 37 men had died of cholera, 90 patients were in hospital, and new cases were occurring at the rate of at least 25 a day. (The epidemic lasted until late July and was only brought under control after the Japanese, who were terrified of cholera, made inoculations available. July 1943 was thought by many to be the worst time on the Railway, due to the effects of ‘speedo’ and the cholera epidemic.)
The majors’ complaint continued:
Dysentery is still a very serious problem, and many men are so debilitated from prolonged dysentery or diarrhoea that it will be many weeks before they are fit for any kind of work—meantime, their resistance to cholera or any other diseases is seriously impaired.
The complaint continued at length, laying blame at the feet of the Japanese for treatment of the POWs, including for poor food, appalling hygiene, arduous and cruel conditions on the long march, a grossly inadequate camp, and inadequate rest. A list of 12 demands followed.
Painful skin diseases and secondary infections, tropical ulcers, typhus and pneumonia added to the POWs’ woes. By the end of July, out of 1854 men in camp, 1265 were in hospital, 214 were involved in camp or hospital duties and only 375 were able to join work parties. Forty-six percent of the sick had malaria, 38 per cent dysentery, and 9 per cent cholera. The dysentery cases were particularly pitiful as they were often too weak to visit the latrines and were forced to lie in their own excrement despite the best efforts of the overworked medical orderlies. Many beri-beri patients had pitiable swelling of the lower half of their body. In extreme cases the whole body was affected. Like many, Bill eventually succumbed to a combination of both these unpleasant diseases.
Wall quotes Major Hunt’s personal orderly, Lieutenant Norm Couch, about Hunt:
Maintenance of morale and survival-will was impossible at Lower Songkurai among many men whose self-esteem and resistance to physical and mental stress had withered under starvation, disease and slave labour. For many, the burden of life outweighed the desire to live…Major Hunt had a messianic dimension. He was the dominant figure, the driving force, the metaphorical star to which men in peril looked for guidance. Without any doubt, many men, perhaps hundreds, survived the death-ridden Burma Line as the direct result of Major Hunt’s fearless efforts. No words can portray how Bruce Hunt almost literally dragged demoralized men away from the funeral pyres by his skilled use of words, inspiration and encouragement.
In late June the Japanese had decided to establish a base hospital for 1700 F Force sick under Major Hunt at Tanbaya, but it wasn’t until 28 July that the sick even started moving in its direction, when the first party of 300 sick and convalescents left Lower Songkurai for the 15 kilometer (according to Boyle; nine according to Beaton’s map—see References) march to Upper Songkurai, near Three Pagodas Pass. The whole camp was relocated in stages to this new camp, with those unable to walk—most being the worst dysentery sufferers—carried on stretchers at great personal cost to the bearers only, in many cases, to die after their arrival at Upper Songkurai. Boyle described the new camp as a ‘pigsty’ compared with the previous one. Cholera broke out here on 10 August, with 50 POWs soon dying of the disease. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the Australian POWs were ill, and all Australian POWs had beri-beri to some degree. Consternation arose with the arrival in the already crowded camp of a few hundred British troops, followed by about 900 native workers.
Two views of the Thailand–Myanmar border at Three Pagodas Pass in 1997. Entry to Myanmar remains closed at this point. This was the 115 Kilo point on the Burma Railway, a fragment of which can be seen in the left photo. The pagodas would have been much the same when Bill passed them on his final journey from Upper Songkurai to Tanbaya hospital camp in late-August or in September 1943.
It is not known how long Bill stayed at Upper Songkurai, nor the date and means by which he reached the hospital at Tanbaya, where, the Official History tells us, the first sick arrived on 25 August, with 43 (of 1700) dying on the way. A total of 750 of the patients (about 45 per cent), including Bill, died between 1 August and 24 November. It also tells us that the sick were transported in trucks and railway trucks without any padding, and that the hospital lacked both light and water. In Wall there are accounts of the extremely arduous trip from Upper Songkurai to Tanbaya by a combination of truck, open railway trucks (on which sick men were showered with burning cinders from the engine) and walking when the dangerous road became impassable to vehicles. (Note that Beaton claims that the ‘heavy sick’ were ordered by the Japanese to remain in their old camps, that were being closed [Neike, Lower Songkurai and Changaraya], before going to Tanbaya. He says that they passed through Upper Songkurai, on the way to Tanbaya, on 26 August.) Coates (see References), an eminent surgeon, described a visit from his hospital at 55 Kilo camp to that at the 50 Kilo (Tanbaya) camp:
…the leg ulcer patients…were in a shocking condition and mortality was very high. Most of them were already past help by amputation. Of 1924 patients, 660 died. The conditions in that camp were even worse than those in the 55 Kilo camp. There were no facilities for operations. The camp was the usual abandoned working camp now called a ‘hospital’. It was nothing but a dirty depot for depositing the dying. Hunt and his colleagues had put up a gallant fight against hopeless odds.
Lieutenant Robert Kelsey, Second 26th Battalion, echoed those sentiments in a quote from Moremon: ‘God sent Bruce Hunt.’ (This was a sentiment echoed by many other POWs.)
I spoke to Cyril Gilbert (born 1920) who describes himself as ‘one of the lucky ones’ who didn’t become ill. A member of F Force, originally in Lower Songkurai, from late July or early August 1943 he was assigned to help maintain and run the Tanbaya hospital camp. He remained there until after the Railway was completed on 17 October, then went by train (being obliged to walk on uphill sections!) to the Thailand end of the line, and thence to Singapore. He recalls that there were ‘hundreds’ of sick at Tanbaya but that he, and others, knew few names. He describes the medical officers there as ‘saints’, and recalls how the amputations had to be done in the evening after work-parties had finished using the saws in the forest.
Bill succumbed to dysentery and beri-beri at Tanbaya hospital camp and died on 4 October. His remains were buried in the Tanbaya POW Cemetery. After the War they were exhumed and his ashes reburied in December 1945 at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery.
Bill was at Tanbaya from late-August or from September until his death there on 4 October 1943.
Of 3662 Australians in F Force, 1060 (29 per cent) had died by May 1944. (The British death rate was twice this.) The F Force death rate was higher than other Australian Forces on the Railway. For example, the death rate in A Force was just 13 per cent.
Wall quotes David Griffin, an AIF POW held in Singapore throughout, describing the return of F Force survivors:
All prisoners of the Japanese wherever they were starved to the brink of death and thus we were not shocked by emaciated bodies…Even so we were totally unprepared for the human wreckage which returned to Changi as the survivors of ‘F’ Force. In the trucks sat slowly moving skeletons emaciated almost beyond belief, many with dreadful sores and peeling skin, some unable to move and others so light that a Changi prisoner had no difficulty in lifting them.
In a broadcast on Singapore radio about 9 September 1945 Major Hunt, quoted in Wall, said:
By April 44 when all the survivors [of F Force] had returned to Singapore over one thousand Australians and over two thousand British had died as the result of the almost incredible incompetence of Japanese organisation and the callous brutality and indifference of Japanese guards and engineers…In a reasonably varied experience in two wars, I have on many occasions seen men tried up to and beyond the limits of reasonable human endurance. I would say that F force was of all these occasions the most searching test of fundamental character and guts I have ever known.
Visit to Bill’s grave by his mother, Hester Armit, in 1954
Racketing about in the tropics
To the amazed consternation of her daughters and sister, Nancy Adams (see References), in 1953 Bill’s mother, Hester, announced her intention to visit his grave in Burma. As ‘…within the past few years, Hester had had four major operations [Nancy] could not help feeling that she should not be racketing about in the tropics’. But Hester was not to be dissuaded.
It sounded like a wild goose chase. No one here could tell her whether she could reach the cemetery.
In mid-1954 Hester embarked on an extended overseas trip that included French Polynesia, France, the UK, Ireland (where she visited her late husband’s birthplace), and Holland, with a view to visiting Bill’s grave on the return journey. Her progress regarding the latter is described in a series of letters to her younger son, John:
I flung Dick Casey and the Bishop of Burma round for all they were worth
‘London, 12 Aug
(Lord Casey’s wife Maie and Hester had been school friends, and Maie was godmother to Hester’s second daughter, Diana, my mother.)
they are inclined to be very up stage
‘Edinburgh, 10 Sept 1954 [to John’s wife, Anne]
Hester boarded the Bibby Line’s SS Warwickshire in Liverpool on 26 November 1954 for the return journey, but it wasn’t all plain sailing:
I shall be cutting things pretty fine
‘Aden, 9 December
I join an army convoy
‘Rangoon, Dec 24th [The letter was apparently written before arrival in Rangoon, and completed on 25 December, Hester’s 66th birthday. CRB]
the neighbouring hills were infested with bandits
…she accomplished her purpose, flying part of the way in an old-fashioned machine piloted by a native crew and then continuing, in a convoy, by car. The convoy was necessary because the neighbouring hills were infested with bandits. Motoring down the road, Hester noticed that people stopped to stare at her and she asked why this should be.
I have been unable to unearth any subsequent written account by Hester of her visit to the TWC, but recall how, when I was an eight-year-old boy, my grandmother visited our house on her return to Melbourne, bearing exciting Burmese stamps, strangely shaped coins and exotic carved animals for me and my brothers, as well as news of her visit to Bill’s grave.
it sounded as if she had visited a suburban cemetery
Some time after her return, she asked me whether I thought it would be a good idea were she to write an account of her pilgrimage. (She did not use that word but that is what it was.)…I encouraged her to do so…[and] offer it to one of the papers.
If she didn’t stay in a private house, as seems likely, in Rangoon Hester may have stayed at the famous hotel from the British colonial era, The Strand. At 92 Strand Road, the hotel is opposite the docks on the Rangoon (now Yangon) River where ocean-going vessels berth, and next door to today’s Australian Embassy.
A newspaper cutting from The Nation of 13 February 1958 (probably sent by Colonel West to Hester and now among my own mother’s papers) describes how an official War Graves Commission party, including Colonel West of Kyonkadat, had recently visited TWC and had announced that the temporary wooden crosses marking the graves would be replaced with bronze plaques and that timber structures would be replaced with stone. The article notes that ‘Access to the cemetery has been difficult for some years owing to insurgent activities’. Hester had a number of official black-and-white photos of the TWC in its original form.
Visit to Bill’s grave by his nephew, Chris Baxter, in 2007
(Apart from the visit by Hester Armit, 52 years earlier, I am not aware of any visits to Bill’s grave.)
I arrived in Yangon on 18 January 2007 with a friend, Judith Bateman, who also has an uncle (who served with the British Army) buried in the TWC. The visit was arranged through Belmore Travel of the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn, (phone  9857 4555), which has organised a number of recent Anzac Day visits to the TWC. A passport with at least six months until expiry and a Myanmar visa are required. (We chose to travel at this time of year largely because December and January are the coolest time and avoid the monsoon.) We had planned a trip that would take us to the TWC, as far as possible up the Burma Railway and allow for visits to a number of interesting places in the eight days we had allocated. We had the same guide/interpreter as Belmore uses on the Anzac Day trips, a driver, and a car at our disposal for the whole trip. On arrival in Yangon I visited the Australian Embassy, which had provided useful advice and assistance about visiting the TWC. The Embassy is next door to The Strand (see above), which I also visited. Recently renovated, The Strand is not unlike Melbourne’s Windsor hotel. We stayed in the Summit Parkview Hotel, which is good.
We drove to Mawlamyine (a wonderfully decrepit, leafy, colourful and bustling old colonial city of 300,000 people that is almost untouched by tourism) in two days (it could fairly easily be done in one, but we did a lot of sightseeing on the way). The road is sealed, but the seal is narrow and very rough in places. Traffic is often disrupted by dogs, cattle, bicycles, large slow-moving vehicles and pedestrians. As Mawlamyine is approached there are more frequent toll gates and military check-points. The latter often require not just passports to inspect, but also photocopies of the first page (which they retain; it is worth carrying as many as perhaps ten copies). It would also be worth checking, through the Australian Embassy in Yangon, about access to the region as one gets the impression that conditions and extent of access permitted by the Burmese Military are liable to change. The TWC has only been accessible since the late 1990s and movement beyond it remains very uncertain. The three kilometer long, 2004 bridge over the Thanlwin River into Mawlamyine is heavily guarded and is closed from 6 pm to 6 am every night. We stayed in Mawlamyine on the river near the bridge, at the Attran Hotel, which is also very good, and beautifully situated. The city is on an attractive coastal plan 45 kilometres from the sea, from which it can be reached by quite large ships.
U Thet Mon, caretaker, at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, Myanmar, where Bill’s ashes are buried
Next day, Sunday 21 January 2007, we drove to Thanbyuzayat, 64 kilometres south of Mawlamyine, stopping on the way in Mudon to buy orchids from the market for the graves. (We were informed that there is no licensed accommodation in Thanbyuzayat.) On arrival at the TWC on the outskirts of the bustling town of Thanbyuzayat we were greeted by the caretaker, who had been expecting us. We quickly found our uncles’ graves. Notable was the fact that a number of graves near Bill’s bore the same date of death, or much the same date, as his. Other graves contained the remains of unidentified Allied soldiers. For me, at least, finding Bill’s grave was a very moving conclusion to a long personal pilgrimage which, at times, had seemed unlikely that I would ever make. I silently prayed in thanksgiving to God for bringing me this important personal destination, gave thanks for Bill’s life and sacrifice, and asked that he and his fellow sufferers on the Burma Railway might be at peace in God’s eternal care.
Chris Baxter at Bill’s grave, Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, Myanmar, 21 January 2007
The quotation on Bill’s grave (the full stop should be a comma), selected by Hester, is from Part IV, The Dead, from The War Sonnets by the First World War English poet, Rupert Brooke, who himself died of illness in a foreign country during that war. The same quote (with a change of gender) appears on the grave of Anne Armit, Bill’s brother John’s wife, in the Ensay cemetery, near Bindi.
The TWC is extremely well maintained and in a beautiful tropical setting. The caretaker insisted that we join him for lunch at a table prepared under the trees at the edge of the TWC, near his house.
After lunch we visited Thanbyuzayat railway station (about a kilometre from the TWC), the main building of which dates from before the War. The new roof extending over the platform is supported by rails taken up from the Burma Railway. You walk past a Japanese air-raid shelter as you enter the station. About 1.5 kilometres south of the clock tower in the middle of town we visited a short section of the Railway—the point where it branched off the main Mawlamyine–Ye railway line (the 0 Kilo point), with a (post-War) locomotive, which is memorial to the Burma Railway. We continued south towards Ye as far as a tiny village at which we inspected ruins of bath houses built at a hot spring for Japanese officers by POWs. (These have been restored since the War and fallen into ruin again.) The short gravel road in to the baths from the sealed road crosses an embankment which, in fact, is that of the Burma Railway. The baths are at the 12 Kilo point on the Railway. We had hoped to proceed as far as Tanbaya (at 50 Kilo), but we were told that because of the security situation this was neither permissible nor advisable. (The road to the Three Pagodas Pass presumably branches off the Thanbyuzayat–Ye road a little south-east of our furthest point on that road.) Apart from small remnants in Thanbyuzayat and at Three Pagodas Pass, apparently no trace of the Railway remains in Myanmar, it all having been torn up. At the north-western end its route lies through toddy palms and rubber plantations on a flat coastal plain with low hills to the north and north-east as it heads towards the Thailand border at Three Pagodas Pass (the 115 Kilo point), which I visited from the Thailand side with my wife Sue, in December 1997. We returned to Mawlamyine by the same route on the same day. After a full day in and around Mawlamyine, we returned to Yangon the following day, in a single day.
We found the country of Myanmar, and its people so welcoming and attractive that I can only conclude that if my uncle were to be buried anywhere on earth other than in his own country, I would be happy for that country to be Myanmar.
Bill’s grave at Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, Myanmar
Postscript; before the War
The second of four children, Bill was born in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak on 15 February 1915 to William Duke Armit and Hester Christina (Mitchell) Armit. During the First World War the four Armits (two more children were born after the War: Diana [my mother] in 1920 and John in 1926) returned to England, renting a house in Dover, where Duke (as he was known) served in the Royal Navy, part of the time with the Dover Patrol. After the War they returned to Australia and lived at the East Gippsland sheep station Bindi which Duke managed. (Hester’s father, Sir Edward Mitchell had purchased the property, probably in 1911, the year of Hester and Duke’s engagement, initially retaining a manger to run it until his new son-in-law, having acquired a half share in it, did so. Before Duke and Hester were married, on 11 December 1912, Duke worked as a jackaroo at the McKinnon property Tintaldra on the upper Murray River to ‘learn the ropes’.)
Bill and his father W Duke Armit. This photo was taken in Melbourne
Because of Bindi’s remoteness, the children were initially schooled at home with a private governess. Bill then attended The Grange School, a private primary boys’ school (which closed in 1929) at ‘Westford’, 2 Ash Grove, in the Melbourne suburb of East Malvern, as a boarder and, in the years 1928–1932, was a boarder at Melbourne Grammar. Bill’s brother John recalls that at Melbourne Grammar Bill was a member of the first 18 football team. (The team’s champion goal-kicker that season was Bill Webb and, with more than 100 goals, was the leading goal-kicker in the competition. Webb was later a jackaroo at Bindi, where the two Bills played for Swifts Creek and helped their team win a premiership.)
It is interesting to note that The Grange School was founded, in 1852, by Bill’s great, great aunt, Agnes Templeton, the daughter of pioneer of the Australian wool industry, Janet Templeton, Bill’s great, great, great grandmother. The school had been at a succession of addresses, mostly in South Yarra, before it moved to East Malvern in February 1921. Another coincidence is that former pupils include Lord Casey, who also attended Melbourne Grammar, and was instrumental in Hester getting to Bill’s grave in Burma in 1954, and Percy Grainger. (At Bill’s sister Diana’s request shortly before her death in 1999, the Templeton pearls—which were a wedding present to Janet Templeton from her husband in 1810—were subsequently donated to the new National Museum of Australia in Canberra, where they are currently displayed in the Eternity exhibition.)
John also recalls that Bill retuned to Bindi after leaving school, his time there interrupted only by a year or so as a jackaroo at Angullong (now a vineyard) near Orange. Bill was a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, of which his grandfather, Sir Edward Mitchell, was a former President. Bill had wanted to join the Air Force after the start of the Second World War, but his application was rejected. Eventually, with most other young men in the district having enlisted in the Army, Bill decided to join them. Bill’s ‘Australian Military Forces Attestation Form for special forces raised for service in Australia or abroad’ shows that he completed the form at Melbourne Town Hall on 23 October 1941. Bill gave his occupation as ‘station manager’. After a decade of warfare with China, Japan announced its intentions for the region when it invaded Malaya and attacked Pearl Harbour at the same time on 7/8 (the different dates explained by the International Date Line) December 1941. Bill signed the Oath of Enlistment at the foot of the Attestation Form at Royal Park, Victoria, ten days later, on 18 December 1941.
Spelling, dates, distances and other facts
Places on, and otherwise relevant to, the Railway are spelt in a variety of ways in different sources, as are some Japanese and Korean soldiers’ names. There are also often, usually insignificant, differences in dates, troop numbers and distances in different sources. There seems to be particular confusion about dates and lapsed times between when F Force left Singapore and arrived at Lower Songkurai; see above. Where possible I have used information from the Official History (although this contains contradictions) and the Department of Veterans’ book. Distances along the Railway are from the Beaton map.
Nancy Adams, Family Fresco (Cheshire, 1966). Armit family history.
Terence Beaton, The Thailand–Burma Railway map (published by the author, 2001). 1.23 metres long, this extraordinary resource ‘…is the only map…that has attempted to correct the misnaming of railway stations as POW camps (and vice versa), by showing the 56 stations and the 87 camps that I have been able to roughly position from research. It also attempts to show the 144 POW cemeteries…’
Terence Beaton, A Traveller’s Guide to the Burma Railway (draft edition published by the author, 2003). A roughly produced and incomplete work, but containing much good information on a range of Railway subjects, including the different Forces, and sketch-maps of Lower Songkurai and Tanbaya camps.
James Boyle, Railroad to Burma (Allen & Unwin, 1990). Singapore, F Force and the Lower Songkurai camp.
Albert Coates and Newman Rosenthal, The Albert Coates Story, (Hyland House, 1977). Including the Burma end of the Railway (with descriptions of the camp hospitals at 55 Kilo and 50 Kilo).
Joe Cummings and others, Thailand (Lonely Planet, 2005). Indispensable travel aid.
EE Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop (Nelson, 1986). Singapore, Dunlop Force and towards the Ban Pong end of the Railway.
Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson, The Burma–Thailand Railway (Allen & Unwin, 1993). Historical and statistical overview of the Railway, including F Force’s role; particularly the Japanese and Korean perspective and trials for war crimes.
John Moremon, Australians on the Burma–Thailand Railway 1942–43 (Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 2003). A brief, well-illustrated history.
Robert Reid and Michael Grosberg, Myanmar (Burma) (Lonely Planet, 2005). Indispensable travel aid.
Rowley Richards, A Doctor’s War (HarperCollins, 2005). Singapore, A Force and the Burma end of the Railway.
Don Wall, Heroes of F Force, (published by the author, 1993). A most valuable reference including a list giving basic information (including date and place of death) about every Australian F Force man to die on the Railway, including Bill, and Donald Phillips. Also included are sketch-maps of Lower Songkurai and Tanbaya camps, as well as lists of F Force medical personnel, including at Tanbaya, and diary accounts from all F Force camps.
www.awm.gov.au Web site. In particular see /histories/index.asp for Vol 4 of the Official History, chapters 23 (Singapore) and 24 (Burma Railway), especially pp 571–581 about F Force, and /research/infosheets/pow-ww2-japanese.asp See also the Nominal Roll, giving information on every Australian Service person at /database/nroll.asp
www.cwgc.org Web site. Details of those buried at the TWC, including Bill, their grave locations, photos of the cemetery and plan of the cemetery.
www.naa.gov.au The_Collection/recordsearch.html Web site. Click on ‘Search now’, then enter Bill’s Service number (VX65186) into the ‘Keyword’ field, then click ‘Search’. When the result is displayed click ‘Display’, then click ‘View digital copy’. This allows you to see Bill’s digitised service forms held by National Archives of Australia.
www.pows-of-japan.net Web site. Accounts (books and articles) by former prisoners on the Burma Railway.
www.tbrconline.com Web site of The Thailand–Burma Railway Centre, Kanchaburi, Thailand (including museum, information and Burma Railway personal guided tours).
In addition to other sources quoted above, those who helped in this work included John Armit, Michael Baxter, Sue Baxter, Colonel Terry Beaton, Rod Beattie, Hugh Forrest, Cyril Gilbert, Bruce Godden, Pam Holko, Guy Olding, Dr Rowley Richards, Glenn van der Knijff, and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Winstanley.