John Chalmers was born in Sydney on 20 March 1910. He went to high school at Fort Street Boys High School and studied medicine at Sydney University. He also served in the Militia as a member of Sydney University Regiment for a number of years.
Following graduation in 1936. Dr John S Chalmers was a resident doctor at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. He married Mary Violet O’Keeffe in Sydney during 1937. . He and his wife moved to Hobart where he became the Registrar at Royal Hobart Hospital (see later comment where it is suggested that he was Assistant Superintendent).
The 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) was raised in Hobart late 1940. John enlisted in the AIF on 26 August 1940 as a Captain Medical Officer. Lt Col Thomas Hamilton was appointed Commanding Officer (CO) of the CCS on 15 November 1940. Whilst moving from Newcastle to take up his appointment at the CCS in Hobart, he had attended a Conference in Melbourne and had the opportunity of visiting a training establishment at Royal Park Depot. There he saw Major J.S. Chalmers in action. He was impressed. Following intense lobbying by Lt Col Hamilton John was appointed to the CCS.
The writer was fortunate to be provided with a copy of “The Unofficial History of the 2/4 CCS” by the daughter of Lt Col Hamilton – Mrs Anne Mulholland. The CCS sailed for Singapore in the Aquitania in February 1941. For a number of months the CCS, along with other Australian and British units, enjoyed life in the Far East. One has the impression that during this period they had a great social life. The CCS was located on the Malayan mainland at Port Swettenham, Kajang and finally (October 42) in the southern extremity of an Asiatic Mental Hospital in Johore. The Unofficial History contains quite a number of references to then Captain John Chalmers. It is not clear when John Chalmers was promoted to Major. This could only be established by viewing his Service Record.
The writer was also given a copy of 357 pages of Lt Col Hamilton’s hand written notes by Mrs Jean Charlton - Lt Col Hamilton’s elder daughter. These notes formed the basis of his book “Soldier Surgeon in Malaya”. It was of interest for me to note that there were almost no spelling errors nor crossings out. The notes included what appear to be verbatim accounts of conversations and events. The extracts from the notes are a little expansive, as I believe they give some impression of the conditions involved in treating sick and wounded battle weary soldiers in a forward Medical Unit.
- “8 December. I worked till midnight last night then suddenly felt tired. John Chalmers, the fair haired young doctor whom you met in Hobart, located me on the veranda. Presenting me with a half mug of rum and a cheerful face he said: “Major Krantz and I have prescribed a snifter. It might help you along sir!”
- John Chalmers, later fated to die heroically by enemy action, had a passion for doing good by stealth. Australia has produced many fine soldier-doctors but, among the younger group, I knew of none finer than Chalmers. Assistant Superintendent of the Royal Hobart Hospital in civil life, backed by seven years experience as a militia officer, he was one of those useful all rounders who gladden the heart of a hospital commander. His knowledge of x-ray work was especially valuable.
- Major Chalmers, always an early riser, was up and about. I saw him, dressed in pyjamas and steel helmet, conferring with Private Lockwood, the air defence picquet, at the other side of the garden.
- Major Fisher will be in charge of the resuscitation and transfusion teams. Captain Brereton will assist him. The Padres will work with Captain Higgin in the reception tents and Major Chalmers will assist with the anaesthetics until required in the X-ray department.
- In the reception tents, which were filling rapidly, Captain Higgin and Major John Chalmers moved busily up and down the rows of stretchers supervising the classification of the patients, most of whom bore Field Medical labels with a brief description of their wounds. Two or three benches near the entrance were filled by “sitting” or “walking” cases. Eagerly they accepted the mugs of steaming cocoa, the biscuits and the cigarettes offered them by the two padres who evidently were determined to make a hard working night of it.
- Sniffing the cocoa, a boyish young officer on a nearby stretcher raised himself on one elbow. “Gosh!” he ejaculated, “I haven’t had a feed in three days.” Through the grime of his unshaven face I recognized a well-known infantry subaltern. “Well we may be able to remedy that,” I said as I checked the Field Medical card pinned to his shirt. “Flesh wound through left thigh, no haemorrhage. That shouldn’t prevent you eating at any rate.” Sending round to the cook house I procured for him a plate of hot M and V, the famous army meat and vegetable ration which can be very appetising to a hungry man…….Recognizing the lieutenant also, John Chalmers found time to bring him a tot of whisky. “This’ll put hair on your chest,” he said. Sniffing the glass, a gleam entered the lieutenant’s eyes followed by a spreading smile on his pale face as he downed the contents. “This is Heaven! I always did like the Army Medical Corps, “he remarked.
- In the adjoining room Captain Michael Woodruff was busily unpacking jars of blood serum. In Major Fisher’s absence Michael had taken charge of the resuscitation of shocked patients before and after operation, a life-saving job. I nodded towards the jars: “Likely to need any of them tonight, Mick ?” Pausing in his work, Michael straightened up. “I hope not, sir. Major Hobbs tells me from the theatre that all goes well.” Content with this news I went down the covered way to the theatre where Alan Hobbs and his team of orderlies were hard at work. The indefatigable John Chalmers was now administering anaesthetics. The heat was terrific, for the brilliant light was screened from outside by a couple of army blankets hung over the doorway.”
- “Leaving Bukit Panjang after lunch I found John Chalmers working vigorously at our new site. Stripped to the waist in the hot afternoon sunshine, his head shaded by a battered felt hat, he not only directed the incoming trucks but helped to manhandle the equipment. Momentarily free from the threat of artillery fire, the men worked with a will on the tents erecting so many by tea time.”
- We were not at all happy. From the depths of a deck chair a cynical wag remarked: “Well boys! Black Friday tomorrow! It’s the thirteenth of February.” “Oh, shut-up!” said the misanthrope on my left. “If we had any sense we’d collar that little Chinese ship out there and clear off ourselves.” “You’d blow yourselves up on the land mines before you got through the barbed wire”, said John Chalmers, who had joined the group. “Anyway, what about the wounded blokes up in the building there? Who’s going to look after them?”
- “Majors Fisher and Chalmers, with the rest of the Casualty Clearing Station, had the adjoining Convent filled with medical cases. In order to be near their patients, they moved down into a little bungalow at the Convent gate”………
The above extracts run in chronological order and it will be noted that there are references to two dates. They are 8 December 1941, which was the date of the Japanese invasion of northern Malaya and 13 February 1942 which was just two days before capitulation by the Allied Command.
On 15 February 1942 the Allied servicemen became Prisoners of War (POW). Then in May 1942 3,000 Australian POWs, including 12 Medical Officers plus medical orderlies, were sent to Burma on two approx 500 tons ships, otherwise described as Rust Buckets. They sailed from Singapore in two ships the Celebes Maru and the Toyohashi Maru. At Medan in Sumatra, the convoy was joined by another vessel, ironically the England Maru. On the England Maru were 500 British soldiers and unexpectedly one Australian – Lt Col (later Sir) Albert Coates. The convoy then moved to the coast of Burma and left 1,000 men at Victoria Point, Mergui and Tavoy. Medical teams, including 2 or 3 Medical Officers, were left at Victoria Point and Mergui with the balance going on to Tavoy. At Mergui the Australian (AIF) POWs were under the Command of Lt Col Ramsay.
Major John Chalmers and Captain Thomas Brereton were left at Mergui with the Australian POWs. The British POWs, including Lt Col Coates from Sumatra, were also left there. Major Chalmers wrote a critical report on the conditions experienced during the nine day journey. The main points were, amongst other things, the inadequate latrine facilities, limited drinking water, inadequate sterilisation for eating utensils, crowding in the holds (especially when at Medan an additional 350 Japanese troops boarded). The move from Mergui was made in August 1942 when the POWs were moved up the coast to Tavoy in vessels no larger than Sydney Harbour ferries. Ultimately construction of the Burma Thailand Railway commenced from a place called Thanbyuzat in Burma in October 1942.
The 12 Medical Officers of “A” Force, plus Lt Col Coates, were deployed amongst the working parties (mobile teams) on the Burma end. There was clearly some authority who determined which group the Medical Officers were with. It is not obvious to the writer who that was, but, logically it was probably the Senior Medical Officer (SMO) of “A” Force Lt Col Hamilton who made the recommendations to Brigadier Varley who would then have initiated the moves of the Medical Officers through the Japanese Commander Lt Col Nagatomo. Examination of the following books “The Blue Haze” by Les Hall, “A Doctor’s War” by Rowley Richards, and “The Albert Coates Story” by Albert Coates and Newman Rosenthal, enables one to get some idea of where the Medical Officers were at various times. It is clear that Major Chalmers was at , Thanbyuzat Base Hospital Camp, Apparon Camp (about 82 km from Thanbyuzat) and Kun Knit Way-55 kilo Hospital Camp. There are probably other locations which have not been identified.
When the railway was completed in October 1943 the Burma work parties which comprised the original “A” Force, and other groups which arrived later, were moved down to Thailand. This would have been late 1943 or early 1944. The actual camps that John Chalmers was at in Thailand is not clear. It could have been any of Tamarkan, Kamburi (Kanchanaburi), Tamuang or even Chungkai.
What is clear is that he became part of the “Japan Party” and, as such, he was en route to Japan in Saigon in June 1944. The following an extract from the British Battalion Diary for portion of June.
22nd Electric Light failed p.m. Musical instruments sent in by local French Red Cross.
23rd Brigadier Varley, Capts. Sumner, Stewpart and Richards with 35 Kumi and part of 36 Kumi left for Singapore via Phnom-Penh.
24th Capts. Burk, Phillips, Chalmers with 37 Kumi and part of 36 Kumi left for Singapore. R.C. trouble.
25th Capts. Flinn and Campbell-Smith with 77 men from 38 Kumi, 40 men from 40 Kumi, and all 39 Kumi left for Singapore. Rain fell all day.
26th Capts. Moore, Higgins, Fleming with remainder of 40 Kumi and all 41 Kumi left en route Singapore. An Australian from 50 Kumi left with the party. Trouble with Jap office staff.
Note- the names typed in bold are Medical Officers and the Capt Fleming, may be a Chaplain.
The move to Japan through Saigon was abandoned as the waters in that area were too dangerous. In June the Japan party was then sent south to Singapore. After some time on Singapore the Japan party boarded ships bound for Japan. The Rakuyo Maru was one of these. On 6 September 1944 the convoy put to sea. On the night of 11/12 September the convoy came under attack by American Submarines. The Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed. The story of the events following the ship being torpedoed is covered in detail in the book “Return from the River Kwai” by Joan and Clay Blair. Fortunately, they have some first hand accounts of John Chalmers last hours alive.
- “…. Soon there were fifteen men clinging to this raft, including the Tasmanian doctor Major Chalmers”
- “ The doctor-Major Chalmers came by wearing a life preserver. He was ill. Malaria. It had cycled on him while he was in the water. He was shivering and shaking. We invited him to get on our raft. He got on, but two or three hours later, he died. We pushed his body off into the sea.”
There is a further account about a Medical Officer’s death following the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru in the book “Bamboo and Bushido” by Albert Albury published 1955. In discussion with a survivor of that sinking Dr Rowley Richards (who has published his own book “A Doctors War” ISBN 0 7322 85321 published 2005) it is agreed that this is almost certain to have been an account of the last hours of John Chalmers life.
- “Late in the afternoon of the fourth day Ted and I came across the doctor drifting alone on a hatchboard. He was delirious. He had dysentery, and I could see that he was dying. We pulled him on the raft and sat either side of him so that he could not roll off. He kept asking for water. His bottle, of course, was empty . I dipped my hand into the sea and let a few drops splash into his mouth. It would make little difference to him now if he drunk it or not. Once or twice we had to hold him down as he found a little strength in his ravings. But as darkness came he lay quiet, unmoving. In the torpor that came with the night we forgot he was there. Throughout the early hours of the next morning I kept on falling across him, forgetting who or what his body was. It was something to rest my head on. At dawn we found he was dead. And as I looked at him, his mouth agape, his face a thousand years old, his eyes still fixed with pain and delirium, I remembered all he had done for me, and for so many others. And for a few moments I became a human being, and was filled with sorrow and compassion. He was one of the finest men I had ever known.………We rolled his body off the edge of the raft.”
Note- Dr Rowley Richards mentioned above, is keen for it to be known that it was usual, in such a circumstance, for a prayer of some sort (maybe The Lord’s Prayer) to be said, either spoken or in reflection.
Major John Chalmers CO Lt Col Hamilton on his book, mentioned earlier, had these comments to make about this Medical Officer.
- "As usual, John (Major Chalmers) had been the first to volunteer as medical officer for the draft . They sailed from Singapore for Japan in an aged, filthy hellship, the Rakuyo Maru, which bore no international markings to indicate she was crowded with defenceless prisoners. On 12th September 1944, an American torpedo pierced her guts and the depths of the China Sea claimed hundreds of weakened men. Struggling swimmers were crushed under the propellers of racing Japanese destroyers, but some were lucky to survive until picked up by the submarine four days later. Arthur Varley was last seen in the water the second day. John Chalmers died after two days of thirst and exposure on a raft. Private Brettell, a fine little English orderly from my unit, and Lance-Corporal Barrow also died. Vale John Chalmers! Always his brother's keeper, he was a man to inspire and guide the helpless. Or would he have laughed outright if anyone had told him so? Almost, one can picture him under a burning sun on that frail raft, whispering through cracked lips before he turned in his final report, "Here, take my possie mate. It'll make things a bit easier for you."
This article was written by Lt Col Peter Winstanley. The initial interest was generated by information forwarded by the late Major Chalmers nephew John Lenehan some years back. Extensive research was necessary and the following books were consulted. “Soldier Surgeon in Malay” by Thomas Hamilton, “A Doctor’s War” by Rowley Richards, “Slaves of the Son’s of Heaven” by Roy Whitecross. “Return from the River Kwai” by Joan & Clay Blair, “The Blue Haze” by Les Hall, “Medical Middle East and Far East” by Allan S Walker and “British Battalion Diary – May 42 to March 45” (the 500 British POWs who went to the Burma Thailand Railway from Sumatra). “Bamboo and Busido” by Albert Albury. A number of private diaries and papers were also looked at.