On the 8th March the Dutch authorities surrendered the island along with all allied forces. At 19 years of age I became a prisoner of a cruel and brutal enemy and joined over 22,000 fellow Australians in captivity. Of these over 8,000 or 36%, were to pay the supreme sacrifice. Most were to suffer an intolerable cruel and lingering death.
In September 1942 under the command of our legendary Pioneer C.O. Lt Colonel Williams, 1800 prisoners from Java were shipped to Burma in conditions that today we would not allow sheep to travel. This involved three separate journeys, in three Hell Ships. Arriving in Thanbyuzayat in October 1942, we joined the first of Brigadier Varley’s A Force of Australians just arrived from Tavoy, with them we were the first Australians to start work on the Burma Thailand railway. The next Australians to arrive in Burma, in January 1943, also from Java, No 5 Group. The first Australians to commence work on the Thailand end were also from Java, Dunlop Force in January 1943.
The following 15 months were to test the metal, the morale, and the Anzac spirit of the Australian prisoners in Burma. We labored on a starvation diet of a hand full of rice and watery usually meatless stew, clearing the jungle, on embankments, on cuttings, on bridges. In the heat of the dry, and the misery and slush of the wet. Then, we survivors, along with Anderson Force, were selected as No 1 Mobile Force, to carry out the arduous and demanding task of laying the sleepers and rails, along our previously worked ground. We worked continually through the wet, from Thanbyuzayat right through into Thailand where the two ends were joined on 17th October 1943. Our clothes and footwear, long destroyed in the fetid jungle, left our only protection from the burning heat and the rain, a loin cloth. Bed bugs and lice left by native workers made for harrowing and restless nights. From the start deaths were continuous and as our numbers dwindled so our work hours grew With no drugs whatsoever, malaria, dysentery, beri beri, pellagra, tropical ulcers, smallpox, and finally cholera took its toll. The dedicated Doctors and medical staff were supermen. Working with make-shift instruments and few drugs, without their efforts our losses would have doubled. Our torment continued till January 1944 when the survivors, wrecks of men, in rags, staggered out of their jungle camps to be transported to the well organised better-equipped camps in Tamarkan & Kanburi (Kanchanaburi).
Despite a continuing death rate from the results of our ordeal, after six months of improved food and lighter work we survivors regained some semblance of health, little did we know that this was part of a well designed plan by our captors.
Thousands of Railway workers, Australians in a majority were selected for shipment to Japan as slave labour, to work in mines, factories and on the docks. Thousands of them were to die in Hell Ships sunk by US submarines. My luck as a survivor continued, I was on the last ship, the Awa Maru, my fourth Hell Ship, to successfully make the journey. We arrived in Japan in January 1945, the coldest winter Japan experienced in 40 years, to spend the remaining months working in a coalmine.
An unknown author described conditions on board these Hell
Today we remember those who paid the supreme sacrifice, some of them rest in this well kept garden setting. But we must also remember those survivors who returned home. They took up life where they left off, brought up families, helped build a great nation, most drew a curtain on the horrors through which they had lived. But for many the hidden horrors surfaced in the unguarded hours of sleep, and to this day many still suffer the trauma of repeated night mares along with the ravages of the diseases they suffered.
Now, what were the positives that came out of our experiences, we the lucky ones, the survivors, discovered the will to survive, we discovered mate ship, we discovered compassion, a caring and a bond for our fellow prisoners that transcends that, and is different to that we have for the opposite sex. For us teenagers, and there were many of us, just walk along the line of graves here and read the ages, we matured quickly, we adapted, we found a maturity far above our age, we learned self discipline, most importantly we discovered mate ship.
“No prisoner on the railway survived who did not have a mate” I can best illustrate that special mate ship between Australian POWs by reciting a poem written by an Australian ex POW, Duncan Butler 2/12th Field Ambulance.
I've travelled down some lonely roads
I’m thinking back across the years,
Someone who'll take you as you are.
Me mind goes back to 43,
With bamboo for a billie-can
You'd slip and slither through the mud
An' though it's all so long ago
If there's a life that follers this,
An so to all who ask us why
An when I've left the drivers seat
Address Anzac Day 2004 Kanchanaburi, Thailand