I am honoured to present this account of the last months of the life of Private SHT (Tommy) Busine NX77799 2/30 Infantry Battalion. This account was written by fellow POW Les Hall (Author of the book Blue Haze ISBN 86417 786 0). Jim Busine, son of the late Tommy has kindly allowed me to publish the account, which tells much of the conditions in the POW Hospital Camp at 55 Kilo Camp (Khon Khan) in Burma. It also says much about Mateship, the Medical Orderlies and the Medical Officers.
The smell of death and decay filled the atmosphere of the alleged hospital camp situated 55 kilometres from Thanbyuzayat prisoner-of-war headquarters, Burma.
Housed in that little over one acre area were hundreds of skin and bone men who, eighteen months previously, had fought side by side to stem the Japanese’s advance upon Singapore, the famed British bastion of the Far East.
Little Tankie Phillips, all five feet and a bit of him, hung on to my left arm as he, similarly crippled with to ankle tropical ulcers, endeavoured to help me propel myself to the hut indicated by Mal Jones, one of the very few medical orderlies who were working almost flat out to tend the critically ill in that pestilent spot.
Think you can make it, mate?
Never mine me, Tankie. Here, take this stick it will help you a bit. Give me your dilly bag ..the hut is only about fifty yards from here. In a few minutes we can bed down.
Bed down? This alleged hospital camp was no different to any other we had occupied, except for the one thing .. the awful odour! No-one could describe that. Even those with the strongest stomachs wanted to retch long before they came to the rows upon rows of ulcer infested human hulks.
To the back of the hut please. Say . Aren’t you Les Hall from Parramatta?
Yes, but I’m blowed if I know you. Your face is a bit familiar and I recognise your voice, but that’s all. What is your name?
Mal.. Mal Jones. I live in Cremeas Street. You are in Early Street, aren’t you?
Yes, number 26. Ah, now I remember. We were at Wallgrove camp . Don’t you recognise Tankie? We were in the same platoon. What mob did you end up with? You were drafted out before the call came for volunteers for the 2/30th.
To your first question . Yes, he was your tent mate and you gave him that nickname. Still want to drive a tank, mate? To the second, 2/10th Field Ambulance as an orderly.
And you had to end up here in this .stink hole of a place.
A bit on the bugle, I’ll admit but at least it is part of the job I was trained for. Gee whiz you two blokes are in a bad way. Colonel Coates will hit you both with the spoon. Hurts a bit but short of amputation it is all he can do to try and save limbs. He will be along shortly. In the meantime, I’ll clean you both up a bit:
Colonel Coats proved to be a very compassionate medical officer of great surgical skill. It was true what Mal Jones had told them, apart from boiling water and the come-to-be-dreaded spoon, and instrument normally used by gynaecologists, the only other alternative was amputation of the affected limbs to avoid the consequences of gangrene.
The former specialist surgeon from Melbourne faced a gargantuan task in his effort to save the lives of the great number of POW’s afflicted with tropical ulcers of the worst possible type. That he eventually saved any was a tribute to his amazing quality in the field of medicine.
Day after day he would go along the long line of patients awaiting their turn for the scraping out of, in many cases, fly-blown legs, arms and backs.
Always a cheery word, a pat on the back and a smile that covered the conflict in his heart. In his rare moments of relaxation he would unburden his fears for the safety of the hundreds in the camp the Japanese called
The date of our arrival in that camp remains vivid in my mind, the 3rd July, my young sister’s birthday! Her name is Doris . I called her Hubby . She was two years younger than me and we were great childhood mates.
I clearly remember telling Tankie what the day represented to me and he joined in wishing that slip of a girl, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! We didn’t even get a meal that day or for nearly seven days later. The Japanese said . sick mans don’t eat, and they really meant it!
We drank a toast to my little sister . boiled water!
As our conditions worsened we began to forget whether it was day or night .whether we had something to eat or not . In fact, we had gone beyond the hunger stage and were only reminded of it when someone in his delirium made mention of piled high plates of roasted foods.
Then we hated him for even mentioning it!
On the 17th July the Colonel told me my left leg was bordering on a gangrenous state and my only chance of survival was amputation! He arranged to operate the next day.
About one hour later there was a change of guard and the Japanese N.C.O. in charge demanded I carry his gear some four hundred yards to his quarters.
I told him I was tuxan bioki (very sick) and could not do it. He grabbed my left arm, dragged me to my feet, pulled a bamboo slat from my bed-space, broke it, a guard with fixed bayonet stood at my back and a second later the razor sharp-edged piece of bamboo was thrust through the centre of the ulcer on my left leg.
I had known the agony of hurt prior to that happening, but never as bad as at the moment. To my eternal shame .I yelled! The bemused guard just laughed, slapped me across the face and strode away.
The following morning Colonel Coates was amazed when he examined my leg. I saw a smile come over his drawn features as he looked at me and said . Leslie, (we had met before at Mergui, South Burma) the Jap may have punished you but look at the lovely pink flesh. He has saved your leg, and probably your life.
My despondence at the possibility of the loss of a leg gave way to one of optimism. I KNEW if I followed the Colonel’s instructions I had at least a fighting change of pulling through, providing my right leg responded to treatment by the spoon and boiling water!
It did! And, from that time on I applied every moment I could in the care of my little cobber, Tankie.
Fate, in a way, had been good to me but was unkind to the little lad who had been with me almost every day of my second enlistment, (I had been boarded out of the 6th Division due to ear trouble). His right leg gradually worsened and Colonel Coates had determined on its amputation.
On the 4th August as I tended Tankie he gave me one heck of a shock when he screamed out . TOMMY TOMMY where in hell did you come from?
I looked out front of the bedspace to see a lad not much taller than my little mate hobbling towards us on a thick bamboo stick. It was the second time Tankie had met up with a pre-war friend, the first during the fighting near Batu Annum, Federated Malayan States. I wondered who this one was.
About two minutes later I was to know!
He was TOMMY BUSINE, a near neighbour and former workmate of tiny Tankie Phillips. And, both of them were suffering identical injuries .knee to ankle tropical ulcers on the right leg. In addition, the ominous abdominal swelling indicating the onset of beri-beri!
Tankie was so excited he almost leaped off the slatted bed as he plied Tommy with a myriad of questions. Never dreamed I’d meet up with you Tommy .When did you join up? What unit are you in? What camp did you come from to here?
Clarrie, Clarrie Phillips! Well I’ll be damned. The last time I saw you was when you were on your final leave at Chippendale. That was July ’41. I envied you that day, all dressed up in your khaki uniform and wearing purple and gold flashes. You looked a real soldier! You really were, too!
Tommy said I envied you, for I too would have liked to do what you had. The difference was you had no children and Rheita and I planned a family. Our second was then on the way. God I could do with a drink, got any water? Haven’t had a drop in hours. Ah, thanks . er .forget your name . Remember now, Les something, that was like nectar. Boy was I sure thirsty.
Now where was I? Oh yes. You remember Jack Dickenson and Lindsay Fairweather at the Glassworks? We often talked about you and the other boys who had joined up. The more we yapped about it the more we became sure we would have to do the right thing and do our bit. Can I have another mouthful, please? I am dry as hell. Thanks again, you are a lifesaver.
I think you had better keep quiet for a while, you look done in, suppose you had a rough trip coming here? Won’t be long now before Colonel Coates will be along to see you. Your leg is one heck of a mess. You and Tankie make a good pair.
Tankie,. Who is he?
That’s me Tommy. Les christened me that just after we became tent mates at Wallgrove camp in ’40.
Why? How could he make Tankie out of Clarrie?
I’ll answer. That two-bit bloke had an ambition to drive a tank, he was and still is motor-mad. The very idea of a little fellow like him driving a massive thing weighing about ten tons tickled my fancy. From then I called him TANKIE. Just about everyone in the unit does the same. He is so darned small his eyes would never have reached the driving aperture. The name fits him, don’t you think?
Drive a flamin’ Tank . I’ll say the name fits him. Either you or Thelma told me you were a signaller. By the way, I was a 4th reinforcement to your battalion. I never made it. All I did was drive a truck around General Base Depot. The nips bombed that place day after day. I was lucky, never got a scratch.
Well, when did you don the khaki Tommy?
Two days after my youngest boy was born, the very day the Nips bombed Singapore and Pearl Harbour. I was attested at Martin Place on the 10th December, 1941, and drafted to Dubbo. We, I mean Jack, Lindsay and myself, were no sooner there and kitted up when they told us we’re on final leave.
Rheita had just been discharged from Crown Street Maternity Hospital with the baby. I arrived back only to tell her I would soon be on my way overseas. We all guessed Singapore was our destination.
I had a whale of a send off and a wonderful time for a few days with Rheita and the two boys. The hard part came when I had to say goodbye on the 31st. I never really knew what emotion was until I held my beloved Rheita in my arms, cuddled the two boys and farewelled them through eyes filled with streaming tears. Yes Clarrie, I was upset, the truth hit me like a bolt from the blue. I could have said farewell for the last time! Maybe now I’ll get back.
At that moment I was tempted to down my kit and race back to my sobbing and much-loved wife and two kids. But I didn’t, that would have been the coward’s way out. I had volunteered and had a future to face. Ours was the last troop ship into Singapore.
As we came ashore evacuees were going aboard. What puzzled me a bit though, was to see what appeared to be fit blokes in khaki going up the gangways and armed to the tooth. If reinforcements were so badly needed, why were they on their way back to Aussie? Still can’t understand it.
I can Tommy, they were deserters. As far as I know they used those arms to get aboard ship. They could now be at the bottom of the ocean. Nip subs and planes sank everything that floated out of Keppel Harbour. Maybe they were lucky to have made it. But you can bet your last dollar they copped their corner IF they did make it to Fremantle. I hope they did!
You sound very savage about them Les, any particular reason?
Yes, they could have waited as we who survived the fighting did. Not one of us wanted to end up as we are now, POW’s held in bondage by the cruellest race in the world. Look around you and see what they have done to every patient here . yourself, Tankie and hundreds of others. Yes, I’m savage because I hate white-livered cowards, and that is what they are!
You got ulcers too I see, both legs. How bad are they?
Not too bad. The owl-faced Nip guard commander saved my left one when he shoved a bamboo slat straight through the centre of the ulcer. As he pulled it out the razor-sharp edges must have sliced through the gangrenous portion. If that hadn’t have happened I would have been one of the boys in the far corner, another amputee.
Clarrie you don’t look one hundred percent either, a bad leg and puffed tummy like me. I believe there is a wonderfully M.O here. Who is he and is he saving many of the boys?
I’ll get over it, Tommy. By the way here comes the medico now. Coates is his name, rank is Colonel. He is heading your way.
New patient, eh laddie. Let’s have a look at that leg of yours. I won’t hurt you, just an examination at the moment. Sorry, but we have no medicines or antibiotics here. Our hosts tell us they are fresh out of everything. Been bathing this well? Yes, an ulcer alright. We’ll do what we can for you. We’ve probably caught you just in time. I’ll see you a little later. Don’t worry and eat up your rice.
Your ticket home is at the bottom of your dixie.
Does he mean there is plenty to eat here? We were told there was hardly any food on the camp and only for Williams Force boys sacrificing a meal a day, the patients here would die of starvation.
Williams Force! Now I know why Colonel Williams was so interested in our welfare. God Bless all of them.
Tommy, what made you join up? Was it because Japan had hit Singapore and we were at war, properly?
No Clarrie, not an on the spur of the moment thing. I actually wanted to be one of the thirty-niners. Only for Rheita I would have been one of the first volunteers. She was pregnant and I felt ashamed when she began to fret. I can still feel her sobs as I held her in my arms. In a way I felt a heel. I was with her when Herbie was born on the 6th March, 1940.
You only have the one child.
No, another son was born on the 6th December, 1941. Japan declared war on the 8th and with Jack and Lindsay I volunteered that day. I was attested in Martin Place two days later and ended up in Dubbo Camp.
How did Rheita take it when you told her?
Hard, very yard, but faced up to it like the wonderful girl she is. Gave me a great send-off and I had a tremendous night. My hardest moment came on the 31st when I had to say goodbye. Rit tries to hold her tears back, but like me, hers came with a flood. Little Herbie looked bewildered, he didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on, the young bloke just slept on.
You actually sailed on the 31st. Blimey, you didn’t undergo much training then, did you? In the army twenty-one days and then on your way overseas. That WAS sudden.
Training, Tankie? I never handled a .303 until I was aboard the ship and that bit of arms drill didn’t teach any of us much.
Well I’ll be damned, about six weeks a soldier then taken prisoner-of-war. How unlucky can you be?
Yes, I suppose I was a bit unlucky, but what about you Clarrie? You have had your share, too. That leg of yours looks one horrible mess, if you don’t mind me saying so. Neither of us could, nor can say, Lady Luck has travelled with us. Can we?
Well, we could have been blown to blazes in the fighting, particularly when they bombed Singapore with flights of 27 to 54 planes at a time. We survived that, now all we have to do is hang on and beat POW life, if it doesn’t beat us. I wonder?
Prophetic words . IF IT DOESN’T BEAT US!
On the 15th August the two T’s were stunned to silence. Colonel Coates had made a very careful examination of the ulcered leg of each one. I guessed what his prognosis would be!
As he straightened up he had a significant look on his face, then he spoke.
I had to give it to you straight lads, you are both on the verge of gas gangrene. Amputation is the only chance we have of pulling either or both of you through. If you agree I will operate tomorrow afternoon.
In an instant both countenances went deathly white as his words hit home. And, if from a distance, I heard
Whatever you say Sir. What are our chances?
Amputation, I would say about 60/40. Without . none at all.
I’m a punter Colonel . in whose favour is the 60?
Both of you Tankie. Is it a bet?
You’re on Sir. We’ll make it.
Well at least he gave us a sporting chance Tommy. It’s pounds to pence no-one will ever believe that conversation. But, you heard it didn’t you Les?
Yes I heard it Tankie. ..
He is a very human and compassionate medico and he talks to us in our own language. That is what I like about him. He pulls no punches one way or the other. I’ll go and get Mal Jones to prepare you.
Before you go Les, will you be with us?
Yes . yes, I most certainly will. As it is the right leg in both cases who wants to go and be first?
Does it matter?
No, not really. What I mean is if all the amputations are right legs I would like to get the Colonel to space you two by at least one hour, that then gives me time to bed the first one down. I’ll get one of the boys to take your things down to the corner. From now on you two will be amongst the elite, the leggies.
I left them for a few moments and arranged with an orderly (Mal Jones had completed the night shift and was sound asleep when I arrived at his bunk) to prepare the two unfortunate boys for the ordeal now ahead of them.
When I got back Tankie had questions in his eyes. I knew he was troubled when he said . Les you knew all about this last night, didn’t you?
Yes I did. Remember, we talked almost to mid-night and discussed what would happen if you did lose your leg?
In a way I thought that all supposition. God knows how I want to keep both legs. You can’t possibly realise what it may be like to be an amputee, can you?
Not really, but I have been looking after a few for some time now and I know the handicaps you two mates of mine now have to face up to. But, I promise you faithfully I will care and tend you every moment of the day and night. I am not what you could call a very religious man, but I prayed my heart out last night for both of you. I know my prayers will help.
The 16th August, 1943 was typical of any rainy season day in Burma. But on that particular morning the spirits of three members of that POW camps alleged hospital were, to say the least, at a very low ebb. Among others, two special mates of mine were to face an ordeal that afternoon that was enough to make the healthiest and hardest squirm at the very thought.
Both of them faced an amputation within a few hours!
As I bathed their skin and bony bodies, swabbed out their maggot infested ulcers, and tried, not too successfully, to make jokes with them, my heart was very heavy.
Colonel Coates had told me that day before that although he gave them a 60/40 chance of survival, they had to overcome more than just the tropical ulcers. They were riddled with beri-beri, recurring attacks of malaria and in addition, were now plagued with pellagra. (An ailment that made the tongue and throat burn like coals of fire. I know because I had it too).
When the moment came for the first one to go to theatre, a lean-to at one end of the hut, I was trembling like a leaf. Tommy, then on the bamboo stretcher said .
Come on Les, buck up. You only have to hang onto me so that I won’t go walk-about. I’ll be a happy bloke in about fifteen minutes from now. Maybe a bit lighter but rid of those filthy looking crawlies.
I didn’t have to calm Tommy down, quite the reverse. It was amazing how this slip of a lad suffered the tortures of the damned as the Colonel proceeded with the operation. I felt two hands grip my upper arms, felt his body quiver as the scalpel incised the bit of skin and flesh left on the diseased leg. Through clenched teeth I saw a trickle of blood ooze from the corners of his mouth, but a whimper NO! He took it with little or no anaesthetic.
Tommy BUSINE had guts, he proved it that afternoon.
One hour later it was Tankie’s turn. The one who gave him the greatest encouragement was his former workmate and near neighbour, now his army mate endowed with similar problems to his own. He too proved his gameness.
The two new amputees became the pampered pets of those similarly affected. One because he was dark and who had been more or less the mascot of the 2/30th Infantry Battalion, the other, Tommy, because he was unfortunate to end up a POW after a short, sharp training experience.
The loss of their infected legs and the ever present fear of the onset of gangrene now far from their thoughts appeared to give them a new lease of life.
One wag named them the terrible twins! Perhaps he was a long way out in the biological sense, but spot on with regards to temperament.
They were an independent pair. Quite often when I came to cleanse them I was told I was just too late. They had sponged each other, and even dressed their stumps.
It was mainly after dark that I had the chance to sit and talk with them. At this time, the latter end of August, I was caring for about 26 leggies, as they preferred to call themselves. I still had ulcers on my legs but I feel certain the work I flung myself into complemented the spoon treatment and boiling water swabbings. Whatever it was, both legs were on the improve.
However as the days wore on I began to notice the lethargy of the two boys. I was more than concerned about their abdominal swellings, and the rapidity of malarial recurrences.
The latter illness brought periods of delirium. In the case of Tommy he always appeared to be with his beloved wife Rheita (I always thought it was spelt Rita) and his two sons.
How much he loved those three was revealed in those magical moments of sublime imaginings when a merciful Being made his body pain free and allowed his mind to be reunited with the ones most uppermost in his thoughts.
In about the second last attack he had he made mention of a girls name. I just managed to hear the last bit. I stopped, turned and hoped he would repeat it . if he did it was in a whisper too low for me to catch.
After he had recovered from the attack he asked me if he had been delirious. When I told him he had sort of blushed, fiddled around a bit and then wanted to know what he said.
Blowed if I know Tommy, but I did hear you mention someone’s name, didn’t quite catch what it was, but it did sound very, very romantic. Have you got a secret girl-friend?
Yes Les I have, she is beautiful to look at has the figure of Venus and the temperament of an Angel.
Crikey, you have been reading true confessions or something? Does Rheita know about this Madonna. I’ll wager my next pay packet to a pocket full of pennies she does NOT.
Don’t make the bet; you will be a sure loser. That little honey is the mother of my two sons. Some day you will meet her, then you will know what I mean.
His voice broke on the last word and tears glistened on his now pale features. I had a lump in my throat as my thoughts slipped back to my family at 26 Early Street, Parramatta.
I too had a beautiful dream girl and two gorgeous daughters that I hoped, with all my heart and constant prayers, to one day rejoin.
As I moved away slowly I heard muffled sobs and saw many wet cheeks in adjacent beds, others had heard what the now suffering Tommy had said.
On August 23rd of that black and long to be remembered year of 1943, Colonel Coates told me my two little mates were not doing too well. I was completely dumbfounded, maybe flabbergasted is the right word, and when I had gathered my wits about me blurted out, but Colonel they are doing well, better than I expected. They get a lot of malaria, pellagra too, but I make absolutely certain they eat every grain of rice in their dixies no matter how it gives them hell to swallow.
It is the oedema (dropsical swelling) that is going to take them off. I know you think a lot about your little dark mate and the lad they call Tommy. I am sorry, really sorry; neither of them have more than a month to live. Get them bananas and eggs. Trade if you can, anything to get them something to build them up.
Bananas and eggs. He may as well have asked me to just walk out of the camp and head for home. All I had to barter with was a lead-handled dagger, a fountain pen and a pencil!
Anyhow, where was I going to find a trader? The camp was bang-smack in the middle of the vast jungle. I hadn’t the faintest idea in which direction to go or where to find a village.
Maybe someone up THERE watched over me that day, or on the other hand, the kindly Colonel KNEW of someone who could perform trade miracles. After all those years I still wonder!
A few hours later an English lad came looking for me. I believe you want to do some trading. If you haven’t got a contact don’t try it. Going out by night is sheer stupidity as you can’t see a hand in front of you. In short, he said if I had anything to trade with he would do it for me in DAYLIGHT.
Before dark that night I had many items left on my bedspace. A couple of flintless lighters, a silver cigarette case, some silver and copper coins and a few other odds and ends.
The game cockney-boy was as good as his word. The following day he gave me a dozen duck eggs and two large hands of bananas. The eggs went to the kitchen and cooked for the most seriously ill amputees and the bananas were mixed in with the pail rice. Tommy and Tankie ate well for a few days at least, and were happy too, to share the unexpected windfall with the other leggies.
September came and with it the now obvious deterioration of the two ‘T’s’. The last straw being a very severe attack of dysentery, both of them struck down almost at the same moment. Colonel Coates had feared that possibility as a result of the sudden improvement in their diet.
Lacking proper toilet facilities made the situation many times worse and I was flat to the boards in an endeavour to prevent them fouling their bodies and bed spaces.
In their weakening state they felt and showed their embarrassment, but they were by then at a stage where it was impossible for them to help themselves in any way at all!
Almost at that very moment rice passed through their lips the horrible scouring would commence and they would be emotionally upset. But, as I kept telling them, the hut was full of patients in a somewhat similar state, and it had to be accepted as part and parcel of natures way in cleansing their bowels and driving out the poisons secreted therein.
In a way, I think they almost believed me as the constant cry of pan, pan was heard. The pan, by the way was just a small tin, about the size of a condensed milk tin. In some instances we found bamboo butts slightly larger than the tins we had. They, in the main, went to the patients in the dysentery wards.
By about the 10th September, I was getting a bit mixed up with my days and dates by then as my work kept me going well into the night hours, and my mind was in a continual whirl. I KNEW THEY WOULD SOON LEAVE ME.
As the two boys began to improve a little as concerned bowel evacuation, another problem of equal severity presented itself. They developed bed-sores in their backs, as large as dinner plates. They became fly-blown and the maggots flourished.
When Colonel Coates examined them he told me not to get too upset as they were his little ‘orderlies’ eating away the now-formed ulcers. It seemed strange to me at the time that neither lad complained of any pain resulting from those holes in the backs. Several times daily I would scrape and clean the wounds out, but never did I completely rid them of the maggots. The smell is better imagined than described!
And, the odour in the whole camp was symptomatic of the ulcer and leggie hut. The stench pervaded everything . we had to live with it, like it or not!
Hygiene was of the highest possible order as far as the medical staff, and the work-group under their control, could make it. But lacking essential requirements they fought a losing battle.
Day after day the Japs reduced the rations in accordance with assessed (their reckonings) weights of those who had passed on each twenty-four hours.
When new patients came in the Nips had a peculiar method of assessing body weights, they just guessed no ‘sick mans’ would be in excess of five stone or, in their language, approximately 35 kilograms!
If they supplied say, ten bags of rice for the whole camp, and some bags were only butts (part bags) they would still be considered as whole bags. That was just another instance of a sure way the disabled inhabitants of the camp were not overfed.
As a result malnutrition was rampant, so much so many got beyond the desire for food. Even the ravings of those in delirious states who, for the time being, were in another part of the world or gorging themselves on piled high plates of the most delicious of provender, could not provoke their taste buds.
By the 15th September, Tommy and Tankie had reached such a condition, and only by sheer willpower would they accept the spoonfuls of rice I would literally force into their mouths.
After I had fed and sponged them that night I sat beside Tommy who became very sentimental and his whole conversation was mainly around his ‘lovely to look at’ Rheita, or as he was sometimes prone to call her, what sounded like ‘Rit’ or near enough to it. (Tankie and I had nick-named her Rio after the well known musical of that name).
The endearment Tommy had for his wife seems nothing as it is typed, but as he slurred it one could sense the longing, the desire to hold her in his arms, to be with her, Herbie and ‘the young bloke’ (his youngest son) James as I know him.
You know Les, it is wonderful to have someone as precious as my little wife and our two boys waiting for me to get home. What a moment that will be. We will be a family again!
Herbie . let me see . he was about eighteen months old when I joined up, the ‘little bloke’, just two days old. That was back in ’41. How long is that? Can’t seem to remember days and dates".
Too long Tommy, but IT WON’T BE LONG NOW. Soon we will all be home and being cared for just as we want to be. Keep that in your mind and, believe me, the time will fly.
You mean they will?
Fly me home. I feel a bit strange. My right leg has gone numb on me. Give it a bit of rub, please. Ah thanks, feels better already. Funny, that happens a lot lately, the one alongside me (Tankie) tells me he has the same trouble. Must ask the doctor about it next time I see him. Now where was I, I remember, I remember, how long did you say?
I said too long. It’s about time we were thinking of packing it in and booking our passages back to Aussie.
You ever go to the stadium Les, that is your name, isn’t it? Seem a bit hazy tonight. Jack Hassen, the Paddo boy, he had a wicked left. Good fighter, won a lot of fights. R. loves to go to Leichhardt. You must go with us one night. How about it?
Jack Hassen, you know him Tommy? He lived close to us. I’ve seen him in action. A cousin of mine married Hughie Dwyer. How about him? He was a champion, won a couple of belts.
Did he? You are not Les Darcy are you? That was a silly question, he’s gone now. I never knew him but he is my idol . Les Darcy, no-one could floor him. He was a real champ.
Yes Tommy, and so are you.
Me! Never had the gloves in a fair dinkum go in my life, but I used to long for the smell of leather, the sweat, then the K.O. punch.
You must have liked boxing Tommy. Wonder you didn’t have a go at it yourself. You would make a good featherweight.
Sorry mate. Think I’ll have to have a bit of a nap now. Have to be up early in the morning g..o..o..d n..i..g..h..t.
When I sponged Tommy down the next morning I am certain he hadn’t the faintest idea as to what we had talked about the previous evening.
I received a very pleasant surprise, however, when he said he was hungry enough to eat a horse even without sauce. Was surprised even more when he swallowed every morsel I gave him. The pellagra gone!
For the next two days he appeared to get better and better. Talked a lot to those around him. Chided Tankie for not wanting to eat and even wanted to get up and go for a WALK.
I was jubilant when the Colonel came around to examine all the amputees, but was flattened when he told me that type of behaviour was a common occurrence with patients terminally ill as Tommy was. He called me away on some pretext, cannot remember what it was now, as I was too disturbed.
They are both near the end now, Sergeant. You must not have any regrets. It is wrong, in a way to become emotionally involved but in your case I quite understand. Your little dark mate has been with you for a long time. The one you call Tommy, has also become one of your special patients because, I suppose, he was Tankie’s workmate and neighbour.
Yes, and as game and sincere as anyone I have had the good luck to meet. It is a remarkable coincidence those two meeting thousands of miles from home in the middle of the jungle. Now fate has determined they remain in this remote spot.
Not quite fate. Only because we became victims of an inhuman race. A race that considers no barriers must be permitted to stand in their way to achieve the impossible.
Prisoners-of-war to them are fair game. And, as such are expendable. Every POW in this camp is an irksome nuisance to our captors. Were we all to pass away tomorrow it would not stir one ounce of feeling in their iron-hard hearts. From a clinical point of view, I feel so useless, just a few drugs, surgical instruments and proper food. Were all those things available, few, if any would end their days here. Do what you can for those two lads. Time is running out.
As he walked away he looked as sad and dejected as I felt. To me, the imminent loss of two very close mates was hard to take. Tommy, for certain, had undergone the same privations as had befallen the Force that Tankie and I were in.
He had (and was still enduring) suffered the taigas effects of malnutrition-induced illness, beri-beri, the offspring of starvation, by far one of the hardest to overcome.
I spent every moment of the day and night I could with them though they implored me to let them be and help themselves. They were two of the most unselfish patients anyone, anywhere had had anything to do with. Dreadfully ill as they were, now more semi-conscious than conscious, they still wanted (to use their words) to soldier on!
Just before dawn on the morning of the 19th September, I was awakened by Mal Jones. Think you had better go to your two specials Les. They are in a bad way and constantly calling your name. They won’t let me touch them.
I was only bed spaces away and normally would have heard them but I was very fatigued and slept soundly. They, unaware as to whether it was night or day, were almost oblivious to anything, except they missed the voice that had become an integral part of their daily lives.
As I neared Tommy’s side I could see his eyes were glazed and fixed on one part of the step-roofed hut. His brow was a mass of perspiration, his abdomen so swollen that skin was drawn taut. His ribs and hip bones stood out in stark relief. I thought he was on the very edge of passing on.
His face bore the pallor of death!
Magically, as I wiped the sweat from his face and brow, he came back. I was amazed when I heard a sound, then .
I’ve been waiting for you mate. I could only see you in the distance. I waved to you but someone else came. You won’t leave me now ., will you?
No Tommy. Not for quids. Time to sponge you down then you can rest awhile. You look a bit tired.
Clarrie has gone off some place. He never said where he was going or ask me to go with him. Hadn’t you better find him, I think he is a bit crook, maybe he’s gone to clean up a bit. I’m sure he was calling out for you Ah, that’s better, the cold water feels good, my right leg is numb again. Give us a bit of a rub please, thanks, feels much better now. Yes, I am a bit sleepy. Somebody kept me awake last night.
Seconds later he was slumbering like a lamb. When I saw he was settled I turned my attention to Tankie. He was just staring at me, his eyes as black as ink.
I’ve been watching you, he said, you never came when I wanted you. How is Tommy? . he has been very restless, some other bloke has been here annoying us. Think you had better tick him off.
Throughout the day and night the two dying lads alternated between periods of wakefulness . Delirium as they went off into an unconscious state, only to converse as well as any patient in the ward.
The day of the 20th was more or less a repeat of the previous twenty-four hours, with just one difference. Tommy became very, very talkative.
Colonel Coates visited the two of them about three times, the last in the company of Major Hobbs. Although I stood but a few yards away from both bed spaces to two medico’s, specialists in civilian life, just nodded to me, looked at a couple more of the seriously ill boys then departed.
Tommy appeared elated. Know what Les? They told me I was doing alright. The Colonel had his usual joke about cleaning out my dixie, but I am sure he meant what he said. Don’t you think so?
They are doctors Tommy, of course I believe them. Am pleased you were able to tell them you eat all your rice at the time. I thought you did very well. You have been a bit hard lately to coax to eat every grain, tonight you really DID!
From now on no worries mate. I’ll eat everything you put in front of me. Even my tummy is down a bit. That means I’m losing fluid and that makes me happy. Been tight the last few days.
Tommy, you ARE different. You are talking like a sewing machine, did the Colonel or the Major give you a pep talk or something. You are the best tonight than you have been for days. I wish Tankie was as lively as you are. But don’t over do it.
Overdo it. Not on your life. I feel a new man. Let’s have a real good natter. Am certain now I’ll be back home with Rheita and my two heirs. They must be big now. How old you reckon Herbie is?
He would be over three by this, your youngest about 20 months. By the time you get back home you will get a heck of a shock at their size. It’s amazing how fast kids grow. One day they are babes in arms and before you know it, they are off to school.
That’s the day I’m dreaming of Les. When I get home. If the welcome I get is as half as good as my send-off, boy I’ll be happy, even if I do only have one leg.
You will get a welcome, alright Tommy. I can just imagine it you, your wife and the two fast growing sons. It couldn’t happen to a better bloke. Could it?
You mean that mate? You really do, don’t you? I feel I have known you a long time. Clarrie told me a lot about you, your family and home. He has been there, you know.
Yes, many times. Our place was a stopover for a lot of the 2/30th boys. Thelma, Tankie’s wife, spends weekends there regularly. You knew her, didn’t you?
Tankie Oh, now I know who you mean . His name is Clarrie, or don’t you know that. We used to work at the same place. He is not too good at the moment . ah. lovely. come here you little beauty .I knew it would be a son . looks like a little red monkey . what we call him R..(the slurred nickname) sorry I have to go now my leave is almost up.
Momentarily he was quiet . his eyes were closed and I could imagine the scene in his mind. He had taken a trip back into the past. I was just about to go to wipe the perspiration off Tankie’s brow when I noticed something whitish on Tommy’s abdomen. I stood stock-still. I had seen that happen before and I feared the worst.
I wiped it with a damp cloth, noticed it was sticky and realised it was beri-beri fluid build up. If anything I am sure I was transfixed bewildered and did not know what I would do, go for Colonel Coates or wait. In my heart I was well aware Colonel could do nothing.
As I knelt beside him I could hear the endearments he was expressing in a very low voice. He was home. Faintly I could make out the words sweetheart . Herbie they’ll be good for each other .must have a nurse of him .before .I .go .back.
My feelings at that point tormented me. By accident I was intruding on someone’s precious moments. I stood up and was about to walk around him when he suddenly blurted out .Heh .where are you going? You never answered my question.
Question, what was it Tommy? My mind is a blank, blowed if I can recall what you asked me. What was it?
In the hour of passing from day into night I saw his eyes, they were blazing his body was twitching then, as if from a distance, he asked me, as he had done on many previous nights, what time is it in Sydney now Les?
As I stole away I heard him, in a voice filled with deep love and emotion, say .
Moments later he drifted off into what appeared to be a sound sleep.
I turned, looked back at him as a shaft of moonlight lit up his sweat-covered brow. Dampening a bit of cloth I carefully sponged his forehead, face and where I had seen the fluid earlier. He sighed, made as if to turn then settled down.
For about two hours I sat between the two lads hoping against hope. As they were both quiet I went to my bedspace, lay down and must have dropped off to sleep almost immediately.
To me it seemed I had just closed my eyes when I heard the sound of someone singing. It took a second or two to realise the voice was so close to me .that I knew!
In the still night hours his words really rang out .I crawled up to him and as I put my hand on his chest I could feel it heaving.
On the last note of the Les Darcy song the word faded out. I felt for a pulse beat, wrist and throat .but I knew in my heart the lad we called TOMMY was no more!
He never heard the applause .the calls of good on you whoever you are .they didn’t know the unknown singer had taken his last curtain call that night, 20th September, 1943.
It was then I heard someone say .It’s all over Leslie. He has gone. I felt the splash of a drop of cold liquid on my hand. It was a teardrop from the eye of a very compassionate medical officer .Colonel Coates.
Tommy now sleeps in sylvan surroundings at the base of a jungle-covered mountain wherein he had breathed his last .He is quietly awaiting the day he will be reunited with his beloved wife and family .Rheita, Herbert and the young bloke .Jimmy.
A PERSONAL TRIBUTE
I felt very humble but proud the day Jimmy Busine made a request I could not deny. It was to place on record all I knew of his late father, the one he had never known.
It is written in story form and includes every particle of information I can recall. Additionally, and to please Jimmy, for the very first and last time, I write in the first person.
The day Jimmy walked through our entrance door my wife and I took him into our hearts.
He exuded personality, sincerity and the highest possible degree of dedication.
For many years he had been seeking information relative to his father. He grasped at every straw, he was at times elated, only to finish in despair. Possible leads became disappointments.
But despite his many failures he was so determined he never gave up, he just started all over again until on the 17th July of this year, 1980, a casual enquiry commenced a train of events that was to subsequently provide his hungry heart with the very news he had despaired of ever receiving.
He was given a name and a telephone number. From that moment on everything began to fall into place. He had come in contact with one who was at his dad’s bedside when he left this world, with a song on his lips, at midnight, 20th September, 1943.
On the thirtieth anniversary of his dad’s passing I was able to assure him that his deceased parent had been interred in a jungle POW camp, 55 kilometres from Thanbyuzayat, Burma.
This is not a story. It is, in a way, a portrait of a lad who does not know the meaning of the word failure. His philosophy is best described as one of absolute determination to attain a goal even if it appears to be an impossibility. That, he maintains, just takes a little longer.
In his case, it took thirty years! A period of time that would daunt the most courageous. He is a true son of the dad who is only represented to him in a name and a photo.
SIDNEY HERBERT THOMAS BUSINE was a true soldier who wore the khaki uniform of the Australian Imperial Forces with great pride and real patriotism.
He was gallant in defence of his country and an inspiration to sufferers whilst a prisoner-or-war.
In his youngest son, Jimmy, I see again the face of one who was undergoing the pangs of hell on earth. The one who, despite his physical disabilities, never doubted he would one day be reunited with his beloved family.
His belief in his eventual freedom, the answer to his prayers, is now represented in the dedication of his youngest son, Jimmy. The lad my wife, Gladys, and I have an affection for far beyond the meaning of word. He fills a void that has lingered with us for so many years, the loss of two boys!
It is an honour and privilege to know him. In some ways, perhaps, the sadness that has been his as far back as he can remember, may be minimised in the knowledge his father never forgot those so near and dear to him.
Were he here today he would have been justifiably proud of the son he last saw when he was but twenty-five days of age, the ‘young bloke’ who, with his mother and brother, was never out of his deceased father’s mind.
As I pen these words I pay tribute to you, Jimmy, the one who never really learned what the word impossible meant. You are the true son of the one who called me mate! To the day I attend my last parade, I will always remember you ..the lad I so admire ..JIMMY BUSINE.
The following POWs mentioned in the account are most likely-
Mal Jones VX54873 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS)
Clarence James (Tankie) Phillips NX55172 2/30 Battalion
John Dickman NX77751 2/30 Battalion
Major Alan Hobbs (Surgeon) SX10761 2/4 CCS
Lt Col Albert (Bertie) E Coates (Surgeon) VX503645 2/10 Australian General Hospital
(Coates performed 130 amputations in Burma- See his story in Articles. An Article on Hobbs is under development.)
Jim and Les Hall - Anzac Day 1995
This is Tommy Busine’s death certificate (signed by Lt Col Coates and Chaplain WI Fleming VX39488) and the possession of it by Jim Busine is another story.