Senate Speech on Remembrance Day 2019

On Monday, 11 November 2019 Senator Eric Abetz of Tasmania made the following speech in regard to the death of Tasmanian World War II veteran TX3754 Adye Glen Rockliff of C-Company 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion in World War Two:

“Today I had the privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of the Prime Minister and the people of Australia at the Hobart Cenotaph to commemorate the contribution of our service men and women on this Remembrance Day. As I did so I recalled that last month a simple death notice marking the passing of Tasmanian World War II veteran TX3754, Adye Glen Rockliff. The death notice read as follows: (the widows, children, grandchildren and friends of Adye's comrades from C-Company of 2nd/3rd Machine Gun Battalion extend our deepest sympathy to his family.

A humble, able and much respected man; and—most poignantly—the last surviving prisoner of war of this unit. One of Dunlop's Thousand). He was 98 years old. Adye enlisted in the Second AIF, aged 18, and trained initially in Tasmania. The 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was formed in June 1940 and served in Egypt, Syria, the Netherlands, the East Indies and New Guinea. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Blackburn, the battalion was primarily a South Australian unit, although it had subunits: B Company in Victoria, C Company in Tasmania and D Company in Western Australia.

In April 1941, the battalion embarked for the Middle East. In June and July it saw action against Vichy French forces in Syria with the 7th division. Following Japan's entry into the war, Australian troops from the Middle East were transferred to the Pacific region. In early 1942, the Japanese advanced through the Netherlands East Indies. Four days after the fall of Singapore, and on the day Darwin was bombed, Australian troops disembarked in Java from the troopship Orcades, having been diverted on their return journey to Australia.

Adye's unit was joined by the 2nd/2nd Pioneer Battalion and the 2nd/2nd Casualty Clearing Station, which had served at Tobruk. The clearing station included the much renowned surgeon Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, a man whom I had the privilege of meeting.

These units and others already on the island became known as Black Force.

On the night of 28 February, when the Japanese began landing, Tasmania C Company was at the forefront of the action. It resulted in the loss of seven members killed and 28 wounded, but afterwards they found that they had killed no fewer than 200 Japanese. However, Black Force was ordered to surrender on 9 March, following the Dutch capitulation the day before.

Members of Black Force unit spent captivity in a wide range of locations, including Thailand, Japan and Singapore. One hundred and thirty-nine from the 2nd/3rd MG Battalion died as prisoners. Adye and other Tasmanians moved to a prisoner-of-war camp and came under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Weary Dunlop. They were then transferred to Changi, in Singapore, and then the Burma-Thailand railway.

Nine thousand five hundred Australians worked on this railway, where 2,646 died from the deprivations, the effects of tropical diseases and malnutrition. This was despite the heroic efforts of doctors and officers like Weary Dunlop. After 18 months of this brutal existence, Adye and some of his unit were selected to work in Japan in undersea coalmines. His convoy of 14 transport ships suffered bad weather and attacks by allied submarines, meaning only four ships reached Japan. Twenty-seven members of his machine gun battalion died on one of those sunken ships.

Rockliff survived in the coalmine until the end of the war. He returned to Tasmania after six years at war and immediately found it difficult to reacclimatise to normal life, no longer fighting to survive each day or dealing with life-or-death issues. He found Australia had changed. His brothers and sisters had grown. And he felt the loss of being part of a large organisation such as the Army. Like his prisoner-of-war camp commander Weary Dunlop, after the war Adye became an advocate for his returned comrades, often battling the department for medical and social assistance for fellow mates.

In recent years, he took the opportunity to write to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and also to write a book on his wartime experience, entitled simply The War Time Memories of Adye Rockliff. Adye was the loving husband of his wife, Sheila (deceased); loving father of John (deceased), David, Kathy and Chris; father-in-law of Merril and Sue; and grandfather of Claire, Megan, Aaron and Luke.

Adye Glen Rockliff's sacrifice in war for his family and his country was typical of many Australians who served in World War II and those who continue to serve in the Australian Defence Force. His battles with the Department of Veterans' Affairs remind us of the importance of getting the right response by government to the recommendations of the Productivity Commission's review of veterans' entitlements. His life reminds us of the importance of Australian values mateship, loyalty and courage in the face of adversity and that there are virtues, values and principles which are worthy of sacrifice.

His sacrifice and that of his fellow veterans was acknowledged by the Prime Minister in his recent visit to Hellfire Pass and the memorial to our prisoners of war that were on the Burma Thailand Railway. The memorial, I had the honour of visiting—and, indeed, of hearing, as I walked around, the reminiscences of former Labor minister Tom Uren and former Liberal government Senate leader John Carrick, both of whom continued their service, after the war, in this parliament.

It is appropriate on days such as this to reflect that our privilege to serve in this place was bought with the blood and lives of our forebears and continues to be protected today by similarly minded individuals in our ADF. In my home state, we have seen the Headstone Project in Tasmania mark the final resting place of World War I veterans who previously lay in unmarked graves. It is right and proper to continue the tradition of acknowledging the sacrifices of our diggers on Remembrance Day and to offer our deep heartfelt thanks to all those who served in any war or conflict. "

"Lest we forget”.

The Burma Thailand Railway Memorial Association extend their commiserations to the family of Adye Glen Rockliff and record their gratitude to Senator Eric Abetz for addressing the Senate.

The Association also acknowledges with thanks the source of the speech in the Senate as published in Hansard.

Remembrance Day – 11 November

REMEMBRANCE DAY ON 11 NOVEMBER EACH YEAR PROVIDES AN OPPORTUNITY FOR AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE TO REMEMBER ALL AUSTRALIANS WHO SERVED IN ALL CONFLICTS. THE BURMA-THAILAND RAILWAY AND HELLFIRE PASS IS PART OF ONE SUCH CONFLICT.

REMEMBRANCE DAY SERVICES ARE HELD EACH YEAR IN ALL MAJOR CITIES AND MOST SUBURBS AND COUNTRY TOWNS AND PROVIDE AN OPPORTUNITY TO REMEMBER THOSE WHO SERVED OUR COUNTRY.


Excerpt from The Anzac Portal: Reference Here

“The Burma-Thailand railway was the common and dominant experience of Australian POWs. It distorted or ended the lives of over half of the Australian prisoners of the Japanese…” Hank Nelson, 'Measuring the railway' in Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson (eds), The Burma–Thailand Railway, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 17, 19.

But 'Hellfire Pass' was more than just a cutting. In its vicinity a sequence of bridges and embankments were needed to keep the railway route along the escarpment level. There were also many camps housing the thousands of workers, including Australians. These have now disappeared into the exquisitely beautiful landscape, but they have been reclaimed as witnesses to the POW story.

The Anzac legend and Australian memory

Over the years this story of atrocity and suffering has become an affirmation of Australian courage and resilience. Although prisoners of war suffered the humiliation of being defeated and captured, they came to be portrayed as men who had triumphed over adversity. Displaying in captivity the qualities of humour, resourcefulness and mateship, they were able to integrate their experiences into the dominant national memory of war since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, the Anzac 'legend'.

The POW experience is also remembered for the dedicated service of the medical personnel who, with little equipment or medicines, cared for desperately ill men in primitive hospitals. Most famous of these doctors is the POW surgeon Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. His statue now stands outside the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, not so far from another iconic image of compassion, Simpson and his donkey. Although Dunlop was only one of 106 Australian POW medical officers, in recent years he has come to represent them all—and the values of courage and compassion that they and many Australians manifested in captivity.

The workers

Military units to which the Australians belonged were broken up into work forces to meet the Japanese need for labour. From late 1942 more than 13,000 Australians were sent from Singapore, Java and Timor to work on the Thai–Burma railway.

The enemy

Around 12,000 Japanese and 800 Korean soldiers worked on the Thai–Burma railway as engineers or guards. They were some of over five million soldiers who served with the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.


Excerpt from The Anzac Portal: Reference here

The Building of Hellfire Pass

"It seems to run without much regard to the landscape as though someone had drawn a line on a map!" [E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 212.]

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942.

Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar).

A rail connection between Thailand and Burma had been proposed decades before World War II. In the 1880s the British had surveyed a possible route but abandoned the project because of the challenges posed by the thick jungle, endemic diseases and lack of adequate roads.

The Japanese also carried out a survey in the 1920s and, after completing a further survey in early 1942, decided in June to proceed, using the large workforce of Allied POWs now at their disposal. At this time Japanese engineers were assisted by small numbers of prisoners marking and roughly clearing the route of the railway.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use a massive workforce of prisoners and Asian labourers or rōmusha. The railway was to be constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end.

Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Burma-Thailand Railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia's national memory of World War II. There are good reasons for this. Over 22,000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.

This article focuses on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), the deepest and most dramatic of the many cuttings along the Burma-Thailand railway. Not all Australian POWs worked here in 1943. Nor was the workforce in this region exclusively Australian. However, in recent years Hellfire Pass has come to represent the suffering of all Australian prisoners across the Asia–Pacific region. The experiences of prisoners elsewhere were, in fact, very diverse but this article can only hint at these. The Burma-Thailand railway Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Burma-Thailand Railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia's national memory of World War II.

There are good reasons for this. Over 22,000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.

This article focuses on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), the deepest and most dramatic of the many cuttings along the Burma-Thailand railway. Not all Australian POWs worked here in 1943. Nor was the workforce in this region exclusively Australian. However, in recent years Hellfire Pass has come to represent the suffering of all Australian prisoners across the Asia–Pacific region. The experiences of prisoners elsewhere were, in fact, very diverse but this article can only hint at these.

The Burma-Thailand railway

The Burma-Thailand railway (known also as the Burma–Thailand or Burma–Siam railway) was built in 1942–43. Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes which had become vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use the more than 60,000 Allied prisoners who had fallen into their hands in early 1942. These included troops of the British Empire, Dutch and colonial personnel from the Netherlands East Indies and a small number of US troops sunk on the USS Houston during the Battle of Java Sea. About 13,000 of the prisoners who worked on the railway were Australian.

To meet the tight deadlines the Japanese had set for completing the railway, a further 200,000 Asian labourers or rōmusha (the precise number is not known) were enticed or coerced into working for the Japanese. The 415km railway ran from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) to Non Pladuk in Thailand. It was constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end. This meant that the already difficult problems of supply became impossible during the monsoonal season of mid-1943.

Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work impossibly long hours in remote unhealthy locations, over 12,000 POWs, including more than 2,700 Australians, died. The number of rōmusha dead is not known but it was probably up to 90,000.

Remembering the railway

All memory is selective. Communities, like individuals, remember some stories of the past while forgetting others. For memories to survive at the collective or national level they need to be championed—not just once but over the decades. Many Australians performed that role for prisoners of the Japanese. World War II ex-prisoners published memoirs and eye-witness accounts. Many proved to be immensely popular. Russell Braddon's The Naked Island (1951), for example, sold well over a million copies and stayed in print for decades.

There were also memorable fictional accounts of captivity, some of which were adapted for commercial films and television series. The most famous of these was The Bridge on the River Kwai which, though bearing little resemblance to events in 1942-43, generated a popular interest in the railway which continues to this day. In the 1980s Australian ex-POWs returned to Thailand and reclaimed Hellfire Pass from the jungle which had swallowed it when the Burma-Thailand railway was demolished after World War II. The cutting soon became a site of memory for many Australians, particularly on Anzac Day. Its dramatic scale and its towering walls, scarred with drill incisions made by hand, spoke particularly vividly to the hardships endured by POWs.

The building of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum by the Australian government in 1998 also made it a key site of memory, attracting tourists and 'pilgrims' of many nationalities.

The terrain the railway crossed made its construction very difficult. However, its route was not entirely the dense and inhospitable jungle of popular imagination. At either end, in Thailand and Burma, the rail track travelled through gentle landscape before entering the rugged and mountainous jungle on the border between the two countries. When the track reached Wampo, about 112km from the Thai terminus, it started to meet jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. This posed problems for construction as well as for transport and supply.

As far as possible the railway track proceeded at a gentle gradient, as steam trains could only climb a slight incline. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway. In addition, over sixty stations were built to allow trains to pass one another, as well as refuelling and watering points.

More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian.

In addition, the Japanese enticed or coerced about 200,000 Asians labourers (rōmusha) to work on the railway. These included Burmese, Javanese, Malays, Tamils and Chinese. Over 12,000 Allied prisoners died during the construction of the railway, including more than 2,700 Australians. Around 1,000 Japanese died. It is difficult to determine precisely how many rōmusha died, as record keeping was poor. The number is estimated to be between 75,000 and 100,000.

Despite being repeatedly bombed by the Allies, the Thai–Burma railway did operate as a fully functioning railway after its completion. Between November 1943 and March 1944 over 50,000 tonnes of food and ammunition were carried to Burma as well as two complete divisions of troops for the Japanese offensive into India. This attack, one of their last, was defeated by British and Indian forces.

As the railway was used to support the Japanese in Burma until the end of the war, prisoners of war and rōmusha continued to work on maintenance and repair tasks after the railway construction was completed.


“We do not know this Australian's name and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, nor precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances – whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children, we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was. Yet he has always been among those whom we have honoured. The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia.”

Remembrance Day 1993: excerpt from commemorative address by PM Hon Paul Keating MP

VALE – Neil MacPherson OAM

Neil MacPherson

Neil Ormiston MacPherson WX16572 of 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion of Williams Force Burma Thailand Railway 1942-1944, Japan 1945.

Born 14th May 1922. Enlisted 22nd September 1941. Died 30th March 2019.

Trained with 11th Battalion Senior Cadets in 1938-39.

Trained at Northam Training Camp. November 1941 to the Middle East on HMT Queen Mary. To Palestine for training. Transferred from 24TH Infantry Training Battalion to 2/2 Pioneer Battalion. January 1942 left Middle East on HMT Orcades with 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion and others to Dutch East Indies. Full Pioneer Battalion landed at Tanjong Priok, Java and saw action against the Japanese before capture. Transferred to Singapore on Kendon Maru and to Rangoon, Burma, on Mayabashi Maru in October 1942. To Moulmein on Yamagata Maru. Joined Williams Force.

In February 1942, 3000 Australians, the vanguard of the 7th Division, returning to Australia from the Middle East on the SS Orcades, were diverted to Java to help stem the Japanese invasion sweeping towards Australia.

On the 8th March 1942 the Dutch authorities surrendered the island along with all allied forces. At age 19 years Neil MacPherson became a prisoner of a cruel and brutal regime and joined over 22,000 fellow Australians. Of those over 8,000 or 36% paid the supreme sacrifice, most were to suffer intolerably cruel and lingering deaths.

In September 1942 under the command of legendary C.O. Lt Colonel Williams, 1800 prisoners from Java were shipped to Burma in dreadful conditions in three separate Hell Ships.

In Burma, Williams Force of 800 men was made up of 450 of Pioneers from the Middle East, the rest mainly young sailors, survivors of HMAS Perth. The officers had been in action in Syria and Java so was held in high esteem by the Pioneers.

Arriving in Thanbyuzayat in October 1942, Williams Force joined Brigadier Varley’s A Force of 3000 Australians just arrived from the port of Tavoy. A Force was the first Australians to start work on the Burma Thailand Railway.

The next Australians, Dunlop Force No 5 Group, arrived in Burma in January 1943 from Java and was the first Australian group to commence work on the Thailand end of the Burma Thailand railway.

The following 15 months were to test the mettle, morale, and Anzac spirit of the Australian prisoners in Burma. A starvation diet of a hand full of rice and watery (usually meatless) stew. Work clearing the jungle, on embankments, on cuttings, on bridges in the heat of the dry, and the misery and slush of the wet.

Clothes and footwear, long destroyed in the foetid jungle the only protection from the burning heat and the rain, was a loincloth. Bed bugs and lice left by native workers made for harrowing and restless nights, deaths were continuous and the numbers dwindled as work hours grew.

No 1 force actually worked continually through the wet, from Thanbuzayat right through into Thailand where the two ends of the Railway were joined on 17th October 1943.

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 tools, without them losses would have doubled.

The survivors, wrecks of men in rags, staggered out of their jungle camps in January 1944 to be transported to the well organised, better-equipped camps in Tamarkan & Kanburi (Kanchanaburi and Tha Makan). Despite a continuing death rate from the results of the ordeal, after six months of improved food and lighter work survivors regained some semblance of health but this transpired to be a well designed plan by the captors.

Thousands of Railway workers, Australians in a majority, were selected for shipment to Japan as slave labor, to work in mines, factories and on the docks. Thousands of them died in Hell Ships from attacks by US submarines and aircraft. Neil Macpherson’s luck as a survivor continued. He was on the last ship, the Awa Maru (his fourth Hell Ship), to successfully make the journey. He 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 Ships thus:

“Crowded onto cramped platforms, with barely enough space to turn around, a mass of unwashed bodies struggling to survive in a sea of sweat and revolting smells, in the stifling heat of the holds. Initially in the tropical heat near the equator, but the ensuing month was to see us making our way across snow covered decks for our limited toilet functions”

Finally, the ordeal was over, the Japanese capitulated and the POWs were liberated.

On 16th August, 1945, the prisoners of Neil’s group were freed. Left Senryu on 14th September for Nagasaki where they boarded ships en route to Okinawa. They travelled by B24 Liberator bombers to Luzon Island and by C45 Transports to Manila. By aircraft carrier HMS Formidable to Sydney and train to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

Final discharge was on 11th February 1946.

The exPOWs 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.

Maturing quickly, they adapted, found a maturity far above their age, learned self discipline - most importantly they discovered “mate-ship”. Neil MacPherson was fond of quoting Duncan Butler of the 2/12th Field Ambulance who wrote the poem Mates with the theme.

“No prisoner on the railway survived who did not have a mate”.

Vale Neil Ormiston MacPherson OAM