ADDRESS BY NEIL MacPHERSON WX 16572 2/2ND PIONEERS AT THE 2016 ANZAC DAY WREATH LAYING CEREMONY AT KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETERY
Good Morning all, my name is Neil MacPherson. I worked on the Burma Railway for two years in Williams Force and ended up in a Japanese coal mine. We are here today at the Kanchanburi War Cemetery in Thailand to commemorate Anzac Day and to remember and honour those young Australians who died while prisoners of the Japanese. We must also pay homage to those who survived and returned home broken in body but not in spirit. We especially thank the government and the people of Thailand for their generous hospitality over the years here in Kanchanaburi and in other war time historical areas.
In March 1942 with enemy control of both sea and air we Australians returning from the Middle East were diverted to Java. Outnumbered & overwhelmed, many were killed in the air defence of Java and in the battle at Llewiliang, a vital defence line for the city of Buitenzorg
On the 8th March the Dutch Governor of Java surrendered the island and all its Forces to the Japanese, in order to save the island from further devastation. We suddenly found ourselves prisoners of a brutal regime that treated war prisoners as slave labour.
In late October 1942 under Colonel John Williams, our Force of 800 which included as well as 2/2nd Pioneers, hundreds of sailors off the Australian and American Cruisers Perth and Houston started work on the Burma end of the Railway. As a 19 year old, to coin a phrase – “still wet behind the ears”, I became a railway worker, unprepared for the beatings and deaths of many of my mates. Initially we were allocated the task of building embankments and digging cuttings through hills but in March 1943 along with Anderson Force under Colonel Anderson (who won a Victoria Cross in the fighting in Malaya); we started the demanding work of laying the sleepers and rails. During this work we moved along the railway over-nighting in filthy dilapidated camps previously occupied by Asian Labourers. These Asian labourers, with no organisation or medical support, died in their hundreds and were buried in collective unmarked graves. During the construction of the railway it contained along its length and beyond hundreds of labour camps – all were bad, some worse than others – not one could be called good.
Within 12 months of us starting work, diseases such as Cholera, Dysentery, Malaria, Berri Berri and leg ulcers, worsened by malnutrition and long hours of labour, would decimate our force. In September 1943 only 300 of Williams Force were still available for forced attendance at the Japanese organised celebrations to mark the joining of the two ends at Konkoita, 131 kilometres from our starting point at the base camp at Thanbyuzayat.
We had left behind us lonely graves lining the length of the railway where so many prisoners had died – their graves marked only with little wooden crosses.
Major Bruce Hunt, a noted West Australian surgeon and a most strict and efficient POW Camp Administrator in F. Force, had this to say about Australians on the railway:- I would say that….(The railway) was the most searching test of fundamental character and guts that I have ever known. That so many men…came through this test with their heads high and their records unblemished was something of which we…. may not be unreasonably proud.’
(Post war Major Hunt worked at Hollywood Repatriation Hospital in Western Australia and serviced Ex POWs).
On completion of the railway construction all prisoners were evacuated from their jungle camps and brought to Tamarkan & Tamuang in Thailand. After being evacuated from Burma in January 1944 I spent six months here in Kanchanaburi in the shadow of the Kwai River Bridge while waiting for transfer to Singapore and then on to Japan to spend the last year of the war working in a coal mine.
I would like to make a special mention of the High School Students and their teachers and carers who have made many sacrifices to travel on the Quiet Lion Tour with us, many worked hard to raise finance to pay their costs and supplement generous donations by a number of benefactors. These young people are honoured and privileged to play a part in the wreath laying ceremony today. Quiet Lion Tours have been bringing youngsters to Thailand since 1997.
In contrast with previous addresses, this one has been shortened, partly to spare you good people but mainly because it is about as much as I could rustle up and about my limit on my feet with my “wonky knees”
I do thank you for your attention and trust you will, after your experience here, return to your homes safely and there help keep alive the “Railway” story of mateship and courage.