In the Queen’s Birthday Honors announced on June 13 2016, Gordon Maitland Roberts, a member of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion in World War 11 and captive of the Japanese on the Burma Thailand Railway, was appointed as a member of the Order of Australia (OAM).
Gordon was born at Moora, Western Australia to a farming family on March 3, 1919 and was a “jack of all trades” working in rural areas of Western Australia prior to World War Two. He was one of a group of seventeen country boys from the town of Moora in WA who were members of the Militia in the 10th Light Horse and enlisted in the AIF on January 21, 1940, joining the all-Western Australian 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion. The Battalion sailed from Fremantle in a convoy including the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth 11, Aquitania, Mauritania, Isle de France and the Andes. The convoy called at Colombo and the battalion disembarked at Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal and later trained at Palestine and in Tel Aviv.
The battalion saw action in Syria and later at Mrouj, near Beirut in Lebanon.
Gordon Roberts was considered a leader of men and was promoted to Lance Corporal.
In February 1942 the battalion travelled on the Orcades via Durban, South Africa, to Oosthaven in South Sumatra. They disembarked at Batavia (Jakarta) before travelling by road to Bandoeng.
On 9th March 1942 the Dutch surrendered (including the Australians).
After nearly a year in Bandoeng the battalion went to Makasura before being shipped to Singapore with Dunlop Force under Lt Colonel Sir Edward Dunlop.
In January 1943 Dunlop Force went by train on a five day journey in cramped steel rice wagons from Singapore to Non Pladuk in Thailand and then to the Konyu River Camp, the Hintok River Camp and the Hintok Road Camp.
Dunlop Force worked on the section of the Burma Thailand Railway between Konyu (Hellfire Pass) and Compressor Cuttings.
Members of Dunlop Force suffered similarly to all prisoners on the Burma Thailand Railway with diseases, inhumane and brutal treatment, starvation, overwork, lack of basic needs and terrible conditions.
At the completion of the railway Gordon Roberts went with his group to Tamuang in Thailand, followed by movements to various other areas on maintenance work and he remained in Thailand until the Victory in the Pacific.
When it was decided in 2002 to form the Burma Thailand Railway Memorial Association, dedicated to ensure that the story of the “Railway” would not be forgotten, Gordon became an active supporter. The Association arranges an annual pilgrimage to Thailand for Anzac Day, the Quiet Lion Tour, which is named for Sir Edward (Weary) Dunlop. A feature of the tours is that a large group of High School children and service cadets are taken to Thailand.
During his war service and following his discharge from the Australian Army on January 31, 1946, Gordon Roberts was renowned for his “mateship”, resourcefulness and his compassion for his fellow prisoners. During captivity he spent countless hours foraging for little extras for his mates who were ill, on light rations and unpaid. He would stay with men in their dying hours maintaining the tradition of “nobody must die alone”. Even when the dreaded cholera epidemic raged he still nursed cholera patients without any regard for his own health.
He was a very robust man, raised in the country, and withstood the ravages of the prisoner of war experience to the point he often stood in for his mates who were too sick to work.
A very notable aspect of the resourcefulness shown by Gordon Roberts was his ability to scrounge, barter and acquire by any dubious means food and medicine to help his mates. This ability may not be recognized generally but in the circumstances prevailing on the Burma Thailand Railway it was most important. One illustration of this is provided in the authenticated story involving close friend and POW “Snow Fairclough. “Snow” made his way most nights from the Hintok River prison camp to the nearby Kwai Noi River to set improvised fishing lines and on one occasion snared a large fish. He took it to Gordon Roberts with a view to them sharing the extra rations with his mates. Gordon instead went to the adjacent English officer’s camp where he was able to sell the fish to an English officer and received what was regarded as a fortune. He in turn used the proceeds to acquire salt and fresh vegetables from Thai villagers and various medicines from Thai River Traders. An interesting sidelight is that the English Officer was a Major named Swanton who transpired to be E.W. Swanton, the noted English cricket commentator. “Snow” Fairclough met Swanton post-war during a Test Match in Perth and Swanton recalled the exchange, adding that he got the fish for a “song” and out-bargained the Aussie POW.
After discharge on January 31, 1946 Gordon Roberts immediately returned to farming and agriculture and with many years of hard work and good business practice he created a thriving business breeding cattle and sheep.
It is of particular note that with Gordon Roberts’ passing, his friend Milton “Snow” Fairclough is the only remaining man of the seventeen from Moora who enlisted together and were all captured by the Japanese.
Gordon Roberts was deemed eminently suitable for recognition by the Australian Honors and Award system due to his Military service, his service to the ex Prisoner of War movement, his success in business, his community service and his encouragement and mentoring of youth.
Gordon’s medal is awarded posthumously.