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

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