Address by Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC Governor-General – Helfire Pass 2011



Friends, thank you for travelling to Hellfire Pass to see in this Anzac dawn.

Today is a pilgrimage. Alongside one another here, and with countless others throughout the world, we journey to the places that war has etched and scarred.

The theatres of conflict.

The graves and cenotaphs.

The shrines and memorials.

Our minds and memories.

Here, in the Thai jungle, standing on the bones of the “Death Railway” at the withered heart of darkness 1 .

Our silence begs the relentless hammer and tap of our soldiers’ tools; the Last Post’s haunting final wail as another succumbs to the brutal toil.

Our torchlight recalls the long-lit, gruelling nights of work, the days that never gave way to nourishment and sleep.

Our soldiers’ strange and gruesome battlefield.

Not the sort they’d imagined: bullets, bayonets, mortar blasts; hand-to-hand combat on the front line; courage under fire.

The fire here was from hell, they said.

It needed a different kind of courage 2 .

Exiled from the Allied war effort, and held captive to advancing its defeat our soldiers braved a battle fought in the shadows.

In the shadows of the hell fires. In the shadows of their captors’ torture and menace.

In the shadows of their ravaged frames and private anguish.

It was in this impenetrable, malarial jungle of monsoon deluges, saw-toothed mountainous rock, crocodiles, scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes,that our soldiers built a railway with a few crude pulleys, derricks and mixers, and their mighty bare hands.

In ten months: four million cubic metres of rock was shifted, 14 kilometres of bridgework constructed.

Our soldiers, prisoners-of-war, among an extraordinary slave-labour force: 30,000 British; 18,000 Dutch; 13,000 Australians; 700 Americans; and with them, 250,000 Asians 3 .

As the aggressors grew anxious to expand their offensive, so the toll grew, on our soldiers’ lives and wellbeing.

Abject cruelty and neglect, increasingly signified their treatment.

Inevitably crippling fatigue, starvation, horrific sickness, disease and death gouged their ranks.

Just about everything was filthy: the miserable rations, the water, the men’s bodies, their loin cloths, their rotten wounds and ulcers, the brazen inhumanity.

But there were some things that transcended the filth.

The feisty dictum that the path home is an empty mess bowl, no matter what was dished up 4 .

The miracle workers in the makeshift hospitals.

The men’s spirits: somehow impossibly sustained by faith and hopes and dreams; the poetry of Keats and Arnold; their own quiet lullabies; a budding Plumbago flower; a decent, gutsy laugh.

Their deep, generous, tender friendships.

The fires that burned in their starving bellies.

The home fires they burned for one another.

Long after the war, when Chilla Goodchap nursed his wife before her death, he thought of his dead mates:

In Burma we would link up in a group of say four or five, and work as a family.

You’d know every mortal thing about them.

They’ve told you every one of their stories of home, and their upsets and their pleasures. With those five fellows, no matter what you get you’d share, and if one bloke is crook, you stand with a bloke, in his dying moments, his bloody awful bloody death, and you’re holding his bloody hand 5 .

Friends, let this new day, this Anzac sunrise, blaze in the deeds and memories of the tens of thousands of soldiers who suffered and died and rest here now.

In those who survived the filth and rallied to rebuild their bodies and lives, find their families, and hold onto their mates. In those who are with us today to affirm the injustice, the pain and the torment, and the long, slow road back to healing and living well.

I sincerely thank my fellow countrymen, my companions, for showing me the way today.

Mr Lex Arthurson

Mr Cyril Gilbert

Mr Bill Schmitt

The Hon Tom Uren

And with us, Mr Neil McPherson.

Fine, courageous, knowing veterans of this place, who join all of us here to honour the wartime sacrifice of those we love and respect.

In the aftermath of such atrocity, let us be thankful for the lessons of war; for what Anzac Day offers every year in growing our wisdom; and for the mutual sense and compassion of our governments in preserving this memorial to honesty, peace and understanding.

The fires will always burn here, as they should, in rightful remembrance of all they destroyed and all they nurtured.

The fires from hell.

The fires in the bellies.

The home fires of mates who made their terrible way together here, who built a railway in the jungle by hand – our soldiers of the Hellfire battle. Friends of Australia and Thailand.

Lest we forget.


Cameron Forbes used this metaphor in his book, Hellfire, Pan Macmillam Australia, 2005, Chapter 17 “Hearts of Darkness”, p 279

Ibid, Chapter 1 “A Different Courage”, p 1

Ibid, p 263

Ibid, p 299

Ibid, p 289

Comments are closed.