Soldier stories

2010 ANZAC DAY ADDRESS AT KANCHANABURI. Submitted by WX16572 Neil MacPherson (William's Force, Burma Railway, 2/2 Pioneer Battalion).

Background : The following is the address given by Neil at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery for ANZAC Day 25/04/2010 as part of the Quiet Lion Tour. Information contained in the address is intended to help further achieve the objectives of the Burma Thailand Railway Association which are :

To perpetuate the memory of the privations and sacrifices of Allied Prisoners of War and the selfless dedication of the medical personnel during the construction of the Burma Thailand Railway by informing current and future generations through all forms of education and particularly with Quiet Lion Tours to the Burma Thai Railway; The River Kwai; The Three Pagoda Pass; Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.


Good Morning, I was a member of William’s Force which commenced work in October 1942 on the Burma end of the railway which was to extend for 415 kilometres. During construction it contained along its length and beyond hundreds of labour camps, all were bad, some worse than others not one would be called good.

There were two Japanese Railway Regiments involved in the construction, No 5 covered the Burma end No 9, the Thailand end, 688 bridges, 8 of them steel construction, crossed rivers streams & gullies.

Hygiene was strictly maintained in all the P.O.W. camps but in the native camps without medical care diseases especially Cholera were prevalent, this soon spread to the P.O.W. camps and the deaths from cholera along with Dysentery, & Malaria soared.

During its construction about 13,000 Australians worked on the line, about 5,000 in Burma and 8,000 in Thailand, Green Force arrived in Burma in October 1942 and were the first of the Australians to work on the railway.

In Burma the Japanese Army Command exercised control of the prisoners, No 3 & 5 groups came under the control of Colonel Nagatoma. In Thailand control was divided between the Japanese Army command in Thailand and their Singapore area command.

Williams & Black Forces arrived at Thanbuzayat in Burma late October 1942, Dunlop force arrived in Thailand in January 1943 both from Java. William’s Force was made up mainly of 2/2nd Pioneers my unit, and survivors off H.M.A.S. Perth, Americans off the U.S.S. Houston and U.S. 131st Artillery Company.

British officers in charge of mixed camps on the Death Railway have repeatedly said; the greatest asset in any camp on the railway was to have an Australian farmer in camp. What they could do with a piece of wire or any other simple item was unbelievable.

Dunlop Force was made up mainly of 2/3rd Machine Gunners who were located at Hintock from January 1943 until the end of the railway construction, Bill Haskell was at Hintock John Wisecup an American survivor from the Cruiser U.S. Houston in his poem describes Hintock Camp :

Hintock Camp! Filth ridden hole!
Our tents and beds were rotten
The lice and rain destroyed our soul
Men died forlorn, forgotten.

One of the major differences of the Burma & Thai Groups were how the Japanese used the prisoners, in Thailand the P.O.W.s mainly stayed in the same fixed camps during the whole construction period. In Burma the work forces moved up and down the railway according to the tasks allotted, initially building embankments and excavating cuttings, then returning to build bridges.

Finally the Williams Anderson combined force returned to the 18 Kilo camp as No 1 Mobile Force to lay the sleepers and rails from there right through to the joining at Konkoita 152 Km from Thanbyuzayat, Burma on the 17th September 1943.

Major Hunt a noted West Australian surgeon and a most efficient 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 some thing of which we…. may not be unreasonably proud.’

Mateship was as important in one’s survival as food & medicine P.O.W., Duncan Butler 2/12th Field Ambulance summed it up in a poem which included these words :

Me mind goes back to ‘43,
To slavery an’ ate,
When man’s one chance to stay alive
Depended on ‘is mate.

The railway story is not complete without recording the sequel, the survivors of F & H Forces returned to Changi, some prisoners remained to do maintenance, others were sent to Prison Camps in Thailand. Changi, and Japan. Tragically many who survived the railway experience were to die en route to Japan for slave labour when the Hellships carrying them were torpedoed by U.S. submarines.

The Rakuyo Maru containing prisoners en route to Japan was torpedoed in the China Sea, 82 Australians including Captain Rowley Richards, a medical Officer, were picked up by Japanese destroyers and spent the rest of the war in Japan.

A further number after spending several days in the ocean were found by the U.S. Submarine Queenfish that torpedoed the P.O.W. ships and eventually were returned to Australia where the first news of the Railway was announced by the Army Minister.

My good luck continued when the Awa Maru, the last P.O.W. ship to reach Japan with 525 of us P.O.W.s on board, successfully beat the U.S. blockade to reach Japan on the 15th January 1945. This enabled me to add Coal Mining to my other roles, railway construction, Bridge Builder, Dock worker, road builder, my preferred role which I never achieved would have been to work in the cook house.