Dr C.R.B. ‘Rowley’ Richard, was appointed Regimental Medical Officer of the 2/15 Field Regiment (2/15 Field Regiment) in 1940.
Dr Rowley Richards was one of 42 Australian Doctor POWs on the Burma-Thai Railway. Richards was selected with ‘A’ Force, made up of 3,000 POWs including many 2/4th men under the command of Green, and sailed on three ships from Singapore mid May 1942 to south west coast of Burma. ‘A’ Force spent several months at Victoria Point, Tavoy and Ye repairing and enlarging aerodromes left damaged during the retreat of the British Forces. By 1st October Green Force commenced work on the northern Burma end of the railway, the first Australians to do so.
Richards was a young man, known as ‘Baby’.He never failed to remind the commanding
officers and men of the principles and adherence of hygiene, prevention of illness and first aid. He believed this to be the reason that no man under his care ever lost a limb.
This is one of Richards’ books, ‘The Survival Factor’ . He was the Force Doctor for Williams No.1 Mobile Force which came into being at 26 kilo camp, KunKnitway working through to the joining of the two rail ends in October 1943. They worked right through the wet season laying sleepers and rails as well as ballasting – hard and demanding work which took its toll on the POWs.
After the war Richards was one of those Doctors who was never interested in self-promotion. He focused his efforts on preserving and honouring the veteran’s memories. In particular Dr Richards wanted recognition for the volunteer medical orderlies – men he described as friends and colleagues who served alongside him and whose services were absolutely invaluable to the hospitals up and down the railway.
During an interview he was asked what were the attributes he believed made for survival:
1) Mateship – he believed it was an Australian characteristic looked upon with wonder by British, Americans and Dutch.
2) Courage – in particular the courage of medical orderlies. Those who volunteered to care for cholera patients and risked their lives to look after mates. The men who volunteered to remain behind with the dying when the work forces moved on.
Those who risked their lives to go outside the wire seeking urgent food and medicine for their mates.
3) Innovation – a quarter of the Australian Force “were ‘bushies’ to whom you could give a pair of pliers and a piece of fence wire to solve so many problems” said Richards. Richards also included their city cousins who had survived the great depression and learnt self-reliance through hardship.
4) Sense of humour – during the darkest of moments, there would always be a witty remark or sometimes a voice from the back row.
The Rakuyo Maru Party was made up from ‘A’ Force men who had survived working on the railway from October 1942 to end of 1943. They were taken to Saigon to be shipped to Japan. This did not happen as the American submarines had successfully blockaded Japanese shipping sailing from this area.
There was a large group of British POWs who had been in Saigon for some time. Their circumstances were luxurious compared to conditions on the railway line.
Their wooden huts even had electricity! Some senior officers came to Rowley and other senior officers asked them to stop the Australians from spreading stories and fear to the Brits. The Brits obviously did not believe the stories of survival told by the Australians.
It was at this point Rowley Richards realized that if these British POWs did not believe them, how would they ever be able to share their lives and experiences when they got home?
He knew then, they could only ever share their feelings and thoughts with those who had been there. Nobody else would ever completely or fully understand.
The ‘Rakuyo Maru’ Party had to return by rail via Bangkok to Singapore to sail to Japan. On 12 September 1944, ‘Rakuyo Maru’ was attacked by American Submarines in the South China Sea. The ship took 12 hours to sink, but it took days and days of total despair for most of the survivors now covered in oil, clinging to debri, lifeboats deserted by the Japanese and temporary rafts without food and water to tire, go mad or slip away with fatigue and drown. Only a few were saved by the same submarine crew that attacked them days earlier.
Rowley Richards was one of a group who were picked up by the Japanese including 2/4th’s Bert Wall. He spent the remainder of the war at Sakata, in Japan’s cold northwest.