LAWYERS ON THE NOTORIOUS BURMA THAILAND RAILWAY
Amongst the West Australians who labored on the railway, were 3 men who were or became solicitors and one who became a magistrate. They were Captain George Gwynne, Ross Ambrose, James Wilson and Bernie O’Sullivan.
On 17 October 2016, it marked 73 years since the completion of the infamous Burma Thailand Railway. This was a single-track railway 421 kms long, constructed by the Imperial Japanese Army, which connected the rail systems of Burma and Thailand. More than 60,00 Prisoners of War (POW) and a huge number of natives were used in the construction. It is assessed that around 13000 POWs died over a period of around 16 months. Around 90000 of the natives are estimated to have died. The deaths were caused by endemic diseases (malaria, dysentery, pellagra, cholera), starvation, exhaustion and beatings.
Captain George Gwynne enlisted into the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion December 1940 having previously been in the 10th Light Horse or Militia unit. He was 36 years of age. He trained in Northam, Woodside and Darwin, sailed for Singapore from Darwin, via Pt Moresby, Sydney and Perth. Arrived Singapore 25 January 1942 and fought in the defence of Singapore. He became a POW upon capitulation on 15 February 1942.
George was sent to Thailand to work on the Railway April 1943 as part of F Force. This force was of 70000 being 3400 British and 3600 Australians. This group is regarded as having the worst experience of all the POWQs. They marched 300km over 18nughts from their arrival point in Thailand to their work station. This was in temperatures over 40C. The death rate within this group was 44% (59% British , 28% Australians). George worked closely with Major Bruce Hunt (a prominent Perth doctor specializing in diabetes and generally regarded as the outstanding medical Officer of F Force). He was at some stage working as the Ward Master in Hunt’s hospital facility, which was established at 50kilo camp in Burma. In an article written for “The West Australian” on 29 November 1945, Bruce Hunt made mention of the many volunteers, including George, who worked in the wards in Burma. Of approximately 2000 POW patients in this hospital facility, 750 died. Following completion of the Railway in October 1943, the bulk of the POWs were transported back to Singapore like cattle (the same as their move from Singapore to Thailand by rail around 12 months earlier). He spent some time, with Bernie O’Sullivan, employed on the Changi aerodrome. At all times George was prepared to place himself between the Japanese and the POWs and suffered bashings from the Japanese guards.
George served articles in the late 1920’s and became a partner in Parker and Parker in 1930. George and his wife Sheila had interest in the racing industry. The champion horse Raconteur was bred and raced by Sheila. At one stage pre war George was a leading amateur jockey. He was also a keen yachtsman and was Commodore of Royal Perth Yacht Club in mid 19030’s. George was an active member of Legacy for many years. He passed away in 1962.
T.R. (Ross) Ambrose enlisted in the AIF. Ross was an older man. On enlistment he was aged 35. He was a reinforcement for the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion. He too became a POW on 15 February 1942 in Singapore. As with Bernie O’Sullivan he was sent to Thailand as Part of H Force. This group labored on the southern end of the Railway. 25% of this force died in Thailand. This force left Thailand for Singapore in May 1943 and, like the others, was transported 30 POW to a steel railway truck 5.5m by 2.15m. They had to take turns to lie down. The journey lasted five days / 4 nights. The following are some anecdotes provided by Ross’ son David.
He usually referred to captivity as the time he spent ‘as the guest of Nippon’;
He spoke almost compassionately of the Japanese guards in the camps at the end of the war who, he said, were forgotten by their superiors and whose situation became as desperate as the prisoners – ‘in the end, it became a race between the prisoners and the guards for who would get the rats’ (as a source of food); and
- He was enormously proud of his old slouch-hat and ‘to have been an Australian’ in captivity. He had little time for many of the British officer class, with the sole exception of a Catholic priest, because they left their soldiers in the jungle if they fell by the wayside before working parties returned to camp at night. He said that the Australians, having brought in their own inform, would then form up arties to go out and bring in any of the Brits they knew they had left behind.
His sister Mrs Deborah Carson was in Sydney when the POWs returned. They were reunited with relatives at the Sydney Show Grounds. She remembers that Ross was very wasted being only around 6 stone and he had dreadful sores (caused by 3 ½ years of malnutrition as a POW). Post war Ross became a Senior Partner in Jackson McDonald. He passed away in 1988.
James (Blue) Graham Wilson enlisted in the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion in November 1940 when he was twenty. He arrived in Singapore on 25 January 1942 and just three weeks later he became a POW. Blue was wounded in the defence of Singapore and it is said that he carried a bullet in his body to his death. Whilst incarcerated in the Changi are, Blue, who was a pianist, was required to play for the Japs. This occurred whilst he was in a work party on Johore Bahru.
Blue labored on the Burma end of the line from mid 1942 to around January 1944. He was discharged from the army later than most in March 1946. There is an unconfirmed suggestion that he returned to Australia via England.
After the war he gained his matriculation in 1947 and graduated from University of Western Australia in 1953. Justice Robert Anderson had this to say about Blue, ‘He was a person who showed profound concern for his clients and displayed meticulous attention to detail’. Robert Meadows QC said, ‘ Blue was a marvelous chap who put new articled clerks at ease and made them most welcome’. Around 1963 he moved to Hong Kong where he became a magistrate and subsequently rose to higher judicial office. It is understood that he developed a deep interest in antiques. He was an extremely generous man and sponsored a number of Hong Kong students to study in Australia. He was a wonderful host to Western Australians passing through Hong Kong. Blue died around 1980 having never married.
Bernard (Bernie) O’Sullivan was a Lieutenant in the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. (Pre-war he had enlisted in the 28th Battalion as a member of the Militia). 2.4th Machine Gun Battalion landed in Singapore on 25 January 1942. On 8 February the Japanese commenced their attack on Singapore Island and General Percival capitulated on 15 February 1942. The Allied servicemen became Prisoners of War (POW) that day.
In May 1943 Bernie was sent to Thailand as part of H Force (3000 POW’s including 700 Australians). H Force was located at the southern end of the Railway and was involved, amongst other things, in the notorious Hellfire Pass. Bernie was in Malayan Hamlet with Major Bert Saggers (owner of Saggers Shoe Store in Perth) and the medical Officer was Kevin Fagen (who was highly regarded by the POW’s in this location). Work on Hellfire Pass commenced on ANZAC Day 1943. Hellfire Pass was a cutting which was 400m long and 18m in depth and was cut through solid rock by manual labour using a technique known as ‘hammer and tap’. The cutting was completed in twelve weeks at a cost of 400 lives. Bernie suffered from cerebral malaria whilst working on the line. On completion of the Railway Bernie spent some time in hospital and was transported back to Singapore.
Post war Bernie worked for a period as the Associate to Chief Justice Sir John Dwyer. He subsequently studied and passed the examinations for appointment as a magistrate. In 1953 he was appointed Magistrate at Cue. There followed time at Kalgoorlie, Narrogin, Northam and Perth. In 1967 he was appointed Chief Industrial Commissioner, retiring in 1981. For some 30 years he was President of the West Australian Football League Tribunal. Bernie, having been a Legacy Ward himself, was an active member of Legacy for many years. As a younger man he was involved in athletics and continued his association with the sport after the war. Bernie was awarded the Order of Australia in 1985. He passed away in 1997 aged 75.
Notes prepared by Lt Col Peter Winstanley RFD JP (Retired) E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Web Page: www.pows-of-japan.net