LAWYERS ON THE NOTORIOUS BURMA THAILAND RAILWAY
Amongst the West Australians who laboured 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.
Another who embarked on a law degree was WX1126 Graeme Keats Cameron
His name is recorded in the UWA Law Faculty, however we are not sure Cameron practiced. Cameron was send to work on the Burma-Thai Railway with the ill-fated ‘D’ Force Thailand V Battalion which endured the harshest of conditions and endured large numbers of deaths.
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.