MILLS, Dr Roy ‘F’ Force Thailand – Pond’s Party
Four-four (44) Australian doctors were sent to the Burma-Thai Railway. Always highly regarded by the POWs some of the most known names included Albert Coates, Bruce Hunt (who after the war settled in Perth) Rowley Richards who wrote of his experiences, Kevin Fagan and Roy Mills who were attached to ‘F’ Force. And not to forget for 2/4th families – our own Battalion doctor Claude Anderson and the large number of 2/4th who worked on rail with D Force S Battalion Dr. Phil Millard was their hero.
It was Phil Millard who looked after the many 2/4th boys at Konyu 2 – at a time when ‘speedo’ was hellish to work under.
In the jungle POW Camps this number of doctors equated to one doctor to about 100 POWs. At 55km Camp, Burma there were 3 doctors to 2,000 sick POWs – an appalling ratio.
At Thailand’s Base Hospital Camps such as Tarsau and Chungkai the number rose to 4 doctors to 100 sick men – hardly sufficient considering the depths of illness suffered by POWs by the end of 1943.
The doctors were more than ably aided by several hundreds of Medical Orderlies from Australian Army medical units. Insufficient numbers meant many were volunteers from amongst the prisoners who often worked whilst they were sick as did the doctors.
Medical orderlies also played a vital role in caring for the sick, although their role has been overshadowed by doctors. Some of these men, of whom there were several hundreds, came from Australian Army medical units. Many were volunteers from among the sick prisoners – emptying bedpans, cleaned POWs and huts, ensuring men ate their food, cremated the dead but most importantly provided the sick and dying with companionship.
The doctors often protected the POWs and received punishment from the Japanese, sometimes severe.
The doctors ranged from experienced surgeons such as Coates to general practitioners in their twenties scarcely out of medical school. Their knowledge and experience with tropical illnesses was minimal as were the medicines and equipment provided for treatment supplied by the Japanese.
During action 2/10 Field Ambulance served mainly troops of 27 Australian Infantry Brigade.
During 1943 Mills was often the only doctor working with 100s of sick with ‘F’ Force – Pond’s Party (700 POWs) – their jungle camps more remote than most. Mills kept a diary of his work with details of the appalling camp conditions with their tents and camp awash with mud during the monsoon season, less than meagre food supplies and near starvation because supplies were not able to be delivered.
Roy Mills stood between the men and Japanese demands for more men to work longer and faster. He was often the only defence POWs had against death by disease because the Japanese would send the sick out of their hospital beds to work.
Originally from Newcastle, Roy Mills then aged 26 years kept his secret diary whilst he was the only doctor with Pond’s Party of 713 men.
During the fighting in Singapore Mills was hit in the chest by shrapnel from an artillery shell and had to be evacuated to the AGH. Later, during intense bombing, a large abscess ruptured in Mills’ chest wall as a result of the shrapnel entry. Mills was one of many injured troops who had to then march to Changi POW camp. His wound required dressing twice a day but it gradually healed and he resumed duties with the shrapnel still in his chest. By October, 1943, the shrapnel began to move near his shoulder and he had it cut out by a medical officer
During six months 40 per cent of “F” Force’s 7000 men died from starvation, malnutrition, malaria, dysentery, cholera and tropical ulcers.
Lt Pond’s party was moved five times, carrying the sick and the dying on improvised stretchers and struggling with cooking gear, Japanese tools and wet tents. After the completion of the railway, men continued to die at a base camp at Kanchanaburi in southern Thailand and they died after returning to Changi.
With no drugs or medical equipment except a stethoscope, Mills’ improvisation and organisation saved hundreds of lives. With no distilled water, he was forced to produce a saline solution from kitchen salt and rain water. But there was no way to create saline drips for men dying from dysentery and cholera. Mills improvised by using the rubber tubing of his stethoscope and bamboo shoots to create cannulas and they worked. Cholera hit them hard.
On his return to Australia Roy Mills spent 13 months in hospital.
After the war Roy Mills at the request of submitting diaries he mailed his diary to Captain Thomas W. Mitchell, a scholar, who had served as an intelligence officer of 8th Division HQ AIF. Mitchell’s role was to compile the history of the 8th Division in conjunction with War historian Gavin Long.
In 1947 Dr Alan S. Walker, the editor of ‘Australia in the War of 1939-45, Medical Series’ contacted Roy asking for a copy of his diary.
“I told him the diary had been sent to Captain Walker as requested and had the information he needed,” Mills said in the preface to his book.
There began the 40 year mystery and search for Roy Mills’ Diary. Searches by medical historians, the War Crimes Commission, Army Records and a visit by Mills to Mitchell’s widow, Elyne, herself a well known historian all failed to find the diary.
Mills gave up hope of ever seeing it again.
On 28 December 1987 a belated Christmas present in the form of a certified mail package was delivered to Roy’s retirement home at Stroud. In the parcel was a letter
Your diary was found by my daughter in a totally unexpected place and I am sending it immediately – priority paid, as I have found that the safest method.
I am very glad this has been found. With all the best for 1988.
Yours sincerely, Elyne Mitchell.
The original Diary of Dr Roy Mills now lives safely at the AWM.
Roy Mill’s book ‘Doctor’s Diary’ and Memoirs’ was printed in 1994.
Above: Colleagues and former POWs Burma-Thai Railway, doctors Roy Mills and Peter Hendry holding copy of printed book. Peter Hendry, pathologist and former deputy chancellor of the University of Newcastle died aged 102 years in 2017. Peter Hendry was also a POW with ‘F’ Force.
Mills was a conservative doctor on the rail – he did not amputate and preferred to monitor, encourage and intervene as gently the available primitive equipment and limited medicines allowed.
‘Captain Mills’ became ‘Roy’ of the 2/10 Field Ambulance. He reminded the men of the fact that the 8th Division had fought a tough campaign and they were ex-soldiers as well as POWs.
Mills knew he had tuberculosis before leaving Changi for home. He required some time to recover before returning to work.
Mills had graduated in 1939 – when war had broken out in Europe. He married Win (Plumbe) in 1941 at Parramatta – he was then training as Captain Roy Mills of 2/10 Field Ambulance before embarking at Bathurst.
He became the only doctor with over 700 POWs with ‘F’ Force in 1943 – he was 26 years old. His only experience as a civilian doctor was limited to his time as a final year student and a few months as Resident Medical Officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. He had never encountered cholera.
In time he was treating men often older than himself and many had become close friends throughout their shared training, fighting and as POWs.
Mills maintained he did not work alone, and praised his team of medical orderlies. He also received a beating and punishment from the Japanese when attempting to protect sick men working on the rail.
His diary written on the rail is the only diary he maintained throughout his life.
He described in his book the two types of Cuttings on the Rail.
Where the railway and to cut through a ridge
The other was when a L-shape cutting was made into near vertical cliff face usually high above the Menan Kwai Noi River, and the future rail would follow the horizontal part of the L.