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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 3207

Senator WILLIAMS (10:20 PM) —It is with pleasure that I rise to talk about Anzac Day this year. My wife Nancy and I were privileged and honoured to be present at Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass in Thailand. I would like to give a brief history of the Second World War and what happened during the war in Asia at that terrible time. A friend of mine from Inverell, Frank Adams, who is now deceased, was part of the 2nd/18th Battalion, led by the gallant Brigadier Varley from Inverell. Many of that battalion were from the Moree, Inverell, Glen Innes and Bingara area in the north of New South Wales. Brigadier Varley had the idea that he wanted countrymen in his battalion for the reasons that they were strong, they were fit and they could shoot. About half of that battalion were trained in Tamworth before going off to Singapore in around June 1941, and then they were sent up to the middle of what was then called Malaya, where they first went into battle with the Japanese. I must say that about the only time that the Japanese actually had words of praise for the enemy was when they came into conflict with the Australians. However, tragedy did strike and the Allies were forced to withdraw down to Singapore. Of course, 15 February 1942 saw the unconditional surrender by then General Percival, the allied leader in Singapore, and hence the fall of Singapore. It was a tragic time for my wife’s family as her uncle, Don Cope, was killed in the battle in Malaya. Hence my brother-in-law is named Don after his late uncle.

I first visited Hellfire Pass in June 1998 when I went to Thailand to establish my business. I was in awe of the history of the area and of what Allied prisoners of war went through. After the fall of Singapore, the prisoners—mostly from Changi prison camp in Singapore—set off for Thailand in October 1942 to build a railway line from Thailand to Burma. The Japanese wanted that railway line because their shipping, by which they were trying to supply their troops in Burma, was being sunk by Allied submarines. They thought that if they could build the railway line and connect Burma and Thailand then they could rail the ammunition and food supplies through to Burma without such a loss of supplies as they were experiencing on the oceans. The Allies commenced working on the railway line in October 1942 and some 12 months later they had completed it, but not before the death of some 12,000 Allied prisoners of war and some 90,000 Asian labourers. Just over 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were compelled to work on the railway. Many were in A Force and went up the coast to the Burma end, commencing at that end as my late friend Frank Adams did. Others were railed up to Bampong in Thailand, crammed into small rail trucks with little or no ventilation, extreme heat, virtually no food and very little water. Just the journey itself was a testing time for the prisoners. When they commenced work they joined the railway line 12 months later at a place called Three Pagodas Pass, near the Burma border of Thailand.

The Allies commenced work on Hellfire Pass on Anzac Day 1943. They cut a section of rock about 400 metres on one side, 100 metres on the other and probably 30 metres deep, and they worked for months on it. Some 68 Allied prisoners of war were actually bludgeoned to death by the Korean and Japanese guards as they constructed that section of the railway line. It is an eerie feeling to walk through Hellfire Pass. It was called Hellfire Pass because it was during the time of its construction that the speedo was on. The Japanese guards would say, ‘Speedo, speedo.’ They were saying, ‘Faster, faster; we need this railway line completed.’ The prisoners would work from daylight right through to the late hours of the evening, lit by the fires down in the rock cutting. The soldiers described it as a hellfire to look down and see the men working on it. There was malnutrition and loss of weight and the men were sick with diseases such as beriberi, malaria and dysentery. Many died of cholera. It really is a sad part of our history.

It is also, in many ways, a proud part of our history, because out of this conflict came people like Sir Ernest Edward Dunlop, commonly known to us as Weary Dunlop. Weary was one of some 30-odd doctors who worked on the railway line there with the prisoners. Through makeshift surgical equipment—things they constructed out of virtually nothing—people like Weary Dunlop carried out the operations of removing limbs and saving lives. It is great to walk through the cutting and to see the bronze plaques there in dedication to people like Weary Dunlop. It is typical of Australians when they are in adversity and tough times that heroes seem to come out of the fray and to shine, and such were people like Weary Dunlop.

It was also great this year to go to Hellfire Pass and meet people like Bill Haskell. Bill is from Fremantle and is a former prisoner of war. I was privileged to introduce my three children to Bill on Anzac Day in 2007. He is an inspirational man; a great man. He is a very quiet, placid sort of chap and you would think he would be bitter and vindictive after what he had been through for all those years, but it is not the case. This year, I was also very honoured and privileged to meet Neil MacPherson. Neil was a prisoner of war and just last August a book was released of Neil’s diary, along with one by his mate Mick McCarthy. It was written by Tony Carter, who lives in Corindi Beach in the north of New South Wales. I was at the launch of the book, launched by the Rt Hon. Ian Sinclair. I was talking last Friday to Ian about it in Sydney airport. From meeting and talking to Neil about his time as a prisoner of war and about what they went through, it is simply amazing that anyone survived. You could not imagine in your wildest dreams what these men experienced: the sickness, the starvation and loss of life, the huge workload and the way they had to toil through all sorts of tropical monsoonal conditions and the heat. At the River Kwai, where we were, there are some 500 inches of rainfall in a matter of four or five months. So you can imagine the torrential rain they had to endure and work through. And of course the evenings were very cold because they were drenched.

It was a wonderful experience to be there at Anzac Day this year and to meet again the friends I previously met. It was my fourth Anzac Day in the last five years at Hellfire Pass. It was wonderful to once again go to the museum at Hellfire Pass—the construction of which the Hon. Bruce Scott was responsible for—and to go through and learn more about the war’s history and what our ancestors went through. It was also great to meet the New Zealand and Australian ambassadors, and also Colonel John Blaxland, the defence attache to Thailand from Australia. I was privileged to have him in my office here just a couple of weeks ago. It was great to meet these people and to see the respect that they show, and to be in Thailand, thousands of kilometres from here of course, and see some 1,200 people at the dawn service in Hellfire Pass to remember those who suffered and died there. It is great to see that, as each year goes on, Anzac Day seems to be getting bigger and bigger. It is a wonderful thing that the future generations are making an effort to show their respect and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during those times.

It was certainly an honour to represent the Senate. I thank you, Mr President, for allowing me that privilege of representing the Senate at Hellfire Pass, and also for the privilege of laying a wreath at the 11 o’clock service at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where some 6,900 Allied prisoners of war are buried. They were buried on various parts of the railway line, and after the war those bodies were exhumed and returned, mainly to the one cemetery at Kanchanaburi. It is a very sobering place to visit. What it does for me, and I think for many others, is serve to remind us, when we look back and reflect on what our ancestors went through, of how lucky we are today to live the life we do. It is important that on each Anzac Day we really do make an effort to grow that day—to show our respect and to honour those who did so much for us. We really do have a good life today. Even though we whinge a bit about some things, we are really privileged to be able to enjoy the life we have today and to be able to think back on how so many suffered and what sacrifices they made. It made me very proud to represent the Senate there. In conclusion, I thank you, Mr President, for giving me the honour of doing that.