Storytellers – World War II in Malaysia

The March Storytellers took awhile to eventuate but was really worthwhile on the night. John Mather first suggested that Lisa Scamps and her sister present the story of their father at Storytellers way back in May 2016. Then through all manner of reasons (people living their lives) it wasn’t until this meeting that it all came together, and we heard about their father’s story as a doctor on the Burma-Thailand Railway and in particular at ” Cholera Hill “. The timing was perfect as we were able to arrange for Christopher Deane, Jenny Hole and Jimmy Arnold to follow with their talk about their 2017 trek to North Borneo following in the steps of the 1945 Death Marches.

The accounts presented by Lisa, Virginia and Marc and then Chris, Jenny and Jimmy are riveting and full of detail, far too much to include in these Minutes, but I’m sure they could be provided upon request. As a result, certain snippets have been included as follows:

Lisa and Virginia’s story was titled “Lloyd’s war….Malaya, Singapore and the Burma Thailand Railway and what he didn’t tell us”.

When the railway was completed, Cahill and the surviving prisoners were sent back to Changi in 1944. He finally returned to Australia in 1945; he landed in Darwin weighing 47 kilograms. The following year he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to prisoners of war.

They began with some background on their father Richard Lloyd Cahill. He was the eldest of 6 children to Doctor Arthur Cahill and his wife Florence. He studied Medicine and Sydney University and prior to joining the forces he was a resident doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital. In February this year they, the Cahill family and partners were fortunate enough to embark on a private historical war tour learning all about what their father was up to during the war. The highly acclaimed War Historian – Lynette Silver was kind enough to organise and take them on this extraordinary journey.

Lisa spoke of how their journey came about:

“My first meeting with Lynette was at a coffee shop. I had in my possession some very precious POW letters that belonged to Dad along with Wartime photos. I showed her the first photo and said this was dad in Singapore I think at Raffles, where he was stationed before the fall of Singapore. Lynette very promptly said “No it’s not, this was taken by the Women’ Weekly back in 1941 in Malaya”. My hackles went up and I thought this woman has no idea about my father (how wrong was I). Anyway, I went home and told Virginia and we both agreed that was ludicrous and she had it all wrong. Despite this Marc (Lisa’s husband) assured me she knew her stuff and to bear with it and we should all make the pilgrimage. Apart from anything we as a family with partners had never been away together. So, we all agreed to go.”

Lisa explained how that Lynette was soon to realise as a group we were totally uninformed. Whilst they knew he had a remarkable war history in Singapore and the Burma-Thailand Railway, they soon discovered that unbeknown to any of them, Lloyd had spent nearly 12 months in Malaya, before fighting and retreating to Singapore and then being captured when Singapore fell on the 15th February 1942.

“Lynette apparently couldn’t believe our basic questions and we couldn’t believe we never knew a thing about Malaya. Finally, the penny dropped for Lynette that our family had absolutely no idea that our father had been in Malaya. We were then to discover as a Medical officer he played a major role in the Battle of Parit Sulong tending to the wounded. This Battle is one of the worst and unspoken battles of WW2”.

Lisa provided some very detailed account of Lloyd’s extraordinary war service all at the tender age of 28. Virginia continued with further details following the Fall of Singapore.

“In April 1943, he (Dad) was told to move to an unknown destination, so he took 60% of the drugs and some of the instruments (saws, forceps etc.) these ended up being very useful on the railway. The Japanese Government was not part of the Geneva Convention, so they deemed that anyone taken as a POW forfeited all rights and was considered to have changed sides and therefore put the allied POWs to work, allied prisoners protested to no avail.”

Virginia told of the horrific Burma Thai Railway, also known as the death railway, 250 miles long. In June 1942 the Japanese Imperial Headquarters directed a single line with 1-metre gage, 250 miles long to be completed in 14 months whatever the material cost or lives lost. Work began on Oct 1942 to be completed by August 1943, which was extended to November 1943

• It took 61,000 POWs
• Australian
• British
• Dutch
• Plus 100,000 laborers

The trip was dreadful, 35 men crammed into a metal rice truck (7 metres long) in the tropical heat. A very slow journey north with infrequent stops to obtain water, a little food and relieve themselves.

For those interested in doing their own journey, Lisa explained how that at Kanchanaburi, west Thailand, there is an amazing private museum owned by Rod Beattie and run by 3 dedicated men. These men manage to identify all those lost in action on the railway whose names are now recorded in the three war graves. They also organised the Thai-Burma railway part of their family journey.

Virginia spoke of the 300km walk through slush and mud as any trucks would get bogged, as it was the wet season, then of the Cholera Hill isolation camp where Lloyd was the medical officer in charge. Essential treatment was improvised:

“Dad said there was a pharmacist Grahame Burke; he would make a Saline infusion by getting water from the waterfall behind Cholera hill and pinching salt from the Japanese kitchen. Dad used his stethoscope tubing to connect the bottle and needles (from Singapore), which ran into the patient. Also, with blood transfusions, all troops had their blood groups on dog tags. He would pinch a bicycle from the Japs, turn it upside down and spin the back wheel to make a centrifuge to separate the red cells from the plasma and then transfuse the red cells into the patients. He said the nips would not come near while blood was being prepared.”

“Trying to keep morale up at both camps was a challenge for Dad, so he made up quizzes like: Which is heavier the steel in the Queen Mary or the Sydney Harbour Bridge?
Or football questions which led to debate. He told stories of his time as a resident at St Vincent’s hospital 1939-40, the thieves and petty criminals of the cross and of course Kate Lee and Tilly Devine, all who were patients at causality. He made up a challenge for the first bachelor marrying on returning to Australia, to produce a child, the prize being the Sonkurai Cup. With the Cup came the agreement that his POW friends would attend the baptism and the 21st of this child. Thank goodness it wasn’t me, it was Carol Kearney – Des Kearney was a well-known member of the BBC and a great friend of my fathers. Des, known as the ‘Black Prince’, called Dad ‘Dutch’ till the day he died, after Dutch Shultz the infamous New York Gangster because of his story telling.

I think it was Dads optimism and sense of humour which helped him and so many soldiers survive.”

After a short break, Chris Deane began to recount the details of the one of the darkest parts of Australian military history – Sandakan 1942- 45.

In 2017 a group, including Jenny, Jimmy, Marc Biancardi & Mike Polin from the BBC, followed in the steps of the 1945 Death Marches in Borneo. Let’s call them the ‘A’ team. Another group of mates including BBC members Ross Heidtman, Marc Scamps, Allan Bolton, Tony Aveling & Russell Scrimshaw also did the same trek in August 2016. Let’s call them the “B’ team!

Chris was originally going with the “B” team, however, a freak horse riding accident and some broken ribs, prohibited him from making the journey. Unlike the 1,000 or so POW’s who commenced the marches in 1945, as Chris said he had the option of pulling out!!

Chris then summarised events:

“In 1942, 2,434 POW’s of which 1,787 were Australian and 641 were British, were sent by boat from Singapore’s Changi POW camp to Sandakan to build an airstrip. Three years later in 1945, the Japanese who were now losing the war, were instructed by High Command “that no prisoners were to survive”!!!!

Thus, commenced the death marches of over 1,000 prisoners from Sandakan POW Camp to Ranau. Ranau is a small village located 240km NW from the camp through thick inhospitable Borneo jungle.

There were 300 men left behind at Sandakan as they were unable to walk. They all died or were killed by the Japanese. The last remaining POW in the camp was 31-year-old Private John Skinner, a lanky bushman from Tenterfield, NSW, who was sadly beheaded 5hrs before wars end on 15 August 1945.

Of the 1,053 POW’s who left on the death marches, about half died in the attempt and the rest died at their destination from illness, malnutrition and ill treatment by their captors. This includes the horrendous killing of the last 15 POW’s who were shot by the Japanese 12 days after the war officially ended.

The only exception were 6 Australians who escaped the marches and survived the war to tell their story, but sadly no British.”

Chris told how that Sandakan and the subsequent death marches are regarded as being one of the most tragic of WW2. It is also one of the most heroic. Despite appalling conditions, the POW’s never gave up. Their heroism, their determination and their indomitable spirit are testimony to the strength we hope lies within us and an inspiration to all.

Lynette Silver who was Lisa & Virginia’s tour guide is the first person who pieced together the untold story about Sandakan and the subsequent death marches. She published her research in a book called Sandakan – A Conspiracy of Silence.

Throughout the day, Lynette provided an enormous amount of historical information about each part of the track we walked, and the individual POW’s footsteps we were following.

Chris’s presentation was passionately charged and, in his words, “I was humbled to be able to experience the track. Before I hand over to Jimmy and Jenny, I wanted to conclude that this experience was so different to the other treks I have done. I think, as this track bore so much death, despair and torture I found myself emotionally challenged at the huge loss and waste of young life and the absolute futility of war. On the other hand, the stories of doing anything to try and survive against all odds and the undoubted human spirit to help defend and support each other no matter the cost, is the goodness we hope is in each of us if ever we were in such dire circumstances ourselves.”

Jenny then took to the floor and her presentation included some maps and photographs of their trek.

This trek was something that Jenny had long wanted to join and was quietly pleased that Chris had fallen off his horse and that he might go in the future and perhaps allow her to join the team! As is Jenny character she was totally undeterred by the fact that when she received an invitation she was the sole female. It had its challenges however when nature called … if only she had taken an umbrella.

There was more to the journey than the Death March and the “A” team did a tour of Sandakan including the beautiful Australian War Memorial and the church where prisoners were kept at one stage. They also went to visit the Sepilok Nature Reserve during which time the boys showed how they would spend their rest time … again and again!

For most of the trip they walked on a track that was barely there and if your skin wasn’t covered you would end up with scratches from the stalks in the ground so despite the heat they quickly ended up in long pants.

They made it to the Forestry Lodge, the location of Allan Bolton’s famous slip in his thongs on wet stairs, doing himself serious injury and causing him to withdraw from the first walk. In true Aussie style the boys demanded to see the offending stair and marked it with electrical tape flowed by a beer to Allan!

Jenny described how that each of the team had a soldier’s memory to walk with. When they reached the spot where they had died they read their story to the group.

“These tales were harrowing and definitely brought home that we weren’t just on a hard walk but that what we were experiencing was nothing compared to what the death marchers endured. My soldier was 24 when he was beaten to death on the track because he was so weak he was holding up the march.”

Jimmy then gave us his version of events. He had previously done Kokoda with Jenny, and being a good mate said that when he was invited on the walk he couldn’t do it without her as he knew she wanted to do it. Jimmy in his own inimitable style managed to lighten the sombre mood. Jimmy is in fact a very funny storyteller as we have heard at previous meetings. He’s also the type of character that had he been on the actual death march he would have lifted the spirits of every soldier. In short we heard for about 10 minutes about the heel of his right boot coming away and needing running repairs with duct tape, then he managed to spin a further 10 minutes about his left boot! Only Jimmy could get away with that. He then managed to weave Jack Cox into his account. After about 5 hours and losing his heel, battling the heat and jungle he turned to Chris and said he wasn’t sure he could continue.

Chris looked at him and said” Look around you. What do you see?”
Jimmy “Jungle?”
Chris “I am a Jack Cox Champion. Jenny is a Jack Cox Champion. You are a Jack Cox Champion. What does that say to you?”
Jimmy “Two of us can swim fast and the other can trick the handicapper.”
Chris “Would Jack Cox stop here or keep going. Toughen up princess and let’s go”!!!

When the laughter had died down and many questions had been answered Chris movingly finished the evening reading a poem … within the Australian Garden there is a memorial stone inscribed with a poem by one of the six survivors:

I’m dreaming of Australia,
The land we left behind.
Dreaming of the loved ones
We could always bear in mind
Although is only fancy
Our hearts within us yearn.
But we’ll make up for lost moments
When to Australia we return.
There’d be sailing on the harbour,
The Showboat our first choice.
Or maybe we’d be dancing
Listening to our sweetheart’s voice.
Although it’s only fancy
Our hearts within us yearn.
Gee we’ll make up for lost moments
When to Aussie we return.

Nelson Short – Kundasang

Our thanks to everyone who presented on the evening; Lisa, Virginia, Marc, Chris, Jenny and Jimmy.

The “B” team for their contributions. Doug Sturrock for his Des Kearney anecdote. Our thoughts to Lynette Silver who led both treks but unfortunately couldn’t make the evening due to unforeseen circumstances. We all thought of how much George Franki would have loved to be present.

Don’t check the Jack Cox Champion records to closely.

Finally, we took a brief moment to remember recently departed Alan Gill who had supported the BBC Storytellers since it started 10 years ago. He will be missed by all. Rumour has it that Alan wrote his own obituary and eulogy … ever the reporter!

The presentations were filmed so in due course may be available for viewing on the club’s website and will certainly be added to the club’s growing archives.

The next meeting of the Storytellers will be on Tuesday 17th April 2018, commencing at 7:30 pm.

If the weather is good then come for a drink, feed and chat beforehand, usually starting at 6pm. All members and friends are welcome