Features Australia

Dad and the Burma Railway

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

Thawley Prize Runner-up

For nearly 1300 days my father was tortured and starved and saw death up close. He witnessed an Australian soldier’s road-side execution with a Samurai sword and once saw a Gurkha behead a Japanese officer with his kukri. My father was a survivor of the Burma Railway and these were just some of the horrors that stayed with him until his death.

Most adult Australians have heard of the Burma Railway. It is the 415-km railway linking Bangkok and Rangoon built in 1943 for the Empire of Japan by slave labour that included more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war.

The railway is an episode covered in histories, in documentaries and Hollywood dramas. From Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai to David Bowie’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, many people of drinking age have some understanding of Singapore’s fall 74 years ago, and the 3½ years servitude Australian gunners endured on the Death Railway.

Each Anzac Day the 8th Division still get cheers from the crowds, although their numbers are now sparse. Indeed, the Burma Railway is the timber of Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Booker and PM’s Literary Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a love story traversing this terrain.

For me, the Burma Railway is personal and poignant. It’s something I have known of my entire life and my father’s war stories are now my stories. Singapore’s fall and the Burma Railway certainly shaped our foreign policy, and for men like my dad, it scored their psyche. But for their children – for me – their parent’s survival affected them, whether we liked it or not.

My father, Bruce Gidley Abbott, was born in 1908 in the New England region of NSW. When he enlisted in 1940 he was assigned the army number NX66389 and records say Malaya was his theatre of war, attached to the 2/15th Field Regiment, 8th Division. The 2/15th arrived in Singapore aboard troop ship Katoomba on 15 August 1941. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December and after a few weeks of holding the advancing Nippon at bay, Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 and my father was captured.


The Allied PoWs spent their first months in Singapore’s Changi gaol and were then shipped north in stinking railway cattle trucks, through Malaya and then Thailand into Burma. That’s where my father spent the next three years labouring on the Burma Railway.

Dad went into the prison camp as a 95kg rugby player and emerged a changed man, perhaps in mind but certainly stature. When liberated by the bombing of Hiroshima, he weighed just over 60kg.

The railway had other physical effects too. His body was ruined – back pain (he wore a corset, the result of a belting from a rifle-butt), headaches, weak eyes and being incurably underweight. He wore special orthopaedic shoes after his captors again and again whacked his soles with pieces of thick bamboo. A tropical ulcer gone septic on his shin was cut out with a sharpened spoon, leaving a disobliging scar and a lifetime reminder.

His mental health fared no better. For decades after, Dad still endured nightmares and sleeplessness and a not-always gentle torment. Sometimes he showed a volcanic temper and, at others, he lapsed into a wistful look that aimed towards the middle distance.

In prison, or ‘the bag’, he kept a diary, miraculously, and while that volume details his longing for home and the banalities of jungle life, it is never morose or vindictive. But it did talk of hunger.While a PoW he survived on boiled rice, a random piece of fish or fruit and so developed an almost religious respect for food. Rice was no ordinary fare and Dad was certain how it should be cooked. As a kid we would go to Chinese restaurants where Dad would inspect the rice and send it back if he thought it not up to scratch, a habit that caused Mum and I some discomfort.

But his war was about surviving, under the most unspeakable circumstances, and the intense relationships that forms among survivors. He spoke of loyalty, of truth and of a man’s word being his bond. He spoke of the fellowship between diggers, the power of the group and esprit de corps.

So despite the hunger, the filth, the death and the exhaustion, I suspect my father found a strange sustenance from his time as a prisoner of war.

I am no Labor supporter but on Singapore I agree with former Prime Minister Paul Keating. His view is Britain turned its back on Australia at the Malayan Peninsula, allowing Singapore to fall and our men to be captured. Keating thought it a betrayal, a position with which I have some sympathy. My father, though, never once entertained this view and, in fact, it was a sore point between us. Dad might have hated the Japanese, but he never denigrated the British Empire or those whose decisions landed him in a jungle gaol.

Why is the Burma Railway so important? For a start, it was an event that meant life and death. But unlike Kokoda for instance, it was no winning campaign against the odds. In fact, while it might have been a failure, for survivors it was a victory of the moral kind and for those that lived on, it informed emotions and beliefs that endured. For Australia, it also unleashed changes that endured.

For many, Singapore’s fall and the resulting incarceration on the Burma Railway was a turning point: a moment that required questioning of Britain’s loyalty and a contemplation of American support. For many – not my father – it forced the questioning of old verities and for Prime Minister John Curtin it meant a turn to the US. That decision shaped our entire post-war foreign policy.

Dad has gone now. He died, quietly, in 1995 aged 86. I cried – I loved him and he loved me and, happily, there was not a word left unsaid between us. But the time on the Burma Railway was the formative experience of his life, and those years and those stories and the lore that developed have been part of my life too, and in no small way, have helped make me the man I am today.

Matthew Abbott is a Sydney PR man.
The 2016 Thawley Essay Prize theme will be announced in a forthcoming issue of The Spectator Australia

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