Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020
Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop's story is one of care, compassion, hardship and suffering. Weary enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force after studying medicine. This tells his story as an army doctor in the Middle East and Mediterranean theatres through to his deployment to Java and eventual capture by the Japanese Army. As a prisoner of war, Weary suffered along with hundreds of other prisoners, but he endured hardships so he could care for the injured and sick men in captivity. His story reveals a doctor and a soldier who saved many lives in very challenging conditions.
Student inquiry questions
- Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop served as an Australian Army surgeon in the Middle East before he went to South-East Asia where he was captured by the Japanese forces. What differences would he have experienced between treating soldiers in an army camp and a prison camp?
- Read about life as a prisoner of war in our resource, Stolen years: Australian prisoners of war. What did Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop do in the prisoner-of-war camps to try and keep up the morale and health of other prisoners?
- Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop took a great risk in keeping a diary while he was a prisoner of war. Why do you think he took that risk?
- Thousands of Allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers were put to work to build the Burma-Thailand railway. Why was this railway important to the Japanese?
- Why was it important for Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop to keep his physical and mental health as well as it could be while he was a prisoner?
Opening credits - collage of drawings – soldiers, fighter aeroplane; video title 'Stories of Service: Second World War'; cartoonist creating a black and white drawing a Second World War Japanese soldier standing and watching shirtless Allied prisoners of war working on a section of railway. The Japanese soldier holds a rifle and has his back to the viewer. The prisoners of war are lower down, in a gully with the section of railway. Three crosses marking graves are on a hill behind the prisoners of war. The cartoon changes from black and white to green for the clothing worn by the figures and for the jungle that surrounds them and to a pale brown for the wooden railway sleepers on the ground and being carried by the prisoners. Music.
The presenter Warren Brown is seen sitting on the ground in front of a slope covered with many rock fragments. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. He has a sketch pad in his lap and looks directly at the camera as he talks.
'As a prisoner of war, survival is a battle in itself. Faced with unimaginable hardship in the worst conditions you need courage, luck, and a healthy dose of inspiration.'
Brown is seen still sitting in front of the slope, however, he's now visible in a 'head and shoulders' shot. He looks directly at the camera as he talks.
'Well, for hundreds of prisoners of war held captive by the Japanese during the Second World War, that inspiration would come from an extraordinary man.'
The screen changes to a background that looks like old creased paper. To the left of the screen is a painting of Sir Ernest Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. He's seen in his military uniform, cradling his hat in his left arm. Part of the painting is reproduced on the right side of the screen, blending in with the background. The image of an old army first aid field dressing in its packaging is at the lower right of the screen. The image of a crinkled tube of ointment appears to the left of the field dressing. A tag with 'morphia' written on it appears under the ointment. A field dose of morphine appears at the lower left of the screen. All these images are replaced by a black and white photograph of a rugby union team in 1934. A card is at the lower right of the screen; it shows a young Dunlop in his rugby uniform. An old-style rugby ball is at the lower left of the screen.
'A doctor, surgeon, and a man of enormous courage and compassion - Weary Dunlop. Ernest Edward Dunlop was anything but weary. He earned his nickname while playing football because - like the advertisement for the famous Dunlop tyres said - he never wore out.'
Brown is seen standing out in the open, in front of a large grassed area. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and is seen from about his waist up. He looks directly at the camera as he talks.
'He studied pharmacy and medicine and even played rugby union for Australia as a Wallaby in 1932 and 1934. He had been a cadet at school and went on to join the army services, which he continued with part-time at university until 1929.'
The screen changes to an old black and white photograph depicting a group of male doctors and nurses performing surgery on someone. A stack of thick medical textbooks appears to the right of the photograph. These images are replaced by a full-screen image of Weary Dunlop’s Australian Army enlistment form. The Rising Sun badge of the Australian Army is at the top left of the screen. These images are replaced by a map of North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Palestine, Crete, Greece and Libya are indicated on the map. Tobruk in Libya is also indicated. The map zooms out to show South-East Asia and the land and sea route taken by Dunlop and the other troops to reach Java. The map 'zooms in' on Java and shows the location of Bandoeng.
'He studied in London to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and, in 1935, he enlisted in the full-time Australian Army where he was commissioned with the rank of Captain into the Australian Army Medical Corps. When the Second World War broke out, Weary was posted to the Middle East where he served in Palestine, Greece and Crete. He became senior surgeon at Tobruk in Libya before the Australians were withdrawn to fight the Japanese army that was now invading South-East Asian countries. In 1942, elements of the 6th and 7th Australian divisions arrived on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia. It was here that Dunlop was given the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was placed in command of No 1 Allied General Hospital at Bandoeng.'
The map is replaced by a full-screen background that resembles an old photograph album. On the left side of the album are two black and white photographs. The upper photograph shows a group of Japanese and Allied soldiers while the lower photograph shows a group of Japanese soldiers. On the right side of the album is a black and white photograph of Dunlop in uniform, standing with his hands behind his back. The two photographs at left slide off the screen to the left while the photograph of Dunlop is overlayed by a set of prison cell bars. A black and white photograph appears to the upper right of the screen. It depicts what appears to be a large group of Commonwealth troops in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. A faded Australian flag appears in the centre of the screen. A banner appears to its right; the banner apparently lists Dunlop and some of the men under his command in Java.
'But within 6 weeks, Java had been captured by the Japanese and the Australians were taken as prisoners of war, moved to "a formidable walled stone building with confining iron bars". Weary was placed in charge of the Commonwealth prisoners. He set about encouraging education, sport and entertainment to try to keep up the morale and maintain the health of his fellow prisoners.'
The screen changes to a close-up shot of someone writing with a pencil in a book. Only the hands of the person are visible. The screen then changes to a background that looks like old paper. An ink well on a book is visible at the top left-hand corner of the screen. A nib pen is visible at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. The words describing Dunlop's encounter with the rat appear on the screen in a font that looks like handwriting.
'Despite the personal risk of it being discovered, Dunlop kept a diary. This diary provides a first-hand account of what life was like as a prisoner of war. He recorded some of the hazards of life in the prison camp apart from the Japanese army guards. Here's one example: "I had an appalling affair with a large rat which got inside my mosquito net and chewed my hair, finally running over my face and becoming tangled in the net. Finally, the rat escaped. He bit my chest twice. Damn him and his family".'
Brown is seen in front of a slope covered in rocks and rock fragments. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. He walks toward the camera as he talks. He stops but continues to talk, looking directly at the camera. The screen changes to a map showing Java in South-East Asia. The map moves up to show the location of Burma, Thailand, the Burma-Thailand Railway and India.
'But Dunlop's time in Java was about to end. Now, because the sea routes were considered dangerous, in 1942, Japanese high command decided to build a 415km railway line through the jungle, linking Burma to Thailand. This railway would help the Japanese with their plan to attack Commonwealth forces in India and assist in transporting the soldiers, weapons, and equipment required for an extended campaign against the Allies in Burma.'
The map is replaced by a full screen black and white photograph depicting a small group of Commonwealth soldiers walking along an elevated railway track that is built up on many wooden supports. The photograph is then replaced by another full screen black and white photograph that depicts a group of Commonwealth soldiers working on a section of railway track. Many of the soldiers are shirtless. One is barefoot. This photograph is then replaced by another full screen black and white photograph that depicts a group of Commonwealth soldiers attending the burial of a comrade. Two wooden crosses are in the foreground of the photograph.
'But the Burma-Thailand railway would be hand-built by the thousands of Allied prisoners of war forced to work by the Japanese, along with many more Asian civilian labourers known as Rǒmusha. It became known as 'The Death Railway'. By the time it was completed, some 102,000 prisoners of war and local workers had died during its construction.'
Brown is seen standing out in the open, in front of a rocky slope. A rocky gully appears to be in the background. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and is seen from about his waist up. He looks directly at the camera as he talks.
'With some 900 men under his command, what was known as the 'Dunlop Force' was sent to the infamous Changi prison in Singapore and then on to South-West Thailand where the men were put to work constructing the railway.'
The screen changes to a full-screen black and white photograph depicting many Commonwealth soldiers working on a section of railway track. The photograph is replaced by another full screen black and white photograph depicting Commonwealth soldiers walking along a long line of railway sleepers laid out on the ground, parallel to each other. The soldiers, to the right of the photograph, carry railway sleepers. Each sleeper is carried by two soldiers. Two Japanese guards watch from the left side of the photograph. That photograph is then replaced by a full-screen black and white photograph depicting Commonwealth soldiers lining up for food in a prisoner of war camp. The soldiers are all shirtless; many of them appear to be under-nourished. The photograph is then replaced by another full screen black and white photograph that depicts a railway cutting in a steep-sided gorge. Dunlop's diary entry appears as text over the image, in a font that looks like handwriting. As the text continues to appear, the image of the railway cutting is replaced by a full-screen image of an abandoned railway track with leaf litter covering the sleepers between the rails.
'Dunlop's unit was sent to the Hintok River Camp where he devised a system of cooperative leadership. The camp adopted some important survival principles; two of these were the fit looked after the sick, and the young looked after the old. But the fitness and health of the prisoners was irrelevant to the Japanese who were impatient to build the railway. As Dunlop wrote in his diary on the 19th of March 1943, "Tomorrow 600 men are required for the railway. Light duty men, no duty men and all men without boots to go just the same. This is the next thing to murder".'
The screen changes to a background of what appears to be old creased paper. A black and white photograph appears at the left of the screen. It depicts two Commonwealth soldiers in a prisoner of war camp. They are standing either side of a tub perched on a wooden frame. Each soldier wears a simple loin cloth. A hut made from bamboo and grass thatch is directly behind them. A black and white photograph appears to the right of the screen. It depicts a cross marking a grave. The horizontal arm of the cross has a soldier's service number, name and the date he died on it. Other crosses marking graves are in the background.
'The Japanese guards treated their prisoners cruelly, denying them the most basic of requirements such as food and medical assistance. They would often beat the prisoners and would force them to work until some simply died.'
Brown is seen standing out in the open, in front of a rocky slope. A rocky gully appears to be in the background. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and is seen from about his waist up. He looks directly at the camera as he talks. As he talks, the scene changes to a more 'close up' shot of him, in which his head and shoulders are visible.
'Weary rallied his fellow prisoners to try and survive the cruelty and indignation of the circumstances under which they were now living. He led by example and assumed the enormous responsibility of looking after his men's welfare. When he stood up to his captors, he was sometimes badly beaten and even threatened with execution.'
The screen changes to a full-screen black and white photograph depicting three Commonwealth soldiers standing next to each other in a prisoner of war camp. The soldiers are all thin, with their ribcages showing under their skin. They wear shorts that appear to have been mended many times. Another black and white photograph appears over the image of the soldiers. It depicts a medical operation taking place in a space in a bare wooden room. A few medical supplies are on shelves in the background. Three objects appear at the bottom of the screen. They are, from left to right, a field dressing in its packaging, a tag with morphine dosage information on it and a crinkled tube of ointment.
'As pressure to finish the railway increased, conditions for the men deteriorated even further as the Japanese soldiers forcibly removed sick and weak prisoners from the hospital, demanding they continue to work. All the while, Dunlop and his medical staff did their best to help their fellow soldiers try to overcome starvation, malnutrition, malaria, beriberi, cholera, dysentery, tropical ulcers and a host of other conditions.'
Brown is seen standing out in the open, in front of a rocky slope. He wears a blue long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans and is seen from about mid-thighs up. He looks directly at the camera as he talks. As he talks, a book appears in the upper left of the screen. Images of prosthetic limbs and medical rehabilitation equipment appear on the pages of the book. Some documents appear on the upper right of the right side of the book. The scene changes to a more 'close up' shot of Warren Brown, in which his head and shoulders are visible. The rocky slope remains in the background.
'With no medical supplies, he often improvised, making artificial legs from bamboo and crude medical equipment from whatever bits and pieces he and others could find. Examples of his improvised medical equipment include bed pans made from bamboo, cutlery turned into surgical equipment, and petrol tins made into containers for boiling water in which you could sterilise surgical items.'
The scene changes to a background that looks like old creased paper. To the left of the screen is a painting of Dunlop. He's seen in his military uniform, cradling his hat in his left arm. Text appears to the right of the painting. The text is part of a report on Dunlop's work while in Java. A newspaper headline appears at the bottom of the screen. It says "'Weary': A lighthouse of sanity". A newspaper clipping appears at the right of the screen. It shows a picture of Dunlop with some text under the picture. A black and white photograph of Dunlop after the war appears toward the centre of the screen. He wears a suit and tie. A statue of Dunlop appears to the centre-right of the screen. It's a full-length statue, seen side-on. An image of an Order of Australia medal appears behind the statue. It has a gold medallion and a blue ribbon.
'Weary's reputation for keeping cool under the most appalling conditions became legend among the men he commanded. He was described as 'a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering.' His care and concern for the other prisoners meant that lives were saved where in other circumstances they might have been lost. After the war, Weary Dunlop received numerous awards and honours including Australian of the Year in 1977, a Companion of the Order of Australia, and even a knighthood to become Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. Weary died in 1993 at the age of 85. As one of the 106 Australian prisoner-of-war medical officers, Weary's story of service represents their self-sacrifice, courage and compassion.'
The Australian Government Department of Veterans’ Affairs crest appears on a black background.