POW medical personnel

All of it [Kevin Fagan] did with the courtesy of a society specialist who is being richly paid for his attention and the ready humour of a man who is not tired at all … he is the most inspiring man I have ever met.

[Russell Braddon, The Naked Island, first published 1952, Edinburgh, Berlinn Ltd, 2005, 176.]

Medical personnel feature prominently in accounts of captivity. By providing medical care, displaying remarkable ingenuity and protecting the sick from the brutality of the Japanese (where they could), these men were critical to their fellow prisoners' survival.

The best known of Australian doctors was Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop but he was one of many: 106 Australian doctors were captured by the Japanese, of whom 44 worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. They included Albert Coates, Bruce Hunt, Rowley Richards, and Roy Mills. Ten doctors died while prisoners of the Japanese, none on the railway.

Very little could be done for the prisoners' dental welfare with only six Australian dental officers scattered along the railway.

With little medicine and equipment—though some doctors managed to bring some instruments with them—these medical personnel had to treat illnesses and diseases which were often unfamiliar to them. Yet they showed a remarkable capacity to improvise. Surgery and amputations were conducted in the most difficult of conditions, sometimes with the Japanese watching on.

In jungle camps along the railway there was an average of one doctor to one hundred men. However, in places such as 55-Kilo camp in Burma, this ratio was as low as three doctors to 2 000 men. The ratio rose to four to 100 in the base hospitals, such as Chungkai and Tha Sao. But even this was far fewer than were needed given the numbers of the sick.

The doctors ranged from:

experienced surgeons to general practitioners in their twenties scarcely out of medical school.

[Rosalind Hearder, 'More Complex than a Stereotype: Australian POW Doctors and the Japanese in Captivity, 1942-45', Health & Society, 2004, 6/2, 75.]

Each had his own approach to the medical challenges. Richards of A Force was proud that he performed no amputations during his time on the railway. By contrast, Albert Coates performed more, having been trained as a surgeon.

Doctors had a key role to play in preventive medicine. One doctor insisted on testing all food found by prisoners in the jungle before it was eaten. To combat water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, latrines had to be properly sited and cooking utensils cleaned regularly. The isolation of infectious patients was also important.

Doctors also protected the sick from the Japanese, at considerable risk to themselves. At Tha Sao, for example, Hunt confronted a Japanese corporal who insisted that certain men were fit to travel. Falling in with the sick men Hunt stood his ground together with his interpreter C. H. D. Wild. After the corporal had slashed Wild across the face with a large bamboo, Hunt recalled:

Another guard followed suit and as Major Wild staggered back the corporal thrust at the major's genitals with his bamboo. I was … immediately set upon by the corporal and two other guards—one tripped me while two others pushed me to the ground. The three then set about me with bamboos, causing extensive bruising of skull, back, hands and arms, and a fractured left 5th metacarpal bone. … After I was disposed of the corporal then made the majority of the sick men march with the rest of the troops.

[Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957, 573.]

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. But many were volunteers from among the prisoners. They emptied bedpans, cleaned huts, cremated the dead. And, most importantly, provided the sick and dying with companionship.

Coming into daily contact with sick men, all medical personnel were at risk of infection themselves. Dunlop acknowledged the courage this required, saying of one of his orderlies, Alan Gibson:

who was himself reduced to a near-naked skeleton, shivering with chronic malaria and racked with dysentery, yet confronted with a man naked and tormented with cholera, dropped his last shred of comfort in the world—his blanket—over the dying man.

[Quoted in Rosalind Hearder, Keep the Men Alive, Crows Nest, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2009, 66.]

It is not surprising then that medical personnel should be honoured in memorials at the Australian War Memorial and King's Domain, Melbourne; and that Dunlop should have become in his later years an iconic representation of the values of compassion and self-sacrifice central to Australian memory of war.

Last updated: 31 March 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), POW medical personnel, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 27 September 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/events/surviving/pow-medical-personnel
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