Remembering the Railway

Australian memories

In the experience of captivity the Anzac legend found a new form …

Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, Anzac Day 1998, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand.

Two soldiers wearing slouch hat, ceremonial medals and carrying an automatic rifle, stand heads bowed

Australian soldiers of the catafalque party at the Anzac Day 2012 ceremony, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. [Photo: Kim McKenzie]

In the decades since 1945 prisoners of war and the Burma-Thailand railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia's national memory of war.

There are good reasons for this. Over 22 000 Australians were captured by the Japanese in South East Asia. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation.

However this alone does not explain why the memory of POWs has been so lasting in Australia. All memory is selective. Communities, like individuals, remember some stories of the past while forgetting others. For memories to survive at the collective or national level they need to be championed—not just once but over the decades.

Many Australians have performed that role for POWs of the Japanese. A number of ex-prisoners published their memoirs shortly after the war. These included eye-witness accounts like that of the war correspondent Rohan Rivett (Behind Bamboo, 1946) and the Australian Army nurses interned on Sumatra, Jessie Elizabeth Simons (While History Passed, 1954) and Betty Jeffrey (White Coolies, 1954). But there were also memorable fictional accounts of captivity like Nevil Shute's A Town like Alice (1950).

Some of these books were immensely popular. Russell Braddon's The Naked Island (1951) sold well over a million copies and stayed in print for decades. Many POW accounts were also adapted over the years for commercial films and television series.

These accounts of captivity spoke to a deep anti-Japanese prejudice and racism in 1950s Australia. More positively, some of them turned a story of atrocity and suffering into an affirmation of Australian courage and resilience. The Australian POWs were portrayed not so much as men who had been humiliated by defeat but as Anzacs who in captivity had triumphed over adversity, displaying humour, resourcefulness and mateship in profoundly difficult circumstances. In this way the POW narrative became integrated into the national memory of war that had been dominant since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, the Anzac 'legend'.

The flow of POWs memoirs continued in the 1960s and 1970s (though at a slower rate) when novels and memoirs were published by ex-POWs such as Hugh Clarke and Ray Parkin.

Then in the 1980s and 1990s POWs were 'rediscovered' when a 'memory boom' occurred in Australia and across the globe. The reasons for this were complex and had much to do with nation building in the post-Cold War era. This new wave of remembrance of war, however, inspired as it was by the Holocaust, also generated a new sympathy for victims of trauma, such as genocide and captivity.

A second wave of POW books emerged in 1980s. The testimony of the now ageing POWs was also captured by the academic Hank Nelson and journalist Tim Bowden in a memorable series of interviews for the national radio broadcaster, the ABC. New films and television series followed, such as Bruce Beresford's Paradise Road (1997) and John Doyle's Changi (2001).

World War II veterans meanwhile began returning in their retirement to sites of their wartime suffering including Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting). Progressively from the 1980s on they developed new rituals of remembrance often with official support.

So too did their families and other 'pilgrims'. As online databases became available Australians 'turned to the past', researching their family histories, visiting battlefields and war cemeteries, and positioning their personal stories within the national narrative of war.

National memorials to POWs were meanwhile created at the Royal Military College Duntroon, Canberra in 1988 and the Victorian town of Ballarat (2004), which was home to a POW doctor, Albert Coates of A Force.

The Australian government, in turn, invested in many sites of war memory overseas. These included not only battlefields such as Gallipoli, Isurava in Papua New Guinea and Le Hamel, France, but also Sandakan, the site of the 1945 death march on Borneo, and the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. With its remarkable topography and dramatic narrative, Hellfire Pass came to stand for the wider Australian experience of captivity.

The Australian War Memorial, the national museum and memorial to war, also profiled prisoners of war in exhibitions such as Stolen Years which travelled the country in 2003 to 2005. Some years earlier a statue (by Peter Corlett) of the POW surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop had been installed outside the Memorial. Although Dunlop was only one of 106 Australian POW medical officers, he had come to represent the values of self-sacrifice, courage and compassion which they all manifested in captivity—and which are now central to the Anzac legend and the Australian memory of prisoners of war.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Remembering the Railway, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024,
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