A group of 2/29th Battalion Association members set out on a journey enthused by Doug Ogden and Kerry Barker and motivated by ‘The Exceptional Melbourne Cup’ written by Charles Lewis. The aim was to commemorate the running of the Tavoy Melbourne Cup that was run and organized by members of the 2/29th Battalion as POW’s, 75 years ago.
The group flew out from Melbourne to Yangon on a warm and barmy evening full of excitement and enthusiasm. The trip did not disappoint! On the journey were Doug & Lis Ogden, Ron & Simon Lovett, Gary Simmons, Loris Fletcher, Robert Muir, Doris & Kerry Barker, Colin & Marion Stiles and Joy & Anthony Derham.
On arrival in Yangon we were met by our Guide, Min Saw Lin who shared his knowledge willingly on all levels, also we met our very competent bus driver “Fatty” and bus boy “Tun Tun”. From Yangon we travelled to follow the route of the railway from Moulimein, where we found the old railway station and derelict railway trucks that had transported our men. Journeying onto Ye we found many sites that were part of the war time history.
Continuing to the Thanbyuzayat Allied War Memorial Cemetery we were met by Thet Mon, who is in charge of the War Graves in Burma. Thet is a wonderful man and he and his staff provided us with refreshments at the beautifully maintained cemetery. At the Thanbyuzayat Museum Joy Derham presented The Battalion History and another book on the Tavoy Cup by Charles Lewis. It was particularly touching as Gary presented his father's original battalion plaque to the museum manager. This plaque will be displayed in the entry to the museum. This was very moving experience as we reflected on the numerous number of young lives lost and we were able to share a special moment with Doug & Lis Ogden as this is the resting place of Doug’s father, Pte. J. D. W. Odgen who died at the Sonkurai hospital. Marion & Colin Stiles also located a cousin of Marion’s, Pte. R.E. Parons, and were able to pay their respects, along with Joy finding the headstone of Pte. A. L. Sexton, for a friend.
Thanbyuzayat We arrive at The Death Railway Museum. I’m a bit on edge as I have brought my dad’s Battalion plaque that he gave to me in 1971 which I have offered to the museum. This plaque had been with me for over 46 years, but I figured it was time it found a new home, and so, I presented it to the manager of the museum. I was very proud to learn that the plaque will take pride of place at the entrance to the museum. I am sure dad would be smiling down on me as I handed it over.
A photo of us all at the railway head and then what became a haunting trek into the jungle where I found abandoned railway carriages that were obviously used to transport the POW’s.
Now rusting and deteriorating they sit like steel ghosts still on the rail tracks where they finally came to a grinding halt back in 1945.
I walked on my own – touching the carriages, trying to feel the pain and anguish our men must have endured. Impossible to experience their depravation and suffering – the tears started until Doug came by and we walked back together in silence.
Tavoy (by Doug)
Arriving in Tavoy on November 2nd in readiness for the re-enactment of the Cup the next day. We visited the sites where the camps were and all places relevant to our trip. We locked in the Karen School that we believed was the venue for the original Cup.
Kerry and I had a grand plan that required the help of the local school children. Because it was at the time of the Full Moon Festival children were not readily available so an alternate plan was hatched for the race if we could not get children to help. Between our guide, Min and Kerry our preferred plan came to fruition. This wasn't confirmed till quite late on the 2nd. We arrived at the school to be greeted by the children who were represent each of us. Some teachers were also present.
A couple of days prior to the race Gary Simmons and I got together to name and define the breeding for each horse representing the thirteen trip participants. Attendees were Colin and Marion Stiles, Joy and Anthony Derham, Kerry Barker and her mum Doris Barker, Gary Simmons, Doug and Elisabeth Ogden, Rob Muir and his sister Loris Fletcher, Ron Lovett and his son Simon.
These were the owners and the horses
OWNER - HORSE NAME - BY - OUT OF
GAZZA - THE LARRIKIN - THE JAILER - PROBATION
From the outset it was thought Gary was a danger to the group and himself in as much as we thought he could possibly be arrested for non observance of local protocol. A lucky escape.
LIS - LIMBURGER - SMELLY CHEESE - TULIP
Elisabeth a fine filly of Dutch heritage from Limburg. Limburg is as famous for its odious cheese in Europe as the durian is famous for its toxic, equally putrid, smell in Asia
DOUG - EX RAJ - EXULTED ONE - SUCKER
A fine leader who, although he gave his best was deposed by Kerry at the earliest opportunity. He was totally oblivious to the impending coup. After two days he mustered support and regained his rightful position.
RON - CAPTAIN’S SON - ROTA CUP - ARMLESS
Son of Capt Lovett. This horse was incapacitated. A severe shoulder injury put one arm in a sling and did render him armless. The stewards and veterinary team checked the horse as it was known pain killers were used to mask his symptoms. Competed under the influence of drugs. Action possible.
KERRY - MANDALAY LADY - VOLUNTEER - GOODWILL
Put's herself out as a compassionate volunteer but was poised like a cobra when the Raj showed weakness. She struck the poor fellow when his guard was down. He eventually regained his Rajhood.
DORIS - CHERRY BLOSSUM - THE PACKER - THE PIP
Kerry's mum. Less ruthless but still manages a family empire making packaging for the stone fruit industry in Victoria. A very quiet achiever.
ANTHONY - RUMP STEAK - SIR ANGUS - MEDIUM RARE
Wealthy cattle magnate, being watched carefully for takeover by Gina Reinhart. This horse appears quiet but can lash out without warning.
JOY - HORNY BEEF - BULLS ROAR - COWS ARSE
This lady is the brains behind the wealthy cattle magnate. Exerts fierce control over the purse strings. According to some has her bank manager totally under her control.
COLIN - CRASH & BURN - EXPLOSION - IMPACT
Ex RAAF Ace. Continues to do sorties in the retirement village with paper napkins. Was never in a combat situation but can relate his daring exploits against The Red Baron. Fragile, needs handling with care.
MARION - GERRY ATRIC - DIMENTIA - NAPPIES
Affectionately known as the Queen in the retirement Village. Loved by the old blokes, feared by the old girls. Mostly she has forgotten which is which.
SIMON - COOL BREEZE - 9 MIL GLOCK - SHOTGUN
Dirty Harry tendencies. Has teeth removed without anesthetic. Security expert. Most famous apprehension was three Myer fashion mannequins for being in store after closing.
LORIS - BOOK WORM - THE AUTHOR - THE LIBRARY
A devoted teacher and librarian, quiet but has true wisdom. However they say to watch the quiet ones. Chasing history as father won the original event.
ROB - SCUBA - THE SHARK - CORAL SEA
Spends more time under water than on terra firma. Could be growing fins. Advised by one fellow traveller to be careful he didn't finish up as shark droppings. The actual word was not droppings but a far more meaningful expression.
The scene at the school was set. Just before the 3.40PM I announced that I was President of the Tavoy Racing Club and that I expected a fair and honest race. I introduced my Chief Steward, Gary Simmons, who was overseeing the race and was casting his eagle eye for any irregularities or improprieties. Gary read the field, stating owner, horse and breeding.
The spectators moved to the finish line about seventy five metres away. Elisabeth had her camera ready in case of a photo finish. The children were given a piece of paper with an owner's name on it. They lined up at the barrier rearing to go. Rob Muir tried to control the field as the official starter. Then, at the precise time, they were off. In a few seconds we had replicated The Tavoy Melbourne Cup seventy five years on. There was a lot of excitement as the horses returned to scale. The winning horse gave me his piece of paper with a name on it. The winner Book Worm owned by Loris Fletcher, daughter of Wif Muir. History was repeating itself.
The photo finish showed a close second. Cherry Blossom owned by Doris Barker scraped home. Cups were presented to the to both Loris and Doris.
All participating children were each given three books from Australia and, although maybe a little confused by the mad Aussies, were very pleased with their gifts. A few books were left over and they went to the school library. Gary had also brought books and pencils for the school, courtesy of the Battalion Association.
After the race we went to a large assembly hall inside the school. A table was set up and chairs for an audience. The teachers and children attended our commemorative service. We had flowers on the table and Ron and Simon presented a moving tribute to their father and grandfather. Reading from Capt. Lovett's diary and generally reflecting on his service at Tavoy.
Loris and Rob Muir presented the history of the original cup with newspaper articles, original bookmakers sheets the full list of owners, horses, riders and jockeys also from 1942 were on display. The original Cup won by their dad was also proudly prominent on the table.
We concluded the proceedings expressing our thanks to our men who had served, not only in Tavoy, but in all theatres of conflict. We closed with the Ode and the Last Post.
We went away, happy, sad and happy again. This type of experience does that to you.
The following part of the journey was basically sightseeing, travelling to Bagan visiting the Shwezigone Pagoda built in the early 11th century, Anada Temple a white washed masterpiece in architecture and the Sulamuni Temple. We also visited one of Myanmar’s most treasured handicrafts, a lacquer ware home industry and enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda.
The river boat RV 1947 Paulkin awaited our embarkation at Bagan for our two-day cruise to Mandalay.
We arrived at an open beach type area, with no jetty or boarding platforms, other than a rickety boarding ramp. Having said that, we were warmly welcomed by the captain and his officers, together with the stewards who were very obliging and insisted on taking our cases to our cabins, even though we didn’t know which cabins we were in!
Cabins very comfortable and Simon Lovett and I were soon educating our drinks steward who liked to be called “ James – Bond 007” on how to make iced rum sours – yum yum!
Have to say this – whilst on board we listened to the running of the actual Melbourne Cup, as Ron Lovett had organized our own cup sweep. Guess who not only got the first placed horse but also the second placed horse – yes – incredibly yours truly who has never won a horse race in his life! So – drinks were on me which lasted one night but still great fun.
Along the way, we stopped and visited a river village and school. Whilst these people live a very rudimentary and simple life, it is very clear they are extremely happy. Main industry is clay pot making and everyone from child to elder contribute. Makes you think twice about your own day to day worries and that life is not all that bad as it may seem from time to time.
One thing I couldn’t come at was chewing the beetle nut.
It is a nut wrapped in lime then rolled in a soft leaf and popped into the mouth and chewed. The affect is an instant “high”, but turns one’s teeth, gums and lips a dark pigment red. A bit off putting when you smile!
BACK TO YANGON.
Greeting us at Yangon were the smiling faces of Min, Fatty and Tun Tun, both wearing their 2/29 Battalion caps – quite a moment with very warm hugs & handshakes all round.
Back to the Clover City Hotel where our journey began. At least this time, I’m pleased to report no leaking ceilings!
Up early for the big day to the War Cemetery in Yangon for the Remembrance Day ceremony hosted by the British Ambassador His Excellency Mr Andrew Patrick. Humidity just stifling and seeing the high ranking senior military officers in their full-dress uniforms brought back many personal memories for me during my military service.
A poignant moment for us in that Kerrie and Doris laid our 2/29th Battalion wreath at the cemetery cenotaph.
With the service over, we then relocated to a church service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral for the unveiling of a commemorative plaque in honor of Maj Hugh Seagrim GC,DSO,MBE who was a British officer and led the Karen guerilla fighters in harassing battles with the Japanese.
Maj Seagrim was loosely part of the Chindits guerilla fighters commanded by Gen Ord Wingate.
Without going into too much detail as you can research Maj Seagrim on line, but he eventually offered himself up to the Japanese in return for their promise not to carry out any reprisals against his beloved Karen fighters.
Maj Seagrim was eventually executed by firing squad after a sham trial by the Japanese, who then proceeded to systematically hunt down and execute the Karen fighters.
A final letter written by Maj Seagrim to his brother was read out by his nephew and gave us a personal insight into this man and his indominable courage as well as a wicked sense of humor.
“TEA OLD CHAP”?
On leaving the service, we all then adjourned to the British Embassy for lunch and a few drinks.
All very prim and proper as we were graciously greeted by the British Ambassador into the coolness of the entrance foyer within the Embassy building. The entire building echoed the lost grand days of British rule in Burma and reminded me of something out of Gen Kitchener days (coincidentally there was a statue of Gen Kitchener in the front grounds).
Simon Lovett and I delicately balanced our plates on our laps as we sank into this huge couch and enjoyed the iced cold beers and the extensive buffet lunch on offer.
Min had also joined us in the Embassy which I am sure was a defining moment for him as he admitted he had never been at the Embassy before, so it was terrific to have him along with us.
Time did fly, and we were soon back on the bus with Fatty and Tun Tun and off to see one of our last sightseeing visits, the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. Within the pagoda is the largest reclining buddha built in 1966. The statue occupies the entire length and almost the width of this pagoda. To photograph it, you needed to climb up onto a stage area which looked across the buddha.
Again, I just wandered around totally gob smacked at the enormity of it all, and of course in bare feet (and wearing my longy for the last time.)
GOOD BYE MYANMAR, MIN, FATTY AND TUN TUN
We were strangely quite during the bus drive to Yangon airport for our departure back to “OZ”.
A stop off on the way to drop off and farewell Kerrie and Min. A final handshake & hug and we were on our way again.
What a wonderful guy is Min, with so much knowledge and went above and beyond the call to make sure every moment we were together was a joyful and also a great learning experience.
Bags quickly unloaded at the airport and hasty good byes to Fatty & Tun Tun. Couldn’t resist giving fatty a big “guy hug” and wished him all the best – “Mingalar Ba Fatty” – “Blessings to you”
After several hours, we boarded our flight to Bangkok, then transition to our flight back to Melbourne.
Fairly uneventful flight back but the landing got our attention – bone shattering!! Not sure what the pilot was trying to do but I hope he was prepared to pay for a new set of tires!
Well, that is the conclusion of my adventure.
Again, I just want to thank Doug Ogden most sincerely for getting all this organized and just being there for a hug and a shoulder to cry on when needed.
To Kerrie – what can we say. The preliminary work Kerrie did leading up to our trip was just extraordinary. Her local knowledge and great sense of humor just made this trip something none of us will ever forget.
I cannot end without two quotes:
From Ron Lovett during his speech – “We have laughed till we cried – then cried till we laughed again”
From the irrepressible Marion Stiles on fare welling Rob (“Suba”) Muir who left a day earlier to venture off scuba diving – hey Rob be careful and don’t end up shark s **t!
Gary Simmons aka “Kung foo panda” and “The Larrikin”