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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”
A few of us are visiting Burma this year to commemorate the 75th
Anniversary of the running of the Tavoy Melbourne Cup
on November 2nd 2017
Some members of the 2/29th were sent as POW's to Burma as part of A FORCE. We have at least two members of the Association whose fathers were in Tavoy at that time and Loris Fletcher does have in her possession the actual cup won by her father Wif Muir. Ron Lovett's father was the winning owner.
Some of us are planning to go to Burma in November and we still have some places available. See the attached itinerary (below) and costs for the Burma. Following Burma a fewer number were planning to break the trip in Thailand on the way home and do a run along the Railway to Three Pagoda pass and that is the second itinerary and we have places available on that section. If we get the required numbers from the Burma trip to stop over it may be the short itinerary as outlined, if however you were wanting to have time in Bangkok either going or returning home, and provided we have numbers we will change the itinerary to accommodate that.
PLEASE CONTACT. DOUG OGDEN 03 9844 1355 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out our latest merchandise.....Read More
The 8th Division will depart from 9:45 am from Flinders Street East (St Paul’s side). Please assemble behind the 2/29th banner.
Descendants are to dress in appropriate clothing, as your forebears would have done. Therefore, all marchers should wear neat and tidy clothing, out of respect for the fallen (denim, sporting attire, joggers are not considered appropriate).
Medals worn by descendants are to be worn on the right breast (the left breast is reserved for the original recipient of the medals).
Carrying of pictures of relatives, and the pushing of prams and pushers, is not permitted.
Heather McRae, daughter of Corporal Donald F. McRae VX27725, HQ Company, 2/29th Battalion, reflects on her 2007 pilgrimage to Singapore and Malaysia.Read More
The Association will form up in Flinders Street opposite Federation Square.
Form up from 0945 hrs; Step off is 1015 hrs.
Marchers are reminded that smart casual dress is required and that jeans and sneakers are not considered appropriate.
Marchers are asked not to carry photographs.
Marg Hogan (daughter of Sgt Vic Wedlick) tells her story.Read More
Read the article by member Colin Stiles recently published in the Association's newsletter Nulli Secundus.Read More
Colin and Marion Stiles report on the 2/29th Memorial Plaque and Memorial Tree in the Shrine of Remembrance Grounds Birdwood Ave - South Yarra.Read More
The death of Beth McRae, widow of Cpl Don McRae of the 2/29th Battalion AIF, and a staunch supporter of our Association, occurred, suddenly after a short illness, on Saturday, June 22nd.Read More
The 68th AGM and Reunion Luncheon were held at The Rendezvous Grand Hotel on 24th April 2013.Read More
Simon Lovett (Grandson of the late Captain Charles Geoffrey Lovett VX39011 B Company) visited the site of the Darley Camp where the 2/29th trained before heading off overseas.Read More
Norm Letts was born in Wedderburn, where he was known from boyhood as 'Digger'. His father was the mail driver (horse and buggy), and 'Digger' milked cows for cocky farmers around Boort. He enlisted at 19 in September 1941, trained at Darley near Bacchus Marsh, at Bonegilla and at Queenscliff, before embarking on the Aquitania from Sydney. Arriving in Singapore on 10 January 1942, he became a 2/29th Battalion reinforcement, as part of C Company. After the surrender, and the march to Changi, Norm went into Singapore on work parties, including building the Japanese shrine at Bukit Timah. With F Force on the Thai-Burma Railway at Kami Songkurai in Thailand, Norm worked with Jack Coffey, 'a good bloke', and 17-year- old Bobby Harvey [Nancarrow], 'a good worker'. Other mates Norm recalled were Queenslander 'Snowy' Reid, and Doug Cameron and Gordon Wilson (both from Camperdown). Norm also was part of a six-man team on a pile driver sinking bridge poles. Cholera was the big killer: 'there was a big red-headed Queenslander got it. He was crook all right. He was a married bloke, four kids, and I abused him something terrible [to try to save him], but he said "I'll be dead in the morning, Norman." . . [And] he was dead in the morning.' Norm was at Hellfire Pass, where he survived beri-beri and Japanese brutality. 'Some [officers] tried, put it that way, they tried to get a bit less work out of you, but there wasn't much they could do. They'd stand up for you, but they copped their share [of bashing] then. They didn't miss out.' Back on Singapore Island, Norm dug tunnels at River Valley Road, but they were not permitted to timber them properly and there were many earth falls: 'a bloke we called "Goofy", he was a good bloke, as far as Japs went. He'd give us his dinner and go down the street and buy his own. He was the only one, old "Goofy".' When the war ended Norm and five mates crammed into an Austin and drove around Singapore. As for taking revenge on their tormenters, Norm decided, after looking at the young blokes in camp in Singapore, 'I couldn't hit an innocent bloke. They were only doing [to us] what they had been told [to do].....They were only kids. They were, they were only kids. I picked.....out one who'd given me a belting, but he was only young. I just couldn't hit him'.
Norm came home on the Largs Bay in October 1945. He went back to milking cows at Boort, then went to Barham, and returned to Wedderburn, cutting eucalyptus leaf for eucalyptus oil, then went shearing for 30 years. In 1946 Norm met Jessie, a telephonist at Wedderburn, and they married in 1948 when 'Digger' was working at the Barham brick works. 'You missed your mates for a fair while. That's when I got into Barham. There were a few of us working there, at the brick works.' Over the years, Norm and Jessie kept in contact with Norm's army mates, attending reunions in Tassie and Queensland, sometimes meeting them in Sydney, combining meetings with visits to their daughters in Sydney and Brisbane. 'When they'd get together,' Jessie recalled, 'then they'd talk about all the good times, not the bad times, the good times.'
When Marguerite spoke with Norm in August 2011, he and Jessie had been married 63 years, and Norm was 89: 'heading 90, I'll make 90'. And he did, passing away at 90 years of age at Bendigo Hospital, Victoria, on 16 September 2012. His funeral service was held at the RSL in Wedderburn.
Hal Thirlwell was born in East Melbourne, of Scottish and American ancestry, on 5 July 1921. Both Hal and his brother sang in the St James' and St Pauls' choirs and received scholarships to Trinity Grammar, and later to Caulfield Grammar. These scholarships were very welcome in the depths of the Great Depression: 'People had money, no doubt,' he recalled, 'but we didn't.' In 1936 Hal left school to work at Myer' s, and after a year he moved to Flinders Lane as an office boy for a firm of textile importers: 'They were all First World War fellows, and I was the general rouseabout. I was there until the war started.' He also enlisted in the Militia, and in 1940 was part of the 5th Battalion, Victorian Scottish Regiment.
Hal's older brother 'Mac' enlisted in the AIF and went away with the 9th Division to the Middle East, where at Tobruk he fought, was wounded, and won the Military Cross. In 1941 Hal also enlisted in the AIF: 'My mother wasn't very happy about it. But in those days people just - took it on the chin, as it were, when their sons enlisted. They had no real option, assuming that you're old enough.' Hal went AWOL to farewell his family, and was demoted from Lance Corporal to Private!
When he joined the 2/29th Bn AIF as a private on Singapore Island on Australia Day, 26 January 1942, the Battalion was being re-formed after suffering frightful losses at Muar and Bakri in Malaya. Hal was one of the few 600 reinforcements who had some training and experience, from being in the Militia, and he was given charge of a Great War-vintage Lewis machinegun. Hal's reminiscences of the frustrating defence of Singapore are featured in the book No Lost Battalion. On 15 February Hal became one of many thousands of Australians interned at Changi. He joined working parties at Thompson Road, and in April 1943 went away to Thailand with Pond's Party of F Force. They started with a forced march of almost 200 kms from Banpong to Koncoita, two-thirds of the way to the Burmese border. During the subsequent eight months of working up and down the line, almost three in every ten of the men of F Force died as a result of malnutrition, mistreatment, and disease.
Hal contracted malaria in May 1943, the first of what he calculated was about one hundred episodes: 'But you sort of got used to it. It was a way of life'. Cholera was another matter. Cholera almost guaranteed death. On 14 July Hal was thought to have contracted cholera at Takunun (120 km from Banpong), and along with 67 others was placed in isolation. He had had other health problems too, but in his self- deprecating way said 'lots of people had to put up with much worse.' On the last day of August 1943, debilitated, and suffering weakness in the limbs from beri-beri, he became one of Pond's Party evacuated south to the hospital at Wanyai. It was no easy passage. Paralysed from the waist down, Hal had to be carried out of Takunun, feeling guilty 'because these same guys who were carrying me were in very bad physical condition'. So when his right leg improved, he forced himself to walk, crab-like, sideways, with his left knee locked.
Hal's weight had dropped from a normal 12 – 12 ½ stone to around seven stone. He put his survival down to 'learning to live with' what befell you, insisting that 'it was just a fluke that I got through'. But another survivor of F Force and of that evacuation described Hal's literally dragging himself hand over hand along the railway as one of the most courageous acts he had ever seen.
Hal was in Changi when the war ended, and he was restless on his return to Australia. After some years managing Victorian country chain stores he went to the UK, where he met and in 1954 married Mary and brought her to Australia. Back in Melbourne he returned to the business of textile importing in Flinders Lane before he started his own business, which he sold upon his retirement in 1991.
Hal was devoted to the welfare of the fellow members of his Battalion and their families through his membership of the 2/29th Battalion AIF Association and his work as a Committee member. He died peacefully in the Epworth Hospital on 29 March 2012, survived by Mary, their two children and their two grandchildren. His ashes have been placed in a niche at the wall of remembrance at Springvale Cemetery. The family of the Battalion Association salutes him.
Elspeth McOmish interviewed George on 9 May 1999 and his story was told in No Lost Battalion, on which this tribute has been based.]
George was born in 1923, the seventh of six boys and six girls. He grew up in North Melbourne, where his father was a bottle-oh for a Carlton marine dealer, and went to Errol Street State School, leaving before he was 14 with His Merit Certificate to go dairy farming in South Gippsland. George recalled he came home from Gippsland looking around for a job and 'a fortnight after [the third of my brothers enlisted] I went and joined the Army. It was not patriotism. There was no work. In the Army you got three feeds a day and something to wear.' He joined up on 20 May 1941, and turned 18 seven days after landing in Singapore.
After Muar and Singapore Island, George found himself in Changi, where the Battalion cooks struggled to learn how to cook rice: 'they soon learned. . .Usually you got about one cupful or two, three times a day. That was at the start, of course.' He missed being assigned to F Force by being hospitalised with failing eyesight due to dietary deficiencies, but was chosen for J Force, leaving for Japan in May 1943: 'That was going to be the best camp of the lot, was going to be a recuperation camp for the sick and the dying and the wounded. And so it was. You worked or you died. So that was the recuperation camp.' George spent 2V2 years in the Kobe House camp holding 900 POWs of 14 nationalities including 300 Australians. Conditions were extreme: 95-96 degrees F in summer, as low as 20 F (below freezing) in winter. He had only two baths in those years. His two best friends were older men, one of whom more or less fathered him, and Peter Omarides, 'a marvellous man' who would carry the loads of the sick. The Japanese officers were very severe. . . None were friendly.' Only by fixing on the future, and surveying their lot with wry humour, did the survivors survive. George missed out on malaria, but had dengue fever. Thirty days work was followed by a day off, when you cleaned camp, so you never really got a day off at all. Ten months in a steel foundry was bad luck: nothing to steal that you could eat. Working on the wharf meant searches at the end of the day: 'Say you get caught pinching a bag of beans, they'd belt the hell out of you with a bag of beans. So you always made sure you never got caught with a tin, because they'd belt the hell out of you with a tin.' Then the American bombing started. George was near Kyoto when a day after his birthday, 23 August 1945, their Japanese interpreter announced that the war was over: 'The English sang "God Save the King" . . . The Dutch sang their anthem. The Australians said "About bloody time!"'
The POWs of G and J Forces in Japan were evacuated to Manila on an American troopship: George remembered the 29 days he spent there, with access to a 24-hour kitchen: 'I was 9 stone 1 lb. when went into the Army and 9 stone 1 lb. when I got out.' He came to Sydney on the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable. In the next twelve months, he grew an inch and put on three stone: 'I'd just stopped growing [while a POW], that's what it was, just stopped growing. No tucker.' George took a while to readjust to a family and neighbourhood largely made up of women: 'And that's when I met my wife. I'd known her since she was 10 years old. When I went away I was 17, when I came home she was 17 and I was 22. All the humps and bumps were in the right places.' George married May in 1950: 'They said the marriage would never last but it did.' When interviewed in 1999, George was a widower with five children, ten grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He passed away at the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 27 July 2011, and a service was held at Tobin Brothers' Chapel, Glenroy, on 3 August.
Doug Ogden writes about George Tite
About sixteen years ago I first met George at the Annual Battalion Reunion. I was talking to someone and said 'Thanks guys'. George boomed in and said 'You American?' I answered 'No' and George then said, 'Well, speak Australian.' I thought he was a grumpy old coot. That was George's manner, and as I got to know him he wasn't at all grumpy.
Over the years I learned how reserved and genuine George was. When I asked George if he would mind being interviewed by a TV presenter George told me he was sick with worry as he thought he had little to offer and speaking publicly was for others. George was reluctant to speak of his service but he told me that as a young man he was left at a crossroad near Yong Peng when his mates were getting sent back to Singapore. George was directing traffic. He told me he had never experienced such fear, the dark, the jungle and any noise had him in a flap.
Over the years George and I had chats on the phone and when I visited in hospital towards the end George could manage a joke or two about his impending death. George was not afraid. It was sad, as it always is, when George died. I considered him a good friend, a decent man, a man who spoke his mind, and a man one could rely on. George right until he passed away was a great friend of the Battalion and all its members and their families.
Walter Sarkies VX27723 (Pte), who served as a machine gunner with HQ Company (Carriers) and later with A Company, and was a POW with F Force ('Pond's Party') in Thailand, died in Melbourne on 17 June.
Walter was born on 2 February 1923 in Glenhuntly and spent his youth in Reservoir. In June 1940, aged 17, he enlisted in the 2nd AIF, and after basic training joined the 2/29th at Bonegilla. At 18 Wal was with the battalion at Segamat (Malaya). When the Japanese entered the war in December 1941, his unit was assigned to defend airfields and he experienced bombing at close range with only the protection of a shallow slit trench.
Too young to become a carrier driver, he was reassigned to A Company. As part of a small unit he went behind enemy lines to bomb bridges to slow the Japanese advance down the peninsula. After successfully destroying two bridges, the unit found its way back to allied lines, following creeks and avoiding the Japanese. He was wounded in action against advancing Japanese as the unit attempted to rejoin the main body of the 2/29th which had been sent north to Muar. Unable to break through, the commandos regrouped with British gunners. After his wound was dressed at a British aid post (RAP), he was sent on the last train south to the makeshift Australian field hospital at Jahore Baru before being evacuated to Singapore. He was in hospital in Singapore when the Allies surrendered. A few days later, with other wounded he marched to the Selarang Barracks, Changi. Wal's closest friends, Tommy Hall and Donny McCallum, had been killed at Muar.
As a POW in 1942, Wal was with work parties ordered to build the Japanese Bukit Timah Hill memorial, and on the Singapore wharves. Later he worked making timber supports for the network of tunnels constructed under Singapore. In April 1943, Walter was sent to Thailand with F Force (Pond's Party). Disembarking from the train at Bampong, the men were force-marched, always at night after days of labouring, 160 miles north to Konkoita camp where they began work on the Burma- Thailand railway. In poor health since being wounded in January 1942, Walter succumbed to severe illness after only three days and was sent to a 'hospital' camp ("a funny name to give it", he said) back at Bampong. Walter attributed his 'good luck' in this to Dr Roy Mills. His friend Geoff Forster died on the boat that took these desperately ill men away from 'the line'. Walter remained at Bampong camp for some months before returning to Changi, having rejoined the F Force survivors as they came south.
In Changi hospital Walter took up drawing, with paper and pencils supplied by his friend Frank Day who worked in the camp library. The Walter Sarkies Collection of 41 drawings of Changi life is held at the State Library of Victoria. Walter remembered the day of the Japanese surrender, and the early days of freedom in liberated Singapore. Interviewed in 2011, he remembered the sweet taste of ice cream after years of near starvation. He also remembered 'marvellous' days and nights on the Esperance Bay, which brought the 2/29th home. Walter was 23.
In 1947 Walter married Betty. He had a lifelong career with Shell. He and Betty travelled extensively, including business trips to Japan. In later years, Walter and Betty lived with their son Richard at Wallan. Brian Cleveland represented the Battalion at Wal's funeral, which was held at Fawkner Cemetery on Thursday 21 June.
[Marguerita, the daughter of 2/29th veteran Bob Stephens, interviewed Walter Sarkies for the Battalion Association in 2011.]
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