By Doug Ogden, Son of Private J.D.W. Ogden VX28730 2/29th A.I.F. Battalion
For years, in fact all my life as far back as I can remember, I have had a feeling of loss and unresolved grief. I have had an almost overwhelming need to know my father. When discussing these feelings, some have said: "HOW CAN YOU MISS WHAT YOU DID NOT HAVE?" Clearly I believe one can.
My father, Private J. D. W. Ogden, VX 28730 2/29 A.I.F. Battalion died as a prisoner of war at Kami Sonkurai on the Thai-Burma Railway 20th August 1943. What was this Thai-Burma Railway all about? I had heard many stories about this tragic part of our history. Mainly, I lived in denial that my father had been part of this event. On the other hand, I had been told by family and friends what a fine young man my father was and how he and so many others had united to preserve this country. My father was indeed held in high regard by those who knew him. This also created a little problem for me. I had high expectations placed on me so as not the let him or my mother down. My mother never remarried because no one could measure up to my father.
Many times over a long period of time I had travelled to Asia and often made what at the time were determined attempts to visit Changi or some other places in Malaysia where my father had been, however when the time came I would become fearful and could not face the unknown. About 8 years ago I was travelling to Thailand and attempted to obtain travel permits for Burma but was unable to do so. The region can be quite politically unsettled and at the time the Australian Embassy advised that is was probably best to leave Burma out of travel arrangements.
In 1996 the need for me to complete this journey developed an almost urgent status, it had to be done. I had to face my fears and go. It was in August that I started making arrangements to leave in November. I planned to go to Changi, then on to Muar in Malaysia, back to Singapore, then by train to Banpong in Thailand and on to the Three Pagodas and Kami Sonkurai. From here I would have to travel back to Bangkok and fly to Rangoon in Burma and go to the cemetery at Thanbyuzayat where my father is now buried.
I left on the 1st of November, arriving in Singapore late on Friday evening. I was up and about early on Saturday, firstly to organize the train trip to Thailand and then to get details of the buses to Muar in Malaysia. Having done that, I set off for Changi where I visited the chapel and museum. This was the first of many emotional times I would experience over the next three weeks. I had great difficulty coping with seeing and reading the notations of Japanese visitors who had gone before me, anger and resentment were very strong. I also visited Selerang Barracks where some of our boys stayed.
Next morning off to Muar on the bus to visit the area where my father had been in action against the Japanese before the allies were driven back to Singapore. There was nothing to indicate the events that took place more than 50 years ago. These towns are extremely crowded and busy and not at all the hamlets as depicted in what I had read. Back in Singapore I prepared to leave early the next morning on the train to Thailand. The train station was already bustling when I arrived. Everything seemed to be chaos and confusion. Things did not appear to be progressing at a pace we Westerners like, but we all boarded and were away on time. On this train I felt as if I were cheating, for although I was traveling 2™ class, it was luxury compared to the rice wagons my father travelled in. My journey was to take two days and two nights. The first night was spent at a hotel in Butterworth and the second on the train. Nothing like the five tortuous days and nights endured by our men. The trip was good and I enjoyed the countryside.
At Banpong I detrained about 8.30 a.m. and headed for Kanchanaburi which I was going to make my base before going further north. Here strange things started to occur. I was staying in a small guest house and at dinner I was alone and reading Bob Christie's History of the 2/29th Battalion when the proprietor, an Englishman, asked if he could borrow the book. I hesitated, said no, but after much pleading, relented and said that I would collect the book the next morning. When I entered the dining room for breakfast, two men were at one of the tables and one of them had my book. He introduced himself as Rod Beattie. I didn't care who he was, I just wanted my book back. After a bit of cajoling I sat down and had coffee with them. The other man was Dick Meadows, a film producer with the BBC, who was making a documentary about a woman who was arriving the next day with the rest of the crew from the UK. This woman was Carol Cooper whose father had been in Changi and had left with my father as part of F Force. Carol's father was sent to Nike and then to the hospital at Tanbaya where had died, also in 1943.
The reason for Carol's visit was the same as mine and the film crew was there as a result of her father's diary coming to light in the latter part of 1996. Till then none of her family had been aware of its existence. This diary was the almost daily writings of a man to his wife and children and it is certainty one of the most ouching documents I have read in my life.
We spent three days together as a group, traveling to various points along the length of the railway from the bridge on the River Kwai, the Wampo Viaduct, Hellfire Pass, Nike which is now under a magnificent lake and to the Three Pagodas.
How lucky I was to have Rod Beattie as my guide and advisor for this time. Rod works for both the Hellfire Pass Project and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and lives in Kanchanaburi with his lovely wife and recently arrived baby daughter. Rod is passionate about both jobs. Obsessive is a more accurate description. Rod has an extensive personal library on the region and events that took place but, more importantly, he wishes to ensure that this part of Australian history is never forgotten and to this end he works like a man on a mission. Rod is able to talk on a range of subjects but before long he is back to the 'Railway', and working out how to get support for the museum that is to be built at Hellfire Pass. It is going to need memorabilia and artifacts. Already he has many books for the proposed library in the museum. It was with Rod's local knowledge that he and I came upon what we believe to be the area once known as Kami Sonkurai. This was very emotional. To imagine my father may have been on this ground under such conditions and that he may have even touched some of the sleepers still remaining caused feelings of great elation and sadness. Why didn't he stay home? It was with great affection and sorrow I said goodbye to Rod Beattie. How fortunate we are to have him tending the War Graves in Kanchanaburi. I left Carol Cooper and the crew in Bangkok after a wonderful experience, particularly remembering the unbelievable days filming in Hellfire Pass.
With my feet back on the ground I left Bangkok for Rangoon. The Burmese Consul had issued a visa and advised that I would be best to get a government appointed guide as soon as I arrived as I would be travelling as far south as allowed. This I did and left within an hour of arrival on a five day adventure. The distances are small but the roads absolutely bone shaking. My guide was fairly good in English and planned an itinerary that would get me to Thanbyuzayat but would take in some sights on the way. There was the beautiful war cemetery at Rangoon with around 12000 graves of the allies. It was just after Armistice Day and the wreaths from the various embassies were still on display in the memorial. I visited a number of pagodas, markets and interesting villages where we ate. My guide ensured that I only ate and drank what was safe for westerners. While all of this was fascinating, the apprehension was building and at no stage did I lose track of why I was there. We stayed one night at Moulmein and the next morning started out to the cemetery, arriving around 10.00 a.m. It took little time to find my father's grave and also the grave of Carol Cooper's father. This was a very difficult time. I was full of both joy and sadness. I reflected on the trip and my mind went back to my mother who died in 1987. I wondered if she would have wanted to make the journey. Many memories flooded back and I shed many tears. I sat at my father's grave and talked to him, sometimes in my mind and then sometimes out loud. I thanked him for his sacrifice and for his part in trying to make the world a better place.
I was very sad for Carol and the crew. They had been refused entry to Burma and had gone back to England with their mission incomplete. It was Carol's wish to have her mother's ashes interred with her father. The ashes were left with Rod and he has made arrangements for this to happen. I had a hard time leaving the cemetery and did revisit again later in the day. Things were very quiet as we travelled away.
Since arriving home I have been to Canberra to the Australian War Memorial archives where my wife and I spent three days researching the area to which I had been and as a result we will both be back in Thailand in March to retrace some of my steps. The film of "The Diary" went to air in the UK in December and by all accounts was very well received. I was delighted to receive a copy as it is a very tangible reminder of my experiences.
There are difficulties in travel to that part of the world and to travel alone is not appropriate for all, but for me it was something I had to do, and reading the visitors' books at the various museums and memorials many others have had the same need. It was and will always be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It is a very new experience for me to be able to talk freely about the war and my father's fate without being choked by emotion. This journey has been a freeing experience. My thanks to the men and women who served. I would dearly love to hear from anyone who was at Kami Sonkurai and can remember my father.
LEST WE FORGET
Information about Carol Cooper
It was on my first real trip to Kanchanaburi that I met Carol and the BBC crew headed up by Dick Meadows whilst doing the documentary for The Diary. Carol had just received her father's diary and the documentary was to retell how it had only recently come to light after sixty years. Her father Bill Cooper had joined up to serve in Europe where Britain's efforts were concentrated at the time. Her Dad however was sent off to the Far East. Bill was captured and had a similar fate to other allies, being incarcerated in Changi and then sent up to work on the Thai- Burma Railway. Bill died in December 1943 at Tambaya just over the border in Burma, he is buried at Thanbyuzayat where my father is also buried.
It was one of these moments of fate that brought Carol and I together, we were at the same place at the same time retracing our father's footsteps. This trip to Thailand was a real shock to Carol as she followed her father's sad journey. With Rod Beattie she was made aware of the horror and brutality that befell her dad. This was a very stressful and emotional time for her and I was able to share several days with Carol and the film crew. We laughed a bit and cried a lot.
We were having dinner discussing the next stage of our trip into Burma when Dick Meadows got a call from the BBC telling him there were hostilities brewing between the Burmese Government and British journalists and they were therefore not to proceed further. This decision was devastating to Carol. She would not get to her father's grave, the driving force behind her journey. We took a day or two to settle down and we all went to Bangkok, Carol and crew to return to England and me to travel on alone to Burma. At Thanbyuzayat I took photos of her father's grave and sent them onto her.
This whole event was the start of an incredible life experience for Carol. She visited and stayed with us in Melbourne and joined our first gathering of Families and Friends of 2/29th in 1997 Within a short time of her return to the UK she was again off to Burma and visited her father's grave. Carol has been back a number of times and I met her on one occasion in Kanchanaburi for Anzac Day services. Carol established Children Of Far East Prisoners Of War (COFEPOW) to help others whose loved ones had served so far away. She has led groups to the area and has established a wonderful web site. Carol has lobbied government to establish memorials in the UK for these servicemen specifically as they seemed to have had less public acknowledgment than their counterparts in the European Theatre of War. Carol has been supported in her efforts by her husband Ron.
Carol, from a personal pilgrimage has developed something for all affected by war.
Click on the following link http://www.cofepow.org.uk/ for more information.