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.