Most of us during the course of our lives have times that stand out above all others, 2007 was such a year for me.
Having turned 60 earlier in the year, it was quite a shock to some months later be diagnosed with bowel cancer. I arrived home from hospital to find the 2/29th letter outlining the Malaysian trip, to attend the dedication for the Parit Sulong Memorial and further days traveling sections of the Thai Burma railway.
I rang Doug Ogden immediately and set about getting fit for the trip.
My father Sgt. Vic Wedlick, awarded the D.C.M. at the Battle of Muar passed away in 1981 aged 65, of Motor Neurone Disease. This neurological disorder was thought to have resulted from severe vitamin deficiency, deprivation and hardship whilst a prisoner on the Thai Burma railway.
To explain the enormous emotional impact of the trip, I need to first reflect on growing up as the child of a Japanese prisoner of war.
There was a large and active group of P.O.W.s in Bendigo, many were 2/29th men. Some of these 2/29th families lived within walking distance of each other. As children we all attended the same school and really seemed more like family than friends. My memories of sharing family celebrations, parties, picnics, cricket matches and reunions often attended by men from all around Australia.
To be in the company of these men was quite an experience, even as a child I loved it when they all got together or visited our home, it was always interesting and lots of fun. Contrary to many people’s belief they never talked of war or their illnesses. The exception to this was usually when supporting each other with claims to Repat.
I know there were many P.O.W.s outside of Dad’s battalion who knew nothing of his military record. In fact I don’t believe he even told my mother very much.
It was only as I got older that I could appreciate what a special and unique group of men they were. Over the years many too have commented on this when meeting a group of them for the first time. The bond they have shared steadfastly all their lives is steely in it strength and loyalty and their capacity to enjoy life quite remarkable.
That many men were sick or disabled didn't faze us kids at all. The outrageous pranks they played on each other, often with their artificial bits with such good grace and humour, has taught me a life lesson, to look at people not disabilities.
One funny story involved regular visitors to our home. Bill or Pineapple as he was nicknamed, had lost both legs above the knee as a result of tropical ulcers. In those days wheelchairs were heavy and unwieldy and Bill being comfortable in our home would get about on his hands swinging his body along, flipping on and off chairs with ease.
We kids were given the job of getting Bill’s bottle in its cloth bag, when nature called. When it was cold or wet, Mum and his wife Jean would fireman lift him from the car to the house, Dad unable to because of his back. On this particular visit Jean wasn't well so they loaded Bill into the wheelbarrow but struck a problem when negotiating the steps, resulting in a head first belly flop by Bill onto the concrete veranda. The laughter was so loud the neighbours came to investigate and they too joined in the hilarity.
Life wasn't easy for my father, suffering major health issues all his life. Even now emotions are still strong when I recall the stress and hardship I felt as an eight year old and the eldest in the family, when Dad was in Melbourne at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital for many months and we didn't know if he would walk again. Damaging his spine when thrown from a Bren gun carrier at the Muar battle, it had deteriorated so seriously that a bone graft was considered the only solution. In 1955 this was dangerous and radical surgery, no plastic discs then, bone had to be taken from his hip and he lay in a plaster cast for months while it knitted. I well remember the times he was confined to bed in excruciating pain then, back to work when he could walk again. This was both before and after surgery.
I have recently learnt that this procedure was only partially successful, surgery couldn't be completed due to severe bleeding, leaving my father in chronic pain all his life. He came home from hospital with instructions to find light employment. His job, as a butcher, with heavy lifting and standing long hours on hard floors, now out of the question. It was a worrying time for my parents. Fortunately a good neighbour, the manager of a Ford franchise offered him a position in the spare parts office, where he could sit, stand and walk at will. He stayed there until a major coronary in his mid fifties resulted in his retirement.
Some years ago a friend who had worked with Dad, found out that I was his daughter. He and most of the others there had no idea of his war and P.O.W. experiences and he was amazed to learn Dad’s story. He remembered a tall distinguished silver haired man with his pipe and Harris Tweed jacket quietly and conscientiously going about his work.
The constant in Dad’s life though was the Victorian and Bendigo Ex P.O.W. Association and the men of the 2/29th. He was President of the Victorian Association from its inception, until Weary Dunlop took the position in the early 70’s. Wiff Muir and Bill Osborne both 2/29th men were also on the Victorian Executive
I witnessed those early days of frustration and disappointment with the Repatriation Department, often a meal time discussion between my parents.
He along with other men worked tirelessly assisting men with pension claims and reviews. So different now! Ex P.O.W.s and their widows have an incredible range of support, including automatic Gold cards, and deservedly so.
In 1981 there were some improvements from those earlier days. The assistance and aids provided, enabled Dad to stay comfortably at home until a couple of weeks before his death. His T.P.I. classification took some time, he was completely paralysed and had weeks to live before it came through. He was so relieved, because it made things so much easier for my mother having a War Widows pension.
There were occasions that we children were sheltered from, when strange people would come to the door, or the police would call. Some men were psychologically damaged, unable to settle and became alcoholics. They would have periods of drifting and my father along with many others kept watch over these people, finding accommodation, medical assistance, putting them on trains, then ringing someone to pick them up at the next destination. I commented once on a man who was often drunk. My father told me, as an 18 year old this man had offered to stay behind, alone in the jungle to nurse men dying with cholera when the camp moved on. These acts of kindness were never forgotten. Conversely, I remember another occasion when at a school function a man came up to my father and spoke to him. Behaviour totally out of character for him, Dad turned away as though the man didn't exist. Later with no explanation, he told my mother we were never to have anything to do with this family, ever! Recently I related this incident to a 2/29th man, mentioned the name, again no explanation, just the comment, “that would be right!”
One thing we couldn't be protected from was death. Old men died, not men in the prime of their life, with young families. Many familiar faces became absent from our home. As a child it was quite frightening, I understood that some men were very sick, but there were others like my father who outwardly gave the impression of being okay. This wasn't so, those years of deprivation took their toll. Sudden deaths were not uncommon due to hearts damaged by berri berri.
Then one day one of Dad’s closest friends Ron King, dropped dead leaving four young children. These children were our playmates, we loved their Dad too. It was such a shock and I worried would this happen to my Dad.
Some years later, when I was a teenager Ron’s brother inlaw and Dad’s best mate, Bill Osborne, shot himself. Bill didn't have drive so Dad would pick him up from work, they went every where together, the footy, the pub, shared manure for their gardens and regularly checked out each others vegie patches. They were inseparable! Dad had been increasingly worried about Bill, he’d stopped seeing his friends. Then one day he rang Dad asking to meet him, Dad came home so relieved and said, “I think Bill’s turned the corner.”
A couple of days later we heard the ambulance and just knew which house it would stop at.
It was devastating for his family, for us all. Sadly, after his death he was diagnosed with war neurosis, now termed post traumatic stress disorder, much too late for him his wife and 5 children, though it did enable his wife to receive the War Widows pension.
After arriving at the airport that early morning of September 2007, the sense of anticipation and excitement was evident as introductions were made and familiar faces welcomed. Chatter began and photos produced as we shared the reasons for our pilgrimage, whilst waiting to board the plane for Singapore.
I am not going to detail every aspect of the trip; scenic and tourist sights were secondary. This opportunity to learn my father’s story was paramount and the further we progressed along the way the enormity of this unknown part of my father’s life became more overwhelming.
Catching up with Wiff Muir’s children Loris Fletcher and Robert Muir was very special. They are part of the childhood I have previously mentioned and who I haven’t seen for years. I think along with my cousin Karen Trevaskis we made a good show of keeping up that well known Bendigo tradition!
Talking to Jack Baker on that first morning stands out in my mind. Jack was telling Karen and I how his cousin Georgie Pullen had been killed, the result of a Bren gun carrier overturning in the heat of the Muar battle. Remembering how Dad had injured his spine this seemed a familiar story, and sure enough Doug Ogden was able to confirm this with the information he had with him. Jack also remembered speaking to dad in 1971 when he’d attended a 2/29th reunion seeking information about his cousin.
It was these experiences throughout the trip that made it so significant. Invisible threads, connecting you to people and aspects of your father’s life unknown to you. In fact it was the realization of all these shared experiences that made the trip so special to us all.
Our first stop, a visit to Selarang Barracks was an honour extended to us by the Singapore Military, as it is not open to the public. It was here that 85,000 men began their incarceration and for us the beginning our journey. Visits to Changi Museum and Chapel, Kranji War Cemetery and many of the sites our fathers worked on before they were sent north, was included while we were in Singapore.
We had an early rise for our day at Parit Sulong which involved a border crossing into Malaysia. Passing over the infamous bridge into the town, were welcomed by the sight of brightly coloured banners and tents, the site of the memorial service.
Many local people had come to pay their respects, laughing and chatting as their children played nearby. Then amongst that happy crowd you would glimpse older faces, more sombre and it came to me, that they too were part of this day of dedication and shared with the veterans memories of those dark days.
I had mixed emotions when seeing those old veterans, so dignified proudly wearing the medals. Pride for them, but sadness too, remembering my father.
As part of the service beautiful posies of Singapore orchids were provided for everyone to place on the memorial, a thoughtful gesture which allowed everyone their personal moments of reflection.
At the completion of the service we moved across the road to the P.W.D building the site of the massacre. That this area is largely untouched since those early days further added to the solemnity of the occasion. The tree in the back ground, where the men were herded still standing, a sentinel to those sad days.
It was Ben Hackney of the 2/29th who, badly injured, feigned death and witnessed this horrific massacre, the details of which are beyond belief. He spent a harrowing 6 weeks crawling through the jungle, trying to survive before he was recaptured. This terrible secret was shared and documented by a handful of P.O.Ws, firstly to ensure Ben’s safety but also so there was a record able to be presented at the War Crimes Trials after the war. Ben survived to do this.
The final part of the day, was a lavish meal and the opportunity to chat with the veterans. I was able to catch up with Cyril Gilbert an old mate of dad’s and Wiff Muir’s before heading back to Muar Road and the battle site.
As written in the 2/29th Battalion History: “The Battle of Muar and the role of the 2/29th Battalion has been described as a story of great courage, grim determination and remarkable endurance by men who stood their ground for six days and nights, defying the battle hardened 5th Division of the Japanese Imperial Guards, with all the advantage of overwhelming air and tank support to dislodge them, until ordered to withdraw. The Battalion has the distinction of two sets of battle honours the first for the Muar Battle and the second for their part in the battle for Singapore Island.” It is thought that the massacre was a payback for the heavy toll they inflicted on the Japanese 5th Division.
We held a simple but moving service in a clearing by the side of the road to honour those lost and those who served here before our return to Singapore.
Our six days had passed so quickly, we had shared so much that it was sad saying goodbye to those heading home.
Moving on to Thailand, our Bangkok hotel room was a welcome relief from the humidity, air pollution and raucous sellers with their calculators,
Our next stop was Ban Pong Station. This was the end of the P.O.Ws five day train journey from Singapore. Then nearby we came upon the remains of some of the steel rice trucks. Trucks that had possibly carried our fathers! Twenty eight men and their gear in conditions so crowded that they could neither sit nor stand in comfort. Freezing nights and days of forty degrees causing great hardship. With little food, water or sleep men arrived at Ban Pong exhausted. At the infrequent stops men were bashed if they got off the train, so to relieve themselves they would hold each other as they lent out of the doors of the trucks. The photo of Janella Christie reflecting on her dad Bob, captures the mood of us all.
But as I was to learn this was just the beginning of the sad but heroic saga of Pond’s F Force.
As we moved up towards the Burma border in our air conditioned coach my mind was constantly drawn to my father. I tried to imagine how he and the other men could have traversed 175 miles of this harsh and rugged terrain over those seventeen days, in the blackness of the jungle nights, with little food, struggling with all their equipment and carrying those too sick to walk, through the mud heat and monsoonal rains. The promised rests during the heat of the day non existent.
It was beyond my comprehension.
The River Kwai Village was a tranquil setting to spend our three days as we moved around the area. The first morning we set off early for the 3.5K. walk along the Memorial Walking Trail.
The first thing that struck me was the absolute silence as we began our walk to Hellfire Pass. Setting off through the canopy of trees, the early morning sunlight filtering through cast an ethereal mist over us as we made our way along the cutting. That we were all touched in some way was evident as we walked along in quiet contemplation, talking in hushed tones as we made our way past all those familiar names, Hintok Cutting, Hammer and Tap Cutting, the Three Tier Bridge and Konyu or Hellfire Pass to the Australian Memorial and Museum.
Lunch at the home of Pho Toey, a good friend of Weary Dunlop, was the best Malaysian meal I had and what a gentle man our host was. As well as the Weary Dunlop Museum being here the Jack Chalker Gallery was nestled in the gardens and one of my highlights, his amazingly simple sketches so graphic in telling the everyday toil of the prisoners.
Another early start, this time up to the Three Pagodas and the Burma border. This is the area where my father worked. We were fortunate to have Rod Beattie a man who has dedicated so much of his life to the ‘line’, accompany us. People come from around the globe seeking information and he can account for every man who died on the railway. His knowledge is remarkable and he had us tramping down though the tapioca crops to see the indentations in the earth around Cholera Hill where men had been buried, but all now removed to one of the war cemeteries, then into the jungle at Takanun where my Dad was. I was greatly honoured when Doug asked me to play the battalion song on my recorder at our memorial service for Col Stiles dad Leo.
What great memories of the train ride from Wampo Station to Kanchanaburi. We rode over the long curving bridge, where sick men had spent hours in the water to build it. And what about John Lack our resident professor, it seems, he was also our resident song and dance man!! Who could forget him heartily singing the Battalion song accompanied by the percussion of the train wheels as we rattled down the track.
A final visit to Rod Beattie’s museum at Kanchanaburi, where he presented us all with a railway spike before our return to Bangkok and farewell dinner.
Who could forget too, all the intrigue in the purchase of 30 pith helmets, roping in Jack our guide to do the wheeler dealing, then presenting Lis and Doug with theirs at the final dinner.
To Lis and Doug Ogden our leaders what a great experience you gave us, A special thanks must go to Doug, whose wise council and understanding due to his own personal journey gave us all the opportunity to share such emotional times. The intimate little ceremonies along the way and sharing the Ode for those who’d lost loved one’s really united us. Never keen on group travel I have to say that on this occasion the group made the trip and gave us pride and understanding of both the Battalion and the family member we represented.
I will be for ever grateful to Rod Beattie, whose reply when someone asked him about F Force replied, “well there is F Force and then there is Pond’s F Force, that’s a whole different story!” I knew of Colonel Pond, He had written us a wonderful letter when Dad passed away. That one comment was the catalyst for me. Since coming home I have read a number of books, including Dr Roy Mills diary where his list of the 700 men of Pond’s party includes my father’s name.
These men were constantly on the move, at the height of the monsoon season, in a world of low cloud, drenching rain in the most harsh and remote terrain. With mud up to their knees they were frequently forced to do the work of the yaks who couldn't cope with the harsh conditions. Shoes, clothes and tents quickly rotted, with few replacements.
They were also in administrative limbo, the Japanese in Singapore never officially passed them over to the Japanese in Thailand. Officially they didn't exist particularly when it came to food and medical supplies. Few Japanese officers cared about their welfare, cholera was rife. Moving from camp to camp took feats of super human effort.
Stretcher cases, others walking but needing support, their few wet tents, large rice cauldrons, meagre supplies and the heavy anvils and equipment to build the railway were all carried by the men. At a new camp work began on the railway the next day. This took precedence over the well being of the men, or the building of huts. Consequently all men, including the sick and dying, could be lying in mud and exposed to the elements for days, before adequate cover could be organized. Bob Christie told me that lying in the soft mud when your body was sore and aching was often preferable to the hard bamboo slats. “You got a better sleep!”
The few attap huts were usually in indescribable condition. The local people used to clear the jungle were treated appallingly. Arriving at a new camp men could be faced with the dead and dying, often forced to share these huts, the stench beyond belief. Men became affected with scabies and lice and was how they became exposed to cholera.
At Takanun 600 men were crammed into an area 70 x 30 yards, this included the latrines that flooded when the rivers rose. To get to the railway site men would walk 2 miles, passing 50 yards along a 10 inch wide log, no hand rails with a 30 foot drop spanning a flooding river. Finishing 15 long and arduous hours at 11 pm on the enormous Takanun cutting in the rush to complete the line, weary men would drag their tired bodies home in the pitch black, across the log and fall into wet blankets too tired to wash. Bootless and only a G string, bodies were exposed to the elements, the hazards of working the railway and tormented by sandflies, mosquitoes and other skin conditions. Dr Mills and Col. Pond’s protests, to prevent the sick and dying from working, usually in vain.
I frequently ask myself, how did my father and these other men not only survive, but remain sane. They came home, shared all this with no one but their fellow P.O.Ws and despite their hardships, simply got on with their lives.
Accessing my father’s medical files including some from Changi written on tatty bits of paper, has told me much about his life. Thirty relapses of malaria over twenty three months as well as constant dysentery from the Changi records. No wonder his weight dropped to 7 St. His continued hospitalization from amoebic dysentery into the mid 50’s, his surgery complications, and his chronic pain.
He was always so stoical and never complained. A cold or flu was a different story and it became a bit of a family joke. My mother would say, “your father’s dying again!” Imagine my dismay when I came across a report documenting muscle and joint pain when he had a cold or flu, was a consequence of beriberi.
Then I found another report saying how easily he was brought to tears.
As a little girl I saw those tears being quietly wiped away. It could be when watching tele, reading a book or something someone said. Young as I was, I knew this had something to do with the war, it worried me and not wanting to upset him, never asked about those times. Those files really opened my eyes to just how many things Dad and others had to deal with.
The six months Dad spent in hospital were hard on us all. Living in Bendigo, Heidelberg Hospital was hard to access. Mum didn't drive and with a baby and two youngsters relied on someone to drive us. I only recall 2 visits in that time. We didn't have a phone, so had to use the local public phone. For Dad, it meant a message from the nurses as he was confined to bed.
At home it was hard for my mother, sometimes she didn't cope.
As an eight year old I was given responsibility beyond my years, becoming some what of a surrogate parent to my sister and brother who were three and seven years younger than me. Saturday morning I would catch the bus into Bendigo to do the messages or pay bills. I became my mother’s sounding board listening to her concerns about our finances, Dad and the difficulties of being alone. Probably too much of a load for an eight year old!
For my father and so many other men the war was never over, they battled all their lives and did so bravely and with little complaint. Dad stayed in a job he didn't enjoy for over 20 years to provide for us.
Then after his coronary, though he’d vowed he’d never be deprived of food again, gave up all the cheeses, exotic sausages and ice cream that he loved so much. Stopped smoking his pipe, so much part of him and walked every day. Then when he regained his health, his life long dream of traveling Australia was thwarted when diagnosed with M.N.D.
My father had been having terrible falls. Visits to his local doctor and Heidelberg Hospital, put them down to his back. It had deteriorated so badly they wondered how he could still walk. In desperation Mum rang Weary Dunlop who organized a visit to a neurologist, he instantly diagnosed MND. I was still in hospital, after my son’s Alex’s birth and I remember I cried most of the day when I heard the news.
His courage and philosophical attitude made caring for him so easy. When his doctor came to discuss his imminent death, after he left he said, “poor little bugger, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but I’ve probably seen more death than he’ll see in a life time!” Now, I really understand that comment having learnt the story of Pond’s F Force.
My father died eleven months from diagnosis.
In the medical files the Doctor has written; “A tragic and hopeless case. Terminal.”
The men were sometimes discriminated against too. Dad could never get life insurance when this was the only form of superannuation. He’d had a 100% disability pension granted after his back surgery, not a large amount, certainly not enough to live on, but when he was forced to retire, this pension was considered income and so deducted from his retirement pension.
As I write this so many memories come back to me. The sack of rice in the back room, for when Dad had trouble eating normal food. Acquired when rice was in short supply after the war, by Dad’s friend Jan O’Hoy who lived in the unique Chinatown before it was bulldozed by the Bendigo Council.
The many woolen socks my mother knitted for feet which couldn't tolerate a hint of synthetic fibre.
The pad I found in a drawer with pages of two written lines. Dad’s attempt to write his memoirs, for the Battalion history. Never completed, I think, because it was just too hard
The poem, his medals and citation hidden away in his wardrobe. I proudly wore his medals to school for Anzac Day, probably more times than he did, not realizing the significance of the DCM ,
More recently at my first attendance of a 2/29th Anzac Luncheon, it was overwhelming to learn of the love and respect the Battalion had for my father and the tears flowed when Bob Christie took me aside to show me the Battalion Roll, an honour given to all new attendees. This old ledger has been with them from the beginning, the names in alphabetical order neatly recording in lead pencil every man’s details. This year the men passed this precious document into the safe keeping of the State Library of Victoria
Taking this trip has been a journey of discovery in more ways than I could ever have imagined. Coming to terms with some of it has been hard.
As a kid my life seemed pretty ordinary, it had its up’s and downs and you would sometimes think life wasn't fair, but when you put it in the context of your father’s life it is a very humbling experience. I could never have comprehended what my father went through, in fact still find it hard as an adult. My admiration for him has no bounds. He was a great Dad and man of enormous strength and integrity.
As for my illness, what better example than my father of getting on with life.
I have now spoken at the Shrine in a series called, “Children of Soldiers, A Pilgrimage of Love.” And had the honour of being the first daughter of my generation to propose the toast at the 2/29th Battalion Anzac Day Luncheon.
It is also with great pride that I have been able to play the Battalion song on my recorder at some of the 2/29th functions.
Things I could never ever have imagined doing.
My one regret is that my son Alex doesn't remember his grandfather. Dad was so proud of him, I’d put Alex in Dad’s arms for him to hold when he still had just a bit of feeling in his arms. Sadly he died just before Alex’ first birthday. They would have been such great mates. Recently, looking at family photos, Alex with his little daughter Ruby and my father, with me and my sister, both at about the same age. I saw my son, young and healthy, in the prime of his life and I looked at the face of my father, grey haired and aged beyond his years.
What a legacy he has left us, of his life both during and after the war, a wonderful example of how the human spirit can triumph over adversity.
How proud I am of him.