POW lived to tell the tale

Shannon SmithAlbany Advertiser
Mrl MacPherson and Mr Martin in Kanchanaburi in 2018.
Camera IconMrl MacPherson and Mr Martin in Kanchanaburi in 2018.

One of Australia’s last survivors of the Thai-Burma Railway, Albany’s Neil MacPherson OAM, has died at the age of 96.

Mr MacPherson, whose story stands as an example of resilience, forgiveness and benevolence, died on Saturday in Albany.

In 1942, as a young private who had been eager to enlist for the war, he was one of more than 22,000 Australians taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese.

He survived a gruelling two years as a prisoner building the 415km Burma Railway in Thailand, which the Japanese used to supply forces in Burma, bypassing vulnerable sea routes.

Against disease, malnourishment and brutal treatment, he survived an ordeal which killed 2815 fellow Australians.

“I was just a skeleton, but kept myself alive with thoughts of home,” he said in 2014.

In late 1944, he was shipped to Japan to continue his back-breaking work in a coalmine.

Neil MacPherson with a photograph of himself, taken when he enlisted at age 19.
Camera IconNeil MacPherson with a photograph of himself, taken when he enlisted at age 19. Credit: Supplied

On August 16, 1945, the Japanese camp commandant said the words: “The order has been given to stop the fight.”

Pte MacPherson’s diary entry simply read: “Freedom today.”

He returned home to Perth on his mother’s birthday — her best birthday present ever.

Despite his hellish experiences, he was determined not to harbour any bitterness, returning to Japan to spread goodwill.

For the past 15 years, the Albany man travelled to the section of the Thai-Burma railway known as Hellfire Pass with his granddaughters Krishna and Gypsy.

He was awarded an OAM in 2009 for his service to the community — particularly through the establishment of the Burma Thailand Railway Memorial Association — and raising awareness of the POW experience.

He went on to write his book, The Burma Railway, Hellships and Coalmines alongside Tony Carter, sharing his POW story.

He was a father to Jo, Alan, Ean and Greg. Ean married a Japanese woman and gave him two half-Japanese grandsons.

Jo said her father lived a full life after retirement, travelling often.

Neil MacPherson’s son Eon MacPherson, granddaughter Krishna Vanderweide, daughter Jo Pearce, granddaughter Gypsy O’Dea and son Alan MacPherson at Clarence Estate. Below, Harold Martin with Jo Pearce and Maurice Blake. Inset, Neil MacPherson.
Camera IconNeil MacPherson’s son Eon MacPherson, granddaughter Krishna Vanderweide, daughter Jo Pearce, granddaughter Gypsy O’Dea and son Alan MacPherson at Clarence Estate. Below, Harold Martin with Jo Pearce and Maurice Blake. Inset, Neil MacPherson. Credit: Laurie Benson

“He always read an address at the Anzac Day service in Kanchanaburi in Thailand and he finished this year’s one a couple of days before he got sick and passed,” she said. “Knowing he had the trip back each year kept him going in his final years.

“People learnt so much from him. Everyone wanted to sit next to him and hear what it was like — and they came back from trips to Thailand as changed people.”

His address at this month’s service in Kanchanaburi will be read in his honour. Clarence Estate was home to Neil during his final 17 months.

RSL WA State president Peter Aspinall said through his trips to Thailand, Mr MacPherson showed his compassion and commitment to helping people understand what his fellow soldiers had been through.

“Among the last of the Burma Railway POW survivors, over the years he was a fantastic example of grace and resilience,” he said.

“He was a fantastic man to know.”

Mr MacPherson was WA’s second-last surviving Thai-Burma Railway POW, alongside fellow Albany resident Harold Martin, 102.

Family and friends marked his death at Clarence Estate on Tuesday. His life will be commemorated with a formal service at Karrakatta on Monday, where army personnel will form a guard of honour.

POW Harold Martin with Jo Pearce and Maurice Blake farewell Neil MacPherson.
Camera IconPOW Harold Martin with Jo Pearce and Maurice Blake farewell Neil MacPherson. Credit: Laurie Benson Albany Advertiser

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