Thai-Burma Railway survivor makes emotional return to Hellfire Pass at the age of 102
Harold Martin said a few extra words after he recited The Ode in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, last year.
This was goodbye, he told the crowd gathered on Anzac Day to commemorate the lives lost on the Thai-Burma Railway.
At 101, he would not be able to return to Thailand again.
But the Albany World War II veteran is back there now, on yet another mission to honour those of his mates who did not make it home.
As a child, his mother told him never to give up — and it seems he listened.
Mr Martin and his fellow prisoners of war endured horrific conditions on the railway, characterised by backbreaking work, grossly inadequate meals and deadly sicknesses.
Dead soldiers’ bodies were burnt in an attempt to stop the spread of disease.
He had joined the army to defend Australia, but the powers that be underestimated the strength of the enemy.
Singapore fell 10 days after he arrived.
Having survived two years of slave labour on what came to be known as the Death Railway, Mr Martin was put on a ship bound for Japanese coal mines.
His ship was hit by US torpedoes, leaving him and hundreds of other skeletal prisoners of war treading water in the South China Sea.
He and 72 fellow Allied soldiers were picked up by the crew of the USS Pampanito after almost four days spent clinging to makeshift life rafts.
Mr Martin rarely spoke about those experiences in the decades after the war — he did not think anyone would want to hear about them — but he slowly opened up to Morris and Gwen Blake.
The Blakes own Dylan’s on the Terrace in Albany, where Mr Martin would start every day with a coffee at 7am.
“He used to look after his beautiful daughter Bethany, and when she passed away he would come into Dylan’s for a cup of coffee first thing in the morning,” Mr Blake said.
“He started to tell us this amazing story. He said one of the things he’d never been able to do was go back to America to say thank you for picking him out of the water.
“Gwen said ‘What’s stopping you?’ And he said ‘I’ve got no one to go with”. So Gwen hopped on a plane with him and that’s how it started.
“That submarine — the Pampanito — has pride of place at the Navy Museum in San Francisco.
“It has a big 73 on the side of it for the number of POWs they rescued. The curator of the museum was just blown away.”
Since then, the Blakes and Mr Martin have become close friends.
Mr Blake has accompanied him to Thailand or Myanmar three times, including two Anzac Day dawn services at Hellfire Pass.
He said the 102-year-old would lay a wreath at this morning’s dawn service, then travel to Kanchanaburi for a service at the war cemetery, where he would lay another wreath and recite The Ode.
His daughter, Samm Blake, created a moving documentary about Mr Martin, titled A Long Way Back.
The documentary, which is available to watch online, was released three years ago after Mr Martin tracked down the graves of three of his mates in Myanmar.
“I stood there and I saw there was row after row of silent headstones, all young men, their whole life before them — and there they lay,” Mr Martin told Ms Blake.
“And I thought, these men should not be forgotten.”
In recent weeks, Mr Martin has suggested to friends that it would be fitting in a sense if he died in Thailand.
“We don’t want anything to happen, of course,” Mr Blake said.
“I honestly think his opinion is, ‘Well, I’d be here with all the others who didn’t make it back’.”
More than 2700 Australians died working on the Thai-Burma Railway.
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