Thai-Burma Railway survivor’s final Anzac Day address, written days before his death

Albany Advertiser

Thai-Burma Railway survivor Neil MacPherson OAM died last month aged 96. Mr MacPherson was a regular at Anzac Day services in Thailand. He would have given the Anzac Day address at Kanchanaburi today. Instead, it will be read out in his honour. Below is Mr MacPherson’s address in full, written by him eight days before his death.

Good morning all, my name is Neil MacPherson.

I was one of the many Australian prisoners of the Japanese who worked on the construction of the Burma Thailand railway.

The 415km stretch between Ban Pong (Thailand) and Thanbyuzayat (Myanmar), which was a gap in the vital rail system that joined Singapore and the Japanese fighting on the Burma front.

The sea route up the west coast of Malaya had become too dangerous, with Allied submarines taking a huge toll on Japanese shipping.

As a 19-year-old when captured in 1942, my survival and that of others was partly due to the resilience of most young lads of that age in the post-depression years,a time of mass unemployment in Australia.

In Burma, we survived on a daily diet of a small cup of rice and watery, almost meatless, stew.

We cleared the jungle, built embankments, dug out cuttings and built bridges, all in the heat of the dry, and later in the misery and slush of the wet season.

We survivors of Williams Force, led by Lieutenant ColonelJack Williams of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, were later joined by Anderson Force, led by Lt-Col Anderson VC.

We were designated as No.1 Mobile Force and given the demanding task of laying the sleepers and rails along our previously worked ground.

The factors contributing to the high death rate of prisoners working on the railway to a great degree were inadequate food, long hours of heavy labour, beatings by Korean guards, and lack of drugs to treat the tropical diseases so prevalent in the region.

At the start of the wet season in 1943, cholera broke out in the native camps and soon spread to the prisoners.

We in the Mobile Force, were fortunate to have had Dr Rowley Richards with us. He demanded and received supplies of anti-cholera vaccine, which saved the pioneers from any outbreak of the horrible and usually fatal disease.

One of the many factors contributing to our survival was the certainty in our minds of our final victory against the Japanese. By the onset of the wet season in 1943, shortage of food, long hours of labour and lack of drugs to combat malaria and dysentery saw the death rate soar.

As a member of Williams Force led by Lt-Col John Williams, we were selected to carry out the task of laying the sleepers and rails through to Konkoita, where the two ends of the railway were joined in September, 1944.

Apart from a small number of prisoners left to maintain the railway, most of the prisoners left our jungle camps for transit camps including Tamarkan (near Kanchanaburi in Thailand) at the site of the bridge known as the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Food supplies, although never adequate, at least were an improvement on the melon soup and the bare rice served to prisoners in the railway camps on the Burma end of the railway. Thailand, although known as the food bowl of Asia, had suffered from the Japanese occupation. A large part of the rice produced in Thailand was being shipped to Japan.

My time on the railway ended in December, 1944 when I, with many other POWs, was shipped to Japan to end my POW days working in a coal mine.

Thank you and God bless.

Neil MacPherson and Harold Martin in Kanchanaburi on Anzac Day last year.
Camera IconNeil MacPherson and Harold Martin in Kanchanaburi on Anzac Day last year.

Get the latest news from in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails