Our World Thai-Burma railway pilgrims on journey of remembrance

A Perth family follow in the footsteps of their prisoner-of-war father.

This was more than a holiday. It was a pilgrimage.

Two families wanted to follow in the footsteps of prisoner-of-war Neville Jeanes who worked on the Thai-Burma railway during World War II.

On the quest were his two sons, myself and Gordon, our wives (Louise and Heather), our four grown-up children (Oli, Sam, Daisy and Rosie) and Daisy’s partner Jake.

The planning started with an email to Terry Manttan, who, with Rod Beattie, runs the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

TBRC is much more than an informative museum of the railway, opposite the war cemetery in Kanchanaburi, the staging post at the Thai end for the construction. From scant information, its staff pieces together the movements of POWs who worked on the railway.

Terry has a personal interest. His father, who was taken prisoner after the sinking of HMAS Perth, returned to Australia after the war but died when Terry was six months old from war-related health issues.

At least my father lasted until he was aged 53 before succumbing to a stroke, caused by high blood pressure that could not be treated because of damage to his kidneys during his time on the railway.

Neville, an RAAF navigator, was with RAF Squadron 84 in Java when a surprise Japanese attack left the airmen isolated. He was one of the airmen chosen to make a run for Australia on a salvaged lifeboat they named Scorpion after the squadron’s emblem.

In one of the great escape and survival epics of the war, the Scorpion made it to Australia after 47 days at sea. But my father was not on the boat.

Shortly into the voyage it was discovered there were 13 on the lifeboat. There are two stories on why it was decided one of the two RAAF astro-navigators had to swim back to shore.

One is that there were only rations for 12. 

The other is that they did not want to attempt the voyage with the unlucky number of 13 aboard.

What is certain, is that Neville either lost a toss or volunteered to swim back to shore and inevitable captivity.

After being betrayed by locals and taken prisoner he was eventually shipped to Changi Prison in Singapore. He was then crammed with other POWs into a steel goods wagons as part of Dunlop Force (named after its leader, the famous Weary Dunlop) on a train headed for Thailand.

The wagons, each containing more than 30 prisoners, heated up during the day, creating a hotbox of perspiring men, then cooled down at night, leaving them shivering.

Once TRBC established that Neville was part of Dunlop Force, it created an itinerary for us going to camps and sections of the railway on which Dunlop Force worked.

So, the nine of us caught a Thai Airways flight from Perth to Bangkok where we had a couple of days to see the sights and acclimatise. Our pilgrimage started when we boarded a train for the three-hour ride to Kanchanaburi.

 We had decided on this mode of transport to follow as much as we could in Neville’s journey.

The third-class trains on this route would have been luxury for the POWS but they were basic for us with only fans on the ceiling, bench vinyl seats and squat lavatories. There is no dining car but locals get on at stops along the route selling local food and drinks.

We had gone only a few kilometres when the train stopped for running repairs. Three staff proceeded through our carriage with various-sized hammers and we could hear them striking metal for a few minutes. They then returned and off we went again.

We got off at the Bridge on the River Kwai station because it was only 200m from our accommodation at the River Kwai Bridge Resort where we all had comfortable air-conditioned rooms for about $35 a night.

The resort has a casual restaurant-bar area on the river overlooking the famous bridge. The food is good and the beer cold.

Immediately behind the resort is the site of Tha Makham POW camp. And where we sat sitting sipping Singha beers was where POWs bathed during the war.

Every year in late November or early December there is a week of spectacular sound and light shows centred on the bridge commemorating its war history. Our trip was timed to coincide with the shows but the dates were changed late and we missed it by a week, though we did experience the rehearsals.

The next day we were all taken to the museum where Terry briefed us on Neville’s war before we examined the stark exhibits depicting all aspects of life as a prisoner on the railway and the war cemetery.

We were then taken on a tour of “old” Kanchanaburi, the parts that existed during the war.

 These included a factory owned by Boon Pong, who at great personal risk provided supplies and medicine to the POWs, the Chungkai Camp, where Neville probably returned after the railway was completed, Aerodrome Camp and nearby cuttings and bridges built by POWs.

There is no evidence of the camps now. 

They are overgrown and in some cases built on, though the superstitious Thais try to avoid the bad spirits of the dead.

The following morning we were on a minibus headed to where Neville worked in the Kannyu and Hintok areas, near the more famous Hellfire Pass.

Dunlop Force was mainly involved in cutting a pass through the rock at Hintok, constructing Three-Tier Bridge over the valley immediately beyond and then building up Seven-Metre Embankment.

At Hintok Cutting I sensed my father’s presence. I can’t explain it but I just felt that the nine of us were walking in Neville’s footsteps as we explored the area.

I don’t think my father or Weary Dunlop would be pleased with how these historic Australian sites are being left to degrade, especially when compared with the money being spent to preserve Hellfire Pass and the nearby pedestrian interpretive centre.

There was a 3.5km hiking path from Hellfire Pass along the railway passing through Hintok Cutting to Compressor Cutting. 

This is now blocked by a fence immediately west of Hintok Cutting, making Compressor Cutting and the site of Pack of Cards Bridge inaccessible.

The jungle and elements are reclaiming the Hintok Cutting, Seven-Metre Embankment and the site of Three-Tier Bridge. If nothing is done these will become just part of the landscape.

Our last stop at dusk was the big viaduct at Wang Pho. This is an impressively long tiered trestle bridge built by POWs along the cliff face of Kwai Noi River. 

Although there have been repairs and replacements, the bridge remains much as it was when the POWs completed the job.

There is an array of shops near the Wang Pho station that caters to tourists where some of us bought indigo dyed apparel to take home.

The next day was at our leisure and a group hired kayaks to explore the Kwai river while the thrillseekers chose a quicker ride in a longtail speedboat.

The next day it was back to Bangkok by minibus, giving the chance for some exploring and shopping.

Bangkok is trying to emulate Singapore. There are a number of up-market shopping centres where you can shop and eat in beautiful and air-conditioned surroundings. 

But once you get on the streets there is a mix of heavy traffic, noise, pollution and street stalls.

One of the great pleasures of Thailand is the food, which is invariably delicious and cheap.

Gordon and I did our first pilgrimage seven years ago. 

The main purpose of this one was to give our grown children an appreciation of what shaped the grandfather they never knew.

I certainly hope it was more than a nice holiday for them but I will have to wait for conversations in the future to know the impact.

(Top image: Neville Jeanes in company. Picture: Supplied by Peter Jeanes)

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