The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass

Australian Prisoners of War on the Thai-Burma Railway 1942-1945

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Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop

The men would do anything for him and are proud to be with him. I am sure it is his presence which holds this body of men from moral decay in bitter circumstances which they can only meet with emotion rather than reason. ... This selflessness, this smile, command more from the men than an army of officers each waving a Manual of Military Law.

[Ray Parkin, Into the Smother, London, Hogarth Press, 1963, 51.]

Bronze statue Dunlop’s face, red poppy on lapel
Show caption
Portrait painging: a seated Dunlop in full uniform

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop, painting by Murray Griffin, 1956 [AWM ART26999] ... Enlarge Dunlop portrait

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop is an iconic figure in Australian memory of the Thai–Burma railway. Although only one of 106 Australian doctors captured by the Japanese and of 44 on the railway, Dunlop came to represent the self-sacrifice, courage and compassion which doctors and Australians more generally are remembered as displaying in captivity.

Born in Wangaratta, Victoria, in 1907 Dunlop studied pharmacy and medicine at the University of Melbourne and played rugby union for Australia in 1932. His nickname, ‘Weary’, was a play on the well-known brand of Dunlop Tyres which, according to their makers, ‘never wear out’.

In November 1939 Dunlop enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps and served with the 2nd Australian Imperial Force in Greece, Crete and North Africa. When Australian troops landed in Java in February 1942 in a futile effort to stop the Japanese advance Dunlop took command of No.1 Allied General Hospital at Bandung. When Java fell to the Japanese, he became a prisoner.

In January 1943 Dunlop and nearly nine hundred prisoners were transferred from Java to Changi. Two weeks later they left for Thailand.

‘Dunlop Force’ reached Konyu River Camp on 25 January 1943. Dunlop himself moved to Hintok Mountain camp in March. He stayed here until October, when he was sent to Tha Sao Hospital further down the Kwae Noi. In 1944 he moved to the hospital camp at Chungkai and later to Nakhon Pathom where he remained until the end of the war.

Dunlop with Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Coates in 1945

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop and Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Coates at Nakhon Pathom hospital camp, Thailand. Both are looking at sketches made by British artist Jack Chalker. While Dunlop was the senior officer at Nakhon Pathom, he deferred to Coates’ extensive medical knowledge. Coates had served during World War I and was also well-known and respected among prisoners of war. His statue stands in the main street of Ballarat, Victoria. [AWM 117361] ... Enlarge photo of Dunlop and Coates

Dunlop was renowned for his untiring efforts to care for the sick. Many times he put his own health at risk, earning himself physical punishment when he protested to the Japanese. At other times his sheer physical presence — he was nearly two metres tall — seemed to intimidate his captors. When a Japanese soldier hit a man with bad feet and malaria and then laughed at him, Dunlop was so enraged that, according to his diary which he kept throughout his ordeal:

I lost nearly all control and advanced on them, calling them every ‘cuss’ word I ever heard. No doubt the meaning was caught, if not the actual words, and they backed away.

[17 June 1943.]

Dunlop was also a strong administrator and leader. He kept meticulous notes on the men under his command and his leadership and courage earned him the lasting loyalty of the men who served under him.

After the war Dunlop gained increasingly public prominence as an advocate for former prisoners of the Japanese. He supported individuals making pension claims, lobbied governments on their behalf and took leadership roles in ex-POW associations. He was knighted in 1969 and received many other honours in his later life.

‘Weary’ Dunlop at the Kwae Noi, 1987

‘Weary’ Dunlop on the bank of the Kwae Noi, 1987. During the 1980s Dunlop was one of a group of former prisoners of war who returned to Thailand. On Anzac Day 1987 Dunlop unveiled a memorial plaque to medical personnel at Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting). After his death in 1993 part of Dunlop’s ashes were floated down the Kwae Noi from Home Phu Toey. [Photograph by Robert McFarlane] ... Enlarge photo of ‘Weary’ Dunlop at the Kwae Noi in 1987

Dunlop was also notable in his post-war life for renouncing the hatred for the Japanese that had consumed him during the war and promoting engagement with Asia.

In the 1980s Dunlop was one of a group of ex-POWs who helped reclaim Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) from the jungle. While in Thailand he met a local businessman Kanit Wanachote who created a memorial park in Dunlop’s honour at Home Phu Toey.

After his death in 1993, Dunlop was given a state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. Portions of his ashes were interred at Hellfire Pass and floated down the Kwae Noi in 1994. Remembered in many accounts of captivities and biographies, Dunlop has also been commemorated on a 50 cent coin and in statues including at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Melbourne, and Benalla, his home town.

Video still of Keith Flanagan's funeral ashes floating down river

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The floating of Dunlop's ashes down the Kwae Noi was the first such ceremony at Home Phu Toey, Thailand. When the ex-POW Keith Flanagan, a close colleague of Dunlop who had founded the Burma Thailand Railway Memorial Association died, he too was accorded this ceremony, as shown in the video. [By courtesy Capital Television Group].

Text description for video of Keith Flanagan's funeral

The 1 minute, 3 second video depicts the funeral ceremony on the banks of the Kwae Noi in Thailand and the floating of Flanagan's ashes down the river.

The opening shot shows the funeral party in single file, led by four orange-robed monks. The video transitions to shots of two young men as they carry the container of ashes covered in yellow flowers between them on a stretcher toward the river bank behind the monks. The video then transitions to various shots of the long procession of people who follow the lead group down the dirt track towards the river.

At the river bank the participants stand in prayer while two men, waist-deep in the river spread the flowers on the water and allow the container to float away. The final shots show the funeral guests in prayer and meditation.