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Ex POW, Bill Haskell, and his speech on ANZAC Day

Posted by Vietnam Swans on May 14, 2009

Bill Haskell, delivers the speech reproduced here at the Kanchanaburi Cemetery on Anzac Day

On ANZAC Day, 25 April 2009, ex POW, Bill Haskell (ex WX3279 2/3rd Machine Gun Batallion) delivered a speech during the official ceremony at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

It has been reproduced below with Bill’s permission.

In Australia and New Zealand the 25th April is known as Anzac Day.

It is a day on which the two Nations pay tribute to our Servicemen and Servicewomen who lost their lives in defence of freedom.

We are therefore grateful to the Governments of the Kingdom of Thailand and the Union of Myanmar and their people for permitting us to honour those who died in their countries and have their remains interred in this cemetery (at Kanchanaburi) and that at Thanbuyazat.

These men died as Prisoners of War of the Japanese in World War II, during or as a result of, working on the Burma Siam Railway.

POWs considered fit for work by their Japanese captors. Photo from www.abc.net.au

They died, in the main, through the sheer negligence of the Japanese in not supplying the basic food and medical supplies, in their inhumane and brutal treatment and in subjecting the prisoners to the absolute extreme of forced labour.

The prisoners were starved, overworked, exposed to diseases, harassed and brutally assaulted at the work place.

The established rules of warfare in relation to prisoners of war were abandoned completely in the frenzy to push the railway through.

We remember these men with great affection and deepest respect.

The sole purpose of locating Prisoners of War in Thailand and Burma was to work on the railway and the Japanese made it abundantly clear from the outset that there would be no respite until the task was accomplished.

The cholera isolation hospital area at Shimo Sonkurai No 1 camp. Cholera patients were housed under canvas on the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. Photo from www.abc.net.au

During the monsoonal months of July and August 1943 the country was deluged with continuous downpours of rain. At the same time Cholera and Amoebic Dysentery reached plague proportions and the Japanese engineers introduced their dreaded “Speedo” tactics. The combination of these factors resulted in deaths and disablement thereby cutting the workforce considerably and placing a huge burden on the remaining workers.

The engineers showed no compassion, on the contrary, continually increasing the working hours. Despite the enormous pressure, many prisoners survived the ordeal until the rail link was completed. They received wonderful support from the Doctors, medical orderlies and camp staff who supported them admirably. All of these people deserve to be acknowledged for playing their part in a triumph over adversity.

Upon completion of the rail link the war was still twenty-two months from finishing and the POWs were moved around a great deal.

Some men were retained on the railway doing maintenance work and cutting wood for locomotive fuel whilst others were spread around the country working on roads, railways, and bridges damaged by Allied bombing and monsoonal rains.

The men of “F” Force, whose introduction to Thailand was a 260-kilometer march to the disease-ridden camps at and around Sonkurai were eventually returned to Singapore, missing over a thousand of their number who had perished.

The fittest of the Prisoners of War survivors were sent to other areas of Asia as forced labour. A large number of the Australians went to Japan to work in coalmines and other industrial areas. They sailed in decrepit unmarked ships and unfortunately some of the ships in the convoys were sunk by Allied submarines resulting in a further heavy loss of life.

Tropical ulcers were a constant problem for men on the railway. Few if any had boots and the constantly wet conditions meant that any scratch could quickly turn into an ulcer. There was little available to treat ulcers. Often the rotting flesh was scooped out with a sharpened spoon or men were told to stand in a river to let flesh eating fish pick at the rotting flesh. Sometimes ulcers could get so big that amputation was the only option. Few survived the shock. Photo from www.abc.net.au

The inhumane treatment meted to the Prisoners of War had reduced a third of the “railway” survivors to a state where they were incapable of further manual labour. They were transferred to (so called) hospital camps in Tarsao and Chungkai. They were later consolidated in a vast hospital camp at Nakon Pathom.

After the Japanese surrender, much to the relief of the Prisoners of War who were well into their fourth year of captivity, thousands of them were repatriated to Australia to be nurtured back to health by their loved ones. Many, of course, were beyond complete recovery. After a period of convalescence and retraining, those who had recovered sufficiently were returned to society and assisted in rebuilding a country that had been on a full wartime footing for over six years.

Notwithstanding the dreadful conditions in Thailand and Burma, the subsequent ordeals in “hell-ships” and coalmines and the inhumane treatment, many of the Australian POWs displayed a resilience, a fortitude and a will to survive which allowed them to re-establish themselves after the war.

Many moving accounts of the fortitude displayed by the Australian prisoners in enduring great adversity have emerged. I would like to refer to just one which gives some idea of this magnificent trait.

Basil Clark was a member of A Force in Burma and had his right leg amputated at the mid section of his thigh in September 1943. The amputation was carried out at the 55 Kilo Hospital Camp by the renowned surgeon, Lieut. Colonel Albert Coates, whose skill and expertise surely assisted Basil Clark’s recovery.

In due course Basil was transferred to the Base Hospital at Nakon Pathom in Thailand and repatriated after the war to Perth, Western Australia, where he very quickly resumed civilian life. In June 1946 Basil married the young lady he was courting when he enlisted. They were blessed with a son in 1947 and a daughter in 1948. Basil was fitted with an artificial leg that had an articulated knee and a rigid ankle. The leg was supported by a waistband and strapping which enabled comparative freedom of movement.

The Department of Postwar Reconstruction interviewed Basil and suggested that because of his handicap he should take up a sedentary occupation. Basil rejected this proposal out of hand and stated he was returning to his pre war occupation of farming.

In 1949 he moved onto a medium sized wheat and sheep farm at Wongan Hills in Western Australia and single-handedly carried out all the normal farming operations such as ploughing, cropping, harvesting and sheep husbandry. At the same time he took a lively interest in community affairs such as Rotary, Freemasonry, Parents and Citizens Clubs and general sporting activities.

In due course his son Noel continued farming the property and his daughter Lois qualified as a nurse in which capacity she accompanied the Quiet Lion Pilgrimage in 2007

Bill Haskell returns to his seat carrying this speech in his hand

This is the story of a survivor who triumphed over enormous difficulties as a Prisoner of War and on return to Australia distinguished himself as a family man and in farming and community affairs. Truly the type of person who inspires a nation.

Basil was representative of a host of Australian ex Prisoners of War who displayed those great traits of resilience, fortitude and an enduring will to survive. He and the rest of the Prisoners of War were truly representative of their predecessors who collectively led to the coining of the description “Anzac” and the perpetuation of Anzac Day.

We, those who are left, salute those who are no longer with us.

God bless them and God bless you all.

The black and white photos above are from on the ABC’s website.

3 Responses to “Ex POW, Bill Haskell, and his speech on ANZAC Day”

  1. Ruairidh Watters said

    May you finally rest in peace Bill. I remember well our conversations at Hellfire Pass and it was with deep sorrow that I heard of your passing. I wish you a good journey. Your work to remind us of the inhumanities inflicted by those people, at that time, will, I hope, be a lesson for us all to take aboard. We must never forget what they did, and the ghastly effects resulting from their disgusting treatment of real human beings. I do not believe that their advancement in the world of trade forgives them. Their sins were too horrific, and their continuous refusal to recognise that fact negate such a luxury.

  2. said

    On March 4 of this year, 2011, 66 years later, the Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara apologised to five Australian servicemen held prisoner during World War II. All served on the line. Significantly these weary diggers had to visit Japan to receive their apology. But this is too little too late,the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, in whose name the Japanese committed these atrocities went to his grave having never apologised or been held to account for his crimes. The Nazi’s were all tried and the hunt goes on even today for Nazi War criminals and yet no member of the ruling Japanese Imperial Family, including the current Emperor and son of Hirohito has ever apolgised or held responsible for the wanton acts of cruelty and terror.

    To her ever lasting shame, to the everlasting shame of her advisors and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and that of the Australian Government, our own Prime Minister visited and drank tea with the Japanese Emperor on the eve of ANZAC Day this year. She drank tea with the Japanese Emperor, when Bill Haskell was making his way, painfully and slowly, to Hellfire pass for the very last time.

    The Japanese Imperial Family will never apologise to Bill, the Australian Government should.

  3. said

    I had the honour of witnessing this marvelous heartfrlt speech As a British ex serviceman now living in thailand I attend this service every year and will again later this month with the Royal British Legion Thailand
    I have met the survivers that attend this service and have attended the dawn service at hellfire pass
    This year Bill will be missed but he will be remembered along with his digger mates and all the others who died or survived this horrendous period

    Lest We Forget

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