Patrick Stringer, who toured with the Vietnam Swans last weekend to Kanchanaburi for the ANZAC Day match, reflects upon the occasion. Patrick’s father had worked on “the line”.
In early March I bumped into Phil Johns (National President, Vietnam Swans) at Café Latin in Saigon. I had not seen Phil for many months but it wasn’t very long before the conversation turned to footy. It always does with Fabbo!
“Mate, the Swannies have been invited to play the Thailand Tigers in the annual Anzac Day match and we are going to Hellfire Pass. It’s gonna be awesome, why don’t you come along” ?
I am sure I looked pretty stupid standing in front of Phil, in stunned silence. My mumbled reply was probably less than coherent, and I am sure he interpreted it as a non-committal “maybe”.
But what Phil didn’t know was that my father was among the very first group of POW’s to be sent from Changi to work on the Thai–Burma railway.
What he didn’t know was that Dad spent 1548 days in active service overseas during World War II– the majority of them as a POW of the Japanese.
What Phil didn’t know was that my father never again enjoyed good health and died in 1961 when I was just 6 weeks old.
And what he certainly didn’t know was that I had spent years struggling to understand his sacrifices and what it means to be the son of one of these men.
Despite living and working in Vietnam for 4 years, and with the railway so close, I had not yet summoned the courage to visit. It’s not that visiting it was not important to me. It was very important to me. I had researched for years the details of my father’s capture in Singapore and his time in the forced labour camps. But I simply did not have the courage to stand in a place where I knew my dad had suffered so much, where he and countless others had been tortured and tormented. I did not have the courage to stand where young boys had died, crying out for their mums and dads. That place, hallowed as it may be, was an awful place, a place of death and dying and I did not have his permission to go there.
But I also knew that to connect with my dad I had to visit the significant places in his life, and this was perhaps the most significant place of all.
So the arrangements were made, and soon enough we were in the bus at 3.30am on the way up to the Dawn Service.
For many people on the bus that morning I am sure that Hellfire Pass and the Railway was a hard thing to identify with – we all knew terrible and unspeakable things had happened there but it’s difficult to absorb really. It’s made more absorbable somehow when all the statistics are quoted – that seems to be how our mind works, but then it becomes less real in a way, it’s a bunch of numbers and facts.
I was asked to give a talk on the bus. I tried to remind people that the men on the line were like our footy team, there were teenagers and blokes in their forties. I reminded them that the only thing those men had was each other. I suggested that we look around and imagine that nearly half of us would die in the next 12 months, we die slowly and in pain with only our mates to comfort us. I talked a little about how the Army Units were constituted and what all the numbers meant, and why the men often came from the same area or town in Australia. I asked who among us would be brave enough to volunteer to hold down their mate while his ulcerated leg was scraped clean down to the bone with a sharpened teaspoon every morning or his leg was eventually hacked off using a butcher’s saw without anaesthetic. I said these things not to be gruesome or morbid, but because they were true. I tried to make it personal so that people would remember that these things really happened here and they happened a lot.
I never knew my Dad but my decision to visit Hellfire Pass that morning was a deeply unsettling and emotional pilgrimage. I was, however, mentally steeled by the historic fact that my Dad was in “A” Force and he did not actually work on the Konyu cutting or anywhere near the Southern end of the railway, so I knew my emotions would remain in check at the Dawn Service.
In the pre-dawn darkness we arrived at the entrance of the cutting, and like the thousand or so others who had come to this special place, we quietly awaited the commencement of the service. The cutting was lit with Bamboo oil lamps, just like it must have been then.
There is an established and great tradition whereby the Australian and New Zealand Heads of Mission preside alternatively at the Anzac Day dawn services overseas. But I freely admit to a charge of disappointment when, standing in the morning cool and listening to the timeless sounds of the jungle, I realised that this year, in this place, it would be the New Zealand and not the Australian Ambassador who would deliver the memorial address.
I knew of course, that New Zealanders too worked and died on “the line”, their dying no less horrific and no less painful than that of any other man. I knew that, of course I knew that. But today, this year, why this year of all years, was it the Kiwi’s turn? Oh well, at least this would make it easier for me to remain composed.
The New Zealand Ambassador’s words on that morning were the most moving and poignant tribute I have ever personally heard spoken of Australia’s fallen. There was an honesty, a deep love and respect that shone from his words which captured something fundamental about the significance of Hellfire Pass in Australia’s history and the unique relationship between our two nations.
Jonathan Diamond once said that grief is not an emotion like other emotions. We do not seek it out, it finds us, and when it does, for most men it’s no accident.
For an entire generation of fatherless sons the railway remains an un-navigable link to their dads and the colossal nature of their sacrifice. Grief sought me out that morning. It overwhelmed me. The ambassador’s words did not help to bring my dad closer to me, his words did not help to fill the lifelong emptiness, but his words did let us all know that our heartache is shared.
According to most definitions I have read, an Ambassador is sent by the Head of State to a foreign court or country, to represent the interests of his own nation. But on that morning and in that place, his was a selfless and heartfelt message from the New Zealand people, I am sure it was heard by all “men of the line” and I was glad to be there.
Later in the day, 3 of the surviving POW’s attended the footy match.
In the blazing afternoon heat, one man in particular, Bill Haskell, walked slower and I think more painfully than the others. With the aid of two walking sticks, he cut a heart wrenching sight making his way along the boundary line to his seat. My eyes filled with tears as both teams applauded their presence. Proud diggers indeed.
The Swannies went into the game underdogs, and to be fair, we were never really in the game up against a good and much fitter Tigers team. But it was the one game in my entire life where I can say that the score did not matter at all. It was the one game when playing in the right spirit and doing what you could to help your mates really was the most important thing. We lost the game by a big margin, but I don’t think there has ever been a more proud Vietnam Swans team than the boys who wore the guernsey that day.
Bill Haskell had spoken earlier in the day at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and told a story about a man from “A” Force. My dad was in “A” Force. After the game I approached Bill in the hope that he may have known my dad. But it turns out that Bill was in “Dunlop” Force. After a short talk I was beginning to get a bit choked up and so, more than a little embarrassed, I excused myself and made my way back to the changing tent to join the rest of the Swannies for a cold beer.
Some 10 minutes later, somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around – there was Bill Haskell standing with the support of his son and his two walking sticks in the still blazing late afternoon sun. He had followed me to the tent. He looked me in the eye, offered his hand and said “I didn’t know your Dad, but those boys in “A” Force knew all about it. Thank you for making yourself known to me.”
Not for the last time that day, grief sought me out.
Most men find that talking about their father is an uncomfortable subject. It is certainly the case for me but I have been encouraged to write this piece by Phil and others who were there that day.
It is estimated 30 per cent of men today don’t talk to their fathers. Steve Biddulph said that every father, no matter how tough and removed he seems, spends his life waiting to know his son loves and respects him. He will spend his life waiting.
If you are one of those 30 per cent, I hope that reading this story can help you fix it with your dad. There’s a lot at stake.
Footnote: The Vietnam Swans have hosted an ANZAC Friendship Match since 2010 at the dog racing track in Vung Tau (near Saigon). During the Vietnam War, Vung Tau served as the Australian logistics base. Back then, the Diggers also used to play footy at what was known as the Lord Mayor’s Oval which is now known as the dog track. For more information on the Vietnam Swans ANZAC Friendship Match, click here.