Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It’s an honour to speak at this national memorial and I thank the committee for asking me. May I extend a special greeting and acknowledgement to the nine returned Prisoners of war here today and to the families and friends of those no longer with us.
I am moved by this powerful, elegant memorial and sobered by the reminder that in excess of 36,000 Australian men and women have been prisoners of war. This memorial reminds us of the sacrifices made by those who were robbed of their chance to fight our country’s enemies. In my view, POWs were dealt an especially tough hand for they did no wrong but were imprisoned for a sentence of unknown duration. In some cases they were grossly maltreated by their captors, possibly never worse than for those imprisoned by the Japanese in WWII where their death rate was more than ten times higher than for those killed in action or who died from their wounds.
My talk today is about my father, a POW soldier who made it home from the Thai-Burma Death Railway. He was Major Ewan Corlette, NX350, a young doctor in 1940 when he joined the AAMC. One can’t mention doctor and Burma Railway in the same breath without bringing to mind Weary Dunlop, the war hero we all know. Dad and Weary became friends while serving in the Middle East in the 2/2 Casualty Clearing Station. They were together when captured in Java and for much of their time on the Railway. They remained friends and mutual admirers until Dad’s death in 1986. Weary wrote wonderful letters to my family when Dad was dying, in one he said, “He was a real man for tough days, stern faced, but full of kindness, disarming humour and a kindness of heart which I never felt that I could equal. I always thought that he exceeded me in true compassion and rapport with the sick.” High praise, indeed.
Talking about my father’s military service fills me with pride but Dad didn’t leave me an easy task. He left no wealth of tales of his exploits because, like so many returned service personnel, he rarely spoke in detail about his experiences. He tended to drop one-liners – stories with details were few.
On the Death Railway the POW’s daily realities were starvation, bashings, torture, overwork, malnutrition, maltreatment, disease, and deprivations beyond imagination. But there was also fair dinkum Aussie mateship and inspiring leadership. Doctors and other medical personnel consistently demonstrated dedication, compassion and amazing resourcefulness. By his silence, my dad sought to shut the door on that chapter of his life. Nevertheless, in childhood I became aware that Dad harboured terrible memories of those awful years on the Railway – mostly hidden from others but certainly there – just below the surface.
When I was a child I quite often heard people say so-and-so was a war hero. Occasionally, I heard grownups say Dad was a war hero but at home modesty was considered such a virtue that it was not a term ever used. Ewan Corlette chose to remain an unsung hero whose story was known mostly only to those who came under his care during their imprisonment. Much later I came to recognise that my quiet, self-effacing father was every bit the war hero, certainly to those who knew him on the Line.
Dad enlisted soon after the outbreak of war, aged 32. As a youngster I asked him why he had joined up, anticipating he’d say something like, “to defend democracy” or “to fight for freedom.” To my immense surprise, he replied, “Because my king called me.”
In the early days in the Middle East Dad enjoyed military life. He amused the family recounting raucous times in the officers’ mess where they played drinking games that ended only when no one was left able to stand.
I remember Dad described to me the very first battle casualty he treated: a young soldier had his mouth wide open when he was struck by a bullet that missed all his teeth, missed his spinal column and missed vital arteries as it exited through the back of his neck. A few stitches and he was as good as new.
In early 1942 an element of the 2/2 CCS including Dad and Weary, along with combat battalions were moved to the Dutch East Indies, landing on Java on 18th February 1942 only to become prisoners of the Japanese within a month. Following their surrender, the CCS was disbanded and a hospital established with Weary Dunlop in charge. On Java, Ray Denney was a medical orderly and admirer of Major Corlette, writing years later he described Dad doing a blood transfusion amid shrapnel falling through the ceiling and glass tumbling out of windows but without any loss of focus on the patient. In January 1943 close to a thousand Australian POWs on Java were moved to Thailand, transiting through Changi. This group became known as “Dunlop Force”. They endured a dreadful voyage from Java to Singapore, soon followed by several days of a tortuous train journey north into Thailand. In tropical heat and humidity they were crammed into livestock carriages with next to no food, little water and no hygiene facilities. Next they were trucked further north in similarly inhumane conditions to Banpong and then marched through rough terrain on barely formed tracks to their first camp. This was Konyu, little more than a clearing in the jungle. The POWs had to build the camp themselves with the most rudimentary tools supplied by their captors and materials gathered from the jungle. In the course of the construction of the Railway Dad also worked at Hintok Mountain Camp and Hintok River Camp, associated with the infamous Hellfire Pass, and at Kinsayok, Tarsau, Pratchai-Saraburi and Tamuang, and probably others.
Cholera was an ever-present threat. Dad said that during one outbreak certain troops suggested to the doctors that they should deliberately infect their captors’ drinking water but the doctors never took up the idea because they held fast to their Hippocratic Oath which in my father’s day read, “I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage. Nor shall any man’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poison to anyone; neither will I counsel any man to do so. And I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong.”
Conscience-driven adherence to that oath dictated that the despicably cruel enemy received medical attention administered with the same diligence as did the allied servicemen.
Various returned diggers have related anecdotes said to typify Dad’s laconic sense of humour, a humour for hard times they all say:
In one, a very sick young soldier in a leaky tent that passed for a hospital, on bamboo slats that passed for a bed asked, “Major, am I going to die?” Dad’s dry reply came, “I haven’t decided yet.” And another, while examining one of the men, he said to the soldier, “Do you know what’s wrong with you?…….You’re totally buggered, not a thing left.” He probably had grounds to say that thousands of times. Bitter humour was considered more important than bedside manner in the camps on the Line.
Dad spoke of a soldier suffering with severe tropical ulcers on his legs. One leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated below the knee but the gangrene spread necessitating two further amputations until Weary discussed with Dad his plan to amputate at the hip joint. Such an operation had been experimental at the outbreak of war and every patient so treated had died. Dad managed to dampen Weary’s enthusiasm for experimental surgery while standing ankle deep in mud in a leaky tent in the jungle with inadequate instruments and scarcely a drop of anaesthetic. They resolved to do a high amputation in which Dad’s role included stemming the flow of blood from the femoral artery at the groin. He used the only available instrument; a bent metal spoon. And the soldier survived.
With the railway completed, towards the end of the war Dad was transferred to Pratchai-Saraburi Camp in Thailand as Senior POW Medical Officer. There, Japanese soldiers forced allied prisoners to dig large trenches which they were certain would become their own mass graves. It was Dad’s unshakable view that if not for the Americans dropping the atomic bombs a very short time later, every one of the POWs would have been slaughtered. When news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing Japanese surrender reached the camp the proposed massacre was of course abandoned. The Japanese commandant then blithely announced:
“Big bomb. War over. We friends now.”
The liberated allies soon discovered storehouses containing massive quantities of withheld medical supplies and withheld Red Cross parcels. Dad’s disgust and contempt was such that he never forgave the Japanese.
After the surrender while Dad was working in Bangkok with recovering POWs a journalist for the Australian Women’s Weekly wrote an article about Weary and Dad drawn from interviews with survivors. This is part of what he wrote, “Corlette was a rugged cove with a moustache that made him look like Al Capone and won him the title ‘The Gangster of the Kwandi River.’ He wore his cap over one eye and was as tough as they come, but to a sick Australian his heart was as soft as that of a new mother.” And also, “Corlette was tough. I have seen Nips stand over him to get more men out of the hospital to send to work on the railway. The Nips would want 50, and he would offer 10. It would go like this: Jap officer: ‘Fifty men.’ Corlette: ‘No, ten men.’ Then the Jap guard would bash Corlette, and so it continued: ‘Fifty.’ Bash. ‘Ten.’ Bash. ‘Fifty.’ Bash. ‘Ten.’ Bash. But in the end the Japs only got ten men.”
Dad returned to Australia in early 1946, aged just 38 though photos show him looking more like 58. Before demobilisation he was promoted to Lt Colonel though he always remained ‘the Major’ to those who knew him through the war. Shortly after repatriation he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military MBE.
Life after the war saw Dad and his then wife, Doreen set up home in a modest flat while he worked at Sydney Hospital and shared consulting rooms with his father in Macquarie Street. In a cruel blow Doreen died suddenly in 1950. Quite quickly, Dad remarried and I was born a respectable 11 months later.
Throughout my childhood I can recall answering the phone to frail-sounding men who asked, “Can I please have a word with “the Major”. Returned POWs knew where to find a sympathetic ear.
As a contribution to caring for returned servicemen, for some 35 years Dad looked after patients at Concord Repatriation Hospital and sat on a Tribunal compassionately assessing entitlements to pensions and other benefits.
The war cast a shadow over my family as it did for tens of thousands of other Australian families. I remember hearing Dad shouting out in nightmares and next morning Mum would say, “I suppose you heard Dad’s noise last night? He had another of his war nightmares.” The war was never far below the surface.
Dad practised medicine in a pre-Medicare world. As a matter of routine he never charged priests or clergymen and if he thought any patient was hard pressed he simply didn’t send a bill. He saw his job was to heal the sick rather than pull in big bucks. He was a successful and much respected doctor but he was not ambitious. He regarded success built on quiet achievement above success attained by hard-edged ambition.
Poor health forced Dad’s retirement from practice earlier than planned. He had a couple of heart attacks and later lost one leg below the knee – not what I’d call a fair shake for one who had already endured his share of suffering.
He and Mum retired to my sister’s farm near Tamworth and through engagement with the local RSL Sub-Branch Dad was invited to say a few words following an Anzac Day service. His short speech confirmed how vivid war time memories remained. This is what he said: “Today, we particularly remember those who gave their lives that we might enjoy our present freedom. I suppose each one of us during the two minutes silence was recalling some particular moment. For me, it was an occasion sitting in a leaky tent in Siam in teeming monsoonal rains and surrounded by mud, holding the hand of a nineteen year old soldier, whilst he died from the effects of haemorrhage complicating severe dysentery, knowing that given the tools I could have saved his life. My heart was filled with hatred and I was cursing our captors – those little yellow bastards who by starvation, brutality and neglect had murdered this boy and many others of his companions just as assuredly as they had murdered our nurses with their machine guns on the beach at Banka Island.”
On trips to Sydney for medical reasons Dad and Mum stayed in stylish hotels with my wife, Irina as chaperone. One time when Mum was the patient, in between hospital visits where Dad grilled the medical staff until they felt reduced to students, he and Irina frequented swish bars indulging in liquid lunches and in the evenings dressed up to dine in smart restaurants where Dad let on he relished the idea onlookers would presume he was having an affair with his pretty young secretary.
Proving yet again that war memories were still just below the surface, after one liquid lunch they were catching their breath seated directly in front of the hotel’s lifts. Unabashed, Dad slipped off his prosthetic leg and stood it to one side. The lift doors opened allowing a party of elderly Japanese tourists full view of Dad massaging his stump. In an aside to Irina he murmured, “You see that lot – they’re the ones responsible for this missing leg.”
Sadly, in mid 1985 Dad suffered a near fatal stroke. It would have been kinder had it been fatal. That strong survival instinct that saw him through POW days would not let him give in and he clung on, paralysed and without speech for eleven long months. It was an unjust for one who had given so much to his fellow man in war time and for several decades thereafter. The injustice haunts me but it’s better to remember a fine man through good times and bad.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Lest we forget.