Hellfire Pass Dawn Service
Kanchanaburi Memorial Service

About this Item
SubjectsEx-Servicemen; Members of Parliament: Travel and Transport
SpeakersColless The Hon Rick
BusinessAdjournment, ADJ

Page: 16876

    The Hon. RICK COLLESS [3.05 p.m.]: I report to the House on a trip to Thailand during April 2005. I had the approval of the President to represent the Parliament of New South Wales at the Hellfire Pass Dawn Service and the Kanchanaburi Memorial Service on ANZAC Day. Hellfire Pass was one of the most difficult sections of the notorious Siam-Burma Railway, between Bampong in Siam, which is now Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat in Burma, which is now Myanmar. The railway was made famous following the war by the 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, which starred William Holden, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. The bridge on the River Kwai still stands today and I was lucky enough to walk across it during our visit.

    The Japanese Government, utilising the labour resources of allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers, constructed the railway between October 1942 and October 1943. Some 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners and 250,000 Asian labourers worked as slaves on the 415- kilometre railway. One of the most horrific sections of the railway involved two deep cuttings at an area known as Konyu in Thailand, and those cuttings were collectively known officially as Konyu Cutting. Ironically, work commenced on Konyu Cutting on 25 April 1943. So began one of the worst cases of human rights abuse anywhere in the world and certainly one of the most severe cases during World War II. One of the cuttings was 460 metres long and nearly 8 metres deep, and the other was 73 metres long and 24 metres deep. The construction was completed by hand drilling holes and blasting the rock in very hot, summer monsoonal conditions.

    Prisoners were forced to work from 4.00 a.m. until 11.00 p.m. and in the darkness fires were lit along the length of the work site, and the prisoners of war [POWs] renamed the pass Hellfire Pass as a result of the eerie light shed upon the exhausted, sweating and starving men forced to work non- stop by the Japanese guards. The cost in human life was enormous, with some 12,399 allied POWs dying during the 12 months of construction. It is estimated that between 70,000 and 90,000 civilian labourers also died, and that approximates to one life for every sleeper that was laid on the track. Seven hundred allied POWs lives were lost at Hellfire Pass, including 69 who were beaten to death by the Japanese engineers and their guards. Those lives were taken by tropical diseases such as malaria, beri-beri, cholera and dysentery, workplace injuries, starvation and exhaustion and, of course, as a result of the continual abuse and bashings administered by the Japanese guards.

    Many more POWs would have suffered the same fate but for the efforts of a small team of dedicated and committed doctors and volunteer soldiers, the most famous of whom is Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, who worked under appalling conditions and undertook some extraordinary operations and medical procedures with virtually no equipment, anaesthetics or drugs, to make life easier for the suffering. I was honoured to lay a wreath during the Dawn Service at the Hellfire Pass Memorial, which is located on the remnants of the railway track at Hellfire Pass, on behalf of the Parliament of New South Wales. I was further honoured to lay a second wreath at the memorial service at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, some 180 kilometres south of Hellfire Pass, at 11.00 a.m. on Anzac Day. It was an extremely humbling experience to visit Hellfire Pass. The energy of the place is enormous as one enters the cutting itself. Far more humbling for me, however, was a small task I was asked to perform on behalf of a New South Wales family. The family of Private Richard William Cahill asked me if I would lay a wreath on their behalf in memory of their father and brother.

    Private Richard William Cahill, NX49129, enlisted at Paddington on 13 February 1941 and landed in Singapore just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese. He was imprisoned at Changi and later transferred to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. It was three years later before Private Cahill's family learnt of his fate and that he was still alive. His POW mates spoke very highly of him: he was always helping others and always cheerful, and although he suffered from illness he volunteered to work in what must have been atrocious conditions in the POW cholera hospitals run by Weary Dunlop. Such was the community spirit of Richard Cahill that he volunteered to remain behind after the war ended to make sure all his mates were moved off the Thai-Burma Railway precinct, despite the fact that he was still suffering from beri-beri.

    Private Cahill and many other POWs apparently were transferred to India to recuperate prior to coming home, which was probably a wise move given their emaciated state and the effect it may have had on their families and the nation as a whole. Although Private Cahill survived the horrors of the Death Railway, he was one of the thousands of soldiers who had to then live with those war injuries, both physical and psychological, and, of course, the terrible memories after they came home. Richard Cahill married Ona Harlow soon after his discharge on 17 April 1946, and they produced two sons, Richard Jnr and Warren. Of course, Warren is well known to all honourable members of this Parliament.

    Private Cahill tragically died in 1959, at the age of 39 years and 11 months, from the effects of his treatment at the hands of the Japanese forces. Ona passed away in 1998, and Richard is now survived by his sisters, Kathleen and Aileen, and sons, Richard Jnr and Warren. Kathleen and Aileen are present in the gallery this afternoon, together with Aileen's husband, Gene, and of course Warren is in the Chamber. On Anzac Day morning, immediately following the official part of the dawn service, as I carried Private Cahill's wreath and the card given to me by his family towards the memorial at Hellfire Pass, a tremendous wave of emotion overcame me. My spine was tingling and the hair was standing up on the back of my neck.

    I have laid many wreaths on Anzac Day over the years, but I have never experienced the humbling sensations I felt as I laid a wreath in memory of one brave soldier's effort to help his mates survive one of the most terrible events in the course of history. Kathleen, Aileen, Richard and Warren can feel extremely proud of their brother and father, because it is the efforts of soldiers such as Private Richard William Cahill that gave this nation the freedoms we now enjoy, and we are forever in their debt for the sacrifices they made.