Major Bruce Hunt, MBE.

"His fearless sheltering of the sick and exhausted from railway slave gangs, and whose medical skill was so energetically applied that hundreds of us must owe our lives to him"




by R.H.S. Kelsey


Published as part of the Queensland Anzac Day Programme in 1991

The muddy, smelly, softly cursing column of men emerged from the night. Under the cover of the night they were to trudge 200 miles from Banpong in Thailand to the foothills of the legendry Three Pagoda Pass which leads into Burma. At their pre-dawn arrivals at primitive ration points they accepted from shouting Jap guards the warm water which they were told was tea. It tasted like nectar, and they gratefully sipped it while wearily waiting to be told where to lie down during the coming day.


After a week of this, and about 100 miles up their trail, the tail of the column approached much later than on previous days their rendezvous with water, rice, and a blessed piece of muddy ground to collapse on. Burdened with their sick, who had fallen back, and with their pathetic scraps of personal possessions, they had no energy left to excite them to examine their surroundings. But the day had taken from the strengthening Monsoon a few hours respite from its rain, and in its growing light a clearing emerged, a bamboo palisade, and the bamboo buildings of a Jap administration centre. As they shuffled past to join the leading elements of the column they saw a small circle of Japs beside the track, and on his back at their kicking feet a huge man - white, closely cropped grey hair - with a rag around his arm on which was painted a Red Cross. He was one of us, he was a Prisoner of War and he was being beaten! The reflex action was immediate. The tail of the file bowed inwards towards the helpless man. On his side now, he saw what was about to happen, and his voice - such a cultured voice, which was to express authority and consolation to them in the months to come - restored them to sanity . . . "Keep out of this, you bastards, this is a private fight!"


He was, they learnt later, Major Bruce Hunt, a Perth Gynaecologist. He had been trying to convince the Japs that the sick and the infirm must be rested. A young Jap with medical training supported him and he was slapped into silence. It was not to be the last beating suffered by 'The Major' in his defence of the Australians in his care. They broke a bone in his arm this time.


Major Hunt was Senior Medical Officer of 'F' Force, a working party sent by train ('the third train') from Changi to Banpong in Thailand in April 1943, and given the task of building the North Thailand section of a railway from Burma. The connecting Burma link was built by prisoners who sailed from Singapore to Burma. Bruce Hunt had been an Artillery Sergeant in World War l, and was a man of sound common sense. He had attended conferences in Changi which planned 'F' Force at the orders of the Japs.


'F' Force, said the Jap Command, was planned to be sent to some 'Shangri La' in a bracing climate, where 'sick men would soon get well', where they would have their own herd of cattle. They strongly recommended that 50% of the force should consist of 'sick' men! This ploy did not deceive Bruce Hunt. He loudly predicted that it was a trick, and offered the opinion that half of any working party departing into the unknown would die there, a tragically prescient prediction. He protested when he learnt that the officer commanding the Australians in Changi intended to agree to their being rushed away before cholera vaccination could be given to them - a master stroke the Lt Colonel thought - to beat the English component to the choicest accommodation in the Promised Land. This decision was to cause unimaginable misery. The English force which travelled in a following freight train was vaccinated before departing.


The incident of the punishment of the 'elderly' Medical Man was soon forgotten by those who witnessed it, and a second week was trudged through. The monsoon showers increased and the mud deepened. Groups of men had been detached from the column every few miles in the second week, and the last 1,000 arrived at the bamboo fence of what was to be known as Shimo Sonkurai Camp. It did not rate a star!


The long bamboo huts, with one exception, were not roofed. Water came solely from the rain and a small stream in which the Japs bathed - upstream from the Prisoners' cookhouse - there was one small latrine dug for the 1,000 prisoners. Senior Australian combatant officers included one Lt Colonel and at least three Majors, were all useless in such a situation and appeared to make no attempt to take command, beyond ordering junior officers to take over.


To this camp God sent Bruce Hunt (Major) with two junior medical officers, both Captains. He immediately persuaded two of the senior combatant officers to join him in a conference with the Jap Lieutenant nominally in charge. In fact, this camp was run by a sadistic Korean private, to be hanged with commendable dispatch by Mountbatten soon after the Jap surrender.


An immediate result of the conference was a 'promise' by the Japs that palm leaf roofing would be provided, also shovels, and that all of the prisoners could work for the first week, making the camp habitable. In the now constant downpour latrines were dug, roofs were wired to the walls, and the sleeping platforms, which were collapsing were reinforced. And within three days the Japs announced, 'Enough, now you must leave your camp and work on the railway'. This was to run along the nearby abandoned paddy fields. The whole area was uninhabited and devoid of wildlife, and we learnt that it was referred to by the Siamese as "The valley of Death!"


With the exception of the senior officers, and those too sick to stand, every man in the camp was required to work on the railway, from before dawn until after dark, seven days a week.


Then, one never to be forgotten night, Bruce Hunt ordered a conference of all prisoner officers, to be held in the confined space at the end of a hut. We watched him fascinated, his face lit by the flickering flames of one of the hut's fires. "Gentlemen, things are grim". He had our attention! - He went on, "l have diagnosed a disease of which l have had no experience. It does not occur in Australia, but l have read of it in text books, and I am sure it is Cholera".


He continued, "l have conferred with the Jap camp command and have learnt that they are, with good reason, terrified of the disease. They understand that without vaccination their prisoners could all die and they would lose their workforce and much 'face'. A supply of cholera vaccine has been requested from their main headquarters (some 15 miles down the track). In the meantime, work on the railway will temporarily cease. (Hunt seized on any excuse to stop his men working on the railway). Fires will be kept alight at intervals in every hut. Before you use your eating utensils you will pass them through the flames, and you will see that your men do the same. Water must be boiled for at least seven minutes, and no water will be drunk direct from the creek. Tomorrow we will scrape the surface filth from the camp area and it will be all burnt or sterilised in the fires we will light over it. If a fly alights on the rice you are about to eat, the grains it lands on must be spooned out and burnt for, I assure you, if one contracts Cholera, one dies in great distress."


And the next day the area was scraped of its surface mud and symbolically, if not successfully burnt. And the following day work resumed on the railway, while the deaths mounted. Ten, fifteen, and finally the terrible total of twenty died each day and were cremated with wet wood, in the pouring rain. And the cholera vaccine arrived. Never was a needle more eagerly awaited. Two weeks were required to pass before immunity was received, and never were days more anxiously passed, as friend after friend succumbed to the disease. But the days did pass, until cholera ceased to claim lives, yielding to the other killers - dysentery, malaria, tropical ulcers and utter exhaustion - and all the while the three doctors toiled through most of the hours of the day. To the fury of the Jap command, Bruce Hunt would sometimes equip himself with three or four empty haversacks and stride down the track to the headquarters of the near senile Colonel Banno, a Japanese soldier who had some sense of honour. Hunt would play on this. He would hand him a written complaint to be forwarded by him to the Headquarters of the Red Cross in Switzerland. Then he would march back again, his haversacks bulging with anything he could beg, borrow or steal from the medical supplies under Banno's control. Once Banno gave Hunt a small bottle of Marmite with his apologies that he had nothing more to give, not knowing that Hunt had already used the Colonel's name to browbeat a Jap medical orderley into giving him quinine and other useful medicines.


One can still see him returning to Shimo Sonkurai, haversacks slung from his huge hairy shoulders, mud from the waist down, and a grin on his face at the welcome which greeted him on all sides. Then, disposing of his booty, he would report to the camp command for the inevitable beating. And around the camp huts flashed the message of hope 'The Major's Back!'' No one had to ask 'Which Major!'


Whenever he could, he visited the sick and the dying in the huts reserved for them with a message of hope and encouragement - the falling death rate - the drugs he had scrounged from old Banno, his letter to the Red Cross, etc. The administration of the camp under men inspired by the Major went smoothly. Records were written in pencil on lengths of bamboo scraped of outer shine, baskets were woven from bamboo to contain rice which was carried hot from the 'cookhouse' to several messing points so that workers did not have to queue in the rain for an hour or more as they did in some other camps. And the dying were consoled and the ashes of the dead were blessed and a cross made and placed over them by the dedicated Padre 'Paddy' Walsh. But the greatest benefit conferred on the men of Shimo Sonkurai was the refusal of 'The Major' to allow the very ill to work on the railway. Of course, it was impossible to protect them all, but by claiming dysentery sufferers or men with potentially fatal ulcers as having incipient cholera, and by putting them in what had been huts reserved for cholera patients, and then inviting the reluctant Japs to 'see for themselves' whether or not the men had cholera, he gained precious time for the very weak. His greatest success (proudly boasted on his visits to the sick) was the day when only 100 men were pronounced by him to be fit for work. His fearless sheltering of the sick and the exhausted from the slave gangs, and his medical skill was so energetically applied during those terrible months, that hundreds of Australian prisoners owed their lives to him. Of the scores of memories one has of this remarkable man, one stands out. It is a picture of him visiting the sick, himself exhausted and recently beaten, and pausing to place a hand gently on my feverish forehead, and murmuring in his beautiful accent 'Poor Old Boy'. God rest his soul.

"There were many good men on the railway, but none better than Bruce Hunt"...Play

FOOTNOTE: Bruce Hunt received no promotion when he returned to Australia - only senior combatant officers considered themselves worthy of this - but only a grudging M.B.E.(Member of the British Empire medal) He became President of the W.A. Branch of the B.M.A.(British Medical Association) and was prominent in Australian medical and surgical matters. He was indefatigable in his efforts to help West Australian ex-prisoners of war.

Bruce Hunt died in Perth on 29th. October 1964.


Bruce Atlee HUNT, M.B.E.

University of Melbourne,
MB.BS (Melb) 1925,
MD (Melb) 1928,
FRACP (Foundation) 1938,
MRCP 1928, FRCP 1951,
Consultant Physician

Bruce Hunt was born in Melbourne in 1899, the son of Atlee Arthur Hunt, CMG. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and then went off to serve as a gunner in the 1914-18 war. After the war he studied medicine at Melbourne University and graduated with honours in 1925. Three years later he obtained his MD. and in the same year became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians. During the Second World War, Bruce Hunt had an outstanding military career. He first served in the RAAF with the rank of Squadron Leader and later as a Major in the 13th Australian General Hospital. He was captured by the Japanese and worked on the infamous Burma Railway. For outstanding services performed on behalf of his fellow prisoners, he was awarded the MBE (Military Division).


He spent some time working in Britain and Vienna where he pursued his interests in diabetes and neurology. It was as a general physician with a special interest in these disciplines that he came to Perth where he was to practice for the rest of his life. Bruce Hunt had an association with Royal Perth Hospital which extended over 33 years, from the time that he was appointed to the Honorary Medical Staff in 1931. He founded the Diabetic Clinic and maintained a close interest in it throughout his career. He also made valuable contributions to the administrative aspects of the Hospital's clinical services. He was on the Council of the Royal Australian College of Physicians for many years and always took a keen interest in College affairs. Bruce Hunt had a very persuasive manner and was politically astute, these were valuable characteristics which were used to good effect in the establishment of the medical school in Western Australia. His outstanding service to the patients of Royal Perth Hospital and to the community at large was recognised by the Board of Management in Bruce Hunt's appointment as Honorary Consultant Physician when he retired in 1958.