Letter to Robert Kelsey from Graeme L. Wilson

Dear Bob,


I thought that you knew better than to ask an old soldier a question (what was our transport to Burma?) which could be answered in one sentence; for having let me get a foot in the door, you are going to get the written equivalent of a sound ear-bashing.


I went to my diary (actually entered up at longer intervals of 1 - 3 weeks) covering the railway episode, which I have not read for perhaps 50 years, and was struck by its poverty of anything of real interest, I thought you might like to consider from this distance what a boring existence it was. Our whole world at one time was what happened at the particular camp we occupied - we knew nothing of anything beyond it. So the topics were health, food and the possibility of moving elsewhere.


You may say there was more to it than I wrote; and that perhaps for two reasons; one was that I was singularly unaware of what was going on; the other that it was not prudent for me to be carrying a record of what we should not have known.


Anyhow, I have transcribed, strictly verbatim what I wrote - covering the period of travel to Burma (your question) through to return to SINGAPORE. That is interesting because it hints at a hope for better things - how wrong we were! And the final entry (Dec. 23) hints at happiness as we return to our old home of SINGAPORE. Again our optimism was excessive!


Regards, Graeme


Recollections from his diary to Bob about transport and conditions along the Siam - Burma railway and the return to Changi.


20/21 April 1943. All gear packed; mucking about and no sleep, fall in on square, allocated 26 assorted men (12 Mc's - Scots) and into trucks and away at 0400. Singapore station and to rice truck (rail van) where all bundle in, in dark; seems scarcely room to sit down. Off and across causeway at sunrise. Off Island at last! Beautiful sunrise and looks like a hopeful dawn; not 'hopeless' - Kelsey! Where to? CHIENG MAI (Northern Thailand) still a popular choice - a construction camp not working.


Detrained at BANPONG (southern Thailand) - walked 200 miles to SHIMO SONKURAI (SONKURAI No. 1 Camp at 288 klm. mark) - worked 3 months there.


14 Sept. Left SHIMO SONKURAI for Burma. 3 motor trucks of 15 men each. Only few stretcher cases - ulcers. Not a bad trip and arrived at 113 Kilo (Changaraya - old No. 5 Camp at 113 klm mark) not long before dark. Staffed by English, and an absolute disgrace. Utter filth, lack of any reasonable hygiene, and no attempt whatsoever to do anything for us. 75 from 2 Camp (SONKURAI No. 2 Camp at 294 klm. mark) already in occupation and pretty sorry lot with dysentery. Most of our men in lastly so erected tents and muddy floors, so little or no sleep. Couldn't leave there quickly enough.


Away again following midday and enjoyed trip - different country in some ways. Many A Force people along road looked marvellously fit - Australian, English, American and Dutch. Through 3 PAGODA PASS (306.5 klm mark) and come onto flat country rather than undulating with mountains in the distance to either side. Clear sunny day and much crisper atmosphere. Arrive at 95 Kilo (Kyondaw); energetic staff do much for us. 2 Camp party mainly English - quite helpless and just depend on others, which gave us some work. Decent bath in rushing river and good nights rest. More 2 Camp deaths during the night. Further 30 from 2 Camp arrived early in the night having come straight through in one day.


Motor trucks again next day and very rough trip. Pass laid track and see first light motors and trucks on it. Catch 'train' - table tops and motor, and so away. Change at LONSHI (Food & supply dump - 346 klm mark) to steam train and ballast trucks - few miles short of final destination (TANBAYA - F Force work camp and hospital at 365 klm mark) but have to wait 7 or 8 hours. Finally arrive and so to bed. Camp good. Food not really good enough - gives no chance to sick men, medical supplies practically non existent, virtually no tools for camp improvements and maintenance. In short just about exactly what I expected. 2 Camp personnel in shocking condition - sent worst dysentery cases, idea being that they would die if they remained, maybe with a chance if they came. Of course couldn't stand the trip and died by the score on the road, and the same here. 1 Camp kept its very sick, the idea being that we would not risk a man's life putting him on the road in bad condition.


Given job as Assistant Wardmaster under Maj. Hodgkinson. Kept very busy on internal administration as everything upside down with constant comings and goings. Now settled down and fortunately we have miscellaneous cases - no dysentery, and ulcers. Malaria relapse - 11 Sept; pulling round again.


21 Sept. Admitted to hospital - beri-beri; swollen face; have been here about a week, and this morning made a bed patient - much to my disgust. Rations have been very poor but improved lately. Still far short of a reasonable diet; the vegetables are of the poorest type, egg fruit, loofahs, sweet potato. No dried beans such as we left in Thailand, although they all came from this direction. Badly off for fit men as high rate of malaria, beri-beri and sundry others. Serious shortage of tools, as I anticipated, also shortage of containers for cooking, and medical supplies. In fact, whole situation very far from satisfactory and prospects of improvement not over bright. God forbid that the Nips attempt to work us within two, three weeks - would be a catastrophe. Death roll here already over the two hundred mark - expect many with dysentery to go but also big losses from cardiac beri-beri. Have had to commence amputations of ulcer cases, and already a fair number done with very heavy loss. Surgical kit almost non existent - hand saw the main part of equipment.


26 Sept. Many happy returns to myself, but not under these circumstances, I hope. Swelling has gone down, especially in the heart, so Maj. Hunt says. Shall be pleased to be up and about again - have to keep asking people to do everything for me. Had a birthday 'doover' (rissole) in place of the cake.


Visited by a senior Jap Officer yesterday and Maj. Hunt very pleased with conversations. Appears to appreciate our position more than most and doesn't consider it a joke. Has promised to push for certain requirements including sulphur - there are over 800 cases of scabies here; including myself. Great activity with duck cooking in the ward today - bought 24 at 3 bucks each the other day. At least will be a special 'do' for my birthday. English don't cut off poultry's heads - pull necks and then dress them. Consider our practice a bit messy. To them all, the idea of steak and eggs is absolutely a novelty. Lectures for two nights in the ward - very interesting.


29 Sept. And the ducks were delicious - on two successive nights. Last few days have been beautiful, truck in today from Thailand with pay (accommodation reduced from 60 to 20 bucks a month), very hopeful weather, further canteen supplies in, margarine issue for lunch, high class stew. So altogether, spirits exceptionally high. (Also coffee will be on this afternoon, including our issue of condensed milk)


Reports from 2 Camp say everything is much improved there. They expect to move back soon. Bad news of (Padre) Foster-Hay's death. Dennis East (here with nasty ulcers on hand but coming good) the only one left of the 8 Div. celebrity group - Reannison, Haig, King etc all gone. A great tradegy. Couple of days ago permitted to go outside to sit in the sun; today am able to go to latrines. Only a matter of time and I shall have complete freedom again. Am to go on Vit B tablets.


7 Oct. Still confined to bed with the few liberties. Malaria again on 5th, but mildest onset to date and no reappearance. Evidently not the local type. Treatment now 9 tabs/day for 12 days, so feared the results but so far no effect. Must be getting used to it. Amazing change in weather, breeze if any fresh and cool from SE, cool nights, clear sunny days, especially pleasant in mornings and evenings. Remarkably bright stars. Busy installing large ground red 'X' to warn off bombers which are not entirely uninterested in this part of the world.


Rail through to NIKI (NIEKE - 282klm or SHIMO NIEKE - 276klm) some time ago and final link-up due any time around now. (Railway joined 17th October 1943 between Upper Konkoita and Konkoita at 262.87 klm mark) Some days ago Col. Varley (A Force) warned to be ready to move back soon. Still much speculation about what will happen to me. Well over 400 deaths in this camp so far - most of them would have gone in any case. Still doubt if we shall be able to show a net gain for this hospital move.


Canteen difficulties - 'I Bring' from local village a washout. Another team brought in over $400 worth about a week ago and due again any day. New tradee arrived today and say they will bring in stalls tonight. Were paid $45 the other day.


12 Oct. Water position critical - more rapid deterioration than expected. Creek dried completely and have to draw from distant source. (Kelsey's job) Stew issue reduced because not enough water!!! Rice also down. Canteen supplies much improved, and over 5000 eggs in yesterday. Also black market eggs. Have just finished first rate tiffin (lunch) - egg, large issue of prawns in chilli sauce, towgay(bean sprout) stew, rice, and banana. Feel as though I have had Xmas dinner. Heavy storm yesterday evening and had a shower under eaves - delightful as I have been washing in a small earthenware bowl for weeks. Chindigar issue this afternoon - hope I don't lose control. Wealth of lectures by night. I gave one on Sugar Industry recently. On a Home 'town'' series - last night Buenos Aires, Manchester and Brisbane (by self). English all intensely interested in Australia and very anxious to go there. Seems a move is imminent - apparently some to go and some to stay (don't know for how long) Maj. Hunt says the heart much improved - well down and sounds reasonable.


17 Oct. Finished quinine last night, so should be able to take part in normal conversation again (presumably refers to our going deaf with quinine) Cookhouse moved to water supply without a delay in meals - excellent. Put the well this side of line into use, and a tremendous labour saving for us. Nip officer in a huff the other day (his NCO had given permission without his knowledge) and put it out of bounds, but all OK again. I have sneaked over for a couple of baths and a delightful luxury - beautifully cold. Prawns preserved in chilli often now, and very tasty indeed. Consumed a whole packet of chindigar (also called 'gula malacca'' - palm sugar in block or powder form) in well under 48 hours, and now on another. Had no ill effects.


24 Oct. Marked S several days ago and a couple of days later L, so have been doing a few light jobs around the place, Have made two trips down to the new bathing point, a long but pleasant trip. Kitchen has moved again to a good water supply but means a very long carry. Have two yak carts (without yaks at present) for ration carrying. Storm last night and just poured through our roof which is pretty hopeless in any case but especially bad after the dry spell.


3 Nov. Moved across the line yesterday to I HUT. Boongs moving in to old area. Under better roof but more crowded - two deep in bays. Some offrs went to M HUT, and we have been more or less dumped - looks like the old FUJ principle again. Had been getting round well, so went and pulled water from the well which shook the heart up badly, and marked S again, although feel right again. Have been told to eat less fat; so fat round the heart feared. Surely I am the first person to be told this. Getting rice polishings at last and ample, so high hopes for beri-beries. Food for last few weeks the best since BUKIT TIMAH (SINGAPORE) - rather monotonous but ample beans of amazing variety. Over 550 deaths now.


17 Nov. Discharged from hospital about five days ago to H.Q. Hut. Atmosphere not the best here - the gods, the batmen and the offrs. Permanent water boiler to offrs ward and just keeps us going nicely. Very fit, fat and brown. Malaria well overdue. Went to memorial service at cemetery day before yesterday. About 650 deaths now.


Move at last set down for today. Nips said a train may come tomorrow; go to KANBURI (KAN'BURI Base 53klm mark and KAN'BURI hospital 50 klm mark at southern end) for a time. Don't know how many, how long to get there, any Q arrangements. Cholera carrier found yesterday so suppose all off for a time. Couple of enormous holes in back teeth, must go to dentist although he probably can't do much about it.


28 Nov. First party of 200 left on night of 20th. And one to go each day - four parties. I was second last and left on 3rd train (22nd. Nov). Taken off water job to become Wardmaster of 7 Ward day before I left, so started and finished on that job. About 200 sick and over a hundred staff left for indefinite time. Unfortunate attitude of 'left to die in the jungle' and don't think too many of the sick will come out as a result. My preference was to stay there. Norm Dean unhappy about remaining in charge of the cookhouse. Developed a fever the day I left so started on quinine. Revealed itself as a very unpleasant throat on trip - in fact diphtheria suspected. Boarded horse box with 34 others on night of 22nd. And arrived KANBURI early morning of 26th. Almost hitch-hiked - got vegies when and where we could. Never knew how long we were to wait - minutes or hours. A carriage derailed on one occasion. Another train had two derailments and one collision. No doubt about their railway! Crowning piece of indignity - a Jap travelling brothel hooked on to our train.


KANBURI station a pleasant sight, all the vendors with fruit, eggs, cakes and so on. I was told to ride on truck instead of walking to Camp as M.O. still wasn't sure of me. As result I arrived at hospital instead of Camp (together with Rupert B.) much to my disgust. Fortunately a few more of our offrs arrived from Fit Camp. Still would like to get down and see Leon and Bob. Went down river for a swim today. Eating many eggs. Acute water shortage. Lads up to all lirks for making cash - cooking eggs, making cakes, sandwiches, toffee, coffee.


6 Dec. 'Fit' 200 of F Force sent to Fit Camp - excluding me. Some couldn't get further than the gate, many others sent back few day later - much the worse for wear. Very annoyed with present Administration - dozens of 'don'ts' and no 'do's'. Established sterilizing point after much difficulty - arrested by MP, moved on by H.Q. and abused by P.T. instructor. Now moved to another hut and trying to get it going but up against lethargy. An offrs hut, F Force to take over administration and practically all arrived - old Burma crowd. They will need to sink the boot good and hard. The camp superficially sound but rotten below. Don't know yet where I fit in - a bit annoyed if I am to be merely a fit body again, but of no use other than physical. Note from Bob M today telling me of daughter. Good work. Gone broke for second time as POW but raised nice loan from Rupert. Welfare offr. of a hut - another paroicous arrangement here. We have responsibility but no great authority. Ward masters are AMC NCOs. That will change soon under F Force.


13 Dec. A thousand H Force gone away leaving about 2,000 of us. High death rate - about a dozen a day. Developed malaria again on 10th. BT only but more annoying than usual. Fever two afternoons and again last night. Off my rice which doesn't matter as eat about ten eggs a day besides other odds and sods. Letter from Dad (25 Oct 42) with GPS athletics results. Able to discuss it with other chaps here. Few other letters coming infrequently so always prospects of mail, makes things more interesting. Beautiful weather with extremely cold nights. I am pleased now that I have hung on to battle dress. Most of offrs. Gear left at BANPONG has been forwarded to here - I left nothing there.


14 Dec. Moving orders for tomorrow. Nev, Ray, Rupert to go with me. Clearing out whole force except several hundred at hospital. Off my rice , with quinine, but can laugh at that. Lunch today - half dixie of towgay, half dixie veg egg rice hash, 4 fried eggs, 2 kuppers, 2 bananas.


23 Dec. Early breakfast, truck to station, 1 death on trip, several sent back. Ballast trucks. Great areas of cultivation - bananas, tobacco, cotton, caster oil, padi, mangoes. Old orchids uncultivated - probably the technique - plant and then wait to pick. Pass BANPONG towards BANGKOK. Change at NONG PLADUK at 5pm. Into rice trucks - 26 in mine. Leave midnight & travel at terrific speed. Breakfast (and lunch) at 6.30. Flat swampy country. Free go at buying eggs, bananas etc. Chinese village make big hand-out. Preserved bananas v. similar to dried figs. Bush and grass fires remind us of home. Coming to tremendous padi areas. Strike rain which makes things uncomfortable - have to shut doors. Buy pomelos, have pineapple, papaw. Fishing in padi fields and drains, net & rods. Sawmills and logs coming down rivers. Mixed village, Thais, Chinese etc. characteristic Indian cotton goods store, two v. old Indians sitting crosslegged on raised platform. Sugar cane, rubber. Jungle on lilly country instead of swamps. Make tea at engine; also boil eggs. Set out on trip with eggs; buy 20 next day, 17 next. P.BESAR (PULAU BESAR) at 0200 hrs. ALOR STAR (ALOR SETAR) at daylight. Coolie lines again. PRAI for lunch. Buy ice cream. Eat 24 mangosteens about 60 rambutans and several bananas this day. Arrive SINGAPORE 0030 hrs., trucks to CHANGI. Great sensation to drive over smooth bituemen roads.



Graeme Langdon Wilson was born in Brisbane on 26th. September 1917. His home was at Victoria Point, and he attended the local one-teacher school until 1931. From 1931 until 1935 he was a boarder at BBC (Brisbane Boys College) where he was Captain of rugby, rowing, athletics and ultimately school captain. He was awarded an open scholarship to The University of Queensland and studied at Emmanuel College 1936-1939. In 1937, 1938 and 1939 he was UQ's Athletics Champion and won the inter-varsity competitions in 1936, 1937 and 1938. He was second in the Australian Championships at 120 yards and hurdles in 1937. He was a member of the Australian team for the British Empire Games (now Commonwealth Games) held in Sydney in 1938 and Captain of the combined Australian Universities team to tour New Zealand that same year.

Graeme graduated with a BAgrSc Hons 1 with the University Medal in 1939 and was named Queensland Rhodes Scholar for 1940. In 1940 he commenced post graduate study at UQ.


On 1st. July 1941 Graeme enlisted in the Australian Army at Victoria Point and began military service with the AIF. He was sent to Malaya as Lieutenant in the 2/26th Batallion AIF. In 1942 he was captured at the fall of SINGAPORE and imprisoned as a Japanese POW (spending some time on the Thai - Burma Death Railway). He returned to Australia, discharged on 22nd. November 1945 and married Joy Fisher. The wedding was conducted by Principal Mervyn Henderson at Emmanuel College.


Graeme took up a temporary position at the Department of Agriculture and Stock pending taking up his deferred Rhodes Scholarship. From 1946-1949 he was at Oxford and graduated with a DPhil. He has commented that while the Oxford experience was wonderful he was far beyond being an ordinary student with his marital status, age and war record


In 1950 Graeme was appointed to a Lectureship in Botany at UQ. He rose to Reader in 1967 and transferred to Agriculture. In 1970 he was made Professor of Agriculture - and in 1981-1982 was Dean of Faculty. He retired in 1982 when he was made Professor Emeritus. During his time at UQ he was President of the Qld Branch of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and was made a Fellow (FAIAS). He was also Chairman of the University Recreation Areas Committee and President of the Rotary Club of Brisbane.