HOW IT ALL STARTED
Background: How this all Started
Most of us experience disrupted sleep from time to time. In the early morning one restless night, Michael Clarebrough switched on the radio. The program was Background Briefing, Radio National, and the words of the interviewer and her subject immediately grabbed his attention.
Colin McPhedran, in his eighties, was talking about his escape from then Burma to India in 1942 as the Japanese troops swept north from Rangoon. The imagery of the family of three children and their mother heading over treacherous mountains during the monsoon rain, to a destination hundreds of kilometres away in India, on foot and with few possessions, was mesmerising.
By journey’s end Colin was the only member of his family still alive.
Michael did eventually sleep that night, but the next day contacted Colin’s son, Ian, an Australian war correspondent, with an idea to replicate Colin’s trek out of Burma.
Support was both immediate and hugely encouraging. In fact, Ian stated he had enough material for another book on the trip out of Burma, and at the time was keen to participate in the Trek.
Ian’s endorsement really moved the idea of a commemorative trek towards reality, and shortly afterwards he put the idea to his friend (and now Trek leader), Kevin.
‘I’m in’ was Kevin's two-word response.
Michael was later to withdraw for personal reasons - a decision he agonised over.
Kevin, Kenton, Jacob and Alison now comprise the team for the Colin McPhedran Trek, which is to commence in Khamti, Sagaing state, Myanmar in February 2020.
"Half the people who attempted this died in the attempt. What makes you think you can do it...??"
This was the question leveled at Kevin in 2013 by Paul Rathbone, Public Affairs Manager with Burnet Institute, in reference to the original 1942 exodus.
The answer remains open, but hinges on preparation and communication.
The four trekkers have very different backgrounds, ranging in ages from 25 to 48 years. Kevin has children, Kenton, Jacob and Alison their whole lives ahead of them.
For each, The Trek provides an adventure, a challenge, and offers involvement in the development of a loose idea into a structured, heavily researched and drilled action plan.
When we talk about what we are undertaking, the typical response is that people usually blink and say,
‘What, you’re going to walk over 500kms..??'
After three+ years' work, being granted the 'Grand Permit' from the Myanmar ministry was a euphoric achievement, and a world-first.
Will we make it? We believe so, but nothing is 100% certain.
We can say that we will be fit, prepared and ready to go.
Everything else - injury, heat, ongoing guerrilla warfare, leeches, malaria, sandflies, mud, unexploded ordinance, not to mention wandering through a registered tiger sanctuary, we'll process along the way.
In 1942, Colin McPhedran was 11 years of age.
His mother, Daw Ni, was a National, and his father an oil company executive who, it was discovered after the war, maintained another family elsewhere. When Japan over-ran the then British colony of Burma, Colin's father left the country and made no effort to contact or save his family. The Japanese troops, after Nanking, had a well-substantiated reputation for wholesale rape and slaughter, so Colin's mother made the decision to take Colin, his sister, Ethel, and brother, Robert, west to India. They were among the 500-600,000 people fleeing. At first, Colin and his family planned to leave by air but, on the 6th of May, watched in horror as the already-loaded plane they were about to board at Myitkyina airstrip was strafed and bombed by Japanese fighter aircraft.
A Key Man.
Alasdair Ramsay Tainsh, the "..tea-planter who pulled Colin out of the mud," was born in Sonepur, India, on January 17th, 1913, and was a Scotsman's Scot – purposeful and uncompromising.
He attended school in the UK and in 1937 Tainsh was commissioned with the Indian Army, and served as Supply Officer with the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (16th Punjab Regiment).
In 1942 he was an officer of the British Territorial Army (Deputy Assistant Director of Supplies and Transport), associated with the (British) Indian Tea Association of Assam, and a force to be reckoned with.
The main exodus of refugees from Burma into India along the northerly mountain routes occurred in the early monsoon conditions between early May and late July of 1942. (From July onwards, the Namyung river was a torrent not to be negotiated, and only a few hundred people made it as far as Ledo.)
When information started flowing about the refugee exodus, Tainsh was tasked with driving the receiving camps for refugees between Shimbwiyang, in Burma, and Ledo, India.
The unflinching vigour and compassion he applied to that task rightly earned him an MBE, but not necessarily the civilian acknowledgement he deserves.
White Butterflies. Colin McPhedran (2002). Pandanus Books.
Colin’s own autobiography, now recently re-published, and the impetus for our humble efforts. The story starts with his description of childhood and family life in Maymyo.
Colin relives the desperate weeks of exodus through the eyes of an 11-year old boy, and being finally dragged, unwillingly, from the mud by Alasdair Tainsh (above), who roared at him, ‘You’re not going to give up the will to live, are you lad..!?!”
Colin speaks fondly of his adolescence spent in India, less so of his re-union with his absentee father in the UK, and his wanderings through the unlikely series of chance occurrences that left him standing on a station platform in Bowral, NSW.
And Some Fell By The Wayside: An account of the North Burma Evacuation. A.R.Tainsh (1948). Orient Longmans Limited.
Alasdair Tainsh’s brutal, unembellished personal journal entries of the track, his description of managing the refugee exodus from May to July 1942 is an insight into the difficulties and disappointments faced by those running the camps on the track, and is utterly fascinating reading.
Tainsh’s methods were at times controversial, he admits to being frightened at times and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the desperation, but the successes of he and his men speak for themselves.
This book very rare: there is a copy for reading (not available to be borrowed) at the Victorian State Library, Melbourne, one in the Newcastle Library, NSW, one with the McPhedran Family, and we have one.
The Burma Road. Donovan Webster (2003). Harper Collins.
Webster’s thoroughly researched and comprehensive description of conditions in then Burma at the time of Japan’s invasion. He explains in vivid detail the strategic significance of Burma, the resulting military campaigns and, in an effort to supply troops in China, the ambitious planning and construction of The Road.
Webster introduces the Hump Pilots - the men who flew supply routes through appalling and often deadly conditions over the mountain ranges of the Himalaya, and the Flying Tigers – the unconventional and resourceful (American Volunteer Group) squadron operating from within China.
Very accessible reading, and introduces a number of delightful, larger-than-life characters – Ord Wingate and his Chindits, Merrill’s Marauders and, of course, Vinegar Joe Stillwell himself.
The Railway Man. Eric Lomax. (2014) Vintage.
Eric Lomax’s wrenching account of his experience as a young POW. As a Signals (communications) Officer, he was regarded by his Japanese captors as privy to important information, and was thus subject to horrific treatment in their efforts to extract intelligence material that he never, in fact, knew.
Eric survived WWII, and lived with profound emotional and psychological burden until, in his twilight years, he met and reconciled with one of his torturers, a man who had remained equally haunted by his participation in Lomax’s torture.
The Burma- Thailand Railway. Gavan McCormack & Hank Nelson. 1993. Silkworm Books.
Between November 1942 and October 1943 a force of about 60,000 prisoners of the Imperial Japanes army, together with an even greater number of locally conscripted labourers including many thousands of Burmese, was mobilized to construct a railway from Khanchanaburi, in Thailand, to Thanbuyzayat, in then Burma.
Many thousands died constructing what has become known as the "Death Railway". The book combines the reminisceses of Australian prisoners, Tom Morris, Tom Uren, Hugh Clarke and Sir Edward Dunlop, with the tortured memories of a Korean guard.
Exodus Burma. Felicity Goodall. (2011). The History Press.
In 1942 the battle-hardened troops of the Japanese army over-ran then Burma with frightening speed, sweeping a tide of refugees before them.
This unexpected invasion triggered the exodus of half a million people who abandoned their homes and set off on foot towards India. They included the elderley, children, pregnant women and exhausted soldiers. Survivors like Colin McPhedran lost everything. Scarred by their ordeal, most refused to speak of the nights sleeping among corpses, or the daily struggle for survival on the journey.
In her book, Felicity Goodall has retraced the routes taken by refugees through a country once known as The Golden Land, transformed by the war from paradise to hell on earth.
A little more History...
ASIAN FORCED LABOUR ON THE THAILAND-BURMA RAILWAY
In November 1990 the remains of more than 700 people were dug up from a sugarcane field at Kanchanaburi in Thailand. These remains were assumed to be those of ex-romusha, because local people testified that the place had once been the site of a camp of Asian romusha.
Romusha means forced labour  - those who were forced into heavy manual labour during the Japanese occupation, put to work on military facilities, airports, and railways and so on. The infamous Thai-Burma Railway was completed in February, 1944.
A cenotaph near the bridge across the River Kwai acknowledges the romusha and the POWs who died during the construction of the railway but, although the memorial is written in six languages, there is no acknowledgement of the Burmese romusha who died.
Tanabe Hisao, a Japanese specialist on Burma, explains that the Myanmar government estimate that 177,000 were recruited within three year period from 1941 to 1944. In Myanmar alone more than 30,000 are estimated to have died.
The more recent estimate of Burmese deaths is around 70,000.
As cruel as it was for the POWs who died constructing the railway, it was equally cruel for the romusha, particularly for the large numbers who perished.
1. Naga sores are tropical ulcers - an acute, localised necrosis of the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Chronic, spreading ulceration persists and penetrates the deep fascia to directly involve tendons and occasionally bones. In the acute spreading stage the ulcers are invariably infected with Bacillus fusiformis, but later many other organisms may be cultured. Tropical Medicine Central Resource. Department of Radiology, Uniformed Services University for the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. USA.
2. McCormack & Nelson. The Burma-Thailand Railway. Silkworm Books. Chiang Mai. 1993.
3. Romusha. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. Rōmusha (労務者) is a Japanese language word for "labourer", but has come to specifically denote forced labourers during the Japanese occupation of South East Asia during World War II.
4. Clarke, H. A Life for Every Sleeper: A pictorial record of the Thai-Burma Railway. Allen and Unwin. Sydney. 1986.