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Anzac Day on the
Burma Railroad 1943

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ANZAC Day on the Burma Railroad 1943

by The Revd Professor Rowan Strong | Professor of Church History | Academic Chair, Theology and Religion | Murdoch University

Chaplain Keith Mathieson became a prisoner of the Imperial Japanese Army when he was captured in Java in March 1942. He was one of the three hundred and fifty survivors of HMAS Perth’s crew, the largest group of Australian sailors to become prisoners of the Japanese. His ship was sunk in the battle of the Sunda Strait and Mathieson would remain a prisoner until the end of the war. He became part of the vast army of allied prisoners used by the Japanese as subjugated workers to build the infrastructure of their newly acquired Asian empire. A Methodist minister, as a naval chaplain Mathieson was an abnormal member of this involuntary imprisoned workforce (though there were a number of army chaplains as POWs); and his experience as a Japanese POW is unique in the history of the Chaplains’ Branch of the Royal Australian Navy. This undaunted Australian naval chaplain shared the bitter experiences of his shipmates and other service personnel in various Japanese prison camps, from Java to the Burma Railroad.

1943 was probably the worst year of their captivity. It was during this year that the ‘Speedo’ period of enforced labour began, when the Japanese were determined to finish the railroad by the end of the year, regardless of the prisoner mortality that the enforced pace caused. The men worked into the nights, sometimes until dawn, and the guards frequently drove the sick to work. It was all the result of a Japanese tactical decision. In early 1943 the Japanese believed they had to go on the offensive in Burma if they were to regain the initiative in that campaign. But that meant their Burmese army needed a more secure supply route than that afforded them by sea.

The result was the decision to ensure the completion of the Burma-Thailand railway before the coming dry season campaign, whatever the costs in prisoners’ lives. The arrival of the wet season made the work all the more dangerous and depleting as the prisoners were cajoled, threatened, and tormented by the guards to keep up the rate of production. Lanterns, torches, and campfires were used to give poor light to continue working at night. The heavy rain caused the prisoners’ huts to flood, and the latrines also with even more disastrous results, spreading human waste and the consequent risk of disease across the sodden ground of the camps.

Easter Day in 1943 fell on the same date as Anzac Day. Among Mathieson’s congregation at the services that day were some older Australian soldiers who had served at Gallipoli. Mathieson spoke of how experiencing war gave them a better understanding of both Easter and Anzac Day. Asserting the Christian truth that the resurrection of Christ was a victory over the sin and the death and hatred that was ranged against him, he affirmed that Christ gave them also a victory that they could use in their own experience of evil. Both Easter and Anzac Day were days of remembrance and sacrifice, but they were also days of hope.

Reminding them that Anzac Day actually remembered a defeat, Mathieson pointed out that it was a defeat which that had kindled ‘our ideal national spirit’ so that Anzac Day became a ‘symbol of victorious living. Just the same way, he said, the demoralised and dispirited and disciples of Christ had their defeat turned to victory by Jesus’ resurrection.

Today one message that Easter and Anzac together bring us. The last eighteen months have brought us partial eclipse. We are POWs. It is possible to turn this time of testing to good account. By our spirit, & through the grace of God, to triumph over our circumstances, to refuse to deteriorate in body or mind or spirit; and rather to live in the Anzac spirit of tenacity of purpose, of mateship & cheerfulness, to remember that not only is there hope of resurrection from death to life, but also, of resurrection from life circumscribed & hemmed in & frustrated as now, to a life so trusting in Christ as to be transformed thereby; & thence ? life full and free when peace returns. Let us live now at our best, that by & by when the war is over and we are home we shall be able to make a worthwhile contribution to the rebuilding of our land, and eventually when this life draws to its close, await with confidence the victory of the life.

From Rowan Strong, Chaplains in the Royal Australian Navy: 1912 to the Vietnam War (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012), ch 8.

Thumbnail image 2015 Anzac Day - Photocredit Jeff Keen RSLWA

Published in The Messenger April 2020


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