A Corporate Magic… for survival

British artist Jack Chalker sketched medical records for Weary Dunlop operating at Chungkai well as the beauty of the River Kwai.

He saw the combination of the skills of the men themselves — tradesmen and Australian farmers on one hand and those with a scientific background on the other – directed by the surgeons at the top as a “magic corporate basis for survival”.

Out of nothing men created hospitals, surgical equipment and medicines. Such enterprise and fusion of skills was a salutary reflection on human resilience and endeavour.  Jack recorded it all in a priceless collection of paintings and sketches donated to the Australian War Memorial as a tribute to Weary.

Meticulous in detail, the late Scott Properjohn used them as blueprints for three-dimensional replicas in the Army Museum at Fremantle.

The baskets for the stumps were formed from kitbag material padded with kapok that grew wild in the jungle, The leather straps were made from yak hides.

Cholera was another fearsome disease. When an epidemic broke out those infected in the morning could be dead by the afternoon. Within two hours their shrunken, dehydrated bodies were recognisable only by the bamboo tags around their wrists.

When hideous tropical ulcers ate a leg to the bone, in a matter of days, men would sometimes beg to have them amputated. At Chungkai, operations were carried out with a carpenter’s saw.   The retractor was a Dutch mess tin lid cut down the middle and hinged at the top, with semi-circular cutouts on either side which closed to form a small hole for arms and a larger one for legs.   Sutures were made from the peritoneum of the occasional skinny yak killed for food. It was separated into layers, cut into strips, cured in ashes and stored in camp surgical alcohol.

In this sketch Weary Dunlop is on the far side.  The other surgeon was a Canadian, Jacob Markowitz, who amputated more than 100 legs. In the hospital camps men made their own artificial legs, first simple pegs from bamboo but eventually articulated and fully professional, the swivel joints carved by hand.

The only treatment was to replace the lost body fluids. At Hintok Road Camp patients were isolated in ‘Cholera Gulch’, in low, inferior Japanese tents, all leaking in the constant monsoonal downpour. They lay on bamboo slats only inches off the mud.. The drip sets were made from Japanese beer bottles, doctors’ stethoscope tubing and blunted syringe needles.

A copper pipe from a Japanese truck, passing through a bamboo water jack, converted steam into 120 pints of distilled water a day.  Block salt, crystallised and recrystallised, made up the balanced saline.

Weary Dunlop shown below in a cholera tent worked in ‘Cholera Gulch” while suffering from his own burning ulcers and sleeping only about two hours a day. He lost only 40 per cent of his patients. In some areas most cholera victims died.

In the Nakhom Pathom camp, built as a hospital which housed 8,000 people after the finish of the railway, standards were as high as for any regional hospital with everything improvised.

There was even a treadle-operated miniature circular saw for a cranium operation to remove a brain tumour. Unfortunately it was inoperable.

The medical men on the railway, doctors and orderlies, created what was probably the finest chapter in Australian medical history.

With little or no medicine or equipment and suffering from the same diseases they were treating they were a focal point for the whole stricken force. To this day they are revered by the men who were with them. It was a matter of geography, which camp you were in, which decided who was your medical hero.

One of the outstanding figures was Albert Coates (later Sir Albert) who had been in the Ambulance Corps in World War 1 and had returned to work as a postman while he put himself through medical school.

In Burma he took off 120 gangrenous legs with a saw borrowed from the Japanese cookhouse. His innovative Dutch chemist, Captain van Boxtel, broke some novocaine down into 150 measured doses of spinal anaesthetic. Legend has it that Coates allowed himself the luxury of smoking Burmese Moonrider cheroots and would smoke while operating – sometimes offering his patient a puff. There were no such favours for those with gangrenous toes. He took them off with a pair of scissors without anaesthetic.

Another major achievement was the production of surgical alcohol from waste rice and a yeast found by a geneticist in the jungle in a still made from old condensed milk tins. It produced alcohol 92 per cent proof, an amazing achievement in the circumstances.   Jack Chalker, himself, made the orthopaedic bed from bamboo tied together with jungle bark, the wooden pulleys carved by hand.

Jack was caught with his early sketches by a Japanese guard who destroyed them and broke Jack’s nose into the bargain. Jack hid all his future work better and they remained undiscovered until the end of the war.

He stored them meticulously in his English millhouse near Wells in Somerset while others used them to illustrate their version of the railway story. He then decided to donate what is literally a priceless collection to the Australian War Memorial as a tribute to Weary. No doubt they will be stored away out of sight there. He has also donated photographic reproductions to the Weary Dunlop Pavilion at Home Phu Toey.

His book  “To Hell and Home again” is available on the Quietlion site

The Burma Railway revealed by the brushstrokes of a genius who survived …

This book has been obviously put together with great respect for the subject, and considerable design flare. Jack’s paintings and drawings are so evocative of the terrible conditions and inhumane treatment experienced on the Death Railway, the reader is left open-mouthed. Illustrations range from technical drawings of tropical ulcers which would grace a medical textbook, to heartrending pictures of torture.

Photographic images can rarely be as powerful and moving as these paintings and drawings. The crowning achievement of the book is that the reader is taken on a journey where horrific experiences bind men together in comradeship and where human spirit triumphs.
Dr. K. S. Greenfield

Another book on his own experiences, called Burma Railway Artist, illustrated with the remarkable sketches he did in secret all those years ago is also available at Home Phu Toey.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *