Interview with Leslie Gordon Gaffney (NX71862) Div. H.Q. ‘F’ Force POW
Interview with Leslie Gordon Gaffney NX71862 , Div. H.Q. A.I.F.
‘F’ Force POW
4th May 1995 by Caroline Gaden ©
Can we start at the beginning – where were you born?
I was born in Inverell, tenth of the eleventh, ‘fifteen.
So you’re a country boy?
You were brought up there?
Yes – no I was brought up in Moree, in the north-west of New South Wales, and a fair dinkum Australian. I hate Americanisms. I was born on the tenth of the eleventh, fifteen – that makes me, I’m eighty this year.
What about brothers and sisters?
Yes, I had – have two brothers, they’re both deceased, and I’ve got a sister, one sister.
When did you join the army?
I think June 1940
Was that call-up, or was it a volunteer?
Volunteers. Nearly all of us fellows joined up, the biggest majority, the big rush, when France fell.
So that influenced you to join up?
Yes, I thought it was about time we went. A lot of them went in ’39, but it was a stalemate, you know there was nothing. There was Bardy, the port of Bardy, it was a sort of a stalemate, and when France fell, it looked as if it was going to be fair dinkum. So there was a big rush then to join up.
And where did you actually join up?
Moree. Then we went down, we were taken to – went in one end as a civilian, came out the other end a soldier, with more gear than I ever saw in my life. And I could have gone home to my mother, I can tell you.
What did your mother think when you joined up?
She didn’t think anything, she thought I was doing the right thing, doing my job, and I went – there was two fellows, I’ll never forget, there was a Warrant Officer and a Captain standing around as we went through, saying you, and that fellow, what they were doing is they were picking out fellows from the bush, all around six foot, to go to Divisional Headquarters as a rifle company, what they call a defence platoon, we were to defend the Divisional Headquarters, but they wanted all bushmen as their original intake (we had others after), all bushmen round about six foot.
So I thought, Oh God, what have I done, and this Warrant Officer said to me, Don’t worry about this, this is all right, so I took notice and he became a great friend of mine, Bob Donnelly. He died on the Burma railway.
Then I went from – we were camped on Roseberry race-course. We were on Roseberry race-course for some months, that’s where we trained. It was a great camp. It was more or less a home away from home, the only thing we didn’t have was a wet canteen. We’d go down the pub a couple of blocks, we’d get through the fence.
Then we went to Singapore in 1941, so we were there for some months before war broke out on the 8th of December.
When you got to Singapore, how did you get there?
We went by boat, ship, I went on a Dutch boat called the Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, and we went over with the 27 Brigade they called it, we took the 27 Brigade over.
Did you know where you were going?
Oh, we didn’t when we sailed, but we soon found out. We soon found out where we were going, but it was early in the war you see, they reckoned Malaya was fortified, but it wasn’t – there was nothing there, only the big guns that pointed out to sea, they wouldn’t traverse round up the mainland, and we had old 1914-18 war equipment, I always thought we went over there with a lot of shanghais and bows and arrows. It was a complete she… – the British had sent out a general, or some big wig from England to do the fortification. They spent millions and nothing was done. There was no fortification, it was a shemozzle.
How long were you there before the Japanese started coming so you started fighting?
We were there – about seven months I think.
And what did you do in that time?
We trained then. What we did then was jungle training. We trained for seven, eight or nine months, with jungle training, and we were screaming about not being in the war, a lot of blokes were trying to get transferred out to get to the middle east, but then when the balloon blew up it was a different story altogether.
What rank were you?
I was a private, and proud of it! I was a corporal for a while but I didn’t last long, but that’s another story. I was a private, but I’ve done a lot of – I was really a senior soldier, and they used to call me in, in our unit, I done a lot of – took a lot of sergeant’s places and corporal’s places on patrols and one thing and another. I was a great – our company commander was reputed to be one of the best soldiers over there, a Captain, Norman Couch, they called him Norman “Killer” Couch, he was our commander, a great soldier.
Anyway, were camped at a place called Johore Bahru. The night they came over, these bombers came over, every light in Singapore was on. They though oh, this is nothing, only practice, you know, they’re playing soldiers, then they started to drop the bombs. That was on the eighth, eighth of December forty-one.
Then we went then to a place called Jemaluang up on the coast, we were dug in there, and the 18th Battalion, 20th Battalion, 2/10th Field Ambulance. From there I done several patrols up into – on one patrol there was about six of us. We were the first to go – I suppose we went the furthest up the mainland with two intelligence officers. It was nearly on the Thai border a few days after they landed.
I was, never said, but would have I suppose witnessed the first casualty on the mainland. I don’t know if you know, whether you’ve read much about the Malayan campaign, the English intelligence said their aeroplanes were tied up with rope, and they couldn’t see because they were short-sighted, they had – the bullets were half rubber, which was all English construed, so I was in a car one day with a Captain, Intelligence Captain, and another Captain attached to the Indian army, and we ran into road block. I said turn around quick to the fellow with me who was driving. As we turned, we heard this click, I just heard it and the bullet went straight through – the 1939 Chev car had a little windshield at the back of the back seat, and it went straight through and hit him just over – and all I heard was this fellow grunt in the back seat, he seemed to – the English Intelligence fellow attached to the Indian army and they’d shot him just above the temple through the glass They weren’t made of rubber I can tell you.
It must have been a period of very intense fighting, that December through to February
Yes, you see from when we started with the Eighth Division we lost 8,000 in action. It’s only just come out – we knew, but I’ve got it in there in black and white, but only for the Eighth Division, we held them up for three months, and two destroyers, that was the only thing between Australia and Singapore. They were coming straight to Australia, but we stopped them in Malaya for two and a half months, that held them up for that long and gave them a chance to reconstruct down here, otherwise they would have been in Melbourne and Sydney. I have that in black and white!
What did you feel when you heard you had to surrender?
We were horrified! A dreadful turnout, because the only reason why they surrendered was because they were over the other side of the Johore Bahru Straights where the water came from, the big pipeline, and they cut the water off and the civilian women and kiddies were suffering. There’d have been no water. So that’s why they did it.
English command was another thing, they had commanders over there that didn’t know anything about jungle warfare, or didn’t know anything about anything, as a matter of fact. It was terrible shemozzle, we were horrified to think we had to surrender, but however that’s the way it went – but it was only through the civilian population that it happened.
Was there any thought of getting the civilians out?
There was no possible chance of getting them out. The island – we had no Navy, we had no Air Force, had no Navy, had no Air Force. Where were we going to get them – couldn’t take them anywhere. So many of the ships that did get away, they were all bombed, they only went a few miles out. Between there and Sumatra they were all bombed. All those beautiful nurses that were machine gunned, you’ve read all that, the Banka Island turnout.
What were the officers’ reactions to the surrender?
Similar to us, the Australian officers, they were horrified, everyone was. Malaya Command, what they called Malaya Command, Percival, General Percival, he was under instructions from England.
After the surrender, what happened in that immediate time?
After the surrender we didn’t know what they were going to do to us, I think we had to come back and form up in – what they call – I forget… was it Selerang, no…they came back and we had to throw our rifles – stack our rifles – I pulled the bolt out of my rifle and threw it away and smashed it over a culvert – they were supposed to be all filed and everything.
We were there for two days, then they decided what they were going to do with us, so they marched us seventeen mile out to Changi, onto a peninsular, what they call Changi. We were there for about two months I suppose, they didn’t know what they were going to do with us, 22,000 more or less, didn’t know how they were going to feed us, and we were living on sloppy rice and God know what, but we were still getting outside the wire and getting stuff.
However I was one of – I went and we went on a working party to – this is Selerang Barracks they call it, this is what they call Changi. Believe me, Changi, this what annoys me, this hell -hole of Changi. Changi was an old man’s home compared to where we went after. Anyone who was on Changi or never left the island didn’t know they were prisoners of war.
However, we went into a place called Bukit Timah Park where just behind the Royal Singapore Golf Club there’s a look-out like that one up there, where the look-out is here, and we had three weeks to cut the top off that and build a shrine to the Japanese who were killed up there. It was mostly with little hand baskets and chunkels, they call chunkel a short handle hoe. We were going to be there three weeks, we were there three months, going to be there three weeks and we were there nine months on that job.
When we completed that we came back out to Changi. We weren’t there very long, and then the parties started to go, the working parties. ‘B’ Force that went to Sandakan, that’s where there was eighteen hundred of our fellows murdered up there, and I went with ‘F’ Force up onto the railway, the Burma railway.
Now who selected who went in which Force, did they try and keep the original Battalions together?
They tried… the thing about working parties were, the Japs knew that, and they tried to split us up as much as they could so we couldn’t internally work something out as full Battalion. So therefore I know somebody in nearly every town in Australia, because we were mixed up, you know.
We went to – they loaded us into steel rice trucks, twenty-eight to a steel rice truck each, and they would cook you through the day and freeze through the night. We were five days and six nights going up through the southern side of Thailand to a place called Ban Pong. There were fellows dying in the trucks, they wouldn’t pull up for us to unload them.
When we got up there they told us – before all this they said they were going to take half sick and half fit because we were going to the land of milk and honey. That was the Jap’s policy – they were the greatest lying mongrels in the world.
Did you realise they were lying at the time?
Oh yes, but what we did do, we took a lot of sick fellows, see. I was fit after coming home from this working party in there for nine months because we could pinch and thieve.
And therefore when we got to Ban Pong they said all men walk, all men march. They were all going to be taken up, but there was no road, it was just an elephant track up through for three hundred mile up through the jungle. So therefore the fellows who were sick were falling down, it was monsoon rain, we were bogged up to our knees, the sick fellows got worse, and then the fellows trying to carry your mate, carry his gear…. cholera and dysentery broke out amongst … fellows walking off the edge of cliffs. We would walk for two nights and then supposedly have a night’s rest, but they never let up on you, never left you alone.
What was the countryside like, was it –
Just virgin jungle. All it was, was an elephant track.
Was it flat or steep?
No, mountainous gorges, and it was teeming rain, and this is where they were going to build the railway.
We went to a place called Three Pagoda Pass, right up on the Burma border, and that’s why it was such a terrible turnout with us. We were further than…there was a river, the Kwai river, and there was trading boats could go up there, and some of the fellows lived all right – they used to – the Burmese and the Thais they used to take up eggs, thousands of eggs and all that sort of stuff. They got an odd thing or two, they didn’t get much, but the river, they couldn’t get up to where we were. We were in between the two of them – when it started to rain of course, it rains from May to October, it never stops, and consequently any rice that was brought in, the poor fellows had to go in on working parties and carry it on our backs, so you can imagine what it was like.
Then cholera broke out. I’ve had cholera, I was unlucky enough to get it, but I got over it. So we couldn’t bury our dead, we had big teak fires going just to burn them. I was up there for nine days, but I survived, I was lucky I suppose.
Why do you think you survived?
Well, I had a will, I said these bastards are not going to beat me. I kept drinking water, the water we had, and that doctor Lloyd Cahill said, Gaff, get that water into you. There was fellows couldn’t drink it.
Cholera, as you know, if you live 24 hours, most of your body’s made up of solubles, so you – it just runs away from you. Anyway I lived to tell the tale, see the day … but we lost 64% of those up there.
Why do you think ‘F’ Force lost so many men compared to the others?
We were in the worst areas. We were right away from any communication, any further communication.
So were you in the middle? Did they build the railway…?
A Force went right up to Moulmein, they took them round by boat. They started down and they walked us up. They worked down, we worked up.
And how long were you there?
Just on twelve months.
Did the Japanese provide any food?
Only rice, of which there was very, very little, and if you didn’t work you didn’t eat. We used to have to carry fellows out and put them on the line so they’d get a feed. That was their policy, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat.
Was there any greenery you could get out of the jungle, so you could have vegetables?
No, it was all rubbish. We lived on grass, boiled grass, boiled lanlan grass, there was nothing. They talk about wild fruit and all that in the jungle, that’s all bull, there’s nothing – only rotten, stinking jungle, that’s all – bamboo.
Did you have any contact at all with the native people?
The native people, they were no good. There was Thai bandits who’d rob you and slit your throat as quick as look at you. Those fellows in the marches, they could sneak up behind them and take their packs and take their shirt off their back. There was bandits right up through there – they were no good, no.
The unfortunate part about it they would have lost I would say – these poor unfortunate native Tamils and Burmese, forced labour, they took them up there as the land of milk and honey – they lost approximately a hundred thousand! This has never come out, but it’s a fact.
So on the railway, what was a typical day?
A typical day you were gone before daylight, you were on Tokyo time. We might work 12, 14 hours a day, sometimes 18 hours a day. The further it got away the further you had to walk to work and the further back you had to be.
Then it was carrying rock, carrying dirt, they can…they built it out of virgin jungle, so you can imagine what a typical day would be like.
Oh, the huts weren’t rainproof, the water used to just – it was only attap huts out of reeds, and some of us had to lay – you’d be wet, well the clothes we did have, which we didn’t have much at all – boots wore out, fellows with no boots, we’d come home and stand around a big bamboo fire to try and dry and lay down, and by the time you lay down and got dry it was time to go to work again.
One particular case there’s a fellow, I’ve mentioned was this in the book “Heroes of ‘F’ Force”, he came from where I came from, had a little place the other side of Warren, he was on a different working party to me, I used to talk to him of a night round the fire when he’d come back I never saw him in daylight. But it was a dreadful turnout. No-one – anyone ever, ever realised what went on – you wouldn’t realise what it was like.
The part where you were – you built a bridge at Songkurai – were you part of that bridge building?
Was that a deep ravine or a wide pass?
No, a bridge across a sort of a ravine – where it get its – have you got that there Songkurai? I was at Songkurai. What have you got there?
I’ve just got a question here to ask you about the bridge at Songkurai
I never saw any bridge there. I didn’t work on any bridge at Songkurai. There was bridges further back. Because we weren’t on the river.
Right, I see. Perhaps I got that from ‘D’ Force or something, yes.
When you were on the railway, what were your officers like – did they have to work as well?
Some of them did. Not much good, the officers, I’m afraid to say. Two officers went up in charge of us, weren’t any good at all. One of the greatest men ever in Australia was Bruce Hunt, Major Bruce Hunt from Western Australia. He was a medical officer and he took over. the hygiene, he took over the camp from these two mongrels who were there, Johnston and Kappe, and had he not taken over there would not have been one person out of Songkurai 1, 2 and 3 come back. He was responsible for the lot.
What did he do that the others weren’t doing?
Medical Officer he was, and he was a great stand up to the Japs. He was a marvelous man.
Did the others just let the Japs do what they wanted?
They were frightened. They were frightened. They never had any guts those two. There were some good officers, and some really bad officers.
Did they get more food?
They were supposed not to, they were supposed to have the same, but some of them didn’t go to work. I know some of them were in the corner hiding in a mosquito net and never left, but that’s another story, we won’t go into that.
I could lend you a book that’s just come out, on all this. The latest of Don’s books is “Heroes of F Force” written about us fellows. And that covers the lot. You could send it back to me.
You were up on the railway for a long time. When the railway was actually completed, how did you get back down?
Well we sabotaged it all the way along we could, never thinking we’d come back on the bloody thing because we reckoned we wouldn’t be alive, but they brought us back on open trucks. We were four or five days on that, and I can tell you – in some cases you’ll see – I don’t know whether you’ve seen the photos of that trestle bridge that goes right around the side of a mountain –
Is that the “Pack of Cards” bridge?
Yes, the “Pack of Cards” bridge – fancy going back over that, all sabotaged – Oh God Almighty! Anyway luckily we got back to Singapore, and it was just like coming home, I got just as big a kick – it’s a funny thing that I should say this – now getting back to Changi – getting back to Singapore to see electric light and running water. Oh God, it was bloody heaven, I’ll tell you!
When we went out to Changi it was beautiful, it was like going to a convalescent home. I hope one day, somebody blows the whole balloon on Changi because Changi was nothing – you’ll hear all this bull about the hell-hole of Changi, and so forth – anyone who died in Changi died from bloody old age! The same as these fellows that went to Blakan Mati.
I’ve done a tape a few years ago with Reg Newton, and he is very anti Changi –
and so he ought to be if he was away on a working party –
Yes, he was away on a working party so he knew
“Roaring Reggie “ (laughs)
Do you remember him?
Yes, I know him. There’s another book just out, Doctor Mills book is not long out too, it’s a good book too. Roaring Reggie is mentioned in that.
Tell me, when you actually got back to Changi, what was it like getting off the train? What was the reaction of the people in Changi?
They were….Black Jack, the toughest man in the world, cried when he saw us, he said, where are the rest of my men? Thirtieth Battalion? They said that’s it. Well they tipped us off the back of trucks at Changi like a lump – heap of bones and meat – and these fellows in Changi, they couldn’t understand it. We were just like skin and bone, there was nothing of us. Filthy dirty…
What did you weigh?
Well at one stage there I was – I don’t know, about four and a half, five stone. When I was up at cholera hill a fellow died along side of me – and he had cerebral malaria which is a dreadful thing – he bucked over on top of me and I couldn’t kick him off, I was too poor to kick him off. While I was up there, orderlies came around and wanted to pick up the dead. They said this poor bugger’s had it, and they pulled these meat tickets off [boots]. You couldn’t talk, your eyes were back in your head and I winked at him, and I think he fainted!
When we came back to Changi they fattened us up a bit. They had a lot of stuff saved, not for us, but for Christmas or something, we got back just before Christmas. We had a couple of months there, then they shifted us into the gaol.
We reclaimed all of the mangrove swamp and we built what is now the international airport at Changi. We reclaimed that – with short handled chunkels and baskets.
When the railway was finished, was ‘F’ Force the only one that went back down to Changi?
Oh no, no, there was ‘D’ Force and ‘H’ Force. Then a lot of them they brought them back to Changi, poor buggers, and some of them drew – and they took them to Japan –
Reg went to Japan –
and they were torpedoed.
Reg Newton was one that went to Japan, and I think his was the only ship that got through.
That’s all in there in Don’s book, “Heroes of the Sea”
So three and a half years was along time, wasn’t it?
Oh yes, we were over there a bit over four years. Three and a half years prisoner.
Where were you when the Japanese surrendered?
In the gaol.
So you were still at Changi?
Working on the aerodrome.
What was it like then? What were your feelings then?
Oh, I think we were too bloody numb to realise it. They’d say it’s all over, and I’d say bullshit it’s not all over. We’ve heard it that many times, what we call furphies, but when we realised, it was a great thing.
A funny thing happened. Another mate of mine Bill Hill and I, we shot through out of the gaol and went into Singapore and got on a lighter with these Pommy marines, and they took us out to – we were three days on Lord Mountbatten’s flagship, the “London”. God, they looked after us! The marines said Oh, Chum (you know, the Pommy marines), the supply ship’s not in. We’ve got plenty of bread and jam and stuff, so I ate a loaf of bread and a tin of plum jam for a start. Then they dressed us in this square rig, we looked characters in this sailor’s uniform. We had four good days on that ship.
When you first came back down to Changi from the railway, and you got better food, did you find that a tiny little bit of good food made you ill, made you sick?
No, we didn’t get enough good food to make us sick, I can tell you! (laugh).
When the Japanese surrendered did you find mail and Red Cross food?
Yes. All the Red Cross supplies. Mail three and four year old, the mongrel bastards. I’ll never forget it.
Why did they keep it back?
Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. That was their policy, they’re the greatest mongrel breed in the world. There was “Go-downs”, what they call “Go-downs”, they were found full of Red Cross stuff.
Going back to when you were on the railway, and the camps, what was the difference between the Australians and the British?
Oh, a marked difference. The British were what we called “easy diers”. We marched into camps after the Brits, they left their dead there, we had to bury their dead. Oh no, different altogether. They lost twice as many men as us.
And why was that?
I don’t know, a lot of them come from inner cities, parts of London, the slums. They never had, you know, the substance to them. it’s sort of bred into Australians to scrounge, especially fellows from the bush. Twice as many Pommies died to us, they wouldn’t even bury their dead up there.
And what part did mateship play, do you think that was important?
We would not have got back only for that, that was the main thing. We never let a fellow die on his own, there’d be fellow dying, crying for their mothers. You’ve never seen anything like it in your life. Of course, I’ve seen thousands and hundreds of deaths, but we never let anyone die on his own, that was the policy.
We split up into fours and fives. There were five of us, and we stuck together nearly right through, till we could come through. If one got – if you were on a working party, you’d pinch something. You’d get something, you know, you’d help one another, and that was the mateship of an Australian, that’s what got them there. And a bit of a sense of humour – got to have a sense of humour.
And did you find that most of you got bashed by the Japanese?
There wouldn’t be very many that missed out, I can tell you. They used to love it, it was their sport, they bashed for nothing.
And did you ever see any compassion amongst the Japanese?
Not one bit. No, there’s no good Japanese, there’s no good Japanese. The only good ones have a hole in their head.
What about Koreans?
Worse, they were worse than Japs, those bastards were worse than Japs.
Why was that?
I don’t know, because they were the underdogs to the Japs, and they had to show their authority. The Koreans were worse. Oh, them bloody Korean guards were mongrel bastards, they were dreadful. Yes, they were worse than Japanese.
Now tell me about the lead-up to your coming home. You were in Changi building what became the airport –
The airport, we were working on it, yes –
How long were you there from the surrender of the Japanese to actually being able to come home?
Well I’ll tell you what happened, and a lot of people don’t know this too. The fifteenth or something of August or about there, …. so the English were still prisoners for a fortnight afterwards, but that’s….
So we never got home till the ninth of October, now the reason being that, or one part of it, that they sent a mob over there to, you know, get us ready to come home, and they were so weak – so we finished up having to look after them.(short interruption)
They couldn’t handle us, they’d never seen twenty odd, eighteen thousand men, some being bedridden. We’d mastered the way to cook rice and one thing and another, but we hove to out on the in Keppel harbour for two days in the stinking heat, and do you know the reason why? We had no clothes to come home in! The stinking wharfies in Sydney had refused to load our ship because they knocked the danger money back. The war was over, and they struck for danger money. So we had no clothes to come home in.
I landed in Darwin with a pair of Japanese boots, a pair of Japanese shorts, a slouch hat and a dirty old khaki shirt. A bloody disgrace to Australia. They said what did you look like, Gaff, I said like an emu standing in two oil drums!!!
What happened on the way over, they issued us on the boat with Indian army labour corps uniform, which was a khaki drill thing, like a giggle suit, a pair of old khaki trousers and tan sand shoes and a Scotch tam-o-shanter cap. Now you imagine, fellows who had been away out of the country and fought for their country, for over four years, and that’s what happened. So it was all put out, and we lined up on the deck of the – I come home on the “Duntroon”, and as we drew out, we just threw it all overboard. I can still see in the wake of the ship these bloody tam-o-shanter hats, bouncing, waving goodbye, and tan sand shoes.
And do you know what, we got dressed in Darwin. That’s a disgrace, that. A lot of people don’t know that, but that’s right.
Was there anybody to meet you in Darwin?
Oh yes! Of course all the big wigs were at Darwin, yes, they were at Darwin all right., but we got dressed there and we came round and we landed on the ninth of October. The war was over on the fifteenth of August.
It must have been really good to get home..
Oh, yes, I’ll say!
Who met you?
My mother met me, I wasn’t married then. My mother and sister-in-law. And there again, it was another shemozzle out at Ingleburn. Typical army, they said you had to stay the night, so I didn’t stay the night, I rolled my gear and off! I was gone!
Of all the things that you missed while you were away, things like obviously food, but other things like cigarettes and soap and so on, what was the one thing you missed most of all?
Mum’s home cooking! That’s all they talked about, how good their mother could cook, or how good their wife could cook. Poor buggers, that’s all they could talk about.
Was that quite an obsession, talking about food?
Obsession, yes. Blokes wrote recipes, oh, anything to take their mind off it again. We managed to smoke the whole way through, we smoked what they called bind, bamboo shoots, we smoked bloody rolled up dried banana leaves – wild bananas mind you, the wild bananas. Don’t tell anyone that you can eat wild bananas – you couldn’t – they are the most dreadful things ever you saw in your life. Impossible, as anybody would know that.
Anyway, we survived.
You didn’t really miss soap?
Oh yes, we never had soap, we never had a thing. God Almighty, yes! And salt!
Yes, the women are the ones who seem to miss the soap.
And salt, yes.
And you didn’t get much protein? No meat?
Nothing. They were eating … I think they ate all the cats, dogs went off, I didn’t ever do that, whatever they could get hold of.. We ate the whole – what do they call them – oh, there was a hedge they used to grow (hibiscus) and we ate a lot of that. Boiled it up – you had to have something in the rice, you know. Rice will kill you on its own, they call it “white death”. You’ll die with beri-beri with rice on its own. That’s what killed a lot of them.
Was it white rice they gave you?
Some was, some was unpolished, some was just stinking, rotten, rotten… We got some dried fish, and it was just like powder, you know. There was tickets in it – it was in China – Japan war, 1904! Just like powder.
What about drugs – medical supplies?
Nothing, nothing. Ground up charcoal for dysentery. But they done a marvelous job with what they did, now the doctors. Surgeons take legs off with a meat saw…
Which doctors were with you?
Lloyd Cahill and Bruce Hunt.
There was a doctor in each camp, wasn’t there?
Yes, that’s why they should never have put a memorial to Weary Dunlop on its own. It should have been to all the doctors. They all done equally as good a job.
Reg talks about Dave Hinder and Kevin Fagan.
Kevin Fagan, yes, he was a great surgeon.
Thirty-two camps wasn’t there?
I don’t know off hand.
Bob’s father (Captain Bill Gaden 2/20th) did some paintings – I don’t know, were you ever at Tahsoa?
Went through there. (refers to painting of trading barge at Tahsoa) See, we had none of this, we had none of this, barges.
No, well that was Boon Pong who brought up the food for them.
(referring to painting) Now there’s the Pack of Cards bridge.
(referring to painting of pagoda) Three Pagodas Pass, that’s where we were.
Is that picture of Three Pagodas Pass?
No, I never saw that, never saw that. That was further over Burma side.
Now what relation was Bill to you?
He’s my father-in-law
(referring to paintings) Kanburi, that’s Kanburi. That’s Hell Fire Pass, That’s where they lost about six hundred men
Were you at Hell Fire Pass?
No, further up than that. He wasn’t a bad painter!
No he was pretty good wasn’t he?
I knew of Bill Gaden.
I don’t know if you can recognise him, that was him. (shows photograph)
I knew him. I know him. I’ve seen him.
He was in charge of the hospital at Tahsoa, and then he went down to Chungkai, and then he went back up to Tahsoa. He was in charge of the hospitals. (pause) That’s just a bit about Reg – “Roaring Reggie”. (Newspaper article)
Yes, there’s quite a bit in there in books that I’ve got.
Would those be any good for you, for your memorabilia thing at the RSL?
Yes! And I’ll get them back to you.
When’s that on, because we want to come down. My husband wants to come and have a look at it too.
It’s on – wait till I get my book.(pause while he gets up) Here’s the map, What I thought was some of the blokes there, so you’ll have to take that.
Where’s your husband?
He’s in Armidale with the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, and my eldest son is in the Navy. My father was a pilot in the war, and Bob’s father was in the army, so Philip’s joined the Navy!
We’ve just done a Navy mannequin down there.
The memorabilia is on this Friday (5th May 1995) 10am to 4pm, Saturday from 10am to 4, Sunday 7th May 12 noon to 4pm, then on Monday 10am to 4pm, at the RSL Sub Branch.
That’ll be good. A lot of old diggers displayed stuff down there.
I’m the president of the POW association.
When I rang the RSL, they gave me your phone number –
Oh, that’s how you got me!!
Now Don Wall, that wrote that book I just gave you, Don Wall knows Bill Gaden, knows all those fellows, he can tell you. You were in touch with him, weren’t you?
I haven’t been in contact with Don because it was a case of having to do the tape.
Well he’s absolutely the most remarkable man you’ve ever seen in your life. He’s got a photographic memory. He’s researched all those books, and we had him as a guest speaker on ANZAC Day.
The book he wrote “Singapore and Beyond’, which is the 2/20th’s history, some of those paintings are in that.
That tape I gave you, That’ll save us a lot of talking. You’ll have the gear at home. It’s done on one of those old – I’ll tell you a funny thing what happened – that’s going back a lot of years ago – I’ve never ever done or talked about it.
Ken Faulkener’s father, this boy’s father, a great friend of mine, when Ed was at the University, he said would you do it for me Gaff, and I said all right. So we got in there, we got in the sleep-out (there’s a sleep-out just there). We had one of those old – you know, with a tape?
So when I got talking it went on and on – we must have went for an hour, and hour and a half! And I said play it back to me. He played it back and it wouldn’t go! No good, and I said gee…Had to do it again…so we done it again.
Well, I hope mine’s worked!
It’s good that we have somebody like you who actually can remember – and who’s still here!
See, I’m 80 this year It’s a funny thing about that. I can remember back, I can go back to childhood and remember things as vividly as ever I could. But I walk down to the shed sometimes and I think, what the hell did I come down here for?
Why do you think you survived when the others didn’t?
I’ve got a sense of humour.
(refers to North-west magazine, April 1995, with front page feature on Gordon Gaffney)
What is the new book that’s out by somebody Dawes?
The last one I know of is Roy Mills. Doctor Mills
When did that come out?
I don’t know.
“Heroes of F Force”, that’s on us. I get a mention in there. On our doctors… I’d like you to read that.
I will, because I’m very interested in what went on. I suppose a lot more people are looking at it this year just because it’s the fiftieth –
Yes, but that’s happened, they can thank Don Wall. This thing about Sandakan. No-one knew what happened at Sandakan. I’ve got friends here, a mate of mine whose mother whose brother was killed over there, all she got was a letter he died of malaria. He was murdered, the same as the other 1800.
Don researched all this – Don Wall’s brought all this up, and that’s what all this Sandakan memorial, and we’ve got a beautiful one here in ANZAC Park [Tamworth], he and I worked on that for seven months.
I’m a member of the trust, and we are here, Tamworth and the region, we are the only ones who’ve paid for ours outright with collections. The wife and I, we sent $15,000 down (from this area) the only one that’s paid for it, is this area, north and north west. There’s one in Burwood Park, there’s one in Bathurst, one in Bendigo, there’s one in Maitland and there’s one in Bathurst. We’re the only ones who paid outright for it.
I’m on the trust. You see there today we’re putting the memorabilia out this morning, I’ve got to go back later. We have this big bowls day, and we’re putting up a memorial. There’s no honour roll, for the second World War diggers who joined up from Tamworth. There’s everything else. So this is going to go in the Town Hall.
Thank you so much….
The original tape of this interview has been deposited with the
Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
When Don Wall wrote “Singapore and Beyond”, the 2/20Batallion Association presented him with an oil painting by Capt. Bill Gaden of the Wang Pho viaduct. After Don died Gordon arranged for the painting to be donated to the R.S.L. in Tamworth.
And this appeared in the Northern Daily Leader, Tamworth
Gaff joins his mates ‘upstairs’
By Anna Rose
March 4, 2002, 11 a.m.
SERVICE men and women throughout the north-west have suffered a major loss with the death in Tamworth yesterday morning of Gordon Gaffney OAM.
Mr Gaffney (“Gaff” to his friends) was a member of the 8th Division, serving with the ill-fated F Force of 7000 men, 3900 of whom were killed working on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway.
Just over two weeks ago, Mr Gaffney got out of his sick bed to attend the memorial service marking 60 years since the Fall of Singapore. He was one of the eight remaining POWs in the Tamworth district and five were present that day.
Knowing only too well the horrors of war, Mr Gaffney had long been a champion of returned servicemen, ensuring future generations will never forget the price paid by Australia’s men and women who served their country with pride.
The Sandakan memorial in Tamworth’s Anzac Park was officially opened in 1994, at the suggestion of Mr Gaffney and his good friend from Sydney, Don Wall, also a former POW.
The World War II memorial in Bicentennial Park was opened in February 1997 and again this combination were driving forces behind its instigation.
Late last year a slab of granite was placed in the grounds of Nazareth House, along Manilla Rd, marking the site of the old 102nd Australian General Hospital.
This humble memorial was also part of Gordon Gaffney’s legacy to Australians of the present day and those to come in the future.
A patron of Tamworth RSL sub-branch, Mr Gaffney was a regular face at meetings and could always be relied upon to speak his mind – or to fire salvos in the direction of those who required them.
Mr Gaffney is survived by his wife Aileen, John and Helen, Laurie and Roger, Julie and Jean-Marie.
His funeral will be held at St Nicholas’ Catholic Church in White St, Tamworth at 2.30pm on Thursday, March 7.
President and members of Tamworth RSL sub-branch are respectfully requested to attend the funeral to farewell their comrade.
The Tamworth Waler Memorial Committee also yesterday paid tribute to Mr Gaffney.
“You put everything into the Waler Horse Memorial project as you did with all things in your rich and full life,” the committee said in a letter printed in The Leader’s classifieds section today.
“We will miss you very much.”