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'Weary' Dunlop and the Burma Railway

Weary Dunlop, Bangkok (detail), September 1945, photographer Norman Studkey. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 711362.

The army surgeon Colonel Sir Edward Ernest 'Weary' Dunlop (1907–1993) was an extraordinary Australian whose actions embody the compassionate face of war. He became well known for his medical work and leadership during the Second World War with prisoners of the Japanese on the Thai–Burma Railway, 1943–45.

Many other Australians including doctors displayed self-sacrifice, courage and care as prisoners of war. Weary Dunlop represents them, and the ideals of the value of each life, mateship and respect for all.

At Bandung in Java, Ambonese and Menadonese troops called Weary 'Singa yang diam' – the quiet lion. Douglas Stuart, a West Australian machine gunner, met him in Bandung, Java, during the war. He was 'surprised by the mildness' of Weary's voice and captivated by his gentleness:

[Weary] had a great tenderness in him and he wasn't ashamed of it … to see Weary dealing with somebody who was really sick was very moving, [especially] when you get it in a person who is so much of a man.
in Sue Ebury, Weary: King of the River, 2009.

In peacetime Weary Dunlop advocated for the welfare of ex-prisoners of war and forged stronger links with Asia. He showed genuine forgiveness of his Japanese captors.


Edward Dunlop as a youth with his mother Alice.

Ernest Edward Dunlop was born and grew up in the Wangaratta area, Victoria. He was the younger of two boys. Because his mother was ill after the birth, his twin aunts cared for him for 17 months. He felt lucky to have 'three mothers'. His mother was noted as an exceptionally warm person.

On the family farm at Sheepwash Creek, it was a hard life with physical extremes. The boys rounded up horses, tossed sheafs, heaved bags of wheat, and did other heavy work every day. Weary had a lifelong pride that at the age of 15 he could raise up a 95 kilogram bag of wheat in each hand. (Ebury, pp 4–5, 7).

Weary was a school cadet and continued part-time military service until 1929 when he stopped to concentrate on his studies.

Life before the Second World War

In 1928 Dunlop qualified as a pharmacist, gathering numerous prizes, and in 1934 he qualified as a doctor with first class honours. It was while studying medicine at the University of Melbourne that he got the nickname 'Weary', after Dunlop tyres (tyres – tires – weary). He was Resident Medical Officer at the Royal Melbourne Hospital for two years from 1935, and a Resident at the Royal Children's Hospital in 1937.

Rugby star and all round sportsman

Weary Dunlop was nearly two metres tall, strong and well coordinated. He played fourth grade rugby union with Melbourne University in 1931, and then shot up through the grades. Weary became the first Victorian player in the national rugby union team, the Wallabies. In 1932 he debuted with the Wallabies against the All Blacks, the New Zealand team. He was in the 1934 team that won the Bledisloe Cup away from New Zealand for the first time. He is the only Victorian in the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame.

Weary also became the University of Melbourne's champion boxer.

Helen Ferguson in Australia, medical work in Europe

At the New Year of 1937–38, Weary Dunlop and a young woman called Helen Ferguson fell in love. She was studying for a science degree, and came from a more affluent background than his.

In 1938 he went to England to take up postgraduate studies. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he became a specialist surgeon to the Emergency Medical Services and then enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps. Weary and Helen discussed her coming to join him in England. In 1940, while he was in the Middle East, they became engaged, but ultimately they waited through the whole of the war before reuniting and marrying.

Second World War (1939–45) – Europe, Middle East, North Africa and Java

A Burmese section of the Thai–Burma railway, October 1945, showing the hilly terrain. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: P01910.007.

Weary served in the AIF (2nd Australian Imperial Force – volunteer personnel in the Australian Army in the Second World War) in Jerusalem, was promoted to major, and served in Gaza, Alexandria, Greece, and in Crete with Casualty Clearing. He was senior surgeon at Tobruk.

The war in the Pacific then began, and Weary’s unit was transferred to Java where from February 1942 he commanded the Allied General Hospital at Bandoeng (Bandung). Java fell to the Japanese and in March he became a prisoner of war (POW). He could have escaped but refused to abandon his patients. The British Colonel Sir Laurens van der Post was in that prison with Weary. He describes the dangerous sense of humiliation and despair that captivity in war can bring:

… we were going to be engaged in a new war, a war for physical and moral survival, a war against disease, malnutrition and most probably a protracted process of starvation as well as against disintegration from within by the apparent helplessness and futility of life in the prisons …
in The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, p.xi.

The Burma Railway

Prisoners of war carrying railway sleepers on the Thai–Burma railway, c.40 km south of Thanbyuzayat, 1943. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: P00406.026.

After being imprisoned in Singapore, in January 1943 the Japanese sent Weary to Thailand. For the rest of the war he was a medical officer on the Thai–Burma Railway. This 450 km of railway was built in one year, from October 1942 to October 1943. It ran from close to Bangkok to Thanbyuzayat by the Andaman Sea in Burma (now Myanmar). Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, which had become more vulnerable after the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The railway was intended to help the Japanese attack the British in India and block Allied supply lines to China via the Himalayas.

Because the Japanese conquered South East Asia so rapidly, they had an enormous number of prisoners who they could compel to work. The Japanese placed about 200,000 Asians in forced labour on the construction of the Burma Railway. These included Burmese, Javanese, Malays, Tamils and Chinese. More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway, including troops from the British Empire and the Netherlands East Indies, and a smaller number from the United States. About 13,000 were Australian.

The railway became fully functioning and was used by the Japanese through to March 1944, in spite of being bombed. The Japanese sent two full divisions of troops via the railway along with more than 50,000 tonnes of food and ammunition for use in India. The prisoners of war and Asian labourers continued to work on maintenance and repair after the railway was completed.

Hellfire Pass

Konyu Cutting (Hellfire Pass) shortly after the end of the Second World War. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 157859.

On 25 April 1943 (Anzac Day) work began on the Konyu–Hintok section of the railway, now known as Hellfire Pass. The main cutting of Hellfire Pass was 25 metres deep and 75 metres long, the longest and deepest cutting in the railway, and it was excavated largely by hand at great speed during the monsoon. Because the Japanese wanted to complete the railways quickly, prisoners were forced to work 18-hour days, slaving by artificial light at night. This is why it was called 'Hellfire'.

The prisoners who worked on this pass were primarily Australians. Hellfire Pass cost the lives of at least 700 Allied prisoners of war, including 69 beaten to death.

Since 1984, Hellfire Pass has become a major pilgrimage place for those commemorating the terrible events there.

Conditions on the railway

Prisoners with beriberi, Tarsau, Burma Railway, c.1943. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: P00761.011.

The military code of the Japanese made them view prisoners of war as unworthy of respect. The Japanese therefore failed to provide adequate food and medicine, and did not relax the pace of construction along the railway. At times they acted very brutally, torturing and killing prisoners.

Under these conditions, more than 2,700 Australians died during the building of railway, from a total of more than 12,000 Allied deaths. One fifth of all prisoners of war on the railway died. Between 75,000 and 100,000 Asian labourers died, and about 1000 Japanese.

The main diseases were dysentery and diarrhoea (which caused more than a third of deaths), cholera, beriberi and pellagra due to a diet of mainly rice, malaria which caused 8 per cent of deaths), and tropical ulcers that could eat through to the bone and for which amputation might be the only solution.

The men under Weary Dunlop's charge suffered greatly. Weary became famous for his care of the ill and his willingness to place himself at risk, despite being unwell. In his dual role of commanding officer and surgeon he was responsible for over 1000 men, and this group was known as 'Dunlop Force' or 'Dunlop's Thousand'.

Medical ingenuity

Artificial leg made from bamboo from Chungkai, Thailand, in a prisoner of war camp hospital on the Burma Railway, 1944, Philip Meninsky. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: ART9086.

In Java, Weary and his team of doctors had managed to build a model hospital within the prison in which the most advanced operations were successfully performed on men who would have died otherwise. On the Burma Railway, conditions were much more difficult but the same principles and determination were applied.

With scarce medical supplies and lack of proper instruments, survival depended on improvisation. The prisoners made needles and artificial limbs from bamboo and buffalo hide. They furnished surgical theatres with equipment built from scavenged materials.

For improvised drip schemes – which saved many lives – the doctors sacrificed their stethoscopes. Systems to produce safe saline were also set up. Weary described these in his diary on 15 July 1943:

My stethoscope has gone into the crude administrative apparatus owing to shortness of rubber tubing. Beer bottles sawn off at the top, bamboo joints to rubber tubing and finally a sawn off needle as a canula. Of necessity, everything is terribly crude – kitchen salt, and our distilled water at times sediments fairly heavily. Asepsis is fairly crude.
The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop

Resisting brutality

There were many instances of Weary risking his own life for others, defying cruelty against himself and others, and acting with compassion in extreme situations.

Camp utensils, Tarsau hospital (detail), 1945, Jack Chalker. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: ART90847.

The 21 year old British prisoner of war Billy Griffiths lost both hands and was blinded by a mine. Weary operated on him and cared for him as well as he could but the Japanese decided they would kill him because he was so badly injured. However Weary regarded Billy as his patient and stood between Billy and the bayonets, insisting that they would have to kill him in order to kill Billy. The Japanese backed down. Billy Griffiths survived the war and has lived a long life.

On one occasion a guard caught Weary out and about after curfew. Weary's punishment came the next day in the form of a bashing that broke his ribs and cut his head open. He was tied up and left in the sun for most of the day. When at last released, Weary bowed to his guards and announced that he would now amputate the arm of a Dutch prisoner who had been waiting all day for this operation. (Usher)

Life after the war

Lt Colonel Dunlop (left) conferring with Lt Colonel AE Coates, Nakom Paton Prisoner of War Hospital, Bangkok, September 1945. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 117361.

Japan surrendered in mid August 1945. Weary remained in Thailand until early October, and played a major part in organising the evacuation of the former prisoners of war. He left on the last Australian flight out of Thailand.

Finally, in November 1945, Weary Dunlop and Helen Ferguson were able to marry, and they had two sons. Weary established a private medical practice in Melbourne and from 1946 until retirement he was an Honorary Surgeon to The Royal Melbourne Hospital. He also worked with the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute and the Repatriation Department. He had special interests in gastro-oesophageal surgery and in community health issues relating to alcoholism, drug abuse, fluoridation and cancer treatment.

Layout of Konyu River Camp, 1942, Jack Chalker. Courtesy Australian War Memorial, ART91815.

Weary was a leader in the Australian community, and an advocate for improving the country's relationship with South-East Asia. He helped to instigate training of Asian doctors and did surgery in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India through the Colombo plan.

During the Vietnam War he led a civilian surgical team working with injured civilians in South Vietnam. His son Alex travelled with Weary sometimes and remembers that, wherever he went in Asia, Europe, Canada, Russia and America, Weary built bridges of friendship and overcame cultural obstacles.

Work on behalf of ex-prisoners of war (POWs)

Regard for Weary became stronger after the war because of his advocacy on behalf of the health and welfare of former prisoners of war. He was deeply involved in the ex-service community and was awarded honorary life membership of the Returned and Services League in 1979.

War diaries

Colonel Edward 'Weary' Dunlop and Captain Jacob Markowitz Working on a Thigh Amputation, Chungkai, 1946, Jack Chalker. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: ART91848.

During the war, Weary Dunlop kept a secret diary full of events in the prison camps. It was highly dangerous to do this and he did it in spite of his own exhaustion and illness. As commanding officer, he felt obligated to make this record.

On whatever paper could be obtained he recorded in a pared-down writing style how the camps were organised; his constant efforts to prevent the sick from being worked to death; torture; epidemics and deaths; operations; how the meagre medical supplies were obtained or improvised; and how morale was kept up. This was the diary of a working doctor.

Weary kept the diary locked away for many years but in the 1980s he decided to publish it in order to help generate support for returned prisoners of war. The diaries are inspirational reading. This excerpt is from the time of the rapid excavation of Hellfire Pass:

15 July 1943

Cholera cases now 36; 12 mild; 24 definite (5 new cases today). …

Tenko [roll call] was unofficially cancelled as all men were required to stay out on the job tonight and only 35 men came in to get the evening meal.

Cholera is a major thing in our lives these days. Ewan and I are completely extended, also all the medical personnel and those concerned in the flat-out, night and day production of the still [making saline to combat cholera]. Also those concerned with wood and water supply, the digging of graves, and the collection of wood for funeral pyres.

Osuki today produced a special 'presento' of 720 packets of cheap Indo-China cigarettes called Black Horse, 48 tins of condensed milk and tins of Philippine margarine. These are to go over 960 men, though Osuki said the sick were not to be included.

The men are to work all night tonight, though God knows why – probably a supreme gesture. The last bridge is almost complete and the rails are there waiting to be put across. Tonight is the sixty-second day of continuous extreme work without rest and the men are almost out on their feet. Eight men are at present receiving intravenous injections of saline and even then the sets have to be changed around. … This cholera fight is the grimmest fight I have ever been in.

20 July 1943

…The big thrill of the day was the arrival of letters from home. The first were over eighteen months old … Helen who wrote the most lovable letter in June, thirteen long months ago. Poor darling, she would have been shocked to see me having these stuffed in my pocket in the cholera area so as not to touch them, me with two days growth of beard, shabby, haggard, growing very old and grey and limping about withy my tropical ulcer burning like a coal. …

This was a really terrible day and night … I was terribly sorry to see Sgt South of the RAAF go, as despite his terrible emaciated and run down state, he made a most gallant fight and nearly made it. …


Sir Edward Dunlop, River Kwai, Thailand, 1987, photographer Robert McFarlane (1942–). Courtesy National Library of Australia: pic-vn6002774.

Although Weary told his biographer, Sue Ebury, that one should 'not forget' what the Japanese did, he certainly forgave.

In 1991 at a seminar in Canberra with other survivors of the Railway, Weary met with Hiramura, the Japanese man second-in-command at Hintok prison camp on the Railway. Himamura had been particularly brutal to the prisoners.

Himamura had made a pilgrimage to Australia to publicly apologise to the former prisoners. He gave Weary a gold fob watch 'deeply inscribed'. Weary, who had forgiven Himamura long ago, was profoundly affected. Many people could not understand why Weary was so moved.

Weary explained that he had testified against Himamura as a war criminal, thus he was responsible for Himamura getting a death sentence (later commuted to 20 years imprisonment) – Weary was moved by Hiramura's own capacity for forgiveness. (Ebury p.386)


Colonel Edward (Weary) Dunlop, detail, 1956, by Murray Griffin. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: ART26999.

In 1969 Weary Dunlop was knighted for his contribution to medicine and in 1976 he was named Australian of the Year. He also received honours from Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom.

In 1993 Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop died. A state funeral was held at St Patrick's Cathedral and an estimated 10,000 people lined the streets to mark his passing.

Weary is a big hero, but he always said it was a mistake to focus on him because he was only one among thousands. (Alan Hopgood).

Useful links

Look listen and play

  • Watch Changi, ABC TV series and website, explores the fall of Singapore, the establishment of Prisoner of War camp by the Japanese military, and key incidents at the camp such as the Selerang Uprising. Also looks at life on the Thai–Burma railway and the conditions endured by POW's in their life at Changi and other camps.
  • Listen to recollections by ex prisoners of war on the Burma Railway including the voice of Weary Dunlop, audio
  • Watch The Quiet Lions, 2008 film directed and produced by Robin Newell, details the lives of Weary Dunlop and Thai river trader Boon Pong during the Second World War, and their legacy in the form of an exchange program that trains young Thai surgeons in Australia. Director Robin Newell
  • Watch Hellfire Pass, Film Australia, 2011, documentary in which returned service personnel including Weary Dunlop return to the Burma Railway more than 40 years later


Fellowships and awards

Other resources


Last updated: 28 August 2013
Creator: Kathryn Wells

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