Pattie Wright Review

While I was reading toward the final pages of ‘Digger’s Story’, the book’s author was dying. After living to a great age, David Barrett had no final opportunity, no few hours left, to read the review he had asked me to write. No chance to read my comments about what a good and important book he had written with his friend, Brian Robertson.

Timing is everything in life: I think few would disagree. Therefore, in taking the glass half full attitude to David’s loss - as he was an optimist - happily he was able to live long enough to see the publication of the collaboratively written story of his life. And, with even more satisfaction, Brian Robertson and David knew they had done a good job; a fine job of telling David’s remarkable story as a Medical Orderly in the 2/9th Field Ambulance of the AIF from the fall of Singapore to the end of the war, via the Thai Burma railway.

David’s story is very broad and almost unbelievable. He begins it in Singapore when the great ‘fortress’ was lost. His fascinating insights only add to the ignominy of the loss in human life that the British Empire allowed to take place. David’s time then spent at Changi is high lit by the very Australian story of his invention of an ‘imaginary cricket’ game in order to assuage some of the horrors of war for the shell shocked soldiers in his care. Only an Australian would think of that, and only David would have it work. It was however, the long, long months spent existing during the inexplicable horror of the Thai Burma railway as a POW in L Force, one of the worst Forces on the Line, where David’s risk-taking and trading nature came to the fore. Not forgetting his utter tenacity in staying alive. L Force were gathered together by the Japanese in Changi as a small medical unit to be sent to the Thai Burma railway to stop the diseases that were wiping out the ‘romusha’, the indentured Asian slave labourers co-opted to build the Line. David was only 22 when he found himself in a disease-ridden hospital at Kanchanaburi where he eventually personally helped bury 11,000 forgotten people. Digging graves was just about all David could do on the Line. As he recounts with such pathos;

Digger never once saw any romusha patient receive treatment for his condition in the death house or in the cholera house. As a medical orderly in the cholera ward, all that Digger was permitted to do was to get the patients, if they were fit enough, to kneel with their bare backsides facing him in a row, and he would spray their arses with a liquid given to him by the Japanese. Digger expected this was just salt water. No romusha ever recovered in these wards.’

At war’s end, and after the horrors of the Line, David volunteered to return with a small, Commonwealth War Graves group to find, site and map as many of the Allied graves as was possible. By that stage in his survival, David showed what little time he had for either friend or foe if they had an officer’s uniform on. David writes of this attitude on his return to the still dangerous hell of Thailand and Burma; ‘He saluted no one, spoke to the officers on an equal basis and just got on with his job of attending to the sick.’ David was the last of this small, but dedicated group of men.

David was only 24 years of age when he returned home, and hardly done with life, even after so much living, and dying. The post-war years that followed were of determined foresight in the fight for POW reparation benefits and his own reconciliation with the Japanese. Natural tenacity, pig-headedness and determined manipulation of his life in those POW years had taught David much, but sadly he could never quite figure out how to grab onto those few extra hours to read of how I admired him and of how I both laughed and cried after reading, ‘Digger’s Story’. Thankfully, for Australia’s history, he did write the book; so we all can read it, talk about it. And value it.

One of David’s comments to make me smile, a jewel that should not go un-noted in this book was recounted by him about the time Singapore fell. David thought it more sense to think the best as he had, after all, ended up, ‘butter side up….still managing to knock up a bit of fun’. This quip says a great deal about what the Japanese had to look forward to in corralling our soldiers, but even more about David Barrett.

Pattie Wright
Author of ‘The Men of the Line’ (MUP-Miegunyah Press, 2008) and ‘Ray Parkin’s Odyssey’ (Pan Macmillan, 2012)