Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 June 2012


Anzac Day, Slape, Mr William

7:29 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to talk about the Anzac Day ceremony held at Hellfire Pass in Thailand this year. As you know, Mr President, I have been there before, six times in the last eight years, and I thank you for allowing me to lay a wreath on behalf of the Senate both at the dawn service at Hellfire Pass and at 10 am at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery service. It was a great trip, with 25 people in total. Sadly, there were only two former prisoners of war there this year, Snow Fairclough and Neil McPherson. On the evening of 24 April, the night before Anzac Day, we had a gathering and dinner at Home Phu Toey, a resort owned by Khun Kanit, a Thai man who was a great friend of 'Weary' Dunlop. Sitting opposite me at the table was Snow Fairclough and I was telling him how, about two years ago, we had taken Cliff Lowien there, a good friend now from Yamba. Cliff was a prisoner back in those days on the Thai-Burma railway. I was telling Snow that Cliff had been only 17 years of age, and Snow said, 'Yes. We had a few apprentices on the job. Young fellas'. They are magnificent men, still with a sense of humour, given what they went through during that horrid time as prisoners of war constructing that railway line of 415 kilometres from Thailand to Burma, on which some hundred thousand men— some 90,000 Asian labourers and more than 12,000 allied prisoners of war—lost their lives.

It was great to be there again with the two former prisoners of war I have mentioned. We travelled on a bit afterwards. It was a really good Anzac Day, with a big crowd of probably 1,100 or 1,200 people. In a foreign land like that and a couple of hundred kilometres from the city, that is a huge crowd. The museum is magnificent. It was opened on 24 April 1998 by then Prime Minister John Howard and then Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mr Tim Fischer.

We got home on the Thursday, about a week later. On the Saturday I went to phone my friend Bill Slape, who manages the Hellfire Pass Memorial, but he did not answer his phone. I thought that was very odd. We had become good friends. I first met Bill in February 2004 when I was in Thailand. I took a friend by the name of Barry Green, from Parkes in western New South Wales, out there to see Hellfire Pass. On the Monday morning my wife said to me that she had just got an email, and we could understand then why Bill had not answered his phone: sadly, a few hours earlier he had died. He was swimming laps in the pool. I was speaking to Ayr, his wife, who is a lovely lady, just two weeks ago. Ayr was in Brisbane, she was telling me, when she got the call at eight o'clock in the morning: 'Ayr, Mr William, he has drowned.' She thought, 'How could he drown? He is a 62-year-old excellent swimmer.' Obviously, he had a heart attack. I know that about six months ago he came back to Brisbane to have a larger stent put in his heart. Who knows what went wrong, but it was a very sad time.

I would like to pay tribute to Bill Slape. Bill was born on 21 July 1950. His Vietnam War service was from 23 December 1969 to 17 December 1970. Bill served in 131 Divisional Locating Battery and in 9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. In 2003, I think, Bill became the manager of Hellfire Pass Memorial, which is where I got to know him. Bill had so much pride in that museum. He called the Thai men his 'boys'. There were half-a-dozen men who worked with Bill, maintaining the facility, building new steps and looking after the place. It is a magnificent war memorial. Just prior to going over, Bill said, 'Could you bring about six Australian caps. I need them for my boys.' He said, 'A bottle of single malt Scotch is always good for my boys as well.' I do not know whether that was for him or the boys or what but I think they might have enjoyed a nip of Scotch at the end of a day's work in that hot climate.

Bill took so much pride in his work. There were so many visitors each year from all around the world: Europeans, of course—the Dutch were prisoners of war of the Japanese; visitors from Australia and Britain; and from Indonesia—the Dutch East Indies as it was called in those days. There were so many visitors to the Hellfire Pass Memorial to go through the museum, to look at the 200 square metres of wall there and see the whole story, to see the film that shows about every 10 minutes and learn about the history of our prisoners of war during that terrible time from 1939 to 1945. Bill took so much pride in his work there. He enjoyed his work. He would sometimes ring me up and say, 'Look, this is not right; what can you do about it?' I would say, 'What do you want me to do about it?' 'No, you can't say that to the minister; I might lose my job,' he would say.

I find it concerning that there is not an Australian flag flying there. Australia put the funds in to build the memorial. I think it was close to a couple of million dollars but we do not have an Australian flag flying there. In time, I would like to see several flagpoles erected there with, perhaps, a Thai flag in the middle, a bit higher than the others because it is in Thailand, and have the flag of every country that participated in the construction of the railway line during the Second World War. That is something to look at in the future. Bill was a great fellow and my sympathies go to Ayr and his family. It was a terrible shock. As I said, at half past six or seven o'clock in the morning he went off to his swimming pool, as he did every day. He was a very fit type of bloke who did not carry any excess weight. He worked hard. It was a sudden death while he was swimming laps.

I would like to pay tribute to Ayr. When I was speaking to her a couple of weeks ago she was very upset about the loss of her husband; it was a terrible trauma for her, being such a sudden death. They were a very close couple. Ayr works in the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. She speaks wonderful English, and of course being a Thai lady she speaks fluent Thai and is a great communicator with the workers there. It was a sad time. As I said, it was a bit strange when Bill did not answer his phone. It was not that I rang him every day of the week, probably once every couple of months, but that was the sad timing of it all. We really never know, do we, when something like this will strike.

Can I just say thank you, Mr President, for allowing me to represent the Senate. I do hope that next year the government sends a representative there. Last year we had the Governor-General; the year before, I was there; and I was there this year, of course. Since the Labor Party has been in government, no-one has been to Hellfire Pass for Anzac Day. I can understand it in earlier years because it was under military rule. But next year is the 70th anniversary of the cutting of Hellfire Pass, a huge rock cutting. I do not know how man could ever perform such a function, to cut such a huge rock cutting.

It commenced on Anzac Day in 1943, so Anzac Day next year is the 70th anniversary of the commencement of the cutting of Hellfire Pass, where 68 Allied prisoners of war were bludgeoned to death while they cut that Hellfire Pass cutting. They called it Hellfire Pass because, when they looked in, all the lamps were burning at night and the picks and the drills were going and so on. The soldiers would look down and say it looked just like being in hell. Its proper name is Konyu Cutting, but Hellfire Pass is the name we know it by.

I do hope that next year the government has a representative there—even you, Mr President. You would be a great representative to have there on Anzac Day next year at Hellfire Pass. That would be most pleasing. I do hope you consider that, to represent the Australian government there as we remember the 70th anniversary of the commencement of the cutting of Hellfire Pass.

In closing, I just express my sincere sympathies to Ayr, Bill Slape's wife; to all Bill's many, many friends; and to the many, many people who had the privilege and the honour to meet Bill Slape. He was a wonderful outgoing fellow, a tremendous friend. He welcomed everyone and showed them round the museum. He knew the history of Hellfire Pass and the whole construction of the Thai Burma railway. He knew it off by heart and inside out. He was a great ambassador for Australia and a great promoter of the history of war. We should remember Bill and what he did for our country, his service to our country and then in these later years his management of Hellfire Pass. My thoughts are with you, Bill. To Ayr and the family, as I said: my sincere sympathies.