Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, was one of the extraordinary figures in Australia’s history, yet what made him different? He was born in 1907 at Wangaratta, county Victoria, and one biographer suggests that he “was exposed to a culture of privation and extremes from an early age” which was typical of farming communities in those days. After finishing school at Benalla he was apprenticed to the local pharmacist, and when he topped his class and won all the other awards in that field he was encouraged to change over to medicine, graduating from Melbourne University in 1934 with a MBBS and granted a fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Somewhere in his spare time he also joined the Coburg/Brunswick Battalion of the Citizen Military Forces and was later commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Australian Medical Corps (RAAMC), where he also picked up the nickname ‘Weary”. When war was declared in 1939, Weary was in England doing post graduate studies, yet was allowed to join an Australian unit in Jerusalem without having to return to Australia first. He proceeded to assist the RAAMC in Crete, Greece and other trouble spots in the Middle East.
When the situation closer to home in 1942 changed, he was posted back to Australia but then diverted to Java, Indonesia to support the war effort against the Japanese. In March the Japanese advanced on the Banoeng Hospital where Weary was working. Apparently he had the opportunity to escape but chose to stay with his patients and became a prisoner of war. He was subsequently shipped to Singapore and then to Thailand where he was made Commanding Officer (and Surgeon) for over a thousand men who were to work on the Burma- Siam Railway, and engineering project also called “The railway of Death”. One estimate it that this railway cost the lives of one hundred thousand lives, yet there were many who survived only because of Weary’s medical skills, compassion and dedication to duty.
One biographer summarises it like this “He displayed extraordinary courage in attempting to improve the harsh living conditions imposed by his captors. With scarce medical supplies and lack of proper instruments, the prisoners manufactured needles and artificial limbs from bamboo – improvisation was the order of the day and often made the difference between death and survival”. He took his role seriously and would often choose to confront the Japanese soldiers and protect his men, yet this frequently resulted in dire consequences for himself. He endured many beatings and other indignities, yet his courage and kindness was respected by all, even the Japanese! One of his men, Don Stuart put it like this:
“When despair and death reached us Weary Dunlop stood fast…
he was a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering.”
That is part of our heritage as military members and against that standard so many of the problems we face seem so insignificant. Dunlop refused to allow helplessness, indifference and fear to control him and he remained positive and optimistic throughout the rest of his full life, till he passed away in 1993, aged 85 years.
What an example for us to follow…
Chaplain Ian S Whitley