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- 21 Apr 2015
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Age shall not weary the reputation of Australia’s prisoner-of-war leader, it’s likely to enhance it.

His name was Sir Ernest Edward Dunlop AC CMG OBE, but he was known to all and sundry as Weary Dunlop.

He was a big strong farm boy, tall and wiry; he was a gifted athlete, in rugby and boxing; and he was a distinguished surgeon, both in Australia and overseas.

But he will always be remembered as an extraordinary leader, one of Australia’s finest. He inspired Australian prisoners of war to hang together and survive through one of the dark, dark episodes of World War Two, Japan’s brutal use of forced labour on the construction of its Thai-Burma railway.

There were more than 260,000 Asian civilians and Allied POWs press-ganged into that work. Weary was the commander of 1000 Australian POWs caught at the centre of the nightmare, the construction under extreme duress of Hellfire Pass, the biggest cutting on the 400-kilometre railway. The POWs, debilitated by poor food and tropical diseases, were forced into manual labour for as much as 18 hours a day to finish that section of the project. Thanks in good measure to Dunlop, the survival rate of the Australians was higher than other groups.

Weary, a humble, softly spoken man of immense courage, inspired his POWs through moral example and practical survival skills. They were in awe of him and ready to follow. One of them was Donald Stuart, a gifted writer: he later described Dunlop as “a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering”.

Dunlop shielded his men as best he could against the horrors and brutality, in big and small ways. He risked his own life by standing between a badly wounded soldier and a Japanese bayonet; he incurred beatings when he was deemed to have overstepped the line; and he negotiated the exclusion of the very sick from work and the transfer of others to lighter duties. He improvised on medical equipment and supplies (especially a saline drip to aid cholera victims) and he organised the pooling of resources (including a meagre wage) so they could be used where most needed.

For Weary, the guiding principle in the POW camp was: “In suffering, we are all equal”. The hardship had to be shared, and they were stronger and more resilient relying on each other.

But Dunlop’s legacy reaches far beyond his years in POW camps, or even his ready advocacy for the welfare of POWs in subsequent decades.

Weary returned from the war convinced that Australia needed to engage with Asia rather than shield from it. And that included the Japanese: he would not forget the brutal experience of captivity but he was willing to forgive – even the former camp commander who was convicted of war crimes, in part because of his testimony. Dunlop became an early advocate for building deeper ties with Asian nations; he threw himself into the Colombo Plan, and spent the remaining four decades of his life pursuing closer integration with Asia.

As the years roll by and the Asian century unfolds, Weary’s vision and the seeds he planted keep on compounding.

 Courage, humility, care, respect, vision – the descriptors mount up. So what type of leader  was Weary?


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