Parklands extend south from Central Melbourne’s office towers, shopping arcades and eateries; containing much of the city’s cultural spectrum. Concert halls, art galleries, botanical gardens, the Myer Music Bowl, Rod Laver Arena – home of Australia’s Tennis Open, the Governor’s Mansion, elite private schools and the 100,000 seat Melbourne Cricket Ground – home of Aussie Rules football - are all there.
Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance sits on its western edge, a beehive-shaped building surrounded by obelisks, memorial gardens, shrubs, plaques and statues, to project an aura of quiet reflection over the hum of eight lanes of traffic coursing along the nearby tree-lined boulevard.
A tall, stoop-shouldered bronze figure stands among statues and relief carvings that depict military action or hardware. But for this unassuming figure wearing a civilian suit, the sculptor has captured his subject’s calm strength, showing a gentle smile half-concealed by a drooping moustache. The nameplate on the pedestal reads: “Sir Ernest Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. 12 July 1907 – 2 July 1993.”
Weary’s nickname came from corny Aussie word-association in his boyhood days – from “Dunlop” to “tires” to “tired;” thus “Weary.” Simple, but it stuck.
His legacy to Australia’s war effort was not military strategy, but as a surgeon for POWs working on the murderous four-hundred-kilometre route of the Burma-Thailand Railway. This track, including the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai, was part of Japanese plans for access to India, and of thirteen thousand Australian POWs, almost three thousand died in its construction.
Surviving workers were reduced to skeletal shambles of degraded humanity, as a precursor to decades of post-war disabilities. Their inhumane conditions meant starting at dawn, with a small bag of rice for nourishment, and struggling back to camp at midnight. Their captors, non-signatories to the Geneva Convention for treatment of prisoners, saw surrender as total disgrace, so sadistic brutality was meted out daily.
Weary Dunlop and his medical officers gave themselves to total compassion and courage on behalf of defenceless patients, with little or no medicine or equipment. And despite his own malaria, amoebic dysentery and tropical ulcers, he continually battled with his captors for medicines, resources and more humane conditions for his patients.
As one ex-POW recalls: “Thousands of us were starved, scourged, racked with malaria, dysentery, beriberi, pellagra, and the stench of tropical ulcers that ate a leg to the bone in a matter of days. But Weary Dunlop and his crew stood up for us, despite being beaten, derided, and beaten again."
These medics and their helpers showed incredible ingenuity: producing 92% proof surgical alcohol from waste rice and yeast found in the jungle, using a still made from old condensed-milk cans; others made drips for badly-dehydrated cholera patients, using Japanese beer bottles, doctors' stethoscope tubes and blunted syringe needles; with surgery performed by kerosene lamps.
Weary often stood between his men and menacing Japanese bayonets - once while tied to a tree - yet he was able to forgive his captors.
After the War, he went on to teach medicine in India, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. He co-founded the Australian-Asian Association, and used the profits from the sale of his personal war diaries to help young Thai surgeons to study in Australia.
He also established a very profitable Melbourne practice, with special consideration for fellow ex-POWs. Many of them attest to being unable to afford any treatment, only to find that he had sent his Rolls-Royce to their door for a free trip to a free medical appointment.
Thousands of people lined the streets of Melbourne for the 1993 state funeral of the man they called 'The Surgeon of the Railway'.
Weary had grown up in the Australian bush, with a love for sport but not for books. Yet he embraced university medical studies and Rugby Union, well enough to represent Australia in pre-war international competition.
His philosophy was simple. "I have a conviction that it's only when you are put at full stretch that you can realise your full potential."
If` ever anyone lived life at full stretch, it was Weary Dunlop. And for me his story embodies how Jesus wrapped up his parable of the sheep and the goats: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”(Matthew 25: 40 - NIV)
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