A Newcastle doctor's diary chronicling some of the most inhuman acts in World War II was lost for 40 years before finding a home at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The late Dr Roy Mills, a much loved thoracic medicine physician at Royal Newcastle hospital who helped plan the University of Newcastle Medical School, kept the diary over three tortuous years as a prisoner of war helping to build the Burma-Thailand railway for the Japanese.
His heroic story lives on today as the basis for his book Doctor's Diary and Memoirs, which he published in 1994, six years before he died.
I was lucky enough to receive a signed copy of that book at its launch and it will always have pride of pace in my library. Roy Mills was a colleague of my wife, Meg, a wonderful man and a great friend to both of us.
Helping him launch the book was another colleague and dear friend, the late Dr Peter Hendry, also an unsung hero of the notorious railway, who pioneered the development of pathology services in Newcastle.
Back in 1943, when he secretly began writing his diary, Roy Mills was a captain and the only medical officer to a party of 718 men under the command of Lt Col S.A.F. Pond.
Discovery would have meant severe punishment or death but that was the least of worries for the 26 year old medical officer. Earlier in the hostilities at Singapore, Mills was hit in the chest by shrapnel from an artillery shell and had to be evacuated himself to the Australian General Hospital. Later, during intense bombing, a large abscess ruptured in Mills' chest wall as a result of the shrapnel entry.
Mills was one of many injured troops who had to then march to Changi POW camp. His wound required dressing twice a day but it gradually healed and he resumed duties with the shrapnel still in his chest. By October, 1943, the shrapnel began to move near his shoulder and he had it cut out by a medical officer.
Roy Mills' group of prisoners on the railway was part of "F" Force - 7000 debilitated prisoners constructing the middle section of the infamous railway as slave labour. During the next six months, 40 per cent of "F" Force died from starvation, malnutrition, malaria, dysentery, cholera and tropical ulcers.
Even though he had no drugs or medical equipment except a stethoscope, Mills' improvisation and organisation saved hundreds of lives. With no distilled water, he was forced to produce a saline solution from kitchen salt and rain water. But there was no way to create saline drips for men dying from dysentery and cholera. Mills improvised by using the rubber tubing of his stethoscope and bamboo shoots to create cannulas and they worked.
With the need to check cholera patients regularly during the night, Mills used his bladder as an alarm clock. He drank enough water to make sure he awoke at a set time.
The diary tells how Lt Col Pond's party was moved five times, carrying the sick and the dying on improvised stretchers and struggling with cooking gear, Japanese tools and wet tents. After the completion of the railway, men continued to die at a base camp at Kan Buri in southern Thailand and they died after returning to Changi.
When they returned to Australia, the POWs from the railway were asked to submit any diaries to Captain Thomas W. Mitchell, a scholar, who had served as an intelligence officer of 8th Division HQ AIF. Mitchell's role was to compile the history of the 8th Division in conjunction with War historian Gavin Long.
In 1947, Mills posted the diary to Mitchell by registered mail but several years later received a request for information from Dr Alan S. Walker, the editor of Australia in the War of 1939-45, Medical Series.
"I told him the diary had been sent to Captain Walker as requested and had the information he needed," Mills said in the preface to his book.
"But a number of searches failed to locate it."
"I was rather philosophical about it," he said.
"One writes a diary when on the brink of hell, manages to get it back to Singapore. In Singapore, still a prisoner of war, one writes various official reports from the data in the diary, one gets it home to Australia, the Army asks for it, the Army gets it and the Army loses it."
Searches by medical historians, the War Crimes Commission, Army Records and a visit by Mills to Mitchell's widow, Elyne, herself a well known historian, all failed to find the diary of death.
Mills had given up all hope of ever seeing it again when a belated Christmas present in the form of a certified mail package was delivered to his retirement home at Stroud on December 29, 1987.
The diary had finally been found and returned with the following note:
"Dear Dr Mills,
Your diary was found by my daughter in a totally unexpected place and I am sending it immediately - priority paid, as I have found that the safest method.
I am very glad this has been found. With all the best for 1988.
Yours sincerely, Elyne Mitchell.
Footnote: In have a special reason for saying thank you to Dr Roy Mills. He treated both my grandfather and my uncle for a variety of ailments on the Burma-Thailand railway and they both survived.