Katrina Elliot Myerson grew up knowing her grandfather Bob had been a prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand, but like many of that generation, he didn’t talk much about the war.
One of the few stories he did like to tell was of a precious can of bully beef he kept hidden for months until his friend’s 21st birthday, when he said “we had a wacko lunch”.
Recently, 97-year-old Bob and his granddaughter were sitting in his favourite spot, a sunroom with a desk, when he casually mentioned he had some letters to show her, pulling out a bundle of fading notes about the size of postcards.
“He had them there like it was no big deal, just an elastic band around them,” Ms Elliot Myerson told 7.30.
“I was like, ‘Oh, original Red Cross messages from the war’.
“For me it was much more a wow moment.
“This is exactly what I do in my work now.”
The Red Cross connection
The “family news” letters were short notes bland enough to pass any government censors or prison guards, and decades later they are still one of the main tools used by the Red Cross to reconnect loved ones scattered by the chaos of conflict.
Katrina and Bob sat together reading through the cards, in which the stoicism of the day masked the suffering at both ends.
“Dear Mum and Dad, I am safe and well. My love to all family. Do not worry about me, your loving son, Robert.”
“My dear boy, just another few lines, trusting this finds you well. We are all in the best of health. Your birthday dear was last Monday, did you remember it? We all join in wishing you the best of luck and many happy returns of the day.”
For Katrina Elliot Myerson, the letters were a tangible thread through history connecting her with her grandfather.
As a humanitarian worker, she now travels with the International Committee of the Red Cross to broken, war-torn parts of the world to oversee food distribution, health clinics and — most meaningful to her — reconnecting families displaced by crises.
“This is how my family found out [Bob] was still alive, by Red Cross messages,” Ms Elliot Myerson said.
“So it’s really nice to be able to be involved in something like that, having that link with my family.”
Hellfire Pass revisited
Gunner Robert “Bob” Christie enlisted with the 2/10 Field Regiment 8th Division and went into action in Singapore for just 12 days before they were captured by the Japanese in February, 1942.
Bob was a member of the Changi Concert Party and many years later, in a voice aged but melodious, he sang songs the soldiers had made up in the POW camps, recording them for prosperity for the Australian War Memorial.
His war diary is a succinct record of misery (“got dysentery”) and quirky efforts to stay sane (“started frog racing”).
Almost a year after being captured, Bob was able to send a Red Cross letter home and received a reply from his mother in March 1943.
But the very next day, he was sent to the Thai-Burma border and it was another nine months before a second letter found its way to him in the brutal work camps that constructed Hellfire Pass and Pack of Cards Bridge.
At one point, Bob estimated that of the 500 men sent to work alongside him on the Burma Railway, only 70 remained alive.
The overall death toll during construction is believed to be over 100,000, mostly Asian civilians forced to work.
More than 70 years later, Katrina Elliot Myerson is following in her grandfather’s footsteps, working in Myanmar, as Burma is now called.
Most recently, Ms Elliot Myerson’s work took her to northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, the scene of a violent campaign to drive out Muslim Rohingyas that the United Nations has called “genocide”.
“As you can imagine in any crisis or conflict, when something like that happens, you know, maybe someone’s at work, the children are at school, people are in different places, so how do you find each other?” she said.
While some families end up a village or two away, other requests for help come from far away, like the Australian Red Cross inquiry about a man Ms Elliot Myerson and her colleagues eventually found in remote Rakhine state.
“Okay, we may not create world peace or save the world but that one woman now doesn’t have to wake up every morning wondering,” she said.
The Red Cross worker has also taken the opportunity to visit Hellfire Pass and try to imagine Bob as a skinny 20-year-old POW.
“To think that someone who went through all that spent school holidays teaching me to kick a ball and teaching me that if you say you’re going to do something, you do it,” Ms Elliot Myerson said.
“It’s mind-blowing really.”
‘Part of something bigger’
The admiration goes both ways.
“[I’m] very proud and very worried at times,” Mr Christie said.
“It’s great the work that she does … [for us] Red Cross was very important.”
Now confined to an aged care facility, Bob even gets to live vicariously through his granddaughter’s travels.
“She got chased out of the Congo by the baddies with their rifles,” he said with a mixture of concern and pride.
For Katrina Elliott Myerson, the discovery of Bob’s Red Cross letters has deepened her commitment to humanitarian work.
“It makes me feel that the work is part of something bigger, it’s not just our team in Myanmar, it’s hundreds of teams around the world, for decades, doing it,” she said.
“I think it makes me more determined to keep doing that kind of work, so that I can try to do something for another family, the same way the Red Cross Workers did for our family over 70 years ago.”
Topics: world-war-2, human, human-rights, myanmar, australia, thailand