Sketch by Jack Chalker

Up Country


After about 10 weeks at Changi, the Jap. Command ordered our officers to supply a party of 600 fit men to work building a railway up in Thailand. At their meeting our officers decided that the R.A.S.C. would form the nucleus of the party, but also every other unit would be represented. Our quota was three, and this was when I was to receive my punishment from our C.O. I was selected along with Cpl. Fairhead, and ‘Doc’ Grant, neither of whom I had known before as they had only just joined our Coy., prior to leaving England, and had traveled on the other boat from us. I felt truly abandoned when parading with all the kit I had with the rest of the party, prior to being loaded into trucks, to be transported down to Singapore City, and my mates came to see me off. I must confess to a deeper sense of unhappiness, even to the one I felt when first left home.

It was June 18th 1942 when we boarded cattle trucks at Singapore. Six hundred of us under the command of Major Sykes. About 40 to 45 in a each truck, no seats or anything to lay on, except what one had brought with them, bound for Thailand, the advance party for the building of the railway from Bangkok to Moulmein in Burma. Our journey took 5 days in extreme discomfort, passing through Jahore, Negri, Sembalan, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, To (prai) and Butterworth, near Panang Island. We stopped once each day for ‘Tenko’ ( roll call) and to cook a meal. The food we had in transit was a big improvement on what we had been having at Changi. We had no set time each day, but after our meal, we were allowed to fill up our Dixie’s to be eaten at our own convenience whilst traveling. Fortunately everyone had hung-on to their set of Dixie’s and spoon, the most important part of our equipment. Some of the lads had their spare meal eaten long before nightfall, whilst others ate sparingly. Drink was our biggest problem, some had water bottles. This was our first close contact with our Nippon captors and truly very pleasant we found them. Our major trouble was of course ‘Benjo’ or ‘Taxan Benjo’ (bowel evacuation). This had to be done at our daily stops. We were allowed into the light jungle at the side of the railway line and after each stop we had a Tenko (roll call) before getting back on board. ‘Skoshy- Benjo’, or bladder evacuation, had to be done out of the sliding doors of the enclosed trucks. Queues soon began to form after setting off again, as there was only one door to each truck. Only anyone who has tried doing it whilst standing and swaying and rocking, can appreciate the effort involved.

After Penang there was only one more town called Aloa Star, then it was jungle all the way. The Malaya jungle is supposed to be the thickest in the world, it certainly looked impregnable in places. We occasionally touched the coast in places passing some wonderful beaches. I believe nowadays some have been commercialized and are tourist attractions. I came into contact with an officer from Leeds called Capt. Escrit. He was one of a well known family of coal merchants, which in those days was big business. We had quite a good few chats about our home town. His sport was cricket and he was the captain of North Leeds Cricket team upto the beginning of hostilities. Strangely, I never came into contact again after that journey and have no idea whether he survived or not.

We arrived at our journey end on the 23rd June 1942 at a place called Bang-Pong, on the main line from Bangkok, which was about 35 miles away. This was to be the beginning of the new rail link to Burma, and our party had the job of establishing a base camp. We were billeted in a camp of Bamboo and Attap huts, which adjoined a Buddhist Temple, which was like a nunnery for males, from young boys up to old men. All had shaven heads and wore a saffron cloak, which looked like a bedsheet wrapped around their bodies. They were very friendly towards us. Our huts were built right up to the wall of the Monastery and there was a hole in the wall, and this became a passport for the sale of any valuables, such as wrist watches, fountain pens, rings and any small things , because the hole was only about 2" wide. To my knowledge they never let anybody down , whatever we asked they took them and sold them presumably to the local populace. Their mode of life was carried on without any use of money, like the nuns, they existed on local charity. Rolled Thai notes were passed back through the hole and when on work parties we were able to buy local produce at roadside stalls. The most popular item was hard boiled duck eggs. We really lived like Lords, and began to realize our move had been for the best. Our first job was building a base camp of real pine timber. Six large huts of solid wood and wood floors, but attap roofs. Each hut accommodating approx. 65 troops. In one corner of the compound stood a cookhouse consisting of huge cooking pots called ‘Qualies’, like giant Woks, and our cooks became very adept at cooking rice, after being shown by the Nippon cooks. It was a simple process, always done overnight. For breakfast we used to go into the cookhouse when on ‘Police Night duty’ for a little scoff, that’s how we knew because we used to give them a hand. The method was approx. 10 gallon of water placed in the Qualies, a fire was lit under each one and the water brought to boil.Then 2 buckets of best rice thoroughly stirred in and a wooden lid was placed on each Qually. The fire was raked out from under and left to cook itself, and by 8am. the next morning it was done to a turn. We had to go to breakfast in groups. A generous amount of rice with a scoop of sweetened milk, a little thicker than back in Changi. A real treat was the caked rice around the sides of the Qually, just like toast, and queues used to form for these delicacies, they were called ‘Legges’, a Malaya name for second helpings.

July 1942

On July 11th. , I went-down with a severe bout of Dysentery. So bad I lost 3 stone in weight in 3 weeks. The only treatment being ‘Epsom Salts’. A huge tablespoon 3 times a day. I was staggering to the latrines 24 times in 24 hours. My eventual cure was achieved by a massive dose of Castor Oil. The Medical Orderly had been saving this for an emergency. It was in an Army water bottle and full. He decided my need was great, so he gave me the bottle to take a dose. My body must have been craving for a palliative of any kind of oil. I put the bottle to my lips and gulped it down. The Orderly had to wrench it from me as I would of drunk the lot. My recovery began almost immediately, but I never managed to put the weight back on. Many months later I managed to get on a beam scale, and my weight was 51 kilos, about 8 stone. My boxing weight back home was 12st - 10lb. I guess 8 stone was the body weight our diet was best able to maintain.


Next Chapter

Infamous Railway



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