Sketch by Jack Chalker

Death Railway

Railway of Death

We knew that large numbers of POWs where being shifted off somewhere by train but didn’t know where. All too soon we found out as I was one of a party which consisted of 4th, 5th and 6th Royal Norfolk’s.

Picture by Charles Thrale

Packed tight into steel box type trucks we headed off on a terrible journey. Sometimes we were lucky and had the doors open. You can just imagine what conditions were like in those trucks. Very hot with thirty sweaty bodies, some with diarrhoea and nowhere to go. Sometimes we got fed but water was scarce. The only single word I can think of to describe those conditions was inhuman.

We had been warned not to dangle our legs out of the doors. On the third morning I was in the doorway, afraid to sleep I kept awake long enough to see the sunrise. The shafts of light streaming through the trees and the sun warmed my body. I was lulled off to sleep and my legs dropped down over the door sill. The next thing I knew Sgt Ernie March, from the 6th Battalion was putting me into a truck. My feet had struck the bridge and I had a lucky escape albeit a painful one.

When we reached our destination in Siam I was to receive probably the worst blow of the war. I was to be separated from my mates. Blokes, some of whom I had been with since childhood. It was a bitter pill to swallow. At this time I couldn’t walk, my left knee wad blown up like a football and my right knee and both ankles were very sore. There was no doctor and no medics, consequently no treatment.

After some while I made it to Chungkai where there was a hospital with doctors and medics. I was on light duty for God knows how long and one set back after another kept me from leaving Chungkai. I was hoping to catch up with my mates. Dysentery, malaria, beri-beri; I thought I was never going to leave that place. Christmas number one and two were spent in Hospital at Chungkai. The second Christmas the doctors had given up on me and the rice sacks were under the bamboo slats. On the third day, I think it was, a medic from the Cambridgeshire Regiment took the sacks out from under the bed and said, “you don’t need these now, do you?”

The doctor had told me I was going to be OK. My mate Bert Perkins called around as usual to see me and was he glad to see me in the land of the living. George Hall used to come round and bring me tit bits from the cook house. Other blokes used to visit me too. I don’t know if Jim Quadling was in camp at that time or whether that was when he was crook with beri-beri. When I saw Jim walking around one time he was so thin that he wouldn’t cast a shadow standing sideways.

Another trip up country from Chungkai was on a communications party. We had to cut down a tree, trim it to length, put a piece on the top if it and stick it in the ground. One day we had dropped and trimmed a tree and were carrying it out to the railway line when fate took a hand again. We were carrying the tree out and I was the man in the middle. Walking over a bit of rough ground, and being the man in the middle, with a short bloke behind I suddenly got too much weight and my back went out. I was carrying the tree on my left shoulder and was left not being able to straighten up! Again there was no medic so I had to grin and bear it. One day, while on that party, we kept getting an awful smell on the breeze and the next day it got worse. Finally we found out what it was. A camp with a horde of Tamils in it was the cause of the smell. Lots of them had ulcers, horrible one’s, and were coming to us for help. The smell was partly rotting flesh and partly lack of sanitation. The Jap with us would have shot them to keep them away. Poor sods, they were in a terrible state. They urgently needed food, medical supples as well as doctors and medics. It made my blood run cold to hear them pleading for help. I’ve often wondered what happened to them. I think we finished that stint, putting up telephone poles, and returned to Changi.

I can’t remember how but I was up country again in a small camp near Ken Soy No. 2 [Editors note: I was unable to find this location]. There was a party of Aussies in one hut and us British in the other. Captain Benson RAMC was a great bloke as we were later to find out. A miracle must have happened at last, I was with some Royal Norfolk’s and Suffolk’s; Sergeant Polly Gregory from Yarmouth I believe, George King form the 5th and Corporal Bill Keppel from the 6th Royal Norfolk’s. I’m sure there are more but the names just won’t come to mind.

Fifteen of us formed a party cutting firewood for the railway engines. One bloke, Harry Bendall, got the job of supplying us boiled water to drink, two blokes were left back at camp for duties there and they would bring out our rice for lunch. A Jap Sergeant came out with us on the first morning and he picked out the tree to be cut down. He knew less about the job than we did but eventually we had the tree on the deck. We cut an eighteen inch length off after some really hard yakka as the wood was chock full of resin and we had no proper wedges to split the logs open – it was murder. This Jap Sergeant was going mad, lashing out at anyone within reach. When at last we had got the first log ready for splitting we were really in the poo again. The axes we were using were like cross cut saws – bloody useless! When you had a good wack at the log the cutting edge of the axe would split open!

At the end of the day we all had sore bones, not from work but from the punishment we received. The next day was to be easier for us as the Sergeant didn’t front and we had a Corporal in charge of us. He left us to sort out which trees to cut down. When he felt like it he would give us a hand and the days task provided a pile of wood. In no time at all we had everything under control. We used to look for trees with cavities at the bottom, which meant less wood to cut. Once the day’s wood was cut we would nip down to the river for a swim before returning to camp.

One night our hut had to get up and unload a barge. There was food and gear, mostly for the Japs or so they thought. There was a long steep bank with a winding path that ran from the river to the campsite. We had quite a few trips backwards and forwards, watched all the while by Jap guards. They didn’t see us hide the fruit that we knocked off. On the way up the path we would hide a few bits of fruit and long after the unloading was finished, when all was quiet, we took it in turns to go and retrieve our treasures. The next day when we had our lunch of rice and boiled water to drink we had a surprise for our solitary guard. The guard knew what we had done and went through the motions of hiding the fruit when no one was looking – and then laughed like the blazes.

Some events at this camp were nothing like the previous ones. The other wood cutting gang had cut a tree but instead of it dropping it lodged in another great big tree. They came and told us so that we wouldn’t inadvertently walk under it. Our quota was finished early and Bill Keppel and I said we would drop our final tree while the others helped the other gang.

A large vee was cut in the tree from the opposite side and we started our saw cut sloping down to the vee. We now had a steel wedge or two to help push the tree in the right direction. Bill and I had just had a breather and were ready to lose a bit more sweat. I said to Bill “if the tree starts to go you shoot through there and I’ll take the cross-cut and nip out this way”. Some of what happened next wasn’t anticipated at all. All of a sudden there was a loud crack and we started our planned moves. Bill was OK – a quick passage to safety. I started my move but all of a sudden I was moving very rapidly in the wrong direction – I was on my way upwards! I didn’t know what had happened and suddenly the ground stopped my decent very abruptly.

Some people say that there are good and bad things that come out of every situation and lucky for me it was so this time. I landed flat on my back on a thick bed of leaves and I couldn’t move for a short while. Then I thought of the cross cut and wondered where that had gone. I was told it flew through the air and landed, teeth first, just in front of one of the other blokes. The Jap guard went over all my bones and said OK, but when I got up I was minus quite a bit of skin from my back. I was an array of colours as red, blue, black and yellow started to show. I tried to carry on working but had to give it away and the Jap sent me back to camp with one of the other blokes to look after me.

I went to my bamboo slats and my mate fetched Dr Benson. After examining me he said I was lucky to only have only superficial damage. For a few days I was in camp on full pay, 10 cents a day, but was glad to be out in the sticks again with the boys.

The next event that comes to mind was tragic. We saw, for the first time, allied bombers coming over but little did we know what would happen the next day. On the first raid we noticed the Tamils on the move. Jessie Owens wouldn’t have caught them! Then from a bit of higher ground came a shout – bombers coming in. That was it and we headed for the bush in a hurry. All the planes went over without laying any eggs. A bloke named Porter, from Norwich, had said the next day, “I don’t like this, thirteen of us in the work party today”. I think two were sick.

About half way through the morning Porter said, “look a spotter plane”. It turned out he was right and by this time he was getting really worked up. We were working laying a train line out into the sticks so the Japs could run a trainload of ammo off the main track for safety. At about 4 o’clock the bombers came overhead again. An engine, standing on the centre line in the station, chose this point in time to let off a cloud of steam. One plane broke from formation, turned, opened it’s bomb doors and came straight at us. A few of us had chosen to shelter in some trenches dug around the Tamil’s huts to keep out the rats. The Tamils didn’t want to get in the trenches but we pushed and bullied them in. We got a Tamil woman, who was very pregnant, into the trench. By this time the bombs were on their way down and we soon heard that awful screeching noise. Then there were explosions and the earth started shaking.

What a relief when all the pandemonium had stopped and the dust settled. Two of the Tamil men had small shrapnel wounds and were the only casualties in our vicinity.

Our friend Porter and an Aussie had both taken shrapnel in the stomach. The Aussies, who used to refer to Dr Benson as the quack, soon found out how really good he was. He nursed those blokes for two days but Porter unfortunately didn’t make it. It was touch and go for a while with the Aussie but he finally came good and spoke highly of Dr Benson.

We couldn’t find our tea boy, Harry Bendall, from our wood cutting detail. The next morning his body was found on the riverbank. The natives had pulled his body from the water and laid it on the bank. That was a terrible shock to our party and one that took a long while to come to grips with.

The same day we were in for a shock of a different kind. A bomb had dropped on the tracks near the engine, that I thought was the sole cause for this tragedy, and had not gone off. The Japs collared us to dig the bloody thing out! Nothing doing we said and they had to do it.

I had three Aussie mates from the early Chungkai stay, Norm Slack, Tiny and Mick. I had been out on work parties with them a few times but they moved from Chunkai and I didn’t see them for ages. We met quite suddenly while I was on a party going down river and the Aussies were returning to Chunkai. A short distance from the River Kwai, I think it must have been, our two parties passed. I heard a shout, “Bluey you old bastard, how the hell are you?” In seconds Norm and I were hand shaking and having a nice little chat together. Too good to last and rifle butts brought us down to earth again with a jolt. I was very sore with viscous bruising as proof of that little going over. We shouted our cheerios and that was the last we saw of each other.

Shortly afterwards our party reached the river to find that the allied planes had been accurate with their bombs. Ropes were strung tight across the gap in the damaged bridge for us to get cross on. That was no picnic and I was glad and relieved when I could stand on something solid again.

One trip up country, with a small party, was short-lived. Somewhere along the line I did what lots of the other blokes had done and that was get too close to those dreaded bamboo spikes. We were roughing it, no tents or huts, sleeping on the dry riverbed. Coming off the work party one day I felt really crook and my ankles ached like blazes. We had a medic with us this time, Arthur Hilling, a bloke that was at Crown Road School the same time I was. I cleaned myself up in the river and went to see Arthur. I was feverish with malaria and the ankle problem was ulcers. My ankles and legs were swollen with a large dark red patch on each anklebone. Arthur got two blokes to hold me down then went to work. With sterilised spoon, that had a sharpened edge, he cleaned the ulcers out. A hole about two inches across was the result. After cleaning them out with saline he crushed a whole sulphonamide for each ulcer and dressed them as well as he could with the supplies at his disposal. He told me I was to lay with my feet up and not get up.

Luckily for me a train passed the camp and two days later I was on my way to the base hospital camp at Nong Pladuk, or something like that. The journey was a nightmare as my malaria and ulcers were giving me hell. When we reached our destination we had quite along walk to the hospital and some made it on their own and some didn’t – I was one of the latter. They told me later that I just crumpled up and hit the deck. I was carried to the hospital and was soon getting care and attention.

After two blood transfusions, and a great deal of care from doctors and medics, I was up and about again. Fred Wilburn heard I was in hospital and came and found me. His visits were much appreciated. The last time I saw Fred he told me he was leaving on a work party the next day. I think it was one of those work parties that very few people returned from. Fred didn’t come back.

My next move took me to some large warehouses that had a river frontage, perhaps the Kwai, I don’t recall. Bertie Perkins was there as well. The work was hard as usual and the tucker left a lot to be desired. One of our tasks at this place was to build pillboxes. I’m glad we didn’t have to face any action in them because we fixed them so that any vibration would cause them to collapse! The large hole, that we dug the clay from to cover the pillboxes, was later to become a water hole where we could wash up and have a swim.

We were on the move again, for what proved to be the last time, which found a small party of us living in a compound in a Jap MT camp. A few of us got some very heavy lifting jobs at times, moving car and truck engines and other heavy bits and pieces around at another camp. There the Japs worked on the engines and we were the donkeys.

This camp was about one and a half miles down the road. After a while, after we had settled in at this new job we would leave camp, with our Jap escort, and march up the road army style. The Japs used to shout at us and slow us down, but they soon left us alone. We would arrive at the workshops before the Japs and we would skive around to see if we could find anything useful. A Jap sergeant lived there, so we had to be crafty.

Some Europeans, in rickshaws, would give us the time of day as we were going to and from work. Sometimes we would be lucky at evening meal time and the Japs would shout from their mess room if they had any food left. Our rations were a bit better at this place but we never knocked any grub back.

One morning, marching to the other camp, as usual, a European lady in a rickshaw came quite close to us and said, “it won’t be long now boys”. We took that with a pinch of salt. The next morning some European gentleman came straight for our little party in his rickshaw, his face flushed and sporting a huge grin and said, “peace boys, peace”. That certainly gave us food for thought. On arriving at the MT workshop the Jap sergeant met us and said, “no work, all men yus a may”. Funny we thought, there some real speculations going on I can tell you. I couldn’t relax; I was like a cat on a hot tin roof. Having no work to do the day surprisingly was very long and tiring. The Jap sergeant had a huge bottle of raw alcohol and he was sipping at that and offering us a swig. I don’t think anyone took any.


Next Chapter

The Nightmare Ends



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[Arthur Stagles] [Training for War] [Sailing to War] [Singapore then Malaya] [Surrender] [Death Railway] [The Nightmare Ends]


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