Sketch by Jack Chalker

Journey to Japan

So here I was back in Chungkai. Leo Britt was still producing his shows, Bobby Spong Still his leading lady in drag, Sam Drayton still warbling out his songs and the hot, sweet and filthy cigarettes and rissoles still being sold to anyone that had the money to buy.

It was at this time that the railway in this part of the country was completed and being used. I remember one day seeing a train go by, full of little boxes. The remains of Jap soldiers killed in Burma. What a sight for sore eyes that was) at least it did raise our morale a little higher, our troops at least were doing a lot of damage to the Nippon Army.

We had very little to do in the meantime except being picked out to work in the vegetable garden the Japs had cultivated. This was not too bad a job, a bit back breaking but no harassment as long as you kept going, of course the guards' eyes were always on you. Not only that but we knew ourselves that we would receive some of the vegetables for our own use, even if it was only the tops. After a good day's work it was back to the camp, down for a swim, line up for our ration and wait, hoping this war would come to an end soon.

Rumours were rife now, the Germans had surrendered, Japan was being bombed, Jap convoys were being sunk, who knows, some of these were true, we hoped they were anyway. My hand was getting on very well by this time so I was thankful for that.

We did try as much as possible to visit our buddies in the so called hospital, different diseases, different wards. You had to find out what ward they were in so this meant walking through every one, because some of them suffered not only with one ailment, but two or three.

On one occasion I met up with a member of my regiment and he was sitting on the edge of his bamboo slats with his privates hanging over the edge. They (his privates) were blown up as big as a football, full of water, a disease known as beri-beri. Every now and again the medical orderly would pierce a needle into his privates and the water would literally be released into a bucket on the floor. It was quite unbelievable to see such a thing happening but oh, so true. Then there was the fellow in the next bed who had all his privates covered in sores and was taking all his time keeping the flies off. Then of course there were the ulcers themselves.

Some of these ulcers had to be seen to be believed, one would start on the shin bone and stretch up to the knee, showing all the bone of the leg and no cure was available. Legs in this condition had to come off some time or other.

I do believe, a Dr. Markovich would time himself during this procedure, taking a leg off, sewing up the patient and returning him to his bed, would take a record of seven minutes.

Then there were the malarial cases, different types of malaria, which sent a man crazy and there was nothing one could do to help these men. How lucky one felt at being free of all these complaints, often you could hear a man moaning and praying to God to take him away and remember these men were in the prime of their lives, all around twenty-two or twenty-three years old. Thoughts came to one's head, someone, someday has got to pay for all this suffering. Although I did lose an index finger and suffered a few small ulcers on my legs, I must consider myself very lucky after seeing some of my mates in this so called hospital. The doctors were doing all sorts of wonderful things to try and get these men well again but it was an uphill battle, lack of quinine, bandages and all other sorts of medical supplies. If you had a bandage given, this had to be washed and used over and over again. As for cholera etc. the only thing supplied was a drip of saline water, things got so bad that the patient would realise what he was up against and eventually give up. It was such a hopeless task to help, that one thought when he passed away that it was a happy release, not forgetting that he belonged to someone, either son or husband and in all probability that his relations were thinking of his whereabouts.

At this time in this camp, loss of life became very frequent arid if any one of your regiment died this meant a funeral. These funerals were only allowed when the day's work on the railway was finished. All we could do was to try and make ourselves as spick and span as possible so as to attend these funerals. No coffins, no fuss, just a body wrapped in a rice sack, mounted on a stretcher and carried to a place of rest called a cemetery. What an end, we did have a Union Jack to cover the corpse with and also a padre to do his bit. These funerals became so regular that one became used to them. The only thought that came to mind was 'who was next?' a terrible thought, but once the funeral was over, it was back to the same routine. We would get into line again to collect our meagre rice ration and clear soup and look at the initials to see if you were in line for 'Leggies'. Can you imagine standing around, eating your meal, hoping that there is some left so you are able to get some more and don't forget this was eating to live, not living to eat, which is quite different

Then it was back to our huts. 'Hot, sweet and filthy' would be the cry, someone was selling coffee, 'cigarettes 3 for 5p' was another shout, then later on, six or seven of us would play 'give us a clue' to pass the time away. The only means of light would be a small can full of oil and a small wick. Maybe three to a hut, now you must remember that these huts were about seventy-five yards long, these lamps were supplied by the men themselves, the oil was bought from the Thais, so when the money ran out so did the oil and this meant no light.

Now the loo, as you may call it, was situated about 50 yards from the bottom of the hut. To find it in the dark was almost impossible and when eventually you did you had to find your way back to your bed space. Now this created a problem. One had to count the number of poles in the centre of the hut and the same number of poles to find your way back. If you mistook these poles or miscounted some, it disturbed everyone in the middle of the night as you tried to find your bed space. The only time this did not happen was a moonlit night. Then one would bed down for the night with the stars for a roof and the thought of fish and chips in the head.

About this time a rumour started going around the camp about the Japs picking the fittest men to make the journey to Japan. That's for me, I thought, if it was true, well it was. We were paraded in front of the Jap doctors and I was picked out with about fifteen hundred others. Good, I thought, thank God, away from those dreaded diseases, stinking ulcers, malaria etc. All work stopped in the camp. Every day we were paraded, examined by Jap doctors, because in Japan the authorities were extremely particular about disease in their country. Hence the stabs, the jabs and all sorts of treatment.

Then came the issue of clothing, new boots, new shirt, new shorts and a hat. Boy did we feel good! We also had extra rations for the time being but by God we did not realise what was ahead of us. We had an idea that the transport was going to be the same, the cattle trucks, but did not realise we were again bound for Singapore, another five miserable days and nights.

It was the same old routine, do your business when you can, stop for a meal at certain stations and if you were lucky you received it before the train moved off again. Why did you not try to escape? you may ask, impossible, the Japs and Thai police were watching all the time.

Finally after a harrowing journey, we steamed into Singapore station after ten months of some of the worst days of my life. Days I shall never forget and I thought the worst was over. I was never so mistaken.

We were marched to the docks at Singapore and put on board a freighter called Hofuko Maru. What a tub. The hold had two tiers and just room to crawl into a place of sleep. All sorts of thoughts came into our heads, after the rumours we heard in Chungkai, of American subs, planes, etc. If anything happened of that sort, it was curtains for all of us. The first meal came up and instead of rice it was wheat, well this was quite a change and it went down well.

Then we started to move, 'Hello, we are under way again,' again the prayers, never a dull moment. The only means of relieving ourselves was a box strapped on the side of the ship, one had to squat down the best one could, as for the use, of paper, no chance. Well, whatever you dropped into the sea, that's if you were a good aimer and there were bad aimers I can assure you. This same box once saved my life, but that's another part of my story as I shall reveal later.

So we sailed, we were allowed to go on the deck of the ship and collect our rations. Having a good look around I found we were a part of a convoy of about twenty-one ships with a Jap escort of naval vessels. They must have been expecting some kind of an attack by the Americans so we thought, we held the coast and then made for the coast of Borneo and then something went wrong with our ship. I said it was an old tub, in fact the boiler had burst. 'What next?' was the cry.

We were then left as the rest of the convoy sailed on. We were there about four weeks waiting for repairs. In that time our doctor on board who was Welsh performed an operation on one of our soldiers, something had gone wrong with his inside. This was done by candlelight in the hold and we all watched this being done. What an experience that was, to see a man's whole stomach just lying there. Fortunately he recovered and great praise was given to the doctor, unfortunately the doctor himself died on the ship.

So we waited for repairs, in the meantime, the natives of Borneo came out in small boats and supplied us with fruit, bananas, etc. This was because our wheat was getting terribly short. Then all at once, the engines of the ship started up and we guessed we were ready to move. We had to wait for another convoy to come through so we could join them. Well in a couple of days along came the convoy and we joined it, at last we were on our way but not for long.

The order came for the Jap guards to batten down the holds. They started to do this and then another Scot who was nearest the opening, and I were detailed to help stoke the ship. What a bit of luck, this meant we could get more food and water and best of all we were not battened down.

The Jap took us to a flight of steel stairs and we were told to make our way to the engine room. At the bottom we met up with two members of the crew and they gave us some cigarettes and a bit of food and then handed us a shovel each, so we started work. This became very hard as we were not properly fit, never mind we shovelled on.

However, after we had been sailing approximately two hours, all the lights on that part of the ship went out. The two Japs made a beeline for the stairs, we did not have a clue as to what was going on, so we followed. We reached the deck, all hell was let loose, we were being attacked by American aircraft. We had ideas that when the hold was battened down that something like this would happen, there were some of the fellows running up and down the ship, then all of a sudden it keeled over and we were in the water. Down and down I went with the suction, I put my head to one side and thought 'This is it', but on opening my eyes I saw the water light up and one more frantic kick and I was up on top gasping for breath. I had a look around and some of the troops had already got on rafts, etc. I made for one of the rafts, but it seemed pretty full, so I held onto the side for the time being. Then another bad thought came into my head, these were shark infested waters and my legs were in the water. 'What's my next move?' Well, remember the box that we used as a toilet, I saw one about twenty yards away, I swam for it, and after a struggle I managed to get onto it. I was like a one man Robinson Crusoe sitting inside it, now I could see the waves breaking on the shore around six miles, but how I was going to paddle there? so using my strength I managed to knock a spline of wood from the box and started to make for the shore. You can imagine what sort of mess I was in, because as I have said previously, some of the men were bad aimers when using this box, but who cared.

Then to my annoyance, I was disturbed by a Jap voice 'Curra, Begaro' and lo and behold at my back and swimming towards me was a Jap guard. Well, this box was a one man saviour and he wanted it. 'Oh no,' I thought, now it's you or me, so as he got closer I lashed out, he started to fight back, but I was not going to give up my life so easily, so I fought and finally destroyed my assailant There was only one thing I was afraid of, the Americans had left one corvette along to pick up the survivors, Japs, and if they saw me doing this guard in I was for it, but fortunately they did not see me, what an escape.

May I add, on this ship I met up with another Fraserburgh man by the name of Jimmy Birnie, he lived in Cross Street. Unfortunately he was drowned.

There were 1,500 P.O.W.'s on this ship and only about 40 saved to my knowledge.


Next Chapter

Sunk Off Manila - 1st Time