Sketch by Jack Chalker

Up Country - Takanun

At Takanun a large hospital was established for the use of wounded Japs coming from Burma and just to say how lucky I was, I was picked to work in the Japanese cookhouse attached to the hospital. What a bit of luck! The Jap in charge of the cookhouse told me to pick out five men to help me, which I did but he emphasised that I was to be in charge. Why me? I thought.

Well this was a haven itself. We had to do all the cooking and the Jap was overseeing. We got on all right with him, he must have been a Christian. We always made plenty of rice and stew for the Japanese wounded, the more wounded we saw the better we liked it, a lot of them were unable to eat, so that left all the more for us.

Now in the cookhouse, the Japs employed a Thai to help out. We got on all right with him, until one day he interfered. A pig was brought to the cookhouse. It was killed and the sergeant gave us the offal to use for ourselves. Gee, I thought, we shall have a lovely stew tonight, fellows. We cleaned the offal and made it ready for cooking, at night we stated to cook and the smell was terrific. 'Oh hurry up, cook,' was the cry.

Now this Thai thought he would help with this stew and unbeknown to us added sugar to it, I could have murdered him. I know one was hungry for a good drop of stew, but to put sugar in it, well, of course the whole meal was spoiled. I told the Jap sergeant and he killed himself laughing. I did not see the funny side.

Now I must say this, this Jap sergeant must have taken a liking to me, we were given a small hut to ourselves, and put on shifts to work in the 'Jap cookhouse. All in all, this was now becoming bearable. He made me in charge of the cookhouse, the normal food was rice and a kind of hard dried fish, but to our delight all the river water was filtered and this made the food more palatable. All the Jap wounded had to be fed first but there was always plenty for us.

At times the Jap sergeant would invite some of his compatriots  to a drinking session after hours, so I would get the job of looking after them. He, during the course of the day's routine, would spend a little time baking all sorts of small cakes for this shindig and somehow or other managed to secure a couple of bottles of Saki for the occasion.

I must say one thing about this certain Jap sergeant: he did look after me very well, because when the get together was finished he gave me all what was left including a drop of Saki. He was one of the good Japs, he must, instead of worshipping the sun, have been a Christian. I never saw him lift his hand once to hit us in any way or form even though we did make mistakes.

I remember once he called for the 'Timus', now he had a clock in his room which I was doing out and I answered '4 pm'. Well I didn't know, did I the 'Timus' was the torch which we used to light up the fires for cooking. 'Begarro, Damme, Damme,' he cried, but then at the end only laughed at my intelligence.

At this camp a most unfortunate accident happened to me. The handles of the axes are made of bamboo. I was chopping with one of these when a splinter of bamboo entered my index finger. I did not think anything of it until it started to fester. I reported it to the Jap sergeant and he sent me over to the Jap hospital to have it seen to. The Jap medical orderly had a look at it and without any anaesthetic whatsoever pushed a long needle into my finger to relieve the puss. I thought I was going to go mad. Of course, he would he enjoying this treatment, I thought 'The Bastard'. He then wrapped it up and back I went to the cookhouse.

'You Okga now,' said the Jap sergeant. 'You eat make you feel better.' Boy was I ill. This went on for a couple of days and the finger got worse. I explained to the sergeant and he said that I would have to go and see my own doctor in the camp, which I did. He looked at it, cleaned and dressed it as much as he could and sent me back to the Jap sergeant. Well I kept working for the next week or so and then the finger became very painful and the pain was climbing up my hand. It got so I could not bear the pain any longer so again I reported it to the sergeant . He sent me back to my own doctor and immediately he told me I would have to have the finger amputated or lose my hand. This finished my stint in the Jap cookhouse. I reported this to the sergeant. He seemed to be very disappointed in losing me. The time had now come for me to go back to my own lines, but before I went he gave me a good dinner, a pack of cigarettes and pomillo which is a kind of melon, patted me on the back and off I went swallowing very hard. I could have stopped there for the duration of the war, but no such luck.

So here I am back with my own mates and back to those horrible rations. But there was worse to come, that dreaded disease cholera broke out in the camp. It was mild for a start but then it became a plague. If you caught it, you were put in quarantine. At the end of the day we were cremating ten bodies in one go. It was the most weirdest thing I have ever witnessed. The bodies were wrapped in rice sacks, laid on a pyre of bamboo and set alight. As the fire licked round the bodies, the bones contracted and by the time it was over, all the bodies were sitting up, what a frightening experience, of course I was unable to work on the railway till the hand was healed, so I was one of the ones to attend the cremation. Something I shall never forget.

I remember once, my mate coming in from the railway and feeling very ill. That night I said to him, 'Come on, get up,' he asked if I could collect his ration for him. 1 did this and tried to feed him with it. He got extremely ill through the night so I called the medical orderly. 'This guy has got cholera,' he said. 'Take him to the quarantine tent immediately.' This was done. Well cholera is extremely contagious, hence the quarantine. After seeing him in the tent, I returned to my hut and of course there was his rice ration. Well rather than see it wasted, I ate it myself. Little thinking of what could he the consequences. My mate died during the night, the medical orderly died twenty-four hours afterwards and here I am writing this story after eating from his utensils. How lucky can one be, but to get out of this awful situation one needed a lot of luck.

Now if you were ill in these camps you were no good to the Japs, so they shipped you out again and down river to the base camp and that's where I finished up, with my hand still paining me. Now the camp was very full of sick people, dysentery, malaria, ulcers were still going on, so were the concerts, quite a difference from up country, but of course the rice ration was cut as you were not helping the Japs on their war effort. Fortunately my hand was healing up nicely and I thought, well what is a finger when some of the poor guys were losing legs, through ulcers, even losing both legs. The doctor was getting so good at taking off legs, he would time himself so to speak.

When I first arrived in Chunkai on my first visit all seemed very primitive but on returning it had grown quite a bit. There had arisen a new type of canteen run by the Thais but one needed money to purchase the food they sold. So again if one possessed anything that was valuable you would barter with the natives so that one could indulge in some of this food. The main ingredient, of course, was rice and there was a substance called 'Malmi'. This was a kind of pasta mixed with the rice and then topped up with soya bean gravy. This meal was very palatable indeed and being always hungry could have eaten these many times over.

However, this extra purchase of food became very extinct as one's money to acquire it ran out. So we were like the 'Bisto Kids', content with the smell. At times we would visit our mates in hospital or so they called it and one of these would have something to sell, so as to acquire extra food As they were unable to get out of the hospital to barter with the natives, they would ask me if I could sell it for them. A price was negotiated between us, he would then be satisfied with a certain sum of money and everything above this sum I could have. Well, one had to live, didn't one. If I got caught talking to the natives, then I would suffer the consequences, so the little bit I received as commission was very welcome. We always asked the natives for more than the owner wanted and invariably this always happened, so this meant more for the middleman.

By this time my finger was now healing nicely and I was now able to do light duties, such as carrying the rice ration and vegetables from the Pom Poms to the store. In charge of these rations was a Jap sergeant called 'Jotani', what a horrible creature he was. He would give you a hiding at any time. I do believe, he was dealt with by the War Crimes Commission after the war. If not he should have been. Now as you carried this rice to the stores, you could see the weevils crawling amongst it. This must have been rice sweepings of some sort, I suppose anything is good enough for P.O.W.'s. Cooking killed off all vermin in the rice and when one is hungry, what's a weevil or two in your ration! No wonder we were ill. This job of rice-carrying lasted for an hour or so. One would try to steal what one could, but if Jotani caught you, one was for it, but to live a chance had to be taken on that.

One thing it did, it made you appreciate what good food was and I swore I would never starve again. It made one feel that way. I never got the chance to work in the cookhouse again. So this meant I had to get in the line for my ration. Hoping at the end my name would come up for leggies This is the name given to any food left after you had been once through the line. It always started in alphabetical order. What a life, the same old cry came up 'Roll on the boat'.


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Journey To Japan