Sketch by Jack Chalker

Yasme Day

By now there must have been approximately six thousand P.O.W.'s in Chungkai. As I have said before, this was a base camp for the railway, so in time all sorts of small businesses sprang up.

One of these was the selling of so-called coffee. A couple of P.O.W.'s would buy a quantity of rice from the Thais, burn it on a fire as if roasting it, put it in a two gallon can and add a sugar called 'Gula Mallaca'. This drink would be sold to the P.O.W.'s for five cents.

Another business was cigarettes, one would purchase a parcel of Thai weed, this looked like horse hair, it would be washed, a little sugar was added, and then it was left to dry. Then cigarette papers were bought from the natives. The cigarettes were then sold to the P.O.W.'s for five cents for three cigarettes.

A third was the starting of a barber shop for haircuts, one did try and be a bit respectable if at all possible and a haircut would cost another five cents. Now you might ask, where is all this money coming from? Well the Japanese paid us according to rank, so many cents per day. A private would receive ten cents, a corporal fifteen and so on. Now with all this going on, one began to see things different, but still the hunger pangs remained. The food that was always spoken of was a paper full of' Fish and Chips', what a lovely thought!

We always had a day off, one every month, this was called 'Yasme Day'. One could lay in bed, I mean bamboo’s, all day if need be or go for a swim if able. On one occasion the officers decided to have a race day, hoping that it would occupy our minds and boost our morale. The P.O.W.'s thought this was going to be a kind of athletic meeting between regiments etc., but this was not the case. All of the fittest men were asked to volunteer to become horses for the day and the smallest men to become jockeys. This created interest among the prisoners and me being big even though ridiculously thin, I volunteered for this sport.

The officers became bookies and also the owners of some of these horses and jockeys and bets began to flow the morning of the meeting. If you had any money and you fancied a horse you could get a bet on and also get odds. Just the same as if you were on a regular race course. My owner had entered me in a long distance race, two hundred yards. Running this race with a man on your back even though he was small took some doing, but I really fancied myself to win, so I borrowed one dollar from my owner and had a bet on myself. I got odds of 4/1 and I was really keyed up. This meant if I won I could buy something to assuage my hunger.

The races began in the afternoon and as in ordinary race meetings there were six races in all. There were stewards appointed to control the meeting and bets were flowing freely. When your time came up for the race, you were called out and paraded in the ring, as you and your jockey walked round, the guys would shout at you 'What are your chances, Jock?' The answer would be 'Pretty good, have a bet.' I felt pretty confident in winning my race, and if I remember rightly my odds were cut as we walked round. A great friend of mine firmly believed I could win this race. He had already sold his watch so as to get some money to have a bet on me. This he told me and said if I won I was due to make ten dollars, my God what a fortune was relying on my legs, I had to win. The whistle blew and we made for the starting gate. Orders were given, at the drop of a flag, we would take off on our journey and may the best horse win. Well I was so full of enthusiasm about the winning of this race, I forgot the orders of the dropping of the flag and to my disgust got left at the starting gate.

The others had gone ten yards before I got started, but I gradually gained on them and got beaten into second place. This stuck in my memory for a long time after and still does. You see I lost my buddies' money as well as my own and this hurt, because if I had started the same time as the others, I would have certainly won the race, but thank God, they took it all in good part. Never mind, I explained, bet on me next 'Yasme Day' and I shall get your money back, but it was not to be, the Japs would not allow any more race days, so that was that.

Now something else had to be thought up to keep our morale up, so football matches were arranged between regiments and eventually between Countries. England, Scotland, Holland and Japanese. I played for my regiment but never made the grade for my country. These international matches, especially the Scotland and England one were played with great enthusiasm. The players played their hearts out and all the other P.O.W.'s turned out to cheer their own country.

There was no such thing as football boots, just old pieces of cloth tied on your feet, but when the Japs turned out, they had football boots etc. and this came very hard to our boys, when they made a tackle, but this was the only time our boys seemed to get a little of their own back and that was to upend some of the Japs now and again by late tackles, the referee being British, looked the other way, until maybe one of the Japs lost his temper and started swinging his arms about at the referee, so of course he had to change his tactics, but it was all very enjoyable while it lasted.

Now one day, my mate and I thought we would go for a swim, when we got to the river's edge, a small boat called a 'Pom Pom' was tied at the bank. This belonged to a Thai selling fruit, etc. On glancing at the boat's steering wheel, lo and behold there hung a wrist watch. 'Cor what a bit of luck,' my mate said, 'Jock, keep that Thai busy, I am going to get that watch.' So without any further ado, he swam under the boat and there I saw his arm coming out of the water and grabbing the watch. Good God he had done it. We made it up the bank as quickly as we could, got back to our hut and hid the watch in the bamboo bed. In the meantime, we kept clear of the river until things had died down, at least for a few hours. We would not dare try to sell the watch immediately although we saw visions of a good feed out of it. So we waited for the best opportunity. After a couple of weeks we decided to sell the watch and who better to sell it to than a Buddhist priest. I forget how many Thai dollars we got for it, so my mate and I went into business as well. We bought rice from the natives, cooked it, bought some onions and made rissoles and fried them. We sold these for ten cents each. They went down well and for a while we had a good business, all of this had to be done in our own time, after a day's work on the railway.

Now one day my luck did change for the better. One of the cook sergeant needed a tea boy, his duty was to make tea and take it to the men on the railway. What a marvellous job. Of course, I ate with the rest of the cooks and did pretty well out of it. I even finished up in the cook house itself, helping with the food. It did not need a lot of looking after. Rice and soup every meal, it got the name of 'jungle stew'. Ironically if one added sugar instead of salt it became a sweet.

To cook this meal, one needed bamboo for the fire, this was the only means of heat. So after work on the railway, some of the men would go into the jungle and bring back extra bamboo. This gave them an extra rissole from the cookhouse, What a life!

For me, things were not going too badly, but all of a sudden things changed. The Japs were picking out the fittest men to go to the next stage of the railway, further up the jungle. Naturally I was one of the unfortunates. Then my serious troubles began. We marched about twenty-five miles through the worst terrain I have ever experienced Monsoon weather had come, we were wading in mud up to our knees. If a man fell by the wayside he was left there, no help was given by the Japs and one was not allowed to help a fellow soldier. So this was the survival of the fittest. This was when my spell in the cookhouse helped me make it, but many of my mates did not make it.

We finally made it to the camp after a nightmare I shall never forget. This camp was called Wampo and the object of the P.O.W.'s was to build a viaduct round the mountain, but first of all we had to blow up one side of this mountain. Now this was done by one man holding a drill and the other hammering the drill into the concrete.

After the hole was big enough the Jap engineers would fill it with dynamite, set fuses, light them and everybody had to run for cover. This work went on for months, until eventually enough mountain was blown away. Then the rubble had to be cleared and finally the bridge built or I should say viaduct. The only means of pile driving was to place about fifteen men on one end of a rope, they would then pull the pile driver to the top before letting go of the rope. It was important to make sure your legs did not get caught in the rope.

At this camp, instead of having a Jap in charge, it was a First Class Korean. What a curse he was, you see, no Koreans were made N.C.O.'s and being in charge must have gone to his head. Every morning when we paraded for work, he would pick one man out and for no reason at all give him a good hiding. This happened every day to show he was boss. I was lucky I escaped this as I was again picked to move further up country to another part of the railway.

Then my troubles really began! 'Takanumn'. The huts all leaked because of monsoon weather - life was becoming unbearable. But then the thought of home came to mind and again we kept going.

Hundreds of men had now been moved up country into the valley of the Kwai River. To build bridges, etc., including the famous Kwai bridge as seen in the film. I never worked on the bridge but was in a camp very close to it. Men worked for twelve hour shifts, sometimes marching three or four miles to and from the working area Along roads a foot deep in black mud, slipping and sliding as they go along and still the rain beating down on the frail bodies. It is impossible to convey our feelings at this time, so utterly degraded had we become, one must not forget that the. average age of these men was only twenty-four years of age and they already looked twice this age.

Whatever the badness of the Jap, he was extremely good at improvising. Trucks were immovable on these roads, so eventually the wheels of the trucks were removed and replaced by wheels capable of running on the rails, so parts of the railway that were completed were used. This idea worked very well because now all P.O.W.'s and Tamil coolies could be transported back and forwards saving time in getting the men to work.

Most of these bridges were made of tree trunks and creaked as the train crossed over them. The drop on either side was enormous and the ants etc. were beginning to make a meal out of the wood, this did not help our situation one bit.

As I looked back it is amazing that any man survived at all. Then there was the ever present thought of all the diseases one could catch and one was constantly worried about the dreaded disease cholera which was now breaking out in many of the camps up-country. All the information of what was going on in these different camps came to us from the men who were unfit for work. They would pass on the news on their way to base camp. Literally hundreds of men died in these camps and we were heading for these camps. It's true that many men suffering such diseases were driven out to work to make and repair bridges in all kinds of weather, underfed and desperately in pain and misery, they worked till they dropped. These men had no military funerals etc. just a filthy old rice sack in place of a coffin before being thrown in a hole, a few prayers said over them and that was that. Who's next, was the though It was now every man for himself. Although selfishness was the order of the day, there was still time to say the occasional prayer, even this became a great effort, it seemed that God had forsaken all of us. Even we had reduced ourselves to using a weegie board to try and keep our senses.

This was one of the darkest times in my entire life. We appeared to be living in a nightmare. Hoping to wake up to a different life, but still it came to the same end. 'Speedo' by day, eating our tin of slops in the pouring rain and getting ready for another day on the railway, was this nightmare ever to come to an end. Again one's prayers came to mind and believe me I was never ashamed to say my prayers, even out loud and I was not the only one. At times one would wish it would all end and God relieve you of this life. Then thoughts of home crossed your mind and the answer was 'Come on you coward, think positive, you are one day going home to your loved ones and stuff the Japs.'

Each day the routine at this camp was that two men were detailed every day to look after the food while the others worked on the railway. We carried our tools to the railway, together with a rice ration with a few vegetables and a small bag of tea. On arriving at the work site, a fire would be built and a brew of tea would be made, this of course depended on how good a mood the Jap guard was in and if he had had a good night with one of the Thai girls at the Kampong. This is one thing that did bother the P.O.W.'s. Sex never entered our minds, an erection was a thing of the past and the horrible thought was would it ever come back?

The scourge of cholera was now on the increase, it spread at fantastic speed from camp to camp. Our doctors had the awful task to try and stem the disease, but they were having an uphill battle, the only thing they had to try and beat this terrible disease was a drip of salt water. They did try to get the Japs to send the cholera victims down river to other camps in quarantine, but this was not allowed as the Japs were relying on these men getting better and eventually returning to their place of work on the railway, but this was not to be as many men died of this disease. So more men had to be drafted into these areas to compensate for the deaths and then the routine again would happen. They would become cholera victims and so it went, on and on.. After a day's work, we would have to walk to a special place before entering the camp and dip our bare feet in a bowl of disinfectant to try and stop the carrying of any diseases especially cholera, but this did not have any effect on the scourge, but it did help to clean one's feet after walking through the mud and slime on our way back to camp. The next job would be to collect our rice ration, that was if one was able to stand in the queue, then a wash and off to bed, so to speak not forgetting one's usual prayers.

The doctors as usual were having a terrible time in this camp. A certain number of men had to be got to work on the railway and if this amount was unavailable through sickness then they were for it. If only the Japs realised that with more food and medical supplies their railway would have been built much sooner, however, this was not so. Day in, day out, rain, rain, slipping, sliding on the embankment, doing our best to keep alive. It was in this camp I met up with another Scot who came from near my hometown in Scotland. He was working in the cookhouse and he managed to scrounge me some extra rice which was very appreciated. If we had been caught he was in for a good hiding, but fortunately he got away with it. I was sorry to hear that at a late date, this same Scot was on the same P.O.W. ship I was on, bound for Japan and he suffered the same fate as 1,200 others. But that's another part of my book.

At this camp I met up with Jimmy O'Connor again. He was one of the guys I joined up with or should I say called up in the age group. It was nice to meet up again with faces you knew and pleased to see he was still alive and plodding on. As a matter of fact, one did not know what was happening day to day and to see a familiar face again at least gave one a pick up to look for better things.

Now Jimmy had an Italian mother and an Irish father. He was a bit of an eccentric dancer and also sang, not all that good but pleasant to listen to. He suffered from catarrh and although I say it myself did not look very strong but he must have been alright as they accepted him in the army, at that time of day and with a war on, if one had two arms and two legs you were passed Al. We had some good times with Jimmy, we belonged to the Battalion concert party, myself being the drummer in the army dance band.

At the end of the war, he opened a tea stall on the Gt. Yarmouth Market and was extremely well known to all, even to the visitors. He was always willing to crack a joke. He had one speciality, a tea spoon with a hole in it. 'Sugar, Jock?' he would ask, 'Yes please, Jim,' of course he would use this spoon. A great guy, unfortunately Jimmy died about one year ago. To me, he was like a brother, I knew him for fifty years and miss him very much. He did well to survive the P.O.W. life, be seeing you, Jimmie.


Next Chapter

Up Country - Takanun


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