I saw ten thousand men go marching,
Out from the camps of Singapore.
I saw eight hundred men returning
My heart cried out at what I saw.
Sunken eyes bereft of sleeping,
Told of all the pain they bore.
The hand of God, a friend to many,
Took then from that distant shore.
I heard ten thousand mothers weeping
For their sons so far away.
I dreamed ten thousand sweethearts sighing,
As they wait, and hope, and pray.
Like an epitaph – the ‘Infamous Railway’,
Haunted by the ghosts of men.
For every sleeper a life was taken,
A Stairway from the depths of hell.
Perhaps there is some good in all men,
And may the passing years prove so.
Lord; let the tears shed by their mourning.
Serve to let the whole world know
Return of the railway slaves
Yashata continued to come for his lessons and one day he brought eleven Japanese soldiers with him. He told me to pick eleven of our men and we were to split the teams half-and-half. I’ve never seen any of our lads enjoy themselves so much. They simply tore into the Japs and gained some sort of revenge for being captured. Never before had I seen so many fouls in a football match.
The Japanese players were under strict orders not to retaliate. Just one word from Yashata was enough to calm even the most violent of tempers. I always felt that he was some sort of Secret Service Machine as he always found the time to play football.
After that match, in front of a huge crowd of Japanese, we climbed aboard his motorcycle again and off we went for our usual swim. I was becoming a ‘God Knows What’ to them all. But who was I to wonder too much? We were being wined and dined at their expense, so I just played along with them and hoped that everything would turn out alright in the end.
About that time – May 1944, I had two special mates. I was tall and thin. Bill was a short, fat Cockney, and Eddie was short and dumpy. I had known them both previously when I was in England. Bill was R.A.S.C. attached to our R.A.M.C. unit. They were both good fiddlers and so we made a good team and quite a successful partnership was formed.
Eddie had knocked his finger out of joint when we were abandoning the ‘Empress of Asia’ as it was being bombed. He insisted that he wanted it straightened. I implored him not to have it done as he had managed quite well with it for two and a half years. But he wouldn’t listen to my advice.
I told him that I would bring him some chicken soup when I came to see him after the operation at five o’clock. When I eventually arrived at the hospital, I was told that he was still in the operating theatre and having his heart massaged. Immediately I put on my white coat, washed up, and went into theatre. I was just in time to see him take his final breath.
Bill had cooked the chicken soup for Eddie. I had taken the soup to the hospital for him as I had access to any patient. That soup was a special little something which we managed to acquire with the aid of a few cigarettes. We meant for our mate Eddie to have a treat to aid his recovery – or so we thought.
Poor little Eddie never did get his chicken soup – God Bless Him. We missed him so much.
Many of our football players were to go ‘up country’ to built that ‘Infamous Railway’ on which so many lives were to be lost.
A last international Football Match was to be played to give our lads a rousing sendoff. It was also in honour to all those players who had done such a valuable service to entertain their fellow men. It was a nice gesture.
At that time I had a very bad rash around my private parts and I couldn’t wear the regimental khaki shorts. They made the itching worse and absolutely unbearable. I decided to put on my football shorts before I went on duty. I only did that because I knew that we were terribly short of nursing staff and I didn’t want to report sick.
My Major ordered me to go back to my billet and put on my khaki shorts. We had a bloody good bust-up. Goodness only knows why he did that because I was only nursing and it didn’t matter a damn, under the circumstances, whether I wore any shorts or not. I refused to change and he allowed me to stay on duty.
The next day, a list was posted on the notice board. It gave the names of all those poor souls picked to go up-country to work on the railway. My name was at the head of the list. It didn’t worry me too much at the time because I felt in my heart that one day I would return to England – no matter what they did to me. But, talk had it that it wasn’t going to be easy, but still, nothing was – except that last little game of football with Yashata.
This was definitely to be our last game of football and it was in honour to us men picked for the dreaded railway. We were all to be represented on the field with teams; England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The crowd was absolutely enormous. I Captained the England team and we won 3 – 1.
I was presented with the cup, and it was the Commanding Officer of the P.O.W. camp who handed me the trophy. He complimented me on my game and said; “During the P.O.W. life you have been able to help in your own way. You gave lectures, played and organised football matches, and, as you can see by this huge crowd – create so much pleasure for everyone.”
I thanked him for those kind words. I then told him that I was leaving to go up-country in three days time. I wished him well and a safe return to England when the war was over.
The next morning, my Major called me into his office and told me that Col. Collins had ordered him to take my name off the list of soldiers detailed to go up-country. So I remained in Selarang. Again, it was a case of ‘Lucky Nurse Sam’.
The day of departure came and I said to my mate Bill; “The cigarettes Bill! Let’s give them all to these lads who are going up-country. We’ll also give them all our spare clothes and food stock.” Bill agreed and we gave away our Lifeline. They went to such a worthy cause. We knew that they wouldn’t be able to barter them for food as we had done, but we gave them with our blessings.
On the 28th day of June 1943, our men and friends left for the journey to, what we all knew as; ‘The Infamous Railway’ which was to sacrifice so many lives. So may souls.
Nearly all of the ‘fit’ men, if anyone could call them fit that is, went to the Railway. I myself was feeling fairly well and so it was a case of getting back to nursing the sick and the dying. We were still burying them by the score every day God sent. It was awful. The evenings were as quiet as the graves because we were becoming a smaller unit as so many were dying and not even fighting for life itself.
One night we were told to standby in the hospital. The Japanese informed us that a number of our colleagues were returning from the Railway. The buildings were of massive proportions, tremendous lengths, widths and heights. We waited patiently with gladdened hearts to see our mates again. Our P.O.W. Colleagues entered at the far end.
Never in my whole life have I ever seen such a heart-rending sight as met my eyes that day. Many tales have been told about that Railway and the tortures that our Men endured in the building of it. But to see those poor souls dragging their drained carcasses into that hospital filled my eyes with tears. I wept that day for those WALKING DEAD.
No compensation was paid to their loved ones. I would have certainly made those vicious Japanese bastards pay dearly for what they did to those poor boys and indeed for every Prisoner of War. The atrocities were of such high order as to churn the guts of the hardest men. No words can ever explain the sickening sights that went on and I have no intention of even trying to describe them. One would have had to see them with their own eyes to realise the magnitude of that horrifying scene.
Nearly all of those MEN died before dawn broke. And I will even admit to being pleased that they did – because their loved ones would have been devastated at the very sight of them. They had been literally ‘WORKED TO DEATH’.
Two sights in my life stand out as being of horrendous proportions:
1: The huge craters in which we buried thousands of my colleagues’ bodies. The numbers were terrifying – and this happened only a few days of being captured in Singapore.
2; My colleagues returning to Changi Camp – the place they departed from with absolutely nothing but a few of my cigarettes – then returning with just a few breaths of air inside their bodies. They were literally just skin and grief. It was terrible, and may God grant that nothing like it ever plagues this Earth again. Every one of us nurses cried our eyes out that night.
How any man can so ill-treat another human being is beyond my apprehension. They say that Time is a Healer, but over half a century has passed and I still have no forgiveness in my heart. As I write, I can feel the hatred surging through my blood, even though I am not really a hateful man. Seeing our men coming back that night left me with not one shred of forgiveness for those cruel and barbaric people.
The futility of War
Poem ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Ray Watson