Act of Courage - Death Railway
What doe's it mean, an act of courage ?
Love for one another, what ever the creed
Turning to someone in need
Happiness in giving
Is a perfection in living
There is no depth that one can't give
Faith of any creed, one has to live.
The construction of the Death Railway from Thailand to Burma had started one year previous to the notification to home to say I was alive. Many had perished within this first year of its construction.
At the beginning, a party of us were moved from Changi to Thailand. It took five days in hot metal cattle trucks, those trucks were the worst conditions I had ever experienced. Arriving at Ban Pong we were marched through its centre. There were shacks each side of this dirt road with leopard skins hanging outside their doors, we wondered what we had come to. After reaching the camp we found there were huts, even the food was better and conditions were bearable. The thought did cross our minds that part of what the Jap officer had said had come true, however, it was to be short lived.
While at Ban Pong, I was put to work in a brothel, not might be what everyone thinks, chopping wood and fetching water. Keeping a good supply of hot water, very degrading for the white pow. The Japs would form up in a long line and whenever an officer came, he went to the front of the queue, he had to pay a bit more for the same thing. While they were waiting they liked to take it out on us if they got the chance and also made a practice of torturing a monkey they tied up outside. They would dab their fags out on the poor beast until there was no hair left. There was nothing we could do about it.
One never knew what kind of work the day would bring, on one occasion I found myself with three others working for a Jap officer. When we were on parade in the morning, he was the first to come along the line and pick his workforce. He didn't want men who looked ill or weak, they were always left to the last. They then got all the heavy and dirty work from a Jap guard who was not very kind to them. The officer spoke a little English and explained he was going to make a shower for himself. He had obtained some beautiful planks of wood and we cut them to the size he ordered, then we nailed the lot together to make a large box. He then fixed a tin over the top which had holes in the bottom. We thought it was not a bad day but then the fun started. We had to go and fetch water from a well some distance away, tip the water into the tin then rush back for more, there was no stopping. All the time he was shouting at us to hurry to keep the water flowing. He had a grower but it was such a waste of effort, especially as the more unfortunate ones were sweating it out somewhere else doing all the heavy work, it seemed so unfair. Needles to say we didn't have a chance to sample the fruits of our labour.
It was during this early period that we saw the first Thai funeral. It was like a large hearse with the body laid out on the floor surrounded by flowers and fruit of all kinds and it just happened to be our luck that the burial ground was near the camp. After burial the fruit etc was placed on top of the grave. During the night men would slip out and recover the food and from this first experience gave us an insight for the future to help us to survive. I hope the Thai people will forgive our actions at that time and future times but our fight was to survive.
Some weeks after this we were told to get ready to move and only take what things we could carry, anything left behind would be sent on to us (which never was). So the great jungle march began, we crossed the river, the way ahead was blocked by jungle and through this we were to build a railway.
We were the first party to reach Non Pladuk I was then sent on the first trip up the jungle with a party of surveyors. When we returned to Non Pladuk, I was put to work loading railway sleepers. The Japs wanted us to carry one each which we could not do, they said OK, but we must work faster.
There was another problem, snakes. They were coiled around the sleepers and there were alot of them. It’s no joke carrying a sleeper with a snake, so we stopped work. As usual out came a machine gun and the guards pointed their guns at us but it did no good, so they got some sticks and thrashed the grass and the wood until it was clear. They were more afraid of the things than we were. You don't have to be brave to act like this but its better to die from a bullet than a snake bite also they wanted us to load their sleepers and dead men can't do this.
It was understood the possibility of a railway from Thailand to Burma was looked at before the war by engineers and experts and found to be a non starter, but for the Japanese they had a lucky break. They had everything at their feet, the river, to supply the transport for food and some materials, the jungle had all the timber they would need, the beach at Kanchanaburi had a good supply of ballast, the railway in Malaya had the rails and rolling stock and the bonus was the cheap labour from the prisoners taken. I don't think they would have got any volunteers to do the job.
Firstly the timber had to be cut down to make the clearings, some of this was used for bridges. The ballast was a pains taking task of which I did experience for a few days. A row of trucks would be loaded by men carrying a kind of stretcher with the stones, these being quite heavy. It was backwards and forwards like a human conveyer belt, going all day in the hot sun and as imagined progress was slow in filling the trucks. The little we could carry in one go didn't seem to make much impact, it was tediously slow, back breaking work.
The bamboo huts we slept in, were just an open hut with an attap roof and a kind of platform made out of split bamboo to sleep on. As time went on the bamboo seemed to get infested with lice and one could see them march up the body in columns like an army. There was nothing one could do to keep the things down only joke about them, for instance “Some are out of step” or “They are not in line”. At least we had a roof over our heads and somewhere to sleep. Little did we know later, as we went further up the line, all such comforts were put aside, all our effort was to be put into one thing, to get the line finished. The Japs were not much better off, their officers drove them to the limit and they in turn passed their feelings onto us. The Japs were always very serious about their work and if one was in trouble for not working hard enough or made some mistake it was no good crying for mercy. We were in a situation where we had to take their punishment, which would leave a scar on our minds for ever.
In the early period, whilst at Singapore, myself and a few others, worked with some Japanese blacksmiths. We made a kind of staple only they were square at the top and came in all different sizes. The Jap had the small hammer and we of course had the large one belting the ends of a piece of steel to a point and then bending each end over to form the staple. This had puzzled me and it was not until we started building bridges with the trees I found out what they were for. The bridges were all timber and these large staples were the means of holding one timber beam to another. It was amazing how they held the thing up, not quite our idea of construction but it was all a question of speed to them.
Sometimes it was posable to barter with the Thai people for tobacco, rough stuff of course, but paper was unobtainable so many men had a bible and it was common to tear a page out and roll a fag, we called them a St Luke or St Matthew.
The first parties to go up the jungle clearing the trees and bamboo were split into sections of about 30 men each were given a set task of so many metres lots were drawn for a plot because each plot was different some had a lot of trees while others had few and these had to be cleared by the end of the day no matter how long it took each party had 3 or 4 Japs in charge and they sometimes agreed to help out those who were unlucky to have a bad plot it was very hard work also some of the parties had many sick men who could not work as fast as the others. After cutting down the trees they had to be placed on the side for later to be cut up into logs for the railway engines which used wood for fuel many of the trees were teak and this wood is very hard if a tree was too big for the men, Bren gun carriers would be used, of course the Japs were always telling us that the silly British army made tanks with no tops.
Dutch survivors from Java and Sumatra then joined us, they were very friendly to get on with and were more used to the jungle conditions than we were. They very helpful and show us what things to eat that grew wild. They also had a flare for making things out of pieces of aluminium which they sometimes did when time permitted, it was also very easy to communicate as most spoke English. I felt sorry for them as they were in a much worse position than we were in as the Germans occupied their country and it must have been an awful mental strain for them not knowing how their families were struggling to survive. The Japs overran them in days in Java, most of them were taken prisoner very quickly and didn't realise how serious the situation was. I'm sure it would be hard to find a bigger case of mental strain, that they suffered. On the other side of the coin were the Tamil labourers, the poorest community from the Indian part of the world. They seemed to live in a very primitive way one would see them eating their rice from a leaf picking it up with their bare fingers. When the cholera epidemic struck they were the worst to suffer, they just laid where they died and it was something to see a body lying in the bush just like a skeleton with the flies about it spreading the plague even further. Their work was to carry the soil to build up the embankment they carried it in small baskets on their heads and there were hundreds of them like ants in a long stream going back and fourth hours on end with the Japs giving them a rough time until they dropped. Their lives were the least of the worries to the Japanese and their sufferings were immense. They were considered the lowest form of human beings by the guards. We on the other hand couldn't understand this terrible suffering, a life is a life whatever class creed or nationality.
Later as we cleared the jungle, we worked alongside Elephants who are a most intelligent animal who know what their limits are. When they were put to work moving a tree trunk they knew just by looking at it whether they could move it or not, if they thought they couldn’t, nothing on earth would make them try. When this happened the Japs would get a number of pows together and make them try and move it, if this didn’t work they would add more until there was not enough room to get round the trunk. With all their beatings and shouting they didn’t get anywhere.
When we knew we were going to Thailand the officers explained to us that that there were no hospitals there and medical treatment would be difficult there was few doctors left and these would be spread out in some of the camps, some would be lucky others would have to do the best they could although even the ones who had a doctor couldn't expect much as most of the medical supplies were taken from us by the Japanese in Singapore for their own use and the doctors themselves were faced with the same problem on how to survive. We were all green in this Held and as time went along many men who were medics did a wonderful job. In one instance I was unlucky to have an axe bounce back at me I was cutting bamboo and tried to cut it straight instead of slicing it downwards the axe cut me over the eye and made a nasty gash so they got me on the ground and with an old needle and thread stitched me up no anaesthetic and no going sick just keep on working.
I had a friend who performed many good deeds helping and advising those who fell sick even doing minor operations, with the absence of medical supplies and equipment one could say it was like being aboard ship in Nelsons day during a battle like all those who suffered war wounds. It was more of a mental torture for those who had wives and children at home wondering how they were and what they were doing, I myself used to think of my mother and father as they were getting on in years and it was always in my mind that if I ever did get out they might have passed on. These things went through the mind mainly at night time because during the day it was nothing but work and one was always alert for the guard with the stick ready to beat you ,then after the shift there were other things to do like burying the dead and I well remember looking for any information about the person seeing some aged 40 or 48 thinking how old they were to be in a situation like this, there was not always someone to read a service and as the death rate in some camps was so high it was just a case of burial and saying well mate they can't make you suffer anymore and we are sorry it had to end this way for you.
It was always a problem to keep one's sanity when you are shut off from the outside world, of course the Japs had the answer work! But there are other things in life and being in a mixed community with so many professions it was always a help when someone would talk about what they did in civilian life. Much was learned from people who were auctioneers engineers commercial travellers etc. it was something different and kept us in touch with the world we knew. You also learned how to adjust to a native way of life, no such things as toilet paper etc. the nearest was a banana leaf if you could get one or any leaf that was handy. Bamboo was also handy if you wanted a cup, just cut around a little higher than any joint and you had something to drink out of. One could strip the outside skin of a bamboo and slice a thin piece down to make string.
Coffee could be made from burnt rice if you could get the rice, can't remember what it tasted like but at the time it was nice.
Many men would be alive today if we had had the proper food one thing that stands out most was the lack of vitamin B which caused Beri Beri something we had never heard of. The body filled up with water, legs and the rest of the body also swelled up, men became weak and could not work. Conjunctivitis was another complaint, this one I experienced, it caused blindness for a time. Puss was coming out of the back of the eye and was very painful, the problem was lack of vitamin A together with the sun’s glare. With no medication to treat it, we found that by getting a spoon to act as an eye glass and filling it with cold tea, it did help to relieve the pain.
The latrines were very basic but supplied the many flies with their supplement, made one think back to the new sewerage works at Hogg Island on the banks of the river Orwell in Ipswich. It was made up of round basins in which the sewerage was swirled around then left to dry and then cut up in cake form, mixed with bone meal and other items to make fertiliser. In pre-war days fertilisers were just beginning to break into the market and in Ipswich the firm of Fisons were well known for this product. The Japs supplied us with limed rice which was a kind of greenly blue in colour, it was not very nice to eat and caused stomach upsets. A doctor in the camp explained how to supplement ones diet of rice by adding fertiliser. We obtained some bags of fertiliser mixed it with water and made some small cakes to help out. We were told that these were rich in vitamins, they seemed to taste all right at the time and helped to satisfy our hunger. It was noticed on the bags that they came from Ipswich and we found out, we had been eating our own sewerage.
We never had any supplies of clothing or footwear even Jap shoes were no good as they were too small and so we had to do the best we could tying anything round our feet, many of us got used to working in bare feet the skin seemed to harden and we were like natives there was nothing we could do about it. I saw this done by natives, who cut a section of an old tyre, according to the size of the foot and two pieces of bamboo string they tied it over the top of the foot, but of course there were no tyres available to us. The sun on the head was a also a problem, no hats, many got sunburn but had to suffer. Men would get a large leaf and tie it together to make a hat to keep off the sun.
It was a common thing to try and sell anything of value to the Thai people in exchange for food. The Japs of course had already had their pickings of watches etc. but we still some had a few items in the early stages. As the situation got worse men would part with their last possessions like wedding rings etc. this must have been a sad experience for many but under the circumstances it was a part of survival.
The Thai people were always very friendly and helped as much as they could but they were in a similar situation to us, the only difference being they had more freedom but the Japs punished them just the same. It was not uncommon to see a Thai outside the guardhouse holding a stone or bucket of water in each hand ,with arm outstretched for several hours for some mistake he had made. They could not tell us anything about the war as wireless sets were forbidden, we had to accept there would be no help from this quarter and wireless sets in this part of the world were few and being a gentle type of people settled down to the conditions that existed. The Thai’s lived a very simple and honest way of life. Their pride and joy was to have a Raleigh cycle equal to owning a Rolls in today's world but they went about their business as they had always done they accepted the Japanese as their masters. Always alert to stop and bow when they had to knowing that some nasty punishment would follow if they didn't show respect, in some ways the railway brought them a lot of work which helped to booster their moral. The war didn't have much effect on them, they were not a nation with a powerful fighting force and the Japs seemed to leave the Thai’s religion alone. The Buddhist monks moved about as normal and there seemed to be many of them, but they kept their distance. They lived in their own little world where they had no possessions or wealth. I think the Japs realised the people worshipped them and by leaving them alone there was less chance of any resistance. The monks did help us in a round about way. At the Buddhist shrines there was always food of some kind laid out for those who had left the earth and if one was quick, something in the food line could be had perhaps. Not the English way of doing things but it was a question of survival.
There is a saying, ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ this just about sums up our position as workers of the Japs. It was very hard for men who had never done any manual work before, men who perhaps had worked in an office, whereby their hands were soft. Suddenly trying to swing a hammer all day or use a pick and shovel, their hands were soon covered with blisters or raw in places. Some were lucky enough to have a piece of rag to rap around their hands, but the pain was still there, they had to carry on working just the same.
In particular there were so many officers. When we started one of our own sergeants would be in charge of a working party, but did no actual manual work. This was short lived and the Japanese soon gave the order that every one was to work. In the film The Bridge On The River Kwae, although a fictional story, the parts portraying officers having to work, were true, except I don't remember any officers sitting down, drinking tea with their captives, or telling them how to build a bridge! The Japs were always the masters and gave the orders, fanatical warriors who obeyed their own masters even to death.
Through the tragedy of those dreadful times, nature went on thriving its beauty, gave us an ability to achieve the impossible. Some people of Thailand who were aware of our distress pointed out to us the goodness of certain plants that would benefit us in a situation to survive. There were things like orchids, growing wild, people at home would have gone crazy to have had them on their table. As we cut down a tree, such as a teak, men who understood wood, would remark on the wicked shame of cutting down such a tree and sawing it up for firewood for the engines to burn.
One of the more peaceful times as a pow was in the evening after you finished the shift. Laying down on your bed or the ground listening to the Pom Pom boats slogging up the river with supplies for those further up the railway, thinking about the folks back home. Wondering if they were alright and what they were doing, had the home changed and the niggling, torturous thought, would we ever get out of this alive. There were no books to read, even if there were, it was nearly always dark when we finished work. Most of the books had been long gone, used in the early stages as toilet paper or fag paper. The thoughts in the mind was one thing the Japs couldn't get at but being worn out after the day's work, it was not long before we dropped off to sleep. At some camps we used to sing the old songs, this helped to keep the spirits up and the odd joke was also an added bonus. Looking back it was amazing how anyone could survive in those conditions but the British and Australians are a tough old lot and want some knocking down when it comes to it. If it hadn't been for the disease and starvation many more would have made it out. It was our bad tuck to be taken prisoner by a fanatical army bent on destruction power and greed to rule the eastern part of the world. I know this did not apply to all Japanese.
Part of ones life get lost, things like Xmas day or Armistice Day and Sunday or Good Friday were taken from us. Our pattern of life had been dramatically changed and just like a piece of bread, you don't miss it until its taken from you, all these things added to the mental strain that effected us all. The one good thing that came out of this however is that today, it makes one appreciate the good things in life and not just the material things.
Many of the Thais would not cross the river at Chungkai so we were told because they said it was too dangerous owing to the animals and reptiles it was a strong rumour and no doubt had some strength because being in the first party to cross there was only POWs and a boatman also the Jap guards, we went over late afternoon and climbed up the bank and started to make a clearing we soon found problems snakes! So the Japs made us jump up and down and run round making a noise to frighten them off they caught a large snake someone who had knowledge of the things said it was a Python and they always went in pairs and if one was killed the other would surface to find his mate the next thing the Japs got twelve of us to hold the thing out so they could skin it while it was still warm and it was as much as we could do to hold the thing after all the excitement had settled down we carried on walking round until in the early hours the mans forecast was right and another one appeared it was some time before we drove it off no joke though playing with a large snake but it was the same old situation face the snake and do as you are told or face the Japs and suffer the consequences. I had a similar experience at one of the next camps, Wanya, (Wung Yai) making some huts and the place was like a swamp. I had the runs and asked the guard if I could go and relieve myself, he pointed to some bushes and told me to go there. This I did, after just getting down I heard a rustle behind me, on turning round I saw this thing that looked like a crocodile, jaws opened. Well I've never moved so quick in my life, screaming out to alert the guard, he saw the cause and just stood where he was, waving his hand for me to hurry up and get back to work. Needless to say it was not a crocodile but an iguana, it looks much the same and not to be played with. With these things in mind perhaps the Thai workers were correct.
We had to build our own huts at Wanya in the virgin jungle. A pathway was left down the centre with the bamboo bed slates each side. One night while sleeping in one of these huts, we heard something move near the entrance which was open as we hadn’t put the doors on. To our alarm we found a tiger or leopard was standing in the pathway, in any rate it was a big cat. One of the pows had been a planter in Malaya and seemed to understand the situation. He told everyone to keep very still don't even breath. The animal just walked straight through the hut and out the other end, it was a good job I hadn't any pants to wear because I would have needed a change. After that the Japs made us light fires which we kept going all night but there was no more incidents
Soon after this there was another flare-up the Japs had a search and found an old box camera the Kempi were called in [Japanese military police] a ruthless bunch they could not find out who owned it so they lined up ten men and threatened to execute them all unless the guilty one came forward
However nobody owned up so they took one man at the end of the column and was just about to leave with him when a man with a blue sash round his neck tried to persuade the Japs to let him go I think he was a preacher of some kind however it made no difference and they then took both of them away after that I don't know what happened but I don't think they came back. It was after the war when I got home an envelope arrived with only a photo in no letter or address so I don't know who sent it but the photo was of me and another pow. I was beginning to look a bit thin and at that time it upset me to see it because it brought back bad memories so Win put it away somewhere and unfortunately we have never been able to find it.
A funny thing happened at Wanya, some pows were working in the Jap cookhouse and nearby was a herd of Water Buffalo and as food was always short a Jap told one of the pows to take a 14lb hammer and go and kill one of these beasts. So off he went and waded out in the muddy water with this hammer crept up slowly until he was near and with a mighty blow struck the thing on its head it made no impact at all and the next minute the pow had to run like hell to save his skin.
The Japs took anything that came their way and one day they captured some chickens. They got a drum of boiling water and plunged the poor things in then brought them out chopped off their heads, they then went to pluck them, but the poor things started to run off with no heads, of course this was of great joy to them.
We found an answer to the water problem it was to get a large bamboo and cut it either side of the notch which made a kind of water container something we needed plenty of as it was so hot, also there was bamboo shoots when we found them they were taken back to camp and cooked all of which helped to keep us alive. Unlike the men who were pows in Germany we didn't have a regular camp because when working on the railway you worked clearing a patch then moved up about 10 miles and started again, that’s how we never had anything only what we stood up in, some men still had their mess tins others had tins or a bowl even kiddies potties to eat their rice from. The Japs didn’t have much trouble searching our belongings because we hadn’t got anything, we lived like the natives in virgin jungle. One of the great risks was to be careful of thorns etc. which could scratch your legs and within a short time start up an ulcer this could be fatal as many found out and in several cases a leg was lost and then you had to be at a camp where there was a doctor. We just didn’t have the stamina or resistance to protect us on top of which you were expected to work sick or otherwise.
More then 20 years after her death, an English pointer bitch named ‘Judy’ is being commemorated with a full length biography, published this week by Elek.
Awarded the Dickin medal for bravery while in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Judy’s memorial on her grave in Tanzania records a career which includes being wounded in 1942, bombed and sunk whilst serving on HMS Grasshopper and later torpedoed on SS Van Waerwijck in the Malacca Straits.
Her medal generally known as the animals’ VC was presented for her bravery in the PoW camps and on the notorious ‘Railway of Death.’ At the time an anonymous soldier wrote of her example:
“They would stagger to their work places
Though they really ought to die
And would mutter in their beards
If that bitch can so can I.”
The rainy season or monsoon period was good in some ways, at least one could stand out in the rain and keep clean and it kept off the burning sun and we got used to working out in. At night though, it was not so good. We had to sleep on the ground sometimes in pools of water and it brought with it the dreaded disease of cholera. With all these problems all the Japs were concerned with was work as usual, the same shouting of Speedo ! Speedo ! It was a very strange way of life to us, they had only one thing in mind to build this railway at any cost, even if it killed a few Japs as well as us. To the Japs it was a case of "we live to die". Death to them was an honour, they go only one way into war, to die in battle in honour of their emperor. We prisoners were dishonourable men by not dying in battle, it was something new to them to have prisoners and they made the most of it with our humiliation.
We made a road for the Japs and a guard officer asked if there was anyone who could drive a steam roller, two men said they could and were put to it. They said they needed a large can of petrol to start it, of course this was a fluke as they had found a market for the petrol. It went on for several days until the Japs rumbled it. They were severely punished.
Punishment and torture was rife in most of the camps they would always find a way to seek their pleasure, at first it was the salute the palm of the hand had to face down then when standing to attention the fingers had to point down, not like the English army where the fingers were curled. All Jap soldiers had to be saluted, even British officers had to salute the Jap private soldier. The Jap private had three classes, first class had 3 stars, 2nd class had 2 stars and 1 star for the lower rank. Each in turn had to salute the next higher rank, one can imagine, it was not hard to find some fault. The punishment would be in many ways, holding a bucket of water in each hand for long periods or a large stone field high above the head. The last camp I was in in Japan, there was what we called a cooler, it was a box about five feet six high and 18 inches square. One had to get into this standing upright for anything up to 24 hours and when let out, go straight to work, this is something, I'm glad to say, I didn’t experience. The Jap sergeant at this camp was to say the least a brute, he was the real military. Fortunately the Jap officer in charge was of a different nature, he was more of an honoury rank and well educated, but it was always the sergeant who ruled the day. The officer was only a figurehead of course the sergeant always had to salute him which hurt.
No punishment that I know of was given for this episode. We were loading aviation fuel in 50 gallon drums into goods wagons one day when someone had the bright idea of cleaning out all the grease from the bearings on one side of the wagon then puncturing a drum over that bearing with a small hole. The fluid would leak onto the bearing with the hope that the bearing would get hot and cause a nice fire, that would then explode the rest of the fuel. There was a rumour that a train had gone up in flames and exploded, I like to think we played a part in the war effort.
The railway at Hellfire Pass started as a tunnel and then the Japs decided to make it into a cutting a mammoth task thousands of tons of rock to be moved we didn't come in until the latter part there were not many left from the original workforce which were Australians and on seeing the condition they were in and hearing their stories of the barbaric treatment they had received our morals sunk to the lowest ever. We started work as soon as we arrived no rest after the long march from the previous camp and started work each day in the dark and finished in the dark. We bored holes into the side, hammer and chisel fashion Just like we had done at the last place the Japs put in the dynamite and lit the fuses we weren't allowed to get out but had to shelter the best way we could tucking ourselves into the side for protection from the blast after which it was a case of going like hell to clear away the rock and rubble, some pieces of rock were so large that it seemed impossible to move them but it made no difference they just kept getting more men around them until there wasn't enough room to work but we did the impossible and then it was a case of starting all over again. As soon as they thought the cutting was wide enough the rail was laid and as long as the trucks missed the sides they went on forward, in places there was only an inch to spare and in one incident a pow was sitting on the side of the truck with his legs over the side of course there was not enough room and a nasty accident occurred we were not allowed to stop work or try and help so 1 don't know how he got on. After the cutting was finished we moved on again up river it was to be the worst place I can remember and the name Hellfire Pass is justified.
by Jack Chalker
The days were long and the nights (our rest period) seemed so short, we had no sense of time or the days of the week, there were times when one would say it was a Tuesday or it's a Saturday or the day or date was this or that but it made no difference whatever the day or date unlike at home when Sunday was a day off and we had something to relate to. This was all part of the conditions and mental torture we suffered at Hell Fire pass.
Several working parties went up the railway and those who were high up towards Burma suffered the most because all supplies of food were sent up in little boats and when the river was low it made things very difficult to keep up with the food etc. We were told to help by working harder so the railway could transport the supplies much quicker in order to save our mates. We tried our best but also realised it helped the Japs because the railway carried troops and guns for the Burma front. The nearer the railway got the quicker they were able to send re-enforcements it was one of those difficult situation. We were always looking for messages on the side of the trucks coming down a favourite signal was ROTB which meant ‘Roll On The Boat’.
It was always a sad time when a man died his few possessions had to be sorted out, if he’d managed to hang on to them, things like family photos, or the last letter he had received before captivity, it was impossible to keep them, there were so many. When moving from camp to camp, everything had to be carried as there was no transport, it was as much as a man could do to carry himself so things were left and much of the information was lost. It was only by sheer luck that perhaps someone could remember a person and kept it in his mind as to where a man died and when some records were kept, but as time went on these records became fewer. That is why so many relatives of loved ones were starved of the information, of course the Japs did little to help in this field, they felt it was no concern of theirs, when in reality it was their responsibility. There must be many places up in the jungle where men were buried in a hurry and bear no cross or sign of remembrance and because of the jungle growing so quick they would be lost forever. Since the war many have journeyed back have found everything to be so different and have come to the same conclusion as myself, it was a very bad memory that will last forever
The Japs who had to march to the front suffered much hardship. If they went to the medical hut with blisters on their feet they got a clout from the sergeant and were told to march. The equipment they carried was unbelievable and how far they marched we just didn’t know, but one could see they were at the point of exhaustion. For all this it was not a very nice situation, knowing they were going up to fight our army in Burma and and not being able to do anything about it.
Whilst working on the railway it was a nerve racking time just before starting work, different parties were sorted out then a Jap would be put in charge and it was always known which of the Japs were the worst those ones who liked to find the least excuse to lay into the pows. It’s forever in my mind to picture some who were lucky enough to have a little tobacco trying to roll a fag their hands shaking wondering which devil they were going to have for the day and hoping for the least amount of trouble. Its something only those who have experienced a situation like this can really describe their feelings and this was only part of the torment because as the day went on if you were working with a hammer and chisel trying to bore a hole in the rock for the dynamite and progress was slow because the chisel got blunt he would send you to exchange it or get it sharpene. More trouble could then begin the Jap, he would look at it and make out it was your fault for not putting enough water in the hole, or not holding it right. All the time working himself up into a temper until he finally gave you a clout and sent you back to work. At least one got a little comfort from being away from the rock face where the burning sun was as much as one could bear.
After the holes were drilled we then had to go down and then bring up the bundles of dynamite climbing up the rock with a deadly load there being no health and safety rules of course and everything depended on luck. It is the duty of anyone who is a POW to try and stall or sabotage wherever possible but our situation was to say the least very tricky. There was one occasion when we were working on a bridge at night and the rail had a downward slope to the bridge, the engine pushed the trucks, the first being the sleepers, then next the rails, however someone didn't apply the brakes. The trucks were rushing down the slope at great speed smashing into the side and over the top causing much damage. It delayed the progress for a few days although we had to suffer by working more quickly to make up for lost time at least nobody got punished for it but it was a lovely piece of work.
When moving from camp to camp we walked in single file on the jungle tracks, weakness always took its toll. Everything had to be carried as there was no transport. The further we moved up country, the more precious things had to be thrown away in order to keep moving and survive. As the saying goes " It was the last straw that broke the Camels back". We needed things like greatcoats although they were heavy items but the nights got cold and when one had Malaria, trying to keep warm was one of the important things, this relieved the suffering of the disease. Apart from our own personal items there were things like the pans to cook our rice shovels to dig holes for the latrines and the graves to bury our dead, plus spare camp beds for the sick.
As we got up towards Burma to meet the party coming down, the jungle was much thicker and monkeys would be swinging in the trees following us as we worked and on the ground large scorpions and centipedes. At night you could hear the drums of the natives sending messages in the hills, it was like taking part in a Tarzan film. The natives were hostile to everyone on their land and on one occasion after finishing work we were marching back to camp and the guard who was at the rear was badly wounded with an arrow in his back the pows who were with him managed to get him back safely without harm to themselves. A party of Japs soon went out to search for the natives but never found any, we thought this might have an effect on our treatment but the next day it was the same treatment as usual with shouts of speedo! speedo! and more beatings, of course as the railway was about to be joined up this excited them and nothing was going to stand in their way.
When near the Burma border, not far from Allied lines, you could hear the guns firing. We still hadn’t seen any of our planes come over, although we heard a rumour that the bridge lower down at Kanchanaburi was bombed, even the Japs didn’t know much. We were set aside from the outside world the only thing that reminded us of fighting was when we heard the guns firing.
When the Japs reached the end of the line that was completed they started to march up to Burma and before they did this they had a short rest where two large open railway trucks were placed outside our camp. About 8 or 10 women were in each with just a curtain separating them, it was a kind of mobile brothel, a treat for the Japs before they went off to fight. Not a very pleasant sight for us to see as we were used to a more civil way of life, we felt sorry for the women.
I was with a Jap sergeant, who was their sole medical man. He inspected the Japs going to the front. I learnt from him and understood quite a bit as I had to get all his bottles laid out each morning for him.
Dr Churchill’s Camp with Amputees
Well there was many POWs needing to have their legs amputated and of course we had no chloroform. There was a doctor in this camp and his name was Churchill, the Japs looked down on him. He was a very nice person and found out that I was in the Jap medical hut so he asked me a favour. The chloroform was in quinine bottles and he gave me one with some liquid in that looked the same and I did the swap. Next to our hut was the dentists who injected the Japs with this dummy liquid, I never heard any screams it was something they dare not do.
Everyone suffered in one way or another but looking back it was most painful and uncomfortable for those who had things like toothache or had glasses because there were no dentists or opticians and they had to make do the best way they could. To say it didn't really matter, as there were no books or papers to read, but not being able to see properly in the sun’s glare, made life that much harder on top of all the other miss-fortunes we all had to bear. The Japs didn't make any allowance at all because it was their way of life, the only way they knew. Unlike our army, they did not receive any mail or news from home so one could hardly expect a prisoner to have such privileges. On top of which we were dishonourable men and should have died in battle.
The last camp I was in we had to do a twelve hour shift and afterwards one or two hours camp duty. One day when we returned to camp and stood to attention outside the guardroom the Jap sergeant asked if anyone could cook rice, well this was a present from Heaven. In my best Japanese I said I could and got the job. They were having a party in the guardroom and they'd managed to get hold of some Saki (like whiskey). I started to cook the rice like they did and the Jap who was looking after a kind of soup told me to look after his brew while he had a drink with his mates. As soon as he was gone I thought right mate I'll get my own back so as I stirred the stuff I relieved myself in his brew. They later started to eat it, not giving me any of course, but said something tasted funny. They blamed my rice, as they belted me out of the cookhouse.
We didn’t always hit it off with the Yanks in the camp, they were there first and seemed to have a run of the place. If the Japs didn’t like their meal they gave it to them!
I can still smile about it now.
When the cutting at Hellfire Pass was finished the Japs started to move the POWs down country to Non Pladuk and those who could get to the railhead would be taken to a rest camp. Many were too sick and weak to walk, I was one of these, Malaria had got the better of me. There was about 140 of us lying on the ground in a clearing, many just waiting to die. A Jap insisted the best thing would be to shoot everyone to put them out of their suffering, but an officer begged him to let us live our lives out. As we were not in a fit state to try and escape or do any harm, the Jap agreed.
I was lucky because as I laid there, someone stopped and said “Its Rainer isn't it, you don't look too good but we are not leaving you here” and with that he and another man dragged me to the railhead put me on a truck and I made it to Non Pladuk.*
* On looking back I believe it was a Lt Scaife who was in my company but sadly passed away many years ago.
Whilst working in Hellfire Pass there were several men from East Anglia I was close to in particular Major Harrison who became colonel later and after the war MP for Eye Suffolk. He was also commodore of the Houses of Parliament sailing club and as I'd been a radio operator and done a course in navigation I later became his sailing mate. The other person was a sergeant Ray Dunningham who I shared a hut with at Non Pladuk, we linked up again. After the war I met Ray several times and it later turned out he was a neighbour with Win my wife During their school days. Ray is still going strong although his wife passed away several months ago We meet up from time to time and its strange to say but to me he is the same as he was 60 years ago and he says the same about me. It's a wonderful moment when we embrace and can only say it brings out the tears of memories past.