The Rising Sun On My Back
“On their watch in the dead vast and middle of the night”… Shakespeare
We began to hear persistent rumours about rest camps that had been prepared for us in Siam. The guards said that we would be leaving soon, we would go by train and take with us anything we could carry. One group got as far as Singapore station with a piano. We were to have better rations, only light camp duties to perform and medical care would be greatly improved.
We were divided into Battalions, and one morning in October Dad and I left Singapore with “W” Battalion. We marched along the railway siding to where a long line of steel box cars were waiting to accommodate us, thirty to each car, for the five day journey to Siam, a journey which became more and more unpleasant s the days progressed. By day the trucks scorched with the heat of the sun and by night they were like ice boxes.
We were allowed out of the box cars to stretch our legs once a day, and attend to various demands of nature. Nature, unfortunately did not understand this arrangement and made her demands more frequently which, in crowded trucks on a jolting train, required all our tolerance of one another. Water was the main difficulty, the absence of food could be overlooked, but in that intense heat thirst became and obsession. We took it in turns to fill up one of the dixies from the engine - greasy water but boiled, so drinkable. Usually the two men who went on this expedition were caught and beaten. When my turn came, I managed to dodge a blow from a riffle, but received a vicious kick in the back of my leg. We crossed the Thai border and eventually the train ground to halt at Bampong, when we were ordered out on to a rather dreary looking platform. I took stock of my possessions; one water bottle, a book by Taylor Caldwell - ‘The Earth is the Lords’ and half a mess tin. I carried the mess tin and water bottle hooked to my waist, and with the book in my hand I joined the rest of the party in the ‘march’ down a filthy track towards the promised ‘rest’ camp.
I wondered what had happened to the officers, I hadn’t seen Dad since we got on the train at Singapore. It was obvious that for some reason best known to themselves, the Japs were keeping us apart.
The track led us through Bam Pong where the native traders - led by their yellow robed Buddhist priests - clamoured to buy anything which became steadily more worthless. We found the Thai’s excessively dishonest and thieving. We reciprocated wholeheartedly.
Our camp turned out to be a group of native huts made of bamboo and attap, with mud floors littered with excrement, seething with flies, and in that condition of unspeakable filth which only Asiatic can attain. It was bed enough for those of us who were comparatively fit, but for the men who had been uprooted from Changi’s hospital it was like a death sentence. During the night the heavens opened and the rain poured through the roof. Our hut was on a slope and the water ran through it like a torrent. For two days we waited around, until finally we were marched away, slipping and sliding in the mud, to the river bank, where barges awaited us. We boarded, fifty to each barge, to began a most hazardous journey up river against the current. We were well into the monsoon season and the river was swollen and against its incessant beating. The motor boat struggled to tow the huge barge against the current of the River Mee Kong Kwai Noi. When we reached a bend where the river flowed more swiftly the motor boat pulled inshore and was lashed to a tree on the bank. A rope was then tied to the stern of the motor boat and passed back along the centre of the barge. We spaced ourselves on alternate sides of the rope and began to pull the barge gaining a few feet and then the tug - of - war, first the barge gaining a few feet and then the swift flowing river pushing the barge backwards. The Japanese kept us as it with shouts and blows, and progress was slow. We had negotiated about a third of a bend when the rope flew out of our hands, throwing us onto the barge floor. The barge jerked to a stop swinging crazily from side to side at the end of the rope. The Japs predictably lost control of themselves, everyone within reach was bashed as once again, to the accompaniment of incessant screaming we took up the rope and begun pulling. It was hard dangerous work, the rope was wet and heavy and my bare bruised and lacerated by the projections on the wooden deck of the barge.
We were covered in bruises and contusions before finally the rope was anchored ashore, and while the motor boat chugged upstream to the extent of the rope, we were able to rest. This tug - of - war against the current was repeated until the bend had been negotiated and during the five days on the river numerous similar bends were traversed in this way.
Water slopped around the bottom of the barge where we huddled together at night for warmth. We had been issued with five bananas and one pomelo (like a large grapefruit) and as no other food was forthcoming most men ate all on the first day. When on the second day we asked for food, we were told that the previous days issue was intended to last the whole journey. Only a few of us had kept any, two of my bananas were green, and it was the third day before Robbie and could eat them. The bargee and his wife and two children lived under a smell attap cover on the stern of the barge. Two guards were housed on a platform under cover and two more with a machine gun were on the boat. The Thai family were sympathetic, and left over food was fought for by prisoners - a spoonful at a time. The guards leftovers went into the river. Each day and night was a repetition of the one before, vicious bashing if a guard thought you weren’t pulling hard enough on the rope - men continued to fight over the few spoonfuls of leftover rice. I too was obsessed with thoughts of food but I had not reached the point where I would fight for it. At this time all around my chin and bottom lip were large weeping scabby sores, which were driving me mad with irritation, and so I had to grow a beard. There was no treatment, but I kept my face as clean as possible and some weeks later the scabs fell away completely leaving no scars.
We fell out of the barged on the fifth night onto a muddy slivery river bank. It was impossible to climb up the bank, three of four steps was the most anyone could manage before floundering backwards. I made several attempts to climb the bank and finally, wet and covered in muddy clay I sank to my knees and rolled on to my side. Sick with hunger I lay there oblivious to everything. A kick in the ribs roused me, and when I roused to my feet the guard pushed me towards a group of men holding a rope I slipped and fell flat. Another kick and I rose hurriedly but fell over yet again before I finally joined the group. Ropes had been tied to trees and men were already pulling themselves up the bank. I never expected to make it, but the screaming vicious guards, who were lashing out at anyone who were going to slow, instilled sufficient fear in me to produce the strength to shinny up the rope like a monkey. We spent the night in the undergrowth under the trees, there was no food, and most of us had no cover. One or two blankets, sheets or ground sheets and were able to erect makeshift bivouacs.
I endured a miserable first night. The rain hadn’t stopped, and I curled up in the undergrowth at the foot of a tree, each drop was so heavy I felt like they were driving holes into my body. I was shaking so much with cold and I began to think that I might have Malaria. Sleep was impossible. We were roused by the guards at first light, and assembled near the rivers edge. Then, in our terribly weekend condition we were set to work, hacking away with panagas to clear the undergrowth, the one or two who asked for food were clubbed to the ground. Progress was painfully slow and the guards ran around screaming and exhorting everyone to more effort. They became furious and began beating those who could not work fast enough. One of them snatched the panga from my hand and bean hacking furiously at the undergrowth, he was like a madman, mouthing all the time. Then he threw the punga at my feet, pointing to the undergrowth and screaming at me all the time. I picked it up and began working just as furiously, (amazing isn’t it what fear will do). He watched for a few moments then with a satisfied grunt walked of. I couldn’t keep up this pace and soon reverted to slow steady hacking, but kept my eyes on the guard ready to speed up if I thought he was looking my way. We worked for about an hour, during which time rice had been cooked in four gallon tins over open fires. A halt was called and we were given a meal of pap and salt plums. Food has never tasted better I knew I should eat slowly but it was impossible, I wolfed it down frantically, and then lay back enjoying for a few moments the lovely feeling of warmth and contentment in my belly.
So now we knew for certain. The rest camps were complete fiction. We were to be used on the oft rumoured construction of a railway connecting Bankok with Rangoon. In fact the line began just north of Bampong and followed the river Kwai Noi, through the Three Pagodas Pass to finish at Thambyuzzayat where it linked up with the existing line from Ye to Moulmein in Burma. Remembering that the British had surveyed that route and abandoned the prospect as impossible because of the cost to human life involved in the fever and plague stricken mountains, it was difficult not to feel a little sick at heart.
We cleared trees and bamboo to a depth of one hundred yards, along the river, in the process we killed numerous venomous snakes and a variety of lizards. They were cut up and cleaned, and at night roasted on a spit over a small fire. Having cleared the area we were then sent into the jungle to collect bamboo. This grew in huge vine entangled clumps, some up to sixty feet high. Cutting it was a task made doubly unpleasant by protecting carpets of needle pointed spikes. Lashed together by the tough jungle vines, the bamboo would remain upright even when the stem had been severed, when eventually by shinning up the centre of the clumps and hacking at the vines with a panga the stem were free to fall, there was still the task of weaving the sixty foot long stems, nine inches in diameter and half full of water, through the tangled jungle undergrowth. Having collected sufficient lengths we erected the framework of huts and laid the attap roof. Slats of split bamboo on six feet wide benches down the sides of the hut, served as beds.
The Japanese quarters, cookhouse and stores had to be completed before we could start on our own huts which were two hundred feet long and twenty feet wide. The latrines, ten feet wide were spanned by logs to stand on. When the huts were just about finished the officers arrived to take up camp duties to relive us for work on a road to the river bank where supplies would be unloaded from barges.
Dad became Quartermaster and because of his irregular hours and duties, was allocated a berth at the end of the officers hut. At this time I had become friendly with Robert George Roberts, Cpl. Royal Engineers (Robbie). He was an orphan and had run away from his guardian in Canada to join the army in England in 1930. He changed his name from George Robert Shaw. We spent most evenings with Dad and his friends, sometimes playing cards or chess. Dad’s job took him in direct contact with Jap Officers and the interpreter and he hated it. He would not learn a single unnecessary word of their language, and he was afraid that his absolute disgust of this ‘bearded wonder’ as he called him, would be to apparent. We were not closely guarded, they knew there was no where to go. All around us was uninhabited bamboo jungle, rugged mountains and swamp valleys. It was devoid of food and teeming with fever ridden mosquitoes. If one stayed near Siamese or Burmese villages, there were those waiting to murder you for your pants. Shortly after Dad’s arrival I succumbed to a serious bout of Malaria. The day passed in a haze of shivering, I could not get warm. This attack took five days to expire which was longer than any of my previous bouts and left me feeling very weak and exhausted.
It was not long before paper went completely out of our lives. The most sorely missed was toilet paper and we had some difficulty in finding suitable substitutes.
I tore a bed sheet into small squares and asked it eked it out for some weeks. During this time, the shrubs and bushes within two hundred yards of the toilets had been completely denuded of layers. Finally we resorted to the native method, using water from bamboo containers. I recall one moon - less night, I made my way carefully in the pitch blackness to the ‘bog’ and gingerly eased my feet along the two or three logs which served as foot supports. The silence was broken by the noise of splashing water and then an irate Scottish voice exclaiming “Oh ---- it, that’s all I needed”. “What’s wrong Jock” I asked. “I’ve been trying those bloody wog ideas. I’ve got a handful of shit a boat full of water and I still haven’t washed me arse!” I smiled in the darkness, “Never mind Jock” I said, “I’m sure most of us have done the same thing”. I washed myself and kept some water for Jock to clean himself. Funny thing I never knew who he was.
There was several instances of men falling in and drowning in these cesspools of horror which heaved and teemed with maggots and bacteria. On one occasion I slipped and fell with both my legs dangling in this putrescence. Thereafter my legs always received special attention when I bathed in the river.
Dysentery was beginning to reap its toll. Every day the death rate increased by numbers in the cemetery began to grow alarmingly. Malaria, beri - beri, jungle ulcers, and general debility were becoming rife, and three huts which were reached by crossing a log bridge across o fifteen foot ravine were erected short distances from the camp. The huts quickly became full, and the Medical officer, Captain McNeilly and his single orderly were to cope. When volunteers were called for I joined the hospital along with five other volunteers. We needed very few instruction; common-sense, ….
“on their watch in the dead vast and middle of the night”… Shakespeare
….sympathy and a strong stomach were all that were required and at this stage in my captivity I still possessed all three. My days consisted of emptying the bamboo bed pans (we called the ‘boats’), cleaning and feeding those too weak to help themselves, and fetching bottles of drinking water from a stream which I think deserves a special mention. It spreads with lightening speed, eating away a man’s flesh and revealing the bone. The treatment was to scrape away the puss with a spoon, soak a piece of cloth or blanket in saline and tie it on with vine, in the tropical heat, this putrescence was sickening and it lingered in my nostrils many hours after duty. There was no anaesthetic and some patients with extensive ulcers, with their shin bones wholly revealed and covered in a black shale, would scream in agony.
We scraped and boiled the dressings to be used again, a task usually carried out during the night duty. By now I had several ulcers on both legs. McNeilly insisted that his orderlies received priority treatment, he could not afford to have us sick because the Japanese would not allow replacements. He packed us raw salt into my ulcers and bound them tightly, with instructions to leave them for three days when the treatment would be repeated. With dressing made of M & B tablets crushed and mixed with zinc ointment, my ulcers were healed. My first tour of night duty was a little scary, with the flickering light from our log fire barley penetrating the dark interior of the long huts and animal like noises that men in their death thrones involuntarily make. And it was touching too. The gratitude of men for a pull up, or a restraining arm if they fell back too quickly. The offers of a cigarette (which I always accepted with the remark that I would smoke it later, but never did) when they had nothing else to give. The supreme pathos of two hundred dying men who, unselfconscious in their sleep, looked like old children. A winding road up a mountain side was constructed to provide a route to the site of a new camp - Kanu was abandoned and we moved everything up the mountain side to the new camp. For a while I continued working in the hospital. The RAMC medic and one of the volunteers died so there were only five of us now, and the number of patients daily grew. Life seemed to evolve into a blur of continuous labour - men dying, six a night; the guards shouting and screaming incessantly - fever, which came in waves of hot and cold on successive days - dysentery and near starvation. Kanu quickly became overgrown and was soon reclaimed by the jungle, only a small track was maintained through the camp for the passage of supplies which were brought up by river barges.
The death toll still grew at an increasing rate and our offices made more violent representations to the Japs, and were beaten for their pains - the camp commandant, 21 year old Lt. Usuki said “The Japanese are prepared to work - you must work. The Japanese are prepared to eat less - you must eat less - The Japanese are prepared to die - you must be prepared to die!” he would listen to no argument. More and more men were required to work on the Railway. The walking sick were paraded every morning and the Jap MO would order most of them to work on the railway. Tens of thousands of Indians and Malays were drafted into camps with promises of fat wage packets, luxury camps, and the dubious honour of helping in the New Order of Asia. They soon began to suffer terrible treatment at the hands of their guards. They were not organised and lacked the discipline which was so important to survival. They suffered appalling privations and soon became gangling skeletons. The Tamii coolies were most to be pitied, their apathy and loss of will was soon obvious. Our camp began to deteriorate, fewer and fewer men were left in camp to carry out important daily duties. It quickly became overgrown and during the monsoon rains drainage was inadequate and the site soon became a sea of mud - we lived, slept and ate in the mud and were soaking wet for weeks without ever being able to dry out. I had no endurance and several bouts of Malaria, denque fever, typhus and dysentery and my weight had fallen to less than six stones: Inevitably, my turn came for a bout of M.T. Malaria, there had been a number of cases in my ward and I had seen men demented with fever before they died. I very quickly became to week to feed myself, so the orderlies took turns to wash me down and feed me. I was burning up with fever and when I lapsed into unconsciousness I dreamed I was crawling towards a tiny speck of light in a long dark tunnel which sloped upwards. As I crawled nearer the light became bigger and brighter, and when I reached out towards it I slowly slid back into a dark void and the light receded to finally extinguished. Then I was just barley conscious of voices, but I couldn’t make the words and I drifted again into darkness. I began to feel hotter than ever before, I was on fire and I thought the heat would suffocate me, I was gasping for air, then suddenly I was awake, Capt. McNeilly was standing over me, “Hello” he said “now let’s get you up and back to work”. When I asked why I’d recovered I was told that McNeilly had used some of his precious stock of drugs and had often nursed me himself. I had been in constant delirium, and these were my only recollections during the five days of fever. I thank McNeilly and the orderlies for my life, no patient in our hospital had ever recovered from M.T.
McNeilly was the most inspiring man I had ever met and I’m sure many thousands of men shared my view. He treated any man, including the Japanese. He cleaned wounds, set bones and amputated limbs. And all of it he did with the courtesy of a society’s specialist who is being richly paid for his services, and the honour of a man who is not yet tired of it all.
I once heard a patient, a complete moron, observe “That man is a bloody saint” and when personality impresses itself upon the mentality of such a man, then indeed you are in the presence of a great man. (shortly after returning to England I spent a day with McNeilly in Hastings where he was in practice. It was a sort of pilgrimage, I had not seen him when we were freed and I had much to thank him for, for myself and for Dad. Our day together is still a pleasant memory).
At this time we were cleaning and preparing for burial an average of eight dead every night, this would have been heavy work had we been fit I found it exhausting. Each body would be hastily removed to a spot some distance from the hut so that the patients could not see what was happening. Every man who died evacuated and many vomited so the first task was to wash down the eighteen inches wide space left between two patients who were always conscious and cringed away from the space, death might be contagious.
When I prepared a body, I first removed the cloths (sometimes only a G - string) and them pored two gallons of water over the front, turned it over and poured two gallons over the back. I washed off the remaining excreta and dried the body with sacking, weighted the eyelids to keep them closed, and removed dog tags and sometimes a ring. Two of us shared in the preparation, and left them neatly lined up for rigor mortis to set in. it made it easier to put them into sacks. We used two. One drawn over the head, one drawn over the feet and tied at the neck, upper arms, waist, thighs, calves and ankles, all deigned to produce a neat mummy like appearance. Before the patients were awake a party would carry the bodies to the nut used as a morgue, ready for burial later that day.
I remember that when I prepared my first dead body I treated it gently and with reverence, by the time I had prepared a hundred or so, it had become an irksome task to be rid of as quickly as possible.
I learned to sit and listen in the early hours to men who knew they would die before morning. I sometimes held their hands as they whimpered their last thoughts, of mothers or wives or sweethearts. During my turn on night duty I was able to see Dad every day. I sat with him in his hut and we talked occasionally of topics other than food and Japs. He was due to retire on pension after the war. Once I asked him about his plans. He liked the idea of managing a pub.
He was obsessed with the Jap interpreter, and never ceased to talk about him. He was smaller than most Japs and had been educated at an American University. There were a number of engineers and officers who had received similar education’s and they were the worst types. They condoned and perpetuated all kinds of atrocities and then apologised and explained it away - showing off their English. The Jap solider was cruel but at least he was consistent, and he knew no better. Dad’s job as Quartermaster brought him into daily contact and direct confrontation with the interpreter and senior Japanese. The interpreter had been invalidated out of the army after winning their highest award for bravery whilst serving against the Chinese. This award gave him considerable authority in the camp, even with the guards. He was no evil looking man, with a perpetual grin on his face, and he hated us, and Dad in particular. I this hate was partly born out of the inferiority complex which even the most educated Japs could never hide from us. It showed through all the privations, beating and torture they inflicted upon us. In fact, some of our sufferings in their hand was the direct result of it. Dad’s heath at this time was better then most, although he had his share of Malaria and dysentery and he now weighed 10 ½ stones. But I noticed that he had become nervous and tense and smoked continually - lighting one from another. (Robbie and I kept him supplied. We washed local tobacco in the river, dried and sweetened it with brown sugar and rolled cigarettes of a sort). I sensed that he was worried but I didn’t know why and to tell the truth I didn’t want to know, so I didn’t ask. One evening before going on duty in the hospital I visited him in his hut. I stopped just in side to allow my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the interior. He was sitting with his back towards me and as I approached he turned, and when he saw it was me he quickly looked away, waving his hand for me to go. I didn’t know why I should be shocked, I had beaten many times and I had seen brutally beaten and had puffed eyes, his mouth badly swollen and lacerated and his face bruised and cut. He sat hunched forward with his hands dangling between his knees in a pathetic attitude and I sensed a sort of shame, he didn’t want me to see him. I left the hut, hesitating outside. I thought I should go back but I didn’t know what to say to him so I walked away feeling very inadequate. This incident had a marked effect of Dad. He became morose and withdrawn and I am sure he was deeply worried. It was as if the thin cord of reason to which we each clung so desperately, had become frayed, I thought he was close to a breakdown, it required an extreme effort to talk to him - he became very difficult to approach, and I began to find excuses for not going to see him. He never mentioned the beating to me, and I never asked, to this day I do not know the reason for it, nor the perpetrator. I often became impatient and irritated by him and sometimes I couldn’t hide my feelings. I had my own life to consider, my mind was dulled, and sensible only to hunger and deprivation. (I think there were only a special few who were the least concerned with the fate of others, death now was very commonplace, and I didn’t expect to survive anyway).
December 1943 arrived and we had suffered in these two camps for 14 months. I wore only a “G” string, my beard was long and lank, I had no bedding but I still had my half a mess tin and my book. A year and ten months of captivity had wrecked havoc with my health and spirit, hundreds had died and the numbers increased daily. Time ceased to have any significance. To survive I thought it essential not to notice the effect on myself. Dysentery was now my constant companion. During one particularly violent attack in the early hours of morning the pains were so acute I could not straighten. I fell off the bed and crawled through the mud towards the latrines, I set great pride in always reaching it before evacuating, but this time, while still some twenty yards short of my goal, I collapsed in the mud, plastered with my own filth. I staggered back to the hut and washed myself down. Immediately the pains returned, and doubled over at the waist, resisting the urge to run, I headed once more for the latrines - and made it. By daylight my bare feet had paddled out a furrow through the mud and it required all my willpower to make the effort, it would have been much easier to squat where I was.
It was three days before this attack had run its course. We were still refused drugs and medicines, and recovery was now down to individual strength and constitution. On one of these trips to the latrine I met a fellow sufferer and we sat together for a while reminiscing. I said that I knew a girl in Chislehurst. He too knew Chislehurst and asked where she lived - I told him and he said “surely not a Martin?” “Yes” I said, “do you know them?” “I know Kay very well” he said. What a coincidence. We had travelled 10,000 miles to meet by chance and learn that we dated a girl from the same family.
“Lofty” Tuplin was a sailor, his ship the “Exeter” of River Platte fame had been sunk of Sumatra.
The drive to get the railway completed suddenly heightened. Everything became dominated by the word “speedo”. For the first time the officers were formed into a working party and sent out to work on the railway. The senior officer in charge was Capt. Berniscondi, a man I shall always remember for the courage and the fine example he showed at all times under the most trying conditions. Dad lost his Quartermaster’s job - the Japs dumped our rations at the camp perimeter and anyone left in camp delivered them to the cookhouse. Even the few Malay volunteer officer, some over 60, were sent out to work on the railway. Then my turn came. The hospital staff were lined up and the Jap M.O. picked two of us, reducing the nurses to three. We went to work in a huge cutting through solid rock that we named “Hellfire Pass”. High above, at the cuttings edge stood the Korean Guards and Jap engineers, throwing stones and small boulders at us if wee stopped for a second.
In the cutting we worked in pairs, each pair using a 16lb hammer and three rock drills of different lengths - the longest being a little more than a metre. We started with the shortest drill, one holding, the other hitting with the sledge hammer. All day lone one swung the hammer , the other twisted the drill. Hit-twist-hit. All day long in turns, and at night, again, by the light of bamboo and resin flares, and a prompt beating for any pair who stopped for any reason. Robbie and I had both been trained to use tools, we were good at hammer swinging and rarely missed completely, so luckily our injuries were minor compared with the terribly wounded fingers and hands suffered by some. Each pair of “drillers” would complete four or five one metre deep holes per shift, depending on the type of rock encountered. At the start of each shift two men would set to work in the explosives shed preparing the charges. The main charge was wet gun cotton. Using a hacksaw slabs were cut into pieces five inches long by one inch square. The fuse wire was measured and cut into 15 second lengths, then attached to small pencil type detonators by crimping the end round the fuse wire with our teeth. A pencil size piece of bamboo was used to pierce a hole lengthways into the middle of a sausage shaped paper wrapped length of plastic explosive (secondary charge), into which the detonator was fully inserted and held in by squeezing the plastic in the hand. For each hole there was a main charge and a secondary charge complete with fused detonator.
Each pair of “drillers” charged their own holes and when all was ready the Jap engineer gave each man a cigarette with which to light the fuses. Fifteen seconds may appear to be plenty of time, but as the fuse wire was often damp, some seconds could pass before the last ones ignited. It was necessary to plan our separate escape routes because the floor of the cutting was very uneven and strewn with huge boulders. Even so we sometimes collided in our anxious flight from the cutting. Fifty or so charges exploding together was just another hazard for us to contend with. There were occasions when I had to blow furiously on a cigarette and fuse together to effect ignition on a damp fuse while all around me other fuses were sizzling merrily. Once I was still in the cutting when the first charges exploded but I shielded behind a boulder and suffered only a cut leg, as I threw myself to the ground behind it. On another occasion I was huddled behind a tree near the rim of the cutting when a piece of flying rock gashed the side of my head. There were a number of fatalities in the various cuttings, and one young Royal Engineer was killed when a huge boulder toppled on to him in the blast. There was no possible means by which this huge piece of rock could be moved and three of his companions watched over him as the life was slowly squeezed out of his body. He died slowly and in agony and we were helpless, it was morning before his body was extricated . A second party following behind us moved the shattered rock, using baskets, crowbars, and their bare hands, while we moved ahead to another part of the cutting to continue drilling. During the six weeks of drilling, a total of sixty eight men were beaten to death in “Hellfire Pass” by the Japs attempting to hasten the work.
The office working party was often used for this clearing task which meant that our two parties were often working side by side. They were very unlucky to have one of the most brutal guards in charge of them. He hated our officers and had boasted to us what he would do to them when they were under his control, we soon realised they were no idle boasts. He selected a high vantage spot so that every officer was under constant surveillance, Captain Berniscondi, the senior officer had to stand with him, his first task every morning was to collect a pile of rock splinters for the guards ammunition. He threw these at the officers at the slightest provocation, so no man escaped the cuts and bruises caused by these well aimed missiles. Through the day “Bernie” would be beaten if the guard thought that an officer had transgressed sufficiently. A beating varied from four rattling punches to the face and a beating with bamboo stick and feet brought into use. “Bernie” would pick himself up, retrieve his trilby hat which he would take great pains to set at the correct angle across his eyes, then he would stand in front of the guard and stare at him until he turned away. Bernie was a wonderful example to us all and we admired him immensely. His courage never faltered even when some days he received as many as fifteen beatings.
( In 1971 when I was employed at a Ministry of Defence establishment I received a reply to a letter I had written to Alvis Military Vehicles which was signed by a Lt. Colonel retired, Berniscondi. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was the Captain “Bernie” I had known, but I was very disappointed when my phone call was answered by his brother. Nevertheless, we had a long conversation and he was so pleased to talk to someone who had known his brother and who could tell him so much about him that was unknown to him and his family. Some months later “Benie” who was a Lt. Colonel serving in Germany, phoned me, and we talked for nearly an hour before he rang off he accused me of fabricating and exaggerating when I spoke to his brother).
Dad was a member of this officer party, and the physical labour together with the fact that he was no longer required to work with the Jap officer and interpreter had a marked affect on him. He regained his old confidence and became a pillar of strength to the older men. He was continually helping and encouraging them and more than once he was beaten for his pains. Most days we were able to sit together an eat our rice, we were closer at this time than at any other. I think that he accepted that we were all in this together, he had previously been a little distant from us. There was acceptance too on my part and somehow it seemed to matter that he could shrug off a beating like the rest of us.
There were ulcers on both his legs and his feet were badly lacerated by the sharp rocks that he was daily clambering over. Each night after our rice meal we would go down to the river together. He would sit on a rock with his feet dangling in the water and I would sit with my bottom dangling. (I had a dozen or so suppurating sours caused by festered scabies). Shoals of tiny fish would nibble at the sours and clean out all the pus, in this way I managed to keep my ulcers under control.