The Rising Sun On My Back
Coinciding with the “Speedo”, the Monsoon proper broke, (May 1943) and for the next sixteen days the driving rain lasted the railway track without pause. The river rose in flood and swamped the lower camp at Kanu, every unmade road and track that we daily used became a water course and a layer of thick glutinous mud lay on the surface of the higher camp. The rain found holes in the best constructed attack huts and it poured through the inadequate tents which housed some of the prisoners. Drainage in the camp was none existent and water lay in great stagnant pools. We were never dry: after a rain soaked days work on the line we would return to a meal of watery rice which the rain further diluted as we ate it, and then we would retire saturated, muddy and exhausted to a wet bamboo bed in a hut that leaked. Dawn would bring another round of grinding work and saturation. When the Monsoon was at its height food supplies dwindled and fell perilously low. All in all so far as our conditions on the railway were concerned, they could hardly have chosen a worse time for speeding up of the project. The beating of prisoners had been a feature of the Jap system ever since the first working parties had arrived in the southern region, but from May onwards there developed on the railway a crescendo of violence designed to spur us on to greater efforts, but which in fact only weakened us further, making it more difficult for us to meet the targets laid down by the engineers. Our commanding officer was regularly beaten for persistently trying to protects us. The medical officer was often beaten for trying to prevent sick me being ordered to work on the railway. We were continually thrashed for slowness or failing to comprehend instructions screamed at us in Japanese. They beat us with pick handles, Bamboo and the flat of a sword. Men were frequently knocked out and some had bones broken. We took breakfast in the dark and were at work before it became light. The working day was extended so that we never saw the camp until nightfall. I recall a two week period when I never saw the camp during daylight hours.
The medical situation was already desperate when in may Cholera struck. This acutely infectious decease had always been regarded with a particular horror, largely on account of the speed with which it can spread and kill. Being principally water borne it spread during the Monsoon period was inevitably faster. Cholera is essentially a wasting disease in which the body loses its liquid and becomes dehydrated. The shrinking of soft tissue can be seen within a few minutes and the sufferer, shrivelled and monkey - like can succumb within hours, but sometimes will take a few days to die. While the outbreak was at its height, fires flared at every camp. They lighted the way out to work in the dark before dawn; they guided us back through the dark wetness of the jungle long after dusk. And always, lying round them in stick like bundles were the bodies that awaited cremation - bodies at which we peered closely as we came in to see if any friends lay among them.
One morning our group of twenty four was taken out of camp carrying picks and shovels. When we reached a Tamil coolie camp we could see that it was strewn with dead bodies. We were ordered to did pits and bury the dead, while the Japs stayed at some distance outside the camp. The Tamils had succumbed to Cholera, it was the most horrible, nauseating task I had encounter. We had no masks and we knew that we must not on any account put our hands to our faces. I stood rooted to the spot, trying hard not to breathe for the stench was sickening, the ghastly stench from hundred of dead bodies, black wasted bodies, with their skeleton like limbs spread grotesquely at every angle. My impulse was to run but my knowledge that this was essentially a water borne disease helped me to control the fear. We set to work digging four large pits and when they were finished we worked in pairs. My companion good old Harry Harding helped me to keep going. Each body was lying in a pool of grey liquid vomit and excreta. Flies swarmed over the bodies in there millions and set up a continuous humming. I vomited over the first one that we tried to lift. Then we tried again and my fingers slipped as I grasped the naked black flesh of his arms - I had the feeling that the disease was spreading up my arms and I dropped him and turned away, my stomach retching. I was beating at my legs and bare feet which were covered in flies, I felt under attack and I shuddered with horror. I was panicky and ready to run, anywhere to get away from these flies and our gruesome task, but Harry steadied me, he was talking all the time and his matter of fact approach and composure calmed me. once again I got hold of the slimy arms and holding my breath as long as I could, helped to drag the body and role it into the pit. It was easier after that first one and gradually the ground was cleared of dead. I hated them, I wanted them destroyed, burnt, anything to get them out of my sight. The uncleanness and the sickening stink seamed to permeate into me and I felt I should never be clean again. One of the bodies started to twitch and Harry said “this stiffs still moving - lets take him back”. But there was nowhere to take him and assuming there was a flicker of life, it must be on its way out. So we dumped it into the pit with the others. At last, all the bodies were in the pit - in four piles, looking like surplus black dolls dumped by some toy manufacturer. We covered the bodies with quicklime and earth hastily thrown on top. My revolution was dying down now that the bodies were out of sight, and I could feel some pity for those poor wretches who had worked along side us on the railway, whose deaths had come about largely because of their own ignorance and lack of hygiene. It was necessary to take every precaution to prevent the disease from spreading, so we burnt down all the huts, the camp becoming a huge funeral pyre to seven hundred Tamil coolies - partners with the Japanese in their plans for co - prosperity. We washed again and again in disinfectant before returning to camp.
We were sure now that the cholera had been brought down the valley by the stream, and the river too was considered to be contaminated. Both were placed out of bounds, and water was boiled and issued under strict control each man receiving one pint per day. There was absolute insistence that no other water must come in contact with the face. This meant that washing the face and cleaning teeth was strictly forbidden - unless one was prepared to sacrifice some of the boiled water. I chose to use a little to clean my mouth, eyes and teeth - using the frayed end of a twig as a toothbrush and charcoal as a substitute for toothpaste, these stringent precautions undoubtedly saved many lives. Unfortunately there were some who were careless and an isolation hut was set aside for these cases in our camp. One evening I entered my hut to find Joe Anderson rolling on the bed holding his stomach. I knew immediately that he had cholera, and as I helped him off the bed said “ come on Joe, I’ll get you to the isolation hospital”. “No”, he said “Once in there, I will never come out, leave me here”. Then he vomited and collapsed in terrible pain. I managed to get him to the hospital, and before he left me he gave me a ring and his sisters’ address in Cape Town: if he died, I was to write to her and send her the sing. Three weeks later a skeleton of a man approached me, his matted hair and beard almost hiding his face. He was in a disgusting condition and I didn’t at first recognise him - but the tattoos on his arms were immediately recognisable, it was Joe. I wondered how he could have survived, he was in fact the only person I knew to come out of the cholera isolation hospital on his own two feet. I returned his ring and I lost his sister’s address, which, as it transpired late, was unfortunate.
There was an unusual urgency in the guard’s commands as we were unceremoniously dragged from our beds much earlier than usual. “Bring your personal belongings” they ordered. It was still dark as we rummaged around to find our few pitiful possessions. This was totally unexpected and we wondered what their evil little minds had in store for us. We were soon to know as fifty of us were selected and taken to the tool store to be issued with axes, saws, steel wedges, sledge hammers and marched to a Japanese hut outside the camp where we picked up eight tents. We had to carry everything and with the tents festooned with tools and ropes and loaded without a word of explanation from our guards, we straggled up country along the surveyed railway route to an unknown destination. Our struggling marsh led us along a route which had in places been partly cleared but the going was slow and in our bare feet very painful. There had been a steady downpour and we plodded through swampy ground and over greasy boulders, falling many times with our cumbersome loads. At the end of the day after a meal of cold mildew rice and the inevitable salt plum we slept where we fell. After three exhausting days we reached a section of the railway which had been cleared, except for a number of huge trees, mostly teak, which varied in size from four to six feet in diameter and up to a hundred feet tall. There was time to erect the tents on the edge of the site and to eat a meal before curling up to sleep on the warm wet ground. We were paraded for work in the morning, no one was to be allowed to dig latrines or to improve the site, we knew immediately what lay ahead of us and could sense fear pervade through the whole group. The Jap engineer marked trees with crosses in coloured chalk, those with a yellow cross constituted a days work for our group of four: Robbie, Harry, Grapper and me. I counted myself lucky to be associated with three men of such calibre, they were all engineers, older and far more experienced than me. An unspoken bond of trust had developed between us. We were all competent with tools which enabled us to conserve our strength and suffer fewer injuries. Our mental approach to captivity and to the Japs was the same, and we instinctively knew that we could rely on each other. Some of the trees were difficult to fell. We hacked and sawed away for three days at one huge teak tree, which when once down was blasted with plastic explosive into manageable lengths which were later dragged away by elephants. The ground in and around the tents soon became churned up and deep in soft slimy mud. As the days passed the number of sick alarmed even the Japs, not that they were concerned for them, they were simply scared that the job might not be completed in time. There was no doctor and no orderlies, and soon of the fifty who left Kanu 11, nearly half were unable to work. They stayed in their tents too weak to rise and they vomited and excreted where they lay. The Japs would not go near the tents, they were always in a blue funk if they had to go near disease, they were frightened of the smell and the gruesome sight of the near skeletons lying half submerged in the mud. The rank smell of one’s own body was one thing, but add to that the stench which pervaded the whole area, the naked and filthy sick suffering in utter misery, too far gone towards death to recognise anyone, and it might not be difficult to imagine the depression we suffered when we returned from work to eat and sleep alongside them. Men began to die. We hadn’t the strength or the will to drag the bodies any further than the edge of the jungle, and half bury them in graves too shallow for decency. If a part of the body protruded above the ground, we didn’t bother to dig the hole deeper, we pushed the offending limb into the ground with our feet and spades.
We were behind schedules the guards became more brutal as they tried to speed up the work. By slashing with their bayonets and smashing their rifle butts on any part of the body exposed to them we were urged to greater effort. Their incessant maniacal screaming never ceased “Speedo” - they screamed; “Yasumi nei” - no rest; “Damme Damme” - they screamed, which means - bad very bad, lousy, bloody awful. The language contains no swear words but sounds more sinister than any other I know. We were battered and bloodied, but they were clever enough to do no serious harm and lose one of their slaves. I began to dread the return to camp.
I could no longer stomach the sight of the wretches lying near death in the mud, I began to despise them and I could no longer enter the tent. Robbie suggested that we build our own lean-to on stilts. I needed to be persuaded, I was doubtful if I could make the effort but we started that night selecting a reasonably firm spot about ten yards from the tent nearest the jungle. We began cutting bamboo by torchlight and dragging it out of the jungle. The Japs were curious, but when explained what we intended, they thought we were mad, and promptly ignored us. For seven nights we laboured, floundering in the mud, in the rain which stopped only for a short interval. The effort required each evening to drag up my puny body when every muscle and sinew cried out for rest, was indescribable. Robbie encouraged me, and bullied me, we nearly came to blows. Then our task was finished - and the eighth night was a night of rest, and in it we did no manner of work. We had constructed a 6ft x 5ft hut on stilts with two steps up and with sloping split bamboo roof 4ft high at the front. When we stood back in the light of day to survey the result of our labours we were very proud of our achievement. We kept a four gallon tin of water on the bottom step to wash off the mud before climbing into our living area, and although it was not very grand, it was at last clean and dry - and we made sure that it stayed that way. It was pitiful, and indicative of their condition, that most of our fellow prisoners appeared to be oblivious of what we had done, they showed no interest whatsoever.
Once again I was afflicted with a bout of malaria. I shuddered at every step and by mid morning I was convulsed with fever. I told the nearest guard that I was sick, he repeated the word as a question, “Biyoke Ka?” and in a high pitched voice “currah, Biyoke no ka”, and emphasised his meaning with a sharp dig to the pit of my stomach with his rifle. I staggered to my feet and continued trying to swing the axe but it kept slipping from my grasp and each time this happened he screamed unintelligible words at me. I fell to my knees, supporting myself on the axe handle and I could not muster the strength to rise. My feeble actions had already goaded him into a state of fury and now he stood over me demented. I let go of the axe and fell face down, I knew I had been kicked in the back, but I didn’t feel the pain I expected, and rolled over on to my back. As I lay there I could see through blurred eyes the rays of the sun through the trees and across the valley to the hills, it was a beautiful sight with all the rich colours contrasting with the greenish black of the jungle. I couldn’t hear very clearly, the screaming voice was somewhere in the background and just then I didn’t associate it with my predicament. My only problem I though was getting to my feet, that’s all that seemed to matter to me, but all my efforts were to no avail. Then my eyes focused on the figure standing over me, it raised a leg which seemed to take an eternity to come down. The kick in the ribs, didn’t hurt, I was too numb to feel pain. Was death like this, this deathly chill, I felt I was lying in an ice cold stream. How refreshing it would be if I could scoop up a handful and put it to my mouth. But I was not able to convert my thoughts into actions. I was vaguely aware of being kicked again and again and a blow jolted my head sideways. Everything seemed to recede and at this point I ceased to take any further interest in the proceedings. It was Harry who told the Jap menacingly to “Lay off, he’s had enough”.
This particular bout of Malaria was the worst I had endured, but several days later, as soon as I could stand, I was back at work on the railway. I was covered in bruises and contusions and every movement was painful. Things would have gone badly for me had it not been for the unselfish help of my friends, they covered for me and the guards never knew, as gradually the bruising healed and I recovered my strength.
These were men to be proud of and I felt privileged to know them especially as I had come to dislike most men, few could be trusted. The Dutch were arrogant and greedy and disliked each other. The Aussies would help only each other, at everyone else’s expense. They exploited any show of weakness and we were the “pommie bastards” who were to blame for their present predicament - I suspect the animals would have fared badly in our jungle - I was young and na´ve, maybe I expected too much of men under these extreme conditions. But I learned, I had to, to stay ahead of the pack.
Time passed unnoticed. The camp was in an appalling condition and the dead and sick outnumbered the workers. We were driven to work even faster, by Japs who became more vicious as less and less work was completed. One morning a guard worked himself into a frenzy over something we couldn’t understand and he set about us, clubbing everyone in turn with his rifle. He knocked one man clear off his feet and when he didn’t get up quickly enough slashed at him with his bayonet gashing his arm from shoulder to elbow. The man studied the gash for a moment then looked at the Jap with such indifference that he became hysterical. He shouted at us to line up, and then all the guards joined in strutting up and down clubbing each in turn. After about ten minutes bashing they had whipped themselves into a state of frenzy. This was when they could do murder and our survival depended upon our taking everything standing up in silence.
One blow struck my upper arm with such force that I winced and half a cry passed my lips, this goaded him into further fury and he swung a second blow. I turned my head and a glancing blow split my right eyebrow. At the sight of blood he grunted with satisfaction and repeated the dose to the other eyebrow, I swayed from one foot to the other and managed to remain upright. He gave me a long hard look before passing on to the next man.
Then the inevitable happened. They picked on one of the biggest, they hit him with everything, fists, feet, riffles and bayonets. They screamed with rage, flinging themselves at him until finally he fell to his knees. I lay broken. The episode was over and the Japs turned away, laughing now, like animals satiated after the kill. We carried him back to the camp, and did what we could for him but he died with internal injuries two days later. This ‘mash bashing’ was not uncommon, I ‘took part’ in three in Sian. At this time wet beri beri had crept up my legs from the knees down where they were parallel and swollen to eight inches in diameter, I reckon I weighed an extra fourteen pounds and I had to swing my legs sideways to walk.
The railway nosed its way nearer to our swamp camp and hundreds of natives carrying tents past near by on their way north. Thousands upon thousands went up into the heart of Sian and Burma. It is thought that 130,000 of them died the Japanese preferred them to died rather than to return to Malaya to tell the truth about the Japanese plan for co - prosperity.
Finally, after six of the worst weeks I had experienced the trees were felled our task done and we were turning to Kanu. When the role was called on the morning we left, twenty eight answered and they were all sick and exhausted, several could not walk and were unable and I knew by the look in their eyes that some would never reach Kanu. The return journey was a nightmare that seamed never-ending. Four died en route and their bodies hastily covered with loose earth and vegetation. We could carry the tents no further, and after a furious row the guards realised that we were physically incapable and accepted the situation.
As we approached a camp we were able to walk alongside the newly laid track, the camp was quiet, it seemed to me that now the line had passed the camp it had been allowed to die.
Physically wrecked, we did not look like men and yet we were not quite like animals. I still tried to preserve some self respect, I washed whenever it rained , I picked my teeth with a sliver of bamboo and sometimes cleaned them with the smashed end of a twig and charcoal and I vowed I would reach a latrine at any cost. I still had my book and I made a point of reading it whenever I could raise the interest. At this time my physical condition was at its worst. It was two years since my last wash with soap. Every line on my face was dirty, every pore on my body looked like a black head and my finger and toe nails were torn and encrusted with filth.
My feet were torn by bamboo thorns, through working for long months without boots. My pelvis and thigh bones stood out sharply and on the point of each was a red raw patch like a monkeys back side. All my ribs showed clearly, my arms and legs were stick like and the skin was wrinkled like an old mans where muscle had vanished. Everyone I looked at had shrunken heads and large teeth and faintly glowing eyes set in black wells, their hair matted and lifeless.
Kanu II had become a shambles of rotting tents and decaying bamboo huts which spewed out rotting and decaying bodies only distinguishable from corpses because they breathed and moaned for water. We struggled into camp and I drifted around looking for dad and for other familiar faces.
During our absence many more had died and others had been evacuated. During an epidemic of amoebic dysentery, everyone had been tested, and all sufferers and carriers alike, including dad had been evacuated to an isolations hospital at Kanchanaburi.
The railway continued its way and everyday we were sent down to the river to bring up supplies. The track up the mountain was murderous. On one trip, I fell with a fifty kilo bag of rice. I knew that if I let go it would tumble down and burst open spewing the rice down the hillside, and I would be viciously beaten and sent back to the river for another one so I clung to the sack and together we tumbled fifty feet down the rock strewn mountain side. When finally we came to rest I was sprawled across the sack with all the breath and strength knocked out of me. I lay exhausted for a moment then the screaming fury of a guard jolted me to full awareness of my predicament. I fell of the sack in my first hurried attempt to rise a boot helped me to clamber to my feet swiftly. I tried to lift the sack onto my shoulders but I could only lift to knee height. The guard shouted ‘Currah, dami dami’ an English drill sergeant might have shouted ‘you horrible little bastard you’, I tried again but it was no use I couldn’t lift the bloody sack. Suddenly the guard sprang forward, landing aside the sack on both feet, and in one swift movement lifted it and dumped it on my shoulders, nearly crushing me to the ground. Then, with this screaming idiot prodding me from behind I dragged myself back up the mountain side fearful with every step, that I would again slip. I think murder would have been committed had I done so.
Early in June a small party from Tamuan arrived in camp and we crowded around anxious for any news of the progress of the war and of those who had gone south earlier. One of the officers from dads regiment (Lt. Tegetmeier) brought the news that dad had died of amoebic dysentery, on the 24.04.1944. I was indicative of my state of mind that I experienced no deep feeling of grief. I was sad when anyone died, but the thought one often had was ‘lucky sod, he’s well out of it’. Death was of little consequence, always messy and ugly, but to be dismissed from ones mind as quickly as possible. And yet another link in my chain was severed.
We had been felling and cutting trees into logs for the wood burning engines and now that the piles of wood were stacked our work at Kanu II was finished.
Each man was a mirror of my own appearance. My body was draped with a loose fitted envelope of thin discoloured parchment, which wrinkled over my stomach and buttocks. I was suffering from beri beri, pellagra, dysentery, sceptic scabies, ring worm, tropical ulcers and skin rash. I had endured numerous bouts of dysentery malaria, dengue fever Typhus and one bout of MT Malaria. This is what the Japanese had done and we were convinced that it was the result of deliberate policy by Jap high command. And now what could they do with this pitiful wasted mass of humanity.
Well, they decided that we should be transported on our own railway to Tamuan in the certain knowledge that we would eventually find ourselves in Japan. We were loaded aboard a train and shipped south with several longish stops on the way to allow for those who succumbed to the journey to be buried. The journey, which under normal circumstances would have taken about eight hours, took two days. We arrived in Tamuan weak and ravenous, having not eaten for the entire journey.
Robbie and I shambled towards the fence between two rows of huts and one of the men on the other side crawled under it and greeted us with a warmth that almost had me in tears, it was Harry. He led us to one of the huts where we were greeted like long lost brothers by Grapper and Joe. They gave us two bananas and two boiled duck eggs which we devoured like the starving men we were. The warmth of their greetings and the gift of food was an act of charity performed by angels.
Mornings started with the collection of the night’s dead. They were taken from the huts and buried in the cemetery across the road. After that the day was our own for there was no work to do. That first morning my wanderings round the camp led me to the hospital huts. I looked into the dysentery hut, and hardened though I was to death and suffering, I was sickened by what I saw. Untidy heaps of rags were lying everywhere on the floor, lying there because in their extremes they were constantly fouling themselves and on the floor it didn’t matter. When two hundred men evacuate about forty times a day each and there are too few orderlies to cope with the days eight thousand calls, it can readily be seen that no care can be wasted on a man who is dying. I watched the Australian doctor operating in a small cubicle kept free of flies by mosquito netting. He cleaned out, or amputated as many as forty legs a day. After several days doing nothing, and wrestling with my conscience, I volunteered my services.
After hearing of my experiences in Kanu hospital he put me to work in the ulcer ward. All day I cleaned out huge ulcers with a spoon sterilised in boiling water. Dig the spoon firmly into the stinking pus. Repeat this until the wound could be swabbed out, then scoop out the few remaining mortified patches, put a piece of canvas or blanket soaked in a saline solution over the top and bind it on. The patient would collapse and crumple backwards bathed in sweat. It was not as if once done it was finished, there was always the next day, and they never improved.
In Kanu I had volunteered to work in the hospital because I wanted to help the suffering and helpless and although the work was exhausting and many of the tasks distressing I enjoyed what I was doing. But now I found myself hating it, my feelings towards the sick had changed, I hated the smells. I wished I had not listened to my conscience.
The days passed and as many men recovered their mental resilience there were nightly sing-songs. Two songs would have the whole camp singing together. “There’s a long long trail a winding” and then when they had finished that, “When they sound the last all clear, how happy my darling I’ll be”………. It seemed now that the worst of Thailand was over and the railway was finished, a railway which ran uninterruptedly from Bankok to Thanbyuzayat, south of Moulmein, a whole line whose every mile on its entire 400 mile length had cost the lives of at least fifty official POW and 350 natives. By the law of averages some of us had to survive, but of the thousands of white POWs who had left Singapore, less than half were destined to return there.
“All men to Nippon” it was on the lips of every guard. A hum of excitement spread through the camp at the prospect, though we guessed that the journey would be fraught with danger. The day arrived, we were selected by medical examination, a selection process which split many a close and long standing friendships. We were issued with a very colourful assortment of clothing: white T shirts, cotton shorts in pastel colours and stripes, straw hat, and the Jap cloven toed rubber “cow-boots”. A few days later we paraded ceremoniously and marched to the railway where a special train was waiting. It was a line of the inevitable steel box cars, the same as those we had travelled in from Singapore eighteen months earlier.