The Story of my Dad's time as a Japanese POW
In his own words.
by Ann Mallett
Because of a request from my daughter, and a little gentle nudging from my wife, Ive been asked to record the happenings of my life as a POW under the Japanese:
We were taken prisoner on February 15th at 4pm. 1942 at Singapore. We were advised by General Percival to lay down our arms in the positions where we had been fighting. We did this and stayed there that night, expecting the Japs to overrun us because we didn't know whether they knew we had surrendered. That night was the most uncomfortable night we had spent in our lives, wondering if they were going to come teeming through us. Anyway, they didn't, and we did as requested and piled up the rifles, machine guns, grenades etc. Next morning the Japs came and ordered us to march to Changi barracks, which was the headquarters of the British army stationed in Singapore in peacetime. It was a fair march and we eventually got there and sorted ourselves out. The Japs didn't interfere much, just waited for us to organise ourselves. After a couple of days a Japanese General came to inspect us, gave us a speech through an interpreter — so began our first con by the Japs. The General, through the interpreter, asked to raise hands all those who would like to be repatriated. Of course, everyone did, the thousands of troops there all did. The next day, in The Singapore Times, was a picture with the caption: ‘British Troops Cheer Japanese General'. That taught us a lesson.
After about a month we had to march to Singapore, to Valley Road, to start our first working camp. It wasn't a bad camp, actually, the food wasn't too bad, daily rations of rice and horrible fish. All sorts of fish which at first we didn’t eat, but later began to look forward to, as rations got scarce and we started to feel the effects of malnutrition. Soon people were going down with dysentery, malaria and other tropical ailments. We settled into this camp and our first job was to build some 'go-downs' or stone huts for the Japs. Then we decided amongst ourselves to do two cement 'bays', two in the morning, two in the afternoon. These bays were about five yards square. So we did four per day. The Japanese corporal, who had a lot of authority in the Japanese army, was very fair and wise. He saw through our little game, so he came down to our hut and offered us a huge tin of biscuits, if we did THREE in the morning and THREE in the afternoon. Which, of course, us being suckers, we did. The next time, he went to the next hut and offered them ten cigarettes per man, to do FOUR in the morning and FOUR in the afternoon. So, in the end, we were doing 6 a.m. To 6 p.m. For no reward!! Nevertheless, this wasn't too hard, as we were all still fairly fit.
The Japs used to delight in marching us to work at 1 a.m., they diverted from our normal path to take us round by the town, and on the railings were rows of Chinese heads which the Japs had cut off for some misdemeanor. They thought this very funny. We were sickened by the sight. The next day, they took us there again, but couldn't get away quick enough, because this time, there were JAPANESE heads stuck there!! So that was a shock for them.
Anyway, we got on pretty well with this job. There were a lot of Sikhs and Punjabis who had gone over to the Japs, and they were doing guard duty on our camp with the Japs in command. In the camp we had an English Major, Wilde, who spoke fluent Japanese, so he naturally had a lot of scope to walk in and out of the camp, interacting and liaising between us and the Japs. One day the Punjabis came into camp while he (Major Wilde) was out, and took his chair over to their guard hut. When he came back and complained to the Japanese guard commander, the guard commander came out and had a discussion with the Punjabis and Major Wilde, when one of the Punjabis leapt up, gesticulating with his arms. The Japanese commander obviously thought he was about to strike someone, so he just clubbed him down and killed him on the spot. I suppose he thought he was just protecting the Major, but it just shows how callous and brutal they were.
The huts in Singapore were not too bad and we had all the same units there around us. So, ok except for the food, which at first we thought a bit of a laugh, a bit of a joke, I suppose. I remember I sat between a Scotsman called Buchanan, and a Londoner called Bartholemew. This Buchanan had a book: 'Gone With the Wind’, which had, I think, 1038 pages. Barthoiemew, every day, asked Jock* if he could borrow his book, to which Jock readily agreed. Until one day, he said “Jock, can I borrow THE book?". Buchanan said: "No". That taught me a lesson. He said. "Once you say THE book, it makes it collective property; it's not collective property, it's MY property". Later, books became of rare value, because pages were rolled and used as cigarette papers which were very valuable. At this time, you could still buy a few cigarettes from Singapore.
We stayed at Singapore for about six months, and in around October of 1942 we were told we had to go up to Siam to build a railway. This was the start of our real troubles:
We were marched to the station and put in cattle trucks in temperatures of about 90 degs; forty to a truck, locked in. Not forgetting that people had dysentery and other diseases. It was like being in an oven. People with dysentery had no option but to do their business in the truck. They let us out at different points. I forget how long it took us to get to Siam, but we got off at Ipo for the train to take on water. We were allowed to stand under the water to get washed down. Eventually we got to Banpong where we disembarked and were led to a sort of camp with the usual bamboo huts; but by this time it was the monsoon season and the hut was two feet deep in water, and that was where we were supposed to sleep. Anyway, we stayed there the night and next day set off marching through the jungle. We marched about ten hours that day, had cold rice for packed lunch and got to a place called Kanchanaburi.
There, the Japs took us to a huge paddy field two feet deep in water. They said "Sleepo" That was where we were supposed to sleep, which was impossible. There was a big church there with a large annexe, and everyone crowded into this annexe. It was like a joke in a film, where you go to scratch your leg and find yourself scratching someone elses. In the middle of the night, the door was flung open and the Japs stood there with bayonets, shepherded us outside, prodding us with bayonets and rifle butts. They got us all lined up, and all round us were machine guns, all trained on us, and the Japanese Officer, with his naked sword going berserk (through an interpreter) telling us we had contravened the rules of war by taking shelter in the church.
This went on for a couple of hours, and by this time it was dawn. We were supposed to stay in that camp for a day, but one of our officers in charge was Major Brody, who had served with Lawrence of Arabia in the First World War; quite old, but very brave. He ordered us to line up ready to march out. The Japanese officer in charge ordered him to be beaten, which was duly done, with pick-helms (?pick-axes?), their favourite weapon. Nevertheless, we did march out Japanese officers, accompanying us. We had to cross the river, which was a torrent, a nightmare. But we didn't lose anyone. When we got to the other side, there was a cage built for Brody, and the Japs put him in it. Of course we all kicked up a fuss and they let him out. We kept marching for some days, each day somebody dropping dead, and sick. Now there was another officer in charge, Geoff Swanson, a cricket commentator for the BBC. The Japs kept repeating that we had just another two or three kilometers to go, day after day. Well on this particular day, we got to the end of the day and the Japs said that campo was just another few kilometers; but Swanson was adamant: "No! We camp here for the night" which we did. Next morning, we found that the camp that we were headed for, Tarso, was, actually, only a couple of miles away. There, our first job was building bamboo huts. Bamboo is deadly stuff, you got a cut from that and you were in trouble. As soon as you got a cut you got a tropical ulcer. The number of limbs that were lost because of bamboo was innumerable.
At Tarso, we were also chopping down teak trees, the jungle was full of them, marvellous trees, but not so marvellous when you have to chop them down!
There were several elephants working with us. If the elephants wouldn't pull, they used to say "Well, get two or three Englishmen to do it!”. The elephants really were darn lazy beasts.
There I met, and became friends with a lot of Aussies, by this time we were getting mixed together, with people going sick and dying, so our units were getting split up and combined with others.
I went into a makeshift hospital, with a tropical ulcer, next to an Aussie, Neil Collinson, he and I became really good friends.
I had always been a really good draughts player, and in the evenings we would have a competition. There were 1600 people playing. I got into the final, with a Dutch man! I lost to him after he manned me off, after me giving him one to make an opening for myself.
Neil C. had a big ulcer on his foot, which had completely taken the skin off, all the raw flesh exposed. Mine was a baby compared to his, but I couldn't eat my rice due to the pain. But it never perturbed him (the pain) and he would tell me to draw my rice, which I did, and as soon as the Japs were out of the way he would scoff mine down as well. This went on for some time until one day, a Doctor Millard, an Aussie doctor, came in, had a look at me and said: "You’re not eating your rice"
I said “No". He said. “It’s up to you. In three days you'll be dead if you dont eat." So naturally, from then on I started eating my rice. So poor old Neil had to go without it!
We didn't stay in Tarso too long, then we went up to start a jungle camp in Kanyu. There was Kanyu 1,2 and 3. We started Kanyu 1 down by the river. Strangely enough, although K1 was on the river, our ration came up on the road we had made. So we had to go half a mile to collect rations and bring them down to the camp.
Kanyu Camp 1
Sure enough, as soon as Kanyu river camp was finished, we went to Kanyu 2, and rations came in by river.
By this time rations were scarce, and rice was half water, half rice. Mostly, Koreans did guard duty. They were animals; they really feat their power, and used it. We got beaten up for practically any small misdemeanor: If you said a swear word in English (which they picked up very quickly) (and we picked up some Japanese, such as 'miasmi', meaning rest, which was the first word I understood).
Then, things started to get very hard. We started on the railway. We had to cut it through the mountains, of solid rock, so we had to dynamite a path.
It was a single-track railway, one thousand miles from Bangkok to Burma; each camp about ten miles apart, and one worked towards the other, building their stretch of railway. We had hand-drills, two or three feet long, with a sledge-hammer. Of course, nobody was used to using a sledge-hammer, so one held the drill, while one used the sledgehammer. By the end of the day your hands were cut to pieces; but there was no respite, you just got on with it.
The dynamiting was going on all along the stretches of railway; so while you drilled, the specialist would put the dynamite in, and you started running away; and you would meet another group running towards you, because they were blowing at the same time. Absolute chaos. They used to blow out huge boulders, and what used to delight the Japs, was to roll these boulders to the edge of the mountain and push them over. It really used to amuse them to see these boulders go crashing down.
This went on day after day after day, whether you were sick or not.
If you survived the first 36 hours, you were ok, but the odds were less than 50/50. There were lots of local peasants working for the Japs, and when they got cholera, they just did their business where they stood, and with this excrement all over the paths, it spread very quickly. The Japs put disinfectant pools at the entrance to camp, so you had to walk through it going in and out. This lasted about three months, but In that time many hundreds had died from it. A very frightening experience.
The Japanese officer in charge of our camp was a proper little so-and-so. He liked a drink. And when he got drunk, he used to go berserk, even the Korean guards used to hide from him at night when he drank, because he used to delight in beating people up. He would make them stand to attention and then beat them. Of course, the Koreans thought that they could behave in the same way, and they really beat us. I remember one called ‘The Mad Mongrel'. Later, when the war was over, a Captain in our group sent me a cutting, showing that he'd been hanged in Singapore. If ever a man deserved it, he did. He was an animal; he used to split bamboo, hit people with it and cut them to pieces.
One night, he came to our tent, made us all line up and stand at the end of the bamboo. He was in the right mood to beat us all, then he heard movement outside (it was about midnight). It was one of the fellows going to the toilet. He caught him and beat him to death. It saved us a beating, but cost him his life.
Another time, he caught some stretcher-bearers taking someone to a hut, and beat one of them to death.
The Koreans often had fights amongst themselves, really vicious fights, but the only fights that we had (although you can hardly believe of men of six stone!) were over a bowl of rice, if someone got more rice than another one.
The jungle was, of course, full of animals, mostly snakes. At first we used to scare the snakes off, or they would scare us off, one of the two, but we didn't realise how good they are to eat, until we began catching them. I remember, in the rice shed one day, there was a huge python in there, and one fellow in particular, who would eat anything (rats etc, most of us drew the line at such things) went with six others to catch the python. He said “I’ll grab its head, you all grab its tail".
Of course, as soon as he grabbed its head, it started flinging its body about and the others didn’t even bother with it anymore and he was left with it. Anyway, he killed it and cooked fine snake steaks!
We used to get one day off occasionally (ayasmi?). We had one Jap there who wasn't a bad old boy at all, and when we had a job in the jungle , he used to try to make it easier for us, but as (bad) luck would have it, he got malaria and died.
As I said, most of the guards were Korean, so ignorant and cruel that it was nothing to them to make us suffer. It was just routine to them and they thought nothing of it. I expect most of their own lives had been like that from the time they were born. One in particular. ‘The Silver Bullet', a really sweet-faced chap, to look at him you'd think: what a nice little chappie he is, he would come along at roll-call and put the heel of his boot on your foot, and grind it into the ground, smiling at you all the time. Horrible little man !
We had a pet monkey (there were hundreds of monkeys around the camp), and when we passed the guardroom, we had to bow to the ground each time. This monkey got so wise, it used to wait for whoever it was to go past the guardroom, and then it would scoot across in front of the Japs. In the end, of course they killed it. Talking about monkeys: remember, there were hundreds around the camp by the river Kwai. It was fascinating, in the morning, all the monkeys would congregate in the trees by the river. One of them would come down from the trees to the rivers edge to scout and look around. Then he would call out, and they would all come down to the river to bathe and drink,- they would stay for about ten minutes, then off they'd go. This used to happen nearly every morning. The working elephants, with their babies, also used to have their morning bath. These babies were really reluctant to go into the water, but the mother would push them over onto their sides and scrub them, and make sure they were washed properly. Fascinating to see. We had, of course our own doctors, who were also prisoners. I had to feel sorry for them because they had nothing to work with, and the Japs had a greater delight in making an officer suffer, than anyone else.
The doctors really had a hard job. I remember one, McConnachie, was a surgeon. They were not allowed to do autopsies or anything, but when it was dark, he would do an autopsy by the light of a torch and put the body back in the bag to be buried. There was another doctor: 'Weary Dunlop, an Aussie, a huge man, a great man; no fear whatsoever of the Japs. He suffered bashings and beatings,- they put him in the sweat box, and it didn’t make any difference, out he came, belligerent as ever.
Bun-draining ditch which surrounded the Chungkai camp
In the end, the Japs realised they couldn't beat him down, so they put him in charge of all the camps medical operations. We had a base camp (Chungkai?) which was the hospital base camp; you mostly went there to have an amputation.
You had to be very sick before you went there, I never actually went there, but from hearsay, I understand that amputation had become such a mundane event that the surgeons were timing each other to see who could do it the quickest, but Weary Dunlop went down there, created hell and put a stop to all this, and actually made it harder for amputations to be done, the most important job was to get men mended and well. He went up the river, went to ail the camps, and created hell amongst the cooks as well, who by this time had become pretty filthy in their ways of cooking, boiling rice in dirty pans (quaddies?) etc. He made them scrub the pans and clean everything. He was a great, great man.
I haven’t said much about the bamboo. Bamboos were huge trees, about sixty feet high. The female has huge spikes on, which were the main cause of people getting ulcers and cuts. We used the bamboo for everything. First of all we chopped them down to make huts, splitting tine bamboo to make benches and beds. The sections in between, we used for cups, for drinking from and eating our rice out of. We used it for spoons, making fires etc. very handy stuff. But, in the bamboo, there were snakes, and they seemed so much part of the bamboo that they were difficult to see. Mostly, the snakes scampered off when you disturbed them, and at first we were glad to see them go, but later, when we realised they were food, we caught them and ate them, grilled. Most were 2ft to 4ft long, like big eels. But there were some big ones.
I remember, one day we chopped a tree down, and there was a snake in this tree. We got a rat out of this snake. That was a very big snake! There were also wild pigs in the jungle, which the Japs were pretty scared of. We never got near them though, in fact I only saw one once; but we often heard them.
There were also wild deer; I think we called them 'barking’ deer, they were very small and quick, and, of course, there were all the birds: peacocks, etc., which we never got a chance to catch. There were other wild creatures, for example, big frogs (which some people ate), many other things like monkeys, they say some camps ate them. I don't know if it's true or not. None of us ever did, even though we could have caught them very easily.
In one camp, the camp next to us:( Tonchan??), next to Kanyu, the monkeys raided it, tore it to pieces. I don’t know what they'd done to upset the monkeys!
There were always many rumours about; the Japanese used to feed us with plenty, of course, telling us that London or England had been bombed out of existence, and that almost everybody had taken England except for the Scots and the Welsh. Everybody was pouring into England, but we took this with a pinch of salt because we knew that the Japanese didn’t know anything.
Then we got some authentic news from Burma, regarding what was happening there, and then, a bit later, we had a Mosquito (aeroplane) come over every day, but it never seemed to be attacked. So at least we knew that someone was keeping an eye on us.
Round about June 1944 (two years after being taken prisoner) we received our first mail.
I was out on the railway when it came in, and when we got back that night, someone told us that the mail had arrived. There was a squaddy there that I'd known for years; he and I were good mates. He said, “You want to see your boy, your little boy. There's a drawing of him in your wife's letter”
He'd opened my letters and everyone was passing them around. I had to go to about three huts before I could get my letters. Rosie had written this letter, and in the middle of it had done a drawing of my son, Michael, who, of course, I hadn’t seen. He had been born six weeks after I left England. I still have this letter to this day, Its seen almost as much action as I have as a POW.
So, first mail June 1944, after that we got mail only spasmodically. We were given pre-printed cards saying:-
I am working for pay.
I am not working.
I am in hospital. .. .etc.
You just crossed out the ones that didn’t apply. I got five altogether while I was a prisoner, and every time I was issued with one, I seemed to be at death's door. I hardly knew what to put. If you put that you were ill, people at home would worry. So I always put that I was working for pay (three farthings a day, ten Japanese occupation cents) whether I was dying or not, just to keep everybody happy.
My Aussie friend, Neil Collinson's wife was Mary, and he had a daughter, Margaret, who was born before he left, and we used to talk about our families as if we had known each other for years. After the war, we started corresponding, but then lost contact for years; but now, in 1987 we have started corresponding again, forty years later.
Every day; wet season, hot season, whatever the weather, we got up at six o'clock. We didn’t have to dress, as there was nothing to dress in.
The soles of my feet were harder than leather; about half an inch of thick skin. I could walk over anything and never feel it We had rice when we got up, and took a bowl out with us to the railway.
As the railway progressed, so we had to walk further and further to the job. The work was so hard.- you were not allowed to straighten your back. There was always a Jap there on a platform overlooking you. If you straightened, you got abuse,- if you did it a second time, you got bashed with the familiar pick helm.
We worked through monsoon and heat till twelve, then stopped for our cold rice. Then we carried on working until it got to seven o'clock, when we had to light a fire, principally (according to the Japs) to keep wild animals away.
I remember one incident involving a little Yorkshire chap. We were having our rice at seven, covered in sweat, nearly dark. The Japs told him to get near the fire, and he indicated that he was already hot and sweating. Two Japs grabbed him and held him over the fire until his skin blistered. He was in a sorry state. It was so frustrating that you couldn't do anything to help.
Leeches used to bother us. It was very boggy and you used to get leeches on your body. You could not afford to lose the blood that they took.
A little man called Yorkie was the cattle minder (we used to have cattle pulling the trucks, two of them to a cart). One day, one of them dashed into the jungle, and Yorkie, naturally, rushed after it to try and catch it and got lost in the jungle. He turned up in camp later that evening. He was just a mass of leeches, from head to toe. You often hear about people's hair standing on end? but this man's hair was literally standing on end because of the experiences he'd had in the jungle. The jungle was a fearsome place. I remember well, Christmas 1944, we'd been on the railway and it was monsoon time; so cold, pouring with rain. We were working until 10 p.m., then we had a two hour march back to camp; so we got back about midnight. The rain just came straight through the roof of the hut, and so you just slept in the wet. This night, we got back about midnight and went to get our rice, and the Japs gave us a tablespoonful of saki. That was how we knew it was Christmas day. They gave us a spoonful of saki! Which was very kind of them.
We finished the railway around January 1944. In 1945 we left the jungle camps and went to a base camp called Nakom Pathon, a sort of convalescent camp. We rested there, did little jobs, but nothing compared to the railway, which had killed thousands and thousands. At Nakom Pathon, the Japs came up with a new idea. They gave us two weeks P.T. At the end of two weeks you were deemed 'fit' whether you were alive or dead.
One day we were having our rice and chatting, when suddenly there was a rumble and a roar. Luckily, I was standing at the end of the hut with my rice, and I said to one of the fellows;"it sounds like a load of potatoes being tipped".
Then, all of us realised that it was allied aircraft raiding an oil dump at the back of our camp.
The Japs who were patrolling the wall, leapt off into the camp and hid wherever they could. The oil dump burst into flames. There was a big ak-ak base just behind the camp, who didn’t fire a shot until the aircraft lined up and made off; then the ak-ak opened up. One of the 'planes peeled off, came back, and shot up the ak-ak battery. Then the Jap officers, who had seen it all, and seen the Jap guards hiding in our camp, came and took a running kick at every Japanese head that they saw.
At another time, they had a Siamese chap tied to a tree. They left him there, more-or-less forgot about him; didn’t feed or water him for some days. Someone must have cut him loose, because he waited for a guard to pass by, attacked him, took his rifle, ran to the guardroom and opened fire on every guard visible. He then ran into the jungle, and as far as I know, he was never caught. Incidents like this often happened, they brightened the day a bit.
We stayed at Nakom Pathon until April. I was there about two months. They wanted about a thousand men to go to Mergui, on the Kra Isthmus. We didn’t know it then, but it was to build an escape route for the Japs, who were being beaten in Burma. We got into open railway trucks; At night, which was an obvious sign that the japs were fearful of the allies.
We were taken to a big steel bridge over a river, which had obviously been bombed by the Allies,- there was a huge gap in the middle. The Japs had put one width of plank across it, and we had to carry stones across this bridge.
By this time my eyesight had gone.
Most of us were in a sorry state. We had to carry sacks of rice across this pJank, a distance of about thirty feet. We were all scared, but we all made it ok. Then, when we got to the other side, they made us go back and carry more things across. After that, we marched for some days. During the second or third day, we were marching over some mountains, when all of a sudden a 'plane came screaming down at us. I dived into a rotten vegetable heap, by an old Jap outpost But he didn't fire at us, and on we went to Mergui. Everyone knows about The railway and The Bridge on the River Kwai' (which was just another bridge to us); but Mergui was far worse than the railway. One thousand of us went there in April 1945, and when the war was finished in September, (as far as we were concerned), five hundred of us had died, and the rest of us were just skeletons. We had to build a road through virgin jungle, which meant sawing down huge trees, chopping down bamboo, and digging the roadway. We had elephants working with us and we were given a 'chunkle1 (like a big hoe) per man. We were not given replacement tools, and in the jungle, you only had to lay it down, and you'd lost it. So in the end, most of the 1000 who had started the job were doing it with their bare hands. By June, we hadn't had one death, which was most unusual, and we began to have the silly idea that we'd found Shangri-La. You'd be surprised at the silly ideas you get when you're in a situation like that. Then from June on everyone started to go down with malaria, dysentery, beri-beri, you name it, people were dying from it. It was impossible to cope. Even the Japs started to die. We had no medicine at all there (at other camps you did sometimes get medical care) but nothing there at all. It was absolute hell there.
It was the worst six months I spent as a prisoner — absolutely crazy, people dying like flies. People having no strength to bury them, but the Japs would make you dig a grave and try to bury them. We were put into huts in alphabetical order, and there was a chap next to me called Keeling. God knows how he got through, but up to that time he hadn’t had malaria at all (by that time I'd had it 22 times !!). then he got a bout of malaria. I got his rice for him, fed him with it, bathed him with water and so forth, and quite frankly, I was twice as bad as he was. But he wasn't used to it, and I was.
One day, sometime in August, someone announced that the war was over, and this chap Keeling, he just sat up and bashed me with his fists, saying “The bloody wars over!! The bloody war's over!!" and, unfortunately, as far as I was concerned, it was over, because I was unconscious.
There was a place in the camp where they put you if you were dying, until you died. Because the bodies decomposed so quickly, you just had to get them out of the camp.
Well, I was put into this place, and woke up five days later. By this time, those who could walk had left the camp. But there was a chap sitting by me. There were dead people each side of me, about eight in all; and this Singapore Volunteer chap (I have, unfortunately forgotten his name) sat by me and kept an eye on me all the time I was in a coma. He stayed with me another day or two, saw me get to my feet and start to learn to walk again. I cant remember clearly about the happenings then, but I know that everyone had gone to base camp, no Japs left at all. Just one or two people left. Then I started on a trek down to base camp.
You couldn't get lost as there was only one track that led from our camp down to base camp at at Bangkok.
I started walking, by this time I couldn't have been much more than five stone.
I decided then, to give up hope and to lie down and die, because it seemed far easier than going on. When along the track came a mother elephant and her baby. This baby elephant, wanting to play, made a run at me. I got up and ran away from it into the jungle, and the elephant went away with its mother. I then realised that if I could summon the energy to run away from that, then I could carry on, which I did. I don't know how long it took, as I was in a semi-stupor, but eventually I got to the base camp. The organisation there was unbelievable; stupid. When I think back now, they must have killed damn near as many as the Japs killed. All the way down the middle of these huts were huge skips of eggs and bananas. Eggs and bananas by the hundred, and of course, people were up all night cooking an eating eggs, stuffing themselves with bananas. It must have killed as many as it saved. Then they gave us ten cigarettes.
I forgot to tell about the cigarette situation in the jungle. Naturally, we couldn't get any cigarettes, but we did get ten cents a day for working (equal to three farthings, three quarters of an old penny) the Siamese (Thai) had a weed, some sort of tobacco, I suppose, horrible stuff. We also used to get leaves and lie on them for two or three days to dry the sap out, then make cigarette paper out of them to roll this weed. When we first started buying this weed from the Siamese, it was about $2.50 for about a kilo.
When we all started to smoke it, we had to put all our money together, as the price went up by fifty times! I don't really know why I smoked it; until you got used to it, it used to take the skin off your tongue, so that your mouth was almost raw.
Anyway, as I say, when we got to the base camp the war was over and the Red Cross gave us some cigarettes (incidentally, the Japs never let the Red cross in) and all of this stupid food. We stayed there a while, got some medical attention,- and then they started to categorise us for shipment out
Eventually I was put on a plane to Bangkok. There were about twenty-two of us on this plane - - all wrecks of mankind; you could hardly believe they were human. Everyone had dysentery. The plane was an old Dakota, where the door lifted straight into the plane. As there was no toilet, we had a big bucket at the back of the plane, and as we approached Rangoon (by the way, by this time the air crew were all in their white ducks), the pilot sent back to the sergeant in charge of the cabin, to tip the contents of the bucket out over the sea before we got to Rangoon. Instead of going to the back of the plane, away from the wind, he stupidly went to the front of the doorway with the bucket. Human nature, being what it is, everyone who could, crowded round to watch (luckily, I was too ill to move), and it all came smack bang back into the plane, into all their faces, and of course, everyone started vomiting then. So when we came in to land at Rangoon, no-one would come near the plane.
Eventually I was carried out; but I had a mug which I had hung on to all the time I was a prisoner (full of cracks and disease, mind) and they wouldn't let me take it with me.
They took me to a hospital and put me on the third floor. Of course, it wasn't a very busy hospital, and nobody attended to me for about three days! Till one of the other patients complained to the staff that no-one was attending to me. And so when the doctor did see me, he panicked and had me transferred to a special hospital in Rangoon where there were only about twenty patients, looked after by a Major Ridley, an eye specialist from Moorfields (eye hospital in London). Oh, and then I really started living! I wasn't allowed to lift a finger, everything was done for me. I was washed and bathed, carried out at 5 a.m into the morning sun; brought in again at about 7 a.m. It was like heaven. I was there about two months I think. Times and dates were irrelevant? then I was transferred by hospital ship from Rangoon to Calcutta, and went into a hospital at Ranchi. In this hospital, nearly every ex POW had either gone, or was about to go, home. But I just could not put on any weight, only about 2lbs per week. Everyone was concerned. Then they discovered that I had amoebic dysentery, and I had a course of penicillin. I had eleven needles per day, eight penicillin, three others. Of course all the nerves in my body were practically dead, and this nurse used to get really livid because she couldn't make me jump, no reaction at all.
Then the week came that I put on 9lbs, progress!, I had reached about nine stone and was thinking in terms of going home (it had to be December by now), but they kept saying that I wasn't fit enough. The army doctor wanted me to go home by boat to aid my recovery, but I said that I wanted to be home for Christmas. So he said “I'll pass you fit if the RAF doctor will pass you fit for flying”.
So I went to the RAF doctor and said "The army doctor has passed me fit, and it all depends on you whether I can go home" So, of course, he passed me. I don’t know if that was a disaster or a joy.
I got a plane at Calcutta, flew to Delhi, then on to Karachi. I stayed in Karachi for only a matter of hours, because I had top priority by now, I was one of the last prisoners to go home.
There was this old Liberator flying people home. I was flying with a lot of squaddies coming home on leave from the 14th army. We were bound for (Lidda?) but over (Shiva?) airport we looked out of the window and flames were licking from the engine. I told one of the squaddies, and he said, "Oh, they'd tell us if it was dangerous.". Then someone came through the door from the cabin compartment and said: "We will be landing at ?Shiva? Airport, and as soon as we land ... GET OUT!!... because the plane is on fire!!!" which by this time was obvious. We went straight into ?Shiva? Airport (just a patch in the sand). The sad thing was that I had been kitted out at Karachi, but had to leave it all on the plane.
We were stuck there three or four days before another plane came to take us out. Then we flew into Lidda, and as I had top priority, I was told to be on standby, not to undo what kit I had left. But this went on for four days. So I went to the booking office, and they said that I wasn't listed! But when they realised I'd been there for four days I got the next plane out.
We landed at Castle Benito, North Africa, and then I was supposed to go to Kent but it was fog bound, so instead, I landed at Cambridge.
From Cambridge, I was put on a train to London. I stayed at a hotel in London, where the cigarettes I'd bought in Lidda were stolen. Next morning, a taxi came to the hotel to take me home to Borehamwood. Got home and met my son for the first time. We got on well.
I've missed out a lot, but its a job, after all this time, to remember details.
I'll try to give some details of the camps:
Kanyu was the main camp, where I spent most of my ROW life.
There was Kanyu 1,2 and 3, as I have said. The camps were never far from the river, as the river was the main means of communication; by barge, etc.
The Siamese (Thai) forests were full of fantastic teak trees .. huge. We had to chop a lot down. There were two of us to a cross-cut saw and an axe. After they were cut down, they would then be sawed on the ground to about half, or a third the length? and then the elephants would pull them down to the river where they were strung together and tied to bamboo rafts. They were tied underneath the rafts and floated down-river to Bangkok. There, they were sunk in the river for some time.
This went on until we had cleared an area covering several miles.
That was one of our first jobs, which wasn't too bad. The jungle there was very dense and you were always hearing animals which you seldom saw, except for snakes, we saw snakes all the time.
We had buffalo in the camp to cart things around, and they were almost as badly off as we were.
They used to work them until they dropped dead ... they had huge holes in their sides that you could fit your head in, but they still worked them, but then .. we were lucky enough to get some of the meat, although one buffalo between around a thousand men didn't amount to much.
There were many vultures around who used to stand around waiting to get near a carcass, and as soon as they got a chance, the kite hawks would appear from nowhere and practically take the food from the vultures' beaks. They were so quick.
As time went on ,the work became more difficult, as we became weaker and thinner... except when you had wet beri-beri (there are two kinds of beri-beri) when you swelled up like a balloon, full of water.
People began dying daily; friends, mates. You got used to it, until the cholera came.
As for the diseases, we had all the usual diseases you get here; pneumonia for example; plus all the tropical diseases.
Most casualties were due to malaria and dysentery, and often, the two together.
Then, of course, there were the tropical ulcers caused by the bamboo, which were horrific, and if you got malaria at the same time, it would spread the ulcer and make it very bad. There was also beri-beri, polagra, scurvey. Every disease you can think of, we had it. Malaria was my worst, and, of course, you had to work while you had it, whereas normally, you'd be in bed, in hospital with it.
Parties were detailed to dig graves.
The next camp was Tonchan. There were a lot of locals working there, and when cholera struck, they just had to dig one big hole and throw all the bodies in it, and set fire to them. These were daily happenings.
We got all our water from the riven we had to boil it of course. We had different kinds of rice.- limed rice, 'husky rice, which still had the husks on; but mostly it was just unwashed rice. We had rice every day. At one time on the railway, when there were very many people sick, they cut the rice rations in half for the sick, which was self-defeating. They had orders from Tojo to work the prisoners until they died, so cutting the rice rations killed them off before they'd go enough work out of them!
On the bottom of the pans that the rice was boiled in, was a layer of burnt skin; this was given out as a spacial treat to certain people on different days, Japanese toast. We augmented our diet with things we caught. We couldn't catch the birds, not even the peacocks? monkeys we wouldn't eat, but most other things, we did. There were huge iguanas there, 4 to 5 feet long, when we first went up river, we thought they were crocodiles. One day, when we went to work, there was one of these clinging to the branch of a tree, and everyone got round in a circle and began poking it, hoping to catch it, but it didn’t move, and everyone thought it was dead, and relaxed. When suddenly, the thing leapt down and through us like a dose of salts, and that was the nearest we got to catching one of those! I would imagine that would’ve been pretty good to eat.
I saw on t.v once that the largest scorpion known was four and a half inches long, well, one that we caught in the jungle (in fact, the Japanese had it hanging outside their hut) was eight inches long.
We had spiders that used to span the telegraph wires, and big furry ones that used to stare at you from the bamboo, bamboo spiders; and spiders that used to leap about four feet. There was a variety of wildlife, wild pigs, wild deer; but never saw any tigers or such like, I suppose the noise in the camps kept them away. We had a chap called Tony Nelson, he'd had a leg off (along with many others) and he was a real gangster. He used to sit at the end of his hut at night with his gang. They used to go through the wire (or over the mud wall that we'd built around the camp). One night, Tony sent his gang to raid the Jap compound, because they had Saki, but unfortunately, one new recruit thought he'd sample it while he was there, and the Japs found him there next morning, spark out with drink. So, of course, he went in the sweat box. Another incident, one chap there, (he'd been with a circus pre-war) he got blamed for something he hadn't done. Everyone knew who had done it, but he volunteered to take the blame, and went into the sweat-box for a week. In the sweat-box, you only got one bowl of rice a day and little water.
We had a rest day once every ten days. The Japs used to go fishing. Their idea of fishing was much more sensible than ours: they used to put a group of us across the river about fifty yards apart, so there was about 100 yards in the gap, with the Japs on the side. Then they'd throw gelignite into the river.. it used to stun the big fish and kill the little ones. Some were quite big, about two feet long? they used to float on the top, and at first we thought they were dead, but as soon as we touched them, they came to life. The Japs would have these fish, because actually, they weren’t much better off than we were.
We pinched one or two .. threw them into the jungle and collected them later.
Punishment was handed out daily. You were lucky if all of you didn't get a beating of some sort every day, usually with a pick-helm or split bamboo .. all on bare skin,- all we wore was a (fanduchi?) nothing else.
They delighted in beating us.
In some parts of the jungle there were banana trees, probably where there had been a plantation. One day, one of the lads found a banana tree, and was caught eating bananas; the Japs made him eat a whole hand of bananas, forced them down his throat, then jumped on his stomach.
They used to tie you up without water, and take great delight in wetting you with water, right up to your chin.
The Japs told us daily (they may have believed it themselves as most of them were just ignorant peasants) that England had no aeroplanes left, and that the Germans had shot all our planes down. But towards the end of the war (we had not seen any Allied planes up til then, except this one Mosquito keeping an eye on us) where was a raid by Flying Fortresses. Unfortunately, there was a big railway siding in Siam, where Jap troops took Geisha Girls (we had a camp nearby). The Fortresses blew up the siding because it was on the supply route for the Japanese Burma Campaign; but one stick of bombs fell across the ROW camp and killed ninety-eight of our fellows. Sad.
Then, no sooner had we finished the famous' bridge, when a Fortress came along and dropped a bomb right in the middle of it. And we had to start again!
So the railway that we had spent four years building, and that had cost so very many lives, really hadn’t done them any good at all by the time the war was finished.
Amazing that, as weak as we were, so many fights broke out about one person thinking that another had got a bit more rice than him. Grotesque, skeletons fighting over a couple of ounces of rice. Once we were in the jungle, we didn’t ever see a Siamese village, but sometimes we saw the local people climbing the trees, because orchids used to grow at the top of these trees, and they used to collect them. The only other local people we saw were by the river (all transport was via the river, until we built the roads). In the dry season, the local people used to build a hut near the river to do their hand-net fishing-, but when the monsoons came, the river swelled by up to 100 feet, hugely, and all the huts were washed away, and the bodies would come floating down the river. The same thing happened year after year, they never learned.
There were about sixty thousand prisoners taken when Singapore fell. Most worked on The Railway, most were British, several thousand Aussies, a few Americans, lots of local Singapore Volunteers. All the Aussies I met were really great blokes, they would always help you when you were in trouble.