Sketch by Jack Chalker

Life as a POW

Memoirs of Douglas Morris

Life as a POW - The story of the next three and a half years involving six months in the camps at Changi and the following three years on the Burma-Siam Japanese Railway of Death involving the burial of 16,000 British PoWs is a story that can best be recounted in many books such as that of Col. “Weary” Dunlop, the outstanding Australian doctor and Capt. Eric Lomax, R Signals, “The Railway Man”. I will recount only a few of the more outstanding incidents that perhaps are of interest from a war so many years ago and which directly affected me.

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Cattle Trucks by Charles Thrale

In September 1942 many of us suffered a beastly uncomfortable four-day railway trip in steel cattle trucks up to Siam and Chungkai, the starting point of a 350 miles Railway to reach Burma. I and several others, including Jack Masefield, were attached to 2nd Cambridgeshires commanded by Col. Victor Mapey. He asked me to take command, for working on the railway, of his C Company with CSM Williamson and a stout-hearted lot of Eastern Counties lads. This I did. In support was Captain John Beckett, a good Cambridge barrister, their adjutant, and among other good friends their Padre Duckworth, a man of small stature but stout heart who was well remembered as Cox of the Cambridge boat for three years back in the 30s.

The Japanese were determined to finish their work as soon as possible and completed the railway building in 14 months at a ruthless and brutal cost. They soon demanded that all officers work despite the Geneva Conventions which they did not acknowledge. And sick men were forced out to work at bayonet point. The stretch of land mainly open and before the jungle started, following the line of the River Mee Nam Kwae Nai was initially our area.

A day came with what was dubbed a “speedo” when the situation became so bad there was a revolt. Men were being made to stand holding heavy stones above their heads, accused of not working hard enough, until in their frailty they collapsed. Also on the line to our north were a company of the Manchesters commanded by Major Philip Buchan and next to them a company of Gordon Highlanders commanded by Captain Francis Moir-Boyes. They were just within sight of us and we were about two miles south of our camp. In defiance they marched their men off the railway embankment and back to camp before the normal time. When I realised what was afoot I followed suit with my company. I had Jack Masefield with me that day. The camp soon realised that there was to be a very unpleasant incident.

The guards took Philip and Francis roughly to the guardroom and having stripped them of their shirts, tied their hands behind their backs. All men, several hundreds fit to walk, congregated round the guardroom.

Blocks were produced and the two were forced to kneel down resting their necks on the blocks. Two swords were produced (I think the only two in the camp at that moment) and with shouts of abuse the two sword wielders waved their swords over the two necks bringing them down with a bang with the flat, not the cutting edge, on their necks. It looked like an execution! Had that happened we would have attacked them I believe. Suddenly it all stopped, in typical Japanese fashion. It was however a shaking experience. At the time we all thought it was their end. I think the only reason I was not included was that there were only two swords available! There were long and brave consultation with our senior officers and the Japanese commanders.

We were soon to move to Camp Tekanum, 130 miles up the river where, with increasing intensity we suffered the ravages of cholera, malaria, dysentery, beriberi, diphtheria, skin/heart troubles, tropical ulcers. It was here, when one day cholera deaths reached 40, we had to recourse to burning our own dead in large fires Hindu fashion. It was thus we were able to stifle the spread of this terrible plague.

During all this time I had of course made contact with Brother Terry who had been forced to work in an officers’ working group and in the various ways we had we were able to keep in contact.

One final thing of interest during this period was the establishment of radio contact with the outside world. In the time before we left Singapore Tom Douglas, an officer in Royal Signals who arrived with 18th Division and who had worked as a highly skilled engineer on matters radio with the BBC, was attached to the Cambridgeshires. He had been able to secrete a whole lot of vital radio equipment, wire, valves &c and had built an efficient and effective set inside my water bottle, one he particularly wanted because it was the old “officers” type water bottle rather larger than that issued to rank and file. It was beautifully done, even with a central tube in it into which water could be poured and was secure. (I got another water bottle!)

To work, it required the use of ordinary commercial torch batteries. Hidden in the hollow tubes of the female bamboo end to end and the bamboos stored away in the cookhouse huts or the like, there were fairly regular listening session to Radio Ceylon.

Our lifeline was the river. Rations &c would come up from Bangkok in pom-pom boats controlled by a Siamese Boon Pong, a gallant “British Supporter” who, for all his wonderful work for PoWs was awarded an MBE. It was he who helped me to get some M&B tablets in Bangkok, which were to save Terry losing a leg from a bad tropical ulcer. The other thing he did for me was to cash a cheque. I wrote on a cheque form (altered not a cheque of my own) and which, in spite of a poor rate of exchange, was honoured when presented at the end of the war to my London branch of Lloyds Bank!

After the railway (single line) had been completed and was being heavily used, the pressure on the PoWs relaxed. We moved back to the Chungkai area and there our chief concern was the care and support of sick and infirm. The heavy weight of this fell continuously on our good doctors, Bob Hardy, who has also written a book, Weary Dunlop, Max Pemberton, Ginger de Wardener, a good friend of mine, Ian McIntosh to mention but a few.

It was at this stage I got Joanie’s letter with her photograph and on one occasion I remember asking Ginger if it is possible that one can be immune from malaria. His answer was “Don’t you worry, old boy. You’ll get it in the end”. But by some miracle I didn’t and survived these three and a half years guarded from cholera, malaria, dysentery, beriberi - quite how I will not dare to boast but just be amazingly thankful!

The engines of the trains had to be wood burning and the supply of adequate timber from the teak jungles through which the line ran was constant and arduous work if of a different nature. The Japanese brought down from Burma a string of elephants complete with their mahouts totalling in all about one hundred whose task it was to drag out of the jungle felled trees and store them where they could be finally used for engine fuel. For one spell of a few months C Company, considerably reduced in numbers of fit men, were detailed as “elephant boys” and we accompanied them into the jungle sites helping to lash the trunks to the elephants’ harnesses and, through many hazards, helped in this interesting and at time quite tough work. Elephants, in their patience and incredible strength, are amazing creatures to work with.

One little incident I remember in this time working in the jungle. Japanese guards accompanying us were minimal. I was able to slip away into the jungle by myself having told one of my own NCOs what I was doing and I was able to watch and enjoy some of the wonderful bird life, particularly the long-tailed Drongas. But more importantly I was entirely alone and in the wonderful quietness I was deeply conscious of the presence of God and I prayed and was given a feeling of help and security.

At this time also, with relaxed Japanese behaviour, we were allowed to go as far as entertainment, plays and shows to which our Jap and Korean guards would attend. Producer of many shows was Cpl Leo Britt, a professional London actor of great skill and knowledge. Such shows as “Wonder Bar”, “Thai Diddle Diddle”, “Night must Fall” were, under the conditions, wonderfully produced and amazingly well dressed with fine scenery. They also were a great morale boost to all and particularly our permanently wounded. There were by this time and in this camp alone 120 men who had one leg amputated due to tropical ulcers and over 20 with both legs gone.

Both brother Terry and I found ourselves involved in this side of life and took part in several shows together! Terry and I were together and determined, if it was humanly possible, to stick together to whatever faced us.

It was at this time that the Japanese decided to move all officers away from the Railway and send them out of Siam into the southern area of French Indo-China to a campsite in an area known as Nakhom Nayak. The Japanese premier General, Hideki Tojo, was increasingly aware that America was going to win. In the event of enemy landings and attack on the Japanese mainland orders were issued that all prisoners of war were to be disposed of. Our fate was to be shot and buried in mass graves for disposal. Many grave pits were dug!

It was when we had actually started this journey in a party we were waiting at the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai which had been highly successfully bombed by American bombers with nearly all the spans smashed beyond immediate repair.

A train load of Japanese soldiers came down the line from the battle fronts in Burma and it was decided to use our group of officers to lift them out of the train and put them into small boats to cross the river and continue their journey by train on the other bank. With old rice sacks and bamboos we made some stretchers. The poor creatures were in a dreadful state, many of them quite young lads. Their journey had obviously taken several days untended by any medical help.

Open wounds turning gangrenous and looking and smelling dreadful. Terry and I were working together. One poor little man, near to the point of death and in utter discomfort when we lifted him, held up a rough tin begging for water to drink.

Well-drilled and trained PoWs, we both had full water bottles! Terry gave him some water which the lad drank. This little incident was witnessed by one of the Japanese guards who turned on Terry and gave him a nasty beating up. He shouted in Japanese we could just understand that these wounded had failed the Emperor and were no longer worthy of help. It just showed the attitude and thinking behind our mentors as to their approach to their fellow men.

So we found ourselves in Indo-China, away from the railway and faced with building huts in which to live. We had to go out to collect bamboo and soon discovered that the locals were French speaking and we had immediate contact with them.

The end was to come within a few months of our arrival. Strange things were happening. We got various messages from American under-cover “advance” men dropped into the area by parachute telling us to hold on and that help was coming.

It was indeed exciting. We were very conscious that the Japanese were tense and worried, and still no orders came for our disposal. The day came when the atomic bombs were dropped. We got news almost immediately from the locals who openly shouted “La guerre est fini – bravo” With the help of a stolen car battery from the Japs, our radio did its last big job and we got confirmation that this was indeed so. To our amazement the Japs obeyed completely the orders of the Emperor that all resistance was to cease.

Our expressions and outbursts of joy and thankfulness and praise and thanks to our God knew no bounds. The singing of “The King” and “There’ll Always Be An England” were as impressive as any I have ever heard.

 

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