Unfortunately thought death, sickness and injury the prisoners were separated from their comrades of their own units and as I marched out of Wampo I think I was the only Northumberland Fusilier in that party, however, from then on I teamed up with half a dozen blokes who were to be real mates and we stuck together through thick and thin.
There was De Grucey, Bill Lowes, John Birchal, Bill Gray and a lad called Bert whose second name fails me, and I, and we helped each other in some very awkward situations, and whatever we got extra in the way of food was shared evenly.
The system the Nips were operating on the railway was one of leap-frogging, and about every twenty kilometres or so a camp was established and that particular camp was responsible for that particular section of railway, therefore when a camp finished its section, the next task could be sixty or seventy miles march further on, however on occasions if a camp was having difficulty, a party was temporarily pulled in to help out, if the Jap commander of that camp was senior to the commander of the party happening to pass his way he just ordered the party to halt and get on helping out.
The organisation was choas and how the Jap military could organise themselves to win a battle was the topic of many a discussion, as the organisation on the railway was hilarious. It was the same with rations, which invariably came up the river in sampans. If the sampans pulled into the side of the river near a camp and the Japs were about, they would confiscate the entire shipment and the poor blokes further up the river who were waiting for it, just simply had to do without, and the prisoners suffered tremendous hardship and deprivation (on account of this thieving).
Pains administered through physical violence, or pains through disease were bad enough, but hunger pains are undescribable and hunger pains we suffered by the million. The feeling could possibly be compared with a pig, which has its throat cut and left to bleed dry, the ache of your strength ebbing away through all functioning parts of your body trying to get its share of blood to keep going when there is insufficient blood to satisfy the requirements and the deep cramping pain in the pit of your stomach as it tries to produce from the small amount of food fuel one was able to get, together with malaria and dysentery bugs eating more than their share, all accounted for that undescribable hunger pain which is actually worse than I am able to describe properly, one has actually to suffer the agony of acute hunger to appreciate the feeling.
The march from Wampo was on its way and fortunately we had no rain this time, but the burning sun made life difficult and although we were not wet with rain, we were saturated with sweat as we trundled our way along the jungle track to our next camp. All the time, we were passing groups of prisoners or natives working on sections of the railway and just before reaching Tarso we came across half a dozen prisoners undergoing torture for some mis-demeanour and each had a different style of punishment.
One was standing naked with the exception of a G-string and boots, with a huge stone held above his head with the sun beating down on his uncovered head, the heat at that time would be in excess of one hundred degrees and the unfortunate soul was on the point of collapse. Another was kneeling on top of the embankment with a bamboo pole between the back of his knees and had his hands held high with another huge stone, the idea being to pull his knees out of joint. Another was kneeling on the rocky ground with his hands held straight and holding two buckets of water and the others were enduring a similar form of punishment and it was noticeable they had all been beaten as each had cuts and bruises with congealed blood on their naked bodies.
Passing the various working parties we saw many prisoners whom we knew and after casual greetings we moved on hounded by the Jap guards. As we passed Tarso camp it looked a terrible place with broken down huts and very poor amenities, and although it hadn't rained for a few days the camp looked to be under about two feet of mud.
Our party was a motley lot with the Aussies and Dutch in better shape than the British and in the main the nationalities did little fraternising with one another. Inevitably the column straggled and again the Japs screamed shouted, belted and butted the tail-enders, who unfortunately were the least able to withstand such punishment as they were sick men and some of them chronically sick. I was fortunate that I was always in the middle group and missed the beatings on the march, except in cases where we just simply had to move back and help those sick people, and on this particular march I had to help to carry some of them, and then it was us who got a whack with the rifle butt etc. but if we hadn't done so those who couldn't keep pace would certainly have been shot as the Jap guards had their rifles loaded and the catches pushed forward, and there is no doubt they would have used their rifles.
On we trudged, slipped and slid for what appeared eternity until 'Yasme all men’ was called for 'meshi-meshi’ (lunch) and we devoured our rice and laid down for a rest, but only for a few minutes until the guards shouted ‘All men go’ and off we stumbled again, from seven o'clock in the morning until nine at night we struggled through the jungle until we reached our next camp which happened to be Kinsayo and what a sight greeted our eyes as we staggered up to the camp, which was already occupied by prisoners.
On the side of the track was a huge fire and laid out on the ground without any cover whatsoever was a row of dead bodies. Fellow prisoners were simply getting hold of the corpses head and feet and slinging them on the fire and we could hear the sizzling of bodies as they were roasted. On one occasion the body was thrown and missed the fire and the cremators casually walked to the other side and flung the body back on to the fire. The death rate at Kinsayo was unbelievably high and they could just not cope with grave digging so the pyre system had to be adopted. It was horrible to witness but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances and it was more hygienic than burial anyway.
This camp was a horrible place, however we were allocated tumble-down shacks and had at least to be grateful we had a roof over our heads, and were still alive.
Several prisoners we knew came into our huts to greet us and find out if we knew the whereabouts of any of their particular friends, and as they were established and used to the camp routine they helped us a great deal that first night. Although conditions were abominable there were some businessmen prisoners and soon a five-gallon drum of ‘hot, sweet and filthy,’ at ten cents a cup was offered to us and we bought it readily after that long, tiring march. They had the audacity to shout ‘hot sweet coffee, ten cents a go’ and really it was as much like coffee as vinegar but it was wet and slightly sweet and we were thirsty.
Before we got laid down to sleep the heavens opened and the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed and we were flooded out. The camp was on a slight incline and within a short time the water was six inches deep in the hut but fortunately we were lying on a raised platform of bamboo slats, so we simply turned over and went to sleep and if a tidal wave had swept through that hut that night we would have slept believe me!!
In the midst of the squalor and mud as I awoke that first morning, who was standing at the foot of my sleeping space, but none other than my old pal, Bob Steele and another lad called Tait from Berwick area, and they looked terrible and well they might, as they both had an acute dose of dysentery and were so bad they were excused work at that period and both had just been to the latrines when someone told them I had arrived in camp the previous night and told them the location of the hut I was in. They just said 'Hello, see you later’ and off they went. It was great to see Bob again and when he got better we had some rare old chats about the long, long ago good times. So that made our gang seven now as Bob was able to move in with us.
The condition of Kinsayo camp was deplorable and the beginning of the rainy season it got worse and worse and we had to wade through mud knee-deep, however there was one consolation, at least for the first few weeks, and that was the working day was more reasonable, from about seven in the morning till six in the evening, and that gave us time to get a wash in the river, which was in flood and dangerous, before getting our evening meal, and we seemed to have more time for chatting about the past, present and future.
Fortunately for me I had no marital ties, and in fact I hadn't a steady girl friend when I left Blighty and my concern was my Mother, brothers and sister, but I did feel sorry for those amongst us who were married and had young children. De Grucey, Bill Gray, John Birchal and Bert the corporal from the Norfolk regiment, all had the extreme worry about their wife and children. They never stopped talking about their son or daughter and I enjoyed their tales about home life with their families.
Matters were made worse by the fact that here we had been prisoners of war more than a year and a half, and we had had no letters from home, although we knew mail for us was stacked all over Singapore and Thailand but the Japs would not release it. And our other big worry was that families would not know whether we were dead or alive as we had not been allowed to send any letters home, mind you if we had been allowed to I don’t know what we would have written with or on, as there was no such material available for that purpose. Maybe we could have chipped a message on the rock we were digging or written in our blood on a banana leaf.
The other thing that concerned us tremendously was the failure of the Japs to issue any Red Cross parcels, as we were aware they were coming in, as they were eating English and American food while we were starving, and they were smoking Players cigarettes by the thousand while we had none or having a go at native tobacco which was strong enough to blow a leg off, and as we had no proper cigarette papers we had to use newspaper of any description and sometimes that which had been used to pack the dry-fish and on those occasions we had a meal as well as a smoke,
There was a different breed of Jap guards at Kinsayo and it became a habit when you got a beating, you would get a cigarette off the guard afterwards, and it was a Player’s Capstan, or Gold Flake and whether this was part of the punishment, a reminder of home, or not we never did fathom out, but it was nauseating to us to think the Red Cross was being used to feed the enemy, and provide them with good Virginia cigarettes.
Work on the railway at this camp was a mixed bag of blasting cuttings, building embankments and bridges and in the tropical monsoon weather each was as hazardous as the other,
The food was atrocious and we ate as much mud as rice. The rice was old and mouldy and was infested with weevils, and for a time the cooks tried to wash the weevils out before cooking, but it was beyond their capabilities and thereafter the weevils were cooked in the rice and we had at last meat for our meals, not very appetising but it filled another little hole in our empty stomachs.
Men were deteriorating fast and when some sat down on their bamboo slatted sleeping space and supported the length of their thigh on it, there was a sight for sore eyes as the picture revealed a bone covered by a film of skin and in many cases there was no flesh at all, and one had to wonder how the hell he could walk about as the legs looked like knotted stilts, the knots being at the knee and hip, but these men were doing work, which the best manual worker would have rejected as impossible.
The pyre was a continuing sight and men were dying like flies only to be lifted out of their hut, carted through the camp like a carcass of raw meat and without ceremony, far less the last rites or any prayers at all, flung on the fire to sizzle and roast like a piece of bacon. The men operating the cremation process appeared to the stranger, a callous mob, but really they had a difficult job and really did good work.
The conditions we were enduring gave much to discuss from a religious point of view and I think many who were ‘believers’ before capitulation had their work cut out to make the ‘disbelievers’ or less religious mates feel there was a God,
How could they when so many good young men in the prime of their lives were being subjected to such misery, torture and deprivation, surely this was not the act of God, in fact some would say the Japs had done so well in the war they must have captured heaven as well and the sun-worshippers were now the all powerful force on heaven and on earth.
The Japs worshipped something but I don't know what, however every morning at dawn and every evening at night, they would parade and line up ready for the senior N.C.O. or officer to lead them off in a moaning, groaning chant as they stood, bare-headed, looking up to the sky in the east, and whoever was up there was certainly answering their prayers at the moment, but he certainly didn't ask then to love thy neighbour etc. or if he did they certainly took no notice of him, as they would come straight from their prayer session and shoot a prisoner, or chop his head off with their sword or do less violent things like smashing a rifle butt onto some poor unfortunate skeleton of a prisoner of war, perhaps that was their religion! Maybe they were praying to whoever was up there to give them strength to exercise their brutal maraudings.
Flower arranging, bushido culture huh!!!
The work on the railway progressed through the jungle in the continual rains and we were being speedoed as never before and the death rate was keeping abreast, of the speedo and soon we were sure there would be none of us left, as now, cholera was an added disease which up till then, while we dreaded the thought, had not caught up with us.
In Kinsayo we had a hospital hut and it was full to overflowing. The word ‘hospital’ is a misnomer as it really was a hut where prisoners were taken when they were on their last legs, unconscious, in a coma or in need of an operation whether it be for appendicitis, milk gland or amputation. There was no medicine as such and the operating tools were primitive, sometimes a scalpel but more often sharpened knives or even razor blades. The hospital was more of a place to get chronics out of the way of the workers and at least an orderly would be able to keep them company for their last few hours on this earth.
There was no chloroform or anaesthetics and anyone requiring an operation suffered not only the agony of their complaint, but the crude treatment. Appendics were removed with a razor blade while half a dozen other blokes lay on top of the patient and more often than not fainted while the operation was being performed, just as well really because the operation was complete before they gained consciousness.
One often wonders why the people living in the tropics marry so young and have children before the age western children leave school. It would appear it is because of the conditions they live in that they age much, much more quickly than in more temperate countries. It was quite common to see children pregnant in the Far East and nothing to see very young couples having half a dozen children trailing behind them. Where we were, the natives in Thailand both male and female go top-less and women who are quite youngish but looked ancient had breasts that hung like razor strops and had little if any sex appeal.
Prisoners had a similar unattractive appeal when through vitamin deficiency their milk glands played tricks with nature and some grew breasts a little better looking than the natives but still not attractive and some were like show-ground freaks and grew one only, what a crazy world we had gotten ourselves into!!
The treatment to remove these unwanted breasts was painful and necessitated a surgical operation, again with blokes lying on the victim, while the milk gland was removed and the swelling thereafter disappeared, there was quite a bit of kidding going on about this phenomena.
Amputation of limbs was a sordid affair and many had to be operated in the filth of the camp and again without any anaesthetics. Our sympathies were extended to these poor unfortunate prisoners and we had to forego some of our meagre rations so that those who survived such terrible operations had a little extra nourishment to sustain them in their time of convalescence.
Railway work was continuing through the jungle and incidents were so common now that they were just taken for granted, as the Japs I think had simply lost their heads and were sheer and unadulterated maniacs, and not a single working party would return to camp without several prisoners either being assisted by their mates or carried in on make-shift stretchers.
Some of the Aussies were doing a job where concrete was being used and through winds and rain when they opened a bag of cement it blew on to their sweaty bodies, hair and beards and as they were on speedo they couldn't get down to the river before it set, and they looked like something out of fiction, concrete men. They suffered agony with the cement in their eyes, ears and noses and I well remember a mountain of an Aussie who was a real character going berserk and it took a lot of his mates to quieten him.
The cement caused all kinds of problems with dermatitis not being the least and the cement gang suffered untold misery. 'Soldier’ the nickname for that mountain of a man got well fairly quickly and he was working in the same camps as myself for the rest of the railway work, he was a character and we were always good for a laugh when he was around.
Other two Aussies who worked alongside my party were the Wilkinson brothers, as expected both known as 'Bluey' and one was a large specie but the other quite small. We were paid ten cents a day when we were working and when we were first taken at Singapore we could buy and egg for five cents each when bartering with the natives, but inflation was rife and at Kinsayo if you managed to contact a Thai native with eggs they cost three dollars each, which meant we had to work thirty days to buy an egg
At Kinsayo we saw our first allied plane for nearly two years and although it was just a noise in the sky, and it boosted our moral considerably when the Jap guard said in a not too brave voice 'American skorkie joto nie’, to which we replied 'Americano skorkie very good-ke’, and followed up with 'Nippon will soon be Bomb! Bomb! And lots of Nips paradiso'
A Jap officer assembled all prisoners in Kinsayo camp and gave a lecture on the need to hurry with the railway and promised extra food if we worked harder and he permitted us to buy a cow from the Thais, as we had had no meat for months. We had to pay for the cow before it was delivered and when it eventually arrived about a fortnight later, you could have knocked us down with a feather, as the ruddy thing looked worse than us, it was pure skin and bone as it had been brought up from Ban Pong about seventy miles down the line and it must have run all the way. It was miserable sight standing tied up to a post in the pouring rain, and it was discussed whether it should be fed for a few weeks to see if it would put a bit flesh on, as the condition it was in at that moment, we would be hard pushed to manage a steak from it, but as we had very little food for ourselves we thought it might even deteriorate further and may well die on our hands which would then be a total loss
One of the prisoners said he was a butcher to trade so he was given the job to kill it, and the great event was prepared. The animal was brought forward and tied to a post, which had been driven into the ground for the purpose, and the butcher had a pick to fell the animal. She was loath to die as the butcher drove the pick through its skull and it was still standing on its feet after about a dozen blows onto the head, in fact the hole in the skull was four or five inches in diameter, and the poor old butcher couldn't down her. After a considerable time he decided the death blow would have to be a knife, so he plunged it into its neck and believe me there was hardly a drop of blood came out of her and as he rapped her front legs she fell and at last was out of her misery. The animal was so thin we couldn't expect a meat ration, so she was carved up and made into stew, but although we were starving we didn't enjoy the stew after witnessing the poor thing so barbarically killed and bring in such a state of health.