Christmas day 1944 was a complete holiday and we were not asked to do any work at all, but we were ill at ease and hardly knew how to fill our time in as our body and mind was so geared to work, work and more work, however we forced ourselves to relax and enjoy the rest. The cooks got extra rations and we had three good meals to celebrate the holiday. The Allied air-forces must also have had a holiday that day as we saw or heard no planes and it was a pleasure to have such a restful day.
The next day six of us were ordered to pick our kit and at that time mine consisted of the clothes I stood up in, a pair of pants, a pair of socks, a pair of boots which the soles were parted from the uppers, two sacks for blankets, a mess-tin which was red-rust, a spoon, a pair of scissors and my Naafi knife cum razor, so it never took me very long to get ready for a move and with my clothes on I weighed less than six stone, yes, we travelled light in those days.
Our small party set off along a jungle track and marched for two days to a Jap camp which was in the valley of a mountain range, and the sides rose so steeply and the foliage of the trees was so dense, the sun very rarely reached the ground and it was so cold we named our latest spot 'Chilly Valley’.
The purpose of our being there was two fold, the first was to sort out the stuff that prisoners and natives carried into the camp ready for a party from a camp further north to collect and carry up to the next stage up to the Burma front. Camps were stationed at about twenty five kilometre distances and the humping parties would carry full loads one way and empty baskets or carriers on their return journey and the loads they carried were very heavy indeed.
The second duty we had at 'Chilly Valley’ was to be nursemaids to Jap guards, cooking their grub and generally looking after their welfare, and we managed to cut their rations to a minimum to our benefit and we six ate pretty well. Any extra food that was left we managed to secretly get to the lads who had humped loads into the camp when they arrived but we had to be careful, as the guards had warned us not to do just that.
I remember a bedraggled party crawling in utterly exhausted and they were a scruffy looking lot with long hair and beards and not many had other than a G-string on. I looked hard at one skinny looking prisoner and I thought I knew his face even though it was covered with a beard and walking up to him, I said, that I thought I knew him, and he looked hard at me and said 'And I know you’ and after a long hard think I said 'You are Norman Mason, from West Moor near Newcastle upon Tyne’ and he said ‘Yes, and you are Tommy Thompson. The last time I had seen Norman was at West Moor School when I was twelve years old and he will remember our meeting in the middle of the jungle, as I gave him half a two-gallon tub of rice and a load of decent vegetable stew which he devoured like a cannibal. While it was nice to meet one's old school friends it’s a pity the occasion could not have been more congenial however I did him proud under the circumstances and he has thanked me many times since.
In Chilly Valley there was a strangeness, not only was it always cold but we had no water at the bottom of the valley and we had to climb up the side of the mountain for nearly quarter of a mile to a water-hole and it is fairly difficult carrying two big buckets of water down-hill through creepers and thickets. The water-hole was used by many wild animals and at night-time we could hear a herd of elephants smashing their way through the undergrowth on their way for a drink. The night air was rent with thousands of monkeys screeching and screaming their heads off and it didn't help me to sleep. Bull-frogs croaked as loud as hell and other jungle noises made the jungle orchestra a weird sound.
One evening there was the most awful scream, which made us nearly jump out of our skin, and it was so loud and human-like we thought some poor individual was suffering the most agonising torture and yet there was no one supposed to be within twenty miles of us. Absolutely spontaneous we all jumped to our feet and started to run in the direction of the terrible screaming and as we rounded a bend in the jungle track, there before our very eyes and not more than twenty paces in front of us was a striped animal which could have been a tiger or a jaguar, tearing the hind quarters off a big roe-deer and when it saw us it looked with its big eyes protruding out of its head, but ran off in the jungle. We carted the deer into the camp and we had lots of meat with our rice for quite a few days afterwards and quite a few of the carrying party the next day had a treat with real meat with the rice we managed to pinch from the Jap cookhouse.
If we had been a little bit fitter than we were, the next day could have been the last as a prisoner of war, as a wild pig ventured into the valley and the Japs told us to help catch it. We scampered up the hill after it but it had the advantage of being able to run faster than us through the entwined undergrowth and after running to within twenty yards or so from the top of the hill we gave up, and later when we were freed we were told our own fighting troops with Thai native troops, actually had a camp at the other side of that hill and had had us under surveillance for some considerable time, my God how near could one get.