Sketch by Jack Chalker

Railway of Death


Railway of Death

Word got around that we were to walk to our next stop and those who had taken a lot of kit decided to ditch the non-essentials. We were paraded at 5.00pm early May and after much shouting and beatings by the guards we finally moved off, taking turns to carry the stretcher cases, no transport this time. It was a bright moonlight night. Physically this was more trying but at least you were out in the open and not cooped up in those steamy, stinking wagons.

Now we were being force marched into the jungle and our bodies covered in lice, hands itching with scabies and the body shaken by bouts of prickly heat, apart from the incessant churning of one's stomach as hunger pains and constant bowel movements, either where you squatted or dashed into the jungle, if the guards let you. The blisters soon appeared after a few miles and the column of prisoners were trudging not marching. Men fell by the wayside unable to lift their feet any more. Those of us in better condition had to carry or drag the fallen comrades.

If we were lucky we got five minutes rest in the hour but a target of 50km was set for each night and we slept in the jungle by day if one could, but the ants and other insects, mosquitos and such, made it so difficult to sleep. Sheer exhaustion took its toll and if you did fall asleep it was a broken body that woke or got kicked by a Japanese boot and it could land anywhere. The food when it was available was a lump of sloppy rice and some green water. There was no salt, sugar or anything in the rice, sometimes because of the heat the rice had started to ferment, but you ate it or starved.

We had been marching for five nights and we lost another two men, with more holding on to life with little chance of surviving. The dreaded malaria had struck me again and my spleen was tender and enlarged. Others helped me with blankets to stop the rigour, and one did the best to keep up with the column, or you were just left to die if no-one came to your aid. 1 was helped by some whom I had helped further back the way.

We arrived at a site by a river and was subsequently named Kanyu, where we were to start clearing the thick jungle to build our camp. Tired as we were, there was no let up and promises of Yasmi (rest) by the Japs was indicated when "all work done". Split up into parties we were made to hack down bamboo trees with parangs, a job that had hands blistered. Now we were working from sunrise to sunset and anybody who slackened was whipped by a bamboo cane or a rifle butt struck down on your knees or feet or anywhere the Jap wanted to. It was not long before I cottoned on and engineered to be working at a height out of reach, so to speak.

Most of us were suffering from malaria, dysentery or a disease now making itself felt namely, Beriberi. A debilitating disease from lack of vitamins, particularly Vit'B'.

Having cleared the jungle after two or three days, seemed longer, one just lay down on the dank earth when work stopped and the meagre ration of plain rice and a watery soup-cum-drink had been eaten. All water from the river had to be boiled and the river was placed out of bounds.

Unshaven, filthy, crawling with lice and bugs, which seemed to take a delight with my blood, I became dejected, morose, humiliated, stripped of my dignity, no longer the proud man I was and by no means alone in this respect. Each day, each hour was a hell. The relentless sun beating down and no hat or eye shades to cope with the glare, sunstroke being common place. We were now starting to build bamboo huts as living quarters with attap roofs. You have guessed. Up building the roofs and ties was my job. Too high up for a Jap guard to start anything. One got beaten up for the least provocation, and had many, some bestial and very degrading. Often one was too tired to get down off the roof so we made bamboo ladders to make it easier. The cookhouse awning was completed first and the supports for the huge "qualies" which was where the rice was cooked. Sometimes, if the cooks had had enough, we would manage to get the burned skin of the rice, scraped from the "qualies" which tasted burnt but so much better.

When the huts were finished the beds were a continuous line of slats of bamboo, tied with raffia to the bamboo supports, holding 40 men tightly squeezed together. You were so tired each day that sleeping on bare bamboo slats was hard on the body and the journey to the latrines, in bare feet, boots no longer serviceable, was a nightmare; sometimes through mud other times through excrement, i.e. someone did not make the bog. This was just a hole in the ground with bamboo slats across. Hopefully, you did not meet up with a guard but if you did it usually meant a beating or a fist in your face. A tin of water was left at the entrance to the hut for the purpose of cleaning one's feet, but it needs no guessing what in practice happened.

Tomorrow we leave camp at sunrise to start work on the Infamous Railway later called the Railway of Death. The railway was to extend a total of 415km and it was all done by slave labour of 30,000 P.O.Ws and something in the region of 100,000 natives, Thai's, Malay's, etc., out of which over 16,000 P.O.Ws and most of the natives died.

The next morning we were paraded at sunrise, issued with a pick or a shovel, and marched to the area to be dug for the railway track. Most of my gear had either worn out or been stolen so labouring under a Thailand sun without a hat or vest or shirt was hardly uplifting and, by the time for Yasmi (rest) mid-day, the rice you had in your mess tin had turned sour with the heat from your body and the sun. You were issued with rice before leaving camp and some of the party was designated to carry water from the river and boil it up so that you could have a small mug of water. Each day the Japs gave us a bigger target to complete and only when finished did you return to camp.

We were, of course, terribly dehydrated and suffering from sunstroke with many other illnesses as well. Subsequently, I suffered untold agony as kidney stones formed and started to move and no morphine or pethidine to help. Many times when ill I just wanted to end it all by jumping off a bridge or over a gully but always something, or someone, made me carry on. Our hands and feet were blistered and bleeding but that did not deter those bastard (sorry) Korean guards and the Japanese NCO's and officers.

Our bodies were being torn apart. Severe lack of food and vitamins, beriberi, dysentery, malaria, scabies, prickly heat, ringworm and now we were starting to have tropical ulcers which were so difficult to heal. We used maggots to eat away the decaying flesh and even to this day I can remember clearly the sensation of these creatures on one's leg or ankle. The scars of these ulcers are still visible after 50-odd years and the mental scars still very vivid in my mind. My body was beginning to swell with the effects of beriberi and the pain in my legs, like constant toothache, made my living such hell. You still had to go out to the railway each day, even stretcher cases, and if the Japanese engineers thought work was too slow many a beating was dished out, shouting and screaming abuse at us. But we knew, or I did, their day would come.

Today, I was the target of a Japanese NCO who beat me up knocking out one of my front teeth, simply because I failed to use an awl on a 12 inch diameter trunk, boring from one side and then the other so that the hole met in the middle. The stupid-----, may he rot in hell, and the rest.

Perhaps some of you who read this often wondered at my attitude to the Japanese race. Maybe, just maybe, you will understand as the truth unfolds. We were expendable and our only reason for living was that we were the unpaid workers, dying slowly, painfully, without any medical help. Our doctors did what they could with limited resources.

Day in, day out, the misery continued. Men being helped by others to the railway, some unable to stand and made to wield heavy hammers to break up rocks for ballast. Kanyu I Camp was probably one of the worst to be in as the commandant was a vicious, sadistic, evil Jap. His ideas of punishment were so bizarre, so degrading, prisoners spread-eagled by ropes from their wrists and ankles in the blistering sun, the ropes having been soaked beforehand. Believe me, men, aye even brave men, screamed in agony as the ropes dried out and shrunk. Then there was the cage of bamboo so small you could not move and you were left there in the stifling heat, 120-150. Few survived. I having been one of the few.

Little did we realise worse was to befall us in the 18 months ahead. Literally, men were dying in their hundreds up and down this railway. Rations continued to be cut for some reason, usually to blackmail our officers to put the sick and even the dying to work on the railway. Many of the chaps who were very sick volunteered to go so that the ration of rice per man could be restored. No-one sick was allocated a ration, only the working parties. So the rice received from the Japs had to be spread out by our own people to cover the sick.

Thailand Camp 4- Front-tn

Thailand Camp 4-rear-tn

After months, maybe years, one had no idea of time. We were reaching completion of the track and bridge so we were told to be ready to move to a better camp. This proved to be another jungle clearing job and building another row of huts to be called Kanyu II. As we had made one camp site it was easier to construct. One had to be very wary of bamboo as, when cut, it is razor sharp. Using the lumberjack's cross cut saw was difficult until you learned to pull, not push. Red ants were a source of pain as most of the jungle is covered with them and they can send you screaming mad if they swarmed on you. We had no protection against them, or any other insects, mosquitos and hornets in particular. Lifting huge trunks of trees was a task no-one wanted and it took 40 men in our state of health to carry the trunk into position. Whereas an elephant could do it easily.

We were careful building our own huts as they had to stand up to tropical storms and monsoons, so the roof got special attention. When the monsoons came you were slithering and sliding in a sea of mud, the overflowing of the latrines creating filth and disease, so seldom was anyone free of illness. Your brain became numb, depression was a big factor and personally I used my happy home life and my job back home as a spur to stave off depression. Another of my pals died during the night, he will suffer no more, and I have vowed not be too friendly with others as the loss of one's fellows is devastating. I nursed him for four nights as he raved. Malaria finally won and I lost.

An outbreak of cholera hit our camp and in one night alone we lost 11 men. So a bell tent was put up outside the camp and it was to there those infected were put, including myself, and perhaps this was one of my nearest brushes with death. I was very ill and really out of my body. I remember the name Hazel being said over and over again. I seemed to be in another world, dehydrated and so weak the orderlies continually sponging me down and apparently I rallied, surviving again, but losing so many who did not make it.

Those of us who survived were given, unknown to the Japs, a little milk with a bit of egg that others had stolen off the guards. We were so weak now walking was strange, have to put one foot in front of the other, literally learning to walk again. My clothing consisted of a "Jap Happy" which was a long piece of white linen approximately six inches in width with two pieces of tape or string attached to one of the ends and tied round the waist. Then, from the back, the length of material was drawn under your groin and the front part drawn up and under the tape and the loose end just flapped down in front of you. Otherwise I was naked with nothing on my head or feet. The more naked I was the cleaner I thought I was, but the filth, the dirt, the crawling lice, the itch, the smell, the loss of all your dignity and the degradation to a proud man was so hard to bear.

We were still a proud bunch of men who stood up to the Japs, even although the odds were 100-1' and our pride in our country gave us the strength (the spirit that carried us through) to fight the conditions. Treated worse than pigs or rats, the days lingered. Rumours swept through the camp that the Japanese had lost a big sea battle and it gave you fresh hope, all banished as a guard wielding a bamboo stick started laying into us - "All men worko" - "speedo", "buggero". "Aye, aye, keep your-----head on, it'll soon be knocked off'.

Queueing for the early morning BREAKFAST was fantasy time. "It's ham and eggs, lads. Nay it's no. It's porridge". And so it went on until you reached the tin and got a cup of plain rice, when you woke up and the spirits dropped.

P.O.W's talked to themselves a lot. I did. It was like psyching yourself up to face yet another day. The bouts of dysentery, the only help was to starve and try to get extra fluids, the malaria, beriberi and the scurge of tropical ulcers.

Those chronically sick, if they were lucky, were sent down by barge to Chungkai, a hospital camp, where amputations were common place, gangrene being a serious problem, and where "weary" Colonel Dunlop, surgeon and hater of the Japanese, did the most amazing operations without the medical supplies and there are many of us so grateful for his dedication and his spirit, tireless caring and ability. He died in 1993 with the title of Sir Edward Dunlop and never has any man more richly deserved the honour.

My days on the railway lasted 761 days and this time is being condensed into a very few pages. There are scenes too painful to describe, the beheading of an escapee and the crucifixion of a man who stole three of the officers' chickens. We were forced to parade at all these brutalities. Could anyone forgive and forget? Only those of you who have never suffered or witnessed the torture and pain inflicted on another human being could, but do not ask me. I doubt if the Rev. Bob could and I am a believer in Christianity.

One night, when I was on my way to the latrines, a Korean guard stopped me and started to attempt to commit a sexual act against me and, without stopping to think, I kicked him as hard as I was able in that spot between his legs, doubling him up, and I ran right into a second guard. I knew I was in for a beating or even death or worse. All hell broke loose. Japs screaming at me, bayonets jabbing at me; my instinct was to run and perhaps they would shoot me. I was dragged and kicked along the ground to the officer's hut where the interpreter had been summoned. I was made to stand to attention while the NCO clubbed me with his rifle and each time I fell to the ground I was made to stand up again. Suddenly, the camp commandant appeared and the guards stopped and stood to attention. He spoke to the interpreter in Japanese and, in very broken English, I was asked why I kicked a guard. So I told the interpreter why and he relayed it to the Jap officer and he harangued all and sundry, and standing to attention is difficult when your body is wracked with pain and broken bones. I was then marched to the front of the guard house where I was forced to stand to attention, and every time I wilted a rifle butt in the kidneys straightened me up. Every hour, through the night, was torture, bitten by mosquitos and other "beasties". At sunrise the men were being assembled for work on the railway and soon after their rice rations were issued they left for work. The sun was rising in the sky and my condition was a hopeless mess. As the sun bore down on my defenceless body I lapsed in and out of consciousness and the guards threw water over me, kicked me till I stood up to attention and so it went on relentlessly, hour after hour. My eyes were closed and my face felt swollen as blood seeped from my body and feet. Body burning and dehydrated, no food or water, except what I got in my mouth as they revived me when I collapsed from heat exhaustion. One prayed that it would end. Why don't they shoot me or worse? But, no, they played their game of torture like a cat plays with a mouse.

Sunset came. The men returned, their eyes averted. No-one shows any sign of sympathy or concern, not if they want to lie down this night. The rest of the cold night was a blur of kicks and beatings and I was hallucinating and felt I was going mad. Those bastards did not deserve to live - not in my book. Throughout the night I was more often on the ground and being sloshed with river water than I was at attention.

Come morning, our officer went to protest on my behalf and got slapped for his troubles. However, after the men left for work a Japanese guard indicated I could go back to my hut. Literally crawling, I reached my hut and orderlies and the M.O. got to work on me as I was in a sorry state. The next few days were like another nightmare as malaria struck, tropical ulcers and renal colic all made my living a sheer hell. My hair matted, dirty and unshaven, lice crawling all over me, no soap or water, no drugs and the degradation was complete. Toiletries consisted of leaves to use in the latrines, no toilet paper; charcoal to clean my teeth with my fingers, nothing to ease my body or mind.

These days of hell continued day in, day out, night after night of itching, scratching till you drew blood or pain. The word is that we are to go further up river to build a bridge (the original bridge over the river Kwai) and the Japs, as usual, were promising more rice "if all men work hard", but we were not take in by this, after months of working on empty stomachs, riddled by disease, just an existence.

To see and hold the hands of your friends and fellow soldiers, dying from starvation, their bodies twisted in pain and the fear in their eyes, haunts me still. Many a brave man died of broken spirits and, although most of us did what we could to bolster their spirits when clinical depression set in, it was a losing battle. The will to live was uppermost in my mind even when the brutality was at its worst, or one was permanently squatting, as dysentery tore the lining of your stomach, or malaria, dengue or just the hopelessness of our position.

We were expendable. Men were dying in droves as the conditions got worse. Building bridges was better than the "pick and shovel gang", depending on whether you were in the river or up on the bridge. The Japs soon learnt to stay off the bridge as they came to grief if we got half a chance.

Thailand Camp 4-15-1-1944-Front-tn

Thailand Camp 4-15-1-1944-Rear-tn

Is it a year or is it a life-time since being imprisoned? How much longer? All these thoughts kept recurring and thoughts of home, my parents, sister and brothers. Were they suffering too? Contemplation of suicide was a threat and often I felt drawn to jumping off the bridge or just giving up the whole sorry mess, as so many did. We had to start building bamboo cages to house not animals but our own men, who became violent as they became mental patients and reverted to animal instincts. There can be no worse sight, other than the look in a dying man's eyes, than seeing one's own fellow beings caged like animals. Death would have been a blessing. Still we were a proud lot of men even though we were thin, emaciated, lacking in the food we needed to work like slaves and be treated as such.

Red Cross letter -1-tn

Red Cross letter -2-tn

Those who are my relatives and friends perhaps - just perhaps - will understand the contempt and hatred I still feel, and will always feel, for those people. Their day will come. The powers that be should have had more sense and thought for all those thousands that died and suffered untold misery and for those of us who came home.

The conditions we encountered, each day seeming to be 36 hours not 24 (multiply that by 750 days), on that well named "Railway of Death" are indescribable.

Before the railway was completed we were sent back down river to board the cattle trucks for another nightmare of a journey back to Singapore.


Next Chapter

Kachidoki Maru



Sharing information with others is rewarding in itself, the pieces from the jigsaw begin to fit together and a picture begins to appear. Improve your knowledge and help make the Fepow Story an everlasting memorial to their memory.

Any material  to add to the Fepow Story please send to:

and their story will live on.


[Alistair Urquhart] [Survival] [Outstanding Bravery Award] [Visit to Pampanito] [Luckiest Man in World War ll]


Visitor    Counter


Design by Ron Taylor

© Copyright RJT Internet Services 2003