Sketch by Jack Chalker

Thailand-Burma Railway

Thailand-Burma Railway

While we were waiting in River Valley Road Camp, our first Red Cross parcels arrived. They were bulk parcels not individual ones and they issued us with felt hats and cigarettes from them. They were cheap hats that had been dyed khaki and we had a lot of fun fashioning them into shape. Some like port pies and some like boy scouts. I remember wearing mind like Robert Taylor wore his.

We were not given the rest of the parcels with all the food as were going to Siam, where there was plentiful rice, and that the Red Cross parcels would accompany us on the train. It must have been September 1942, because it was the time of the Selarang incident, where 15,400 men were herded into the Gordon Highlander barracks in Selarang. Barracks that were built to house a battalion of men, about 900. The Japanese did this because officers refused to sign a paper saying they would not escape. We also refused to sign but when resistance collapsed in Selarang, we signed under duress. Anyway, we marched down to a railway siding with everything we owned and no Red Cross parcels. They were to follow on the next train. We never saw them. I met Colonel ‘Daddy’ Flower for the first time. He was in charge of our party, roughly 500 men. ‘Daddy’ Flower, six foot four, Wellington and Sandhurst, was the Commanding Officer of the Northumberland Fusiliers. I never heard him say and I never saw him do anything out of line. Mum and I went to his burial service in Amberley, West Sussex in 1980. I never saw another POW at the service. Anyway, we were herded into small metal box cars on the narrow gauge railway, thirty men and one bucket to a truck. It meant that we could not all lie down together so we sat around, some back to back and some stood up, changing over every so often. The journey lasted five days. We descended twice a day to be fed on ‘pap’, watery rice. On the fifth day, we reached Ban Pon, just a small village but the start of the railway the Japanese were going to build. Ban Pon is on the river Mekong, the same river that all the rice is grown, and I was quite proud to have been able to say where we were. What I didn’t know was that twenty miles upriver was a tributary Kwai Noi, that the railway was to follow. We spent the rest of the time in Siam thinking we were on the Mekong.

We were housed in a new kind of ‘atap’ hut. Long huts possibly sixty or seventy yards long with an atap roof on bamboo supports and slit bamboo shelves about two feet off the ground that ran the length of the hut, which incidentally had no walls. Something like a ridge tent without side walls. The bamboos were lashed together with the under bark of a tree from the jungle. There wasn’t a nail or screw in the whole construction. The shelves or platforms were used as beds and everyman was allowed twenty four inches. In fact, I once saw a Japanese make a man roll over on the platform and each time he rolled over was one man’s place. So, one man’s bed space was the width of one man’s shoulders. We used our bed spaces to eat and sleep and as always, the body adapted. If the platforms were made properly and the bamboo slit thin enough they were quite springy.

We stayed in Ban Pon for about three weeks. It was here that I was first punished by the Japanese. Before we left Singapore, we were issued with a certain amount of tropical uniform and I acquired a pair of ‘Bombay Bloomers’. These were khaki trousers which reached down to about five inches below your knee. They were turned up during the day and turned down and tightened with a draw string when mosquitoes were around. These were fetching $25 Thai currency, when 5 cents would buy an egg, it was a fortune on the black market. The only hazards were that the Japanese had forbidden the sale of clothes to the Thais and one had to go through the perimeter of the camp to bargain with the locals. I got through the bamboo perimeter fence and met a local and with sign language agreed $24. The trouble was that I couldn’t see the colour of his money, so we were having a tug of war when a Japanese sentry caught us. The Japanese was shouting when he grabbed me, and the Thai ran off with the bloomers. I was marched to the guard room and after a lot of shouting was made to stand to attention for twenty four hours. The first two or three hours were the worst. If I showed any sign of moving one of the guards would hit me. There were two others on the same thing and after a while I became numb and I adopted the stance like a zombie with eyes open. It was in the middle of the night when the guards allowed us to sit down. I was pretty stiff the next day and slept for hours.

Rations were pretty meagre, rice and vegetables. So, we had to supplement them with things like eggs and bananas. When we were told that we were going to be moved up country where food was plentiful we were all eager to go. Our Red Cross parcels never caught up with us but ‘Daddy’ Flower arranged that the Cambridgeshire Regiment shared theirs with us. They gave us the luxuries like cigarettes and chewing gum and put all the food into the cook house. Eight men to a small tin of bully beef seemed like manna from heaven.

I was then selected to go on a party up river. We didn’t have any idea what we were going to do, we had no idea about the railway, we didn’t care either, all we thought about was food and what we could do to allay our hunger. We got into Thai barges about fifty or sixty to a barge pulled by a motor boat up stream. We were on the barges three days, sleeping most of the time and stopping in the evening at a clearing on the side of the river where the cooks would prepare a meal and we would bed down for the night. We reached our destination at last and it was virgin jungle. We were able to clear the undergrowth before dark. Most of us carried ground sheets. In those days the army didn’t have such refinements as raincoats. We needed the ground sheets that night as it rained all night. The next day we went about half a mile into the jungle and started clearing the forest to make ourselves a camp. We cut the bamboo in the jungle and the atap came up the river on barges. There must have been two to three hundred of us. Once the campsite was cleared and the huts were built, we started clearing a road back to the last camp. This camp didn’t have a name at the time, but it was called Hintock later on. The road was made by clearing the undergrowth and felling the trees of the middle growth. When the road was cut to the camp to the south of us and the POWs in the camp to the north of us had cut a road to our camp, we started on the railway. Luck was on my side. We had been attached to a company of Japanese Army Engineers and there were about thirty or forty Royal Signals in our party which numbered in total roughly seventy. Col ‘Changi’ Clark, Royal Artillery was in charge of our party. He had commanded a Searchlight Regiment in Changi before the war and I knew him. I say luck was on my side because the Japanese Engineers were a fighting lot and not as bad as the normal guards. Being with thirty or my own regiment was like having your family around you. Being a small party, comparatively, we were only attached to the main POW camps. Our job was to build bridges for the railway, built of unseasoned wood straight out of the jungle. A Japanese and about four men would go into the jungle and select the trees and mark them. The next party would fell them and lop any branches. Then the elephants would pull them out of the clearing near where the bridge was to be built. At this clearing Japanese and POW carpenters would take the bark off and cut them to size. The main supports were driven into the river beds with a great big pile driver suspended on ropes. The Japanese Sergeant singing out with the POWs echoing, ‘Itch, nee, san, see, go’. One, two three, go. These main supports were driven into the river bed upside down with the end sharpened like a pencil, but the land was so fertile, that they would sprout branches and leaves in a few months and one of the jobs of the maintenance men was to cut off these branches. I was in the large party of about twenty five men that used to pull the ropes attached to the ram singing ‘itch, nee, san, see’ etc. As each bridge was built we would move up the river to start another. We lived in old army tents, twelve men to a tent and were fairly mobile.

It was at a camp called Hindato that things started to happen. The Japanese in charge of the elephants had a reputation of being a bastard and no one would work with the elephants as he would beat them up with a bamboo stick he always carried. So, every morning when we were paraded, four men would be selected to work with the elephants. I don’t know to this day whether I was pushed, or I volunteered, but I found myself in the party with the elephants. ‘Mickey Mouse’ as the Japanese had been named as he had round black eyes and large ears and stood about five foot one inches tall, took us to the Thai village where we collected the elephants and their mahouts. We went into the jungle, found the felled trees and attached the chains, that were like reins on the elephants, to the trees. I was allotted a great big young male elephant. His mahout was a boy about thirteen or fourteen years of age. I did know the boy’s or the elephants’ names, but I have forgotten them now. The elephant was a magnificent beast. He could pick up logs with his tusks and trunk or roll them. He could pull three or four lots when the others were only pulling two or three. But his biggest achievement was when he got the logs stuck in a clump of bamboo. He would pull and trumpet and pull until he pulled the whole clump of bamboo down, whereas the other elephants had to be backed up and the chains undone which was tiresome. The Thai boy used to sit on the elephant’s neck with his feet behind the beast’s ears and guide him with kicks behind the ears, but all the other work was done by verbal commands.

Mickey Mouse never laid a finger on me, and because we understood each other in the bastard language that was used on the railway, a kind of pidgin English/Japanese with Malay and Thai words. The beatings must have been a result of misunderstandings which he mistook for defiance.

The Japanese Engineers had English batmen and Mickey started sending me food in the evenings after work. He gave me all his Japanese cigarettes, he preferred the Thai ones. It was not until after the engineers left us that I realised how good he was go me.

At the time I was too involved in the small concert party. We had got up and my take off was Changi Clark which I was trying to perfect.

It was at Hindato that cholera struck us. We were alongside a camp of Dutchmen and Dutch Eurasians. There were outbreaks of the disease in the Dutch camp and our lads started going down with it, so a small camp was erected about a mile away with volunteers to nurse the patients. One would go to bed and get up in the morning unable to recognise the man alongside you because he was so dehydrated. Quentin Clayton, my pal, was taken away but he survived, and I saw him a few months later.

I think the event that made the biggest impression on one was one evening returning to camp after work. The main body of men went out to work after breakfast which consisted of watery rice and a bit of green vegetable as spinach. The party with the elephants didn’t leave camp until about ten in the morning, we went to the nearest village where the elephants were. They used to have their front legs hobbled and turned loose to graze all night. We then did our task for the day, which was pulling out the tree trunks for the next day’s work. So, we got back to camp an hour or two after the main party. As the elephants made such a mess of the jungle paths, I was walking about fifty yards in front of the elephant, with Mickey and the Thai boy on the elephants back. I walked into a small clearing in the jungle that was used as a cemetery. The place had about twenty Japanese and Koreans in it. Three or four entrances to the cemetery were guarded but the one we entered on came from the north and they didn’t expect anyone to enter from that direction as all the POWs had gone back to camp. I had walked in on a beheading. There was a headless body supported on bamboos by Japanese over a grave. The head was in the grave and the officer was holding his double handed samurai sword and another Japanese was wiping the blood of it with a silk Nippon flag. There was a lot of shouting as three or four of them grabbed me. It seemed like an eternity before Mickey and the elephant came into the clearing. They released me after his explanation. I was so dumbstruck, I was unable to tell anyone about it for about an hour.

On another occasion at Hindato, I returned to camp in the evening and had to pass the guard room of the main camp. Orders were that one had to bow when you passed the guardroom. It was just a small atap shed with a table and four or five Japanese seated around it, with a Japanese sentry marching up and down near the Nippon flag. On this night, they were beating a Dutch Eurasian. I bowed and ran, collected my towel from the camp and went down to the river for a bath. I had a bath and went back to camp. They were still beating him. He wouldn’t bow and wouldn’t give in. The beating lasted another hour or so. He never cried. He just shouted abuse and all that night I could hear his shouts in my dreams. We heard that he was taken down river with concussion and several broken bones.

We were constantly on the move. Without any medical supplies, so inevitably we suffered, and any fresh fruit or vegetables were welcome. Once we camped near the mahout’s own village and I used to go to the village to pick him up in the morning. The huts were on stilts about seven feet high and he mother always had a small parcel of food for me. She was a woman about forty who only wore a sarong around her waist with her large pendulous breasts swinging around when she used to hand me the food. Sex was one thing no POW ever thought about. We were too undernourished.

At this time, I noticed a spinach on the riverbank that I recognised as the ‘sag’ that old our ayah used to make my sister Hazel and I pick when we were children. She used to cook it. I tried it in Siam and found it a little bitter but not too unpalatable, so I used to eat it to supplement my diet. I was not surprised when the Dutch Eurasians were found to like it as they had eaten it in Java. So, my ayah had helped me in her own way although we fought all the time.

It is funny how the life changed men, I am thinking men who made good peace time soldiers were useless in action but made good POWs, showing good resistance to the Japanese or just being good survivors. I was thinking of the Australians, in my experience they made lousy soldiers but as POWs they were thorns in the Japanese sides. It was in Hindato that I first noticed this. The Aussies in the main camp were always rubbing the Japanese up the wrong way and one of them was caught breaking into the Japanese canteen for cigarettes and such like. His punishment was being hauled up into a tall tree. In the Far Eastern jungles there are trees that grow very tall without branches and when they are higher than the middle growth they send out branches like a standard bush rose. Well the Aussie wouldn’t say who is accomplices were, so he spent five days in the top of this tall tree near the camp. His friends fed him at night when the Japanese were sleeping. I have no idea how, but when he was brought down on the fifth day suffering from exposure nearly dead. But then the Japanese and Koreans punished their own just as harshly and those responsible for sending the Aussie up the tree were put into small bamboo cages, the same kind that are used for transporting pigs out in the East.

I was in Hindato that I contracted ulcers. I had one under my foot that was painful, and I was not fit for work. I was lying in the tent with my feet outside the flap of the tent going through excruciating pain keeping my foot still. I thought I would have a look at the sore and lo and behold an army of black ants were in dingle file taking a nip and walking off. They must have started when I was asleep. The ulcers grew worse. I had one on my shin that exposed the bone and when my legs started getting chubby with beriberi, I was sent down river to Kingsio. It was in Kingsio that I met George (Tony) Barry who was the medical sergeant. On finding I came from India, he looked after me. My only possessions were my blanket, a mess tin and spoon and a pair of shorts. I had lost the rest on the way down from Hindato. I also had a pair of wooden clogs, something made of wood with straps from a piece of motor car tyre. Tony produced some sulphur drug from his personal hoard and a few eggs and soon had me fit for work again. But he decided to make me a hospital orderly to keep me in camp and off work.

In Kingsio were two doctors, Dr Stone from the Midlands, and Dr Churchill from London. Churchill gave you as much time as he could and would listen for hours to the companies, giving as much sympathy as he could. He had no drugs that he could give. Dr Stone on the other hand was a callous as you could make them. He still had his shooting stick and used to sit on out to take his surgery. Imagine him sitting on the shooting stick, with one of his sergeants next to him, and a queue of about fifty waiting to see him.

‘And what’s wrong with you m’lad’? he would ask. ‘Sir, this is wrong and that is wrong etc etc’. ‘Have you any eggs? ‘Yes Sir’. ‘Well, eat plenty of eggs, next’.

‘And what’s wrong with you me lad’? ‘This, is wrong, Sir, etc etc’. ’Have you any eggs?’, ‘No Sir’. ‘Too bad, next’.

I was once on sick parade and had got to about fourth or fifth in the queue when Dr Stone spotted me with a book in my hand. He was listening to the man at the top of the queue when he shouted. ‘Hey, you, what’s that book you’re reading?’ ‘Something by Neville Shute Sir’. It was a fairly good book, but I cannot remember the title now. ‘Oh good, take three days off work while I read it, I’ve always wanted to read it’.

He then turned to the poor chap at the head of the queue and addressed him. ‘You can go back to work tomorrow, it will do you good’.

I have often wondered who did more good, Dr Stone or Churchill. Dr Stone was always a tonic for the fit and certainly good for the morale.

It was in Kingsio that I buried Taff Plevin. Taff was in my section during the little action we saw. He was thick as two short planks, but Taff loved the Army. When he was made Lance Corporal, he was over the moon. He had been ill for a while and when he died they asked for volunteers from his regiment, so six of us went to the cemetery, a clearing in the jungle, and dug his grave and then cut some creepers from the jungle to lower him into the grave. We notified the Padre that we were ready and were told by the hospital staff that we wouldn’t bury him in his blanket as the Japanese had that day issued an order that no more blankets were to be buried with the dead. They were to be passed on to others. All Taff was wearing was his pyjama top. I was surprised how light he was when we carried him to the grave with Sergeant Roberts leading the cortege and the Padre following. When the Padre had said his piece, we lowered Taff into the grave and one of the creepers broke and the body turned right over. There was nothing we could do to right it, as it was raining at the time and the ground was just soaking mud. We filled the grave in and went back to the camp. A couple of months later when I went to the cemetery the cross on Taff’s grave, a wooded affair made by the camp carpenter, had fallen down. When I went to straighten it, I noticed that the inscription read ‘Signalman Plevin’, not Lance Corporal. Of all the mishaps at Taff’s funeral, I think that must have hurt his soul the most. In the 1950s, I was asked by Gerry Derwent whether I had known Taff as he lived in the same street as his parents in Wrexham. I told Gerry that Taff was a first class chap and that I had buried him, but I never had the heart to fill in the details. Anyway, Gerry wrote to Taff’s parents and he was able to tell them when and where he had died.

I wasn’t keeping very good health now and was sent down to Non Pladuk which was supposed to be a rest camp. The place was filthy and swarming with blue bottles and flies. The Japanese said everyone had to catch fifty blue bottles a day, so we sat around swatting and counting flies most of the day. A by product of the situation was that the Dutch Eurasians were breeding flies and blue bottles and one could buy ones quota.

I had cerebral malaria which used to attack me every three or four days. I was in a hospital hut at the time with Taff Barrell and Taffy Thomas, who had the job of collecting the hut’s rations of rice from the cookhouse at meal times. The two Taffs also had malaria but when they were down, Robbie and I were up and vice versa, so that when they couldn’t collect the rations we could. The reason for wanting this chore was there was always a little rice left over and we had it. This situation lasted about six weeks and it was during one of our ‘up’ periods that we were inspected by both British and Japanese personnel and pronounced fit to go to another part of the world where the food was better etc etc. We had heard it all before.

It was in Non Pladuk that I met two brothers who had fought against each other in the Spanish Civil War, the De La Marr brothers. These brothers each had a repertoire of about twenty lectures each. One even gave the Dutch a talk on Prince Bernhard. I listened to one of them one night and he said that this situation was ‘only another experience’. I never forgot that phrase and whenever things get rough, I always thought about it to buck me up. ‘Only another experience’ joined my other motto ‘You’ll come back’. I began to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Reading through what I had written, it seems that I have left out so many things, It was in the temporary camp near Hintok that the Japanese went out and shot a couple of monkeys. Those lovely spider monkeys that call out ‘Huckoo huckoo’ in the forest all day long. A Japanese skinned them and added them to the vegetable stew that night. They considered the brains a delicacy and put the heads in the embers of the fire. The brains turned out like charcoal, but they still ate them. It was in also in Hintock that the river was about fifty yards across and the Japanese dropped a couple of hand grenades into the river and hundreds of fish rose to the surface stunned. I carried a huge one, about three foot long, back to the cookhouse. We had fish soup for days.

I mentioned I met Quentin Clayton a few months after his bout of cholera. It was in one of the base camps and I burst out crying. Clayton had been a marvellous athlete. On the hockey field he was so graceful and appeared so slow but was always just that little bit faster than his opponent. He played hockey for the Army and twenty five years later was selected again. Now he appeared an old man, hobbling along on a stick, his legs full of ulcers. An old man. Quentin died, I presume of cancer on the 27 August 1979. The day that Earl Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA. I last saw Quentin in 1964 or 1965, he spent the night at our home in Horsham with us. He was suffering then, but as always was completely without malice. We met his wife at the Festival Hall and she described how they had had a bungalow built in Canterbury and how ‘Clay’ used to visit the site everyday to watch progress.

It was in Tarso that I got my first letter from home. It was nine months old. I was so overcome, I was running to the hut where I lived and dropped the two photographs out of the envelope. Someone picked them up and called me back. What luck. One was of Anne and one of Mum.

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This was one of only two letters I received during the War.

I have tried not to include any stories that were hearsay. Just after the war, a great many

collected the stories they had heard and published them as experiences. But I must include one that I heard, and I have no doubt to its authenticity. It was the story of the film of the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’. In the film, a Colonel played by Alec Guinness, is given the task of building a bridge, refuses at first then gets an obsession with the bridge and builds it but is killed when it was bombed. The officer that refused to build the bridge was Major Fearon from the Indian Army. He commanded the ‘Special Service Unit’ the forerunner of the SAS. It was Fearon who refused to build the bridge, so the Japanese replaced him with a Colonel from the RASC who built the bridge. Had the Japanese realised who Fearon was, they would have done more than just replace him. He had a reputation for doing things in action that were not quite acceptable at the time but were common place in other theatres of war. It was said that Fearon once caught a Japanese soldier early on in the war in Malaya and was unable to make him talk. So, he soaked his putties with petrol and set fire to him. Fearon walked away from the scene with the remark, ‘Good Soldier’. On another occasion, he told a station master to have a train moved. The station master refused so Fearon shot him across the desk. The train was moved. These sorts of incidents were common place later in the war with Germany but were unacceptable at the time, as not many had any battle experience and attitudes towards the enemy were confused.

Along with the felt hats that we had from the Red Cross was a pair of boots each. This was a boon when I was with the elephants. When an elephant walks they only make two footprints as the place their rear feet where their forefeet had been. So, if you had a good pair of boots you had dry feet so long as you stepped where the elephant had stepped. Of course, this was not possible if he was pulling a log. One walked in the rut that the log had carved, the mud always being four or five inches deep.

Once we had a three day march up to the next camp where we were to build a bridge. I rode the elephant with the mahout for the first day. As we passed other troops on the way, there were some nasty and some humorous remarks. My spine was so sore with the gait of the elephant, I walked the other two days.

And what of escape? Where to escape to? The jungle and our features were against us, let alone the language. Three or four attempts were made. All failed. John O’Malley tried it. Four of them, Peters, Tilley Sherrat and another Tim Feegan made a getaway. I have heard someone say they had seen people who were going away for the weekend better prepared. Peters had some money that had been given to him in Singapore by his girlfriend which they used to acquire a pistol among other things. After about a week they met a Thai hunter who had an old muzzle loader and he disarmed them. John O’Malley and Peters went into the camp that had four British Colonels. It was easy to get into and out of the camp. The jungle was the only perimeter. The camp was large with about 800 men and a few Japanese, so it was easy to mingle with the POWs. So, they found out who the Colonels were. They were able to help them with rations and see them on their way. The selected McOstrich, the Royal Signals Colonel. I saw his hut later on. It was a small atap hut with walls about two feet off the ground and a couple of steps to the door with hand rails made from the shafts of a bullock cart. They were lovely curved shafts that had been polished over the years. Anyway, McOstrich said that if they didn’t give themselves up he would report them. They gave themselves up as they were really knackered. They had travelled three weeks to travel what the train took half an hour to do. After a beating they were returned to Singapore and put in solitary confinement in Outram Road jail. Peters died in the jail. John O’Malley was decorated for keeping up the morale of the place. McOstrich also survived, was decorated and promoted and he died in the 1950s in Kenya. I read his obituary which said he was a first class fellow. No mention was made of the fact that the only duty of a prisoner of war has, is to escape and help others to escape.

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