Sketch by Jack Chalker

No One Will Believe You

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Alf In 'K' Force

On The Thai-Burma Railway

There are many allied soldiers accounts of the railway construction which of course differ depending what rank a person held, as being an officer sometimes removed them from the harshest work. In the only documented account of a Japanese engineer of the Thai Burma railway, Yoshihiko Futamatsu provides a vacillating account of how the Japanese negatively viewed the prisoners of war and that the atrocities were isolated incidents and not routine treatment of prisoners. The author goes on repeatedly regarding the Japanese position of not ratifying the Geneva Convention for their own soldiers so they are only being consistent regarding the treatment of others. It was considered an honour for all Japanese, and their POW and Coolies to work on the railway and their deaths were for the good of the Japanese nation. The Japanese knew full well the gravity of what was being proposed in human lives and at times didn’t even consider the role of machinery, which to be fair would have been difficult to use in the landscape anyway. Futamatsu expressed his dismay at the railway being called ‘the death railway’ as all the POW and forced labourer’s relished being part of the joy and achievements of the Japanese army in building such an engineering feat. What is fleetingly mentioned historically is the Coolies experience whom Alf would have been involved in caring for on the railway who suffered and died with no known grave.


Alf’s Major Movements With ‘K’ Force

‘K’ and ‘L’ forces consisted of 365 men of the medical forces, leaving Changi for Thailand to work in various camp hospitals along the railway route.

The Japanese realised that the forced labourers comprising of Chinese, Burmese, Indians, Malays and Eurasians (also known as ‘Coolies”) were dying at an alarming rate, which of course affected the amount of work that was not being done. There is evidence of medical officers of the group having to pass a strange test prior to embarking which included qualifications, methods of controlling malaria, cholera, and even what a normal allotment of water was standard for English soldiers.

It is interesting to note that Alf was placed into ‘K’ Force with five other Malaya/Singapore veterans from C section 2/3rd MAC: Jack Henderson, Bill Fitch, C.R. Caterson, A. Roach and R. Vingoe (Vingoe ultimately perished on the railway at the Bangin camp from malaria and pneumonia on the 11/7/1944 which is slightly northeast of Thakanun). A special mention of a man known as Gordon Holm who was from the 2/3rd MAC but must have been from another section, went with Alf with ‘K’ Force up country which held good memories for Alf apparently. 

Alf left Changi and went to the Singapore train station on the 25th June 1943 but in fact the train didn't depart until 2.00am in the early hours of 26th June. He subsequently arrived at Ban Pong in open rail carriages (pictured below) which in most cases were forcibly overcrowded for up to 8 day’s/1000 kilometres travel.

Their arrival on the railway corresponded with the monsoon which turned everything into a sea of mud, filth and cholera, depending on whether you were in a camp with adequate drainage; along with an exponential increase in allied bombing which destroyed work that had to be rebuilt and killed many others.

Rail Transport

From Ban Pong he went up to Kanchanaburi on 5th July and stayed at Kanchanaburi Aerodrome Camp till the 15th.

Some of the men in this force remained in Kanchanaburi but many were distributed in small groups to many railway camps which is consistent with Alf’s recollections. One group went on to Wang Yai for allocation to camps, while the rest went further north. Alf arrived at Kinsaiyok camp hospital on the 17th July.

In October Alf was at the joining point of the railway (Konkoita) when it was completed.


Overall, the Australian medical personnel formed into ‘K’ and ‘L’ forces were to treat the Rōmusha at Kanchanaburi, Wan Yai, Kinsaiyok, Konkoita and Ni Thea (Nieke or Nikki), and Apalon in Burma in Alf’s case. The only transport to the camps up the line was to in many cases ‘walk’ up and down steep mountain country that was in mud up to the knees. They would also have carried packs as well, sometimes being followed by locals looking for easy pickings. The following picture is of work being carried out at Konkoita, where the railway met from the Burma and Thai ends of the railway construction which today is covered by a new dam.


According to Alf’s liberation questionnaire, Alf was posted officially to the following places on the Thai Burma railway:-

Alfs Camps

Kanchanabri - 5th to 15th July 1943 

Kinsaiyok - 17th July to 30th November 1943

Apalon (82 Kilo camp, Burma) - 2nd December to 30th April 1944

Kanchanabri Coolie camp (with ‘L’ force) - 1st August 1944 to 9th April 1945

Tha Muang camp near Kanchanabri - April to June 1945

Pratchai work camp - June to August 1945

Except from his Liberation Questionnaire, his movements during 1944 are not precisely known but by the end of 1944 the force was re-grouped back in Kanchanaburi where he would have been at the Kanchanaburi Asian (Coolie) Hospital camp. During his time with K force he would have seen ‘hospital’ camps of varying quality.  ‘Hospital’ buildings were usually made of bamboo and attap (a type of thatch). Patients slept on rough bamboo beds, often with little more than a coarse sack to warm them. Larger hospitals were divided into wards for the various illnesses but these wards were difficult to keep clean and cross infection was rife. The base hospitals received seriously ill patients brought down from further up the railway.

These journeys often left prisoners in an even worse condition than they were when they left their camps, as a British major at Chungkai reported:

‘They arrived in Chungkai camp in shocking condition, emaciated, debilitated and in many cases obviously dying. They were herded into the camp like cattle by the callous Japanese or Korean guards’

And…as observed by Weary Dunlop;

‘The most distressing picture of all was seen in the tropical ulcer ‘wards’ which resembled horrible ‘butchers’ shops’, filled with the stench of gangrene and buzzing with flies which hovered tenaciously on the crude rags of clothing’.

Alf may have been involved in numerous fatigues (labours) in squalid conditions whilst there until Alf was recovered at the end of the war from Pratchai. Anecdotally, Pratchai was one of the places most POW’s felt the most vulnerable to being executed given the proximity of the end of the war. It is possible that Alf would have come across a guard called ‘four eyes’ at Pratchai as mentioned in the letter from his friend ‘Mac’ (Appendix:15)  

‘The Japanese soldiers in charge of us are reasonable in their behaviour - not shouting and bellowing orders and demands as I had seen in 1943 during the building of the railway, although there was one particular Jap who was nasty and ready to hit out at anyone if it suited him. He had spectacles and was referred to as 'four-eyes'… ‘Keep clear of him, which was the best thing’

It is important to note that Alf received an unpaid promotion for the work he performed in 1943. There are no definitive numbers of Coolies in forced labour, but between 200,000 to 270,000 were ‘employed’, and 90,000 plus died at all camps and in the jungle along the railway.

Conditions on the railway for the Coolies’ were appalling; here are some recollections of the conditions;

‘We hear of the frightful casualties from cholera and other diseases among these people and of the brutality with which they are treated by the Japanese. People who have been near the camps speak with bated breath of the state of affairs - corpses rotting unburied in the jungle, almost complete lack of sanitation, a frightful stench, overcrowding, swarms of flies. There is no medical attention in these camps, and the wretched natives are of course unable to organise any communal sanitation.’

Another recollection of the conditions:

"(We) were duly despatched to a transit camp. It was teeming with dying natives, all in the throes of dysentery and cholera. Coloured and white slept together in the same huts. Clad in rags or even naked, we huddled together during the cold wet nights. Natives and POWs were unable to control themselves, with vomit and excreta everywhere. Each day a number of POWs who could still walk were detailed to carry out those men and natives who had died during the night. The smell of death was everywhere, an almost sweet, sickly smell that defied description". 

Of a later camp transfer;

"In this new camp were many natives; Indians, Malays, Chinese etc., dying from dysentery. Our Jap guard told us that to help or feed them would be death to us (although by his gun or the disease he did not say). These poor wretches crawled to our feet when the Jap had gone, begging for food and water. There are no cooks in this camp but a quantity of rice and a few vegetables. Two others in our party and myself set to work to make a crude meal. We made more than was needed for ourselves and then distributed the remainder to our native fellow sufferers. At night we slept alongside them, oblivious of any fear of contaminations, simply dead weary and exhausted. By morning many of our native companions were dead. That was the only time I ever cooked rice - I hoped it was my last’

‘The role of ‘K’ force was then to provide belated medical care for survivors of the army of civilians then working and dying on the railway.... The force was then dispersed among Coolie labour camps along the railway where disease in all forms was rife, particularly cholera, dysentery, malaria and tropical ulcers. The average camp at this time was a tumble-down conglomeration of shelters in a sea of mud, excreta and food refuse. Attached in ones and twos to civilian camps the men of 'K' Force embarked on a soul-destroying period of improvisation and daily toil from dawn to beyond dark. In spite of their dedication, the Asian labourers continued to die in hundreds.

‘The Asian labourers were appreciative of any efforts made to help the sick and showed great generosity with gifts of food and items from their piteously few possessions. Through their kindness, the majority of 'K' Force escaped the more extreme forms of vitamin deficiency.’

‘These men are all acting as MOs (medical orderlies) to the Tamil camps without medical stores and presumably with little to do except to make hygiene rules, dig mass graves and dispose of the dead.’

There is collateral information from numerous sources to suggest that the Japanese were rightly paranoid of Cholera, and any Romusha that were even suspected of having it were isolated from others and it was usually a death sentence.


There are many occasions where people were forcibly dumped in the jungle to die, POW were forced to dig graves and even ordered to perform live burials, burn the bodies (and perversely, scavenged vegetables would be roasted along with them) and in some cases euthanize hundreds of Coolies at a time by burying them. Daily death rates could range from 1-100+ a day.


Alf also related to me that he was in fact the only one in some camps to care for the sick, bury the dead and other unpleasant jobs. Some of the more notable Japanese he mentioned/experienced was the ‘the Black Prince’, aka Kinzo Motoyama, who was later imprisoned for war crimes. Alf said that ‘you could not bow low enough’; and with good reason. He, and his off sider known as ‘Dr Death’, also known as Sergeant Seiichi Okada, regularly expressed their sadism and he would have definitely met ‘Dr Death’ at the K, H and Tamil camps at Kanchanabri.

Black Prince

Doctor Death

‘The Black Prince’

‘Doctor Death’

Kinzo Motoyama

Sgt.Seiichi Okada

One account from a survivor put it thus;-

‘Beatings on the railway were totally routine. No man was more sadistic than the Japanese guard whom I called the Black Prince. He was a true bastard. Darker than the other Japanese soldiers, he strutted around like royalty, his beefy gut protruding from beneath a shabby uniform. He despised us totally. We were scum to him. His right-hand man was Sergeant Seiichi Okada, known to us Brits simply as Dr. Death. Short and squat, he took the roll-calls and carried out all of the camp commandant's orders. Ruthless in the extreme, he loved tormenting us. He especially revelled in a sickening brand of water torture. He had guards pin down his hapless victim before pouring gallons of water down the prisoner's throat using a bucket and hose. The man's stomach would swell up from the huge volumes of water. Okada would then gleefully jump up and down on him. Sometimes guards tied barbed wire around the poor soul's stomach. Most died; only a few survived.’

The Black Prince was imprisoned after the war for war crimes, and Dr. Death served 10 years gaol. The Japanese guards were generally very temperamental and presented themselves in a manner that ranged from co-operative and practical; even humane; to sadistic and unusual in their methods. Examples included standing prisoners to attention for hours on end, or arbitrary beatings. Sometimes Alf would have been sent to the railway to work. However, I suspect his medical training before his time on the railway would have spared him from the more sadistic Korean and Thai guards that were renowned for their cruelty on the railway itself.

Alf told to me that he was at the railway opening at Konkoita where someone stole one rivet from the railway tracks which seems consistent with other POW’s recollections of a constant effort to sabotage the railway. This was possibly counterproductive in some cases as many people were transported by the trains to different areas but were derailed due to a combination of sabotage and at times a maniacal Japanese refusal to allow workers to realign tracks in some areas by the tune of ‘Speedo’, and beatings for not working hard enough. Many instances were noted that bridges had collapsed and needed to be rebuilt. After the railway was finished, it was most likely that Alf was taking care of any Coolie maintenance workers until the end of the war. 


The Railway of Death, celebrated by the Japanese

The total cost was over 100,000 lives

No records were kept for the Romusha, the above estimate will be much higher





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[No One Will Believe] [Introduction] [Alfs Enlistment Record] [Overview 2/3rd MAC] [With The Indians] [2/3rd MAC under AIF] [2/3rd MAC in Singapore] [The Aftermath] [Alf in 'K' Force] [Toward The End] [Alfs Demob Record] [Alf's Photo Album] [Thai-Burma Trip 2019] [References]


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