Sketch by Jack Chalker

No One Will Believe You

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Thai-Burma Trip 2019

Railway Map Sections - 20b

Click on a Section for photos

The 830 km round trip from Bangkok to the three pagodas pass at the Myanmar border and back following the railway and the river showed how many plateaus there are, but also how steep the mountains are; and suddenly so. My trip coincided with the monsoonal weather which also would have coincided with the same time Alf would have been on the railway. The weather was dry and searing in the sun at Ban Pong and Kanchanabri but as you travel from Kanchanabri into the mountains the weather became cooler, and the rain turned any ground into rushing torrents or muddy flats with lots of mosquitos.

It was astounding how many small camps were dotted along the road that basically followed the river and the railways construction, and how different the camps would have been; some well drained and relatively dry, then the next only a short distance away and would have been squalid due to its position in any valley. The walks between camps would have been hard work as any mud was sucking and quickly so. The railway itself had areas that would have had access by road or river but some areas had no access other than foot traffic. Alf’s arrival on the railway from Changi would have corresponded with the latter part of the ‘speedo’ period of the railway’s construction and the start of the monsoon and with the differences in individual camps, the hospital at Kinsaiyok would have been a haven for disease, mosquitos and other issues, as it was sited in a flat, low area. When I was there myself the rain had turned the area into a sodden mud flat that was compounded by the jungle canopy and corresponding humidity. The area near Konkoita and Nieke was largely flat and under the water of a newer dam project until meeting the Myanmar border where any further progress was impossible; as Alf was likely at Apalon across the border in Myanmar to look after the coolies that were detailed there after the joining of the tracks at Konkoita.

The reality is that any map does the geography no justice; and the sites of the railway construction would have been a very different place to be a forced labourer in any respect. The sun was oppressive in the open, and the mountains were steep, jagged, hot and wet. Each spine of a rise had to be cut through and every depression had to be built up with spoil and bridges built; reportedly 638 of them. The sheer repetition of these features would have felt endless to the POW’s and coolies; it felt like that for me in a very short time and the walk back up from Hellfire with its neat and comfortable steps got harder the further you went and the work at that particular area of the railway must have been unbearable. But the work at Hellfire was repeated in some way all along the railway’s construction in the steeper parts of Thailand. A Truly staggering work and unsurprising in the associated human cost.

Ultimately, I’m guessing that Alf’s skills probably saved others but more importantly saved his own life. Apart from his experiences in Malaya and Singapore he would have been involved in caring for the sick in Changi and was required to do the same for the coolies on various points on the railway at the start of the monsoon in 1943. From Kanchanabri to Apalon in Myanmar, he would have moved up and down the built sections of the railway as required. The most arduous work would arguably have been in the initial clearing, demolition and construction work carried out before he arrived up country and it is likely he was spared from the majority of this work, but the conditions he would have endured to serve his role would have been basic with supplies limited, and dealing with death on an ongoing basis.

Out of the 2/3rd MAC (C section) that was present in the Christmas photo in December 1941 in Malaya that he had kept, he was in K force with 5 other people from his unit; one of which perished on the railway at Bangin camp. There are about 20 others from his unit (probably A and B sections) who perished on the railway and are buried at Kanchanabri. Oral histories from Bill Fitch and Arthur Lawlor who were also in K force both confirmed the work that Alf would have been tasked with and would have included activities ranging from building camps, fatigues, and disposing of many deceased and would have been either on his own or with one other POW. The other confirmed reality would have been that no one camp experience would have been the same…and this depended on the camp site and temperaments of the individual Japanese/Korean guards from camp to camp. The guards were particularly cruel to the coolies and in many cases provided them with no supplies and their criteria for sending them to work was harsh with many perishing and having no marked grave. In other cases, Alf may have been tasked with caring for Japanese as well which would have afforded him some advantages not open to others. He would have been spared from the harshest labour due to this work.

An important part missing from this story until relatively recently has been the treatment and recollections of the Romusha (Coolies) experiences as forced labourers. Many were illiterate, and enticed to work with empty promises of food and money and were ruthlessly exploited in many cases with no food of nutritional value or medicines which were well known to the Japanese as basic requirements of tropical medicine to stop Malaria and other illnesses. The lack of a cohesive community and nutrition contributed to many anonymous deaths. Again however, there were many who survived through sheer luck and took their chances. The Romusha did have one advantage over the white people; they were more than likely to be able to escape the jungle due to their appearance but this did not stop rewards being paid by the Japanese to anyone turning in POW and Romusha alike. In many cases, the sight of white people after the fall of Imperial Britain in the area was resented by many in Asia and often brought out the worst in some cases of course. The allied POW did have a more organised presence on the railway that the Romusha didn’t and it wasn’t until groups like K force were sent to correct dire conditions for the Romusha, and in many cases conditions improved, but by this time the jungle was full of anonymous dead that were simply left where they fell, or just thrown into the river thus maintaining the cycle of disease and death.

At the end of the war, many Romusha were told the war was over and many just didn’t know where to go or what to do. Many of them had to find their own way home assuming they knew how. Many did return home only to discover families that had disappeared, with many joining the army in their home countries to seek revenge on the Japanese or seek independence in their own country. This sparked the rise of ‘police actions’ in the region which basically started as soon as the Second World War ended. At least Alf got to go home knowing his family was safe and well given the context.

The reality for me is that having written this account now, it has shown how politically na´ve one can be, and blinkered to the wider, more culturally complex scenarios that are woven into this account. Watching the wartime British Movie Tone newsreels of Malaya nowadays is an awkward prospect as they knew that the 8th division and all its other allies were doomed from the start but could hold their heads high believing that they fought bravely; but in reality they were soundly thrashed by the Japanese. The ‘rule Britannia’ attitude created a complacency leading to a criminal lack of resources and commitment. They even discounted the intelligence prior to the conflict that the Japanese were going to attack at all. The senseless destruction of the British warships Repulse and Prince of Wales showed how military intelligence could be such a contradiction in terms.

The world that this story was in just seems so far away and I just can’t see any contemporary folk volunteering for this at all. Needless to say, it has been satisfying to peer into a world I heard so much about and now have seen the places Alf would have seen. I hope you have enjoyed this story as much I have taken to produce it as it is a work that has consumed a significant portion of my life in understanding not only such an amazing journey, but has given me a glimpse into the reality of the notion of living each day like it is your last, and never take anything for granted.





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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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