‘F’ - Death Force
by Robert Peacock
Field Engineers - Australian Army
This is the tale of Bob Peacock, an Australian who was brought up during the depression and had to leave home at an early age to rough it in a man‘s world.
Learning from his father who ran a blacksmith shop, he found he could turn his hand to most jobs required by that evolving country. Logging and cattle droving led to hunting, fishing and slaughtering skills that would unknowingly then, serve him well during his unfortunate spell u of over three years under the heel of the brutal Japanese. After his return to Australia in 1945 he decided to seek a career and took up law becoming a barrister. Now retired, and with his family of seven making their own lives, he appears to prefer his own company and the great open spaces as he fishes a lot more than he hunts. ‘This short tale tells only part of the suffering experienced and his part in trying to alleviate it for others. Even so it took nearly 50 years before he could open up and let some of’ his memory do the talking.
I volunteered to go to the 2nd World War when I was 18 year old, found myself taken prisoner in Singapore on the 15th February 1942.
I was first in a Field Company Engineers unit, where we had also been lightly trained as infantrymen - having to blow up or replace bridges, roads, etc. After a bout of typhoid fever I was eventually transferred to a Field Ambulance unit where I trained as a paramedic.
After we were captured, 1 was transferred to the hospital at Roberts Barracks at Changi, Singapore where I learned surgical nursing and afterwards, medical nursing. Not having any previous experience, we were instructed and taught both surgical and medical skills by great specialists.
In early April 1943, the Japanese demanded that a further 7,000 prisoners be sent to Thailand and Burma. Thousands already had been sent before but more were needed to meet their brutal schedules. The group that I was in was called “F” Force, (now known as the Death Force.) made up from Australian and British troops from Changi, including many sick,
On the 25th April we commenced the march north from Ban Pong railway station, marched two nights then one night’s rest until we arrived at Konkuita, (each train contained 700 men) and commenced work. A day afterwards, the 700 from number two train arrived and it was then the Japanese realized that the number one party was all specially trained soldiers, artillery, signalmen and engineers, so they separated the group, sending the artillery and some signalers and engineers to Burma. The second train consisted of the 2/29th Infantry Battalion from my home state. They were also divided, leaving my work party of 700 made up from fragments of units, but soon our discipline and organization was in order. I was a very hard working para-medical soldier with great physical strength and unfathomed energy and stamina. We had to carry many of the weak and also various cooking appliances. The composite party of 700 was then moved further north to Timonta, 11 kilometers north of Konkuita where there were Dutch not too far away, and Karon Burmese with their small oxen and carts.
We were completely segregated so didn’t know how they fared but I know that most of the Karon died. It was there that the Japanese discovered that they couldn’t feed anyone, including themselves because of the flooding of the river. So, after starving for six weeks in which time we lost a large number of our group from cholera, we were ordered to go south again. It took us a week, going back and forth to get to Konkuita carrying sick men, tools and cooking gear. We were set to work there for weeks but there was no food. Further south we went for about another week, later the last of the sick and suffering arrived (carried by myself and another man) to find food at last at Tamaron Par at the 237 Kilometer camp; the men worked there for about a week but were ordered further south. They arrived later at Takenun where they worked for the next 3 to 4 months.
I was left at Tamaron Par in a camp of 53, consisting of 3 Lieutenants, 1 Staff Sergeant and two other paramedics, The rest, apart from an older soldier suffering from a massive tropical ulcer, had cholera, and as I had a mild bout of it myself I had fear of infection.
Excuse me if I must digress at this point. The young medical practitioner, Captain Roy Mills, was in charge of the para-medical soldiers who that time had to go south with the main party. I found the three officers cowardly and frightened to venture out of their tent what with fear of getting cholera or maybe bogey men. They were certainly frightened of’ the work, disease and Japanese.
Fortunately, one of the paramedics was from near where I came from and, although born on the river flats, had ventured into the high country and knew a bit about logging. In America he would be known as a lumberjack. I knew him from before the war but at all times we were at arms length. Vie could work any logs for the two necessary tires—one for the production of saline infusions and one for the human wash of the contaminated people. The ulcer patient named Danny Ross was of great value. He had been a crocodile, buffalo, and wild pig hunter in the northern jungles of’ Australia, and like myself he could really handle a cross-cut saw and an axe. Many men died there, some to survive the cholera only to die later with beriberi.
We were here for two months and then moved by river barge to Takenun. The river was well in flood, so you may imagine how frightening it was for some, but I have had many experiences and find that I have no fear. I found the trip exciting. Some of the sick were shifted by barge to Kancharaburi where a number of medics were led by Major Keven Fagen who operated a big hospital there. Keven Fagen died a few months ago. What a great man but unsung hero was Keven.
I mentioned Dr.R Roy Mills earlier, and it was at Takenun that I rejoined him again and later traveled north again to Tonkuita and then to Niki. During the two months I was at Tamoran 1 had to go back to Konkuita on four trips, carry in food for about twelve people we had left there on the march south, mostly cholera sufferers, the first of such trips the lieutenant in charge sallied bravely forth, empty handed of course, except for a pass written by the Korean guard setting out our mission. On the way we struck a Japanese Company en-route to Burma. They were very thrilled when I gave them 20 kilos of rice and other goods before having to go back to Tamaron Park.
The bridge over the creek at Konkuita (the creek then being backed up inland with flood water) was under water because of the flooding of the river overnight. I was worried about Japs hunting for me by my being absent overnight so, regardless of the malaria, I swam across and set forth for Kamaron Par. I found the going very difficult as my great depth of energy and stamina was, prior to this, sopping away with constant amoebae, hook worm, malaria, etc, I was forced to give up at a place named Krian Krai where Dr. Victor Brand, an Australian of Jewish descent, had earlier established a sick camp for those traveling north who had succumbed to disease, etc. He sent a message to my camp explaining my trials and tribulations, and after staying the night he right then loaded me with quinine and I went to Tamaron Par the next day. Fortunately I had no trouble with the Korean guard in charge. His name was Yasta, a tall lean handsome man with a very genuine pleasant smile and very noble in manners. He was there most of the time during that two months and the other one used to alternate between there and Takenun. They were very surly but kept well away because of the cholera. Yasta was most helpful from the beginning, took me to a Jap store for rations and explained our situation. I was very surprised when the Jap Sergeant Major knocked Yasta to the ground and then came my turn. Yasta got up slowly, bowed and saluted. I did likewise and after that we were blessed with reasonable amounts of food.
I was told later why Yasta and I got belted, it was that none of the three officers in our camp presented themselves to the Sergeant Major and which he and I agreed was pure cowardice. He gave me as much salt as I could carry away for the saline infusions.
The hunter from the north and I killed a couple of Burmese oxen there. The Karen Burmese all had died and the Thai river people had killed their oxen with the exception of the two I found while looking for secret places to bury our dead friends, the Japs insisting that they should be burned. Having learned slaughtering and skinning when young, I had no problem butchering the bodies and with the salt I had acquired, salted the meat in an earthenware crock which I had obtained from the river people.I rejoined the remnants of the main group at Takenun and after a month there we were ordered to go north again to Tomonta and finish where we started. On passing through Konkuita it was occupied by Australians and I think some of the New Zealanders. I don’t know where they came from as there were previously none in the Far East.
We stayed at Tomonta until the link-up of the rail at Konkuita, which day we were marched down for the ceremony for some Jap general and some strangers. A sip of saki was presented to us. That night, Capt.Hariuma, the chief engineer, belted the tripe out of us for singing “Hand me down my walking cane, I’m going to leave on the midnight train.” I still laugh with one who was there and is still living. It is one of a number of songs written by Stephen Foster, that American composer who wrote many songs about the south in the early 19th century. They mistook what we sang for arranging to escape. It was really for a 21st birthday celebration, where there was a great function celebrating the formation of our 8th Infantry Division. That day was the last I saw of Konquita other than passing through on an open truck immediately behind the engine getting burned by lighted bamboo which we had to find on the way to get enough steam up to pull the rest of the train.
About the three doctors I have mentioned, Dr. Keven Fagen is dead. Dr. Victor Brand is not now recorded in the telephone book of medical practitioners, but some of his family are, I pray that he is still alive and retired. I saw him three years ago at a re-union. Dr. Roy Mills, on arrival at Singapore, December 1945 had tuberculosis, and I have lost track of him but now know he was in sanitariums for some years after arrival in Australia. While there, he studied the respiratory diseases and is now a world acclaimed physician. Until three years ago I always believed that Roy Mills was dead. On our parting in December 1943 he and I were both about 5-5 stone (77 lbs) in weight but Australia is a very large place though small in terms of population, and news of prisoners of war carried very rapidly. One day I received a telephone call after it having been passed on and on until one of the POW signalmen who knew my address contacted me. I went to Sydney where Roy Mills was attending a world physicians gathering at that town’s Medical Center. I later met him at Bathurst (sic), a central New South Wales town where there was a great function celebrating the formation of our 8th Infantry Division. Ray was given the great honour of proposing the toast, most of our senior officers long since dead. I’ve lost Roy Mills’ address because he was moving house to New South Wales. Before he took possession of the house he had contracted to buy, there was earthquake damage.