March to Paradise
The day came when we had to pack our kits, and march through the city to the railway station. At this camp we had very warm sunny weather, and we were getting acclimatised, but the next few days were to tax the best of us. We reached the station, and loaded our kit on to the cattle trucks, and we were horrified to find forty persons to a truck, which did not provide sufficient room for us to be able to lie down at the same time, and in fact we had only room to sit back to back, and even before we got into the trucks they were like ovens, imagine what it was like when forty bodies got into the oven as well.
There wasn't a breath of wind, and the sweat just rolled off our skinny bodies like a tap, and everyone was like a wet rag within minutes.
We had a container of rice for our party, and before the train pulled out the rice was sour, and it was not to be eaten until the next morning!
We sat in the trucks with the doors shut for four hours before steam was got up, and the train began to move just before dusk. The sun went down, and the night air became very cold, and sitting on or touching cold steel after such stifling heat was similar to jumping out of boiling water into icy cold, the shock to the nervous system was electrifying, and we could hardly keep the blood circuiting except by constantly rubbing over the whole body.
The journey was a nightmare, and an ordinary human body could not withstand a repeat performance of it, that I am sure.
The train was a slow mover, and continually stopped for hours on end as we travelled the length of Malaya. There were no toilets on board, and it was an awful job wanting to urinate or excrete, as one simply had to slide the doors back, and hanging on the best one could, sometimes with two mates holding your hands, and your backside hanging outside doing all that was expected. It would not be a pleasant sight for the natives watching the train going by, with each truck door open and a big white backside doing its business, but it was far worse for the poor bloke so hanging.
Dysentery Strikes on Journey
By Leo Rawlings
Our first stop for food was at a little station where the engine had to be filled with water, and get stocked up with more firewood. The engine was enveloped in steam, and dozens of us nipped out with our mess tins, and put them under the steam outlet to try and get some sterilised water, but the Jap guards chased us, so we had nothing to drink with our sour rice.
Fortunately a few of us had been able to bring a tin or two of food, which tasted wonderful on this occasion. Although we were as thirsty as hell we were still able to discipline ourselves to refrain from drinking water, which had not been boiled, and I cannot emphasise sufficiently the will power, which we needed under these desperate circumstances.
We spent four nights in this iron prison, literally roasting during the day and absolutely freezing during the night. We passed Kuala Lumpar, Ipoh, and Penang on our journey north, and pulled into a small station called Ban-Pong in Thailand about mid-day on the fifth day of our journey, battered, and bewildered, and starving. We were lined up and counted, which again took at least the inevitable hour, and then marched off to a Camp called Non-Pladuk which we were told was about forty miles from Bangkok.
The guards each with a rifle were extremely vicious to those poor prisoners who could not maintain the speed of the leaders, and it was a sheer show off to the native spectators, and remember we had been virtually locked up in a small iron prison for five days and four nights, without food sufficient to maintain the body weight loss through sweat, and we were as weak as kittens, hardly able to carry even the small amount of kit we had at that moment.
We were battered, beaten, and embarrassed, and our spirits were at the lowest ebb since being taken prisoner, and it hurt, however, we were fortunate to have a reasonable meal of rice, and a watery stew ready for us by fellow prisoners, who were established at Non-Pladuk.
Our hair was long and down to our shoulders, and beards were not much shorter, and all this hair was tatty, and we were lousy with lice crawling about our bodies in there thousands.
Toilets at Non-Pladuk
By W.C. Wilder
Again our luck was in, as Non-Pladuk had good wells and wash places, with framed slatted bamboo to stand on. We were allowed to have a wash, and we scrubbed the past weeks filth from our scraggy bodies, and felt so much better after it.
We had no buildings allocated to us, and as we were moving on in the morning we slept outside with the sky, stars and moon as our only cover, but the night was warm and we were all so very tired, we took no rocking to sleep, and soon we were oblivious to everything.
The last few days had been terrible, and we were so pleased to be out of those bloody trucks.
I have often been asked if we had any nightmares while sleeping in conditions such as I have just described, and the answer is-yes, certainly yes, but it may appear rather funny, I cannot recall the nightmare situations but I do remember, as though it was happening at the moment, the pleasant dreams I had, and they were all about home.
Many is the time I dreamt about walking into the front door of our house at 49 Oswin Avenue, Forest Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and treading on the beautiful fitted carpet, admiring the decor, the cheery coal fire in the grate, the beautiful meal already laid out on the table, and best of all greeting my dear Mother, brothers and sister, and sitting down to enjoy my mother's home cooking. My mother was a marvellous woman, and she had brought us up, my four brothers and sister on the “parish relief” or guardians’ money as it was sometimes called. She had the handsome sum of one pound, five shillings per week to pay rent, buy coal, food and clothing for the six of us, and she managed by a system only known to herself. Our life had been a hard one, but somehow we managed, and although we were not extremely religious, we were God-fearing, and being a choir-boy at Killingworth Church, and a wolf-cub, and later a boy-scout, we had little pleasantries of the choir-boys Christmas supper, wolf-cub and boy-scout sports and parties, and best of all week-end Camps, and the highlight of the year, the summer weeks Camp at Hollywell Dene or some other place just as nice.
I was in the West Moor school sword dancing team which included Pip Haswell, Matty Mason, John Robson, Fairy Simmons, and me, and we danced at shows at Kirkwelpington, Burradon, and other places, and we were always the star attraction at the Willow Dene, Forest Hall garden fete, and at each we used to get a few coppers and a meal. I was athletic and won many prizes at school and in the boy scouts for running and played for the school football team. I was a good scholar, and jumped standards three and five, and had three years in the top standard, but we were too poor to afford the uniform and books to go on to the Gosforth Secondary School.
These then were the memories which conjured the framework of many of my dreams as I lay tormented, nay demented in disease ridden, filthy lice and bug ridden Singapore, Malaya and Thailand, and upon reflection it was thoughts of a pleasant, though hard childhood, that quite often kept me going in the bad times, always with the thought that some day, somehow it would all come to reality again.
Having had a good nights sleep at Non-Pladuk we were aroused before dawn and told to gather our kit, and move along to the cookhouse for a mug of plain rice with a tablespoon of sugar for our breakfast, and be ready to march off within the hour to destination unknown, somewhere along the new project, the “Burma Railway”
And, as though it was a warning of things to come, the heavens opened and it rained as only it can do in Thailand, as we marched away from Non-Pladuk. We had no weatherproofs, and in fact many had only a G-string to cover their privates, as the majority of their clothes had been traded with the natives for food.
The guards were divided into two sections, one at the front leading the way and setting a fast pace, and the other at the back bashing any straggler with rifle butts, and as many were now very sick men, the guards had a field day viciously attacking the tail-enders. We were being driven along like cattle, and the abominable rain didn't help matters as many had no boots and were slipping and sliding all over the place and several got severe cuts on their bare feet with stones or scrub stumps, as we were marching on rough tracks.
Although the marching was sheer hell, we still managed to take in some of the sights, and travelling through Ban-Pong, a small town, we saw a sight, which even in our state nearly turned our stomachs. Sitting outside bamboo huts on the side of the track were human beings begging even from us, or at least trying to. These wretched people as babies had their legs twisted around their necks and similarly their arms with the forearm and hands protruding in front of their chests, their hands together with the palms upwards in cup fashion, and were bound until the bones set, and could in no way be moved. These we were told were known as the 'professional beggar’ and they had to be lifted wherever they were wanted to beg. We were badly off, but even our hearts bled for those wretched mortals.
Long Trek in Thailand
By Leo Rawlings
On we marched for hours slipping and sliding in the mud, and we were now travelling the jungle track. The trees were enormous, and the foliage was so thick it blotted out the sky, but at that time we were not able to look up as our eyes were glued to the ground picking our way through the morass, and watching the fellow in front.
After something like four hours marching we had a “Yasme, all men,” a rest, and we just dumped our kit in the mud, sat down in it and wondered when it was all going to end, if ever. We had been given a mug full of rice for our mid-day meal before we left Non-Pladuk, and we ate it sitting in the mud, in the rain.
The poor chaps who were sick straggled in and just collapsed on the spot, and they had no strength to open their mess tin and eat their rice, they simply wanted rest, however, prisoner-of-war life was just not like that, and no sooner had they sat down, than the leading Jap guards stood up and shouted “All men go,” and off they went into the jungle with us reluctantly picking up our bits and pieces, and following like sheep being led to the slaughter. Somehow and by super-human effort, once on the march again we started to sing “It’s a long way to Tipperary,” and those who had the strength joined in, and for those who couldn’t, I am sure felt some little boost to their morale. The Jap guards halted the column, and the leading men were questioned, “Why sing-ka, joto nie prisoners sing-ka, prisoners should be sad-ka, Churchill no-good-ka, no sing-ka” and off we went again but this time in silence.
The route we were taking was extremely difficult, and it was merely a track through the jungle, and very uneven, and made worse by the rain which fell continually. The track was a sea of mud with scrub creepers entwined with one another, and making traps like rabbit snares, which caught our feet, and caused many a fall as we slid and slipped forward but sometimes sideways if we hit a mound or slight incline.
The strain was beginning to tell on us all, even the Jap guards were finding it difficult, and the pace became a crawl. Prisoners were dropping down in exhaustion, and their mates had to help to keep them moving, however slow, because if they fell to the ground they would be unable to get up, again, and the guards “bringing up the rear would bash them with rifle butts, and if they then failed to get up, they would be shot without the slightest remorse from the guard. It was quite common for this to happen.
Stumbling, falling, getting up, slipping, sliding, helping a mate, marching with all our worldly possessions on our backs, weighing heavier and heavier as the day wore on. Scratches, cuts and scrapes on our legs and arms from the branches and tree stumps, made us look a sorry picture as we reached the first stage of our journey into the virgin jungle. We arrived at a small transit camp somewhere near Kan-buri, and we collapsed on to a sea of mud against some bamboo framed stinking huts, but prisoner life isn't like that with the Japs, and all men had to hunt for firewood, light fires, and start cooking our rice. “Yasme nie” hollowed the guards, as they let fly with sticks or rifle butts on to our wet and sweaty tired exhausted bodies, forcing us to get organised for the night stay, and somehow we managed to cook our rice and boil some drinking water before the Japs reluctantly declared “All men Yasme,” and after finding a place in those stinking huts, we slept in the clothes we stood in, saturated to our skins, but at last oblivious to the bullying.
So this was the beginning of the better life, food, and conditions the Japs had promised before we left Singapore, my God, they have a weird sense of humour! How far we had come from Non-Pladuk was not known, neither did we care, but what we were concerned about was the conditions, and how far had we to go before we reached the promised paradise, because believe it or not, we still had optimists who somewhere at the back of their tiny minds believed the Japs. They would be disappointed!
Before dawn we were awakened by the Jap guards, by the courtesy of a big boot kicked into any part of our bodies including our heads or faces, this was in place of the bugle blowing reveille, and it was effective.
Our bodies ached with pain and none of us felt like starting another day similar to yesterday, yet we had no alternative, and the yelping, screaming guards made sure the body pain was secondary in our minds by clouting and bashing even at this early hour and for no reason.
The breakfast was cooked under atrocious conditions, and if anyone wishes to try the impossible, please try to light a fire without paper and with green bamboo or vegetation, with Jap guards walloping you with sticks or rifles. Everything was Speedo! now, and these maniacs expected prisoners to boil water in the rain with green timber as quick as, or quicker than under normal conditions, and how the cooks managed at all was a marvel, and it was appreciated by us, with our aching bodies looking on at the poor cooks in their predicament, and remember these poor lads had marched with us the previous day, and had the march to do on this day as well.
We had now been prisoners-of-war for over one year, and excepting for the first few days in Changi, and an odd day or two at Keppel Harbour, we had had nothing but rice with small morsels of sugar, salt, green watery stew, which really was a colour not vegetable, a little dry fish or soya bean.
We had not eaten bread, butter, jam, meat or vegetables, nor had we had any tea, milk or coffee during that time, and our bodies were disintegrating into human skeletons. On the march we had insufficient flesh to cushion the straps of our packs and kit, and they simply scrubbed through the film of skin, and very nasty, serious ulcers were formed on the bone. Similarly, due to scratches from the bamboo thorns, which were now prevalent in the jungle vegetation, ulcers of terrifying proportions began to affect many of us.
These tropical ulcers were to become a sickness, even a disease as the slightest scratch or cut festered and grew as big as saucers. The flesh is eaten away by some form of bacteria or bug, and the wound is filled with pus, and at the worst turns gangrenous resulting in amputation of the limb.
Readers will excuse the terms breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea or supper, as they are in this respect merely time terms used in the civilised sense, and our meals irrespective of the time of day consisted of the same menu i.e. rice, sometimes with a morsel of one of the varieties previously mentioned.
On then with the second day's march to paradise, and conditions were no better than the previous day, in fact, they were worse because our bodies were weakening with every stride we took.
We were travelling along the edge of a river which we thought was the Mekong but some said it was the Kwai; but it didn't matter two hoots if it had been the Tyne, as we had no time or inclination to argue too much as we slithered and slid on our way.
The Burma Railway was a line running from Non-Pladuk in Thailand to Moulmein in Burma, a distance of some four hundred or so miles, and the route was through virgin jungle. We learnt both the British and Germans had at some time before the war examined and surveyed the area in regard to building a railway, but both had withdrawn, saying it was virtually impossible, and the risk to human life did not even warrant an attempt,
What had the Japanese got that neither the English or Germans had not, and were their engineers cleverer than the Europeans?
One thing they had which the Europeans had not, was tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war, and hundreds of thousands of natives whose lives they valued not, but they certainly fell short on their quality of engineers as will often be seen as my story unfolds.
Before we had gone very far past Kanburi, which was a prisoner-of-war camp we passed about mid-day, we came across working parties hacking their way through the jungle, either blasting cuttings through hills or filling valleys or undulations with excavated material from the sides of the line in the jungle, and carrying it in some of the weirdest transport imaginable.
The means of carrying was either native fashion with a basket on the head or a stretcher-like carrier which consisted of two thin bamboos stuck through a sack with a prisoner at either end, and they all were running backwards from the excavations to the embankment like ants with Jap guards clouting and harassing each and everyone within reach.
As we tramped past the gangs we saw many whom we recognised, and discreetly, greetings of a kind, messages and other information was passed between us and them.
I learnt from a friend called John Birchal, a private in the Norfolk Regiment that my old pal Bob Steele had passed their camp a few weeks previous and he looked in good fettle which I was pleased to hear as the last I heard before leaving Singapore he had a bad dose of dysentery. I looked forward to maybe seeing him further up the line.
Whenever a gang of Jap guards met up with another gang of their ill-bred mates, they always had a desire to show off with their skills of ill-treatment to prisoners, and this was no exception and they literally went berserk smashing rifle butts onto members of our party. And our friends working on the railway also had a double ration of beatings until we got out of sight. On we ploughed through the morass of filth and uneven track and there was no let up with the speedo or violence until at last we reached a little camp a few miles short of a place called Wampo and as we had arrived in daylight it gave us a little time to appraise the area, and actually it was a reasonable location for a camp as it was on a flat area just above the river and within a few yards of the route of the railway, and if only the guards would drop down dead we could have made a reasonable life here.
Let no one believe that the Jap guards were acting on any instructions from senior officers, as it is our firm belief that no one with any pedigree could be so continually violent, and at some time a glimmer of reasonableness about something would show through, but not so with these pigs called human beings. I honestly feel the violence is in-bred and the phoney stuff about flower arranging and stupid culture as such, was and is a charade. They are a violent depraved and ignorant race of people. They felt they were on a winner with Germany doing so well in Europe, and naturally thought things would never be the same again and the Nazi's and themselves would be the master races.
As we unloaded our kits at Wampo South the rains stopped and life was just that little bit more pleasant, we were always thankful for small mercies and this was one we were pleased about.