By Leo Rawlings
Usual drill, seeking firewood, making something to eat and drink, if that is what one can call rice and water, a good wash in the river, making sure not to open our mouths and swallowing any river water and then bedding down in the open air for another nights sleep in the jungle which was crawling with bugs, ants and insects, and if you were under Bamboo and someone shook the bamboo you became covered in lice.
Oh what a wonderful life to look forward to.
Next morning we were assembled and sorted out into working parties, for camp construction as this was our first camp on the infamous railway and as per usual we started from scratch, and the building of accommodation, making a cookhouse, digging latrines and the clearance of vegetation and scrub for a parade ground etc. were all to be completed in that one day, as we were to start work on the railway on the following day.
The task was an impossible one but the word, impossible is not in the Japs vocabulary.
I was one of a party who had to go into the jungle and fetch Bamboo for framing for the huts and what an experience the virgin jungle is. The ground was covered in creepers, which virtually grew visibly and if you cleared an area one day it was overgrown again the next. The creepers grew up the trees and bamboo and made it so difficult when you sliced through the base of a Bamboo with a parang (a type of large knife or chopping axe) and the branches of the bamboo was entwined with creepers.
It took half a dozen men to pull that one bamboo clear and onto the ground where we chopped off the thorn-ridden branches and were left with a straight pole often in excess of fifty feet long. Bamboo is hollow with closure cells about every eighteen inches in its entire length and is a most versatile material being extremely strong and varying in diameter up to seven or eight inches.
It is used for hut building or firewood and when cut into small sections is used for buckets, mugs even pipes and many of our chaps made a pipe when tobacco was available, and reckoned they enjoyed the mellow timber taste, but the tobacco was strong enough to blow the back of your head off.
We pulled and pushed at the clumps of bamboo and cleaned them down to pole finish, bundled about ten together with a tie we got from the bark of a tree and a couple of men trotted back to the camp area with them and when the Japs thought we had sufficient for a hut we started construction work.
The large ones were used for uprights and those about three or four inches in diameter were used for cross members, trusses or pirlins. Not a single nail was needed; in fact one couldn't fix bamboo with nails. Holes were cut through the bamboo, thin strong pieces were pushed through the two members to be fixed then they were lashed together with a tie which was torn from the inside of bark from a special tree and it was very effective and made a strong structure. Thinner bamboos were lashed onto these, again with ties so that attap could be tied to these for weatherproofing purposes.
Attap is dried leaves fixed at the fold by a thin strip of bamboo and with more ties, to make it fairly rigid and these are laid and tied one on top of the other like slates or tiles.
We started to build huts for our party of three hundred and we were to be allocated at one hundred per hut. The bamboos were sorted out and cut to lengths and construction was begun. It is quite easy to erect such buildings and in a very short time we had the sides and trusses fixed and we were working on the roof framing and as we had no ladders we had to do quite a balancing act to fix the purlins. I was at the eaves level with one bare leg straddled over the wall framing and with hands and other foot contorting to hold and fix the bottom purlin. We were at full stretch and hurrying to get cover for us for that night and we were under a bit tension. Unaware to me a Jap guard had come close to where I was working and without warning he smashed his teak sword stick hard as he could, bang! Wallop, over what flesh there was left on the back of my thigh and through shock I fell like a log from my perch at the feet of this pig. I thought he had broken my legs, but he wasn’t satisfied with knocking me off the roof he walloped me with that bloody stick at least half a dozen times and I writhed in pain. Unconcerned he just marched off to another part of the hut and left me lying in agony. When I felt the back of my thigh it had a weal, flaming red, nearly six inches long and protruding above my skin about an inch and my how it hurt!!! After thirty-five years I can still feel the soreness if I happen to knock that part of my leg. I limped for months after and will never forget the excruciating pain I felt at that time, but that was nothing to what the Japs had in store for me and many fellow prisoners in the years ahead.
The huts were erected, the latrines were dug, the cookhouse was prepared and all vegetation was removed from the camp area and the ground was flattened out with shovels. We had, from experience learnt that flies couldn't breed on hard surfaces and to stop this, we tried to consolidate the area we were to live in, by this method, and we felt it was worth the effort.
It took us until nearly midnight to accomplish the target and then having something to eat and a wash in the river we bedded down in our new ‘hotel’, nursing wounds meted out during the course of the last eighteen-hour working day.
Very rarely had we the strength for much conversation after work and more often that not, one was only too pleased to close one's eyes and try to get the maximum rest.
The life we were leading at present could only be conjured by storytellers but believe me it was no fantasy, this was real, and many thousand prisoners were the leading actors but fortunately we had no leading ladies on the set.
Our camp was aroused before dawn the next day and we were formed into working parties of fifty men with two guards in charge of each party. For the first time we had a Korean guard and he was subordinate to the Jap guard, but if we thought Koreans may be better than Japs, we were in for a big surprise, as they were a subjected race and they vented their spleen on the prisoners.
Korea had been overrun by the Japanese a few years before the Second World War was begun and their country had been ravaged, and extreme violence had forced the Koreans to accept Japanese as the conqueror. Korea was part of the Japanese empire but their peoples had not totally accepted the system, therefore they could not be trusted as an ally.
The Japanese mistrust of the Korean was such that they would not allow them to be front line soldiers, and their sole duties consisted of garrison troops or prisoner of war guards.
At this stage we were ordered to learn Japanese, as all orders would henceforth be given in the victor’s language. This was difficult as we were given no lessons and had to pick it up the best we could, however on this, our first morning of work on the 'Burma railway’ we were given our baptism.
'Yotske’ was the equivalent to ‘Attention’, 'Yasme' was ‘Stand at ease’, ‘Bango’ was number from the right, and ‘one two three etc.’ was ‘ltche- nee-san- see- go- rorko- seetchi- hatchi- coo- joo-‘ with eleven, twelve, thirteen etc. being joo-itchi, joo-nee, joo-san and so on with one hundred being 'Yackoo’, and the quickest way to learn the language is with a Jap or Korean guard standing in front of you with a teak-sword stick or rifle butt, which comes - whack! On the side of your head if you made a mistake. We learnt the drill commands in record time.
We had to travel about a mile from the camp to the railway route and upon arriving at our starting point we had to collect our tools such as chungkols, crow-bars, hammers, baskets, parangs and shovels. The shovels brought smiles to the faces of the prisoners as they were made out of corrugated iron, which had been flattened out, shaped pointed fashion, cut and handled, and as soon as you put any pressure on the blade, it ruddy well buckled and the end turned up.
It was noticeable that the Thais had much the same impression as the Chinese about the Japs and they were quite happy to take extraordinary risks to trade with us, and in areas where there was no campongs or villages for miles, and in most isolated positions, the Thais would secrete themselves and at the risk of death, pop up with food for bartering with us for any of our possessions such as jewellery, clothing or money.
The work on the railway was invariably divided into tasks and when we finished the task we could make our way back to camp. Prisoners were always in a dilemma, about this task business, as the quicker you finished your task the more time you had to yourself in camp, but you always felt when working to this end you were helping the Jap war effort and the Japs would soon increase the task if we finished too early, and yet they would not let us take things too easy and kept us moving but we were prepared to make things as hard as possible for them.
Work at Wampo began with building embankments such as we saw other prisoners on our journey from Non-Pladuk, and it was hard and most monotonous.
Some dug soil out of the ground and loaded the baskets, which in this instance was conveyed to the embankment in chain fashion by men standing in a line side by side passing the basket from man to man. The tropical sun blazed down on us and the temperature was in the near hundred and we sweated as we had never sweated before as it was much, much hotter here than Singapore.
Everything was done by hand and we often wondered how long it would take to build an embankment about two hundred yards long with the base about thirty feet sloping up to about twelve feet and about ten feet high, at the rate of about three shovel-fulls of soil per basket.
There was no consolidating process other than human feet treading about the muck and bets were taken with one another that the first train would sink or capsize.
The Japs shouted ‘Yasme’ for about ten minutes each two hours on that first day and the third rest period was for lunchtime and we ate our rice and a piece of dry fish about the size of an oxo cube. We had a dixie and filled it with river water and boiled it to give each man in the working party a bottleful and my word you needed drinking water in that climate.
The two guards were quickly given a nickname and the Korean, because his legs were different diameters was christened 'Thick and thin’ and his superior, the Jap looked like a miniature he-man got the nickname ‘Atlas’
The railway was scheduled to be completed in one year and oh! How they tried to keep up to schedule.
The daily routine never varied and the embankment was soon completed and it joined up to the face of an enormous hill and we wondered how the railway was to continue past it or were we to build a tunnel or were we going over the top, but that would be too steep. We soon leaned how it was to be done and we were to do it. We were to hack and blast a shelf along the side of the hill.
Some prisoners had been busy building new bamboo and attap hut accommodation for more Jap guards but the Japs were used to bamboo as there is much used in their own country and they themselves had made doors, shutters and even furniture for their huts. About thirty guards with an officer marched into the camp one afternoon and we knew then that the hill job was a big one and it would be all hands on deck.
Having finished the embankment job we were next to tackle the hillside job and the work consisted of hammering drills into the rock to a depth of about a meter when the Jap Engineer would stem in dynamite and clear everybody back to reasonable safety and then bang and the rock would be blasted out over a fair distance and we would then have to jump to and clear the rock away.
My partner for the drill work was a chap from London called Bill whose second name I believe was Lowes but I just can't remember exactly. We took turns holding the drill, which was about four feet long, about an inch in diameter and chisel pointed, and the other hit the end with a fourteen-pound hammer. Being a joiner to trade and having driven many dozen fence posts when I worked on the buildings, I hit the head of the drill pretty well and very rarely hit Bill's hands, but Bill had been an office worker and when he took a turn with the hammer my poor hands and wrists caught the full impact of many a swing and quite often I was like a butcher's shop with bruises and blood splattered about but many another pair in our squad had similar problems. The guards would come over and laugh their heads off at our predicament and give the one with the hammer in his hands a good hard clout in the earhole and shout ‘Dammie dammie English soldier no-good-ka’
The jungle at Wampo was a haven for wild animals and there were thousands of little monkeys no more than about fifteen inches and one poor little thing met a horrible death but no worse than you would expect at the hands of a Japanese.
Outside the Jap officer's hut his bat-man erected a stand much like we make for feeding birds in the winter weather. It consisted of a wood pole with a flat piece of wood for a table with a backboard fixed upright. The Japs caught a little monkey and chained it on a short chain to the backboard so that it could not move off the table and then each time any Jap wont past the stand they would cut a piece off the animal. First an ear would be sliced off, then a hand, then a leg, then the other ear and so on until there was only the bleeding body left on the stand, and all the time the poor monkey was screaming screeching and making the most agonising noises as those bastards had their fun. The Japs were sadistic maniacs and were in their element if they were causing pain and suffering to any living object.
The work on the Wampo viaduct was one of the most difficult operations on the entire railway, and as prisoners fell sick or suffered injury the workforce got less and less until there came a time when the Japs ordered all sick must work as the schedule was falling behind time. At that time I would be less than seven stone and yet I was one of the fittest and each day we fit men had to carry stretcher cases onto the job and they had to lie and lift stones onto the baskets or carriers so that we fit men could carry them away to the tip. The sun blazed down from the sky and as the hillside was pure rock, the reflected heat and glare caused extreme discomfort to us all but more particularly to the poor sick or injured and on many occasions after the days work was done, we had to carry unconscious and sometimes corpses back to the camp.
Many deaths were due to disease such as I have mentioned previously through dysentery, malaria and beri-beri but the recent deaths were caused by sheer exhaustion through starvation as we were not getting sufficient food to make up for the sweat loss and the work was much too heavy for normal men far less people in our state of health. Before we had twenty yards of the viaduct completed we had lost more than a dozen prisoners.
At this particular time we were told that at least 20000 prisoners and more than 100000 native slaves were engaged on this railway project, and the death rate was increasing every day as men were dying from diseases which under normal conditions could be cured quite easily but the Japs would not release medicines which were known to be in their possession, this was planned murder!!!
Dysentery was the main killer and I contracted the disease at Wampo. Every few minutes I was on the runs passing nothing but blood and mucus and how it weakens the body, you feel excruciating pains in the stomach with .the sweat standing out on the body and you feel as weak as a kitten, and when the English doctors could, they would order you to bed for rest and if available lots of water to drink to try and swill the bug from the stomach. Here at Wampo there was no such luxury and I had to stagger and stumble out to work in that blazing heat and work and if you couldn't raise the pace the guards demanded you suffered violent bashings. I well remember my position one occasion when I had a corrugated iron shovel and I was not strong enough to lift it let alone work, and I was summoning all my strength to stand up with the support of the shovel.
No questions were asked whether you were well or not, as the guard approached, and I was not strong enough to make an effort to move when wham!!! and I saw the most beautiful array of stars as Atlas hit me four square on the head with his rifle butt. I was knocked cold and didn’t gain consciousness until some poor unfortunate mates had carried me back to the camp after work and they told me I had been out cold for more than two hours, but even after all that time my poor head ached pains I did not believe could be endured by a human body, and what with the effects of dysentery which was tearing my guts to pieces, I felt it would be justice to lie down and die and oh what a relief it would be to get out of this.
The human body is the most amazing machine on this earth and slowly I got over my ailments and bashings and although quite a few pounds lighter joined the ranks of the fit men again. The term fit is not the description of condition normally used by reasonable civilised people, it meant you could stand up unaided in our context as prisoners of war. In Blighty we would have been hospitalised for a long tine, but here in Thailand if you could stand, you worked.
The viaduct was progressing at the terrible expense of British soldiers lives and so many were dying the Japs had to reluctantly allow four men to be excused from railway work to dig graves, and each night after returning from work we buried those fortunate enough to have died that day.
Reinforcements arrived from Singapore and to accommodate the increased numbers of prisoners another camp had to be built, and fortunately the hut building was carried out by us experts who had made such a good job of the first camp and whilst it was no picnic doing this work it gave us a much needed rest from the viaduct at least we have a couple of days on the hut construction, and in fact, so many reinforcements were arriving that a third Wampo camp had to be built but we didn't get the contract of hut building on that occasion.
The viaduct as explained was a shelf around a hill and when you looked over the side the water in the river must have been fifty to sixty feet below us and a slip would be fatal as the jagged rocks on the hillside, would have torn a human body to shreds. The speedo was so great that now we weren’t even bothering to cart the blasted rocks to the other end of the shelf and we were simply pushing it all into the river below. The small boats run by the Thais had many narrow escapes from falling rocks and the river on this bend got narrower and narrower. The only thoughts in the Jap minds was to get that railway in operation by hook or by crook, and if it meant filling the river with debris they would have done so, they were simply going crazy about this railway.
At this stage it appeared the enemy were winning the war, as we saw no allied planes in the skies above, and the Japs kept informing us they had taken Burma and had advanced half way across India, whilst their friends in Europe, the Nazis and Italians were winning all before them in Russia and the Balkans. One talkative Korean informed us that England was in a sad way as the Nazis had Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! so much that there were no houses left standing and as the Englisha had run out of bamboo and attap there were many homeless, and people were starving because all ships bringing rice into Londono were being sunk by U-boats. He also said he had seen the future programme for we prisoners, and it would be beneficial to us if we speedoed with this Burma Railway because when it was finished all men go home. The route and means of getting back to Englando was by railway, which we were going to build across Burma, India, Persia, Turkey, Austria, Poland, France and then a bridge over the Englisho channel and then all men go free, just like that!!! Of course we had no means of disputing the news of the enemy advances, as unlike other prisoners we had no radios, but the next programme as outlined to us was so stupid we just killed ourselves laughing and it was as good as medicine for us.
A favourite -pastime the guards had was to ask us who was number one, and when we said ‘Churchill No 1’ they would then ask who was number two, 'Roosevelt No.2’ we would say, and they would further enquire who was number three, four and so on, to which we would say ‘De Gaulle No. 3' ‘Stalin No. 4’ 'Smuts No. 5’ and on and on. The guards would rage and shout 'Dammie, dammie Churchill-ka, Rossevelt-ka, De Gaulle-ka joto mie, what about Tojo’ to which a chorus would ring out 'Tojo number one hundred’ and they would lose their tempers and lash out at the prisoners, but even though we repeatedly got bashed up the Japs could never, ever get us to say 'Tojo was number one’ and this was the attitude we had the whole time we were in captivity, it used to drive the Nips ‘nuts’.
The shelf along the hill was nearing completion but at the other end we had to construct a timber bridge connection, which I believe was later replaced with rock fill, however I was one of the bridge party and it turned out a real comedy as the Engineers made it about two feet higher than the viaduct level and we had to do a remedial job before the line laying party could proceed.
The bridges the Nips built were all of the same pattern with legs sloped into the top with bracings horizontal and angled, all bolted to the legs and a cross-head at the top to support three layers of baulks at either side which in turn supported the sleepers to which the steel lines were spiked and plated.
The bridging party went into the jungle and after the Nip Engineer selected the trees, we felled them and chopped the branches off, then they were sawn into lengths and squared, and what a job that was for us who had never seen let alone used a nadge, which worked like a type of chop-hoe but the hoe-edge was sharpened like a chisel. The method of using a nadge was to stand on the tree and with a chopping motion bringing the nadge towards you, chop the round edge of the tree flat for a cross distance of about a third of a metre and you walked backwards until the whole tree had a straight flat side, then it was turned right over and we repeated the operation, then we chopped the other two sides until we had a squared baulk. Imagine the accidents that this tool created with the prisoners in such a poor state of health and working with such a strange tool. Our toes, ankles and shins were cut to pieces and many men had serious slashes on the legs, which without any form of medical treatment, festered and the dreaded tropical ulcer resulted. All these hazards were made worse, by the ignorant, pig-headed guards who thought nothing whatsoever when they saw a prisoners leg teaming with blood.
After the first day on the bridge building job and when we got back in camp it was decided only those with some idea of using this tool would work on the bridge party, otherwise it was felt some inexperienced prisoner could quite easily slice a leg off, so yours truly was in the permanent squad for bridging.
Building the Viaduct at Wampo
By W.C. Wilder
The long squared baulks were piled into the ground and again it was all done by hand, and prisoners hands at that. A hole about two inches in diameter was drilled into the top of the baulk and a derrick type erection was built up around the baulk, then a steel rod was placed in the hole and this was the guide for a very heavy steel weight to go up and down. About fifty tail ends of rope were tied onto the weight and they went up and over a pulley and fell to the ground. About fifty men grasped the rope ends on the ground and at a signal from the Jap engineer pulled the weight up the rod and at another signal from the engineer every one released the rope and the weight fell on the top of the baulk and drove it in the ground to a predetermined depth. The motion went something like one-two-three for the pull-time upwards - then drop, but we had to do a Jap chorus, which went like ‘Itchi-nee-a-sya’, and in this primitive fashion we were erecting bridges to take heavy steam-engines and loaded trucks or carriages.
We used to pray the Japs would make us walk rather than ride on this switch-back railway if and when we returned to base, as we were sure the lot would collapse. It was unbelievable the Japs expected to build this railway without any mechanical tools or aids, but here we were tackling enormous construction and engineering works with the most expensive piece of equipment being a theodolite.
As the viaduct and bridge was nearing completion food was getting so scarce that one evening the engineers gathered us together on the river bank and told us we had to catch fish, but it was fishing with a difference. The engineers lit the fuse on a stick of dynamite and hurled it into the river and after a tremendous bang! Which reverberated among the hills like a bomb going off, and a great spout of water rising to the skies from the river, the poor old fish of varying colour and sizes were stunned and floated on their backs on the top of the water and we had to swim in and bring the fish to the bank. Some fish were quite big maybe eighteen inches long and when you grabbed one it would come out of its stupor and try to swim away with a prisoner hanging on to its tail and quite a fight ensued with more often than not the fish getting away but we managed a good haul so we had fish for supper that night.
We were astounded at the number and size of fish in those waters as no one had caught any before that episode, although we knew fish were in the river, because men with ulcers when they went into the river for a wash, often made mention about fish nibbling away at their tropical ulcers and sores, and if in fact one could stand the pain and allow the fish to have a nibble, they used to eat away the pus and rotten flesh and leave a nice clean wound which was then bandaged up with dried banana leaf or similar. We had no traditional bandages.
The last batch of prisoners who arrived at Wampo included Australians and Dutchmen. One could spot the Aussies with their big cowboy type of hat and the Dutchmen were conspicuous with their olive green clothing. Both these nationalities had their peculiarities, the Aussies with their continual foul language, and the Dutch with their will to please the Japs. Where this batch had come from we didn’t know but up to that time it appeared they had had a reasonable time as they were fairly well clothed and they looked remarkably fit. Some of the Aussies were massive and we thought they would take the weight off our shoulders on the last part of the viaduct work, and they did on this occasion.
I got friendly with an Aussie by the name of De Grucey whose parents had emigrated from the Channel Islands in the 1930’s and he and I were together for the next year.
The shelf was completed after much remedial work with the levels etc. and as we prepared for our next move further up the line, the rail-line laying party swooped in and amongst this party were several 9th Battalion comrades amongst them was Sgt. George Walton, and he told us whilst the work was hard they were better off than us, as they rode the trains carrying the sleepers and lines after we had done all the donkey work. We envied them their luck but could do nothing about it, and within the hour we were herded together, issued with a rice ration and marched out of Wampo district to God only knows where.