Sketch by Jack Chalker

Chapter XVIII


Where we were going we hadn't a clue, but we were informed we were to do a march for about a week, and oh! How we were going to manage that, remained conjecture, as we were absolutely sure not many of us could do it, and many would die on the way.

We heard that the prisoners at Non-Pladuk were being moved to various places and one contingent had left for Singapore en-route for Japan and they had our sympathy as it was felt the Jap ships could never make it, as the Thais had told us of the massive victories of the Yanks in the Pacific and the retaking of many islands previously occupied by the Japs, but now being used as naval or air bases for the Yanks push towards Japan.

Others were being dispersed to other parts of the then toppling Jap Empire and we were going to somewhere to build an airfield.

The march to our new destination was through jungle territory, and the same old problems were encountered. The party was just simply unable to keep the pace the Jap guards set and try as they may they could not manage their schedule and although we were continually beaten and kicked by those pigs it made no impression and the pace was now dictated by the prisoners. Several dropped dead through sheer exhaustion occasioned by ruthless starvation, and we halted to dig holes and buried our comrades who had at last past onto the next world.

As darkness fell we halted and lit fires and boiled our rice and drinking water, had the food and dropped where we stood to sleep the sleep of broken men, and the next day was an exact repeat of the first day with more beatings, more dead, more holes dug, more burials and more panic.

On the third night we came across an old and ancient city of ruins in the middle of the jungle and it rained, and rained, and rained.

The name of the city I can't remember but I do remember several stone erections like tombs and my word they came in handy that night as it rained and rained.

After we lit fires and had our meagre rice ration and water and as some tried to make bivouacs or tents with banana leaves which sometimes measured as much as twelve feet by four feet, I and Bob Steele had a go at removing stones from the bottom of a tomb as we thought if they were hollow they could afford better cover from the rain than banana leaves. Our tools consisted of my knife and scissors and somehow we got the first stone out and thereafter it was fairly easy to remove others and make a hole big enough to crawl in, which we did but a heavenly feeling seemed to stop us in our tracks and we both re-acted to it.

Inside was a host of skeletons lying side by side in an area about eight feet square and we, even in our less than religious state doubted the wisdom of interfering with the reverence of this holy shrine and we pulled outside and sat in the rain, and debated the situation, which was very delicate and needed to be more seriously considered.

Even in our condition we still respected the dead and those skeletons caused us a mental pain and it was some minutes before we had the courage to have another look inside.

The skeletons hadn't much less flesh on than us and as we touched them they fell apart, so it was decided to move them out and we would then move in, which we did and between us we decided we caused no pain by so doing we would have reasonable shelter for the night. We were joined by another half dozen prisoners and after clearing the whole floor of the tome of bones etc., we settled down for a night's dry sleep, as the tomb was weatherproof. The bones must have been hundreds of years old and there was no smell of death in the tomb. We didn't feel callous and most of the conversation before we fell into a deep sleep was about religion and we felt if there was a God, he wouldn't be cross through us doing what we had done that evening, as the spirits of those once living human beings had long ago departed to the kingdom of heaven.

Religion from my respect, played a bigger part in my prisoner-of-war life after sleeping in the tomb, than before and I often saw visions thereafter and they all had a happier aspect than of fear, in other words, I became more a believer than at any previous time in my life.

News was filtering through from the natives as we continued on our march to the unknown air-field location, that Europe had been invaded and the Allies were swarming all over the continent which comforted us a great deal as we thought if only the Germans and Italians could be defeated, the Japs would also pack it in and we could be free men if our bodies could hold together just that long.

At last we arrived at our destination and we were told the name was translated for easy reference to San-Pat-Soo, and it was one of the worst sites we had ever seen. It was a sheer bog and a breeding ground for the biggest mosquitoes in the whole of Thailand. They used to swoop down on us like aeroplanes and make nearly as much noise as they zoomed back and forth from body to body literally biting lumps out of the little bit flesh we had left covering our skeletons.

We were now in a situation where we knew the war was on the turn and could end at any time, and. our sole pre-occupation was survival and we had to guard against disease, starvation, beatings and our mental state. The latter due to lack of vitamins was becoming a real menace and we had several of our men doing very queer things, such as jumping over anything which was black on the ground, and would warn anyone near to mind the water, as they thought they were puddles, although the ground would be bone dry and dusty. Others would sing aloud and just couldn't be shut up or others would pick leaves and tie them together and count them as pound notes and would ask someone to take a few and pop down to the shop for things like custard powder or things we had never seen for years, and would remind the person not to forget to bring the change back.

Vitamin deficiencies were creating all kinds of strange things to happen to the body, and other than milk glands growing, we had to contend with beri-beri which caused the body in various places to swell and if you pushed a finger hard in to the water filled flesh the hole would remain visible for hours afterwards, then we still had the inevitable ‘Changi balls’, scurvy, various skin diseases and worst of all many were now struck with blindness. The truth of the matter is we looked more like a knackers yard than a working camp, but none of these illnesses, and of course we had malaria, dysentery and cholera to contend with, yes none of these illnesses precluded the patient from work, and the Japs were in a hurry for this new air-field, so the ‘speedo’ started all over again with the repeat performance of the Burma railway tactics.

One interesting factor revealed itself during a discussion one evening, after work was finished and we were sitting around one of the fires which were lit at this camp to keep away the wild animals, which we were told were extremely dangerous and would attack human beings, although they would have had to eat a few of us to have had a decent meal, was the fact that everyone sitting around that fire, had been associated with the boy-scout movement in their child-hood days, and whether that had helped over the last three years one couldn't for sure say, but it sure was a coincidence and to acknowledge this phenomena we had a good old left-hand shake to cement the friendship more sincerely.

Some of the prisoners were housed in tents and others in the usual bamboo and attap shacks and I was in a tent, and as the area was infested with deadly snakes we all slept on a shelf made of bamboo lifted off the ground about eighteen inches or so.

One of the prisoners was bitten on the hand by a snake while on a working-party outside the camp and when I saw the hand it was shrivelled up and looked extremely painful which of course it was. No one with him at the time knew anything about treatment for such a bite and the poison had been able to circulate through his body and when I saw him he was in a coma and the doctor was trying to stimulate the decaying hand, but he was too late and the poor lad died during the night. We were thereafter given instructions on how to treat for snake bites and if we had to treat anyone it was to suck as hard as you could to extract the poison before it got too far into the system.

I, with another three or four prisoners had a bad attack of malaria and we were suffering in the tent while our mates were out working, and looking at the bottom of the tent at ground level I noticed a movement and sat up in a jerk shouting to the others that a ruddy snake was in the tent and panic stations developed, as the snake nearly twenty feet long and with a girth of four or five inches wriggled and slithered under the beds within a few inches of us, with its great tongue or whatever you called it, kept shooting in and out of its mouth. We all jumped up on our feet on the slats and hadn't a clue how to get it out as we certainly were in no fit state to attempt to kill it. From my perch I eased the bottom of the tent up to make a hole for it to go, but it took no notice and kept hissing and hissing and slithering about below us, and we thought it was going to attack us as it reared its head right above the slats and hissed and poked its head forward time and again. We honestly thought our numbers were up as it showed no fear and kept writhing round and round the tent with its reared head and hissing tongue. We shouted like hell for help but no one heard us and there we were stuck with this monster.

We heard gibberish voices outside after the snake had been doing its tricks in our tent for quite some minutes and we shouted for them to come and help us but they didn't understand a word we were saying as they were Thai natives, but we did notice they had ‘Y’ forked sticks in their hands and were searching the area outside our tent. We made signs with our hands of a snake slithering on the ground but our mimic must have been comical to them and they took no notice of us, but at that moment the snake decided to leave the tent and fortunately it went out on the side the Tha´s were standing.

These Thais had been hunting snakes and the one in our tent must have been chased by them into our camp area, and it had made its way into our tent for cover.

The Thais gave chase after the snake, as it slithered at great speed once outside and we watched as the Thais tried to capture the body with the ‘Y’ part of there sticks as they frantically drove their sticks at the wriggling body of the make which they did eventually, but the snake reared up to an enormous height as it twisted round with its head and tongue poised to strike whatever had caught its body.

The Thais, about half-dozen of them were clever at this snake catching business and as the snake’s head struck at the ‘Y’ stake on its body, another 'Y’ stake was rammed down pinning the neck hard Into the ground and very quickly other Thais battered the head of the snake with their heavy sticks, but my God! How that snake fought for its life and it slithered twisted and wriggled like hell and slashed out in all directions with its tail to try and free itself but these expert snake-catchers had it well and truly caught and its head was battered to pulp, but rigor mortis didn’t set in and it twitched and moved until sun-down when it lay quite and dead as a do-do. We had often disbelieved the people who had previously told us snakes never die until sundown and although we were crippled with malaria we watched this strange phenomena, and it is true.

The Thais told us the snake was good to eat, not in so many words, but by their hand-signs, as grub was extremely short our cooks sliced it up into pieces about an inch thick and roasted them which we ate, and it tasted like rough fleshed fish, and although we were very wary to start with, we at least ate it, but I couldn’t say any of us enjoyed it.

The snake episode helped us to get over our malaria, and we thought how; lucky we were not to have been bitten by the monster. We had our nervous systems stretched to the limit that day, I can assure you Wow!!!

What other troubles the Lord had in store for us we didn't know, but there couldn’t be much more for us to sample before the end came, we only needed to be attacked by a dinosaur or something and we would then have tasted the lot, but there was much more for our poor wracked bodies to go through and one happened within a few days of the snake incident.

Work on the air-field was hard monotonous work of digging soil from the earth and carrying it to the runway and tipping it, spreading it and ramming it with hand rammers made out of a piece of thin tree trunk about three inches in diameter with a large piece of flat timber nailed to it. We had hand tampers made with a handle on each end for scraping along the fill and then rammed, holes filled in, tamped again and further ramming with the last operation being a twenty-ton steam roller consolidating it further.

The steam-roller driver was a Thai native who spoke perfect English and he kept us informed of war news and when we heard the Germans had surrendered and the European war was finished we wanted to do the Highland fling down the runway as we felt absolutely sure the Japs would now also pack it in, but we had to be so careful not to show our joy to the Jap guards or the steam-roller driver would have been shot immediately.

Oh! The joy of that wonderful, glorious news was more than we could hear, and each and every prisoner was walking on air, the loads seemed lighter, the food seemed better, the bugs and lice didn't seem to bite so furious, the camp looked better, even the Japs looked better, but we were so, so premature with our thoughts of the end of our misery.

Since arriving at San-Pat-Soo we hadn't seen any Allied planes in the sky and we must have been well off the route of the Burma-Bangkok line of flight of our planes and we in a way missed their company, although we certainly didn’t want another Non-Pladuk with all its devastation and murder, but we would have been happy to see an odd reconnaissance plane.

While on the runway working one day the sky darkened in vicious colours and the scene was out of this world. When you see a painting of a stormy tropical sky and the artist appears to have simply slap-dashed colours of every description willy-nilly over the painting one thinks he is an eccentric or a poor painter, but the sky we saw that night would have allowed any painter, to use any colours and to put them at will. The sky was a warning of what was to come, and it hit us like a tornado, and that is an apt description because that is just what it was, a tornado and there was a whirl wind in the middle of it all. The wind blew stronger than anything I had ever seen, or have seen since, and out in the distance up the hillside trees and debris were being lifted up to the sky and it was coming towards us. Oh my God!! How much more could we stand, and was there no end to our torment, what else could we expect before it all bloody well ends.

We ran towards the holes we had being excavating for the soil for the runway and we just collapsed into them, face down and hands over our heads for protecting against anything that may fall on us, although our biggest worry was, being sucked up to the sky and carried then dropped God only knows where.

The screaming, howling winds were bending trees to more than forty-five degree angles and we were sure this was our Chips! And we waited in terror for the worst, but by the grace of God, the whirlwind veered and missed our area and within minutes there was a magical calm again, and looking up to the dark sky there appeared a red ‘V’ with what looked very much like a smiling face in the crook of the ‘V’ and the sign was seen by us all and we had the feeling that this was a heavenly sign to tell us all was to turn out in our favour, and due to that sign we soon forgot the terror of the tornado and whirlwind, but then it rained and rained again only as it can rain in Thailand and we returned to camp drenched to the skin but inside we were tingling at the thought of that sign.

We slogged away at the airfield and had a reasonably good runway, but where were the Jap aeroplanes that were to use it. The run-way was now about two miles long and was in one long straight line and we had visions we may just get it completed for our own planes to fly in and take us away home, but the Japs had decided to fight on alone and they cursed the Italians and Germans to us, and let us know, in no uncertain manner, that all prisoners would be killed before the end of the war, “Dammie, dammie, Hiltler-ka, Mussilino-ka, Japan No. 1“

At that time rumour had it that messages were being received from a Thai native by the officers in our camp giving news of the situation and were signed by the “RED ANT” and every now and then someone would give information to his mates and follow it up by saying it was from the Red Ant and that always made it appear official, anyway it was better than saying “somebody says”.

Our rations were now the worst we had experienced in the whole of our prisoner of war life and sickness and starvation was taking a heavy toll of our party, with dysentery rampant, we were really concerned whether we would ever see this lot through, although we knew, now the European war was finished the Japs couldn't last very long against the might of the Allies, once they transferred men and materials to the Far East theatre of war.

The run-way was proceeding at pace and it was ready to receive any planes the Japs had, but none appeared and we had the impression they would be needed back in Japan more than here, as our news bulletins from the natives told us the Yanks were now pounding the enemies home bases very heavily and they were getting the medicine they themselves had dished out at Pearl Harbour, Singapore and other places some three years ago.

Having a bad dose of dysentery I was trundling back and forth to the toilet every few minutes and I was becoming as weak as a kitten, and on one of my trips in pitch blackness I squatted over the hole in the ground precariously balancing on the bamboo slats laid along the top of the hole, when looking up to the sky, half asleep, weak and most despondent, I jumped as though being jabbed with a pin as quite clearly and in a reddish colour was that ‘V’ again. What did it mean, as I felt at that moment that I was near deaths door and would be lucky if I saw dawn that day, but as if in a dream I stood up and feeling, no pain in my body walked, back to the tent, and woke Bill Gray to tell him what I had seen and we both stood at the tent flap and saw the sign. Bill and I were convinced it was a message from above telling us we would make it after all.

Bill and I were on a Working party which was clearing the scrub for a new building for an aircraft maintenance depot, and we had tools which were as blunt as 'old nick’ and it was useless trying to cut tree-wood with the saws we had been given, so we asked the Jap guard for a different one or a file to sharpen the ruddy thing as there was no set on the saw and you could have slid your bare back-side down it without injury, the teeth were so round. The guard simply ignored our request and belted us with his stick across the head shouting “Dammie, dammie Englisho soldier-ka, no good, soon all English-ka soldier paridiso”, which didn't please us too much. One fear we had was being lined up and shot if the Allies came anywhere near the camp and this remark sort of confirmed their thinking at that moment.

A few minutes later the Jap guard came back with a mate of his, and Bill and I thought “Hell! What now?” when in a mouthful of gibberish Japanese with their hands making all sorts of funny signs they didn't look too pleased about something and it looked as though we were in for another real packet of trouble, but somehow they were asking if either of us was able to sharpen saws as they appreciated none of the tools they had were good enough for the jobs expected from them.

Being a carpenter I had experience of this sort of work and I thought how much easier it would be for our men if at least, the saws were sharp, as we were all pulling our weakened guts out trying to work with this rubbish, as not only were the teeth rounded but they had no set on either, and before you could get in a couple of inches into the timber, than it was stuck fast and we had to push and pull like hell to get the saw out again.

I said, Bill and I could do the sharpening, and we were accepted for the job and taken into the Jap compound where the tools were kept and where they had some kind of benches used for general purposes. We were taken to the Jap in charge of the stores who took us to the rack where files of all descriptions were kept and they had flat, round and triangular shaped of various sizes. We asked for a saw-set but they hadn’t a clue what we were asking for, but made us go with them around the store to point out to them what we wanted.

I wish we hadn’t volunteered as it led us into awful trouble and another episode, which nearly ended our precious lives.

We had no saw-set so we had to use a nail and hammer to bend alternative teeth away from the blade, turn the saw over do the other teeth, so that when the saw was used, the ends of the teeth were thicker than the blade, which allowed the blade to run freely without jamming in the timber which was being cut. We made a set of saw-clams to edge the saw in while we pushed the file across the teeth to make sharp points and thereby make cutting timber just that much easier for the men who had to do this work, and before the day ended we had a couple of saws working to near perfection.

In camp that night one of the prisoners told us that files were worth a fortune on the black-market and if we could get one, he could get a thousand dollars from a native trader, so Bill and I just couldn't wait for tomorrow to come.

Off we went to work, this time with a will, a will to steal some of the files which the Japs seemed to have a good stock and wouldn't miss a few at a thousand dollars a time which would ensure some extra grub purchased again on the black market. Our problem was how to get them back to camp as our dress consisted of a G-string and a pair of old boots, and there wasn't much scope to hide anything out of sight of those piecing Jap eyes.

We tried various means and resolved to place one on the top of our G-string and roll the top of the cloth over it, and we had several trial runs during the day and it appeared quite satisfactory so we decided that was the best way and that thousand dollars seemed assured. We worked like Trojans sharpening saws that day and actually seemed to get some sort of congratulations from a Jap who at one time said “joto-saw-ka” and that remark pleased us no end.

Come the end of the day and we had a saw-file each tucked into the tops of our G-string ready to leave the compound and join the working party going back to camp, when one Jap guard told us to lift some sacks of nails up to a bench, and as Bill stretched to get his sack up on the bench his bloody file fell out of his G-string at the feet of the guard, and that caused a catastrophic result as this Jap without one word of warning battered Bill to the ground with his rifle while I stood trembling at the side of it all, I was standing clear of benches or materials and as I slid my hand towards the top of my G-string to try and dispose of my file the Jap saw me and grabbed the file from me and went berserk beating me and leaving Bill alone lying on the ground. After an awful long time and I think because he was exhausted with his efforts he stood us up against the wall to attention, and went off to his superiors I think for instructions.

Soon a crowd of them came back and kicked us about like footballs and battered us to near unconsciousness, before dragging us up to the guard-room and standing us to attention outside while they conferred inside.

I had been in some near squeaks in the past and somehow managed to save my skin, but this time I had no doubt was the worst and to be so near the end of the war. I stood with tears in my eyes, not only because of the pain from the bashing I had just received but also because of the timing. Both Bill and I had the ignominious punishment of standing to attention and holding a huge stone above our heads and as the other prisoners went about their business in camp, through the tears and blurred vision I could see them making signs of encouragement to us and showing the old Churchillian sign. We were taken inside the guard-room and had further bashings and beatings and then thrown into a little room about six feet square with a scream from the guard sergeant “Asta-paradiso” which to our pain wracked body inferred we would be shot tomorrow. We cried on each other’s shoulder and cursed the bloke who led us into this misery.

At something like two or three in the morning we were awakened by a commotion in the guard-room and the Japs were ranting and raving like lunatics and we thought this is it mate, the finale for Bill and Thomas.

The comings and goings in the guard-room were intense and we knew something drastic was happening and we thought it all had to do with us, but we were ignored and dawn came and we were still in our prison at lunch time when we were handed a basket of rice, which we devoured like two trapped animals and thought this would be our last meal. We had to urinate and excrete where we lay and we now knew what it is like awaiting execution and the feeling of those last few hours before the hangman leads one to the gallows. My thoughts returned to home and wondered what everyone would be doing at that moment and I prayed for their safety and happiness. I also thought about the ‘V’s we had seen in the sky and what sort of joke was he up to there, playing on us, as this was the most crucial moment in my entire prisoner of war life and it didn't seem possible that the sign applied to me, and yet those Jap guards were prancing about as though they didn't know we were in their guard-room, or was this the way they acted before shooting anyone.

The Jap guards were jibbering away to each other and the suspense was killing Bill and I and we were both shivering with fright and our bodies were weakening with each breath of the foul air we took, then the door was opened as Bill grabbed my hand as a token of last respect we were bundled outside and made to stand to attention and we waited.

The ‘V’ sign must have been meant for me after all as to our utter and profound amazement the Jap sergeant came out of the guard-room gave us a cigarette each and said ”go-ka! war soon finished-ka! go-ka!” and even though we were in a shocking condition we flew across the parade ground and flung ourselves on our bed-space and cried, and cried tears of joy at the unbelievable thing that had just happened then I sunk on my knees and said my prayers. “Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name and so on” and “believe me I meant every word.

What was it all about! When I composed myself and informed the lads who had crowded around my bed-space what had took place they were really excited and it gave everyone in that tent something to let out a “Yippee! Yippee! It won’t be long now, thank the Lord”, and we all went to sleep that night happier than we had been for a long time.

The news came in the following morning from the natives that big bombs had been dropped on Japan and soon war would be over, and again that day we heard the name of two Japanese cities that we didn’t know existed. Nagasaki and Hiroshima and then a new word ‘atom’ and then we heard atom bombs had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and thousands had been killed and there was nothing left standing in both cities and oh! How we cheered, quietly in case the Japs heard us.

The working party although a little late had still gone out on the runway and the Jap guards had apparently shown less viciousness, and when the lads returned to camp the whole place buzzed with excitement and expectation that something was in the air, and as though it had to happen I went down with Yellow jaundice and I looked like a Jap skeleton and when I excreted it was as white as snow, like a dog.

Confirmation of the two atom bombs was received, allegedly from the “Red Ant” and we learnt that at least a hundred thousand Japs had been killed at Hiroshima and very nearly as many at Nagasaki, and we were apprehensive at the reprisals the Jap guards may take against us once the truth of the matter sank into their tiny minds, and we were told to do absolutely nothing that may give cause for a massacre.

I was laid out flat with this attack of jaundice and felt weaker than at any time during my whole prisoner of war life and I thought I may not see the end of It, after all.


Next Chapter

When We’re Free



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[The White Flag] [Chapter I] [Chapter II] [Chapter III] [Chapter IV] [Chapter V] [Chapter VI] [Chapter VII] [Chapter VIII] [Chapter IX] [Chapter X] [Chapter XI] [Chapter XII] [Chapter XIII] [Chapter XIV] [Chapter XV] [Chapter XVI] [Chapter XVII] [Chapter XVIII] [Chapter XIX] [Chapter XX] [Chapter XXI] [Chapter XXII]


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