Sergeant Len Baynes
Unit : 1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment.
Served : France, Singapore (captured).
Camps : Changi, River Valley, Chunkai, Tamarkan.
Chapter 21 - A Journey Into the Unknown in Steel Cattle Trucks
We were now told officially that a party of thirty men from our regiment, together with all the remainder of the Recce Battalion, were to leave Changi in a week's time for an unknown destination. I was to be one of the party, and we were to take a share of the cooks, pioneers and medics. Our new R.S.M. called all the N.C.O.s together for a pep talk. No-one could tell where we would finish up he said, but wherever it was, it was in the opinion of our officers likely to be very tough going. For this reason we would need to hold the men on a very tight rein, as without a very high standard of discipline, under adverse conditions they would quickly descend into a rabble, and then it would be a case of devil take the hindmost.
We spent the next three days cleaning the camp we were shortly to vacate, lest any who came to fill our places should think us a dirty lot. There was now a general feeling of apprehension among us, as we could not help worrying in anticipation over the devil we did not know. Bad though that 'devil' was to prove, I was always to be given the strength to face him. Now, when I find a friend worried about the future I am able to say from experience that when the terrible thing you fear comes about, it can never prove quite as bad as you thought it would be. A month earlier we had talked of how fed up with Changi we were. Now, as we looked around, about to leave for the unknown, it became 'dear old Changi'!
I now had to prepare for leaving, first of all ensuring that my socks, shirts and underclothes were all darned, I had three shirts so I let Ken have one, because his only one was nearly worn out. Since being taken prisoner I had scarcely been out on a working party without gathering another item of junk, and I really had an enormous heap now, so I went through it carefully sorting out all the essential stuff, and making a separate pile of the remainder. I finished up with a very small heap of rejects and about three-quarters of a hundredweight of 'musts'. We had already been told that we were only to be allowed to take as much kit as we could carry on our own persons; and our hands had to be kept free to take our communal items.
Five days before we were due to leave, we practiced packing up our kit, to make sure that no-one took so much of his own stuff that our cooking dixies and so on got left behind. Although I cannot remember all I had at that time, I certainly had the following; bucket, a four imperial gallon (five American gallon) petrol tin, Dunlopillo seat, two shirts, two pairs of shorts, one pair long trousers, sheet, half blanket, three sacks, a bag of 'buckshee' rice, water bottle, wire, rope, half a dozen books, New Testament, mosquito net, cooking tins, mug, mess tin, piece of canvas, ground sheet, gas cape, respirator haversack, open razor, scissors, full set of army equipment complete with Bren gun ammo pouches, bundle of rags, bundle of paper, soap (which I had exchanged for Red Cross cigarettes), three enamel plates, and finally my bag of odds and ends, which included sharpening stone, old hacksaw blades and other items with which I hoped to form the nucleus of a tool kit. I filled all my haversacks and pouches, and tied all the big things on to my belt. When I stood up I must have looked something like a Christmas tree, but I was able to walk with my hands free as specified.
Each regiment has a 'President of the Regimental Institute's' Fund, known as the P.R.I. It is used for assisting needy cases and as a reserve of cash for special occasions. The C.O. allocated us a proportion of the cash in this fund and I was sent off with an officer to spend the whole twenty-one dollars on smokes. These would be light to carry, and non-smokers would be able to exchange their share for other things.
Early in the morning on the second of November, nineteen forty-two, we were called out on parade ready for our journey into the great unknown. Friends helped me to my feet; we had been issued with four or five tins of food each, company reserve, to be handed in on reaching our destination, and they were to me the straws that nearly broke the camel's back. I stood on the parade ground (which had been a gun park), wearing my double-crowned Aussie hat, long shorts, and strung around with bucket, tins and all my other rubbish. I must have looked a strange sight and many were the cracks from the friends who gathered to bid us farewell.
It was nine months earlier that we had been captured, and we had now reached the end of the first phase of our captivity. Up until now we had been able to live fairly civilized lives, running our own affairs and with order and a degree of cleanliness prevailing, at least for most of the time. We were about to leave all these good things behind us. For the next three years they were to be exchanged for a world of chaos, filth, blows, pain, disease and death. That was to be the general state of things under the direct rule of The Imperial Japanese Army. Farewell Changi; little had we thought to carry away a fond memory of you into the future. Although we paraded with our kit early in the morning, it was five o'clock in the afternoon before we left for Singapore railway station. For a wonder, the Japs sent lorries for us this time, so that journey at least was painless.
The railway, narrow gauge, had been built by the British of course; so also had the all-steel cattle trucks with no windows, and sliding doors that we found awaiting us in the station. What was to come would be our first insight into the way the Japs were to organize our lives in the future. Those trucks had probably been made to carry at most half a dozen head of cattle, but not out in that climate. Cattle would have quickly died of heat-stroke if shut in them without ventilation, in the tropical sun. The Japs pushed thirty-two men into each truck together with all their belongings. I naturally received dirty looks from those who were crushed in with me. The walking Christmas tree took up room enough for two men. Before we finished our sojourn up country, however, many were glad to have me with them, the only one with scissors and razor for haircuts and shaves, and tools to do the jobs about camp. Not only was there no room to lie in there, it was necessary to sit with knees under chin. I stacked my three-quarters of a hundred-weight of kit in a corner and sat on the top of it, so took up no more room than the others. My bucket and tin were to be the most useful articles in the truck before we completed that journey.
We heard the safety-valve on the locomotive blow, and knew she had steam up. Our guards came along and closed the doors, padlocking them from the outside. Our wildest fears had not included the possibility of travelling nearly airtight through the heat of Malaya; the temperature must have been about a hundred and twenty in there with the doors open, who would be able to survive now with them closed? The Japs were taking no risks; with hundreds of miles of jungle to traverse, and many stops on the way in unscheduled places to build up steam, they were more concerned with avoiding escapes, than deaths from heat-stroke.
That journey up country was to take three and a half days, but the hellish nightmare that it was seemed to last for weeks; I never went through a worse time during the whole of our captivity. The train always ran slowly, and then halted before climbing a gradient, to get up steam. This was due to the fact that wood was being burnt instead of coal, and wood produces far less heat than coal. Sometimes, for no reason that we knew of, we would stop for hours on end, with the doors closed, gasping for breath in the fearful heat generated by the Malayan sun beating down on the galvanized roof and sides of the cattle trucks.
Once a day we would pull into a station and they would open the doors. One bucket of cold cooked rice and one bucket of water were placed against the door of each truck, and we were given only five minutes to fill our water bottles, share out the rice, go to the toilet and climb back into the high trucks. With the perspiration we were losing, we needed a dozen times the water we got, and we had to use superhuman willpower and make our bottles last for twenty-four hours, by taking tiny sips every half hour or so, just sufficient to keep our mouths moist. The only certain memory to remain was of one long continuous thirst. Those without the willpower to eke out their water, suffered even more.
Although we lost sense of time as our heads went round in the heat, one incident on the second day left an indelible mark on my mind. Dawn was breaking, and its first gray thews came in through cracks in the door. Otherwise all was quite black within our truck. As we negotiated a curve in the track I saw the light fall on one strained face after another; sleepless night was about to be followed by foetid day. The track straightened out once more, and the ray of light fell on the face of Private McGuire as he sat opposite me in the darkness. His eyes were open and, unseen from my corner, I saw tears running down his cheeks. I felt that I could read his thoughts as well, observing the look into his face from my vantage point. I knew him well. He was about twenty, and a sincere, ardent communist. I imagined what he was thinking as he tried to relate his belief in the universal brotherhood of man, and the dignity of the worker, with our present condition. He was never fully to recover in mind or body from our fearful journey, and he did not have to work very long in Thailand before entering upon that last and greatest journey, when all is revealed; and perhaps also to discover that there can be no brotherhood of man without a Father.
Chapter 22 - A Taste of What Was To Come
Half of our number developed dysentery during that second day, and my bucket and tin came into their own. The other trucks held men in a very much worse state. I was in charge of our truck, and had great difficulty in restraining our boys from eating the tins of food which had been issued for us to carry on behalf of the whole party. Nevertheless, it says much for them that none were eaten in our group. We caught glimpses through cracks, of the country through which we were travelling, and there seemed to be dense jungle most of the way. There were a few clearings occupied by a 'Kampong' or native hamlet, and at least one town, namely Kuala Lumpur. We also passed a few lakes, where prosperous tin companies had dredged for the richest deposits of alluvial tin in the world, that had made our Cornish tin mines uneconomic and redundant. The plants we saw all stood idle.
As we moved through the territory, we never knew when we actually crossed the border into Siam, or Thailand as it now is. That word means 'Land of Freedom', but it was not to mean that for us. No evil is allowed to last for ever though; thus even that journey had to end, and at six-thirty on the morning of the sixth of November our train finally stopped at a small station, and we were allowed out of our dreadful trucks for good. Two very scruffy Jap soldiers lined us up, counted us and then marched us off along a dirt track. One of them brought up the rear, the other marched at the head of the column with me. My one plied me with questions the whole route, wanting to know the names of every part of the female body in order that he might not be at a loss for words if he were lucky enough to be part of the army of occupation when England fell. He did not seem to think that time was far off either. Needless to say, he got no straight answers.
We knew not where we were, but as the nameboard at the railway station was written in a script that was new to us, we knew at least that we must be in Thailand. Soon, however, we arrived at a camp comprised of rows of long attap and bamboo huts, an empty one of which was allocated to us. I gratefully unloaded my kit on the floor and sank down on to the bamboo sleeping platform with much relief. There were a lot of other prisoners in the camp; they told us that it was called 'Banpong', and was a staging camp, from which parties were constantly being sent to work on a railway. This, we were told, was gradually progressing further and further into the inhospitable Thai hinterland. Forced native labour was being used in constructing some stretches of the track, the remainder was being built by P.O.W.'s. The line would eventually run from Bangkok, through Thailand into Burma, and on to Moulmein.
Banpong initiated us into the state of things that prevailed in many places where we were to live from now on. It had been long occupied by men who had ceased to care. Our hut was absolutely filthy, littered by rubbish, scraps of food, and even excreta; all because no-one had enough authority to organize a party to clean things up. We were now in a different climate from Singapore, and in the monsoon season. According to the residents it had been raining for weeks, almost without ceasing, and except for a few high spots, everywhere was ankle-deep in mud. I was one of the youngest and 'greenest' of the senior N.C.O.’s, and often felt that I was given the worst jobs because I was less likely to complain than older soldiers, many of whom deeply resented the intrusion of our new R.S.M. When, therefore, he gave me the task of cleaning up our hut and its surroundings, without tools and with a gang of 'browned-off' men who had only just emerged from those deadly cattle trucks, my heart sank within me. However, as I seem to keep asserting, all bad things come to an end, and although far from co-operative, none of my men actually refused to do what I asked, so that at last our area was made fairly clean, and I was allowed to take my men over to the camp well to draw water to wash for the first time for four days.
At the well it was a case of no bucket no water, so once again as the only one apart from our cooks with a bucket, our boys were pleased to have me with them. There was a long queue of men waiting at the well, as it had to supply the requirements of the whole camp, which was quite a big one. It was, incidentally, one of the few Thai camps that was not adjacent to the river. While awaiting my turn I heard someone swearing over losing his bucket down the well the previous day, and this set me thinking. Our cooks were very short of buckets and if this chap had not retrieved his, it was likely that there were others down there. Arriving in turn at the well-head, I peered in, and saw that the water was about twenty feet down; but it would of course be deep, as we were in the middle of the monsoon. Also there were no steps in the walls. However, I noticed that there were grooves every eighteen inches or so where the concrete rings, from which the well was constructed, met and did not fit very well. I whipped my clothes off, and telling my men to stand guard and let no-one drop anything down, I started to descend. The well was about thirty inches in diameter, and by inserting fingers and toes in the grooves I finally reached the water. I could not feel anything with my feet, so I propelled myself downwards by pressing outwards and upwards with my hands; the water must have been at least twenty feet deep, and by the time my feet encountered a heap of tinware at the bottom, I was seeing flashes of light and my chest was bursting. Hooking one foot under a pail handle, assisted by my hands I shot to the surface like a bubble, and gasped in the fresh air.
Thai wells are not equipped with rope and winch like those at home. Instead, a long bamboo pole is suspended down to the water, the top end being hinged to the end of a see-saw like arrangement. The see-saw fulcrum was a long way out of center, and it was the long end that was fixed to the vertical pole. On the short end there was a heavy weight attached; by lifting the short end of the see-saw only a few feet, the pole descended the whole depth of the well, and the counterbalancing weight helped to lift the bucket full of water very quickly and easily to ground level. Although it took up a lot of room, it seemed much more efficient than our traditional way of doing the job. I therefore hooked my salvaged bucket to the suspended pole to be retrieved by my friends at the top. I was able to repeat my dive six times before lack of breath made me give up, and this provided a good heap of buckets for the quartermaster. I also found a canvas bucket, and as I thought that this would 'come in handy', I kept that, until it was stolen by a marauding thief during the night a few weeks later.
That night men came in from other huts, and told us more of the way things were going on out there in the jungle, and what they told us was not very encouraging. Banpong was the first real P.O.W. camp connected with this stretch of the railway, work on which we were told had commenced some months previously. It followed more or less the course of the Menam river as it descended from the hills which separate Thailand from Burma. The embankments and cuttings were being cut through thick jungle, and all by hand, without mechanical equipment of any kind. A camp was constructed every few kilometers along the proposed course; as a stretch of line was completed the gang from that camp would have to march off, leapfrogging other gangs, to arrive at a new camp site and start work on a new task. In peace time, thousands of Tamils had been recruited from Southern India to work on the rubber plantations and tin excavations in Malaya. The Japs had conscripted these, and some camps were manned by them. They were a poor undernourished people, and it was said that they did not live very long in Jap camps.
Other camps were manned by conscripted Chinese coolies, and as even the Japs could not make these men work without their opium, they received a weekly ration of it. Remaining camps were manned by P.O.W.s, including many from Java and Sumatra of Dutch nationality, and mostly of half native blood. We were told that news filtered through occasionally from up country, and it seemed that thousands had already died up there. The dirty conditions in Banpong camp itself were mainly due to the fact that the men consisted of odds and ends from different units, who therefore retained no regimental pride or discipline.
Chapter 23 - We Cross the River and the Camp is Flooded, Trucks Fuelled by Wood
All the tinned rations entrusted to us were now called in, and it was found that nearly a quarter of the men had eaten some or all of theirs on the train journey, and since the N.C.O.s with them had eaten theirs also, there was very little that could be done about it other than give reprimands, which were easily shrugged off. There was an air of righteous indignation among my men as they saw the baddies get away with their crimes. On our third day in Banpong we were told to pack our kit and parade for another move, and at eight-fifteen a.m. we were all lined up ready to go; but not the Japs. We waited there until half past three in the afternoon before they turned up to march us to a row of trucks parked some way along the road. Some trucks! Each one seemed to be made out of two or three relics from the first world war; most surprising of all, they ran on wood, petrol being unobtainable. Beside the driver stood a huge vertical cylinder surmounted by a chimney, (or was it a funnel'?). At the bottom was a fire-door, behind which red-hot charcoal glowed. The main part of the cylinder was filled with firewood, and it was this that gave off the gas as it was being roasted. This gas was fed into the intake manifold, taking the place of petrol. The amazing thing about the Heath Robinson affair was that it worked! The drivers were Thais, and this was our first experience of that hardy and independent race. As we moved off, engines coughing and spluttering, men had to crowd on every available ledge, even on the cab roof. Couldn't get another one on we thought; but quite wrongly.
As our truck gathered speed, four Thais appeared as if by magic, and leapt in among us, unseen by our guards; not unseen by our driver though, as with a skid he pulled up and hurled a stream of invective at the stowaways, who turned not a hair. At four-to-one our driver eventually gave up the struggle, and resignedly remounted his steed, and with skill approaching that of the mahouts we were later to see with their elephants, he coaxed it along in pursuit of the others, whom we caught up at the start of an incline; there they were stoking up to provide extra gas for the climb. Every half mile or so, split logs were stacked at the roadside to provide the fuel. After two hours of stopping and starting, this strange journey came to an end at another camp, which looked similar to Banpong. We were told not to unpack as we should only be staying one night, so we dropped off the truck and put our stuff in an empty hut before looking around. One of the 'locals' told us that we were at Kanburi, another transit camp with a permanent staff of cooks to provide rice for men passing through on their way up country. I could see the river from this camp for the first time; it was about as wide as the Thames at London’s Hammersmith.
We were provided with a meal of rice at nightfall and another one at daybreak, after which, at seven-fifty, we were paraded again, to embark on wooden native boats, and cross the Mekong (a branch of the Menam, and now known as The River Kwai for the first time. For many it was to be the last time also. These big boats were fueled by paraffin, the engine having one big cylinder. To start them, a blow lamp was played on the intake manifold and cylinder head, and the heavy flywheel was rocked to and fro until the engine fired. Once under way, the loud 'poof poof' could sometimes be heard miles away. We assembled on the far bank, and our guards marched us off into jungle, which came down almost to the water's edge. The flora consisted of huge clumps of prickly bamboo, a kind of fruitless wild banana, great teak-type trees, and endless creepers trailing from nearly everything; it was to become very familiar, as we cleared thousands of acres to make way for our railroad track. The land soon began to rise, and jungle gave way to paddy fields in about two miles. These are places where the rice is grown. Each field is only about thirty feet square and is surrounded by an earth wall to retain the water; from a distance they look like steps up the hill.
In five miles or so the guards told us that we were nearing our destination, and in front of us we saw a big camp laid out beside the river, which had meandered back to meet us. Our guards made us understand that we were to remain here and help to complete this section of the railway track. They led us to our bamboo hut, where we saw that each one was about a hundred yards long, and comprised an earth centre floor, with a raised staging covered with split bamboo each side. There were no walls, and attap roof overhung several feet. At intervals of sixteen feet bamboo poles rose out of the floor to support the roof, and these divided the huts into bays. Each staging was about six feet wide, and formed our communal beds. These huts became very familiar as they were standard accommodation in nearly every camp. Eight men were ordered into each bay, allowing two feet for housing both body and kit.
As we tried to settle in, men from the next hut wandered in to see if we had brought any 'griff' (news). We learned these men had already been there for several months, and that the camp was called 'Chunkai'. Working parties went out to the railroad each day they said, to build embankments. They were badly treated and beaten up if they did not work hard enough. We, however, were allowed to stay in camp for two days, building a cookhouse, latrine, and doing other camp jobs. Then, on the thirteenth of November, our third day in Chunkai, we paraded soon after dawn for our first day's work on the now infamous railway. An English officer in the camp warned us to work at a reasonable speed, without trying to hurry. If we completed our measured task too early, then the next day both ours and everyone else’s would be increased. Should the Japs think we were deliberately on a 'go-slow' on the other hand, we would be punished. "Try therefore to find a happy medium", he concluded.
Arriving at our appointed place along the line of the projected embankment, we found our gang was to build a thirty foot long stretch, averaging six feet high. The earth, it was explained, was to be excavated from between the trees each side of our task, and trod firmly down after being tipped in the right place. The tools were then issued out, and consisted of long-handled pointed spades-cum-shovels, with flat wicker baskets in which we were to carry the earth. We could see other gangs of prisoners working on the next strips. Our Jap could speak a few words of English, and benignly explained that our work for the day had been carefully calculated; he assured us that it's cubic capacity was in correct relation to the number of men in our gang. "Finish your task and you can return to camp, even if it is before midday", he continued, "all men then have rest of day Yasumi" (rest). We surveyed the huge stretch of emptiness between the high bamboo profiles that outlined the space we were to fill, and knowing smiles passed between us. He's surely potty, no-one could do all that work by hand in one day we thought. Starting work, we decided to 'test the climate' and worked at a fairly steady pace.
The heap of earth that was the embryo embankment began to grow, but painfully slowly. If anyone actually came to a full stop, the guard would yell "Courra!" and run over and cuff the offender, otherwise we were getting away with our half-hearted effort; or so we thought. By midday, when we stopped for half an hour to eat the cold rice we had carried with us, we had perhaps completed a quarter of the day's work. After that the demeanor of our guards changed as they weighed up the situation and concluded that we were 'swinging the lead'. More and more blows began to fall from the heavy sticks they carried. "Courar, Engerissoo soljah no-goodena!" they shouted. We thought that it was best to endure a few blows today, and to let the Japs see that we were not going to tear about in the hot sun; better for the future, to suffer a little today. We felt sure that all this shouting and cuffing was just a try-on.
Come five o'clock, and we had completed about half the day's task. That meant we had worked just about half as fast as the Japs wanted, and as it would be dark in an hour or so their bluff had been called. You can't beat the good old British Tommy into submission we thought. The Japs ate at about six o'clock, we'd soon be off back to camp now, so even less work was done for the next hour. A couple of fellows stopped work for a try-on; one of the guards walked over to find out why. "No can see" said one, pointing first to his eye and then to the heap. "No see" repeated the Jap, and turning to the rest of us, "Othar soljah no see-ca?" he asked innocently. "No see" we chorused as with one voice. "Oroo men yasume (rest)" he ordered. (these Japanese were unable to pronounce our "L" so they said 'Roo'). As we sat down it started to rain. With only half our task completed, we had won, but why were we sitting out here instead of going back to camp? Our only drink all day had been the water we had brought in our bottles from camp, and we were now thirsty as well as dirty and hungry. Two guards had left for camp already, but the remaining two put on their capes and seemed resigned to spending the rest of the night out there with us.
At about six-thirty we were surprised to see the two guards returning, struggling with some heavy equipment which they dumped on the ground. All four Japs started to erect some sort of tripod so I walked over to see what they were doing. Catching a whiff of acetylene gas as I approached, I stopped in my tracks as the truth dawned. Lights! Within ten minutes two powerful flood-lights illuminated the whole site, and without any order from our enemy, with despair in our hearts we drifted back to work in the rain. The guards found themselves comfortable spots under the trees and settled down, clearly for the night if necessary. And so we started to work, with the fit ones among us moving at about four times the rate of our earlier efforts, and by half-past eight, working in the rain, we had finished our task. Too tired almost to put one foot in front of the other, spirits broken, wet through, we stumbled along the track back to camp in the dark.
All was not well in the camp either. Fifty yards from our hut we started to paddle, and by the time we reached our hut we were wading through two feet of swirling water. The ground upon which our hut was built sloped, and the staging at my end of the hut was still clear of the water; but at the other end, some of the men's belongings, including their bedding, had already floated away, and the staging was a foot under water. I crept onto my bed, trying to avoid letting my contaminated legs touch the bedding. Lighting my improvised lamp I saw faeces floating along the passage from the flooded latrines at the end of the hut. Men began to move up from the low end, and squeezed into our bed-spaces. We sat up all night watching the water rise; or were the legs supporting the staging sinking into the mud with the extra weight?
At four a.m. the filthy water began to overlap our end of the staging; the time had come to move. Sliding off I felt the water come over my loins, so I was unable to avoid trailing much of my kit in it. Our thoughts, as we waded off, not knowing where we were in the dark, perhaps going uphill, perhaps down dale, are not difficult to imagine. Nothing was said, blank despair flooded our hearts, as, staying together for safety, we realized we were going steadily deeper into the water; but, again I repeat, no evil lasts for ever. With the water up nearly to our chests we met some more men passing through the waters, and they knew where they were. Follow us they said, and slowly but surely the waters receded as we climbed the only hill in the camp. The tropical rain continued to fall down in sheets, and we spent the remainder of the night under a tamarind tree. The older camp residents told us that a loop of the river meandered round this camp, and that it had overflowed because of the extra heavy monsoon this year.
At last dawn broke, I saw an open-sided, bandstand-like building not far off, so we moved over to take advantage of its shelter. To our amazement, we soon found out that this was a Thai junior school, and still in use; as the children, together with their one master, trooped in from somewhere in the vicinity, so we had to move out and stand under the eaves. Ages of the pupils varied from six to about twelve years, but all sat together in one class, on a floor-mat. As they began their work there, miles out in a Thai jungle, they were having an English lesson! The master wrote an English word on the board and everyone intoned the nearly unintelligible Thai effort of pronunciation.
The rain ceased about midday, and I was able to explore this territory more fully. The rising ground became a small mountain a little further on, and the sides were steep like a sugar-loaf. An avenue of beautiful trees led up to a Buddhist temple. The trees were unusual, the branches being formed like sausages joined together, without leaves, and lily-like flowers were growing out of the ends of smaller branches. There was a long dark cave at the foot of the mountain, and by shading the eyes from the sun, a golden reclining figure, many times life-size, could be discerned. Then it began to rain again, harder than ever. The Japs had left us alone since the flood; they had troubles of their own. Moreover, we still had nowhere to sleep during the coming night. However our own officers now took control, and having closed the men up in the huts on the high part of the camp, we were allocated half a hut, sixteen men to a sixteen foot bay. However, lying on one side in the dry was better than standing out in the rain.
An old timer in the hut told me of a spot in the camp boundary where Thais came along at night to bargain for prisoners' valuables. I looked through my kit and sorted out a few items, as I was out of funds, and putting on my gas-cape, made for the wire. After haggling for half an hour I received fifteen Tickel (or Baht) for the remains of my silver pocket watch that I had dropped and broken in Roberts Hospital, sixty Stang for the chain, and fifty Stang for my fountain pen, sold because I had now run out of my home-made ink (there are 100 Stang to 1 Tickel).
The next morning we again went to work on the railroad, determined this time not to repeat our first performance. We were on our way back to camp by half past two in the afternoon, our daily task completed. That evening the British Lt.Colonel in charge of Chunkai camp came to give us a talking to. He stressed the importance of making our work last the whole day, if we did not, he assured us, our tasks would most certainly be increased. Later in the evening someone brought in a copy of a Japanese English language newspaper called 'The Nippon Times'. It was full of propaganda from cover to cover, with not one small bit of real news. Everything was so unrealistic that not even the dimmest prisoner's morale could have been affected by any of it. Someone came in with a bit of allegedly 'real news'. Anthony Eden had flown to Japan to discuss peace terms with Tojo (the Jap Prime Minister). The Japanese soldiers had their own newspaper, full of optimistic and mainly untrue reports of the war's progress, and they often passed on their 'news' to us. Most of it was too ridiculous for words.
Many of us fell ill with dysentery the next day, due to the flooding of the latrines, of course. I spent all night sitting on the latrine pole, and in the early hours nearly dropped off to sleep on it. That night our Quartermaster Sergeant, Bill Wilby, did drop off and dropped in; he was saved from drowning by his best friends, and during the next few days disproved the advert "Your best friends never tell you!" Those of us with dysentery were given a dose of Epsom Salts by our medics, but we still had to go out to work in order to fill the quota ordained by our captors. This was to be the last time I was to see any medicine of this kind, as stocks ran out shortly after, and no more was ever obtainable. A large dose of the salts, followed by twenty-four hours fasting, was the best cure for this type of dysentery. I later evolved my own remedy, burning twigs, quenching them, and eating the charcoal. Dysentery was a very enervating and wasting disease; luckily I recovered before losing much weight. I saw pitifully thin men creeping around, with legs hardly capable of carrying their weight, and they were dying daily in ever increasing numbers. Chunkai cemetery on the camp boundary, was already huge.
So that week we progressed from task to task, each day leapfrogging the work that others had done the previous day. It surprised us how fast the embankment was creeping along, on its way through the jungle. On the seventh day we lined up for our first pay parade. I did not attend as I could not get off the latrine, but I was able to draw mine the following day, one Tickel, fifty Stang. These wages were not paid in genuine Thai money, but with paper, printed as required in Japan, without backing. Even at that stage of the war the Thais were loath to accept it, and later on it was to become valueless. The face value of the Tickel was, I suppose, about the equivalent of a shilling, but the Thais would only treat the Jap issue as worth half of this. Although 'Tickel' was the official name for the currency, we noticed that the Thais always said 'Baht'. The Japs paid us twenty Stang a day, buying power of about an old penny (240 to the £) in nineteen forty-three. We were in future to be paid every ten days, to make it easier for them to work it all out.
We had nearly all by this time made ourselves little lamps from old food tins. A hole was made in the lid, and a piece of string threaded through for the wick. Coconut oil was our main fuel, a pint bottle bought from the Thais and shared between a dozen men. During the evenings it rained most of the time, so we just sat on our bed spaces and talked in the feeble flickering light of our lamps. During the quiet spells we heard the constant noises of the jungle. Countless millions of frogs croaked and squeaked, those further away merging into loud background noise, which rose and fell in a continuous slow tremolo. My neighbor had put his lamp on the ground to avoid it being knocked over, and as I watched, hundreds of winged ants or termites flew around and into the flame. The shadow cast by the lamp was impenetrable. I dreamed of home as I watched the light, but suddenly, as a draught caught the flame, I saw something strange going on in the shadow. Getting down with my lamp in hand, I saw a huge toad, six inches across, gobbling up the singed insects as fast as it could swallow them. For half an hour I watched, wondering where it was putting them all.
Later, at about midnight I was awakened by water soaking into my side; I was on one of the lowest spaces this time, and I called a warning to the others as I wearily packed up my wet gear again and slid down into the flood. The river had risen yet further, but having some idea of the camp’s geography by now, we trooped up the hill and spent the rest of the night in the Buddhist temple. Since everything I had was saturated, I made no attempt to sleep, and sat there leaning against the wall awaiting the dawn. There were little shelves on the temple walls, and on them were many small carved figures. Some of the men helped themselves to these for souvenirs; Ken Ireman gathered up a couple of little jade statues of goddesses.
Chapter 24 - We See Our First Allied Planes, And Catch A Thief
The Japs turned us out for work at daybreak, and the rain stopped in time for us to start work. We returned at five o'clock to our wet bedding in the temple, and found that the water had receded sufficiently for us to re-occupy our half-hut. My foam rubber mattress was still soaked on returning from work the next day, so I risked hanging it up outside our hut while I went to the river to wash; it had disappeared upon my return. This was my most precious possession, so I waited until the next day before combing every hut in the camp to try to find it. Sure enough, find it I did, cut up into smaller pieces to avoid recognition, in the kit of a man from the Recce Battalion. I accused him of stealing it and placed him on report, but was disgusted, when a couple of days later, coming up in front of the major, he was only admonished.
The stretch of embankment on which we were working was now twenty feet high, owing to the fall of the land. As we were still given the same amount of earth to shift per man we really did have to work flat out to finish by dusk, and staggered back home in the evenings with trembling legs, after climbing to the top with our loads all afternoon. The line was to climb from this point to a range of hills half a mile away, where a gang of our men were cutting a pass through very hard white rock. They cut deep holes with hammers and long chisels, and twice daily the Jap engineers filled the holes with explosives and blasted the rock away. Another gang was breaking the fallen rock into small pieces with hammers and carting it off to the completed parts of the track to use as ballast when the line was laid.
A few days later the camp buzzed with excitement as the news circulated that four men had escaped from a working party during that day. The Japs were furious and said that we were all going to be punished. Our British camp commandant called us all together, and lectured us on the folly of trying to escape at the moment. We could be of no help to the Allied Forces that were separated from us by a thousand miles of disease-ridden and foodless jungle, and in addition there were tigers roaming there waiting to prey on us. If that were not enough to convince us, he said that the Japs had offered the natives high rewards for reporting or returning escaped prisoners, dead or alive. “Please make no attempt, you can do no good, and others will suffer.”
That evening our ears were alerted by the new sound of aircraft passing high overhead, and the Japs sounded their air-raid alarm. They came round ordering us all to stay in our huts, so we had to be content with peering out under the eaves into the clear starlit sky. Someone said he counted five planes, but I saw none. The thrill of the realization that up there in the sky were our free comrades, kept us awake with excitement for most of the night. Perhaps the Jap soldiers were having a re-think too, bearing in mind the ridiculous stories they had believed of their victorious advance through India and into Europe.
I slept beside my friend Jimmy Hume, and the other side of Jimmy was the bed space of Sergeant Charlie Stevens our elderly cook, who had served in the first World War; he was then on night duty; his bedding and belongings were in a neat bundle at the head of his space. At about one o'clock in the morning I awoke as Jimmy leapt out of bed with a yell and disappeared under the eaves into the (by now) bright moonlight. Jumping out after him, I saw Jimmy chasing someone across the adjacent open space so I joined in. Seeing the two of us after him the fugitive dropped what transpired to be Charlie's kit, in the hope of getting away. However we caught him and took his name and number. Jimmy went back to collect the kit from the ground where it had fallen, but I followed the miscreant to his hut. Once in the shadow of the hut he took to his heels again, and only by luck I saw him dive into a bed and draw the clothes over himself. I snatched the clothes off and asked him what he was up to, but he professed indignation at being awakened from his 'sleep'. He could not how-ever help blowing like a grampus from his exertion, so I yelled for the N.C.O. in charge of the hut, and in spite of epithets from those all round, I kept yelling until he reluctantly came forward. The man had of course given us the wrong name which proved to be Jackson.
There was unfortunately a lot of thieving from comrades going on in Chunkai camp. Wasters in civilian life are still the same men when they become prisoners of war. "Can the leopard change his spots, or the evil man forsake his way?" Blankets, most valuable of all the captive's possessions, were stolen and sold to the Thais. With no protection from the malaria-carrying mosquito, many must have died solely because of these camp thieves. Even the medical hut was broken into, and our scanty supply of medicines robbed for private gain. Some became so wealthy that they were able to bribe those in charge to let them stay in camp as sick men, while the really sick were forced out to work. Jackson was court-marshaled a few weeks later, but I did not hear the result.
The Japs now told us that if we finished the task in nine days we were to have the tenth day off. On the ninth day of our first task under this scheme, although we worked flat out all day, and right up until it became too dark, we did not finish. I was very despondent as I had much to do, most important of all, my washing. However, the Japs, realizing that we had done our best, showed that they were human after all, and obtained permission from the officer in charge for us to have our free day after all. Or did they want to do their own washing? I was sharpening my razor the next day when shouts brought me quickly outside the hut, just in time to take part in a snake hunt. I managed to kill the unfortunate creature, so skinned, cut up, and cooked it for my midday meal. As it had been about three feet long there was just enough for one, which was as well since no-one else fancied trying it. The flavor of the white flesh was like rather fishy chicken, not at all unpleasant. It was very full of thin bones, and therefore took a long time to eat. I was to have quite a few more, before we left Thailand.
In the afternoon I decided to sell my newly-washed sheet as I was unable to keep it clean now that we were working such long hours. I sold it through the wire to a Thai woman, and after long bargaining settled for three Tickle, fifty Stang, and two bars of 'nutty-nutty', as we used to call the Thai peanut confection. These Thais would squat on their haunches at secluded points along the long camp boundary, with their wares on display. Some men offered their cash and then at the last minute snatched it back together with the goods. One boasted that he had polished up some farthings and sold them as gold coins. The Thais soon became fed up with us and would only put their wares into our hands after receiving and examining our cash. Some even got their own back by keeping the cash without parting with the goods. The vendors were, however, mostly transparently honest, and full of goodwill to us. They were nearly all old ladies, and they would sit behind their baskets until the last of their produce was sold. Besides 'nutty-nutty' there was a sweet jellied concoction (made from unripe coconuts), dried fish, fruit, and both raw and hard-boiled eggs. The egg sellers had their eggs in separate heaps, and sung their continuous cry of "cook-cook" and "no-cook" pointing the while first to one heap and then the other. All bargaining and pricing was accompanied by finger-arithmetic.
Thais sing their language in several tones, although it is quite unlike Chinese. I soon learned a few simple words, such as "di", good, and "my-di" or no-good. Any positive could be negatived by the prefix 'my'. I became fond of the Thais, although some of them were obviously rogues. The men stalked along the jungle paths, some in sarongs, others in shirts and shorts with shirt-tails flying loose. They were a brave race, and always carried a big knife or 'parang' in their belts as a defence from tigers and robbers, or to cut a path through the undergrowth. They did not appear over-keen on steady work, as most of the hard jobs and cultivations in their country seemed to be executed by the Chinese. There was inter-marrying between the races, and the local population varied in colour from mid-brown to nearly white. First thing in the morning many of the Thai women looked quite beautiful, but they all seemed to chew betel-nut, and by midday their teeth gleamed like pieces of anthracite through their smiling lips. Ugh!
Out on the railway, the embankment had by now reached a height of thirty feet, and as we were allowed to organize the work ourselves as long as we finished by the tenth day, our guards slept under the trees, or moved along to chat and play games with guards from other groups. As soon as we were unobserved we rolled the huge bamboo and other roots we had dug up to the bottom of the heap and covered them up with dirt as quickly as we could. The Japs never seemed to remark on the fact that they were missing, so we continued to do this all along the line. Occasionally someone would be caught red-handed, and then he would be beaten up. A year or so later, after the white ants (termites) had eaten the stumps away, huge holes appeared all along the embankment, and many gangs of men were employed in filling them up.
It was now the beginning of December 1942. The rains had stopped, but the nights became cold, some nights it almost felt like a frost. Those who had had their bedding stolen suffered a lot as they tried to keep warm under odd bits of rag and sacking. Other parties of men occasionally passed us as we worked. They were on their way up country from Singapore and the route of the railway was the only road up. Among these parties was one from River Valley, and this included our old pals Skin Barker, Len Dudley and Ron Kitson, sergeants from our regiment.
Life in camp had by now settled down to a monotonous routine. Breakfast at dawn, on the railway at eight o'clock; break to eat our plain cold rice at midday, and back most evenings just in time to wash in the river; but as there was only time to disinfest our bedding once every ten days, and sometimes not even then, we became as lousy as coots, and the split bamboo from which our bed-stagings were made was filled in every crack with the repulsive bed-bugs. With mosquitoes during the day, life was one long itch, and we dare not scratch for fear of producing the ghastly tropical ulcers which were by now killing many of our men. The one saving grace was that we could at least get in the river to cool off and remove the grime most evenings. The day after Skin and Co. went through, I was unable to eat all day and felt so bad that on our return from work I called at the medical hut where I was told that my temperature was one-hundred and five point nine, so I was excused work for a week. The next day I was seized by the uncontrollable fits of shivering known as 'rigors' which are typical of malaria. At this point we still had supplies of quinine, so after a week I was pronounced fit to return to the railroad; it was the eighteenth of December.
Theft had by now become so rife that our officers decided to try to take measures against it. The criminals had organized themselves so well that there were receivers who would take anything, no questions asked, out of the camp each night to sell in the nearby village. The measures resulted in orders that the N.C.O. in charge of each hut was to mount a guard each night, every man taking a turn once a week. Many of the men deeply resented this and insinuated that we were worse than the Japs, who did at least let them spend the night in peace. It was not much fun trying to see these men did as they were told, but I did my best. As long as the quota of men was available for work each day, the Japs did not at this time make the really sick men go out to work, and our medics were allowed to decide who was fit enough. Until now no officers had to go out on the work parties; they were provided with what seemed to us a substantial cash allowance by our captors, and amused themselves in camp all day as best they could. Whereas they no doubt felt themselves to be hard up, to us on our penny a day they seemed to live like millionaires.
Life changed for the officers on the twenty-first of the month, when the Jap Commandant ordered them out on parade. They were told that their days of leisure were over, and that they would in future be required to work on the railway like the other ranks. In accordance with the Geneva Convention which states that officers may not be put to work if taken prisoner, they refused to go. The Jap said that his race appreciated the principle of death before dishonor, and invited those who would like to be shot in preference to working to stay behind. After a hurried conference it was decided to submit under protest, and from then on the officers had to work, except that one was to be allowed to take charge of each of our work parties.
We were struggling to finish our task by the twenty-fourth of December; the Japs had given us a twelve day task on this occasion, saying that if we completed it in ten days we could have both Christmas and New Year's Day free. On the night of the twenty-third I broke out of Chunkai for the first time to do the Christmas shopping for my men. Although there was an official canteen in the camp where most things could be bought at a price, outside they could be bought for half of that. I bought among other things a bottle of native rice spirit, thirty eggs, and a load of biscuits. Christmas Eve saw us finish our twelve-day stretch with a late night ending, but we felt the effort had been worthwhile. That night Jimmy and I drank to freedom in a cocktail we made up of rice-spirit, lime juice and rice-water. We thought it was lovely. The cooks, having been putting rations to one side for weeks, excelled themselves with that, our first Christmas dinner; and in the evening there was a concert accompanied by a band of home-made instruments. It was a very good effort. I remember finding it hard to believe that it really was Christmas, and wondered if my folk had heard that I was alive and a prisoner, since I had heard nothing from home. As I later was to learn, they had heard nothing, nor were they to hear for another year or so. The Japs wandered through the camp during the day, and seeing us trying to enjoy ourselves, told us that news had come through that the Allies were retreating fast on every front. Of course no-one believed a word of it. Where did those aircraft we heard take off from, we wondered?
Diphtheria was a killer disease in our camps. Although tracheotomies were performed, very few were successful, owing to the impossibility of keeping germs out of the wounds in our filthy conditions. One of our officers contracted it in this camp a Mr. Bradford, and I used to visit him. He was one of the few to recover. Ken Ireman now also contracted the disease and went into the sick bay.
On New Year's Day we were issued with one pig to about a thousand men. I went to the spot where they were being killed, and collected two sets of entrails, which the cooks were not going to use. Cleaning them out in the river, I fried the lights for my tea, salted the chitterlings for eating later, and produced a pint of pig oil from the belly fat. (There is no lard out there as pig fat does not set in that heat.)
After our New Year's Day break, we started on our next ten-day task. As usual I made my rule of thumb check to ensure that we were not being given more than our designated one cubic meter per man per day. On this occasion I calculated that we had half as much more than we should have had, and protested to our guards accordingly, but to no avail. Each succeeding day it became more obvious that an error had been made, and every day I tried to make the guards see reason. At last the Jap measuring team came along to check the task, and after much arguing among themselves they announced that we could have three extra days to complete the work. Before the extra work was completed I was to be put on a charge myself.
On the seventh of January, after returning from work I heard that my old pal Sgt. Ken Ireman the carpet maker was very ill with malaria in addition to the diphtheria. The next evening I found out that he had died during that day and that his funeral party was to leave shortly for a service at the cemetery. When we returned, his kit was shared out among his fellow sergeants as was our custom. I was given his puttees, and as no-one else would accept them I took the two small goddess figurines Ken had taken from the temple at the time of the flood. This was the first Chunkai death among our sergeants, and there were those who murmured that it might not have been a coincidence that Ken had been the one with the 'idols'. However I shunned superstition and put them under my pillow for safety that night. I awoke the next morning feeling very ill, and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. The temple was now out of bounds to us, so that evening I managed to pass the offending objects through the wire to a Thai, and hoped he would put them back where they belonged.
By now I had obtained a good deal of experience of working under the Japs, had learned enough of the tongue to understand their orders, and was becoming familiar with both their mentality and way of working. In addition I had one of the best gangs of men, and we understood one another; they also trusted me to get the best possible deal out of our captors. On the last day of our task then, our 'beloved' adjutant came out to work with us, the Japs having said that one officer could accompany each working party of other ranks; the remainder were to form a separate working party which would go up country. Our adjutant hated my guts since I had thrown him in front of the men, and he had chosen to place himself in charge of 'my' gang rather than work in the officers’ gang. I was not very pleased, and neither were the men. As we started work, he sat down on a log beside the track and watched us for ten minutes.
Up to the present we had nearly always managed to finish our tasks fairly well on time, not too early and not too late. I attributed this partly to the fact that I always worked with the men myself, so could then tell when they had had enough; and I was never afraid to tell our guards. I had split our working party into four groups, with friends together wherever possible. We made stretchers with bamboo poles and rice bags to carry the earth on, as we found the baskets the Japs provided were useless. Two men dug the earth and put it on the stretcher, two carried the stretcher to the embankment and emptied it, and as that was the most tiring job the 'stretcher bearers' obtained a short rest while their next load was dug. Every half-dozen loads diggers and carriers changed round. This way every man could work with his 'mucker', and considering the circumstances we were a pretty good crowd. We were as democratic as we could be, so when awkward jobs or trouble arose everyone had his say. After that first ten minutes, our officer called me over in his usual lordly way and told me that he was not satisfied with the way I was running things. In future I was on no account to work myself; I was to put one quarter of our gang on rest, while the other three-quarters worked extra hard. He would lend me his watch and my sole job would be to call "change" every ten minutes! He had been a commercial traveler in peace time whereas I had been a builder, yet after seeing us at work for only a few minutes, and having never worked under the Japs before, he was about to change our system of working that we had evolved over months of experience. It also meant that I could no longer work with Jimmy; I was not pleased.
I called the men over to where we were instead of going over to them, so that our adjutant would hear what the men felt about it all. After the initial uproar which broke out when the new rules were announced, one after another, first the N.C.O.s and then the men each said his piece, unanimously predicting that the new idea would entail everyone working less efficiently and therefore later. Not one word in favor. I turned my head interrogatively in the direction of the officer, who deliberately turned his head away. I waited for a few seconds for him to speak, and when nothing came took it to mean that rather than admit he was wrong, he chose to carry on as though he had never mooted the scheme. So I told the men to go back to work and to continue as before. Our officer continued sitting on his log for a while, then called me over out of earshot of the men. In his lordliest manner and speaking so 'posh' that the words were loath to come out, he looked up into the sky and said "You will consider yourself on report Sergeant, and the charge will be 'disobeying the order of a superior officer'." He made no attempt to tell the men to change their working practice himself. I spent the remainder of that day seething with indignation, and although I was not feeling well, I probably did twice my usual stint, as there was nothing but the embankment on which to vent my spleen.
My diarrhea had gradually worsened during that day, and I went to the medical hut in the evening. The M.O. told me that I had returned to work too soon after the malaria, and that I must rest for a couple of days. In fact, for five days I had chronic 'squitters', and ate little but ground charcoal; I felt very weak, when on the sixth day I went back to work on the embankment. I was relieved to find that when the adjutant found out that I was not to be on the work party, he had managed to find himself a camp job. He had not attempted to run the work his way himself. We now had a decent young officer in his place, and I was very grateful for this. It had been bad enough working under our main enemy, the Japs. I never heard what happened to my 'charge' as I was never called up in front of the C.O. as I should have been.
Our part of the railroad now transversed an area of paddy, some of which was still flooded. The lowest of the fields were wet nearly all the year round as the higher ones were gradually drained into them. Fish lived in these lower fields, and the Thai women fished for them. They used a funnel-shaped wicker affair, the narrow part the diameter of an arm. The anglers paddled through the mud, at intervals stabbing the open end of the 'funnel' down between their feet. Their hand was then thrust through the neck of the apparatus and waved around in the mud trapped inside, often retrieving a small mud-gudgeon type fish which they put in a basket slung over their backs. I had only been back at work for a day when, on January the fifteenth we paraded with our kit to move up country. I had narrowly missed being left behind sick; quite a tragedy then to be separated from one's mates, when friendship was all there was to live for.
Chapter 25 - Japanese Friend And Lost In The Jungle
We moved out of Chunkai along the mostly completed embankment, and presently arrived at the next camp, Wun Lung, where we were to spend the night; it had only been a few kilometers distance, which was just as well, as I was still weak from my ‘squitters’. There was a yell from a crowd of the ‘Wun Lungers’, and as we got closer I recognized them as the River Valley boys. We had some rice and I then sat down for a chat with Len Dudley, Skin Barker and a few others. Skin had been Lionel’s assistant in the medical room. Lionel had been on the plump side; Skin was one of the lean kind. He was one of those chaps who could raise a laugh by an expressive glance alone. He had the habit of talking out of the side of his Joe E. Brown mouth, and with his lop-sided grin he could make a joke of the most morbid subject. After hearing the latest ‘griff’, and telling all we knew of life and death, Jimmy and I went for a walk round the camp. Wun Lung had no perimeter fence as had the other camps we knew. One side was bounded by the river, one by the railway, one by jungle, and the other by a clearing which was being created by two very hard-working Chinese men, who were trying to make a small farm. We were told that they worked from dawn to dusk cutting the great trees down, burning the trunks, then digging round the root and burning that out with the branches. Their only tools were axes and chunkels. The ground they had already cleared was planted, partly with a kind of lettuce, the remainder with peanuts. (These look much like garden peas while they are growing.)
Next morning we moved off on the next stage of our journey, this time along ten miles of jungle paths to ‘Wun-tu-Kin’. I still had all my kit, though still weak from my sickness; it was therefore only with Jimmy’s help that I made the last stretch to the new camp. Fortunately the Japs allowed us to spend the first day in camp getting the cookhouse and latrines ready, and we were also able to clean the place up and do our washing. Our first job on the railway was cutting down trees and de-barking them for use in building culverts to allow streams to pass under the embankment. We wondered how long these would withstand attacks from the ever-present termites.
The nights were very cold at this time of the year, and I could not even keep warm with my blanket and rice-sack. Many of us had to get up in the middle of the night and run round the camp to keep warm. Sometimes we built a fire between the huts and warmed up round that. Wun-tu-Kin provided me with one of my few fond memories of a Japanese soldier. His name was Yoshio Suzuki, and he was an engineer. The Koreans had taken over the task of guarding us now, the Japs were responsible only for the engineering and surveying work. These Koreans were vile to us, many times worse than the Japs had been, and we quickly learnt to loathe them. When Suzuki saw the Koreans being beastly he would stride over and shout at them. I never heard him raise his voice at any other time. He could not speak any English but the first day out on the railway he made me understand that he regretted having to order us about, and that he would do his best to make things easy for us.
That evening he came over to our hut; this was most unusual, as the Japs seldom wandered far from their quarters after returning from work. Sitting beside me, he produced a large piece of cake and a handful of cigarettes. Shyly he handed them to me, and waved his hand round in a gesture for me to share what he had brought. Practically every evening after that he would wander over to our hut with some tit-bit or other from his own rations. Sometimes a bit of ‘banjo fish’ as we called the lyre-shaped dried fish the Japs ate, sometimes a few sweets. When I attempted to thank him, Suzuki cleverly attempted to change the subject by trying to teach me to say the Japanese word for ‘thank you’ properly, "Arrigato". I tried; "Ah-rding-gah-to-oo" he tried to get me to pronounce. I never learned to say it to his satisfaction. I would like to know if my friend survived the war, it would be good to write to him after all this time with some little token of affection and gratitude.
Our stretch of the railway was four miles from camp, so it took quite a long time to get to work. During our meal breaks I often explored in the jungle, and once or twice I got lost. Once out of sight of the embankment, and with the trees overhead hiding the sun, it was very easy to lose all sense of direction without a compass. Being lost could be quite frightening under those circumstances, with trees all round and no idea in which direction one’s comrades were to be found. Usually, by sitting quietly one would hear a chink of a tool or a voice eventually, but on one occasion I waited for a long while without hearing a sound. In the end I wandered off through the trees, hoping I was going in the right direction, and after about twenty minutes came to a cleared area where obviously the railway was to run. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing whether I had circled to the right or to the left, so I sat down while trying to make up my mind which way to turn to find the working party. After a few minutes a Thai came along, and I asked him to tell me the way to Wun-tu-kin. He looked quite blankly at me as I tried over and over to make him understand. Just as I was about to give up a gleam of understanding came into his eyes, and he sang (the Thai language has four tones) "Wun-tu-ki-en" and directed me with a forefinger. I hurried back along the track, and within a few minutes came in sight of our gang. Not wanting our guards to see me coming I entered the jungle skirting the track and proceeded out of sight until I was close enough to approach from the trees. Our guards spotted me before I could merge with the other men; that was the trouble with being so fair, I was easily missed. There was the usual roar of "Courra!"; I saw that I had been seen, so walked over to the guards, and looking as ill as I could, said "Speedo Benjo, taksan taksan", which in pigeon Japanese meant that I had ‘been taken short’, luckily they did not query this, and waved me back to work.
On another sortie, I followed a track into the jungle, and after a few minutes came to a Thai house or ‘Kampong’ in a small isolated clearing. Standing on six foot long legs to keep out beast and flood; (these were not houses in the Western sense, but bamboo and attap huts). Floors were of split bamboo and the walls simply hanging mats which were rolled up during the day. Even the larger ones were usually not more than about ten feet square, and many I saw were only about seven feet by four feet. The larger ones were split into two rooms. There was also a small verandah on a level with the floor, and this was approached from the ground by a retrievable ladder. The householder and his wife would spend their leisure moments sitting on their verandah, usually chewing betel nut and smoking their pipes. Many Thais kept a wad of black tobacco in the corner of their mouths when chewing the nut. As this left a thick deposit on the teeth, every now and then they would spit and take the wad from their lips and polish their teeth with it. Unfortunately only the high spots were whitened and when they smiled the thick black lines between their teeth looked singularly unattractive; Betel nut seemed to preserve their teeth, as even elderly Thais seemed to have gleaming full sets when they cleaned the black off. This Kampong appeared to be occupied only by one old man and his dog; moreover, he had hardly any possessions. Normally the Thais (who are a very hospitable race) would keep a ripe paw-paw hanging on the wall, and the visitor would be offered a slice. This old man was only able to offer me a piece of tamarind, together with a small lump of rock salt to suck with it.
Tamarinds grow on huge trees, and when unripe look not unlike broad beans. As they ripen the skin hardens into a shell, and the inside shrinks round the hard seeds into a reddish sticky toffee. It is just about the sourest thing I have ever tasted, and I have a sweet tooth. I was unable to avoid the risk of upsetting the old chap, as in vain I tried to maintain a smile of appreciation with the stuff in my mouth. However he grinned at my wry face. A sweet little girl of about five came hurrying down the ladder to greet me from one Kampong on another occasion. As she looked up at me with a smile, I saw the red stain of betel nut in her mouth. Brown skinned Thai children seem to be able to climb up the ladders almost as soon as they can crawl, and the young mothers nearly always had a new baby or were expecting one shortly. They were quite clearly devoted parents, even if they did give their children betel nut.
It was a week or so later that I found a path leading from our railroad to the river, during one of our midday breaks. Tethered to the river bank was a raft of bamboo on which was erected a hut so small that from a few yards away it might have been thought to be a dog kennel. With legs dangling in the water, a young man sat on the edge as I approached, and he beckoned me to come nearer with a friendly smile. The hut walls were rolled up and I could see a young woman sitting inside on some bedding, which appeared to be all they possessed besides the cooking pots and charcoal fire bucket. As I sat down on the bank, the woman came out to sit beside her husband and I saw that she was pregnant. After some initial shyness they allowed themselves to be drawn into a sign-language ‘chat’. (The Thais are very good at this, and by now I was fairly proficient also.) I asked if they had any other children, and the husband told me that there had been three but that all had died in childbirth. The telling made them both very sad, as they explained that they spent much time in prayer for the little one who was now on the way.
There were no doctors or nurses in that area, and I was told that only one child in five reached maturity. We often saw men and women in remote Kampongs dying of terrible complaints without any medical attention; and yet the Thais, as I remember them, seemed to be a very contented race, with a happy smile on nearly every face. We in the West, with all our possessions, seem a miserable lot by comparison. I asked this couple why they had built their house on a raft, and such a small one too. They explained that young couples with no money could not buy land, so they had to build on water; as for the size, it was big enough for their present needs. When their family arrived safe and sound, then they would build themselves a bigger home, After working for someone else for a few years they would be able to buy land and build a proper Kampong.
At one stage in the embankment’s progress, we passed an abandoned native vegetable garden, and we soon stripped it of everything edible. There were several sizes of chilies, which we gathered both red and green. The smaller the chili, the hotter it is, and the green unripe ones have a different flavor from the red ones. I used the chilies to make ‘sambals’ a Malay side dish to eat with rice. My favorite was ‘Sambal Katchang’ made by frying ground chilies and peanuts and then cooking them with a little water and the native toffee-like palm sugar called gula malacca. There was also a vegetable with a hard bristly skin, a cross between a cucumber and a marrow. The fine bristles come off and stick in the flesh if not rubbed off first. There were also a few brinjaws (or egg-fruit} but these soon went.
The river at the camp was full of fish, but we never found a satisfactory way of catching them. Our quartermaster sergeant Cyril managed to get hold of a set of pig’s ‘innards’, and as he did not know what to do with them he offered to go fifty-fifty with me if I would prepare them. No sooner did I enter the river with them than I was surrounded by hundreds of fish, all sorts from six-pounders to tiddlers, and I lost nearly a quarter before I could retrieve them from the water. These fish had very sharp teeth and would bite at any sores we had on our bodies. In one camp a prisoner had a very private part bitten off by a fish, some of which were as long as three feet. Thais used to catch the lizards which were plentiful in the jungle, and were often seen running across the paths. They were about eighteen inches long from tip to tail, the latter being carried high in the air as they ran. They were skinned, dried in the sun, and sold in the shops in bundles of a dozen. The method of their capture was to follow one until it ran to its hole in the ground, and then insert a bamboo trap into the hole. The trapper would carry on until he had used all his traps up, and then go round collecting up the lizards which had been caught when they tried to emerge.
The traps were ingenious, made from a nine inch length of two inch diameter bamboo, one end of which was cut down to form a ring, the rest cut away, leaving a strip up the side to bend over and form a spring. A noose of string suspended in the ring was released when a lizard put its head through, when the spring then straightened and the lizard was held tight pending the return of the trapper. There were also wildfowl in the jungle, and we would often hear them crowing. They looked not unlike the Indian game cocks which are bred in this country. The Thais trapped these by staking out a tame cock by his leg, and surrounding him with wire snares. When he started to crow, the local birds would come in, heads down for the attack, and finished up with a snare round their neck. The tame birds were carried around head first in a wicker funnel.
It was now the fifth of February, and I would be twenty-four on the morrow. The embankment at this point was low, so we were spread out a long way to provide the same cubic capacity for our task. We had a decent young British officer with us named Gates, I was working at one end of our task, and he was keeping an eye on the other end for me. Suddenly there was a cry from Mr. Gates’ end, and looking up I saw one of our two Korean guards beating Pte. McNab (who was too sick to have been working) over the head with a heavy stick. Mr. Gates ran over protesting, but the other Korean started to beat him also. Snatching up my spade I rushed over, yelling at the top of my voice, taking care to include ‘Suzuki’ as I joined them. The Koreans were so taken aback that they stopped their beating and for a second just stared. I kept remonstrating including threats to tell ‘Nippon Number One’. Recovering from their initial surprise, they rushed screaming at me. I think the Koreans must have the worst tempers in the world. However, I knew what to do, and stood my ground without batting an eyelid. They threw down their sticks, snatched up their rifles and swung their butts at my head. Over and over again they deliberately missed me, trying, I knew, to make me flinch or lower my eyes, as they got as close to my face as they dared; any sign of fear and I knew that I’d ‘had it’. They soon calmed down and returned to the shade of the trees. Poor McNab was far from well, and although he’d done nothing wrong as far as I could gather, I suppose the guards picked on him because he was not working hard enough for them.
Yoshio Suzuki had by this time learnt a few words of English. We would sometimes only see him once or twice a day, as he knew that he could trust our gang to get on with the work; he was responsible for a long stretch of the embankment, with many gangs working under him. When next he came along I took him over to those guards and explained what had occurred, and showed him the bruises on our two victims. It was only then that we saw for the first time that our friendly Jap had another facet to his character. He stood the Koreans to attention in the sun, and in front of us all, shouted at them for five minutes. They hid their faces from us the rest of that day, and we were never troubled again by that particular pair. (One evening, about sixty years later, on answering the telephone, my wife said "There's some wanting to speak to you from Scotland." I took over the phone, and a Scottish voice asked if I was the L L Baynes you wrote 'Kept-The Other Side of Tenko'. He continued to explain that his father was now dead, but had told him how a sergeant had saved him from the Koreans while he was working on the railway, but couldn't remember his name to thank him. The son had borrowed the book from his local library, and having just read the story, was glad to be have the chance of thanking me himself. He was ringing from a village twenty miles from Banff.)
On the ninth day of February, nineteen forty three, I succumbed to another attack of malaria, and initially this was worse than before, but I received quinine and recovered quicker this time, and I was back on the railway within a week. However, while lying in the sick hut I made a new friend. My diary entry on the twelfth reads, "I don’t think I shall be staying here much longer as I have seen Cpl. Rivven and joined his E.C... ". My new friend had formed an Escape Club, and they were concealing maps and weapons about the camp ready for a break-out. Since we now knew that our aircraft had a base near enough to launch the attack all had heard, we thought there must be a possibility of reaching them. For the next few days I thought of little other than the glorious prospect of freedom. I had to swear a solemn oath of secrecy, and undertook that I would be prepared to leave if asked at a few seconds notice, or to help someone else to do so. I could not even tell my ‘mucker’, Jimmy. I was unable ever to take advantage of the ‘E.C.’, however, as we moved further up country within a few days.
Before we left I developed my first tropical ulcer, luckily only a small one, on my ankle. There were whole huts full of ulcer cases in the camp, some of them a terrible sight, and the victims suffered agony as the infection ate through flesh, sinew, nerve and bone. By packing mine with crushed rock salt, mine was soon cured. Thousands of limbs were amputated because of tropical ulcers, sometimes several times over as another ulcer formed on the stump. Some were so bad that the tibia and fibula were exposed, and in some cases daylight could be seen beneath the bones. And yet the impossible occasionally occurred. Suddenly pink flesh would push through the corruption, and the ulcer would start to heal. The dead outer shell of the bone would come loose, and the flesh which had grown over the ends of it cut to remove it. Then our doctors would lay pieces of skin the size of rice grains about a quarter inch apart all over the wound, and cover with saline soaked cloth. Salt was the only ulcer medication we had by then. George Buckle from my own village was such a case. The healed skin would look more like a nutmeg grater, but on his return home, George, for instance, lived into his seventies working as a gardener.
We paraded on the twenty-first of February, another stretch of embankment having been completed, ready to march further up country to our next task. First impressions of our new camp, Bancow, were far from favourable. There were no huts for us, and we were told to sleep on the ground. As I unrolled my bedding, to rest after the long march carrying all my kit, what I thought was a wag from among the older residents called out “Watch out for scorpions, they’re killers in this camp!” Jimmy said that we’d better look, and rolling my bed up again, I saw a huge black scorpion advancing, stinging tail high in the air at the ‘ready’. Needless to say I had little sleep, especially as at about midnight I had the cold prickly feeling of an eight inch long centipede crawling over my forehead. I stayed still until it had crawled clear before I killed it. These hideous creatures scratch and sting if they are knocked or brushed off, and as they live on filth, the scratches produce the dreaded ulcers.
Next day the guards took us into the jungle to gather materials for hut-building. I found out for the first time where the ‘ties’ came from that we used to tie the bamboo poles together. An oblong strip of bark was cut from a particular kind of tree, and from the inner side it was possible to peel off fifty to a hundred of the tough stringy tape-like pieces. They had to be soaked in water for a few days before becoming flexible enough to use. On our second day, the Japs told us that we were to be given a special treat that evening, and sure enough, when we returned from work there was a cinema van parked in a clearing. It was the only one I ever saw, and must have been brought up by boat, as there was no roadway to Bancow. About a hundred of our guards were sitting cross-legged on the ground waiting for the show to start, and we were told we could sit behind them. It was a ‘talkie’, and the scene opened with a clash of cymbals and captions in Japanese. It was all about the Jap war effort, and soon became exceedingly boring. There were long scenes depicting the factory floor. A ‘conductor’ stood on a raised dais while hundreds of blacksmiths beat their hammers in unison on similar pieces of steel in an impossible way. That particular episode lasted for quite ten minutes, and during that time I saw no change in the shape of the steel, or any article finished. Every scene took place at breakneck speed, and had so obviously been speeded up that I could not see that it could have had much propaganda effect, as it was all too ridiculous.
Those of our men who became incurably ill on the railway were at intervals sent down to base camps. We who were left became tougher and more used to working on rice. Until this time we had been allowed to excavate the soil for the embankment from wherever we chose, so we always looked around for soft spots. Our task was now made very much harder to perform, as the Japs made us dig symmetrical ditches extending along both sides of the track. Each ditch had to be one meter deep, one and a half meters wide at the top and half a meter wide at the bottom. Any rocks, tree-stumps or termite hills in the way had to be removed, and now that the dry season was upon us, the ground was flint hard. The trench sides had to be geometrically sloped and the whole left neat and tidy. We could no longer dig the earth with our spades, but had to use the inadequate picks with which we were issued. Yet we still had to move the same volume of earth on to the embankment, so were forced to work from dawn to dark in order to get our rest day and de-louse and wash our kit. When digging the trenches, we sometimes found spherical holes a couple of feet down in the rock-hard earth. In the hole would be a frog, blown out with water and looking like a balloon, dimples showing where the legs were buried. If they were knocked they would pass all the water and resume their more usual frog shape. At the end of the wet season they had tunneled down into the mud, filled up with water, and then gone off to sleep to await the return of the rains.
The gigantic termite (or white ant) hills were also a source of wonder to me. As we cut through them, no two were alike inside, and they often contained other creatures beside termites; I once found a black scorpion eight inches long with a row of white babies clinging to its underside like baby pigs. I hadn’t the heart to kill it and hoped no-one would get stung as I let it run off. The Queen termite consisted of a big soft bag of eggs with a little hard head-piece. There were also several kinds of specialized termites that went to make up a colony. The workers were small and white; they could sting, and their job was to forage for wood, chew little bits off and take them back to the nest. They were unable to withstand sunlight, so wherever they went they built clay tunnels in which to march; when they reached a piece of wood, they first covered it with clay and then nibbled the wood out from inside. To protect the tunnels, large black fighter termites marched back and forth. They were armed with huge pincers on their heads and could endure being in the sun all day. If your foot came within reach they would bury their pincers in the nearest part, and the pain this caused was considerable. The only way to remove them was to pull the body off, split the head in two and extract one half of the pincers at a time. Unlike the workers which had two little black eyes, the soldiers appeared to be blind, and must have used smell and touch to sense danger. I hated the centipedes most of all. Their bodies were about an inch thick, their legs spanned about two and a half inches, and were barbed. There seemed to be something obscene about them and I think I would prefer to sleep with a poisonous snake.
On this stretch of the line, we built our first ‘station’, consisting solely of a platform built up with turf walls, and filled in with rammed earth. We were to see these washed away during the next wet season. Soon after this first platform was built, a party of Japs worked their way past our camp laying sleepers and lines on the embankment we had recently completed. The lines had been brought up from Malaya, and were British made. They were not of the kind that is fixed in ‘chairs’ but they had a wide bottom flange which lay directly on the sleepers, and was held in place with steel dogs driven in. Now that this stretch was completed, our next task was to return along that part of the line where no ditches had been dug, and to dig them. We spent most of the time traveling, so we were not surprised when they told us that we were to move out of Bancow on the ninth of March. They gave us two days rest so I boiled up everything I had to kill the vermin and their eggs, and at eight forty-five we marched out. We were to go to Wun Lung, which was two camps down the line, nineteen kilometers distant. We arrived at six o’clock in the evening.
We were not found much work to do during those first days, and the river at Wun Lung had a very long boundary with the camp, as it was built in one of the river’s meanders; thus we spent many hours bathing. On our third day I was sitting by the river when I saw a hand waving out of the water as it floated off downstream. I was able to run down the bank and swim out to carry out the one and only rescue of my life. One of our lads, a non-swimmer, had stepped off the underwater shelf and lost his footing in the quick-flowing water.
I set up a barber’s shop in our hut, and by the time a few days had elapsed, I was shaving about thirty men a day. Our task here, we were told, was to maintain the track, and we started going out daily to hammer shingle under loose sleepers, and to replace the ones that had split. As they had been cut from the jungle and laid green, many of them had dropped in halves. There was a little Kampong in one corner of the camp, and here the Thais sat cross-legged and sold their wares. We had not been in the camp many days when a bunch of us were caught red-handed buying food. We were lined up, smacked across the face and had our shins kicked.
A sudden storm arose on our eighth day in the camp, and when we returned from work we found that the entire cookhouse had blown away, and our hut roofs were full of big holes; however we were allowed to spend the next day in camp to carry out repairs. Looking back, I suppose that the river here was about fifty yards wide; I figured that with practice I might be able to swim across under water, coming up once in the middle for air. With the curve in the river and the long length of bank, it was not easy for the guards to see it all at once. I started swimming a little further under water each day, ready for the time when I might decide to swim across to escape. Now that the railway track was laid, the Japs began to make good use of the railway, running their dual-purpose vehicles past our camp. Before the war, Japanese goods had been thought of as shoddy imitations of European goods. However, we had already seen beautifully made Jap rifles, machine-guns and other goods. The brilliant engineering of their air-cooled diesel powered locomotive-cum-lorries, finally convinced us of their manufacturing proficiency. As lorries, they could travel over roads loaded with portable rail-trucks in the back. When they came to the railway, the rubber-tyred wheels were taken off and the six brake-drums became locomotive wheels. The portable trucks were assembled on the line, and they had a train. One drawback was the apparent lack of adequate starting arrangements, and prisoners were called out at all hours to give a push start.
At this camp we had to unload rice from barges, and carry it across an open space to the rice store, from where it was loaded on to trains for up country. Those of us who still had boots were keeping them for when we escaped or were set free. Sandals would not keep on our feet when carrying the heavy rice, so we had to work bare-foot; the ground was so hot that we had to run half-way across, then drop our load and stand on it for a while to avoid our feet blistering. One day, while standing on my rice-sack I heard a furious tooting from a passing train. Looking up I saw our old friend Suzuki waving frantically out of the cab to catch my attention. When I waved back, some of the men who did not know me made jibes about me being ‘Jap Happy’, a term used to denote anyone who collaborated in the Jap war effort. Some of the lazy ones also used this term to describe those who were prepared to do their best at anything while we were prisoners. It was by the river at Wun Lung that I saw my first giant lizard; it measured five or six feet in length, and was running through the scrub at the water’s edge. I was naked at the time, but with visions of lizard joints, I chased it for twenty yards or so before it slid into the water; I was told later that these creatures had formidable teeth, so I was lucky in not having managed to corner it, and had our roles reversed.
Chapter 26 - Bamboo, Our Drunken Captain, and I Swim To A Short Freedom
Living With Nature. I never ceased to wonder at the marvelous way in which nature seemed to provide everything for the local population, without need of office or factory. Here, I found out how the Thais illuminated their Kampongs, and made the torches which they carried when they traversed the jungle tracks at night, keeping off wild beasts and showing the way. There is a certain tree in the jungle, in the side of which the Thais cut a hole about a foot into the trunk and just about large enough to lay a new baby in. The floor of this is dished so that it will hold about half a gallon of fluid. Once the hole has been cut, a constant supply of an oily resin flows in, and I think this was gathered about once a week. The torches were made by soaking palm leaves in the fluid and tying them in bundles a foot or so long, with dry leaves on the outside so their hands did not get sticky. They would burn for about an hour, giving quite a good light.
Far and away the most versatile and useful of the flora was of course bamboo. Although only a giant grass, its uses were so many that I can only mention a few. It grew in the course of a few months from the ground to a hundred feet high, and some said they could see it growing. At the end of the season it gradually died, and eventually fell back to the ground. The fresh new shoots were cut and used as a vegetable. As they grew up to a foot thick, sections were cut from the thickest to make buckets. A longer piece of the bamboo, including two of the dividing joints with the middle joint removed, made a barrel, and three or four inch thick sections, similarly made all the bottles the locals needed. When the Thai went to a wedding party, he carried his bottle of home-made liquor slung over his shoulder with a leather thong.
No saw-mill was needed to cut up planks. Thick bamboo was cut into the length required, the joints smashed with a heavy maul, and when the bamboo was split down one side and opened out, lo and behold, a plank! All our bed stagings were made in this way, the only drawback being that the thousands of cracks harbored unlimited numbers of the repulsive bed bugs that made nights so miserable. Bed bugs cannot stand the sun, so on our rest days we would take the stagings up and leave them outside in the heat of the day; then we’d bash them with a stick and watch the bugs roll over and die in the sun. Further up country we found that the bamboo leaves and thin twigs were used as fodder for the elephants. As we passed kampongs I often saw women weaving beautiful mats and panniers from thin slivers split from the outside of different shades of bamboo, making most attractive patterns. The mats, used to form walls of their dwellings, were so cleverly woven that they were wind-proof. A coarser matting was made in the same way, but sewn up to make into rice-sacks. Sharp knives could be made by slicing a segment from a fairly thick plant, and I was told that in Malaya, the ceremonial knife used in circumcision by the Moslems was of bamboo.
Bundles of bamboo were tied together to form huge rafts, and these were coupled one behind the other to form trains, which were poled down the river with heavy teak logs slung underneath. Teak is so heavy that it will not float. These bamboo trains had a crew of two, and as they floated down the fast flowing stream the crew jumped frantically from raft to raft, staving off from the bank round the continuous bends. If a rat were trapped in the end of a long bamboo, and made to tunnel its way through the sections to come out the other end, a good water-pipe was produced, and these were used in many places to carry water down from mountain streams to the Kampongs. Several kinds of musical instruments were made from bamboo, drums, xylophones and woodwind instruments The most ingenious and interesting of all the things I ever saw made from bamboo was far up country in a very remote and isolated community. It worked on the same principle as the diesel engine, believe it or not, and was probably invented hundreds of years earlier. This instrument was made from just two pieces of bamboo, each about four inches long. One was about an inch diameter inside, and the other was sufficiently thicker to slide over the smaller one; one of the dividing joints was left at the end of each piece, the other end open, so that when one was slid inside the other, air was compressed in the chamber that was formed. The purpose of the artifact was to provide a means of ignition. To operate it, a pinch of charred kapok fibre was put inside the chamber, the two parts slid sharply together with a blow from the hand; when they were drawn apart the kapok would be glowing red. This was quickly tipped out on to tinder and blown into a flame. Thus it could continue. I believe that life would have come to a standstill out there without the ubiquitous bamboo.
After a month in Wun Lung, I had made sufficient progress with my under-water swimming to be able to travel half-way across the river without coming up for air. On April the fourteenth, the first steam locomotive came puffing into the nearby station. A plate on its side indicated that it had been made in England in the year 1900. Recently the embankment had began to sink in many places, and we worked late now in trying to keep up with the task of ramming in extra ballast under the sleepers to compensate for the shrinking earth. In action, our Capt. ‘Dare-Devil’ Danton, had fearlessly roamed in no-man’s land, Tommy-gun in hand and batman at heel. Many times we saw him slink past our positions and wondered how he escaped being hit. He was now senior British officer in this camp, and seemed to get on extremely well with our captors. The night following the locomotive’s arrival, we heard noisy celebrations in the Japs’ quarters, and at about ten o’clock Danton came staggering out well and truly ‘plastered’. This did not help the reputation he was acquiring of being ‘Jap happy’. He later told us that he was simply trying to put himself in the position of being able to influence our captors on our behalf. I suppose he found it difficult to know where to draw the line, but apart from one repetition a few days later, that was the only occasion I ever saw anything like this happen.
We had quite a lot of men of Dutch nationality with us in this camp. They had been captured on Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Ambon, and other of the islands that go to make up what was then called the Dutch East Indies. They told us they weren’t soldiers at all really, and that after the capitulation they had donned military uniform in the hope they would be treated better as prisoners of war. However, I was given to understand later that there was much resentment, and even hatred of them from the native Indonesian population, because they had hitherto acted as heavy handed masters; so they had been afraid these would wreak vengeance on them at the first opportunity. (One recalls the reputed plea of the old black slaves of, ‘Don’t sell me to a Dutchmen, Master!’) When, later on, trainloads of conscripted, Javanese passed our camp, they spat and shook their fists when they saw the Dutch, who had attempted to communicate with them. Holland is, of course, a small country, and before the war it had a comparatively big empire, the climate of most of which was hostile to Europeans. The Dutch soldiers stationed there were mostly unable to find wives from home who were prepared to live out there, so the government had adopted a policy of encouraging the men to marry natives, and the offspring of such unions were granted the status of full Dutch nationality. Somewhat different from the South African Apartheid. Provided one had Dutch nationality, there was no colour-bar in their empire.
Citizenship was also granted to any native who performed an outstanding service to the Dutch. Thus, there was one fellow in the camp who was pitch black and unable to understand a word of English or Dutch. He was a native of Ambon, and had saved the life of a Dutchman. No-one could speak Ambonese, a completely different tongue from the Malay spoken in most of Indonesia, so he led a very lonely life. The Ambonese, unlike the indolent and unwarlike Javanese, were a tough and warlike race, not unlike the Ghurkas in behaviour. Of course, had the Dutch been really progressive they would not have made the critical distinction between the ‘natives’ and those with Dutch citizenship, which had been the cause of most of the bitter hostility now shown, and caused them in the first place to welcome the Japs with open arms. That hostility was to continue after the war ended, with succeeding governments refusing to co-operate with the Dutch. Many of our men, however, were prejudiced against colored men, and did not take too kindly to sharing huts with ‘natives’, especially as they had such different habits from us. For instance, instead of using toilet paper, they would employ a bottle of water to wash their bottoms, pouring with the right hand and washing with the left, which, being regarded as unclean, was never employed in handling food. I personally thought this to be at least as hygienic as what we did. Again, their relationship with the Japs was quite different from ours, as they would bow low to every guard, and cringe when spoken to; this was, of course, just of the way of the East.
In spite of being brought up in a similar climate to that of Thailand (or was it because of it?), the men with Indonesian blood had nothing like the stamina of our men. Neither were their constitutions as robust as ours, and a condition that might have laid one of us low for only a few days would produce an inertia which sapped their will to live, and were soon dying three times as fast as the British. They were pitifully helpless when laid low by anything, and would creep round from one man to the next vainly pleading "Can you ‘helup’ me?". I learnt to speak Dutch because many of them would say 'No spick English' when I set them a task, so that our boys had to do their task as well as their own. I made many friends among the educated Dutch, one of whom lent me his New Testament, and I had my own. He first taught me the pronunciation, which is regular in Dutch, and with a little help I managed to learn the language quickly my comparing the two texts, sentence by sentence.
On the twenty-fifth of April, a party of Chinese coolies came into the camp, and were billeted in our hut, separated from us only by a thin bamboo screen. They indicated to us that they had been press-ganged. They took over the railway job that we had been doing, and we were put on the job of carrying rice from the river barges, and loading it on to trains. In this camp there was a gang of Chinese who had been press-ganged to work on the railway. That evening I peeped through the partition separating us from the Chinese and saw that most of them were smoking opium. They smoked in pairs, one pipe loading only lasting for a few seconds. There was quite a rigmarole involved with specialized equipment. The pipe itself was of earthenware, shaped more like an electric light bulb with a small hole in one side, and a long stem of bamboo fixed in the narrow end. There was also a candle, a thin sliver of bamboo, and a bamboo pillow. The opium was like a lump of sticky toffee. The smoker lay down on his side, head on pillow, candle a foot away from his face. The server rolled a piece of opium into a ball the size of a small pea and stuck the sliver of bamboo through it; the pellet of opium was then pressed into the hole in the side of the pipe, and the sliver twisted and removed carefully in order to ensure that a hole was left through it.
All was now ready for the great event, and the server put the pipe into the smoker’s mouth, holding the bowl over the candle in such a position that the opium started to bubble. Then the smoker sucked on the pipe with one long breath, and it was all over. A minute or so later and then roles were exchanged. To my surprise no-one went into a trance, or even dropped off to sleep, so I don’t know where the phrase ‘pipe dreams’ comes from, unless they were waking dreams. On the third of May we were told that we were to pack our kits ready to move up country again the following day. Now that I was proficient enough to swim the river underwater (coming up only once for air), I realized that this evening would be my last opportunity. The other side had always been a mystery to me, as I often obtained glimpses of movement among the trees, but never quite knew what went on over there. As I swam across that evening for the first time, I was only intending to escape if a very favorable circumstance presented itself, especially as I had only the clothes and possessions on me with which I came into the world. Unseen by either the Japs or our own people I reached the comparative security of the trees on the opposite bank, and lay still for a minute getting my breath back. These long swims were a strain on my malaria-affected spleen, and I always felt uncomfortable for a few minutes after making them. Then I arose and followed a jungle path running for a hundred yards downstream, parallel to the river.
Abruptly this entered a clearing, and before I could dive back out of sight, I saw that I had been observed by a Thai sitting on the verandah of a kampong in the middle. He beckoned to me to come over, and remembering the small fortunes the Japs were offering for live or dead escapees, it was not without some apprehension that I approached him. I climbed his ladder feeling somewhat conspicuous also, because I was naked! It was quite a large kampong; mine host arose and beckoned me through into the first room, where to my consternation two Thai ladies were sitting cross-legged on the floor. I followed their example with alacrity, hands in lap, trying to make my person as inconspicuous as possible. One woman was young, attractive, and as was the custom before the Japs arrived, bare-bosomed. I assumed that she was the wife. The other was elderly, so I assumed that she was mother or mother-in-law. Although they both giggled self-consciously when they first saw me, they soon started chattering away to each other, clearly wanting me to feel at home, and I was surprised to realize how little embarrassment I was feeling, naked in the presence of two strange women. It would have been a different kettle of fish back home among ‘civilized’ folk. The man offered me a slice of large paw-paw (papaya) hanging on the wall. It was cut with the same huge knife from his side that would be used for fighting wild beasts. Once given the status of ‘guest’ I knew that I was safe from the Japs. We conversed for a while in the usual sign language aided by the few Thai words that I now knew.
By the fading light I suddenly saw that about half an hour had passed before I realized it, and I told my host that I must return across the water before dark. I was given a farewell glass of rice-spirit, and departed to a chorus of farewells from those delightful people, returning uneventfully across the river after my first slice of freedom since River Valley. On parade at eight fifteen the next morning; waiting all day ready to move off; loaded on to a steam train at ten o’clock that night; moved off at three o’clock in the morning. We travelled in the open railway trucks for the rest of the night, at ten miles an hour for much of the way, as we climbed the gradients, fueled by wood. This wood was stacked by the embankment, cut and put there in heaps of one cubic meter by parties of prisoners. We stopped every ten miles or so to take on a few more of these ‘cords’ of firewood. At six o’clock in the morning we arrived at Arrow Hill station, having been without sleep all night. After a dollop of cold rice apiece, we stepped out once more into the unknown.
For twenty miles we marched. I had felt strangely tired as we started out; before we were half-way I felt as though I was carrying twice the half-hundredweight it really was. Many times I fell down and Jimmy pulled me to my feet. For the last few miles I moved as in a trance, not able to think of anything except the fact that I must keep going and not get separated from my friends. Reaching Tarso I dropped down into my allotted space, lying there in my clothes and unable to rise and take my rice. I remember vaguely that we were under canvas, and that as the rain started to teem down during the night the tent wall above me leaked. By the time dawn broke both I and my kit were soaked through. All my stuff was still wet as I staggered out on parade again the next day, ready for another long march We moved out of camp at three p.m. but for the first mile or so I hardly knew what I was doing. Jimmy was carrying the four heaviest of my books, which were among the treasures I’d found in River Valler rubbish dump; and I had his half-blanket.
I had been at the head of the column during all our other marches; as this column gradually strung itself out, the fact suddenly penetrated through to my befogged consciousness that I was at the back with the stragglers for the first time, and with dismay I frantically looked round for Jimmy. We had heard of the men who fell by the wayside on marches up country being shot out of hand by the guards, to save the bother of having to send them back. Despairingly I tried to summon the strength to hurry and catch my mucker up, but staggering like a drunken man, I finally collapsed on the track, semi-conscious. I do not remember being picked up and put on a truck for the four kilometer trip back to Tarso. As I began to be able to think again, I was filled with the strange terror of utter loneliness. Jimmy and I had supported one another through trouble and sickness ever since we arrived in Thailand; now I was to be dropped among strangers, and penniless too, for the first time, as Jimmy was carrying the purse. Never had I allowed myself to be without money before, always keeping back a few Tickel for emergencies, and since mucking in with Jimmy I had insisted on holding back most of our cash for the inevitable rainy day.
In Tarso I was put in a hut full of Dutchmen, and later was able to attend a sick parade, together with hundreds of other prisoners. When I eventually reached the poor overworked doctor he diagnosed a relapse of malaria. Tarso proved to be a filthy place, mostly populated by the sick, who, like myself, had fallen by the wayside. They were preyed upon by a large group of lead-swingers and racketeers. When I was able, on the seventh of May, I wrote in my diary, "Hope I can soon get out of here and back with our own boys . . ." Had I known what our boys were advancing into it is doubtful whether I would have been so keen to join them. However bad Tarso might have then seemed to me in my depressed state, it would have been like a haven to those lucky enough to return to it from those terrible camps up near the Burma border. I heard later, that after many days of grueling marches the survivors of our party from Wun Lung arrived at their destination in very bad condition. The Japs had difficulty in getting rations through to them, and they lived on nothing but an inadequate supply of plain rice.
As they pushed on through malaria infested primeval jungle, men died daily. Then, when all were at their lowest ebb, that most dread disease of all, cholera, appeared among them. Cholera, untreated, will dissolve away half a strong man’s body in less than a day; it is so contagious that contacts are almost sure to contract it, as the virus can survive even boiling water. During the weeks that the disease raged through the camp, hundreds of our friends died, until there were hardly sufficient men left to perform the essential task of burning the bodies of the victims. The Japs left them unguarded, in the custody of the germs, and retired a few miles upwind to wait while the disease burnt itself out. Thus, on the only occasion of my POW life when I fell out on a march, it was to save me from making the acquaintance of arch-enemy Cholera, whose touch meant death. I had been ‘kept’ once more.
I spent only two days in Tarso, and then paraded to return to Kanburi. We waited on the station until seven o’clock that night, and then boarded a train which moved off three hours later. Japs do not bother about feeding sick men, so we received no food for thirty hours. The train stopped for a long spell in Wun Lung station, and I began to feel a little like my old self again. In my kit was my pair of long drill trousers, clean and pressed, held in readiness for the day we were freed. I unpacked these, and awaiting my chance, when no guards were in sight made a dash to the Chinese cookhouse. I sold my slacks to the Chinese cook for two Tickel, and he also gave me some rice and Chinese pickles. With food inside me, and funds to keep the wolf from the door, I now felt decidedly better, as I regained the train undetected. Passing Chunkai, we waved to our fellows there; I was not looking forward to Kanburi, which I remembered as a dirty camp, undisciplined and with a passing population. To our surprise we stopped at the first station after Chunkai, and were told to get out of the train. This was not Kanburi. The guards marched us to a camp a few hundred yards away, and handed us over to the British Camp Commandant, a Lt.Col. Toosey.
Chapter 27 - A Very Fine Leader
Col. Toosey told us to sit on our kits while he put us in the picture. ‘This is Tamarkan camp,’ he told us, ‘and it’s about the cleanest in Thailand; I’m going to rely on you to help me to keep it this way.’ This was the first and only time that I was welcomed to a camp; but then, Toosey was a quite exceptional officer. He introduced us to his second in command, Capt. Boyle, who, he told us, spoke Japanese. He was the only Britisher I met with this ability, and it made a very considerable difference to the way we worked with the Japs. After our pep talk, we were each allocated a space in a nice clean hut, and at five o’clock given our first meal. As soon as we had eaten we were called out again, and taken down the river to wash. The Colonel had no intention of letting us remain in our dirt for any longer than was necessary. When I got the chance to look around, I had to admit that it really was clean and tidy. Col. Toosey proved to be the best officer I was ever to find running a camp. The river was about two hundred yards from the nearest huts, and was shallow at this point; unlike other camps, here there was a gently sloping shingle beach instead of the usual steep bank or cliff. Nearby I saw the railway crossing the river via a bridge consisting of steel spans resting on concrete piers. I heard later that these spans were British, and had been brought up from Malaya. A little way further upstream I could see a wooden bridge. This, we discovered, had been built first, and was now being kept in reserve. What we saw was what was later to become renowned by a piece of fiction called ‘The Bridge Over The River Quy’.
The next day we were allowed to have as our rest day, so I made a tour of all the huts, and was delighted to find several men from our regiment. I heard that a rumour was circulating to the effect that a batch of letters from home had arrived in the camp. This materialized into what were rara avis those days, rumours that proved correct. Few working parties were sent out from Tamarkan, which was officially a hospital camp. The Japs worked closely with our Colonel and interfered little with the camp administration. A high hill overlooked the camp, one of the few in this otherwise flat part of Thailand, and the river was much wider and more sluggish than we had been used to higher up country. Col. Toosey had stamped out all the rackets, and the atmosphere was very pleasant when compared with most other camps.
I got out my razor the second day and was soon doing a roaring trade at five Stang a time. However I was soon told that I was not allowed to charge for this spare-time service. Looking back I find it difficult to believe that I could have been mean enough to discontinue my barbering just because I was not being paid for it, but I fear that this is what happened. Although this was designated a ‘hospital’ camp, we had only one doctor; he was Australian, a Major Moon. Not only was he a doctor, a good surgeon, but also a very fine man; and he was well loved, as he carried out his duties with very little respite. Most days limbs had to be amputated, and cutting the proud flesh from ulcers with no anaesthetic was a constant and dreadful task. After a few days of better food, in better surroundings, the doctor pronounced me fit enough to return up country with the next party to be called for. It was a strange coincidence that none were to be called for a week or two. Quite a high proportion of the sick here were Dutch, with Indonesian blood. Most of the sick Europeans recovered quickly under the better conditions. Most of these Dutch however, seemed to give up and lie on their ‘tampacha’ all day as soon as they became ill. Most of them died, and the funeral parties that left each day were about four Dutch to one British.
I have not said very much about the killer diseases in these camps, so a resumé might not be out of place at this point, as vitamin deficiency, undernourishment and unhealthy climate were by now combining to cause deaths daily in all camps. The first disease to strike was usually malaria; as Europeans have no resistance to this, the results could be devastating, and lower the victims’ resistance to other diseases. Malaria is caused by a parasite which multiplies in the blood by dividing into three or four (according to type), at specific time intervals, thus causing the uncontrollable shivering fits or ‘rigors’, and very high temperatures. (Mine reached 107°f at one time.) After the rigor there is usually vomiting for several hours, followed by lack of appetite for a couple of days. The parasites live and multiply by destroying blood cells, and this in turn causes anemia and damage to the spleen. There are several varieties of this parasite, some also cause the dreaded ‘black water fever’ when the kidneys break down, and destroyed blood cells are passed out with the urine. Yellow fever, often fatal also, results from the liver being unable to cope with the huge number of damaged red blood cells. Lastly I will mention the virtually always fatal cerebral malaria. Here the patient would suddenly begin to act strangely, perhaps accuse a neighbor of some impossible treachery. Many cases were not unlike delirium tremens, with the sufferer becoming violent, and perhaps being held down in terror by his mates while screaming.
The three main types of malaria we contracted were: B.T. or ‘benign tertian’. The last word denotes that the parasite divides every third day. Benign, because with this variety it is usually necessary to be re-bitten by the carrier mosquito to have a recurrence. S.T. stands for ‘sub-tertian’, indicating that the parasite multiplies in less than three days. Therefore the fever is almost constant, and the patient does not get the two days clear of rigors as with B.T. S.T. was the more serious, and two men died next to me with S.T. induced black water fever. M.T. or ‘malign tertian’ was the worst of all. It followed the same pattern as B.T. but remained dormant in the blood after quinine had apparently cured it. Recurring every few weeks, it caused the patient to become more and more debilitated and therefore prone to other diseases. The first result of debilitation was usually the vitamin ‘B’ deficiency disease, beri-beri, and this could manifest itself in one of the two forms, one the so-called ‘dry’, the other, 'wet’. With the latter, a man would today be so undernourished that he was not much more than a bag of bones. Then as the disease began to take hold, he would start to drink more, and his body tissue would fill with fluid. Fingers pressed into the flesh produced the typical indentations of oedema. Scrotum, ear lobes, cheeks, any piece of loose flesh blew out like a balloon, and the body would double and treble in weight until the patient could not rise from his bed. The side of his body underneath him would become as flat as his bed-boards, so that he could not even turn over without help. Finally he would become unable to see, as his eyelids ballooned out over his eyes. Yet even at this stage, if bran, rice polishings, yeast, Marmite or any other form of the vitamin ‘B’ complex were administered, the patient could literally begin to pass water by the bucketful, and within a day or so he would resume his former skeleton-like shape.
Dry beri-beri manifested itself in a very different way, the first symptoms usually being pins and needles in the feet, which gradually became numb. This effect gradually spread upwards through the body as the nervous system deteriorated, and when it reached the region of the chest, the heart generally became affected, causing the commonly fatal ‘cardiac beri-beri’. Without the administration of vitamin ‘B’ death followed quickly, and quite a high percentage deaths were due to this. Dysentery was another important taker of life, and it also came in more than one form. Bacilliary dysentery was very violent while it lasted, and it could prove fatal to those already debilitated by malaria. However, once overcome, it left no resident bugs to reopen the offensive at a later date. Amoebic dysentery was quite the opposite, the first attack often being quite mild and even unobserved. However without administering the drug ‘immetin’ the infection remained ever present, and an affected person was also a carrier. Amoebic dysentery gradually advanced, and as the weeks and months passed, the system became unable to digest food, which would pass through the alimentary canal almost unchanged in a few minutes. This stage reached, death was inevitable.
The most terrifying and hideous of all our diseases in those days, were the ghastly tropical ulcers. When resistance became reduced to a low ebb, the flesh would often commence to rot away. Sometimes the commencement could be attributed to a scratch, bite, or other wound, but often the ulcer would start spontaneously with a spot or blemish on the skin. Once started, they would sometimes enlarge at an amazing speed, and the foul stench of putrefying flesh kept away all but the Good Samaritans, and our ever-faithful medical orderlies. An active ulcer looked much like a lunar crater, and our only medicine was brine. The screams coming from the ulcer hut each day told us that the orderlies were trying to squeeze out the pus that advanced between muscle and sinew; once in the bloodstream that caused rapid death. When the critical stage of the ulcer passed, it would sometimes start to heal faster than one would have believed possible, muscle, sinew and bone tissue being re-generated in an incredible way. Skin could not advance quickly enough from the edges of the wound, so at this stage Major Moon would perform the skin-graft operation. These were performed with home-made instruments such as needles stuck in corks, but a surprising number were successful. If the ulcer would not pass the critical state, as a last resort to avoid amputation the wound would be scraped out with a sharpened table-spoon, the patient held down the while by three or four orderlies. Finally, the last option; I watched Major Moon through the unglazed window of his operating hut cut through a man’s thighbone with what looked like a carpenters’ saw. The small amount of anesthetic left in the camp was retained for these cases. Bamboo ‘peg legs’ were made in the camp for the legless, and eventually we had dozens of men strolling about very effectively on these legs. (Now, each time we hear of refugees starving on the other side of the world, we may safely assume that they will be enduring those same dreadful diseases, pain and misery, that we knew so well.)
The dry season now began to break, and there were showers every evening. My working shorts disintegrated, and as I was saving my other pair to wear on our faithfully anticipated ‘victory parade’, I decided to make myself a ‘Jap Happy’ or ‘G’ string. This was simply a loin cloth made from a piece of string and a strip of cloth about nine inches wide by two feet long. Once made, I found it was much pleasanter to work in than my shorts, in the tropical heat, and much easier to wash.
After two weeks in Tamarkan I began to feel really fit again, and recommenced giving haircuts and shaves in my spare time, and this time with the emphasis on ‘give’. Then on the thirty-first of May,1943, Col. Toosey asked me if I would care to take on the responsibility of burials, quite a big job in this hospital camp. Needless to say I was delighted to accept this opportunity of working for our own people instead of the Japs. The Colonel explained that until now no one person had been in charge of this operation, and consequently the cemetery had not been laid out to any pre-conceived plan. Three or four men were dying every day, so it was becoming important to work in a more orderly fashion, in order to facilitate the work of the War Graves Commission after the war ended. Another trouble was that with different people doing the job every day, many of the graves had not been dug deeply enough, and wild animals were getting at the bodies. Because of these things, after much persuasion the Japs had at last agreed to allocate a full-time N.C.O. to the job.
I soon discovered that the cemetery fatigue was very unpopular among the men, as the Jap in charge was a bullying devil known as ‘Pig’s Eyes’. He beat up any who did not appeal to him, often without any apparent reason. The ritual of grave digging, ropes, un-boxed bodies and the service, soon became all too familiar to me, as three or more times a day, seven days a week, we marched with our load the half-mile or so from camp to cemetery. The only minister of religion in the camp was the Dutch ‘Padre’, and he is one of my fondest memories of the otherwise depressing job of burying our dead. He was, I believe, a Lutheran, a little man in stature, but great of heart. He was one of the most lovable and tolerant men I have known. His English was quite good and he conducted every service, whatever the denomination. Many of the Dutch were Roman Catholics, and ‘Dominee’, as he was called, had acquired a Catholic service book, and meticulously carried our every jot and tittle of their ritual, although some of it was against the teachings of his own church. He told me that he was not really allowed to bury them, but that as it seemed to make the other surviving Catholics happy, he hoped the Pope would forgive him, if he ever found out. I soon got to know the burial service off by heart, both in English and Dutch. Also the Lord's Prayer in Dutch, which I still remember.
The camp authorities now issued the instruction that no-one was to wash or bathe in the river; there was a cholera epidemic up country, and infected bodies had come floating downstream. It was most probable that the water was carrying cholera germs, so all drinking water must be boiled, although some of the germs even survived that. Every day my work-party of about ten men went out to clear more jungle and to dig more graves. Our route lay through the village of Tamarkan, the first real village I had come across. There were about twenty dwellings, an earth road running through, and a village shop. This was run by a buxom Thai lady, one of the few I had seen without teeth blackened by betel-nut. I only met her husband twice, so I assumed that he worked in the surrounding fields. Often our guard would absent himself, and I would slip back and spend a few minutes in this shop. The lady was sweet and kind, always greeting me with a motherly smile and some little tit-bit or other. The naked baby boy sitting on the floor became used to my visits, and seemed to look forward to seeing me. I would purchase tinned food and other goods for both myself and for those left behind in camp.
This shop, unlike the Kampongs, was not built on stilts, but had an earth floor. The Thai mum did not use nappies (diapers), but when the little boy performed on the floor, she skillfully flicked the result out of the door with her bare big toe. Thai children seem only to need feeding, and, unlike most of ours, passed firm dry stools. It is true that the little girls did wear one garment of modesty; a little chain-mail apron about three inches square. Girls’ heads were shaven, but boys retained a pigtail growing from the crown. Boys with two crowns and therefore with two pigtails were regarded as lucky. As crowns do not usually grow in the centre of the head, their asymmetrical pigtails gave them the appearance of what an old countryman friend of mine would have called ‘A pig wi’ one ear!’ Thai elder sisters look after their baby brothers and sisters, and it was quite common to see little girls of five or six years old playing together while carrying a baby on their hip.
Although the Thai housewife may not have had to do much washing or housework, besides working in the fields there was much food preparation to carry out. Every day the home-grown rice grains had to be husked by passing them through a pair of bamboo ‘mill-stones’, or by pounding them for a long while in a large mortar. Then the winnowing was carried out by putting the grist on a large wicker tray, and skillfully throwing it up in the air and catching the grains again, letting the air movement carry off the husks. Rice needed much hand cultivation; the seed was broadcast in the small flooded nursery paddies towards the end of the dry season. When the rains came and the higher paddies flooded, the women and girls, working ankle-deep in the mud that had been stirred up by oxen drawing under-water ploughs, pricked out the rice plants one at a time. I tried to imagine what English farmers’ wives and daughters would have to say if they were called upon to plant out fields of corn, one plant at a time, twice a year. The rice crop is heavy compared with wheat, and the straw is over four feet long. It is hand cut, a handful at a time, and tied into sheaves weighing about twenty-eight pounds each. These are tied on each end of a bamboo pole, and carried on the shoulder back to the kampong, where they are tied, head inwards, to a large bamboo pole standing upright in the ground. This eventually makes a stack about nine feet in diameter, and the cattle are allowed to eat the straw on the outside; but as soon as they get near the rice this is removed, allowing another lot to drop down. I never saw any draught horses, carts were pulled, and plowing done by hump-backed oxen, and the long horned grey water-buffalos.
The Japs now started building an Ack/Ack post on the hill overlooking the camp. Our men were required to carry sand and cement up from the river to make concrete, and water every day for the guards to consume and bathe. A party of men was also detailed to dig slit-trenches for the gun-crew to shelter in. (These were to be needed before the end came.) The Japs emplaced a Bofors gun on the hilltop, which had been captured earlier from the British, and now pointed skywards, awaiting our planes. After my first five weeks sojourn in Tamarkan, Col. Toosey one day accompanied my work party to the cemetery, and he showed me exactly how he would like me to lay the graves out in future. We were by now burying on average six men a day, and planning had become very necessary. On June the twenty-third a large party of sick men arrived in the camp from up country, and searching their ranks for friends, I found three of our regiment, Cpl. Scales, and Pte’s. Dusty Miller and Whitby; they told me that they came from Tak-a-Nun camp, where nineteen of our boys, including Sgt. Jolly, had died from cholera; they looked in poor shape themselves, and it was clear they had been through a rough time since I saw them last.
I had received no wages while working on the cemetery, so apart from what I was keeping for a rainy day, I now ran out of cash. On the night of the twenty-sixth of June therefore, I broke into the Jap store and helped myself to six tins of food and a bar of soap. All of it had been made in England, and filched from Red Cross shipments intended for us. However, I felt very guilty about what I had done, as should the theft have been discovered the whole camp might have suffered. I shared the proceeds with my neighbors, and never again did anything like that. A few days later I was to get beaten up for the first time in that camp. ‘Pig’s Eyes’ was in charge of my grave-digging party, and was shouting his usual stream of incomprehensible orders. I started my men off digging the first batch of graves in the spot where Col. Toosey had directed, but the Jap then ordered me to start in a totally different place. I tried to explain that I was digging to an agreed plan, but he pretended not to understand. For my part I refused to move the men, and as Pig’s Eyes got madder and madder, I finally turned my back on him and told the men to dig where I had told them. The next thing I saw was the stars generated by a rifle butt hitting me over the head; but my faithful double-crowned hat saved me from being knocked unconscious, and I turned before the next blow landed to face my attacker. He threw his rifle to the ground and punched me about the head in blind rage, but as I found no difficulty in standing my ground and looking him in the face, he soon calmed down. I fell my men in, and ignoring the Jap, marched them back to camp without digging one grave. I had no more trouble from ‘Pig’s Eyes’, and was in future allowed to run the work party without interference.
On the first of July another hundred sick men arrived in the camp, from Kinsio this time, including six-feet-seven ‘Tiny’ Lee from our regiment. (As he was too tall to parade in the ranks he had been put in Joe’s Pioneer Platoon when we were in England. Another man who was well under five feet had also been sent there for a similar reason. We were stationed at Weeting Hall, near Brandon at the time, where our latrines were of the bucket type. Tiny and his short colleague had the job of emptying these buckets, and the sight of the two of them trying to carry one of these buckets without spilling the contents should have been filmed and preserved for future generations.) Out at the cemetery, one of my men was caught by a guard trying to sell his shoes to a Thai. It was Pig’s Eyes day off and we had another guard in charge of us; I heard the yell of rage and looking across saw our boy about to be belted. I called to the guard and ran over as quickly as I could, and then joined in shouting and gesticulating at the terrified man. I made the Jap understand that if he would leave it all to me I would ensure that the villain received adequate punishment for his crime. This was of course done in order to avoid the usual beating up that was the punishment for such offenses.
On returning to camp, I was surprised to discover that our guard was far from satisfied with leaving the punishment to unsupervised British justice. He asked our officer to let him know when the ‘trial’ was to be held, as he proposed to attend it himself. Thus we had to go through the motions of charging the man with ‘Conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline’, and he was awarded four days on rice and water, and fourteen days detention. We were all getting little else than rice and water, and we were all being detained, so his sentence made little difference to him. A beating however could have left him on the road to despondency, and the Jap ‘cooler’ could lead to death.
Chapter 28 - Tamarkan and Sexton Baynes
One of our officers thought he would like to come out on our cemetery party with me on one occasion, and he was therefore nominally in charge. During our lunch break one of the men saw a Thai signaling from the bushes that he would like to buy his wrist-watch, so he slipped out of sight and spent a few minutes bargaining in the bushes as was the custom. Price agreed, our lad unwisely let go of the watch before getting a firm grip of the cash, and the Thai disappeared with both into the jungle. The poor unwise victim ran over and told his tale to our officer, though goodness knows what he thought could be done about his lost watch then. To add insult to injury however, the officer put him on a charge, and I was called upon to give evidence against him the next day. The crime with which the man was charged was ‘Communicating with Natives!’ This charge was not, I am sure, to be found in what was then known as King’s Rules and Regulations.
Since being taken prisoner I had not heard one genuine piece of news. We listened to the endless rumors with much interest but giving them little credence. In Tamarkan however, I was told that the ‘pukka griff’ was being communicated to one of the working parties by a ‘well dressed Thai’. In truth, officers in a camp down the line had rigged up a radio receiver, and when they passed news items from camp to camp the recipient was always told to say that a ‘well dressed Thai’ had told him. This was of course in case the Japs heard what was being said. The first credible news I heard was at this time, and it was to the effect that a big naval battle had been fought off the coast of New Guinea, and that twenty-four enemy ships had been sunk. Another piece of news was that a big battle on land had taken place in a place called ‘Orel’ or something like it, and the Russians had knocked out fourteen hundred Jerry tanks. That of course was in the European theater. Lastly, we heard that General McArthur had at last launched a campaign in the Far East theater, believed to be in the chain of islands which runs from Australia to Singapore. The ‘well dressed Thai’ subterfuge did not work for long, and when the source of our news was traced, the culprits were tortured and left to die in a ditch.
In Tamarkan I was the senior N.C.O. in my regiment, and was therefore responsible for the welfare of our lads. A few days after hearing our first news, I was crossing the open space where we paraded for work on my way to the hospital huts, where I was going to visit Pte. Buckle and a few other sick men. It was evening but not yet quite dark; too late I saw that I must pass one of the most sadistic of our guards, and he was clearly the worse for drink. All prisoners had to bow when a Jap passed by, and this always stuck in my gullet. ‘Courra!’ screamed the drunken Jap as he took in my apology for a bow. ‘Engerisso soljah no bruddy good.’ Lifting his thick stick he proceeded to beat me about the head and shoulders. No bones were broken however, and although I was sore for a few days no real harm was done. This Jap was not liked by his own mates, so none of them came to his assistance; which was just as well, since when there was more than one they vied with one another in inflicting punishment.
Shortly after this, having got several graves in hand, I was sent with my party by truck to Banpong to fetch a load of bamboo poles for hut building. On the way we stopped in a large Thai village, and were left to our own devices while our guards regaled themselves in a cafe. Seeing that we were unguarded, I went for a stroll around the ‘shops’. These were in fact more like market stalls, and the shopkeepers sat or stood behind them. Not knowing that we were to walk round in public, I had only donned my loin-cloth, and to the natives I must have looked immodest; one of the stalls was hung with garments of all kinds, and an elderly Chinese lady was sitting to the rear of the platform working a sewing machine. A few yards past this stall I was halted by hearing the clip-clop of wooden clogs hurrying to catch me up; turning, I found the little lady tailoress, black eyes smiling, holding out a strange pair of black Chinese pattern shorts for me. Seeing me hesitate (I felt that I was parading under false colors, as I had a pair of shorts back at the camp), she made signs that I was to put them on right away. I opened my mouth to explain, but then seeing her sweet smile, I said thank-you instead ('cupchai' in Thai), and put the shorts on. She stood back and surveyed me with pride, but then suddenly ran off; looking in the direction of her startled glance I saw the guards leaving their cafe, so I hurried back to the lorry.
Col. Toosey gave a lecture on ‘Dunkirk’ during the evening of the thirteenth of July, but I was called out half-way through as a hundred sick had just arrived from Tarso. Two of them had died during the journey, and needed burying in a hurry. We now always kept a few graves dug ready, so, led by our dear Dutch Dominee, our little burial party went forth in the dark. The following day, two medical orderlies who had been serving the sick up country, and had come down with the Tarso crowd, died of typhoid. This caused much concern, lest an epidemic occur, so another order went out that all drinking water must be boiled, and all eating utensils and mess-tins sterilized. There was, thankfully, no further spread of the disease. Throughout our days as prisoners, the medical orderlies stuck to their task with faithful devotion, and tended the sick when often nearly as ill as their patients. They had a truly thankless task, with night shifts in the foul ulcer huts, pain and suffering all around them, and no relief to offer; perhaps spending months trying to clean up ulcers without dressings, inflicting pain each day, only in the end to see the limbs amputated. I would not have exchanged jobs with them, even when railway work was at its worst. From this time on there was a continual stream of sick men arriving in the camp from even further up country and in progressively worse condition. They came down in open barges, and the direct sun killed many before they arrived, so the number of funerals held each day soon doubled.
A permanent concert party was now formed in the camp, and performances reached a high standard, with a character named Bobbie Spong performing the female roles so well that we could forget his true sex. The Jap guards attended the shows, and they would applaud vociferously, especially Bobbie’s turns. The first performance I attended included an invitation to members of the audience to mount the stage and give a ‘turn’. Plucking up the courage to give my first ever public appearance, I ran out at full speed lest my nerve fail me. There was a bamboo root protruding from the ground just in front of the stage and I did not notice it in my haste. My bare toes felt as though they had been pushed back into my heel as I rolled on the ground in agony. The crowd roared their appreciation, thinking it to be all part of the show. My song, when I recovered enough to sing it, received only polite applause.
For some time now I had been having trouble getting work out of some of the half-blood Dutch workers who were now daily on my cemetery party. When I told them what to do they would gesticulate and say ‘No spik Inglis, no understand’. On one occasion when I had mostly these chaps, and I was left with only a few British who would work, I even tried clouting one of them who I knew did understand what I was saying; however the fellow screamed out at the top of his voice in pretended agony, so that I had to desist before the guard came over and beat the man up in real earnest. That night back in camp, I decided to try to learn to speak Dutch, instead of reading the dilapidated novels which were circulating in the camp. Then I would be able to speak to the lead-swingers in their own language. Walking into one of the Dutchmen's huts I asked if there was anyone who would teach me to speak Dutch, and a one time schoolteacher volunteered to take me on. He proved a clever and patient tutor. We had no grammar or other text books; however I had a New Testament, given to me by our village Free Church when I went into the forces, and my teacher lent me his Dutch New Testament. First of all I had to learn by heart the pronunciation of the alphabet, and the rules concerning vowel sounds in open and closed syllables.
Unlike English, Dutch spelling and pronunciation are quite regular (regelmatig), so that once the rules have been mastered, to see a word is to know how to pronounce it (Oh that ours was the same!). Not having much else to do in the evenings I had mastered this part of the exercise within a week or so, and my teacher was surprised how easily I mastered the difficult Dutch diphthongs and gutturals. Now all I needed to do was, phrase by phrase, compare my English New Testament with the Dutch one, since our Authorized Version and the Dutch are both translated from the Greek, almost sentence for sentence. I was surprised how easy it was to begin to get the feel of the language by this method, and how much more pleasant it was than learning dreary lists of words from a vocabulary. By the time I had read through the four Gospels I found myself beginning to think in Dutch. Of course, my neighbors got a bit fed up with my guttural mutterings every night, as part of the exercise was always to read aloud. After only a month or so, I tried out my learning on a group of Dutchmen, and could not understand why I was laughed at. However, I soon found out that, like my version, the Dutch New Testament I was learning from was couched in an archaic form of the tongue, and that I was in fact saying something like ‘Yea verily, the guard hath said unto me . . .’ and so on. From now on I joined groups of the Dutch whenever I got the opportunity, and gradually acquired the modern idiom. Within two months there was not much that I could not communicate in my new language, and ‘No spik Inglis’ was no longer heard on my cemetery work party.
A football appeared in the camp with a party from up country, and although I am a rugger (rugby football) man, without a clue concerning soccer, due to shortage of fit men I was roped in to play in a British versus Dutch match, which one of our officers organized. To my surprise, we won, two goals to nil. The Japs watched the game with considerable interest, and afterwards gave each member of the winning team a packet of cigarettes and a bar of soap as prizes. It was at about this time that one of our men had been caught by the Japs sneaking a tin of food from their store, and after beating him up, they made him stand to attention in the blistering sun, in front of their guard room. After about an hour it was evident that the fellow was on his last legs, so I walked over to him, and pretending to be furious, shouted invective at the poor suffering fellow for a couple of minutes, before putting my double crowned Aussie hat on his head. The guards were used to seeing me coming and going in charge of funeral parties, and did not interfere. They allowed him to go soon after that.
The rainy season now set in, and our bed supports sank down through the mud so that we had to drive in longer ones. During my captivity I had gradually been making myself a kit of tools, starting from the day in River Valley when I found the sharpening stone, one or two old hacksaw blades, a file, and a small hammer in the dump. For instance, I had annealed one of the blades, cut coarser teeth in it with the file, and made a bamboo frame to convert it to a wood-cutting bow saw. I could exchange the blades so this also served as a hacksaw using the other blade. Up country I had found a small native meat cleaver, and I had cut this into strips to make chisels and a plane blade, and later, made a teak plane to hold it. Therefore I was now able to tackle many jobs, including tin-smithing, using tin cans from the Jap cookhouse; often in the evening someone would bring round worn-out or broken items of equipment to see if I could do anything with them, and very often I was able to help.
To celebrate the anniversary of their entry into Thailand, the Japs called us on parade, and the head one made a speech in Japanese, translated for us by Capt. Boyle. Those who had performed good service in the camp were awarded small prizes. I was called and given a small hand-towel for my work in the cemetery. I had been without a towel since having mine stolen when at Roberts Hospital. The Japs now gave us authority to make crosses for all the graves, so all the carpenters in camp were called together and given the job of making these, and carving the names on them. On the twenty-fifth of August, we took all the crosses out to the graves, and after we had put them in their places it began to look more like a cemetery. The next day I heard that Lance Cpl. ‘Peanut’ Runham, and also Pte. Seamark, both from our mob, were ill in the sick bay, so I went over to see them. Peanut had TB and was coughing blood, Seamark, beri-beri, and general malnutrition. When Seamark and Cornwall (also one of our boys) died five days later the doctor entered ‘starvation’ on their death certificates. There were twenty-two men from our regiment at the funeral. The sense of unity and regimental pride among our men lasted until the end.
Out grave digging the next day, ‘Pig’s Eyes’ was back with us, and insisted that he had heard one of the men use a bad word, so he kept us all standing to attention in the sun for a long time waiting for the guilty man to own up. When this failed to obtain results he selected six men whose faces he did not like and smacked them all round the face. I am sure that he had heard nothing wrong, but just felt like ‘kicking the cat’ as the Australians would say. A Thai man had been watching all this, concealed in the bushes. When the guard was not looking he sidled up to me and gave me a parcel of tobacco and cigarette papers to share among the men. Tamarkan was the only Thai camp where the Japs allowed us to have our Sundays free. The next day was Sunday and it coincided with the birthday of the Dutch sovereign, Queen Juliana. The Dutch spent the day in sports and competitive games, and in the evening they held a very good concert, much of which I was able to understand.
Two days later ‘Pig’s Eyes’ was put in charge of another working party, and accompanied by a British officer. On their return to camp we heard that for no apparent reason the Jap had bashed our officer up, and that he had been brought back to camp in quite a bad way. The next day, to everyone’s intense delight ‘Pig’s Eyes’ was himself bashed up by his own N.C.O. for what he had done, and transferred to the less honorable job of working in the Jap cookhouse. In order to engender a competitive spirit in the camp, our C.O. announced that in three days time, on the ninth of September, an exhibition of Arts and Crafts would be held. I had done quite a few drawings since our capture, so I stuck some of my better efforts on to a piece of cardboard, in preparation for taking first prize.
On the appointed day I entered the hut where the Exhibition was to be held, and my breath was taken away by what I saw. Incredibly good works of art had been produced from somewhere among the men’s kits; I could not have guessed that such talent existed in a cross-section of ordinary people such as we had here. Everything made from improvised materials, there were both oil and water colour paintings, engravings, woodcuts, statues, ornamental boxes, models of engines and airplanes and many other things, all executed from memory. My own poor effort was quite insignificant. Although the Dutch were in numerical minority, I noticed that three out of four exhibits were from them. Our Colonel awarded the many prizes that afternoon at a special ceremony, and all but four went, deservedly, to the Dutch. Needless to say I won nothing. The only things I had which might have stood a chance were my tools, and as the Japs did not allow us to have these, I had been unable to enter them. Among the full-blooded Dutchmen in the camp was a short and slight old fellow who I only knew then by his nickname, ‘Outje’, which literally was, I suppose, ‘Oldlet’ or ‘little old one’ in English. He had spent much of his life working among the natives in Java, at the same time learning the healing properties of local herbs. In Tamarkan he was our unofficial herbalist, and was not sent out on working parties, but instead spent his time ministering to the sick. The main trouble he explained to me, was that he could not get hold of the right herbs in camp, and that most of the disease could be cured, if only what he wanted could be obtained.
One of his main remedies was turmeric root, or as the Dutch called it, ‘Kunier’. It grows in that part of the world, and the plant is very similar to ginger. The root, shaped like root ginger, is one of the ingredients of curry, and its bright yellow juice was what Outje used to massage into the limbs of sufferers from dry beri-beri; from the grated root he made poultices for ulcers, and he also produced a concoction for the treatment of dysentery from it. Outje’s arms and clothes were always stained saffron. At this time he ran out of this herb, and knowing that I went through Tamarkan village daily on my way to the cemetery, he asked me to try to purchase some for him. He had a Thai dictionary, and told me to ask for ‘Kah-min’. I was also to try to purchase some betel-nut as he could, he said, make a pain-relieving drug from that. I managed to slip away unseen from our working party a few days later, but the Thai lady shopkeeper looked in blank incomprehension at my effort to pronounce ‘Kah-min’. She even fetched some cronies from next door. I drew a picture of the root on the floor, but they brought me ginger. I made faces to indicate that it was hot and pointed to some yellow material, and one of them recognised my requirement and with an ‘Oooh!’ of understanding, she sang ‘Kah-min’. I had no more trouble after that, but the shopkeeper explained that as she had none on the premises I was to give her one Tickel and collect the goods next day. True to her promise I was able to take a big parcel of the right stuff back to Outje the following day, much to his delight. I concealed all the things I purchased from the Thai shop in the blankets and ropes we used for lowering bodies into the graves, as we were occasionally searched by the guards. We did not have coffins of course, and the dead were sewn up in their own blanket or rice-sack. Once or twice we found bodies had been dug up during the night, and their blanket stripped off. I never knew whether this had been done by local people or by our own boys.
On the twelfth of the month, poor old Peanut died. There was neither cure nor hope out there for anyone unfortunate enough to contract TB. That same afternoon we buried a Scot. We had a piper in the camp, and marched to the cemetery following him as he piped a sad lament. Even the Japs seemed moved by it as we passed their guardroom, and in the village all the Thais turned out to see us when they heard the strange sound approaching along the jungle track. We were now issued with another of the printed Jap letter cards, my second to date. I was careful this time to complete mine in capital letters; on the fifteenth of September a party of prisoners called at the camp to collect them, and a member of this letter party told me that there were four letters addressed to me lying at Canberra camp. So near and yet so far, as we had no means of communication, unless the Jap willed. Men in the letter party also told us they had heard that there had been landings on the continent of Europe, and that we were pushing the Jerry’s back in Italy.
Three days later, during the night the Japs caught five prisoners outside the camp selling chunkel-heads to the Thais; they had been purloined from the Jap tool-store. These men were taken to the Jap office and beaten without ceasing until four o’clock in the morning, by which time they were only semi-conscious. During the following day they were again beaten by different Japs every few minutes. By evening, when the Japs took their victims to Kanburi, none was recognizable, their features having by then been kicked out of shape. Two days later they were again brought back into the camp, and tortured for another whole day. This may have made one or more of the men divulge the names of others involved in the escapade, as the Japs now took another five men from the huts, and tortured all ten of them for eleven days. Three of the latter five were then set free, and the remainder taken away from the camp, never to be heard of again. While the men were under interrogation, a man from my hut was caught picking up a note one of the captives had poked through a crack in the Jap office wall. He was beaten black and blue and was very lucky in not being taken in with the victims.
A party of two hundred men was now called to leave for Non-Produck, a camp the other side of Banpong. I made a list in duplicate of all men of our regiment in Tamarkan together with a letter to our C.O., who was in Chunkai. I gave these to one of our boys in the party, asking him to drop one copy and the letter off as the train went through Chunkai, and to give the other copy to any of our officers he could find at Banpong when he passed through there. This was done in order that whoever had our letters might know where to send them. I now noticed that the wooden crosses were beginning to be eaten by termites, so I pointed out to the Colonel that there was not much chance of the names of the dead remaining legible until we were freed. He asked me if I had any better idea, and I offered to punch the names on strips of tin, and to bury them in bottles in each grave; he told me to go ahead. Within a week I had prepared enough name tags for all the graves, and then I asked our quartermaster to obtain the empty bottles for me. However, he said there were not enough bottles in the camp for my purpose and refused to help. That evening, with sack over shoulder I walked up and down every hut in the camp calling for empty bottles, and obtained enough and to spare. ‘Are you a Pelmanist?’ asked Lance Cpl. Keys, the quartermaster’s clerk, when he saw the result of my efforts.
The C.O. now told me that all fit men were shortly to leave for up country, but as he needed me for the cemetery work he would try to keep me back. A day or two later about three hundred men left on the first stage of their journey. On the second of October it rained so hard that our hut was flooded. With the rest of my kit, my diary was soaked, and I went to our cook-house to dry it out. That part which I had written in ink had run, and in later years I was to find it very difficult to decipher. The next day we heard very strong rumors that the war in Europe had been won.
Among the other sick men from our regiment was a Pte. Grace. He was exceedingly ill, and as I went to see him each day, I knew it was miraculous that he survived at all; I have never seen a man lose so much weight and live; chronic dysentery had literally reduced him to skin and bone, and he weighed little more than two stone. Yet he was always cheerful throughout his suffering, and although the doctor told me that there was no hope for him now, I still hoped that his terrific willpower would pull him through. There was no flesh to absorb the shock of lying on bare boards, and when we buried him a few days later his bones protruded through the torn skin.
I made friends with a Dutchman named Willem Poel, who was in the ulcer ward with a bad leg ulcer. I noticed that he never had visitors, and in a hut with mostly Englishmen he had no-one to talk to. So I got in the habit of stopping for a few words with him when I visited one of our mob in the next bed. He was well over six feet, slow of thought and speech, and I liked him. He never uttered a sound when he had his ulcer squeezed, although many of the bravest could not help crying out when this job had to be carried out. His infection had started six months earlier, and he was rapidly becoming worse. Major Moon had now to amputate through the knee joint, to prevent the ulcer encroaching on his thigh. During the next two weeks, Willem had two more amputations before an amputation through the hip finally halted the advance of the disease. There were no anesthetics to relieve post operative pain, and lying on the bare boards the patient often suffered such intense pain that he was affected mentally. Willem was to become so affected, and he took such a dislike to me that he refused to speak after he recovered from his last operation.
On the twenty-fifth of October the Japs told us that the railway was completed up to the Burma terminal, and they gave us a day off in celebration of the event. A sick man arriving brought me news that my ‘mucker’ Jimmy was also back from up country, safe and well in Chunkai. I wrote him a note and gave it to a member of the next party to leave for up country, and asked him to throw it out at Chunkai station as he passed through.
The following day was a great milestone in the days of my captivity; I received six letters from home. There was one from my father, one from my brother Reg, and four from my mother. One of the letters told me that my sister Marjorie had given birth to a daughter and that they had called her Jennifer Jane; now I was an uncle! The letters were all over a year old, as must my niece now also be. I was one of the few to receive letters at this time, and I spent every spare moment I had reading them over and over again. Difficult to understand now perhaps, but that first evening all my friends, and even a dozen strangers came to me with a whispered request to read my precious letters. Many of our men, some with wife and children, received no mail during the whole of their captivity. My mail changed my whole outlook for the next few weeks; they were the first communication from the outside world; we were not forgotten men after all. I slept with the letters under my pillow, and felt them now and again during sleepless hours of the night. During the day I read them over and over again, and when going through moments of depression I was comforted by the thought of them.
Chapter 29 - Vinegar, Gore and Farewells
At this time, one of the Dutchmen gave me a small ball of home-made (or home-grown) dried yeast. He said I should crumble it into cooked rice, leave it for a few days, and remove a ball of it for future use. Sugar and water was to be added to the remainder, and I would then, after a few days have the Malayan dish known as ‘tappy’. He let me taste some of his finished product, and I found it quite pleasant although rather acidic, and it smelled quite fruity. My effort was a failure, my rice just became sour and I had to throw the precious stuff away; so I went to see the expert, my friend the herbalist, Outje, (whose real name I had by now discovered to be von Braam). He gave me another ball of yeast, and told me to multiply it first before making tappy. This I did, and from one of my six balls, produced the first successful dish of tappy. However the next time I tried, it went wrong again, but this time I had produced a very strong flavored rice vinegar; this ‘failure’ was a great success, and I found that a spoonful helped plain rice down very well; as I had made rather a lot, I found a ready sale for spoonsfull of it among my friends, who were doing paid work.
Men stopped returning sick from up country at this time, so the number of funerals soon halved. As I had no money left by this time, I went to see Col. Toosey and asked if I could do the cemetery job half-time only, and do a paid job under the Japs for the rest of the day. He seemed quite shocked, he did not know that I had been working for all that time without pay. He gave me some cash to be going on with and promised that I would in future receive fifty Stang every ten days. He did keep his word, but I was only to remain there for another eighteen days. For the remainder of my Tamarkan days I spent about half my time working on jobs about the camp, including the task of building a pigsty, the Japs having promised our C.O. a pig for Christmas.
The enemy had completed the Ack/Ack gun emplacement on our small mountain, and they now fired a few practice rounds from their Bofors gun. It was only then that the truth dawned on us; that in the event of a low-level air attack, any shells missing the aircraft would hit the camp; Col. Toosey asked for permission to make a Red Cross flag to lay out during air-raids, but this was refused. Many of our men were later to die because of that refusal. On the seventeenth of November I saw my first Allied plane since the time of our capture. It flew right over our camp, so high as to be barely visible, and certainly at more than three times the effective range of the Japs’ Bofors gun. However they let fly at it, effectively admitting to us that it was ‘one of ours’, and of course giving their position away. As the plane was so high, we realized that it must be on a reconnaissance flight, and we hoped that the pilot saw that this was a P.O.W. camp. The adjacent bridges were of course prime targets for air attack, and our camp was only a few hundred yards away from these. (This was the site where the fictional account of 'The Bridge Over The River Quy' was to be enacted.)
Now we were all ordered to stay in our huts out of sight during any future air-raids; any men seen outside would be shot on sight. Out on the cemetery party I also noticed a change in the attitude of our guards; I was watched more closely and was finding it increasingly difficult to contact my Thai friends in Tamarkan village. Outje ran out of turmeric again and asked me to get another lot; I ordered it by signs for collection the following day as I passed the village shop. That day I was so closely supervised that I found it impossible to get away to collect the goods. At this time we were short of firewood for the cooks in the camp, so an extra duty for my grave-diggers was to carry back to camp any tree trunks from the jungle we had cleared during the day. On this occasion I asked the strongest of my men to assist me in carrying back a heavy log about eight feet long, and perhaps ten inches thick. I was at the rear end of the log as we passed back through the village that evening; the shopkeeper’s husband was leaning against a tree with my parcel in his hand, and with a furtive glance around me I proffered the cash and was handed the turmeric.
However, the heavy log on my shoulder had prevented me from observing one of our guards lying in wait in the jungle opposite. As the Thai handed me the parcel, I saw a look of apprehension appear in his eyes and he tried to draw back at the last moment, but too late; a scream of rage filled the air as the Jap came rushing over. A teak two-handled practice sword was raised high over his head, and in his fury he sounded like a madman. The heavy log on my shoulder made it impossible to dodge, as the heavy weapon came crashing down on my skull. Again and again it landed, half the blows missing my head and cutting pieces of bark off our log. I felt little pain, but as each blow landed I felt as though my brain were soft, and was gently being pressed in while everything became momentarily dark. After about the third blow blood came squirting out of my double Aussie hat, which had remained jammed on my head throughout. The Jap’s anger spent, he stopped hitting me and stepped back, dazed with the shock of not seeing me fall, though looking as though my head were bashed in. Blood by this time was everywhere, over my mate at the other end of the log, over the Jap and dripping off the log to begin to form a pool on the ground.
Strangely, I seemed to be able to survey the whole scene dispassionately; I suppose my brain was partly anaesthetized by what had befallen. The Thai women who had been standing around to watch us pass, covered their faces; my friends told me later that they thought I was like a chicken still standing after losing its head, and they were waiting to see me fall. I am sure that when some of the Japanese lose their tempers they are quite beside themselves, and do-not know what they are doing; neither can they control their actions. This one slowly regained his composure, and instead of setting about me again, he curtly ordered my comrades to lift the heavy log off my shoulder and sent me back to camp ahead of the others. By the time I entered the camp and approached the guardhouse, I must have looked like something from Madame Tussaud’s. Having continued to bleed profusely all the way back, I was covered thickly in congealed blood; I was also beginning to feel light-headed, and was unable to walk straight.
I was well known to the guards on duty, since, as already mentioned, I always passed out of camp with the funeral parties, and I think most of them liked me. The duty guard stopped me and called his friends out; they gathered round looking at me in disbelief, making their sympathetic clucking noises. For some strange reason I now for the first time felt sorry for myself, and an overwhelming desire to weep came over me. It was nothing to do with the pain, but just the effect of a little sympathy. Not wanting them to see tears in my eyes, I turned and tried to run away across the open space to our lines, but could not control my direction. Luckily, by this time some of our men were coming over, and a couple of them helped me to Major Moon’s hut. The doctor removed my hat and after a brief examination, sent an orderly to fetch a bucket of water. Between them they first of all cleaned up my head, and the worst of the wounds were bodged up. I was feeling better now, and they showed me my reinforced hat; in three places the sword had cut cleanly through both crowns. ‘Sergeant’, said Major Moon, ‘if your head isn’t solid bone it can’t be very far short of it, but you’re not half as bad as you looked; your hat saved you from a fractured skull.’ I knew also that had I fallen the Jap would probably have killed me on the ground. I was ordered to rest for three days, and then went back to work.
Strong rumours began to circulate that most of us were going to be moved to Chunkai, and on the twenty-third of November a load of sick men boarded barges and moved off down river. Two days later I spent my last day in the best camp in Thailand, having been informed that I was to move off with a party of men to Chunkai in the morning. We held a ‘Farewell Tamarkan’ concert that evening; the Japs all turned up at the show and made it clear that they also were sad because they must leave with us. For the first and only time on one of those occasions, one of the Japs arose and volunteered to give a ‘turn’. He rose to his feet and went sedately up to the stage. After bowing to us he began to perform a strange dance. We tittered at first, thinking that perhaps this was a comic turn; but we gradually began to be touched. As he sang a plaintive song on very few notes, in strange rhythm, and to graceful hand and foot movements, the like of which we had never before seen. His sad expression as he sang told us without need of word understanding, of the nostalgia in his Japanese heart for his homeland.
It was at ten a.m. therefore, on the twenty-sixth of November, that we fell in, ready, we hoped, to board barge or train. There was a large crowd of us, all the fit men left in Tamarkan. My kit seemed heavier than ever as I struggled out on parade with it, but I think that was mainly because I had not yet made up all the blood I had recently lost. To my dismay I found that it was to be ‘Shanks’s pony’ this time, as we moved out across the paddy fields. Luckily, Chunkai was not many miles away, and I made it without having to shed any of my gear. I seemed to have been a very long time there, and left a little part of myself behind in Tamarkan; I even now think of the comradeship there with some nostalgia.
Chapter 30 - A Monument to Our Dead, and Allied Aircraft
We immediately saw that Chunkai was now unrecognizable from what we could remember of our earlier sojourn there. First of all, the graveyard was ten times or more the size it was then. With a dozen or more deaths a day it was daily growing much bigger. Compared with Tamarkan, everything looked shabby and dilapidated. Attap does not last for long, and I suppose there were insufficient fit men here to maintain the huts properly. I was put in charge of feeding arrangements, and taking the job seriously, got out my tools and fashioned two ladles for dishing out fairly. The rice ladle did not work very well, so I found a couple of pig’s shoulder-blades, and these proved very satisfactory.
Nearly everyone in Chunkai seemed to have skin disease, with huge ring-worm patches overlapping each other, and pellagra, the vitamin deficiency disease which makes the skin the texture of brittle tissue paper, weeping between the cracks, and often forming ulcers. There were no supplies of calamine lotion or other medicines to relieve the terrible itching these complaints caused, let alone supplies of the vitamins which would quickly have cleared the trouble. As soon as I was able I toured the camp to find our own lads, and was disappointed to find that Jimmy Hume had moved out some time before. There was one of our officers, Mr. Oliver, keeping a record of known deaths in our regiment, and when he was able to add those from my list, the total reached one hundred and eleven.
After a few days with no work to do, I began to think that I was in danger of ‘letting myself go’, as I could see so many had already done in this camp; so I saw the camp R.S.M. and asked if I could be given a full time job. Somewhat enigmatically he said ‘Wait and see!’ so I had to leave it at that. Chunkai was still plagued with rackets, and after a few days one of our corporals reported that a thousand Tickels worth of stuff had been stolen from his kit. I wondered how, under our conditions, any prisoner could legitimately have acquired such a huge amount of booty. Very few working parties were being sent out, and half the fit men seemed to be engaged in some business venture or other. Every few minutes of the day and evening someone would pass through the huts shouting his wares; ‘Come and get it! Hot and sweet, five cents a cup’. This was a ‘coffee’ made by burning rice on a shovel and then grinding it up with a bottle on some hard surface.
By now we all called the ‘Stang’ ‘cents’, as there were a hundred to the Tickel (or Baht). Other men came round with peanut toffee, sambals, and many other things. There was also a thriving industry in cigarettes, these were fashioned on home-made machines from the black local tobacco, and they looked very professional although the thick paper, mostly torn from books, could not have tasted very nice. On the eleventh of December, and without much notice, we were told to pack up and parade to board a barge for Tamarkan. I could scarcely believe my ears or my good luck. It would be good riddance to dirty, thieving Chunkai, where a good dose of Col. Toosey was what was really needed. Thrilled to bits, I climbed aboard the boat, and arrived at Tamarkan an hour or so later; but Col. Toosey and Capt. Boyle the interpreter had left the previous day. The Japs lined us up to tell us why we had come here. The railway had been completed with ‘the diligent help of the prisoners.’ As a token of appreciation of the work done by The Imperial Japanese Army, and out of respect for the lives laid down by the prisoners, we were to build a shrine under the guidance of Japanese soldiers. When finished it would be dedicated to all races, whatsoever their religion or colour.
We commenced work immediately, forming human chains from the river bank to the hillock two or three hundred yards away where the monument was to be erected. Baskets of sand were filled and passed back to be emptied in a heap at the top. Our task was to transport so many cubic meters per day, and when we had accomplished that we could go ‘home’. The guards regarded the work in exactly the same light as before, and every now and then there would be the inevitable shout of ‘Courra!’ perhaps followed by a blow, as someone was spotted not working hard enough.
On the second day, it was decided that we had enough sand for the time being, and we were put to collecting shingle. We had to crawl along the beach selecting stones as near an inch in diameter as possible. One of the men picked up a stone, decided it was too big and tried blindly to throw it far away behind him. I heard the usual Jap scream of rage, and saw the nearest guard clutching his nose in furious agony. He laid about the unfortunate prisoner for a minute, but luckily his stick was not a heavy one, and no injury was caused. None of my men had a watch, and the Japs refused to tell us when it was mid-day, so that we could eat. So I rigged up a sundial on the beach. Sun was one thing we had plenty of, and if primitive peoples could rig up a sundial, then, I thought, so could I. However I was wrong; my sundial never worked properly although I tried it at many different angles, adjusting it each day. Later on I wondered if the Japs moved it every night after we left, for a bit of fun.
When we had gathered all the shingle they required, we were sent over to the foot of the Ack/Ack hill to gather small rocks. These, we were told, were to be built into a plinth which would form the base of the shrine. We carried them back by the hundredweight, in barrows and on stretchers, until it was decided that there was a big enough heap of these. Lastly, as far as materials were concerned, the Japs gave us dozens of old marble table tops; they must have raided every cafe in Thailand to find them all. Every one was badly stained and our immediate job was to clean the faces up ready for names to be carved in them. Although we tried everything from soap to sand, the stains refused to budge.
In addition to working on the shrine, we had to find work parties daily, carrying stores and water to the top of the Ack/Ack hill. This was the most hated job; there was no shade, the hill was very steep and the guards would allow no rest half-way. Our wooden buckets weighed as much as the two gallons of water they held, and if the Japs had not used all their previous day’s supply they tipped it out on the ground in front of us.
Back to the shrine, and our next task was to clean up a big heap of old timber, which was to be used as the form work in which to pour the concrete. The timber was full of nails, and very rough-sawn. We had no tools like planes or scrapers, so I told the guards that it was not suitable, but was just ordered to get on with it. In fact when they said that they were satisfied, the timber still looked pretty awful, and it was clearly going to be unsatisfactory.
The Japs had to ‘stand to’ nearly all the night of the twentieth of December, as a continuous drone of Allied planes was heard passing over the camp. I was on Ack/Ack fatigue the following day and found the tired guards particularly evil tempered, especially as we were unable to avoid a certain cockiness in our manner. For years they had been telling us that there were no Allied planes left as they had blown them all out of the sky. To get their own back they made us fill their bath to the brim, and when I protested that the precious water we were carrying would overflow when they got in if any more were added, I received a cuff for my trouble. Parties of sick from up-country had been arriving in camp ever since we started work on the shrine. Many of these men were Aussies, and very sick, often with dead and dying among them. They mostly arrived during the night in barges, and when we heard the ‘Poof Poof’ of the boats stop at the camp, we used to turn out to help carry bad cases into the huts. One Aussie died in our arms as a friend and I tried to lift him out of the barge.
During the night of the twenty-third, we were carrying a barge load of very sick men in when the Jap gun opened fire on planes flying over the camp, and we were lit by the flashes of exploding shells as we walked. The Japs now issued us with wood cutting saws, and told us to make batch-boxes for measuring the ingredients of concrete. I was surprised to see that Japanese saws work in reverse to ours, cutting when pulled instead of when pushed. They are shaped something like a large butcher’s cleaver, with the teeth starting small by the handle and gradually getting larger towards the further end. Two hands are necessary to hold the long handle, so the wood has to be held with a foot or by a comrade. None the less, they seemed to work very well.
We were allowed a day’s rest on the twenty-fifth of December, but we scarcely noticed that it was Christmas, and I did not even mention it in my diary. This was the only occasion as POWs that we made no effort at all to celebrate Christmas Day. Three days later we started mixing concrete. Two men at a time were required to do the mixing, working at breakneck speed until relieved. The mixers had to keep in front of the measurers who had to pile up the cement sand and stone on the end of the wooden staging. The staging stretched right up to the memorial itself, and as the mixers were required to turn the mix over four times in all, at the last turning the concrete went straight down into the form-work. This proved a very efficient way of working, and I think the concrete went in faster than if we had had mechanical mixers. The pace set by the Japs was so fast, that after a couple of days only a private soldier named Mooney and I could stand up to it, so we got the job full time. I did not really mind, especially as we knew that at least we were not assisting the Jap war effort, as we had been on the railway work.
Fifteen days after our return to Tamarkan, the Japs told us that their rations were now so bad that they were going to leave us for a time while they went upstream to blast the river for fish. As they disappeared round a bend in the river, I took a friend and waded out to collect any stray fish that might elude them. We were lucky, collecting and stowing away about ten pounds of fish before the guards came back. We had far more than many of the Japs. That evening we cooked them up and had a grand fish supper. The following day a plane came over in broad daylight, again attracting Ack/Ack fire, and the guards had to ‘stand-to’ all afternoon, which meant that we had the afternoon off.
On the first of January 1944, New Year’s Day, the Japs told us that this was a feast day in Japan, and celebrated it by decorating the camp with palm leaves and green bamboo. Everyone had the day off, and I made use of it by sewing up the sword cuts in my Aussie hat. I also took the opportunity to insert some packing between the two thickness’s of crown as cushioning, should further blows be struck. While sewing I heard the drone of planes again, and the ineffective staccato of the Bofors on the hill. Out on the shrine, the Japs were in a bad mood now, and set us bigger tasks to complete. The first day back at work they gave us thirty-six bags of cement to mix with nine times the volume of aggregate, and we had to stay until the work was done. Mixing that lot in the blazing sun, by hand and with no respite, was almost too much for me, and I thought I was tough. To make matters worse, they made us find hut pickets every night, to make sure no-one got out of the camp. Every time a man left the hut to go to the toilet he had to collect a numbered tally from the duty picket, and hand it back when he returned. Woe betide any caught outside the hut at night without a tally; and the Japs collected the tallies in the morning to make sure none were missing. We were worked so hard for the next few days that it seemed likely that the shrine would be followed by another in memory of those who died on building the shrine!
There was a full moon on the night of the tenth, and as we heard the Japs being rousted out of their beds to ‘stand-to’, and heard the drone of our planes overhead, we began to feel that perhaps it was not all quite so one-sided now. We talked among ourselves, some voicing aloud the question that had bothered us all; what would the Japs do if Allied parachutists landed nearby and tried to free us? The general opinion seemed to be that we should all be shot before they had the chance. As we lay chatting, for the first time we heard the sound of distant bombs exploding. From the direction and distance we decided that the attack must be in the vicinity of Bangkok.
Our shrine was now beginning to take shape. It consisted of a cubic base or plinth with a tapering ‘needle’ rising from it; all cast from very rough concrete. Our next task was to travel down to Kanburi by barge to fetch a load of rocks; these and the smaller ones from the Ack/Ack hill were to be used to build a wall round the site. The marble table-tops were going to be stuck on; it seemed to me that it was going to look a very scruffy monument. However, I was never to see the finished job, as the next time I returned to Tamarkan I was too ill to go out on working parties, and the shrine was outside the camp boundary. On the seventeenth, I was given my third stereotyped postcard to complete for sending home. I now saw that I had an opportunity to let the folk at home know that I had received their mail. One part of the card read; ‘Please see that . . . is taken care.’ On the dotted line I wrote ‘Jennifer Jane’ the name of my new niece. My parents did receive this card, about a year later, and that was the first intimation they had received that I was alive. In spite of this, my mother had written me a long letter each week until the day of my return; she had learned to type, as she had been told that typed letters would be more likely to be passed by the Jap censors. I believe it was because of this that I received letters, when many of my friends had none. When, on the twenty-first of January, I received another twelve letters from home, my cup of happiness was full, let the Japs do what they might.
A new phenomenon now appeared in camp, when one night a few Japs sidled up to a group of prisoners asking if any had pound notes to sell; until now, they had told us that Sterling was worthless. I guessed that the Thais were offering big money for our pound notes, and the Japs were trying to make a profit; I cannot think that they wanted to save them in case they lost the war. In fact they had changed their tale of late, telling us that the war would probably go on for ever; before, they had always spoken of the imminent total victory.
For some days I had been developing an ulcer on my heel and it was not responding to the treatment I was giving it, probably because I was standing on it for such long hours while working on the shrine. In the end I had to show it to the doctor, and he took me off work at once. On the second of February, I was sent back to Chunkai, and arrived there at one p.m. At sick parade, the doctor told me to rest my foot up for seven days, and I spent practically all that time bathing my heel with salt water. When I was not doing that, I was de-bugging my bed-space, as the place was practically alive with the beastly things. Most days I heard planes fly high over the camp, and often heard them open fire at Tamarkan.
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