Sergeant Len Baynes
Unit : 1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment.
Served : France, Singapore (captured).
Camps : Changi, River Valley, Chunkai, Tamarkan.
Chapter 31 - Blood, Wells and Evil in High Places
The Jap in charge ordered all prisoners to write an account of the fighting leading up to their capture, and to finish up by saying who they thought would win the war and why. He probably thought he would learn more from us than from his Japanese one hundred percent propaganda newspapers. For my part I enjoyed writing an entirely fictitious account of my part in the battle for Singapore. A few days later, volunteer blood-donors were called for to help certain bad cases in the sick bay. I had a sample taken but mine was A2, whereas they required 04 blood. However, the next day a Pte. Butler, a consumption (TB) case, had a bad haemorrhage of the lungs, and I was called upon to give blood to him. Blood was not stored in bottles for use later, as in Britain, but I lay on a table above the patient, and a tube ran from a vein in my arm directly in to the recipient’s. The poor chap rallied for a week or so, but died before I left the camp.
A public highway ran through Chunkai, the Japs were unable to close it as there was no other thoroughfare in the area; until now we had been allowed to walk on this road when going from one end of the camp to the other. The order was now given that prisoners might no longer approach it; we took this to mean that there must be good news about, and they did not want us to hear it from the Thais. A rumor began to circulate at the same time, that fit men in the camp were to be shipped to Japan, and a few days later this was corroborated when a list of men scheduled to go was published. My name was not on it, so as my ulcer was just about healed, I saw the R.S.M. and asked for my name to be added. He said I was too late, but put my name on reserve. (I did not know how lucky I was, as their ship was sunk by the Allies, as it was not marked with a Red Cross.)
Now that I was fit again, I went out with work-parties every day, mainly gathering bamboo for hut-building, and firewood for cooking. Some days I was on hut-building, and this was what the Japs called a ‘Speedo job’; we had to pull a hut down and try to rebuild it the same day, so we really had our work cut out, as each one was fifty meters long. When I awoke on the morning of the first of March, I discovered that Jimmy had arrived in camp during the night with a couple of hundred men from Tak-a-Nun. During a very long chat I heard of all that had befallen him since we parted. It was only now, as I heard of the terror of those cholera camps, that I realized how fortunate I had been, safely in dear old Tamarkan while my friends suffered and died. As Jimmy had our cash when we split up he insisted in giving me half his Thai money now; anyway, he said, he was going to Japan in a few days, and it would be of no use there. I gave him half my bedding, as he had lost all his. Working long hours on the hut building party for the next few days, I saw little of Jimmy, but he was issued with new clothes to wear in Japan, and on the tenth of March they left Chunkai on the first stage of their long and hazardous journey. I heard later that the ships on which they embarked carried no Red Cross either, or other distinctive markings, and many had guns mounted on the decks. They were bombed and torpedoed with our boys battened below deck. Jimmy was, however, one of the lucky ones to make the journey safely; his ship was sunk, and he was one of the few rescued.
Someone told the Japs that I had been a builder back in England, and they ordered me to draw plans for the huts we were building. All they provided was pencil and paper. So during the following days, using my tools I made myself an eighth inch scale rule, a protractor, two set squares, and a tee square. I bought a compass from a Pte. Jennings; he had carried it around unused since he was captured. I quite enjoyed drawing the plans, and it made a nice change from the ‘Speedo’ hut-building party. There was a Dutchman in our hut named Bruder. He asked me if I would draw him plans for a (pseudo) typical timbered English Tudor house, as he wanted to build one in Holland if he ever returned. It took me a month of evenings and Yasume days to complete the plans, and then only roughly. However Bruder seemed quite pleased with them, and assured me that he would convert them to bricks and mortar if the opportunity arose. He may even have survived and built it.
We were given a radio message form on the nineteenth, and told to write a short message each to be broadcast to England. None of us believed there was the slightest chance of it being sent, (neither were we wrong), but we all wrote that we were well and hoped those at home were also. The Japs at this time became very scared of catching cholera, and we had to build them new huts further from the river. They also decided that the river water was only good enough for prisoners to wash in, and imported Chinese well-diggers; two of them started work on rising ground not far from the river. Watching these men work during our lunch break, was, I found, an enlightening experience. Although I thought I knew a lot about excavation and the different methods of preventing earth falls, I was to learn a completely new technique. The only tools needed were two joss sticks! No timber whalings, simply joss sticks. One man worked at a time, excavating round and round with a short-handled chunkel and basket, and as he went downwards the man on top pulled up the basket of earth with a rope. Most important of all he tended the smoldering joss sticks, as without the smoke to keep the demons away, the sides would be pushed in. With a simple faith like that, a Christian’s life would become so much more straightforward. The well sides went down perfectly straight and circular without gauge or plumb bob, and water was struck about fifty feet down. Concrete rings were then cast between two rings of sheet metal, pieces of banana stalk being let into the concrete to rot later, and allow water to percolate in. They did not seem to worry about germs from the surface water, perhaps the joss sticks took care of them also. Only three rings a day were cast so it was a long time before the well was ready to use. The men spent the rest of the day, that was when not making rings or lowering them down the hole, smoking opium in the canteen.
On the twenty-fifth of March we saw our first really heavy daylight air-raid, as literally dozens of aircraft flew over the camp. A few days later I was shocked to hear that a British officer was engaged in a medicine racket. Together with some other men I was told, he stole the precious rare life-saving quinine from our hospital hut, and sold it to the Thais for money. Thirty pieces of silver for sure. The next day, two Dutch sergeants, by name Pas and Lintman, were caught red-handed selling quinine, and they were interned in the Jap ‘cooler’. This consisted of bamboo cells built out in the sun, each one too short to lie down in and too low to stand up in. The inmates were kept short of water and beaten from time to time. It was more a form of torture than imprisonment.
Soon after this, I made friends with a Scot named Cpl. Willox. He was an excellent fellow of the old school, sincere, kind, and very proud of his nationality. He was also a piper and he had managed to keep his pipes. Every evening he would unwrap and lovingly clean them. Then he would march up and down behind our huts near the camp boundary, piping old Scottish melodies. At times the pibroch would be slow and sad; at others Willox would be thinking of better times as he marched gaily to a jig or to a military air. He told me that at one time he used to teach Highland dancing and asked if I would like to learn, to pass the time away. Having always loved to watch the Scottish dances, I was pleased to accept, and within a week or two I could do The Sheen Trews, Highland Fling, Schottische and The Sword Dance. He told me that I had taken to it like a duck to water, and should have been born a Scot.
I seemed to be more sensitive to bug and louse bites than most of my friends, probably due to my fair complexion, and would often get my behind bitten when sitting on someone’s bed, only to be told that I must be imagining it; there weren’t any bugs as they had killed them all; but I had never seen so much vermin as here, and since the dry season was now upon us, I took to sleeping outside, as the nights in the hut were intolerable. My black shorts wore out at this time, and I put the remains of them away to take home as a souvenir of the Chinese lady who gave them to me; later however, I got so short of rags that I had to use them.
When I finished drawing plans, I worked on making tools. From a piece of teak salvaged when the Jap quarters blew down, I made a plane, and this was the best of all my tools; with its blade cut from a cleaver it worked really well. I also made handles for my chisels, and bound them on with wire, as I had no ferrules. One of our men dug up an old axe head; it had been used as a hammer and the eye had been bashed in. During the next few evenings I managed to straighten it out fit it with a handle, and sharpen it; it was to become my most useful tool.
A week or so later we were re-formed into a group, and told that we should be leaving shortly for Burma. Then we were told that the Burma trip was canceled, and that we were to be known as No. 35 Japan party. This change suited me very well, or so I thought, as, not knowing how hazardous the voyage would be, at that time I felt that the nearer we were to civilization when the end of the war came, the better chance we would stand of escaping murder at the hands of our captors. I did not know of course that the Allies were to drop on Japan the weapons which were to start a chain reaction which might end civilization for the whole world.
We went to work as usual on the morning of the nineteenth of April, but were brought back post haste and given two hours notice to pack up our kits ready to leave for Japan. Then we were paraded, (they told us it was to receive warm clothing for the Japanese climate), but after hanging about for a long time we were dismissed, sans the warm clothes. Looking back on events, I guess that the Japs were being forced to change plans almost daily, with reverses in Burma, and the ships which should have taken us away being either sunk, or needed for other purposes. That night, instead of being on my way to more temperate climes, I went to a camp concert organized by a professional actor named Leo Britt, and entitled ‘Wonder Bar’. Having just unpacked my kit and seated myself on the ground waiting for the show to begin, I was aroused from my reverie by the guards rushing round in a tizzy, calling us back on parade. Stuffing all my gear into the various haversacks as quickly as I could, and very disorganized, I marched out past the cemetery with the others, we knew not whither. As far as we had been told, we were still No. 35 Japan party, but as we were still clothed in our thin rags it was unlikely the Japs would parade us in front of civilization looking like this. As for Chunkai, I felt no regret at the parting; in fact, I was glad to see the back of it. At ten-thirty that night we marched into Kanburi camp, and I lay thankfully down in the bed-space I was allocated, and for the first time for months, slept until morning
Chapter 32 - Slaughterman, Oven Builder and Much Sweetness
Kanburi was now a staging camp, with the only enough fit men being retained to unload supplies from barges, and to load them on to trains bound for up country. Our first day there was spent in unloading rice out of barges on to a jetty. The river was outside the camp boundary, so water for camp use still had to be drawn from the well. Our guards on that first working party were some of the best we ever came across in Thailand, and treated us more like comrades than captives. The second day out on this job the rickety bamboo jetty started to collapse under us. The water was deep and many prisoners could not swim; when I pointed the danger out to them, the Japs asked me if I could strengthen it, but they had no tools to offer. As they were so friendly I took a chance and told them that I had tools back at the camp, and they took me back to collect my ‘illegal’ things. They took considerable interest in what I did, and stayed watching until I was satisfied my repair was safe, and made to join the others, unloading. However, they told me to wait, and brought out the office table for me to repair.
For the next few days I was kept busy on interesting furniture repair work. During my stay in Kanburi I was also to earn myself quite a lot of cash by doing jobs for those prisoners who had more than I did. One of my best money-spinners was collecting empty pea-tins from the Jap cookhouse, and making them into mugs by cleaning off the rough edges and riveting a handle on. I sold them for ten cents each. I was also able to get a few leaking four-gallon tins thrown out by the Japs, and salvage enough good tinplate out of them to make into buckets. I became quite proficient in joining smaller pieces together by folding the edges over, and some buckets were made from five or six separate pieces. I had made a mandrel from a length of teak tree-trunk about nine inches in diameter, and used this for forming the buckets on, and turning over the seam round the bottom edge. They were water-tight without solder.
The wet season now came in, and the camp soon became a sea of mud again. All fit men set to digging trenches in the hope of draining off the flood water to avoid the huts becoming flooded once more; and the trenches worked satisfactorily. On the sixth of May at seven-thirty in the evening, we moved out of Kanburi, and I was quite sorry to leave. Especially as we found out that we were destined for Chunkai once more, where we arrived at ten-thirty that night. However I need not have worried, as we were only to stay for one day, and during that day were issued with Red Cross parcels. These had been opened by the Japs, cigarettes and other items they fancied removed, and the remains issued at the rate of one parcel between six men. There should have been one parcel per man, so there was not really very much to share.
At three o’clock in the afternoon we boarded open rail-trucks in pouring rain, and travelled up country in the deluge for eleven hours, arriving at what we were told was Kinsio camp in pitch darkness, at two o’clock in the morning; we could not have been wetter had we just emerged from the river. As dawn broke we were able to see that the camp was derelict, and had not been occupied for many moons. Most of the huts had fallen in, and this included the erstwhile cookhouse, where there were now no cooking facilities at all. The C.O. sent for me, and asked if I would take on the job of organizing repairs to the camp, and I starting by building a new cookhouse, and started work immediately. As everything was so filthy, and the camp looked as though it had been left in a hurry through disease, I thought to make a priority of providing a sterilizers for mess tins and eating utensils. I ‘won’ a steel forty-gallon diesel oil drum from near the Japs quarter, and started to cut round the top with one of my chisels and using the back of my axe for a hammer. When I had nearly worked my way round, I tried to pull the flap up, but my hand slipped on the oily surface, and I made a nasty jagged cut across the ball of my left thumb. I went to see Dr. Gotla who had accompanied us, to try to get it sewn up, but he said the wound was too ragged and dirty to sew, and that I just had to keep it bandaged as well as I could. To my surprise, the wound did not fester, and the piece of flesh (half my thumb) which I had nearly severed, grew back again over the next few weeks with only the scar as souvenir. During the next spell I worked pretty much alone, putting the huts and cookhouse back into shape, and making utensils, as most of the men were out on daily work parties maintaining the track.
One day the guard saw a wild pig running through the camp, and took a pot shot at it with his rifle. He only injured it, and the animal twirled round on its behind snapping fiercely when we approached it. I ran over to the cookhouse and collected my axe and a knife, and returned to tackle the task of pig slaughter, something I had never done before. I put on a confident air to impress the guard; first of course I must render it unconscious to put it out of pain, and to prevent it from biting me when I cut its throat, so I started to hit it over its head with the back of my axe as hard as I could; but no matter how hard, nor how many times, the poor animal refused to lose consciousness, and in desperation I hit it between the eyes instead of on the top of the head; it went out like a light. I later saw that a pig’s skull is over two inches thick at the spot I had been attacking. The next job, that of cutting the carotid artery would, I thought, be comparatively easy, but how wrong I was. I fiddled about with the knife waiting for the stream of blood to tell of success, but none came; so at last, when the pig began to stir, in desperation I cut off its head. The guard had said that if I prepared the carcass, our cooks could have half, and as this arrangement seemed too good to be true, I left my other work and got cracking straight away before he changed his mind. I had not so much as drawn a chicken before, so I cannot pretend that I made a very good job of scalding, scraping and dissecting that pig, but I did eventually finish up with two heaps of bruised flesh, one for us and one for the Japs. Our cooks complained at all the bone splinters produced by my axe but the men ate their boiled pork with gusto that evening, on their return from work. As we had no butcher in Kinsio, after that many other beasts of different kinds passed through my hands, and in learning from my mistakes I was to become a fairly proficient slaughter man.
The rations were as bad as I had encountered anywhere and consisted of rice, dried greens and ‘stinkfish’, the last two items having been rejected as unfit for Jap troops consumption. The fish were full of maggots and dropped to powder when we tried to get them out of the boxes, and of the so-called greens, all that remained was the bits of string left from the stalks when the leaves had rotted off. The fish had been something like kippers during early life, now like little Bo-peep’s sheep they had left only their tails behind them. There were, however, usually a few fish in each box that had not quite reached this stage of maturity, and if we grilled these on a piece of tin, many of the maggots would wriggle out, and those that stayed behind would at least be sterilized. The fish themselves tasted so foul that many could not eat them, and the maggots that were eaten probably tasted better than the fish. I ate my share, however, not willing to miss out on my necessary protein requirements.
I was asked to build an oven for the cookhouse, so that we could have baked rice-balls or ‘doofers’ as we called them. Although only made from boiled rice, they made a change, and were much in demand from the workers. When I looked round the camp to see what materials were to hand, there seemed to be nothing suitable for oven building. Well, one step at a time, I could at least start off by making a heap of sun-baked bricks, and accordingly made a wooden mold. Next I dug a hole and by treading earth and water together produced some nice glutinous mud, and soon I had a fine row of bricks drying in the sun. The following day however, when I tried to stack them, they dropped to pieces in my hands, and I realized that something must be wrong with my technique. Yet they used sun-baked bricks in biblical times, and the sun must have been as hot there. Yes, the Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians had to make bricks without straw, and found it difficult; that must mean that it is easier with straw. I looked round the parched camp with absolutely nothing growing in it. Then I saw the useless boxes of dried greens the Japs had issued; they were just string and powder, surely they would do for straw. My next batch of bricks were perfect and within a few days I had made more than I would need.
During the following days I searched every inch of the camp trying to find something to use for the inside of the oven, but without success. Outside the camp boundary the railway line ran, and in the distance I could see a heap of empty five-gallon tins, and a six foot length of railway line. By next morning they were safely concealed under my heap of bricks. Now I was able to start building, and mixed up another lot of mud to use as mortar. I dug a long fire-pit with a low wall each side, and built in the oblong tins resting cross-ways over the fire, all the open ends facing the same way. The fire was to be drawn up the far end of the tins, and back over the tops, and I intended to build the chimney over that end to draw the heat and carry the smoke away. I used the railway line to form the lintel which carried the top brickwork and chimney, and completed the effort with the oven door made from flattened tins, fitted with a handle riveted on. The final job, I thought, as I surveyed it with pleasure, only requires a few wheels to look like Puffing Billy. I had been forced to build it much longer than necessary in order to conceal the end of the railway line I’d pinched. 'Let's try it!’ said the cooks, so I laid a fire in the trench, and after fanning it for a minute was delighted to see the smoke rising beautifully from the chimney. As the clay began to dry out the oven heated and I had to push the damper in to prevent it becoming red-hot. The cook made a batch of rice balls and they came out as brown as berries, so the oven was declared a success.
Before I was able to eat my first ‘doofer’, three Jap engineers came stalking in, and searched the cookhouse. One barked at me ‘You see Nippon line, so-ca?’, and he held out his arms to indicate that it was a long piece. Looking as innocent as I could, I pointed to all the line running past the camp. ‘Bagero!’ (fool) he shouted, ‘Smoroo (small) line’. We all commenced helpfully to look under the sacks and boxes on the cookhouse floor, but the Japs turned impatiently to go. Wait though, one of them caught sight of our new oven and he turned round to give it a closer look, because the Japs do not use ovens in their cooking. With much curiosity and murmuring they walked round it, and seeing the door handle, one of them took hold of it; his yell would have awakened the dead. We then saw one of the others pick up a piece of sacking and lift the door off. Seeing the next batch of ‘doofers’ already nicely brown, they demanded one each, but when they tried them and found only plain rice, they threw them on the floor in disgust. The Thais do not use ovens either. They do, however, make a kind of cake the texture of crumpets. They make these with a batter of ground rice and water, and bake them in earthenware ‘bun-tins’ with lids, which they heat over their charcoal fires. These buns only took five minutes to cook, and were delicious.
Men returning from the outside work parties told me that there were camps of Tamils nearby, employed on maintaining the permanent way, and that they appeared to be treated worse than us - much worse; like animals, in fact; and at this time the Japs were pumping propaganda into India about the wonderful all-embracing Nippon plan for an enlightened Greater East Asia. Less than ten per cent of the Tamils press-ganged by the Japs in Malaya were still alive when the capitulation eventually came. Our captors were now printing very crude Thai money on what looked like their toilet paper. When we first came to Thailand only the Tickels (Baht) were of paper, lesser denominations were all in the form of zinc coins. The new Jap money was all in paper, right down to ten Stang (or cents).
At about this time, a party of men, clearly a nomad people, came walking past our camp accompanied by a herd of skinny goats. Very short and stocky, these fellows had bright red hair, and looked more like Europeans than Orientals. I asked our guards who they were, and was told that they were a tribe of Indians who came through Burma and Thailand each year, taking their goats with them and carrying goods to trade. There were no women with the party, and their skin was as fair as ours. I have since been unable to identify the race of these folk, and have often wondered who they were.
Two of our men broke into the Jap food store shortly after this, and helped themselves to a 100 kg. bag of sugar. The next day, as so often happened, word flew round that the Japs were starting a search. One of our first tasks on arriving in a new camp was always to prepare secret hiding places for one’s forbidden articles, but there wasn’t one for this huge bag. Within minutes of the warning, the two miscreants came staggering into the cookhouse with their cumbersome bag of the best Jap sugar, and being half-starved they weakly dropped it on the floor and stood panting helplessly. We looked blankly at the sack; there had been none of this stuff issued to us in Kinsio (or in any other camp), and if the Japs caught us with it, it would mean a beating up, and a spell in the cooler at best; at worst - one could not bare to think.
One of the cooks was a short, red-headed Welshman, very strong. He was one of those men who hated being told what to do, and I had never hit it off with him. He was the first to wake up; ‘Give us a lift Sarge!’ he said as he grabbed two corners of the sack. With a lift and a swing the hundred kilos was on his back, and in the twinkling of an eye he was trotting out of the back of the cookhouse. Thirty yards away the path crossed a ditch, and we always had to jump it when we walked that way. Our cook threw the sack of sugar in the ditch and it was just about level with the path. We trod it well to flatten it out, and kicked dirt over the top for camouflage. As we ambled back in to the rear of the cookhouse the Jap search-party was coming in from the front. After searching for ten minutes they left the back way, up the path we had just left; but they did not notice that they did not have to jump over the ditch now. We left the sugar there for a week, daily expecting a visit from the dreaded Kempi-ti. We need not have worried as it seemed our guards could not report the loss, since they had themselves filched the sugar from rations passing through on their way to the front line in Burma. When we felt safe we retrieved the sack, and I made a special measure to share the sugar fairly between everyone in the camp.
Chapter 33 - Bridges, Oxen, Tigers and a Javanese Lad
We now had two working parties leaving the camp daily; one was raising sunken parts of the embankment, the other, repairing wooden bridges. These abounded in this part of the country, where many ravines had to be traversed. On the twentieth of June, a prisoner fell off one of these bridges and suffered a very bad leg injury. He was carried back into camp, and on a table in the medical hut Dr. Gotla operated without anesthesia, there being no analgesics or anesthetics in the camp by this time.
On the twenty-third, our C.O. and Sgt. Pitkin (our medical sergeant) were ordered to go down river by barge to Chunkai to draw wages and rations for us. They returned four days later with nothing but a sack of soya beans. None of us had ever seen these before, but someone said that they were very nourishing, and would provide some of the vitamins and protein missing from our diet. No-one knew how to cook them, but they looked somewhat like haricot beans, so we cooked them for about half an hour. They were by then still harder than boxwood, and the best teeth in the camp could not crack them. After some experimentation it was found that by simmering for twenty-four hours they became just about soft enough to scrunch up. We cooked them in this way as and when firewood was available. I discovered later that the Thais did not cook them whole, but ground them up with water in small stone mills, and the white paste that came out was cooked as a batter. Some of our cooks later found a way of soaking them, and then grinding them into a flour which they made into sour bread.
Rations began to improve slightly, with the issue of a small amount of meat brought in by barge from Chunkai. The worst of our sick went down to Chunkai by barge, and fit men came to replace them on the return journey. These barges were hired from the Thais, who also manned them. They had obviously been made originally to be pushed through the water by the big ‘T’ handled punt poles, as indeed some of them still were. The ones hired by the Japs all had paraffin engines, but in the swiftly flowing and meandering parts of the river, skilful use of the pole was still needed, as the engines were not powerful enough to drag these heavy boats, often loaded down to the gunwales. Each boat had a running-board along each side; the boatmen walked along this to the front of the boat, dropped their poles into the water, and walked back along the board, ‘T’ piece to his chest ‘walking’ his boat upstream; very hard work it looked too, and they kept it up all day. Those boats with no engine had two ‘pushers’, one walking along each side, and keeping the craft straight with no-one at the tiller must have taken quite a lot of skill.
On the fourth of July, we were informed that there was to be no more meat sent up from Chunkai, instead we would be issued with beef on the hoof. I was still working as camp tinsmith, carpenter and general handyman, so the C.O. asked me to add ‘camp butcher’ to the list, and never having been short of confidence, I of course accepted. The next day I was told to bring one of the cooks with me as we were going down the line a couple of camps to collect two oxen. After a few kilometres we arrived at a Tamil camp, and outside this we found our two oxen tied to a tree. They were very ancient beasts of burden with most of their hair worn off where plow and cart had rubbed during the years. They were not without sores either. The ropes they were tied with were far too short to lead them by, and we only had one piece of string between us. The cook and I agreed that the only thing we could do was to kill one of the animals then and there and carry it back, while the Jap led the live one back on our string. After some demur, our guard agreed, and I asked him if I could go in and ask the Tamils to lend me a knife and axe or hammer. He said he would go himself, and left us outside the wire, unguarded. Later he signaled for us to bring one of the animals into the camp, and we found him standing by a post with a hook in it where we could tie the ox while we killed it. He had a knife and hammer in his hand. So we dragged our reluctant charge to the post and tied it up.
Until now the camp had appeared to be deserted, but suddenly we were aware of dozens of furtive figures appearing from the nearby huts. Some were staggering on fleshless legs, most were crawling on hands and knees, too weak to stand. We were soon completely surrounded by these poor Tamils whose shrunken lips, but still white teeth, gave them the appearance of walking dead. Eyes and cheeks were sunken, bodies fleshless. Belsen could not have looked worse; I shall never forget them. Our treatment of the Tamil workers on the Malayan rubber plantations before the war may have left much to be desired for all I know, and they may have been justified in welcoming the Japs as their saviors. Now, in these forced labor camps they were quite unable to cope. Having been told exactly what to do all their lives, they were incapable of organizing themselves in the way we could. Japs only issued food rations to those who could do a full day’s work. We shared ours out between fit and sick. The Tamils each ate their own, so the sick men starved. Since, sooner or later, all fell sick, inexorably, they nearly all died, if not of their sickness, then of starvation. I was told that the Japs had written this camp off and left them to starve; they just sent lorries in periodically to collect the dead and burn them in the jungle.
After the experience I had already gained in killing a pig, I managed much better this time, finding that both animals ‘worked’ more or less the same way. The skinning proved the most awkward part of the work, and I was unable to avoid getting the carcass smothered with dirt off the ground. While I worked, every movement was followed by hungry eyes, as the Tamils squatted in a circle around us. They were waiting for the skin and entrails of this old-age pensioner we had slaughtered. I cut the skin into as many pieces as I could, and gave them one each. We tied the skinned ox’s legs together, and slinging it on a bamboo pole we moved off with our load. I looked over my shoulder and saw two Tamils squabbling over a piece of skin from the head with the horns attached. It gives an indication of the condition of these animals, that we arrived back in camp not unduly tired, though having carried the equivalent of a side of beef each for a distance of about three kilometers. The cooks found it necessary to cook the flesh until it separated like string from the bones, and every man received a tablespoonful of beef broth with his evening rice for three days. A week later I killed the second ox, but after going to the trouble of killing and skinning it, I found its lungs were eaten away by disease, so we had to bury it.
I suppose the reason that there are no horses in Thailand is that there is hardly any grass. During the rainy season some coarse grass did spring up here and there, but this disappeared completely in the dry season. The oxen and water-buffalo however, seemed to be able to exist on rice straw alone, so it was no wonder they were so thin. The carts these animals pulled were long, but only three feet wide, so made for traversing the narrow jungle paths. The two wheels were untyred, with the four wooden felloes (rims) tied together with rawhide. As they wore, the wheels became nearly square as the softer long grain in the middle of each felloe wore away more quickly than the end grain, and they would rock crazily from side to side as they went. The drivers did not carry a stick or whip to urge their beast on; instead they sat at the front of the cart, hand on the tail. If the pace slackened from the usual dead slow to nearly stop, then a twist of the tail would liven the animal up. These same beasts pulled the ploughs, which did not look to be much more than pointed branches to be dragged through the mud under water.
In this camp was the Jap office covering the whole area. On the eighth of July the Japs who worked there brought some native spirit into their quarters, and at nightfall they moved out of their huts the worse for drink and evidently looking for trouble. Experience had taught us to keep out of the way when they were like this; however to our surprise they made for the huts where our Korean guards slept, and started shouting what to us sounded like nasty remarks at the Koreans. Several of these left their quarters and started to scrap with the Japs, and the fighting continued until the N.C.O. in charge of the engineers came over and sorted them out. These squabbles became fairly frequent from now on, as the hitherto latent dislike which had always existed between Japs and Koreans broke through to the surface.
As camp handyman I was kept very busy with jobs which included making stretchers for the doctor, baking tins for the cookhouse, sharpening gramophone needles for the Japs, and mending their torches. These contained a small dynamo which was ratchet operated by means of a lever on the side. A Dutchman brought his ring for me to remove the diamond for him to sell. He wanted to keep the ring itself as it was given to him by his wife. On the tenth of July I received two more letters, one from my sister written in June 1942, and one from my mother dated the following November. The rainy season had started a week or so earlier, and the rain was now falling in ceaseless torrents. The river was soon in full spate as it roared down from the mountains in swift, muddy, and un-navigable flood. We had to stop washing in the river, not only because it was so muddy, but mainly for fear of being carried away. Instead, we washed in the continual stream pouring from the eaves of our huts.
During the hours of darkness in Kinsio, we could often hear tigers roaring in the jungle. The Japs kept their meat ration in the form of live pigs in an enclosure on the edge of the camp, and the tigers now started leaping the fence at night and running off with pigs. After losing three or four in this way, the Japs erected a bamboo tower with a platform on the top overlooking the pigsty, and on the night of the nineteenth they lay up there waiting to ambush the unsuspecting tigers. In the middle of the night we were awakened by a noise sounding like the opening barrage on the Somme. Next morning we heard that the bag had been one tiger, and that it was to be shared by all the Japs in the area. Our four guards share was one leg and a portion of the brain, which later they ate raw, dipped in sugar! The leg they stewed and had for supper. One of them brought the bones out of the foot to me and ordered me to make them cigarette holders out of the digits. I made them all right, and was so pleased with them that I decided to keep one for myself for a souvenir. When the Jap came to collect them a day or so later he spotted at once that one was missing. When I explained that one had been no good and that I had thrown it away, he clearly did not believe me, and yelled and waved his arms about for a while; but no blows were struck, and he eventually left muttering. Our four Japs were pretty good as Japs went; the working parties on the railway however, worked under the Jap engineers from the next camp; these were a savage lot, and not a day passed without tales brought back of someone having been beaten up.
Not only did I have to kill the very few animals that the prisoners were given, but as camp butcher I had also to kill the Japs’ pigs and cattle. On my own it was quite a problem holding the animal still while I clubbed it unconscious. In the end I hit on quite a satisfactory expedient. I tied the animal to a tree with a fairly long rope, then chased it round and round the trunk until it was jerked to a stop head against the tree, and I landed my blow before it could start to unwind.
As I have indicated before, the Thais seemed to be an independent and brave race. A day or so later one of our work parties came across a dead tiger with a knife in its side, and not far away on the jungle path lay a dead Thai. Thais did not lick the Japs’ boots as did most of the Oriental races, and although like all peoples there were plenty of rogues, I left Thailand with a very soft spot in my heart for them. It was one of my life’s ambitions, one day to return and see that country and people through a free man’s eyes, but I understand that evil has been at work there in recent years, making a visit less desirable.
Early on in our stay at Kinsio, a trainload of Javanese and Sumatrans had stopped at our station on their way up country. Some of the Dutchmen went over to speak to them but were hissed and spat at. They spoke to us however, and one of our boys who spoke Malay was told that the Japs were giving them virgin land for them to colonize, and the Japs had promised that each would have his own farm. The twenty-fourth of July, a Javanese lad in his early teens staggered into our camp and collapsed. When he regained consciousness he told us that he had walked without food from Moulmein, that was about a hundred miles as the crow flies and probably twice as far the way he had come; with no-one to share the terrors of the jungle nights, it was a miracle that he survived the journey. In fact he was the only one who did. He told a Dutch interpreter that the trainload of them had been dumped in the middle of the jungle without supplies, and expected to scratch a living without help or tools to get them started in their cultivations. Cut off from everything that was familiar to them, and without food or medicines, they were dying mainly of starvation. The boy said he had left while he still had the strength to walk. The guards came over and told us not to talk to him but leave him to die where he was. Needless to say we ignored this (with impunity, to our surprise), and laid him in our hospital hut. He had nothing but the rags he was wearing, so many of our lads brought him presents from their meager kits. I made him a set of mess-tins. Looking more like a sick child than a young man, he hung on only for a week or so, but our doctor said that the will to live had gone. The terror of the solitary nightmare journey, together with the shock of losing all his family, had proved more than he could take, and he died peacefully among our sick; we buried him with our dead, and all mourned him as one of our own children.
One of our lads had a narrow squeak two days after the Javanese boy arrived. Out on a working party, he had gone a hundred yards into the jungle to relieve himself when, hearing a rustle, he looked round and found himself looking into the face of a large tiger. He hoisted his shorts and ran for his life back to the protection of our armed guards. It had seemed to him that there were worse things than Japs. Especially so, when, on the twenty-eighth a Japanese general visited the camp and left a present of a Tickel each for every prisoner. Never having heard of anything like this before we wondered if the war were approaching its close and the general was trying to curry favour. The river was getting frighteningly high now, and tales filtered back from up country of bridges inundated by the raging torrent, the Japs not having made proper note of the high flood marks when they surveyed the route.
In camp at this time, one of the guards obtained an old Burmese sword and proposed to take it home with him as a souvenir. However, it was badly bent, and he brought it over for me to straighten for him. It was just what I had been looking for, with enough steel in it to make a slaughtering knife, a spokeshave blade, and perhaps even a sheath knife. I bent the blade backwards and forwards until the metal broke, then I pulled the handle off and threw it on the rubbish heap. In the evening I went over to the Japs’ hut and told of the terrible accident that had befallen the sword; it had just come to pieces in my hand. Although the owner exploded in rage and unbelief, his friends laughed uproariously at some huge joke. There was clearly a tale behind that sword. However the mirth of his friends I think saved me from the bashing for which I had been prepared, and he simply asked me for the broken pieces; I took him to the rubbish dump, and after raking it over for a while managed to find the handle. He let it go at that, to my great relief. I worked late that night over my charcoal furnace, transforming the metal so that it would not be identifiable in the event of a search.
Chapter 34 - Bridge Repairs, Elephants, Air Raids, In Charge, Promotion
I had not been feeling well now for several days, and one of the symptoms was constant pins and needles in my arms, gradually becoming worse until on the night of the second of August I collapsed, and was taken into hospital with a high temperature and a rigor. I remember little of the next week, as I had the worst malaria attack I had experienced until then. The next day a Pte. Wilcoxon was carried back from the railway, and laid beside me; he had the same complaint, and died two days later. Eleven days after becoming sick I had recovered enough to sharpen the doctor’s scalpels and scissors. A friend told me that someone else was managing to butcher the animals satisfactorily. It is always a little disappointing to discover that one is not indispensable.
I was still in hospital when a trainload of wounded Jap soldiers passed through the station on their way down country; we had never seen or heard of wounded Japs up till then, and as our last ‘news’ had been that they were still attacking on the Indian border, this was a most encouraging sign. This almost certainly indicated that fighting must be taking place much nearer to Thailand. What, we again wondered, would our guards do when their front line was pushed back as far as here? To aid my recovery I bought a pint of gula-malacca, a kind of brown sugary treacle the Thais obtain from a palm tree, one of the tallest out there. They cut off the stalk which bears the fruit and suspend a bamboo bottle under it to catch the sweet juice. The water is evaporated to produce the product which is a cross between brown sugar and syrup.
On the sixteenth of August the doctor said I was fit to return to work. Things had not been progressing too well of late on the external work-parties. The Japs in charge of bridge repairs had a difficult job to do, and they were often impatient and brutal. Our C.O. decided that I would be better employed in charge of the bridge repair party than as odd-job man, so Dusty Miller took over my job. The next day a load of Aussies, nearly all of them sick, arrived from up country in the pouring rain, and we all mucked in to get a hut ready for them. I was surprised on my first day back on the railway, to find that we had ‘bolshie’ guards who did not seem to care whether we worked or not; I’d never come across this situation before. We were taken to Rin-Tin, a few kilometers up country, supposedly clearing away undergrowth where the jungle was creeping back and encroaching on to the line. After an hour’s work, the Japs took us into an old hut, and we all spent the remainder of the day talking and singing.
A few days later we started with the engineers on what was to be our regular job, bridge repairs. First they told us to dig a deep trench round their site hut. They were at pains to explain this was for drainage, but as it was five feet deep we guessed that it was for use during air-raids. We had been hearing for some time that the railway up country was getting regular attention from our bombers, and we had seen that traffic on the line through our camp was now moving mainly by night. On the way back that evening one of our men was severely beaten because the guard did not see him salute as he passed.
The bridges we were repairing were simply constructed from standard sized timber balks, cut straight from the jungle, and held together with metal dogs. The balks had been cut from trees irrespective of quality; some were of good hard timber, others were soft and pithy, easily and quickly eaten away by the omni-present termites. Now, as the trains passed over, the unserviceable beams could be seen being compressed like sponges with the weight. Our job was to cut sound teak trees down, perhaps a hundred yards away in the jungle, square them by hand into balks, and drag them to the site of the bridge. Our only tools were blunt cross-cut saws, blacksmith made axes, and ropes. As we felled each tree, we first cut it to length, cut a series of slots across each side in turn with our cross-cuts, then flattened them out with our axes. It would have been a painfully long job were it not that there were so many of us working, like the termites whose ravages we were repairing.
Sometimes there would be no suitable trees close at hand, then we would travel up to half a mile into the jungle to find them. Elephants with their mahouts would then be hired or commandeered, one with a chain to pull at the front, and the other to push the timber from behind. Two of these animals could manage far better than the hundred prisoners heaving on ropes with sticks waved over them. The Japs sometimes tried riding the elephants themselves, and worked themselves into terrible paddies when they would not do as they were told; but it is no use getting cross with these incredibly intelligent and gentle beasts, as they know themselves, better than their masters, how to cope with their work. Each fresh log an elephant is given to move, is first assessed; it is gently rocked to and fro with head or tusks, or if chained to it, gently pulled from side to side. If he feels the log is too heavy, or if the ground is too soft, neither blows, cajoling nor shouting will move him until more help is provided.
The actual process of exchanging new beams for the faulty ones in the bridges was far more difficult. Handling heavy timbers weighing a ton was difficult and dangerous at the best of times; it was made worse by the fact that our engineers spoke little English and thought that we could be made to understand their incomprehensible orders with screams and blows. Many of the replacements were fifty feet up; we had no winches or derricks, and each one had to be hauled up with ropes, and levered into position with crow-bars. Sometimes when a train was heard, the Japs would get excited and lash out at the men pulling on the rope that was preventing the balk from falling on the men trying to push from below. After one particularly dangerous episode, when a Jap told the wrong men to pull, and a dozen of our men narrowly escaped falling to their deaths, I stuck my neck out and ordered the men to lower the balk to the ground. I paraded them in two lines, and ignoring the shouts of our engineer, I marched over to the Jap in charge. I made him understand I was suggesting that if he would go for a rest under the trees with all the other Japs, I would supervise our men and get the job done. Since we always had to finish a replacement job once we had started it, no matter how late we finished, I could see no harm to our cause in what I was offering to do; getting our men killed would help no-one. ‘Bagero!’ (fool) shouted the Jap, ‘Engerisoo soljah no good’. His cronies gathered round him, and for five minutes they argued and gesticulated. At last, without speaking, I was waved back to my men, and the Japs moved a little further off. I think that none of them would take the responsibility for letting me do what I wanted, but they all wished to see what would happen.
I called our gang together, and we discussed our plan of campaign. Smaller gangs were split off, each with a leader, and with a specific job to do, and all moved back to the bridge. Without a shout or a blow, the beam moved into place with military precision, and in less than half the usual time. Never again on that working party did we get any interference, and in fairness to the Japs, it must be said that however quickly we replaced our beam, no more work was ever added. With our new system working satisfactorily, our guards became more friendly; during meal breaks they would come over for a chat, and occasionally offer us some of their food. Sometimes we would be asked how long we thought the war would last; evidently realizing at last that their propaganda had misled them, they thought that we had more genuine information than they. More and more they would reiterate that if Japan did lose the war it would be the duty of every Japanese man to kill his wife and children, and then to commit the hara-kiri (literally, 'belly cut'), giving us a practical demonstration (without knife of course) of how the ceremony was performed. When the end did come I was to see no-one carry out this gory deed.
We had one guard, a decent type, who spoke some English, having been a schoolmaster. Seeing some of our men elbowing one another out of the way to get at some of their left-over food, he said to me ‘At school we teach, all English, gentlemen’. I replied, indicating one of the bullying Japs, ‘At school we teach all Nippons polite’. After thinking awhile, he said ‘War changy all!’ Although we had no regular source of news at Kinsio, we knew that things must have been going badly for the Japs. Apart from that trainload of wounded, and the air-raids, their manner had undergone a change from their earlier arrogant and boasting attitude.
On the twenty-eighth of August, we left camp for Rin-Tin bridge soon after dawn. The bridge was a long curved one around a cliff, and very high. We were working near the center of it later in the day, when I heard a plane, and looking up, saw it approaching straight down the line at us. I yelled ‘Run’ at the top of my voice, and Japs and prisoners alike legged it over the sleepers for the end of the bridge over fifty yards away, every moment expecting to hear the whine and crash of bombs. We took cover in the jungle, and knew that it was not to be, as the plane passed overhead, down line in the direction of Kinsio camp, with its station nearby. At intervals of about two minutes several other planes passed over, and towards the end of the raid we heard a stick of bombs explode. ‘Not far down the line, hope they haven’t got our camp!’ said someone. When it all seemed to be over, our guards held a hasty conference, they seemed to be arguing whether to take us back to camp or carry on with the work. After a short time one of the Japs hurried off down the line, and the rest of them took us back to work, albeit with many an anxious glance skyward from us all; no one’s mind was on the task in hand.
An hour later, a diesel engine came up the line with the Jap on board who had gone off earlier, and as he gesticulated, and excitedly told his tale to the others, we knew something serious had occurred. We were hastily fallen in and marched back in the direction of our camp. As we approached Kinsio station, everything was in turmoil, with dust still hanging in the air, and Japs running about everywhere. We entered camp and learned from our comrades what had befallen. A stick of a dozen bombs had been aimed at the station, but none had hit its target.
Before the raid, the Japs had dispersed into the jungle, including the station-master, who had taken refuge over a hundred yards away. The nearest bomb to the station scored a near direct hit on him; he would have been safe had he remained in the station. They burnt what they could find of his body that afternoon, and put the ashes into an eighteen inch cubic box, covered it in white paper inscribed with Japanese characters, and held a funeral service in the evening. The ashes were then sent off down country, ostensibly destined for Japan. (We later heard that these were destroyed before leaving Thailand.) After tea we were ordered to dig trenches round our own huts similar to the ones we had dug for the Japs, and these were to save lives later on.
We left camp as usual on the first of September, initially to repair a bridge. However we were diverted to what we were told was an emergency; about a hundred of us piled into a diesel train, and we moved off down the line. The emergency proved to be in the shape of a steam locomotive which had left the track and ploughed its way down the embankment pulling six trucks after it. Fifty yards of track were torn up, and the locomotive’s nose was deeply buried in the soil. The only tackle we carried was a few jacks, pulleys, and ropes. The engine was heavy; I asked our engineer if a crane was coming, ‘No crane’ was the curt reply. One of our boys was an ex railwayman; ‘Quite impossible to put that back with this tackle’, he observed; we all agreed. The monster, boiling hot and steam squirting from every nook and cranny, would have to be hoisted up, the embankment restored, sleepers and lines restored, and engine and trucks replaced on the line. In spite of all that, by twelve-thirty that night, working by the light of acetylene flares the Japs had all back on the line, steam up and ready to move off. I cannot recall exactly how it was accomplished. We cut down trees to make sheer-legs, others to make long levers and fulcrums, we were yelled at, pushed out of the way to let the Japs, running round like maniacs, do the work themselves. They worked like men possessed, some dropping from exhaustion and being replaced by others. I caught odd glimpses of a Jap face straining in the light of a flare. Never have I seen men more determined to complete a job. Complete it they did, but I never knew whether they were driven by patriotic fervor, or fear of what would happen to them if the next train could not get through.
We spent the next few days in digging trenches beside the railway station, and several trainloads of troops went by in daylight; these were the first we had seen, as they had previously traveled only by night. They always stopped for a while at Kinsio, and often tried to speak to us. They were crowded in similar trucks to those that had brought us up from Singapore, although traveling with the sliding doors wide open. We saw that the floor of each truck was covered with upturned forty-gallon oil drums, and one soldier sat on the end of each drum; the roof was only a little way above their heads, so they were unable to stand up. The Jap in charge of this section of the railway was changed, with an officer named Konoye taking over. He proved to be not very nice, and our tenth day, Yasumi day, hitherto sacrosanct, and highly necessary for de-bugging, washing etc., had to be spent digging his garden. He came along just as I was giving the men a rest, and he beat me up with his stick.
Two days later I was put in charge of a small party of men in the Jap sweegy-bar (cookhouse) and we managed to help ourselves to a bottle of highly prized soya sauce each. One man’s loin-cloth was so brief that he was spotted as we left. He only had his face smacked, and the remainder of us were not searched. I was unable to understand why. For the next week or so my party were on engine firewood fatigue, and our task was to cut firewood in the jungle, cart it to the embankment, and stack it beside the rails between two stakes which we had to drive into the ground. While doing this work I received my first scorpion sting, when picking a log up from the ground. I staggered back feeling as though I had touched a live electric wire. As the shock seemed to affect my whole body I did not realize what had happened until my hand swelled later, and it was about an hour before I recovered sufficiently to carry on with my work. When we returned to camp that night, our C.O. told us that he had heard officially that forty prisoners had been killed, and many injured, in an air-raid on Non-Produk, a camp some miles further up country. We sat on our beds late into the night discussing the latest turn of events.
On the ninth of September our C.O. sent for me, and said that he was appointing me Acting and Unpaid Company Sergeant Major to take charge of our company. He gave me no reason for this but I guessed that no-one else wanted to take on the job, as not many relished being in charge of working parties, and therefore having to carry the can when things went wrong, and be punished by the Japs; and although blows could be expected, there was never praise or reward for a job well done. However, it was true that I always preferred to be in charge, knowing that if things went wrong I had only myself to blame for any errors of judgment; so I could not complain at my promotion. At one time I had two warrant officers and a colour sergeant working in my gang; although senior to me they had removed their badges of rank.
The next evening, by the feeble glow of my oil-lamp I read the first official news of our captivity. It was a small slip of newsprint headed ‘Victory News’ and was being passed from camp to camp, having been dropped by an aircraft further down the line. I cannot recall the exact message, but broadly, it said that help was on the way to us, and the best thing we could do to help our country was to stay where we were. I was later to see thousands of leaflets dropped by our planes, but none in English. All the others were in Chinese or Thai, and we had no interpreters with us at the time. It is a wonder the Japs did not notice the radiant faces of their captives during the next few days. Not long after this we heard that a stick of bombs landed right inside a POW camp down country, killing nearly two hundred and fifty of our boys.
On September the twenty-seventh, one-hundred and four Aussies marched into the camp, which made us so crowded that we had to close all the bed-spaces down to make room for them. In the evenings I spent much time chatting to them, some of whom were real ‘old timers’, tough old nuts reared with sheep on outback farms. I found them very good company and made some excellent friends.
At Hindato there was a very long bridge, more of a curved viaduct, that swung round, skirting a cliff, over a deep ravine. On the ninth of October a troop train similar to the one previously mentioned, filled with men sitting on oil drums, was passing over this bridge when part of it collapsed; the train fell off and landed up-side-down in the ravine. We were never told how many men died, but from the mess we saw from above, it must have been several hundred. The Japs made no attempt to salvage the train as it was too badly damaged and the gory mess remained there until we moved away.
Chapter 35 - Wounded Soldiers, Aussie Friend, and Twice Poisoned
We were now to be given an insight into the way our enemies had been educated to treat those of their own race who were no longer of use to their Emperor, and this enabled me to understand even more clearly, the way we were treated by them. My party was working at a station a few kilometers along the line. The time was mid-day, and we were eating the cold rice we had carried out with us from camp that morning. A train of closed steel cattle trucks, such as we travelled in from Changi, pulled into the siding about twenty-five yards from where we were sitting. A party of Japs appeared from the station hut carrying buckets of rice, which they placed beside the train, one to every third truck. They went back, and reappeared with buckets of water which they set down beside the rice. Then, walking the length of the train, they slid open all the doors. These stations had no platform, so there was about a five feet drop from the cattle-truck floors to the ground. As we watched thin legs pushed out of the door openings and weakly reached for the ground. One emaciated creature fell out and remained in a crumpled heap where he had fallen, quite still.
The station Japs returned to their hut without a glance at their comrades in the train. Our own guards had not seemed a bad lot as Japs go, and I looked at them in disbelief, when they carried on laughing and joking among themselves as though they had not seen their fellow countrymen dying only a few yards away, for want of a little help. I asked one of our guards who spoke a little English, why he was not helping his sick mates. He blithely explained that a good Japanese soldier neither became a prisoner, nor allowed himself to be sent back wounded. In either event he must commit the hara-kiri, and not become a liability to the Emperor. For a moment or two we looked at one another. How many times had we said what we would like to do to the little yellow so-and-so’s. How wouldn’t we like to see them suffer. Now, almost to a man, we got to our feet and moved to the train, with the guards’ laughter still ringing in our ears.
We were greeted by a terrible stench as we approached the trucks. Those poor chaps must have been shut in without food or water, and no toilet facilities, for several days. Some were only boys, most under twenty-two years. Nearly every truck contained several dead; many had terrible wounds, undressed and covered in flies. Others had amputations only covered by field dressings put on in the field. None had been through a dressing station before being bundled into the train. The first truck I looked into had two above knee amputations, yet any of these men who wanted food or water would have to drop to the ground or be shut in that iron hell again without either. Our men, their prisoners, walked the length of the train, lifting those out who were able to stand, and filling mess-tins and water bottles for the others. When we had done all we could, we returned, nauseated, to our guards.
About ten minutes later, that was after we had started work again, a Jap drove up in a lorry. Tamils piled out and commenced loading the dead from the train into the back of the lorry. As it drove off into the jungle we could see that the bodies were piled up higher than the sides, and the Tamils were sitting on top of the load. We soon saw smoke rising from the jungle as the bodies were burned. Our guards told us that they were the lucky ones, troubles finished. Yet we were tolerated, and fed for nearly four years. During this time they were losing ships in huge numbers, and finding it difficult to keep their own people fed. Yet they provided for us, and indeed, sent many prisoners back to Japan, where they were often looked after as well as their own people. It is all very difficult to understand.
In later years, friends told me that back in Japan, the Japanese civilians were always friendly to the POWs that had been sent there, and none tried to take it out of them, even after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By now, I had got to know the Aussies who were sharing our hut quite well, and a great lot of characters I found them to be. Generous to a fault, thorough individualists, ready to take offense and offer to fight one minute, and the next give you half their blanket. Quarrel with one and you quarreled with all the others in his gang. They loved to tell naive, tall stories about their tough life in the Australian outback. To tackle a difficult or dangerous job choose an Aussie for a partner; need a company of men to have to try to organize? Stay well away from these chaps. I do not remember seeing one of them as prisoner still wearing his badges of rank up country. In particular, I made friends with a tall slender young Aussie named Lloyd Stennett, who had in peace-time worked for the Post Office Telephones in the Sydney area. We had lots in common, both being useful with our hands, and having a collection of tools, some of which we exchanged. In the evenings we would swap yarns, and discuss politics and world affairs. When I was sick he brought me a boiled egg; knowing he had no reserve of money, he had spent half his ten-days’ Jap pay on me. After the war, I was to correspond with him until his death. His mind never fully recovered from the conditions we were to suffer. He never married, and spent his latter years in an old soldiers' home in Bundaberg.
I always supplemented my rations by boiling up any kind of weed or leaf that I found growing in the vicinity, usually first trying a small piece of anything unfamiliar before eating much of it. By now, therefore, I was becoming quite an authority on the edible flora, and comrades often brought new plants for me to try out. Not that I was an infallible judge of these things, I just happened to have a strong digestive system. However, I still made plenty of mistakes. During the dry season some potato-like tubers were dug up by the embankment, and brought for me to try. There was no top left on them to indicate the kind of plant which produced them, but as they looked and smelled harmless I boiled them up in my mess-tin during the lunch break. They cooked soft and floury, and as I chewed a mouthful they tasted not unlike real potatoes, so I swallowed. Even as the mouthful went down I began to feel pins and needles in my mouth, and soon mouth, throat and stomach felt as though they were on fire. I put my fingers down my throat, but nothing happened. I said nothing to my friends during the next couple of hours as I endured a kind of fever. However I suffered no permanent ill effects, and warned my friends not to eat them. Later on I was to find that a plant like our ‘Lords and Ladies’ grew from these tubers.
I was to have a similar adventure from the local fungi. There were the remains of an old cattle stockade in Kinsio, and in the spot where the posts were rotting in the ground, I discovered growing what looked not unlike the European Champignon or ‘Fairy Ring’ mushrooms, which I knew were edible. Taking a chance I picked a mess-tin full, instead of the usual precautionary sample, and stewed them over the fire we kept burning in our hut to help keep mosquitoes away. Our evening meal was of plain rice, and I poured mushroom stew over it. My recollections of the next few hours are some of the clearest of all my POW days. When I had eaten most of my meal, on looking down I saw a regular, and almost pretty pattern of bright pink blotches on my hands as I dipped my spoon in for another mouthful. Fellow POWs were always ‘taking the Mickey’ at my 'omnivore' habits, and I raised my eyes apprehensively to see if any had noticed what was happening to me. I suddenly felt ridiculously self-conscious, and although I could catch no-one’s eye, I felt that everyone was staring at me. Looking down at my almost naked body, I saw this strange pattern spreading up my arms. At last, as my friends had so often foretold, I had poisoned myself, and thoughts raced through my brain of the fatal cases often reported in the newspapers back home. I looked around me again; whatever happens the lads must not know about it yet. As I looked the faces of my friends took on a strange air of fantasy, and my blotches spread all over me, and became brighter.
Although I was able to think very clearly, I still did not realize that the colors appearing on my skin were really a product of my mind, and that it was really something akin to looking at a white object through a prism, and seeing the colors of the rainbow. Under my bed was a rusty tin containing half a pint of the local rock salt. With slow deliberate movements I descended from my bed staging, tipped all the salt into my home-made pint mug, and filled it with cold water from my bucket. Walking down the center aisle of our hut, I had difficulty in not breaking into a run, as I felt thousands of imaginary eyes boring into my back. Hurrying over to the latrine while trying not to spill my salt and water, my legs began to feel wobbly, and by the time I reached my destination I had to lean on a post as I stirred my potion and then tried to swallow it.
The cold water had not melted any of the salt, and the gritty mixture scratched my throat as I swallowed it; all the will power I could muster was needed to force the last spoonful down; but I did not feel the slightest bit sick. I put two fingers down my throat in the accepted manner, but still to no avail. (I only recall vomiting once or twice in my whole life.) Every moment I felt dizzier, my throat more sore, as the salt worked on the scratches it had made; yet I was still determined not to see the doctor and have everyone know of my discomfiture. After trying to vomit for about ten minutes in vain, another man entered the latrine, and seeing me holding on to the post he asked me what was wrong. Opening my mouth to speak I found that my tongue would not obey me, and my words came out mixed up and slurred. The man drew my arm around his neck and half carried me to the doctor. One of the strange facts about the incident is that I remembered every part of what took place so clearly. Dr. Gotla said ‘And what have you been up to Sergeant?’ I tried to form a word but could only slobber. ‘You’re drunk’ he said crossly, having been called out from his meal. I remember how indignant I felt at his accusation, and how frustrated at my inability to refute it. He lay me down and sent the man who had brought me to fetch two medical orderlies.
When they came and took an arm each I seemed to float up without effort, and my seemingly weightless body glided over the ground to the hospital hut. My feet did not feel the ground. The path along which I was passing was in fact a depressing sheet of brown dried mud with the odd piece of rubbish clinging to it here and there. Now, to my eyes it had ‘suffered a sea-change, into something rich and strange’. Everything had become symmetrical, and all was edged with Technicolor patterns. More perhaps like a bright and beautiful mosaic design, in place of the chaos of reality. We passed several men I knew, walking up from the river in their loin-cloths. As I looked, each man became a caricature of his former self. One looked like a fat pink pig, another I can still see in my mind’s eye, as he assumed the appearance of one of Bruce Bairnsfather’s grandfather monkey characters. As I looked at each of them in turn I burst into peals of uncontrollable laughter. Before we reached our destination my ego seemed to detach itself from my body, and I was able, I felt, to travel along beside the poor orderlies who were dragging my ridiculous form between them. As I was guided into the hut and laid on a bed, the pain of my sore parched throat brought soul and body together again, and I called for water to assuage the unquenchable thirst I was to endure all the coming night.
In between long drinks of water I sang at the top of my voice. My thoughts were pervaded by a feeling of universal love, and I felt so happy that I wanted to tell everyone how stupid it was to fight and quarrel. I had to be restrained from trying to go out and tell the guards that I even loved them. The orderlies had to sit on my head as the Japs patrolled past the hut, lest they hear my uproarious singing and think I had been outside the perimeter and got drunk with the Thais. Had it not been for my poor throat constantly bringing me to a state of reality, this would have been one of the greatest experiences of my life.
The following day, I was told that I had emptied a two gallon bucket of water during the previous few hours, before dropping off to sleep at about one o'clock in the morning. Surprisingly perhaps, I had no trace of a hangover the next morning, and apart from the ever-present thirst, I felt perfectly normal. However, the doctor refused to allow me to go out that day working on bridges. ‘Tell no-one about it,’ he said when I told him the cause of my ‘trip’. ‘Your system has coped with the poison as a narcotic; someone else could die after taking half of what you ate’. The Japs asked my boys the whereabouts of the ‘Gunzo’ who was usually in charge, and some of them reported with glee that I had poisoned myself with mushrooms. When I was once more out with them, every few minutes one of the Japs would bring me old pieces of toadstool pulled from the rotting wood, and suggest I cook and eat it, keeping the while a straight face. Although I got a bit fed up by the time we finished work, I had learnt for the first time that the Japs do indeed have a sense of humour.
Chapter 36 - Very Sick, Weigh 4 Stone, Jap Horse Doctor, and True Story of "The Bridge Over The River Kwai"
A few days later, one of my men, Keyhoe by name, fell off the bridge on which we were working, and by a miracle he only had bruises to show for it. The real surprise however was that our guards showed real concern, and told him that he was awarded two days rest on full pay; nothing like that had ever happened before. That night we were called out of bed at two-thirty and boarded a train to collect a load of firewood for the locomotives. The Japs admitted that the night journey was to avoid air attack. Ten kilometers down the line our engine came off the track, and it took twenty-four hours to get it back on again.
On the twenty-sixth of November, the Japs conducted a major search of the camp, collecting all tools, razors, pencils and paper. Mine, fortunately, were too well hidden to be found. That evening I was asked to try my hand at writing a sketch for a camp concert, and agreed to try. Just as I was putting the final touches to my first literary effort, I had a sudden attack of malaria, and was taken into hospital.
During the next few days, for the first time the fever caused me to lose a lot of weight. For a while I was delirious, and during that time a bundle of Red Cross blankets arrived in the camp. There were only a few, so it was decided to cast lots among those in hospital to determine who would receive one. When I recovered consciousness a couple of days later I was surprised to find myself wrapped in a soft fluffy cotton blanket. My legs were very weak after this, my worst attack so far, and it was some time before I recovered my strength. I managed to preserve one presentable set of clothing right through all the days of our captivity. I had an obsession that I must at all costs, when we heard the war was over, be able to march smartly on parade and let the Japs see the loin-clothed figure transformed once more into a British Sergeant. The clothes that I had been wearing when we were captured lay always under my blanket, clean, neatly folded, and with scarcely a square inch of trousers or shirt not neatly darned. I wore it only to go to Church (in the few camps where there was one), or on special occasions, in order to ensure that it did not drop to pieces before we were freed.
On the seventh of December, after we paraded for work as usual, the Japs dismissed us without our leaving camp, and they had to ‘stand to’. The next thing we knew was that a big party of soldiers we did not know marched in, and herded us into an open space. They surrounded us, some mounting machine-guns, others holding hand-grenades. It was clear to us that they were expecting a parachute landing to attempt to free us; what measures would they take to abort such an effort? However, it proved to be a false alarm; at nightfall they all ‘stood down’ and we were allowed back into our huts. The next day we experienced our first air-raid as direct targets. We all took refuge in the trenches dug round our huts, as we were machine-gunned and bombed by four-engined planes flying low over the camp. In the weeks before this, a siding from the main line had been built into the camp terminating in what we called a sporry, which was a short earth-covered tunnel built above ground to house and protect one locomotive. We guessed that the planes were after this. Bombs and bullets landed in every other part of the camp, and the Dutchmen’s hut was blown completely to bits; the sporry was not touched. Although after the raid all our huts and the cookhouse were peppered with holes, lying in our trenches none of us were killed, although two were injured.
The Dutch started to look through the rubble of their hut, trying to find any of their personal possessions not destroyed; I saw one clutching a photograph, but virtually nothing else remained. The raid showed us for the first time that the Japs were not the supermen that we at times had believed them to be. While the raid was on, we were frantically waving to the planes, most of us quite unafraid. We saw the Japs nearby, manifestly terrified. It is amazing the difference it can make to be on the winning side. When the Stukas dived on us in Singapore it was we who had been terrified. I never felt quite the same about our captors after this, and took their brave talk of hara-kiri rather than capture with a pinch of salt. When it was clear that the planes were not going to return, the guards started to shout at us to regain their confidence. ‘Courra! Oroo men in hut speedo speedo!’
Two days later while working on a bridge, there was another raid, and the guards allowed us to disperse into the jungle. Half a dozen large cartridge cases fell on the ground near me as a plane uselessly machine-gunned the railway line. I took some of them back with me as they appeared to be made of copper, hoping to make one of them into a soldering iron. Some time earlier, I had purchased a pewter mug from a comrade, with the idea of using it as solder, but so far I had been unable to find the copper to make into a soldering ‘bit’. These cartridges were not the answer however; I think they must have contained some zinc, as although I was able to gather plenty of resin for flux, my new soldering iron would not solder.
We now noticed a pronounced reduction in the number of trains proceeding up country; instead, Jap troops marched past the camp, pulling hand carts stacked with weapons and stores. On December the thirteenth I had another relapse of malaria, and went back into the sick bay. While there, news came through that a trainload of prisoners was machine-gunned from the air the other side of Rin-Tin, resulting in forty-three being killed. It was becoming clear that travelling by rail was now a very risky business. Most days we heard at least one flight pass over, followed by the crunch of bombs exploding in the distance.
I now had a period of almost continuous fever, and by Christmas Day had become so debilitated that the doctor told me that I would have to return to Tamarkan with the next party of sick. I tried hard to kick against the pricks, but to no avail. Christmas Day was my last in Kinsio. I had got to know all the guards with their individual peccadilloes, and they knew me. Although the Kinsio food was terrible, I knew all the other prisoners, and had made many good friends, Dutch, Australian and British. It would be all strange again in Tamarkan, especially without Col. Toosey. Feeling very despondent and weak, I turned my kit over, half intending to dump all my illegal items rather than endure the constant strain of hiding them from the Japs. Once again, however, a comrade offered to hold on to them while I was being searched, and then he smuggled them out to me on the train.
We moved off at midnight, very glad not to be travelling in daylight, arriving in Tamarkan at eight a.m. after an uneventful journey. Although feeling ill, I was not too bad to notice that this was no longer the same dear old Tamarkan of yesteryear and Col. Toosey, it was worse even than on my previous sojourn, when we were building the shrine. It had become untidy and dirty, much like any other camp. There was a Japanese ‘doctor’ nominally in charge of the sick, but his job was just to tell our doctors how many men they were to send up country as ‘cured’ and fit for work. Our people therefore often found themselves being told to turn a hundred men out of the hospital camp as fit for work, when they knew that there were none. When our doctor told their ‘doctor’ there were no fit men, he would call all men who were strong enough to get off their beds on parade, and walking along the line he would push out a man here and there until the required total was found. According to reports, the Jap MO had been a vet’s assistant before the war. Once he made up his mind and pushed out a man from the ranks, it mattered not if our doctors explained that he were dying of TB, the Japs would see no reason. After the parade therefore our doctors would hold another one, and exchange any men that were too bad, so that the Japs still had the same number of men.
Tamarkan was now run entirely by the Australians, and although my first impressions of it had been depressing, I soon began to realize that it was being run much better than I thought. Our camp authorities were not getting the same co-operation from the Japs as Col. Toosey had received, now that the war was not going well for them. In spite of this, a laundry had been organized to wash clothes and bedding for the sick, and I had never seen that done before. The cookhouses were also very well run, in spite of the very meager rations. I had to revise my idea of the Aussies and their organizing ability. They could do it if they so wished. I was even given my first blood test, and my complaint diagnosed as S.T. malaria. There was also pus in my stools, which indicated that I had not completely recovered from my last attack of dysentery. The quinine situation in here was so bad that only sufficient was available to give to patients who would otherwise die. Therefore, blood counts of patients were taken in order that the quinine should go to those with the greatest need.
I really cannot speak too highly of those Australian doctors, they must have saved hundreds of lives by their dedicated efforts. Our doctor sent for me and told me that in spite of my infections, my body was standing up to the strain incredibly well, as I still had a blood-count of 68%, which was much better than most of the other chronic malaria patients. Since there were only four doses of quinine allocated per day for the whole of our ward, needless to say I did not have any. There were fifty patients in each ward.
On the following day, the ninth of January 1945, I was feeling very low, and very lucky indeed to escape with my illegal gear during a surprise Jap search, as I had not hidden it with my usual care. I felt unable to face the risk again, and asked one of the orderlies to take all my tools to the cookhouse for the cooks to bury for me. I never saw them again, the product of thousands of hours of spare time work, and much ingenuity. Next day the quinine ration was reduced even further, and it was now only three doses per day for the fifty men. However, after twenty-four hours with a temperature of 106 degrees, I was given a dose the following day.
During the next two months I had constant malaria and it is quite certain that only the constant devotion of the Aussie doctors and medical orderlies kept me alive. Before we were captured we would often call our army doctors everything from butchers to quacks. It seems to be a tradition, probably due to the unending battle waged between them and the lead-swingers trying to escape parades. Throughout the days of our captivity, both the doctors and our medical orderlies lived up to the highest standards of their tradition. They fought a ceaseless battle against filth and disease, with very little, and sometimes nothing, in the way of medicines; yet I heard of none ever giving up his thankless task.
On the twenty-ninth of January I received nine postcards from home, all over two years old, and older than my last batch of letters. Seeing neighbors die every day, I became very depressed. I had myself weighed on the cookhouse scales, and found that I had shrunk from my last reading of eleven stone to a present four stone. In spite of this I was determined to get away from this camp of sick men as soon as I could, lest I also lost the will to live.
On the third of February at three o-clock in the afternoon, we endured a very heavy air-raid. The steel bridge over the river, with a smaller wooden one a little way off, and also an Ack/Ack gun on a small mountain overlooking the camp, have been mentioned before. The steel bridge on its concrete pillars was only a few hundred yards away, and that was to be the target of the ensuing attack. Our first intimation that something was afoot was when we heard the drone, and saw a solitary airplane flying high over the camp; this was quickly followed by the sounding of the camp air-raid alarm. As I watched the plane I saw what looked like a great swarm of bees leave its belly; this descended, growing ever larger as it fell towards the Ack/Ack position. The Bofors gun opened up on the plane, and we saw the shells explode far below it. Suddenly we saw the mountain-top illuminated by thousands of flashes, followed by the crump of small anti-personnel bombs exploding around the gun position. During the following long raid, not another shell was fired at the planes.
A minute or so later the first plane of the main bomber force appeared low in the sky, making a bee-line for the bridge. Machine-guns on the mountain opened fire on the plane, which was so low that we saw the bullets raise dust on our parade ground, heard the Jap bullets click through the roofs of our huts. Several of our men were injured by these but none killed. We had a grandstand view of all that followed. When the alarm had sounded, our guards ran around the camp shouting that we must stay under cover or we would be shot. However, we got between the huts where they could not see us and waved Jap-happies, or anything we could lay our hands on, at the planes as they came over. I saw a huge bomb leave the belly of the first plane, saw it fall towards the bridge, and after a few seconds time-delay, heard the roar of the explosion. When the smoke cleared the bridge remained intact. The next plane approached within seconds of the first explosion, and this one dived on the Ack/Ack post, guns blazing. The first pilot must have warned this one of the machine guns up there, and after this we heard no more of them. There seemed to be seven planes in all, and they came round and round, follow my leader-style, each time dropping one bomb, aimed at the bridge. The attack lasted all afternoon; every now and then one of the planes would release a burst of machine-gun fire as the gunners spotted targets. Our guards fired not a shot but remained in their trenches, heads down until it was all over. No bullets or bombs fell on the prisoners. On the previous raid, which had taken place on the twenty-eighth of November, eighteen of our lads had been either killed or injured. This raid tasted for three hours. When the all-clear sounded and we were able to get a good view of the bridge we were amazed to see every span still intact. Three hours non-stop virtually unopposed bombing from low-level, and not one direct hit.
When work-parties left the camp next day, however, they found that the concrete piers had been undermined to such an extent that they were three feet out of upright in places. The purpose of the operation had not been to knock out spans which could be replaced fairly easily, but what they did was made sure the bridge was never used again. Our men also found out that three direct hits had been made on the wooden bridge, and from this time forth there was always to be a working party repairing it; and as soon as this was done it would be bombed again. This is the fact, as opposed to the fiction of ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai.’ Incidentally, the Thai word ‘kwai’ means ‘water buffalo’. From now on, there was also to be a party of prisoners working on the unenviable task of salvaging unexploded bombs from the river bed. There seemed to be hundreds of these, mostly five-hundred-pounders, and before long we saw them in rows along the river bank. At first our officers had told the Japs that it was against international law for prisoners to do this dangerous work, but the first work-party detailed to do the work was told that any man refusing to do as he was told would be shot, so the lesser of the two evils was bomb retrieving.
Chapter 37 - Our Officers Go, Top Class Train Ride, Hurricane, Scarce Water, Aerodrome Building, and Escapers
On my birthday, the sixth of February, I marched out of Tamarkan for the last time, never even to see it again, destination Chunkai, where we arrived at six o’clock that evening. The R.S.M. sent for me the next day, and asked me if I would take over the job of group canteen purchaser. This consisted only of purchasing two eggs per day for each sick man from our regiment in the camp, and giving them out personally, I had no money of my own and found the practicalities rather awkward; I therefore borrowed twenty Tickel from Sgt. Horrocks, who seemed to be one of the favoured ‘permanent residents’ of Chunkai, and in business in quite a big way. This loan enabled me to buy eggs in bulk, and more cheaply than the hand to mouth system I had originally been expected to operate.
Now the Japs decided to take the remaining officers, and send them all to Kanburi further down the line. Officers had been looked upon as ‘they’ by most other ranks up until now. This was partly because they received money from the Japs which they were in theory to pay back after the war out of their officers’ pay. It was also because the officers lived always in separate huts and ate on their own, that we always thought they were living better than they actually were. In fact I am quite sure that our officers did all they could to help us at all times, and allocated some of their cash in the larger camps like Chunkai to the welfare of the sick. When we realized that the last of our officers were really going to be taken right away from us, they suddenly became ‘we’s’ for the first time. As they moved out of camp it was a sad parting. We all knew that the end of the war could not be all that far off, and many believed that the Japs would shoot us all when they realized the end was approaching. They knew these officers were our leaders, and were probably removing them because leaderless men would, they thought, be easier to dispose of. It was with sadness therefore and with many a moist eye that we said good-bye.
I was still having one relapse of fever after another, and soon had to give up even my little canteen job. A blood-slide showed both S.T. and B.T. malaria, and I was able to do little other than rest. On the twentieth of February, I was told to be ready to move out of Chunkai to go further down country, and the next afternoon we marched into Kanburi. Before they would allow us in the camp we had to unload a trainload of firewood. In the camp we sat by our kits all night, awaiting a train to take us further on our way.
The next morning we were told to stand down, and I got two hours’ sleep. Going to the well to fill my water-bottle, I saw that since our last sojourn someone had made a big set of bamboo pumps with great ingenuity, and water was now pumped up from the well in bamboo pipes and stored in big tanks. After spending yet another night awaiting our train, at four a.m. on the twenty-third we climbed on board at last. After a wait of three hours we steamed slowly off, passing through Banpong (our first port of call when we came to Thailand), and on to Ratbury, where we saw that another bridge of steel and concrete had been blown up. Here we spent the afternoon carrying sacks of tapioca for the Japs, many of us so weak that we needed four men to a sack.
That evening, we crossed the river by barge (the bridge being destroyed), and were made to mount up onto the curved metal roofs of cattle-trucks similar to those in which we had arrived from Changi. We were given a dollop of cold rice each on the roof, and then the train moved off on what was to prove a very dangerous journey. We should have used our rice ration to stick ourselves on those roofs. As it was we linked arms and hung onto each other like grim death, as the train bumped and swayed over the uneven track, and we steamed South towards Malaya. We all considered ourselves very lucky to arrive safely at our destination at ten o’clock in the evening. We dumped our kits by the railroad and sat on them until one a.m. before being marched away by our guards. We knew by the stars that we had been travelling South, so we could be in either Southern Thailand or Northern Malaya. We later found it to be the former. Another thing we were not to know, was that we were marching to our last sojourn in a P.O.W. camp before the war in the Far East ended.
Arriving in our new camp after a long march, in my debilitated state I felt about all-in, and from seven in the morning when we arrived, until mid-day, I lay more or less out for the count. I was brought round by my friends at mid-day to receive a plate of rice with sugar sprinkled on it. For the first time I became cognizant of my surroundings, and saw that there were no huts for us, and that I had been lying in the open. Luckily we were in the dry season, although for those of us with fever and almost continually recurring rigors, it was not much fun to be sleeping on the ground outside.
Our first job was to be hut-building, but I was unable to help much, as I was now entering into a three-month period of virtually untreated malaria, often delirious for days on end, and remembering little about it all. One thing I do remember clearly, though. A week or so after completing it, we were all lying in our new hut when a frightening and oppressive stillness descended over everything. Gradually we began to hear a strange rushing sound coming as though from far off. Louder and louder, until it became a roar, and suddenly all hell broke loose, as with an unholy din our hut was wrenched from the ground, and it sailed high up into the sky never to be seen again. Men were lifted into the air as the bed stagings went up, and were dumped on the ground yards away. Just as suddenly the wind ceased, and rain came down in torrents. We had experienced our first hurricane. I hope it is my last. I found a piece of attap about two feet square and held it over myself to keep the worst of the rain off. Nightfall had been approaching when the catastrophe commenced, and I stayed under my ‘umbrella’ until morning.
With the dawn we were able to see the extent of the devastation. Not a stick was left standing in the whole camp. There was no cookhouse and therefore no breakfast. Most of the men’s blankets had disappeared, everything and everyone was soaked; we looked a very sorry spectacle. The work of replacement was put in hand at once, priority being given to hospital and cookhouse huts, and before another week had passed everyone had a roof over his head again. Not however before many of the fever cases developed pneumonia, and over half the population of the camp became too sick to work. When the huts were completed for the second time, the first outside work-parties left the camp. When they returned they told us they were clearing the jungle five kilometers away to build an aerodrome. They had a rough lot of guards, and several were beaten.
This camp was at the time called after the nearest village, Pechaburi, (although none of us was sure of the correct way to spell it). We were without a water supply, and those able to walk that far were escorted by guards once a day nearly a mile into the jungle, where water was bailed out of a muddy stream, and carried back to camp. Those of us not well enough to go were dependent on comrades for their water, and I was able to lend my bucket (very precious in this camp) on the understanding that I had half the water; so I was able to wash myself down every day, even though I only used a pint of water in my mess-tin. Another sick man would always use this after me, so its consistency by then can be guessed.
A party of Aussies started to dig a camp well near the cookhouse. Well might they be called ‘Diggers’. Working like Trojans, and in shifts, twenty-four hours a day, they gradually worked downwards into the rock-hard soil. I have never seen our men work so hard. They dug it like a nine feet square mine-shaft, and there was soon a big heap of soil. Within three weeks they were over thirty feet down and had reached water. It came up yellow as mustard for the first few days, and the cooks had to leave it to settle before it could be used. The well did not provide enough water for the whole camp, so a party of ‘Pommies’ (Aussie slang for the English, reputedly because of the rosy cheeks of the immigrants, before the Australian sun burned them brown), volunteered to dig another one in another part of the camp, and when that was working we just about managed, by rationing the water carefully.
Pechaburi was the first camp during our stay in Thailand where there was no river for miles around. Kampongs in Thailand, and the camps themselves, all threw their refuse into the river, and as we began to recover our health in Pechaburi, we began to wonder whether our sterile well water was a factor. As the months went by there were fewer and fewer deaths, and our health generally did improve greatly. After three months in the camp I at last shook off my malaria, and had no relapses. Looking back, I feel that it was little short of a miracle that, without medicine and an adequate diet, I could have recovered at all from the very low state I had been in only a few months before; especially as it is said that malaria cannot be cured without drugs, and I had none during that period.
The bones that had skeleton-like bulged from my knees, hips, shoulders and ribs, gradually became covered with flesh again as I regained my ability to eat. Not that I had ever given up hope. No matter how many of my friends I saw carried out feet first, I never seriously considered the possibility of my joining them. A confidence from outside myself seemed somehow make me feel that I was different from the others who were dying; although time seemed to be standing still, I was quite sure I would return home in the end.
By this time it seemed as though we had been in captivity for untold years; visions of home had become more and more difficult to conjure up, and then only as a dream. Where we now were, was the only reality. During the period in which I had been so ill, my diary had gone by the board for the first time since our capture, so I do not have the date of the day in May when at last I was pronounced fit to go back to work. I had always hated staying in camp, so even though it meant working under the Japs again, I was delighted to be detailed for work on the aerodrome party the following day, and confidence returned. I wondered how they had managed without me to look after them!
Arriving at the site, I was surprised to see hundreds of acres had already been cleared and roughly levelled, and that a modern American bulldozer was parked at the edge under the trees. It was spotless and shone like a new shilling. I asked a neighbour if it had to be cleaned up after work every day, and with a laugh he told me that it was never used, the work being done with picks, rakes and chunkels, all by hand. The bulldozer was started up every morning to make sure it worked, then polished and left. It was the only bulldozer they had, having been captured in Singapore at the same time as had we; now, no-one was going to risk breaking it and incurring such wrath as would probably entail being flayed alive. This machine could have done more work than all the prisoners in the camp put together, but it remained a museum piece.
There was, however, one sop to progress in the shape of two ancient British steamrollers, with fireboxes enlarged to burn wood. They were lubricated with pure castor oil, and lots of this had already been smuggled back to the camp for our doctors to use. The runways on the aerodrome were being made from rocks, which parties of prisoners were breaking up with sledge hammers, and the steamrollers were being used to level and consolidate these. We had to walk five kilometers to work carrying our tools, and then spent all the day in the sun working like ants on the ‘drome, levelling the ground with our picks and chunkels; then there was the same journey back 'home' again.
After the months of inaction, the first day had been a grueling one for me, and I was glad to put my feet up on our return that night. However, we did not get our rest without first experiencing some trauma; on the usual roll call, which took place before we were dismissed, it was discovered that one of the prisoners had escaped from his working party. The Japs threatened reprisals in the form of dire punishment should anyone else escape, and our own camp authorities asked us not to attempt to, as the sick in camp would be those most likely to suffer. In any case, the end of the war could not be far off now. Nevertheless, it was not to be long before three more British, and then two American prisoners also escaped. (This was the first camp in which I had encountered Americans; they kept themselves to themselves, and I did not get an opportunity to ask where they had come from.)
Chapter 38 - Injuries Heal, Take Charge of the Aussies, Freedom (In Theory)
I soon toughened up, as I worked out on the site, and for three months laboured with the men, sometimes on levelling, and sometimes on stone breaking, but always in charge of one of the working parties. One day, soon after my return to work, I saw a crowd of about a hundred men come running towards us from the other side of the ‘drome’; they were waving sticks and yelling. This is it, we thought, the war is over. We left our guards and ran to meet them, but as we got closer we saw that there were also Japs in the crowd, acting as excited as the rest; and finally we were close enough to see what the fuss was really all about; a snake going for its life, followed by hordes bent on its destruction.
The prisoners were, for the first time, organized into companies, and each company comprised three working parties. Our company consisted of one Australian and two British working parties. I was in charge of one of the British groups. The Aussies from our company were breaking rocks with sledge hammers, and my men were carrying the broken rock on to the runway, where the third party was laying it in position, and ramming it down. No-one of course ever worked harder than was necessary to keep our guards quiet, but one day I noticed a member of the Aussie group listlessly tapping gently away at the same rock for a long time without breaking anything off it; and this lasted all the time we were loading up. That was asking for trouble, and the man certainly received it. The guard in charge of the Aussies was some way off and this prisoner thought he was unobserved. However there was another guard watching him from among the trees, and in their usual way, he came rushing out with a roar, clouted the culprit round the head, and kicked his shins. Then he made him stand to attention with a fourteen pound hammer held over his head. When we returned some minutes later for another load of rocks, I saw that the poor chap was still there and on the point of collapse; every time he attempted to lower the hammer the Jap threatened him. As the sun blazed down, the man began to sway; but no-one tried to help him from his own group. Since the Aussie NCO's had all removed their badges of rank (because they did not want the responsibility, and taking the can which being in charge of the men involved), the one nominally in charge acted like one of the men. So I left my own lot and ran over to the Aussie. Snatching the hammer out of his hands, I yelled at him without ceasing for about a minute, in order to impress the Japs who were watching. Then, leading him over to a big rock, I told him to get stuck into it if he valued both our lives. The Jap had said nothing while this took place, and turning to him I made him understand that I would see to it that the bad boy did his share in future. That evening back in camp, a delegation came over from the Aussies, and asked me if I would take charge of their party as well as my own, which I agreed to do.
The fauna here was somewhat different from that up country. We were eating our mid-day rice a few days later when I met my first bulldozer beetle, and found it a most interesting little creature. He had been disturbed from his earthy home and was doing his best to rehabilitate himself as quickly as he could. About an inch long, beautifully made, black rounded and silky, he carried a perfectly made bulldozer blade in front. When I picked him up, he feigned death. Looking closely at him I was surprised to see no sign of eyes or feelers and wondered how he knew where to dig. So I put him down about a foot away from the nearest soft earth. After a minute, the blade slowly lifted to reveal two beady eyes and a pair of short feelers; within seconds he was at the heap, blade lowered, and digging himself in. Quite the most perfect creature I have ever seen.
There were also blue velvet covered spiders with bodies an inch and a half across, and they were poisonous, or so we were told. They lived in holes in the ground, each one lined with silky layer of cobweb. Then there were pale green, semi-transparent tree-frogs, with strange starry eyes. The first time I saw one I reached to pick it up but was stopped by a Dutch fellow prisoner. He told me they could squirt blinding acid from their vents and were best left alone. Although I found this difficult to believe, especially remembering our childhood belief that our British frogs could spit fire, I left them alone. They clung to the leaves with little suction pads on their feet. Buckets were again in very short supply, in this camp, and now I fashioned myself a few rough tools to enable me to resume tin-smithing again; before long I was turning out a bucket or some other item most evenings, there being more tin plate now from the Red Cross rations.
I was soon becoming really fit again. On my way to work one day, I tripped and fell with two heavy picks on my shoulder. Somehow or other I managed to get my little finger caught between them as I hit the ground, and it was so mangled that an inch of bone was exposed. However I washed the mud off, drew the flesh together, and kept it bound up with a piece of rag for a couple of weeks; when I removed it, to my surprise it had healed without becoming infected. I still have the scar.
Occasionally, my work party was taken down to the small town of Pechaburi to collect goods for the guards. The first time I went, our English speaking guard told me that the correct name of our actual camp was ‘Katchu Mountain Camp’. In the town we passed a long line of Thais celebrating some event, probably a wedding. Each one was dancing individually, with the strange and beautiful hand movements of the country, while thin strains of music came from the head of the line. Men and women each had bamboo bottles slung over their shoulders, and now and then I would see someone stop and take a swig from over his shoulder. The second time we went, an Allied plane dived at us as we were passing a stream, and I jumped into the water for protection. On hearing an explosion, I climbed out, and saw thousands of leaflets falling from the sky. Our guards later searched us for these leaflets, but they did not find mine. When I got it back to the camp I found that it was printed in Chinese and unfortunately, no-one could read it.
A few days later, the Japs brought in a group of Thais they had caught, we were told, stealing blankets. They held them in the guard-house all night, and every now and then we heard them scream; apparently they had been tortured by having hot water poured up their noses. The next morning, after being kept kneeling in front of the guardroom for a long time, they were eventually taken away somewhere.
The wet season set in now, and as usual the camp became a sea of mud. Drawing the tools for my party from the tool store one day, I dropped an axe on my bare big toe. (I was saving my boots to wear on our release, and I could not keep sandals on when it was muddy.) My toe was gashed too badly to go out to work for a couple of weeks, so I got a temporary job in camp, tin-smithing. Again, in spite of having been inundated with mud many times, my flesh healed completely with only a simple dry rag dressing.
On the fifteenth of August 1945, an exceptionally strong rumour swept through the camp that the war was over. Although, of course, it had to end some day, I did not believe it. However, something was in the wind, as we did not go out to work that day, and the guards were standing about in groups talking with worried countenances. The following day, again we were not called out to work, and to our amazement the Japs unlocked, what we had until then believed to be, one of their ration stores, but we found it to contain Red Cross goods which they had been sitting on for months. This consisted of some tinned food, which was by mutual consent used in the cookhouse to improve our meals. Mostly, however, the shed contained sports equipment, such as deck tennis rings, tennis rackets and balls, and these were shared among the huts. With such unaccustomed 'generosity' of the Japs, we began seriously to consider the possibility that the war was indeed over. I spent every spare minute I had working at tin-smithing, and turned out hundreds of mugs from the empty Red Cross food tins. I had to work to avoid thinking about what was happening, as, for some strange reason, I felt extraordinarily unsettled instead of relieved, at the thought of imminent freedom.
We had no officers with us, as they had all been separated off at Chunkai, but there was an efficient British R.S.M. in charge of the camp, so they were not missed. Everything seemed strangely quiet all day on the eighteenth, and late in the afternoon, the R.S.M. called us together to tell us, at last, that the war was really and truly over. We responded spontaneously with a deafening cheer, and then gathered in little groups of friends to discuss the news. How can I explain what it felt like to be told that a bad dream of nearly four years’ duration was at last ended? It was a most complex reaction. Try as I might I seemed to be unable at this stage fully to realize the implication of the message we had just received. Why was my soul not soaring with rapture at the thought of the fast approaching freedom? 'Rejoice and be exceeding glad' I told myself, ‘Suffering and privation are over, and we are all going home’. I was talking to myself aloud, as I suddenly realized; and looking quickly about me, saw, what I assumed to be, the same dazed look on the faces of my friends, in place of what should have been rapturous anticipation. I felt terrible, as my tummy turned over with an unidentifiable fear; where was the joy our release was to bring? All the hitherto unanswered questions as to how the Japs would react to defeat were now known; they had made no attempt to kill us, or commit hara-kiri as they had threatened, but were taking it all very calmly. I did understand all these things, but I was in a state of shock, and could not appreciate them.
That evening meal was the best since we had been captured, the cooks surpassing themselves with the aid of plentious Red Cross rations. I collected mine, but sitting down felt sick at the sight and smell. Can’t waste it I thought, and called out ‘Any one for buckshees?’ A day or two ago fifty voices would have sung out; today there was not a sound as everyone fiddled with his own helping.
The nineteenth found Japs still guarding us. They had told our R.S.M. that the Allies had sent them a message to the effect that they were to remain armed and in charge until someone came and took us over. One of our men passed a guard and did not salute him, thinking it unnecessary, now that the war was over; but he was knocked down in just the same way as he would have been before. Still unable to rid myself of the nameless fear I was experiencing, I spent all my time working. Our lives had been ordered for us during the last few years; now I would need to make many major decisions for myself. We had been told by those who should know, that after all our privations we would be impotent for the rest of our lives. Moreover, I thought, after living the way we had, everyone would think we were a bit ‘peculiar’ when we got home. I could not keep these and other thoughts from my mind as I worked. For instance, would I, as I had for many years planned, be able to marry some nice girl, after admitting to her that we could never have children? What was even more, did 'impotent' mean that not only would we be unable to father children, but did it mean we could not experience sex either? There was no-one I could ask. (Some of these fears were far from groundless. I had left home a lad, but to use my sister’s words some time after I had returned home, I came back looking like ‘a queer old man’.
Later on the family told me that for the first few months, among other things I never walked, but ran everywhere. I can now remember hardly anything about that first year back home; but years later my family told me they found it hard to hold back their tears at the way I was.) During the following few days I kept thinking I would wake up and find I had been dreaming, as the camp looked the same as usual with the Japs still in charge. However, we were issued with more Red Cross stuff, including tins of fruit, American shirts and trousers, and best of all, a lovely American fluffy army woollen blanket, which I took home with me. As clothing was then rationed, I had it made into an overcoat by the local tailor.
Men now began to discuss the possibility of breaking out of camp, so all NCO’s were called together and asked to ensure that the men were kept under control, to avoid mob rule taking over. There was also the possibility, that if a mass breakout occurred, irresponsible elements might cause trouble with the Thais. I realized that this was quite right; we did not want any trouble, now that we were soon to be free. On the twenty-first of August, some Thais called through the wire and told us that we were going to be evacuated on the twenty-eighth of the month. It seemed strange that none of our people had communicated directly with us, and that all we knew was coming from either Japs or Thais.
Just outside our camp was a large cemetery, containing the remains of all POWs who had died in the area. On the twenty-sixth we held a memorial service there, attended by all the fit prisoners, plus the Jap camp commandant and his staff.
Chapter 39 - American Visitor, Red Cross Goods, Officers Back, "Endurance Vile" Ends
On our return to camp one of the Americans, who had escaped a few months earlier, drove a truckload of Red Cross food into the camp just before mid-day. We heard that he had been living in the jungle with a party of Allied guerrillas, who had been dropped by parachute. The following day, a paratroops officer drove into camp. He mounted our earthen camp stage, and we all gathered round for what should have been one of the most dramatic moments of our lives. Tommy-gun in his hands, and dressed in camouflaged clothes, he looked as though he had just fought his way into the camp, or was part of a movie scene.
I sat down on the earth and waited to hear about all the exciting things that must have happened in the world leading up to the capitulation of the enemy. Until now, we had been told nothing. His ‘news’ was that while we had been prisoners, scientists had discovered a wonderful new medicine called penicillin. It cured many diseases, but especially, all forms of venereal disease. No longer need we worry about associating with girls out in the East, as at the first sign of trouble a couple of injections were all that was necessary! How typical of the army, to send such a fool to reintroduce us to civilisation, and all that it entailed. So after his visit we had heard not about the state of our home country, or when we were likely to be able to shed our armed Japanese captors who were still running the camp. Of the invention of the nuclear bombs, and how the dropping of them had brought about the capitulation of the enemy; also, of how the fact of their advent was to change the course of the rest of the world for ever. Instead, we were encouraged to have sex with the natives!
Later on that same day another Red Cross lorry came in, and this time the load included a small radio set. It was put in position on the stage, and we all gathered round waiting for news time. As it was not loud enough for us all to hear, one man listened and then shouted the items out as they came through. I had heard my first ‘pukka griff’ for four years. Still later, a party of our officers arrived, having journeyed from a distant officers’ camp. They brought with them the news that, eventually, we were all to be flown out from the aerodrome we had been building. So it seemed that our Japanese captors had constructed the ‘drome with our labour, but were never to use it.
Just before dusk a party of free Allied troops came in after travelling up from the Malayan border, and they told us they were to share the job of guarding us with the Japanese. They hardly spoke to us; were we regarded as not ‘one of them’? Thought to be a bit off our rockers? Or had they been ordered not to enter into conversation with us? We shall never know. That evening we were each given pencil and paper, and told we could write a message of not more than twenty words to be cabled home. I spent the whole evening in trying to compose a reassuring story in so few words; I need not have bothered, as I later found out that my parents never received the message, anyway.
The following day, as we were all gathered round the stage listening to the radio news, an American paratrooper drove into camp, stalked on to the stage, and held up his hand for silence; at last we heard what we had been waiting to hear. ‘You will all be flown out by the United States Airforce within a few hours’. He should have said ‘weeks’. When he could again make himself heard above the squeals of excitement, he told us that his regiment had been operating in the jungle only a few miles away. Had the war not ended so abruptly, his job would have been to release us in a few weeks time. Those who had escaped from camp earlier were all safe with his boys.
The Thais had co-operated in getting a message to individuals, inviting them to escape, and they then lead them to the paratroopers. They had been needed to supply details of the camp layout when the time came to attack. Our camp began to fill up with hundreds of ex-prisoners from other camps, arriving to be flown out from ‘our’ ‘drome. By evening no more could be crowded in, and there were still hundreds waiting in the local town. The first Yankee plane landed on the twenty-ninth of August. When the doors opened a ramp was lowered and a tiny truck drove out. The driver told us that it was a ‘Jeep’, and that the Americans had thousands of them. We also learned that the plane was called a Dakota. The worst sick cases had already been selected, and they were loaded onto the plane; it took off safely from our bumpy runway, carrying, as far as we knew, the first of our boys to be really and truly released from their captivity.
An American camera team had flown in with that first plane, and they began filming the camp. I carried on throughout this time of awaiting our turn, making tin mugs. I had orders for hundreds, they were wanted by the men to take home for souvenirs. From this time on, the planes began landing at the rate of about one an hour, from dawn to dusk, first, as said before, ferrying out the sick and hospital staff, and then taking loads of the more or less fit men. I made my last tinware on the 31st of August, as I was told to be ready to leave the next morning.
I then tipped all my kit out, to go through it with the intention of deciding which items should accompany me out of Thailand, and which ones to dump. As I gazed at all my bits and pieces, from my tiger toe cigarette holder to my recently made soldering iron, I was overcome with a feeling of nausea, as I thought of the death of friends, and other unhappy memories that nearly every piece recalled. In the end, on the spur of the moment, to be regretted later, I dumped everything apart from my diary, clothes, and a set of sergeants’ stripes I had made from a plated copper mirror, (I had filed the plating off and polished the copper), to use as an armband when I was not wearing a shirt. As it was the only memento from those historical days, I gave it to my son, to keep for posterity. He has lost it.
We marched out of camp with scarcely a backward glance, and arrived on the ‘drome just as our plane landed. It had originally possessed double doors, but these had been removed or blown off. We were packed in tightly, and as our Dakota climbed into the air, I saw our American ‘conductor’ leaning nonchalantly against the door post, looking out of the door opening, and chewing gum, just as I had seen them do on the films four years earlier. He neither spoke nor looked at us as we climbed high, but I thought that if we hit an air pocket he stood a fair chance of falling out. It would have been a long fall, and he wore no parachute as we climbed over the mountain range separating Burma from Thailand. Had there been a window in the floor, I might have taken a farewell look at the railway line, every sleeper of which represented a man’s life. After a few minutes he must have thought better of it, and sat on the step with his legs dangling over the side, and holding on to the door jamb. I approached him and asked what our destination was. In the stony silence that followed, he continued to stare at the distance hills. I don’t remember him opening his mouth once during the whole journey, which time revealed was to end at Rangoon Airport, where we were each handed a ‘personal’ message from our king, and a little later, one from the Red Cross.
‘Never believe the experts’, is a
lesson I have experienced many times over the years of a long life. I am 85
years of age, and pretty fit. (We were told our constitutions had been
undermined by our privations, and some indeed were.) I was far from being left
impotent, (as we were told we would be). When our daughter, (the youngest of our
three) first learned to write, her teacher instructed the class to write
something about their fathers; she wrote; ‘I love my daddy so much, I don’t
know what to say.’
“When Jehovah brought back his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream.”
Chapter 40 - Even Freedom Has Its Troubles
At Rangoon Airport we were welcomed, not only by a leaflet from Their Majesties the King and Queen, but also by one from the Indian Red Cross and the St. John War Organisation, before being bussed to Rangoon General Hospital, through the carnage that had once been a fine city. There, we were each given a good medical examination, and sorted into those fit to travel and the ones who would need to disappointed, left behind to recuperate before being sent on their way. From this point on my memory is almost a blank, but a few points do remain. Although I can’t remember the ship’s name, or our embarkation on it, I remember the song (new to us) coming over the ship’s tannoy system again and again. “I’ll be with you, in apple blossom time . . . . .”
We called at Colombo, Ceylon (now Srilanka), but I don’t recall how long we stayed there. We passed through the Suez Canal for the first time. On our way out we had to go round the cape, as enemy action made the canal too vulnerable. We must have disembarked at some point on the south coast, as the next thing I remember was being fitted out with a uniform at, I seem to recall, Brighton. Then we caught the train home. We had been told that a public welcome awaited us in Cambridge, but I do remember that I could not face it, so got off the train at Shelford Station, and walked the half mile or so home, carrying my kit, what little there was of it. My family was not expecting me just yet, as they had been told we were de-training at Cambridge first, so I believe I knocked at the front door.
I don’t remember my reception, but my sister told me afterwards that they hardly knew me. I had left home a fresh faced young man, and now I looked (to them), like an old man. I’m sure she was exaggerating. At some point we must have gathered on the front doorstep, where my elder brother took our photo. My younger brother was missing from the group, as he was a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps, and still stationed in Borneo hunting erstwhile fifth columnists. My next memory is of sometime later being sent to a special Resettlement Course for returned prisoners of war, to make sure we were fit to be let loose on the public! I think it took place somewhere near Wymondham in Norfolk, and was run, I think, by the editor of Punch magazine.
I recall being given an attractive Irish ATS redhead partner for a dance they held for us. We finished the course with an intelligence test, which I do remember well, as I was congratulated by the Punch man for having achieved the best result they had had in the course thus far. As was to be expected, the unfortunate results of our time spent away did not end with our release. We were a family of builders; not long before the war broke out, my father had purchased a piece of building land in the nearby village of Hauxton, opposite the parish church. I had drawn the plans for a row of houses there, and obtained detailed planning approval to start the building work. The war had prevented us from doing that.
As my family had thought I was dead (since they had received no notification of my survival, nor heard from me, for the first two years after my capture), father had retired from building and got rid of all the plant. He presented me with the Hauxton land to enable me to start up the building business again. If, after receiving planning approval work is not started within two years, one has to apply for further authority to start building. I applied, but was turned down. No reason was given, just that the planners had altered their minds. The planned use for the land was returned agriculture. Since it was too long and narrow to be economical for that purpose, the land had, at a stroke of the pen, been made worthless.
My next move was to approach the architect of our Local Authority, to ask if there was any possibility of my obtaining a contract for constructing council housing (there was a great dearth of affordable houses at that time, owing to the huge number of dwellings the enemy action had destroyed). I was offered four contracts in outlying villages, for just one or two pairs of dwellings on each site. The nearest was about 15 miles away, and the furthest was over 20. The big boys had all turned the opportunity to tender down, as transport costs and the small sites made the proposed contracts uneconomical. I took the contracts on. Before the war father had only paid me half a crown a week of 48 hours, but I had managed to save a total of over £400, partly because I had done a bit of ‘trading’ as a schoolboy. Incidentally, I left school at the age of fourteen.
On mobilisation, I had made an allotment of three-quarters of my army pay to my mother to save for me. Then there were over three and a half years of back pay from the army, which made up my starting capital. This was enough money to enable me to buy sufficient scaffolding and plant to get the business restarted. The next problem to solve was finding the building workers, as there were none seeking work in this area. The big builders had remained in business throughout the war, and many of their workers had been classified as excused war service. Moreover, as their other workers were demobilised, their previous employers were able to snap them up again. So what was I to do? The answer was to gather half a dozen unskilled young men from my own village, and train them myself as the first contract progressed. It was slow work for a start, doing all the skilled work myself, as I gradually passed the less skilled jobs to my men. Eventually they would all became skilled, and when I was forced to give up building after being injured in an accident, (see below), all carried on their trades for the remainder of their working lives, as far as I know.
The problem of transporting the men was overcome with the purchase of an old 30hp.car, which I converted to carry nine men (the first ‘people carrier’?) Petrol was on coupons, and my next problem was that I was only allocated about half enough of them for my long journeys taking the men to and from the distant sites. So I designed a vaporiser, which my engineer friend, Charles Fletcher, made and fitted for me. Tractor Vaporising Oil was less than a shilling a gallon (20 shillings to the £), and not on coupons; I bought it in 40 gallon drums. I had to start the car on petrol, (controlled by a two-way cock under the dash), and then switch over to my cheap fuel after a couple of minutes. I ran that car on TVO for about four years, until my accident eventually put paid to my building career. I conclude my story with an account of the accident which involved that same car, and left me with an above left knee amputation.
The year, 1948; the date, 21st November; the time, 7.45am; the weather, freezing fog; the place, the (then) winding Balsham road, half a mile or so out of Fulbourn, Cambridge. At the time I was building houses for Chesterton RDC at Fulbourn and Abington. The Fulbourn contract was well under way; I had just dropped half a dozen workmen on that site, and was on my way to Abington, where I was setting out the foundations for our next contract. My car was the big old pre-war 30hp Ford V8, running on TVO (Tractor Vaporising oil, like paraffin. Alone in it now, I was following a lorry piled high with large bags of chaff, and resigned to staying behind, since visibility was too poor to attempt passing.
Suddenly I saw one of those huge bags fall off and roll under my car; it got jammed under the steering, and slewed me off the road onto the opposite (right-hand) grass verge. Only a couple of feet of the car remained on the tarmac, and the car still faced Balsham. The lorry driver carried on, unaware of his loss. I was about to take out my pocket knife to cut the bag open and let its contents out, in order to be able to drive off, when I heard a car approaching from the direction of Balsham. Looking up, I saw a Hillman Minx approaching rather fast for the conditions. As it got closer, with the driver apparently making no effort to give me a wide berth, I took my eyes off it at the last moment, to see if it was going to scrape the side of my Ford. The next thing I remember was finding myself lying on the ground in front of my car; but when I attempted to get on my feet, I fell straight down again. It was only then that I saw the spikes of splintered bone sticking out through both legs of my trousers. All I could do then was to lie down on the road and wait for help.
As I was to discover days later, the Hillman was being driven by a seventeen-year-old youth, accompanied by several younger passengers. Having no windscreen defroster, he had lowered his side window, and was steering by judging his distance from the grass verge. The first he knew of my car being in front of him was when he hit it (and me). Twenty minutes later, two young men from Balsham drove up in an old Austin 7, and found the youngsters from the Hillman still being ill in an adjacent hedge; it was assumed they were unable to recover from the shock of the accident, and then seeing the gory mess that was me. Neither of the newcomers (one of whose surname was Plumb), knew anything of first aid, so they lifted me onto the narrow back seat of their tiny car just as I was. There I remained propped up for the two hours it took them to get me to the old Addenbrookes Hospital in Trumpington Street, arriving there some time after 10am. It had taken them so long, because having no windscreen defroster on their car either, they had to stop and scrape their windscreen every 100 yards or so. I never lost consciousness, but my whole world from then on consisted of trying to breathe, knowing that once I gave up it would be the end. As I strove for air, my throat kept closing up with a snort.
Having arrived at the hospital, I was placed on a stretcher in the emergency/accident department, which was in a single storey addition in front of the main hospital then. I seemed to lie there for hours, fighting for breath, unexamined and unattended; except that every now and then the battle axe of a sister would come to me and yell in my ear to stop making that noise, as it would only make me worse, and I was disturbing the others. This episode remains one of my most vivid memories of that awful day. Eventually I was moved into a ward, and after a brief examination, when they detected neither blood pressure nor pulse, a wire cage was put over the lower half of my body, and a blanket laid over it to conceal the mess. All this time I could see and hear, but make no other sound than my continuous fight for breath. I distinctly recall two young nurses walking by the foot of my bed; one of them lifted the corner of my blanket for them to peep inside. I saw their shocked expressions, heard the 'Ughs.' So much for my own recollections of those first few hours; what follows, was mostly gathered from others.
In the meantime the police had found the two cars, the Minx, a write-off, having bounced off and slithered to rest forty or so yards further along the road. They found the blood and bits of bone on the road in front of the slightly damaged Ford. Eventually, although unable to make out what had happened, they tied the accident up with the person under the cage in hospital. After identifying me, the hospital called up my mother, father and sister (my brothers being out of the area then). They arrived at my bedside during the late morning, and given to understand there was no hope; they decided to remain at my side until the end.
So my family were still there waiting for me to die some hour or so into the afternoon. Then another young doctor, who may just have come on duty, stopped to examine me. I was still lying there with my one object in life, the fight for breath, but having no intention of dying. It was probably being so fit that had kept me alive me until then. (In addition to working a 12-hour day, I was in full training, rising at 5am, going for a five mile run followed by a cold bath). Moreover, I had played rugger for my county only a few days before). Until this time, remember, I'd had no oxygen, saline, wound dressing - absolutely no attention whatsoever. They had not even bothered to ascertain my blood group. Then, I understand things began to happen under the fresh doctor; remonstrations, nurses running around rigging up equipment to give me an interim four-pint plasma transfusion. Perhaps a couple of hours later, with my blood group identified, I was switched over to whole blood, and soon there came the greatest blessing of all; I could breathe in freely as much beautiful air as I liked.
As I began to be able to talk to my family, a policeman with the inevitable pencil and notebook appeared at the bedside; he must have been waiting in the wings somewhere, awaiting permission to interview me. I remember how surprised he seemed to be when he heard what had actually happened that morning. It seemed that the police must have been under the impression that both cars had been moving at the time of the crash, with mine on its wrong side. Later they found the driver who had dropped the chaff, and charged him; he was fined £5. The lad who had been driving the Minx was also eventually charged, and fined £50. As for me, while I was still not fully recovered from the shock, and therefore unable to judge the justice of it, the insurance companies agreed my compensation at £2,000. It was to cost me much more than that during the first year.
The doctor told my family I was going to live after all, and they must have left late that afternoon. I carried on taking in blood until round about midnight, when I was moved into the operating theatre. I learned afterwards, that because of the shock my heart had suffered through the sudden loss of all that blood, they had decided that it might not withstand a general anaesthetic. So they had to do a rush job as a temporary measure, taking my left leg off where it had been crushed, suturing and setting in plaster the compound fracture of my right leg; all needing to be carried out within as little time as possible. It seems that when I had tried to stand after the accident, I had managed to get the wounds contaminated with horse-muck (lots of horses still about on the farms then), so I had to stay in hospital for another fortnight, having four penicillin injections a day.
Then I was sent home for three months to recover, which meant that I went back into hospital on my 30th birthday, the 6th of February, 1949, to have a proper amputation job done on my left leg, in order to enable me to wear an artificial one. Until then I’d never had the spare time to seek a girl friend. It was during my convalescence that I met my future wife and mother of our three children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Betty is over ten years younger than me, we are still together, in a village near Cambridge. My first, and only other girl friend, had been Doreen Valor. We would sit on her doorstep in Chestnut Road, Tottenham, and eat the slice bread and jam her mother would give each of us. We were two or three years old, and living in Tottenham at the time; it was a year or so before we removed to East Barnet. There my father and his brother Jim took over the premises of the retiring builders W.C. Leak and Sons, but not their inappropriate name!
* * *
Account for it how you will, but in the course of my life, I have suffered far too many near fatal events and accidents (only a few of which have been recorded here), for my survival to be a coincidence. In some marvelous way, and having done nothing to deserve it, I have been protected.
My thanks to Len Baynes for permission to reproduce his story on the site. Mr Baynes has published a number of books on a variety of subjects, this account is chiefly based upon "Kept The Other Side of Tenko", which may be purchased from Len Baynes website at http://www.glenoak.org.uk/baynes/
Return to POW Stories Menu