E. Samuel


Served : Burma (captured).

Camps : Changi, Burma Railway


Singapore, late January 1942

Size of Isle of Wight. Population 550,000, mainly Chinese with Tamils and Malayans. Over 1,000,000 after capitulation. Water from mainland, Jahore, Bahru, piped over causeway to reservoirs on NW of island. Humid hot damp climate, 90°. Europeans changed clothes three times a day. Regular tropical storms at 6.00pm. Fire flies on shrubs like Christmas in Oxford Street and beautiful sunsets. At docks we disembarked, civilians and the RAF embarked on US transport ‘Wakefield’. Absolute chaos. We unloaded our guns and transport. Kit was stored at Teckhor village. We carried essentials in our haversacks, main possessions left at Teckhor.


Gun positions - first at Changi, NE of island on smallholding – cocoa palms, bananas, pigs, chickens etc. Built gun position under banana ‘tree’. First salvo and only stem and main veins left – no camouflage so moved under tamarind tree. First salvo – millions of red ants (1”) showered down – it felt like red hot needles. Then moved to perimeter of Singapore to a Chinese cemetery. Could not dig slit trenches, water table about 9” down, constructed shelter with sand bags. Here we experienced 5th column. Guards on guns dusk to dawn. In morning in front of each gun 3 palm fronds were placed as an arrowhead pointing at the gun. As the Japs bombed from about 500ft they could hardly miss.


February 15th – capitulation. Jap infantry had crossed the causeway and captured the reservoirs. Without water Singapore could not carry on. We blew up our guns, rammed 1 shell down the muzzle and one in the breech and fired. We drained vehicles and then ran them until they seized up.


P.O.W. on Singapore 15.2.42 to 14.10.42

After being left alone for 3 days we were moved to Changi. Japs provided transport for cookhouse, anything else you needed you had to carry – no going back to Techor for kit bags. Lined up 6 abreast, about 60,000 men, Sikh (SE Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere) guards. We had to salute as we passed their guard positions. We arrived at Roberts Hospital Changi – officers in barracks, we slept in the open. We guarded ourselves. Foraging parties – one group found by Japs, guard was sent to Changi prison – interrogated by Jap officers and let off.


We only had clothes we were wearing plus some extra in our haversacks. Sanitation a must. We had augers to drill holes 1ft in diameter, 15ft deep with a standing plank each side. Soap and toothpaste soon used up. Food atrocious – ballast rice, weevils, mice droppings cooked in kwalis like a 5ft wok. Sloppy ground rice porridge. Douvres, (hors d’oeuvres) rice dumpling with a mix of vegetables fried in coconut oil. Little roughage, constipation (20 -30 days) followed by diarrhoea. For frying we had coconut oil or ghee, gula Malacca (palm syrup), katcheneju black eyed peas and dried vegetables. Rice 12 -16oz per day, less for sick people and those who couldn’t work. Work parties clearing bomb damage in Singapore.


Sent to new camp River Valley Road on outskirts of Singapore. Huts had been used for cattle, built of bamboo and attap. We had bamboo to build platforms to sleep on. Work parties still clearing up in the city. Then, building Go Downs on dockside – used by Japs for storing equipment also as barracks. We took supplies of lice and bed bugs to give them some of their own medicine.


We could still barter with locals. LW and myself bought an unmarked tin for 1 tical. Back at camp we found it to be 1 kilo of Marmite, a great treat and possibly a life saver. I also bought a tin of Zambuck which I know saved me from many ulcers. I also kept myself reasonably civilised as I could, shaving with my Rolls razor which was self-stropping – no soap though. Another development at meal times was the ‘leggy’ queue and graded rice supplies. 20oz heavy work, 16oz light work, 12oz sick. Guards would inspect sick to see if they were fit for work. Because of poor diet diseases increased. I had dengue fever – loss of appetite, sickness, aching in joints. Prickly heat rash – irritating red patches set off by sweating. Tropical storms used as showerbaths eased itching. Malaria – 8-10 days sweating, shakes, nausea, limited Ataprin. Scabies – scabby ulcers mainly on hands with swelling. Dysentry – bad diarrhoea. Scrotal dermatitis – weeping wet sores, had to wear a sarong - only treatment local raw spirit. Excruciating. Some ran to standpipe to cool off and get relief. Disappeared as quickly as it came. We received bulk supplies of Red Cross in cook house - decent food for about a fortnight.



Marched to Singapore railway station for journey north to promised better camps, better climate, better food and better conditions!


Bad start 30-34 in an enclosed metal truck with solid sliding door with kit. Couldn’t all sit down at once. Freezing at night, cooked during day. 3 stops per day for water, rice and toilets in jungle.


Ban Pong 17.10.42 Camp, a paddy field with huts. Bed platform 3 inches above water. Latrines overflowing, a carpet of maggots.


Tarso after 5 days marching. First day flat paddy fields, then park-like countryside, then foothills and jungle, rising all the time. We had to help the weak and sick, some were left by the trackside. The Japs said they would pick them up later! Most people without boots. We made flip flops from balsa wood – soft and easy to work, with old tyre for strip or kitbag canvas. Useless when wet or sweating – feet slip off. Tarso was a clearing 200 yards from steep river bank. River Kwai in spate would rise and fall 25 – 30ft, no huts – building first job.


Bamboo a most useful commodity but lethal spikes caused terrible cuts and ulcers. Formed ’A’ frames lashed together with rattan and strips of bark from tree – pliable while wet. Rafters as spacers, thin bamboo lashed to these, then covered with attap tiles – sliver of bamboo, palm fronds bent over – skewered with another sliver of bamboo. These were laid overlapping like tiles and would keep out most of the rain. Also used for sides of the hut to protect our sleeping platform. Cook houses had mud banks into which we installed kwalis – 5ft wide woks with a fire hole underneath. Latrines were slit trenches with either bamboo laid across to squat on, or bamboo perches to sit on. These became heaving pits of maggots and eventually we had to make covers to put on when not in use. Big blue-bottle flies by the millions in every camp. You had to fan your food all the time you were eating. Next to bamboo the most useful item were 4 gallon tins, used for any liquid, initially kerosene or fat (ghee), gula mallaca (palm syrup) – we used them for carrying water from the river to the cook house using a bamboo yoke. You developed a waddle to compensate for the spring in the yoke.


Barges pulled by pom poms brought supplies up river. Mainly rice or dried vegetables with canteen supplies for the Japs. 100kg rice sacks. The supplier Boon Pong was pro-British. He supplied batteries for illicit radios. He took post-dated IOUs for payment after the war.


From Tarso we were sent south to Wampo camp where the railway work became harder and harder. A granite like ridge butted up to the river. Working in pairs with a 14lb sledge hammer and a 4ft chisel cross bar we had to drill a 1m deep hole per person – wire scoop made to get powdered rock out. In the evenings the engineers would blast the rock out. Next day one party clearing rock while the other party still drilling. P.O.W. camp over the river opposite rock face – when blasting took place, showered with rock. Another group were cutting teak logs which were hauled to the river and used to build viaduct by the rock ledge. ½ day rest each ten days. Camp repairs – boiling blankets in 40 gallon oil drums to get rid of lice, singeing bed slats to get rid of bugs and swimming. Sometimes a Jap engineer would blast the river which stunned fish which we could collect for extra food.


Returned to Tarso Building earth embankment, bamboo proforma anything from 6 to 30 ft high. Groups of three. One digging with a chunkle, 2 with stretcher – a rice sack and 2 bamboo poles. 1 cubic metre per man per day. The higher the bank, the deeper the hole, the harder the work. When it rained the holes filled up, the banks became slippery. The Japs still wanted their quota. Engineers pegged out areas to be dug 2m deep. When unobserved site roughed up, 6 inches back, pegs moved 6 inches nearer the face. Work got behind hand – forced to do speedo – work through the night, 1 on, 2 off.


Shorts and shirts now in tatters, shirt sleeves torn off to make a strip about 9 inches wide. String tied to 2 corners – tied round waist strip, hanging down back – pulled between legs and looped over string at the front – a Jap Happy or G string. Monsoon weather, the sergeant major in charge embankment led singing - “They’re pulling down the Rose and Crown (all) Boo. They’re building up a new one (all) Hoorah etc”. I was sergeant in charge of drinking water. Fell into latrine slit trench. Tried to tell Korean guard and ask to go to river to wash. Then overslept – water not ready for work party – put on charge by R.S.M. and brought up before the Captain.


Entertainment – usually too tired. Permission for concert on ½ day rest. Gunner W, an ex ballet dancer, - marvellous morale booster, complete with chorus line dancing, mosquito net tu-tus and coconut shells. We finished with the National Anthem, all stood to attention including guards. Japs decided they could do as well – we all had to attend – orations, singing – one Korean guard played a mouth organ and finished with ‘a popular English tune’, the National Anthem. When we were out on a work party we always listened for pig squealing – Japs ration. Collected entrails, took to river to clean, cooked in 4 gallon tin in evening – chitterlings.


Tonchan Camp – about 3km north. More hammer and tap and embankment building. Got job as dynamite assistant. Japs seemed to favour big men. Day off – when men finished prepared charges. 1m of fuse split end casing, not spilling powder, other end into detonator. When each hole had a detonator and fuse, got a burning ember and dashed around lighting each fuse and then ran to shelter – job finished – much better than clearing rock or hammer and tap. One day Jap engineer didn’t arrive and ‘Gunso’, Jap Sgt, told Korean to take over duty. Instead of giving each hole 1m fuse, he cut fuses to depth of hole. He then wanted to light fuses, short ones as well as 1m ones – not me.


This was a terrible camp, diarrhoea and cholera. Native labourer camp upstream from us thought to be source of cholera. No medicine, patients isolated, given tins of salt water to drink. Hygiene essential. Cremation then communal graves. Nips terrified and isolated their camp, rice sacks soaked in disinfectant at entrance and wore face masks – but no let up on work. Weakness due to straining with no motion to pass, stomach cramps – everything had to be boiled and sterilised. Worst day 26 new cases, 13 deaths. In total there were in our camp 107 cases and 97 deaths.


Moved to Kanu Camp - thank goodness. More embankment building and hammer and tap. We now know that the railway was to run from Ban Pong – near Bangkok to Moulmein in Burma. We worked from south northwards, H and F force worked from north southwards. 415km due to meet at 3 Pagoda Pass. There were 60,000 Brits, Aussies and Dutch working of which, 22,000 approximately died. There were also about 200,000 native labourers with over 100,000 deaths. We worked 10½ days then ½ day rest and were paid 25 cents per period. The Japs printed their own money and in the bigger camps allowed Thai canteens to be set up.


Moved again to Kingsyo – a very big camp but still embankment work. Very senior Jap officer arrived, unhappy with progress of line – Camp Officer publicly punished in front of all guards – slapped by private from office. Diesel lorries which could also be adapted to run on rails first used and eventually log burning steam engines.


Bad bout of malaria and beri-beri. Sent down to hospital camp at Tamuan, 5,000 patients. Marvellous medics, innovations, surgical instruments, amputees limbs, cycle wheel centrifuge to separate blood, distillers for pure water, use of native remedies, some Red Cross. Self administered camp. Work parties still required by Japs – water carriers from river to cook houses and hospital and collecting wood.


Jap officer set up brick yard. Mud from river bank and elephant manure with chopped up bamboo and rice straw puddle in a pit, pressed into formers and cut with a wire, sun dried then fired in a kiln and sold to local Thais. I got a job in Nip canteen, cooked rice doughnuts for them and made Jap Xmas cake – steamed gooey rice pounded with a wooden mallet into a rubbery sheet, cut up and sprinkled with gula Malacca syrup.


Met brother for first time in dysentery ward, 6 stone. We vowed to stay together. A list of all able bodied men was drawn up for transportation to Japan. Convinced officer of need to look after him – got taken off list. Boats left Bangkok in appalling conditions, crammed in layers. Attacked by U.S.A. subs and most sunk. Gunner G from Bletchley and S from Watford picked up by subs and taken to U.S.A. and home. Gunner C visited my mum and dad.


Sent to Tamakan to build wooden bridge – USA bombed the concrete one. The bridge over the River Kwai. Australians cut teak logs and dragged to river. We erected bridge with Nip engineers. Bamboo ‘A’ frames, ropes and pulley. Pile driving logs pinned with 18 inch iron dogs (staples). Got job in Nip cook house, learned how to skin chickens.


Bomb on beach, area cleared – Asta Asta bomb (delayed action), 2 days off work. Party detailed to dig out – only a base plate! Americans still bombing in B27s. Returned to Tamuan. News very sparse and unbelievable – rumours rife.


Sent to Pratchai on Indo China border. No officers. Built a new camp surrounded by ‘bund’, 15ft wide and 15ft deep trench. Machine gun pit in each corner. I helped in office allocating parties for Nip engineers building slit trenches – petrol and ammunition stores and gun positions in hillside. Rumour rife, many Jap infantry in area. One day work parties returned, had only worked half day. Next day work parties returned at mid-day. That evening at ‘Tenco’, roll call, Jap officer with the Korean guards took numbers, saluted and informed us that the war was over, marched out of camp and left us on our own.


Lady Mountbatten visited. Col Lilley took over the camp. Red Cross food, clothes. Visited Bangkok to collect any mail. Trucked to airport and on a Dakota to Rangoon and a medical inspection. Home or recuperation in Australia. Len took SS Ormonde to Southampton via Ceylon (Colombo) and Suez. Here we received our first proper winter kit. On board help yourself to food ad lib and no duties. Home at Last!


© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.

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