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Railway Line - 30b  Songkurai

 

 

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Railway Line - Green 30b Japanese

5th Railway Regiment

 

 

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 'F' Force No 2 Camp for 1,600 British. Site of the "Bridge of 600" a death camp 600 died here and another 600 when evacuated to Thanbaya and Kanburi.

 

Songkurai, Thailand. 1943. Building the Songkurai bridge on the Burma-Thailand railway

Songkurai Bridge

The photo is available from http://www.awm.gov.au

On 24th May 1943 ‘F’ Force reached Songkurai, after the 315 km march. The majority of the prisoners were in pretty bad shape, suffering from malaria, dysentery, diarrhoea and general ill health, due to fatigue and lack of proper food. We were totally exhausted. How we managed to march such a long distance in such intolerable conditions is almost a miracle.

We stood on the eastern bank and just gazed at a large clearing beyond, in between was the fast flowing River Kwai. We had a panoramic view of our promised ‘Hillside Resort’ nestling in a tranquil environment surrounded by thick jungle. The wet season had begun and it was cold, the rain fell in torrents.

To reach the camp we had to cross the River Kwai upon a very fragile wooden bridge, the clearing of the camp was covered in thick carpet of black mud. The attap sided huts had no roofs, this site made us feel utterly dejected.

Songkurai camp accommodated a work force of 1600 British prisoners which was part of the 7000 strong ‘F’ Force, the men consisted of European and Eurasians.

‘F’ Force had the job of constructing a stretch of about 60 km of the Siam Railway, at Songkurai we had to complete a 15 km stretch which included the famous wooden bridge across the River Kwai. This area was the most isolated of western Siam near its border with Burma.

The huts were 100 metres long and 6 metres wide,, constructed of bamboo with attap panels in the walls. There was an opening in each wall but no roof, the floor was as outside a mud bath. There was a central isle with sleeping platforms each side, raised about 75 cm above the ground and were made of bamboo slats.

We were put to work after a three day rest and after a full days work we didn’t want to put the roofs on, but eventually they got done by the cook house staff who were left behind during the day. Drains were also dug around the perimeter to keep the water from flooding the huts, this eventually led to a hard damp floor but it was no longer muddy. Bunfires were lit down the central passage to help keep us warm, but with the dampness came the mosquitoes and malaria.

Our source of water came from little stream running in the jungle behind the camp. This was channelled into the camp by a bamboo trough. Although the water was crystal clear we took no chances and it was boiled for drinking and cleaning utensils. The cookhouse was situated some distance from our sleeping hut, on the lower ground and with no covered walkway the rain made the path very slippery. The evening meal was difficult as we had to make the journey in the dark, but there was a hurricane lamp at the food distribution point, the food being of poor quality rice.

The primitive open latrines were situated far away in a jungle clearing, they were not enclosed or had any roof. They consisted of two long trenches with bamboo foot rests, they had been used previously as maggots crawled all over the place. The continual heavy rain swept the maggots downhill through the camp and on to the river.

The task at Songkurai was to construct a large-span timber bridge, high above and across the River Kwai. That bridge became famous in 1957 after the screening of Hollywood’s film, ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai. We also had to construct 10 km of track, 8 km west and 8 km east  of the camp. The task had to be completed within 5 months and the Japanese engineers were determined to achieve their goal.

In all territories occupied by the Japanese they used Tokyo time, irrespective of whether the sun rose at six o’clock in the morning or the night fell at four in the afternoon. A typical work day was from 5 am Tokyo time (3 am actual time) and ended when darkness fell. When making our way back to camp in the dark, I would grope my way to the river to wash myself and my shorts. After dinner I would huddle around the bonfire in our hut trying to keep warm, we told stories trying to keep our spirits up.

Medicines and drugs were totally unavailable, all the Japanese provided were quinine tablets and mercurochrome solution.

LeoRawlings.0008 

Leo Rawlings

© Copyright J. Mullender

The construction of the bridge required hammer and chisel and then blasting of the rocky hills and crushing of the chunks of stones. The explosions caused rocks to fly in all directions and these could cause serious injuries. The bridge was erected using tall timber pylons, whilst piling we worked all day in the river up to our chests, the water was cold and there was always a danger someone would slip and be swept away in the rushing waters.

CharlesThrale.0036

The Building of the Main Bridge Over the Salween River

This was built at Sonkuri No 2 Camp. It was built entirely with timber, no mechanical devices were used. The Japanese had an electric generator but used it to light their own huts, where the prisoners had no such light. 200 prisoners would pull the derrick weight and let go, crashing another few inches into the river bed. Hundreds died, drowned, exhausted, beaton to death by the Japanese Engineers, who were by far the worst on the railway. The lower bridge was used for elephant traffic when not flooded by the rise in the river.

Charles Thrale from exhibition booklet

A large amount of timber was needed for the gigantic bridge and the sleepers. We worked extremely hard to obtain the timber, two or three men every day were engaged in felling the hardwood tree, cutting the trunk into seven metre lengths, longer lengths being used for the pylons. They worked in pairs using a long, two handled cross cut saw. On average a two-man team would cut down six to seven trees a day, this included cutting them to length. These logs were then carried on the shoulders of about ten men, the route was normally in heavy undergrowth, muddy and slippery. We eventually got a cow elephant to help with the carrying of the logs, she had a cute calf with her and an native mahout (elephant driver).

Tamarkan -1

In early June 1943, cholera broke out in the camp and spread like a bush fire. At its height we lost thirty-five. men each day, by the time it abated, about three weeks, about 600 men had died.

All the corpses were cremated over a large open fire outside our camp, their ashes were buried in a communal grave. I thought at first they were trying to climb out, the bodies on the fire were seen to stretch, it appears the heat constricted the sinews and muscles causing movement of the hands and legs, it was frightening to watch. Whilst during the cholera outbreak the work on the railway track went on uninterrupted.

By the end of August 1943 the many deaths had greatly reduced our work force and the Japanese engineers brought in another 300 Australians from neighbouring camp, being part of ‘F’ Force. They arrived wearing just their ‘G’ strings and bare-footed to the whistled tune of ‘Colonel Boogey’.

Some prisoners gave up as there was no reason to hope, others turned to God. Our tireless chaplain, Father Walsh, worked hard, he was assigned to the Australian Forces and was a catholic priest. He went from camp to camp attending to spiritual needs, the Japanese did not supply him with transport but this did not hinder his work.

Although the majority of the guards were brutal, I met one Japanese engineer who was more civilised and when the railway came to be completed shared a cigarettes with our group saying “Not all Japanese are bastards” we didn’t know up till then he spoke English.

During the time at Songkurai an escape took place, it happened while the cholera epidemic was on. and the Japanese were keeping a low profile. I don’t know if any of them made it.

I don’t believe I could have survived this ordeal on my own, my religion and the firm belief in the almighty One was the constant source of strength which always sustained me and gave me much hope during those dark and hellish days.

On 19th October 1943 news filtered through that the entire length of the Siam-Burma railway had been completed, we still carried on work but the yells of “Speedo” were no longer heard.

On 23rd October a decorated train with Japanese flags approached from the east, it was full of Japanese officers of very senior rank. It was a sort of victory parade, the train had come from Kanburi and was on its way to Thanbyzayat in Burma.

We British marched out of camp for the last time heading for Ban Pong, the Australians waved us good bye at the camp gates. We walked over the wooden bridge and I paused to admire the gigantic structure that spanned the River Kwai, the bridge standing as a monument to the hard labour and sacrifices of the many who died in Songkurai..

Information from Nippon Slaves by Lionel de Rosario

 

 

“F” Force

The Main British Camp. Koreans and Japanese always presented a rosy picture of any situation but a Korean I had known in Changi told me while I was in Nikki that Songkurai was taihen. Bloody terrible. Cholera was sweeping through the camp. The Japanese engineers were savage and the rations desperately scant. I was only in Nikki for four days and had to travel to Songkurai. We walked leisurely way to Shimo (lower) Songkurai. The main Australian camp of F Force. It was another three miles to Songkurai, The camp was laid out just beyond the river Huai Ro Khi,

And spread out on both sides of the road

I could see eight very large atap huts, each about 100 feet long. Six were used by prisoners only, but two on the opposite side of the road from the river were shared with Burmese coolies. The cookhouse itself stood on the river bank. The huts were not complete the conditions were dismal. It was forbidden to light fires inside the huts and the monsoon rain kept coming down. Everyone was permanently wet and shivering with cold.

“ No work, no meshi, (rice) was the rule in Songkurai. The engineers’ reasoning was simple: survival depended on keeping the road open for food supplies to reach us. Anyone who failed to contribute to this collective task didn’t get fed.

When I got there, of 1600 that had arrived three weeks previously, only 300 were fit for work. In effect half rations were given to the sick so a portion of working mens rice was diverted to them, to help.

By the end of June, even bullock carts had to stop short of Songkurai and for a few days a different attempt was made to bring in supplies. The Japanese released one elephant from the working pool but its Mahout claimed that it was too muddy and deep for his beast. The elephant was replaced by prisoners harnessed to carts but this idea was abandoned after the first trip and from then on every other day a party of 50 men was sent on foot to Changaraya No 5 Camp. This was immediately below the Three Pagodas Pass. They brought back the rice, every grain embodied the essence of life. We watched the rice party returning in the twi-light, looking like the mud men of New Guinea. In their packs they carried food for 1200…. These were lean days.

Information from, To The River Kwai. (Unknown Author)

 

 

Transcript of a 12th September 1945 broadcast from Singapore to London by Padre J. N. Duckworth

The Japanese told us we were going to a health resort. We were delighted. They told us to take pianos and gramophone records. They would supply the gramophones. We were overjoyed and we took them. Dwindling rations and a heavy toll of sickness were beginning to play on our fraying nerves and emaciated bodies. It all seemed like a bolt from the tedium of life behind barbed wire in Changi, Singapore. They said: "Send the sick, It will do them good." And we believed them, and so we took them all.

The first stage of the journey to this new found Japanese Paradise was not quite so promising. Yes, they took our kit and they took our bodies, - the whole lot - in metal goods wagons, 35 men per truck through Malaya's beating, relentless sun for 5 days and 5 nights to Thailand, the land of the free. For food, we had a small amount of rice and some "hogwash" called stew. We sat and sweated, fainted and hoped. Then at Bampong station in Thailand they said: "All men go." "Marchee, marchee" they said:

"What! We're coming for a holiday." They just laughed and in that spiteful, derisive, scornful laugh which only a prisoner of war in Japanese hands can understand, we knew that here was another piece of Japanese bushido - deceit.

Our party marched, or rather dragged themselves for 17 weary nights, 220 miles through the jungles of Thailand. Sodden to the skin, up to our middles in mud, broken in body, helping each other as best we could, we were still undefeated in spirit. Night after night, each man nursed in his heart the bitter anger of resentment. As we Lay down in the open camps - clearings in the jungle, nothing more - we slept, dreaming of home and better things. As we eat boiled rice and drank onion water, we thou9ht of -eggs and bacon.

We arrived, 1680 strong at No.2 Camp, Songkurai, Thailand, which will stand out as the horror hell of Prison Camps. From this 1680 less than 250 survive today to tell its tale. Our accommodation consisted of bamboo huts without roofs. The monsoon had begun and the rain beat down. Work - slave work - piling earth and stones in little skips on to a railway embankment began immediately. It began at 5 o'clock in the morning and finished at 9 o'clock at night and even later than that. Exhausted, starved and benumbed in spirit we toiled because if we did not, we and our sick would starve. As it was the sick had half rations because the Japanese said 'No work, no food."

Then came cholera. This turns a full-grown man into an emaciated skeleton overnight. 20, 30, 40, and 50 deaths were the order of the day. The medical 'kit we had brought could not come with us. We were told it would come on. It never did. We improvised bamboo holders for saline transfusions, and used boiled river water and common salt.

Major Cyril Wild was in command of this group.

JAPANESE HOLIDAY by Padre J. N. DUCKWORTH.

Supplied by Arthur Lane

 

 

Cyril Wild, along with Col. Harris and Col. Dillon, were to spend four months towards the end at Songkurai, trying to ease the situation that existed there. By this time it was too late to help in Wild’s words:

... the damage had already been done: and we won our battle there too late, as 500 men were already dying in one hut when our little Force HQ - Lt.Col.s Harris and Dillon and T - arrived there. In Thailand, as everywhere else, I was very lucky in being with first-rate chaps; and the troops, with whom I had more to do than most by virtue of my job, were really grand.

A jungle clearing on the banks of the Huai Ro Khi River was the Songkurai camp, the day began at dawn with a march through thick mud, this could have been up to eight mile for the ‘fit’ men to work on the line.

They were put to work on clearing jungle, cutting down trees, adzing timber, driving piles, loading elephants, carting earth and moving rocks. The earth was moved in flat baskets or stretches. The stretch of railway being constructed included the building of a three-span wooden bridge, held together with iron spikes driven in with heavy hammers, no nuts and bolts were used on this bridge. The men were driven on with blows from fists, rifle-butts, sticks and wire hoops. If they were thought to be slacking they were made to stand holding a heavy rock above their heads untill they dropped and then they were beaten.

... a personal appeal from Lt-Col. Harris and his staff resulted in the postponement of an order which would have caused the immediate and permanent expulsion of 700 desperately sick and dying men from their hospital hut into open jungle during the worst of the monsoon rain, to make way for a native labour force. This order had already been endorsed by Lt-Col. Banno’s administration.

The hospital, so-called, in every camp was nothing but a dilapidated hut with leaky roof, no walls or lighting, and with split bamboo staging on which the men were crammed, their bodies touching one another...

The attitude of the Japanese towards the sick was a mixture of callous indifference and active spite’ for by their sickness they were regarded as impeding the Japanese war effort...

Although cholera killed 750 of the Force, by far the most deadly disease was dysentery, aggravated by malnutrition, and generally complicated by malaria or beri-beri or both...

By 20 June, two months after leaving Changi, only 700 men of the Force were at work and most of these were sick, while the remainder, except for the small administrative and medical parties, were lying in improvised “hospitals” in each of the five labour camps.

In May 1943, Bradley was one of the 1,600 British prisoners of war at Songkurai Camp 2, the fourth of the five labour camps to which Cyril refers. After the cholera outbreak a Japanese medical party arrived and ‘glass-rodded’ them, this was a way of finding the carriers, Bradley was found to be a carrier as his test was positive. He did not die within the next 24 hours and so survived, this was the normal period of survival.

On the evening of 5th June the cholera patients were ordered to move out of the camp immediately and to form an isolation camp on the opposite side of the railway trace, near the hospital hut, about five or six hundred yards away. The move took place in torrential rain and many died that night, the ground was littered with the bodies of partly burned coolies, as this had been a cremation area.

The day was spent building pyres as death came quickly, as we no longer worked on the railway the Japanese saw no reason to supply them with food, they were kept alive by rice the working men let them have from their meagre rations.

The commanding officer Lt-Col. M.T.L. Wilkinson often went across at night to see Bradley, despite the cholera risk and the threat from the Japanese. Wilkinson felt strongly that an escape should be attempted, in order to let the outside world know how prisoners were forced to work at tasks well beyond their human capacity, and the conditions under which they lived and died, Bradley agreed to join the escape.

From a map drawn on a silk handkerchief the distance to Ye, on the Burma coast, was estimated at about 80 km. The party included:

Lt-Col. M.T.L. (Wilkie) Wilkinson, 18th Division

Capt.W.H. Anker, RASC, 18th Division

Capt. J.H. Feathers, 18th Division

Lt. J.E. Robinson, 18th Division

James (Jim) Bradley (to become an MBE),  Royal Engineers, 18th Division

Lt. I.M. Moffat, Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners, 9th Indian Div.

Lt. G. Machado, Straits Settlement Volunteer Force

Lt. T.P.D. Jones, Malay Regiment

Cpl. Brown, SSVF

Nur Mahommed, Indian fisherman.

They all agreed that if any one got injured they would have to be abandoned. On 5th July the ten men set out on a track through the jungle that Bradley had prepared near the crematorium in the cholera area, an area avoided by the Japanese.

Making 4 km a day through dense undergrowth with a very basic compass as a guide. Capt. Anker had saved some rice from the cookhouse to give them a meal throughout their calculated, three week journey.

By the 25th July the rice was nearly gone and Brown was the first casualty, he could not be found one morning, he had been suffering from septic ulcers and become delirious, they rest moved on after a search. On 2nd August, Jack Feathers died during the night, then three days later Wilkie died, believed heart failure. Robbie died from Septiceamia and dysentery and then Jones asked to be left behind after suffering for the last few days.

On the 14th August they reached the River Ye nearly to the point on their map they had aimed for. They made a raft to cross the river but lost everything when it capsized. On the 17th August, two Burmese hunters took them to their hut and on the next day to a kampong (village) where they were treated kindly.

On 21st August they were arrested when Japanese troops arrived and took them by boat to the Japanese HQ at Ye.

On the 5th September they were taken to Moulmein by train and spent the night at the Kempeitai (Military Police) headquarters, Nur Mahommed being taken from the group. The four remaining were handcuffed in pairs and taken to various places along the railway to show them off as a deterrent to escape. They were taken to Kami Songkurai where they stayed for two weeks and then were returned to Songkurai where they were brutally interrogated. Cyril Wild was told the four were to be executed but then they were taken to Singapore for a court-martial. They were then given eight to nine years hard labour.

Information from Cyril Wild - The Tall Man Who Never Slept by James Bradley

 

 

 

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