Frank Tantum
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Life on the Death Railway 1943


Throughout all those long weeks, and months and finally years of wearisome slavery with  its utter wretchedness, and sordidness, the sickness and privations, and the gradual degrading of men to that of almost animals, every man had got to cling to something of his past life to encourage him to go on.  Whether it was his religion or the life he once knew,  the friends he had and plus the will to fight on,  or it was inevitable that he would die.

Everything was against your survival,  the meagre diet of rice and vegetable stew, with very little  change, the heavy slave labour which was carried on by the  Japanese war machine and was enforced by the Japanese soldiery, with the help of bamboo stick and rifle butt.  Plus the sickness and disease which ground men down to walking living skeletons, the lack of medical treatment and always the insane treatment of prisoners by the guards.

The unbelievable filth and conditions that beheld my eyes on reaching and passing through some of the prison camps in the jungle was indescribable.  It was June 1943, the railway building was in full swing and I was passing down with a party of twenty men, all of us very sick and in a poor state   We had been released from further work on the railway, this was only because we were of no further use to the Japanese and to be of no use to the Japs was to be practically at deaths door as every P.O.W. knew.

Our little party had been on the embankment first of all, and then onto bridge-building in the Hindato area.  We had come down river and landed at Kinsyo and here it was shocking.  The monsoons had started and everywhere was mud; the huts were falling to pieces, full of bugs, and all the prisoners, English and Australians looked so dreadful.  They were working from early morning to late evening.   There they were, tottering down the muddy track to their work on the railway, their skeleton like forms fading into the jungle like living zombies, their thin arms and their dirty uniforms hanging in tatters.  Some bare footed, without hats, literally dying on their feet and walking, shouting and bellowing  followed the Japanese guards, their rifles slung over one shoulder and a bamboo stick in the other.

There was a smell of decay in the whole camp of stagnation.  The camp hospital was another miserable hut, falling to pieces and inside lay the remnants of what once were fine young men, dying in loathsome squalor.  The stench of bed-pans, the groan of the men with malaria, the dirty smell of sweaty clothing, the lice and the smell of bug infested bamboo beds filled the picture.  The Japs seemed to have one thought here;  if you are not working you're dying.  Their one thought was the railway.  It had got to be built; nothing was to stand in the way.  There were plenty of prisoners to be had and they were expendable and it was going to be so. 

Everywhere in the jungle  the grave-yards made their appearance; starting in a small way they gradually grew bigger, until when the railway was  completed at the end of the year, thousands of bodies lay in the jungle from one end to the other.

And who was bothered or interested?  Certainly not the Japs.  They were always full of promises; promises of plenty of better food, supplies, medical stores & clothing.  That conditions would be better for us when the railway was finished, but typical of the Japanese, promises that were never kept.

For some of our prisoners the railway parties of men, like myself included, were continually being sent back into the jungle on keeping the railway running.  Bridges had to be repaired and the embankment needed re-building at various places because of monsoon damage.  The railway engines had to have huge dumps of wood supplies at points along the line, and the old malaria came back to take its toll.

In every prisoners mind the thought was there  "Can I last out"?   "How much longer can I go on"?  "When will the war be over"?  And what was more important, 

"Shall I be alive on that great day"?

Frank Tantum   -  FEPOW



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