Memoirs of a P.O.W. 1942 - 1945
By Major Jimmie James
In memory of my late husband who died 24th November, 1985.
It is somewhat with trepidation that I attempt to write of my experiences as a Japanese P.O.W., thirty two years after capitulation of Singapore. It was an experience which most of the survivors would want to forget, and one that defies description in any form. It was an episode one had to live through, literally.
Secondly, none of us really want to be identified with the disgrace of capitulating to the Japanese whilst so many of us were still armed and capable of stronger resistance.
The fact that the water supply was in the hands of the enemy and that bombing and shelling would be intensified by further resistance the G.O.C. could only visualise the misery and killing of thousands of the civilian population. Internal civilian administration was non-existent and bloated dead bodies lay about for days with the smell of death everywhere.
When orders were received that further resistance should cease and that we had capitulated we were deeply shocked and some of the younger soldiers could not hide their grief, crying with shame.
I was at my Brigade HQ when the order to cease fire was received. Almost immediately the Brigadier called for a drink. Army HQ at fort Canning had issued orders that all stocks of spirits be destroyed and the padre and myself had disposed of our HQ stocks. The Brigadier was fuming when told that no drinks were available and sent for me when told that captain James was responsible. Decoration on the field was not expected, but I was somewhat abashed at being reprimanded in front of all officers and men for obeying an order that I very much disliked.
To docks in armoured car (acquired) to pick up some food, and beer if any. Japs had already posted sentries (British) to prevent looting and sentries on bridges.
Returning to HQ joined Jap convoy entering Singapore. Indian troops lined road giving thumbs up to each Japanese vehicle. Dropped hands as we approached and looked sheepish.
Hauled in front of the Brigadier Fortress Troops for destroying spirits (order to do so from G.O.C.). Padre Headley helped me pour spirits down sink. Sent off with two soldiers on march to Changi to arrange quarters for P.O.W.'s Hogshead of pure lime juice we acquired (from Naval Base) useful for hospital.
Our dog following me on M. Cycle
Bombs on Changi
Company of R.E.'s in my old quarter
Fell sick with Beri Beri
Sick and wounded transferred to Changi Barrack Blocks previously occupied by 9th Coast and A.A. Regts.
Working parties for Singapore cleaning up City
Jap guard pushed into sewer by Aussies
Bugs placed in Jap huts being built as transit camp for Jap troops en route to Burma
Looters beheaded by Japs
Move for Thailand
Working party in Singapore camp of bamboo thatched huts built originally for natives bombed or shelled out during the battle for Singapore.
Huts soon infested with bugs forcing the men to sleep outside in the open. For a short period we had the luxury of half a spoonful of sugar with our rice rations. The sugar was meticulously levelled with a straight piece of wood so that the server could not be accused of favouring his friends with a little over the top. I was appointed Officer i/c Rations, and some nights the boys would regale me with the song "There are rats, rats, lots of bloody rats, in the stores". How right they were - four legged ones. The cook sergeant's job was a very unenviable one. We just had to accept the meagre rations issued by the Japanese. Cooking utensils were a constant problem throughout the years to follow.
The cook Sergeant asked me to produce a large container for boiling water as he had to produce drinkable water for the boys’ water bottles.I was constantly on the look out for a very large oil or petrol drum. One day I spotted a petrol drum in the Japanese transport park nearby. Although it had belonged to us it was now the enemies by right of conquest. The transport park was protected by barbed wire and a sentry was always on duty at night. One night I decided to break in and steal the drum, hoping I would find an empty one, and not very bravely found a way through the wire and found an empty drum. To get the drum through the wire without attracting the attention of the sentry was rather tricky, but eventually a very shaky officer triumphantly arrived in our camp and presented a happy cook sergeant with my trophy.
In the ensuing years we were to witness the punishment meted out by the Japanese to thieves, both British and native. In fact we had seen the instant punishment of native loaders being beheaded.
On one occasion an old Chinese woman and her small grandchild were apprehended by Jap sentries for picking up pieces of wood, and were made to kneel in front of the guard hut all day long. The Japs had from the beginning of our captivity used Sikhs as sentries and we found that they had been well indoctrinated in Japanese methods.
All sentries and guards whether they were Japanese, Korean, or Indonesian soldiers had to be saluted by the highest ranking officers, NCO's and men, and if without headdress bowed to. (Indian Army Officers).We soon found out that it was very advisable to keep our eyes open for sentries and guardrooms. Punishments could be very brutal, a physical punishment could be preferable to one of long duration, such as standing to attention for hours or maybe days in the sun with a kick or blow from the odd so inclined sentry.
A Red Cross consignment of food sent by South Africa was received shortly before we left for Thailand. This was a real Godsend and consisted mainly of soup powders, jam, and best of all, boots.
One of many occupations in Singapore was building attap huts for Japanese troops in transit for Burma. We all hoped that the bugs we plastered in the huts had some good hunting. To maintain discipline provided some problems for officers commanding working parties. The great majority of the troops behaved magnificently in spite of their tribulations. They soon realised that the Japs commanded them and that their own officers were figureheads who invariably were punished by the guards for misdemeanours committed by the troops under their so called command.
The Chinese and Malayan peoples were quite sympathetic with our conditions but they were unable , for fear of punishment from the Japs ,to openly show their feelings. An old Malayan woman gave me a bag of sweets and a Chinese a tin of bacon. They had to be most surreptitious with their gifts and I admired their courage.
Communication with our captors throughout our captivity was practically non-existent, although interpreters of doubtful efficiency appeared in some camps. Our first introduction to the Japanese language occurred one day in a Singapore camp, when the troops were paraded before a very small Jap Officer whose first effort was to teach us how to number in his language. The front rank were of course the first victims and were each given their 'number' which they were expected to memorize. When ordered to 'number' to the surprise of most of us all the words were English but not to be found in the English dictionary. It was very fortunate for us all that our instructor was unacquainted with these words. His only reaction was to rush to the front rank, muttering "No, no, no" and repeat again in the Japanese numbers.
A great number of the boys never in the years following mastered the Japanese numbering on parade and always manoeuvred to avoid being a front rank man. This was understandable as a mistake could mean a very hefty blow, or kick, or both. We were paraded at least twice a day. Sometimes, according to the size of the parade ground and ranks - which could be four to twelve, it was not unusual in the early minutes before all men were present, to see one man in the front rank and varying numbers in the rear ranks. The very late comers had no option but to be front rankers.
As workers we were considered by the Japanese to be worthy of a daily wage of ten cents, officers and other ranks alike. Very infrequently some luxury items were available for sale, but never food.
In August 1942 we learned that our next destination was Thailand, and our first hope was that we could be freed from the abominable bugs. Needless to say they were very attached to us for good and were to be the least of our tribulations. Many of the boys had been lucky possessors of a pair of South African boots and a few had some tins of jam.
The day arrived when we paraded with our few belongings and cooking utensils and marched for Singapore railway station where we were quickly herded into the cattle trucks, thirty or forty to each one, with four Jap guards in the last one.
Our sick had been returned to Changi and we had not been overworked in Singapore, so most of us were in pretty good fettle and fairly clothed, but our four days in the trucks were not happy ones. We took turns lying down. It was very cold at night and extremely hot during the day. Our calls to nature were a problem and when our water bottles were empty we had to contain our thirst until the opportunity of refilling them occurred. At our first stop in Thailand crowds of Thais came to our train and some spoke English and said they were friends of ours. Whilst we were engaged in talking we were unaware that some of ‘our friends’ were helping themselves to our boots, and other items of wear from the other side of the trucks.
Eventually we arrived at our first camp in Bahn Pong and it was the worst one we experienced. From a hygienic point of view it was low lying and during the rains the huts were flooded, bringing with it excreta.
At this camp three officers who still possessed some camp kit were forced to leave it at a Jap store with the promise that it would be sent to us at a later date. I do not know of any officer receiving any of his kit, and we were soon to learn that their promises were worthless. From Bahn Pong we had to march in stages to Tarso on the River Kwai which was the Jap HQ (a four day march). I was fortunate on the first day and was sent ahead with cooking utensils on a Jap truck. My first personal contact with the Japs was not unpleasant. They gave me some rice and tit bits. After the meal some of them started humming the National Anthem. They were very surprised and pleased when I hummed their National Anthem. For this effort I was presented with two bananas.
Our next camp was Kanburi which was to be our last sign of civilization for some time and our numbers were to be sadly decreased by many thousands.
Before we left Kanburi we changed what money we had to another currency. We had learned that a Japanese civilian was outside the camp perimeter carrying out the exchanges and I was nominated by my fellow officers to make contact and change theirs, and my money.Having located the man and changed what money I had, I discovered that he had been in America most of his life. He told me that he considered his country did not have a chance in hell of winning the war. He was changing money without any authority and I was convinced that he was feathering his own nest at P.O.W.'s expense. I often wondered if he got away with his racket.
Now began two days of real hard marching through paddy fields and jungles across the river Mekong before we reached our next camp, but no huts were available. My C.O. gave me a dozen men and we eventually found the cookhouse hoping there would be some food . We collected some cold sodden rice and issued it to the men. It was not only cold but sour, probably left by the previous party of P.O.W.'s. There was no hope of much sleep as it rained continuously throughout the night, and we were glad to set off at dawn with empty stomachs.
A party of about six, including myself, had the doubtful honour of pulling a handcart up and down culverts through mud and over all kinds of rough ground. The cart was loaded with Japanese junk, and one of our boys who was too sick to walk. As we approached the next camp, Tarsao, which was occupied by our boys we commenced singing to let them know that we were not downhearted, and also to try and boost our morale.
We remained at Tarsao for a few days and met up with some of our old friends, a great number of British officers of the Indian Army were living there, existing is a more appropriate word. On capitulation the Indian officers and other ranks had gone over to the Japanese Army. Therefore they had no troops of their own command. For quite a long time the Indian Army officers existed at Tarsao with nothing to do, and this must have been very demoralising. They were eventually forced into a labour party to work on the railroad.
In accordance with the Geneva Convention, officer P.O.W.'s should not be required to work for their captors. In this case they could not argue with their captors over the ethics of war. In fact they did protest, but under dire threats were forced to give in. From our own experience of brutal treatment as officers their experience working like coolies must have been worse for them.
We were once again paraded and marched to the river where we embarked on Thai barges, destined for Wompo camp which we reached in two days. On the first night the barges pulled into the bank and we were ordered to disembark because the barges could not be navigated in the dark. As I prepared to settle down for the night a cockney lad, Gunner Dixon, came up to me and produced a lilo and insisted that I sleep on it. This was my first luxury since leaving Singapore. I promptly fell asleep. I was awakened after an hour or so by my self-appointed batman, and he produced a plate of hot rice. He had foraged in the jungle and found a very generous native. I wonder now if, like the lilo, he had 'found' the rice. Dixon was always producing something out of the hat, small but extremely welcome gifts - yes, even the odd cigarette for which thousands of P.O.W.'s would have gladly given up their issue of rice.
Dixon and I were eventually separated but I am sure that with his ingenuity he would have survived the rigours of the years to come. God bless him for his faithfulness to me.
On the second day we arrived at Wompo which was practically a virgin site and, until we had built the huts, we slept on the ground. We became quite expert at building and found it much more pleasant than slaving on the proposed railroad. Calihilley of the Green Howards was British Commandant and the Japanese officer,
whom we very rarely saw, was most reasonable compared to others we were to meet up with. Our guards were now Koreans and we were soon to know that if anything they were more sadistic than the Japs. Koreans were only employed on the lines of communication and as guards and never appeared to reach N.C.O. rank. They were not used as fighting troops. They were despised by the Japanese. They in turn, judging by their attitude, despised us.
Our first casualty on the second day at Wompo was a young Gordon Highlander who died from utter exhaustion and lack of food. Before passing away, like so many other dying P.O.W.'s he kept asking for his mother.
The building of the railroad was organised in such a way that working parties from pre-arranged camps along the river Kwai would eventually link up with one another and when this was accomplished parties would be marched further north to repeat the slavery.
Where the work was particularly hard and dangerous a separate camp of P.O.W.'s would be established as happened at Wompe when a party of about two hundred commanded by an old friend of mine left for a camp we called South Wompo.
John W. whom I had known as a Bombardier in Aldershot was now a Captain and he had the dubious honour of being Officer i/c of the party and was soon in trouble with the guards.Johnnie could not bear to see his men treated unjustly, and if he saw a man being beaten up by a Korean, he would angrily intervene, which was almost suicidal. He never learnt to be tactful and envoked upon himself much physical punishment.
It was not unusual for a camp with about five hundred officers and men to be commanded by a Korean private, the senior British Officer was only a figurehead who was responsible for the men parading and for their behaviour.
Another such camp was established at North Wompo of which I was a member and a Korean private soldier was in command. He would make us parade at night after a
day's labour and make us march and counter march, singing a Japanese marching song. We had learnt certain words, but derived some small comfort and fun by singing the last line which included English words, indicating what he could do with the song.We nick-named this Korean the Music Master, with whom I later came into personal contact after we had completed their wretched railroad.
At another camp one Sunday we had one of our rare rest days. Captain Swanton, who after the war was a cricket commentator, was acting Padre and during his sermon, in the small jungle clearing, our old friend the Singing Master appeared, hands in pockets and cigarette drooping from his mouth.We anticipated some trouble when he stopped beside Swanton who completely ignored our visitor and calmly asked us also to ignore the little yellow man. To our relief, he sauntered away.
The words of the Jap marching song are as under. What they meant did not interest us.
KATTA KURU SOTO ISA MASHIKU
CHIGATTE JUNI-O DETA KARIWA
TE KARA TATE SUNI SHINAR YOKO
SHIN KUR RAPPER KIU TABINI
MA BUTA-NI-UKABO HAITI NAMI
Some words of command are as under:
ASAMARAY - FALL IN
JUDSKI - ATTENTION
NAGARAY - RIGHT DRESS
NAGAR - EYES FRONT
BANGO - NUMBER
KARAY - SALUTE
YAS MAY - AT EAST
WAKARAY - FALL OUT or DISMISS
I was in luck, for quite a long time at Wompo, to have work near the camp, along with two privates of the Gordons, keeping the kitchens supplied with kindling wood for boiling the rice. We had jungle all around us, mostly bamboo which was dead and fairly easy to chop down. After felling a good quantity the three of us would then carry it to the kitchen. Being dead and dry it was quickly consumed. This work was most pleasant as we were on our own all day with no Koreans to keep guard or beat us. Strangely, although I am now over seventy, I still love to wield an axe. During the day we would sit down for a rest and relate certain incidents of the past. One of the Gordons had been a chauffeur to our royalty when they were residing at Balmoral. We only had one felling axe so while one axed the other two sat down, and so we went on all day, relieving the axe man when he was tired.
Some bamboos had become the homes of various animal creatures and insects, and the most common insects were hornets which descended upon the axe man in their hundreds when they were disturbed by axe blows on their home. We had many a laugh at the expense of the axe man. We would watch the top of the bamboo being felled and when we saw hornets descending we would keep quite quiet until they attacked. The axe man would then run off into the jungle flailing his arms in an attempt to ward them off. When it is realised that, except for a loin cloth, we were naked, the hornet sting is quite painful, but in due course we became almost immune to them. It was well worth a good laugh, although at another's expense.
One day, having completed our toil, we returned to camp and I collected the canvas water bucket and made my way to the Kwai for water. Swinging the bucket I suddenly felt a sharp pain and, looking in the bucket, I saw a small baby scorpion. At the time I thought, what luck, it could have been a large one. Many years later I learnt that a baby's sting was the most feared.
After some months at Wompo the Japanese Commandant graciously permitted us to organise occasional evening concerts, and they were much enjoyed by ourselves and our guards. A few of the boys had carried their musical instruments on the many marches.
The number of sick had increased much to the anger of the Jap engineers who made their demands for labour on the Jap Camp Commandant. The number required for the next day's work was agreed upon at the end of each day's work. In order that the number agreed upon could be produced, it was sometimes necessary for some of the sick to be carried to the railway side, thereby enabling the Jap Commandant to keep face. Also, unfortunately, our cemetery was filling up. To the surprise of all, the Jap Commandant attended our first funeral, but it was also to be his last appearance. The funerals were too frequent.
In due course we were to receive monthly pay for our toil, ten cents per day for rank and file. Officers were favoured. My pay as a Captain was 120 Ticals per month, but was greatly reduced when received at source. Half was taken off as a nest egg for our next of kin in the event of our death. At Tarsao the Jap administrative HQ deducted for food and accommodation. Thirty Ticals arrived at working camps from which half was taken by the British Commandant to buy, if possible, medical supplies and little luxuries for the sick. So the money we put into our pockets, if by this time we had a pocket or a pair of shorts, was ten cents per day.
The Japanese had no time for sick people, their own or ours. They were of the opinion that only those who lacked sufficient faith in their cause became sick or infirmed and, this being so, the sick should only receive half rations, if that. I was to see proof of this philosophy in the last year of our captivity.
Occasionally, Thai barges plied the river Kwai from camp to camp and we were allowed to buy from traders in bulk such items as bananas, duck eggs, native tobacco and gula (sugar palm).The items bought from the traders would then be sold from a camp canteen, ensuring that every individual had the opportunity of buying something. Tobacco was most in demand . Although it was foul,when boiled and sweetened it was a fair smoke. Cigarette paper was a problem. A page from the bible was an expensive buy at ten cents.
The buying of goods from the Thais was always supervised by guards to ensure that communication was strictly business and undoubtedly to receive their perks. We also received a few medical supplies from this source, which had been ordered on previous visits and paid for by monies deducted monthly from officer's pay. Ironically, our meagre supply of medicines were used to heal our dear guards complaints, some of whom had contracted venereal disease in Bangkok when on leave. They were given a list of the items necessary to effect a cure by our Medical Officer. He undoubtedly added items for our sick. Needless to say our guards had to pay for them.
Our doctor did not have all the necessary surgical instruments and on one occasion was compelled to operate on two men for removal of appendix with an open razor. To add to his difficulties it had to take place at night with the aid of the light of two candles. Regrettably, both men died.
When it suited the Commandant the most serious of the sick were sent down river to Changkahi by barge. This camp of the sick was much nearer Kanburi and Bahn Pong and the first port of call for barges coming up river, and therefore most suitable. It was at this camp that most of the amputations were carried out. With the proper supply of medicine the ulcers which became so serious, and ultimately necessitated amputation, could have been cured very quickly. I cannot remember ever seeing a bandage.
Whilst at Wompo we were pleasantly surprised to receive help in our labours in the form of elephants and their Thai drivers. They were used to haul huge tree trunks from and through the jungle. The tree trunks were used as piles for the building of bridges.The piles were driven into earth or the river bed by teams of men continuously pulling on heavy pulleys and tackles and being released on top of the piles. This was cruel work when one considers our living standards and heat, plus the exhortations and blows of our captors. In spite of trials and tribulations the men usually returned to camp singing their favourite songs. It helped to boost their morale and to let our captors know that our spirit could not be broken.
The day arrived when our stretch of railroad was completed and we were paraded with our few miserable belongings and began our next march. We knew not where, except that it would be another camp and a continuation of slavery on another stretch of railroad. Three wretched days on the march saw us at S. Tonchan and whilst there our accommodation was a tattered and torn tent, but by this time most of our clothing was in the same condition and a large number of us were wearing 'G'-strings, a piece of cloth and string to preserve our decency.
One night I lay down to sleep with a handful of peanuts in my pocket which I decided to mix with my rice the next morning. When the morning came, my nuts had gone. The rats or mice, or perhaps both, had eaten through my shorts to the nuts. They took care not to disturb me!
It was at this camp where, tragically, hundreds of men were struck down and died
of cholera. It originated at this camp and was carried to other camps up and down the river by hundreds of other slaves who passed through the camp.In normal circumstances the fever camp should have been isolated, but our captors goal was to complete the railway with the greatest of speed, irrespective of the loss of human lives.
Many thousands of Asiatics had been promised lucrative employment in Thailand and undoubtedly were only too glad of the prospects of good money and food promised by their recruiters. We saw them from time to time making their weary way up country.There were Tamils, Malays, Vietnamese, etc., and some were accompanied by their wives and children. They, like us, had made long marches and we found evidence in the jungle, on our next march, of their misery. Belongings which they were unable to carry further had been dumped and human skeletons where they had crawled off the road to die in misery.
It has to be understood that we still maintained our sense of discipline and camp hygiene. Our first arrival at a virgin camp site latrines were top priority, There was no way of controlling flies,they were a hazard we had to accept.
The Asiatics, poor souls, had no command other than their Japanese protectors and benefactors and were therefore left to use their own ingenuity as regards to calls of nature.
The Japs appointed me to a camp job which was more acceptable than the railroad. A Korean guard was my boss and gave me my orders. When cholera broke out my duties increased. As men contracted cholera they were carried to a compound well away from the camp. Their shelter from sun and rain was a collection of tents which had seen better days, Mother Earth their beds. One of my new jobs was to check the number of tents at least twice a day. No Jap or Korean would go anywhere near the compound and, in camp, they wore gauze masks over their nose and mouth and liberally spread lime all around their huts. It was soul destroying to see so many helpless men lying in the tents, with no one to give them any help or hope. They had fouled themselves and could not talk above a whisper. About this time I contracted dysentery and one early morning on returning to our tent, after one of my many visits during the night to the latrines, I was shocked to see one of my best friends outside the tent receiving attention from the medical officer. The poor chap was dead within hours from cholera. Our next problem was how to dispose of the bodies of the cholera victims. The Japanese would not allow fit men to do the necessary work with them. The railway had top priority.We had no alternative but to employ the sick men to collect bamboo and wood from the jungle, for the cremation of bodies. This became too much for the sick. It was decided that the only alternative was to dig a very large grave and the fit men, after completing a day's toil on the railroad, had to be employed.Each evening the cholera victims were laid to rest and given the Rites of the church and lightly covered. This ritual was carried out until the epidemic ended.
The time arrived when we once again had to march up country to a new home. This was called Kinsayo. We were not sorry to leave, our ranks had been drastically thinned out and we were to reinforce another labour party, whose numbers had also been greatly reduced.
On my first day at the new camp I was being shown the camp lay-out by an old
resident and on the way to the cookhouse we were both startled by loud shouts and a Jap rushing towards us.My first thoughts were that we had passed a Jap guardroom (a holy of holies) without stopping and saluting, and visualised the usual beating up or worse. We both halted and prepared for our punishment without trial.It was my personal appearance that had angered the Jap. I was wearing a shirt, shorts and a pair of boots, but above all a red and blue side cap. He reached up to me, snatched it off my head and threw it to the ground with a torrent of words. We were both very much relieved when, having exhausted his abuse, he left us without inflicting physical punishment. I was later to learn that Korean guards packed a very hard punch.
It was at this camp that I met some officers I had known in better times when stationed at Changi. With some of their men they had been sent to Saigon, but with the loss of thousands of lives in Thailand they were switched to help on the railroad. At first meeting they were difficult to recognise with their long beards.
Many terribly sick prisoners stopped at this camp before going on down river. The further north, camps were less likely to have barges calling on them with supplies of duck eggs, bananas, etc. I have often thought that the barges were organised by some sympathisers in Bangkok.
During the years of building the railroad through the jungle, thousands of Japanese marched through the jungle to reinforce their army in Burma. On one occasion, when the boys were resting, a party of Japanese troops decided to rest near us. One of their officers approached one of our young officers and told him to sing our National Anthem. The officer obliged with the first verse and was then told to sing the second verse. Somewhat abashed, he was unable to sing the words. The enemy obliged. He had been a Cambridge graduate. This was the only Japanese we had ever met who possessed a sense of humour. Their own kind of humour was, to us, mostly sadistic.
Kinsayo became infested with rats and mice and frequently at night our sleep was disturbed by the squeals of rats, sometimes copulating on our chests. A sweep of the hand and they departed to someone more accommodating .The vermin were not particular where they played, but how could they know that by invading the Japanese quarters they invoked their anger, resulting in the extermination of thousands of their kind. We were informed by the Japanese that for every rat tail produced we would be rewarded with the princely sum of ten cents (one days wages). We were on a good wicket and set to work with a will. We killed thousands of rats and what an assortment! I have never seen such ugly creatures and, until then, did not know that such a variety existed. We were certainly in the money. Owing to the conditions under which we all existed some men lived a little better than others by using their own ingenuity and the rat tails produced another source of income. Some men retrieved large numbers of tails passed over to the Japs and resold them.
In a sense the law of the jungle was developed by many men. The trapping of ground lizards and snakes for food was practised by a few when they had the time and unlimited patience. We never discovered the natives’ secret method of catching fish, for which a boat was necessary. They would drop some kind of bait into the river and then row a boat downstream. After a short time fish would appear at the surface and were collected by the fishermen. It appeared simple - obviously the bait contained a drug.
The Korean guards also had their method of fishing, but it only occurred once at our camp. The Japanese engineers responsible for progress on the railroad must have discovered a leakage from their store. The Koreans, one rest day, recruited a dozen or so volunteers for swimming. Then, from a distance upstream,they threw explosives into the water. It was our responsibility to collect the stunned fish for the Koreans’ change of diet. We benefited also, by purloining some of the fish for our own consumption.
The latter part of 1944 brought visible signs of encouragement to all of us, the most important being the sound at night of our aircraft and, occasionally, the sight of one in daylight. There were rumours that our bombers were concentrating on vulnerable targets in Bangkok and we were later to experience much closer contact with their activities. We were now forbidden to have camp fires and to sing, which in the past they had encouraged. To help keep up our morale, working parties marched to and returned from work singing with even the odd guard joining in. Most amazing of all, we were forbidden to pray for victory.
They must have been met with set-backs in Burma and elsewhere for, having always maintained an armed patrol in the camp, they ordered us to provide a nightly guard of one officer and three men. I never knew the reason for this duty. We were not of course armed.
When my three men paraded for guard duty I was somewhat amused to see them wearing tailored rice sacks. It could be rather cold at night. Bedding had never been available. Much to our delight we were supplied with late supper, mostly rice, but a few tit bits.
The day arrived when the railway was completed. We had slaved for nearly two years, it seemed like twenty, under the most wretched conditions of weather and inhuman treatment, and what a toll in human lives, allied P.O.W.'s and Asiatics.
As a rough estimate I would say that the railway was approximately 200 miles long and the death toll approached 100,000 allied P.O.W.'s and Asiatics. With mixed feelings we saw the first train arrive and stop at our camp, and were somewhat surprised to see females alight and stretch their legs. We soon found out that they were comfort girls for the Japanese troops in Burma.The farewell to the railroad did not cause any tears, but we were saddened at the thought of all our comrades left in graves the whole length of the railroad.
We filed into cattle trucks and our journey to another unknown destination commenced and we had no difficulty in recognising some of our old camps as we passed. This was a luxury move, no long march or abuse from the guards, only dirt and hot ashes from the loco. The journey was uneventful apart from seeing here and there rolling stock which had toppled over the embankment. We hoped that they had been loaded with the enemy when it happened.
The next camp was situated in open country and ,in comparison to the others ,was quite pleasant with a small village nearby. A bell in the village would ring every Sunday and brought to our minds our country and loved ones. Our huts had been well built and we had a few more inches on the bamboo platform on which to stretch ourselves. The work was not so arduous, but the food remained much the same.
Malaria had bothered me quite frequently and I knew almost to the day when a relapse was due. It occurred every third week. One of my brother officers Mike Wingate, one of the well known Wingate family, still possessed his Great Coat, the only one I am sure in Thailand. This coat was loaned to me by Mike and it was a great boon to me when I had my attacks. I remember on one occasion walking to the hospital compound wearing the Great Coat. (Mike was over 6ft tall and the coat came to my ankles). It was mid-day, and the temperature 90 or more. The boys were all at lunch (nice) and spotted me crossing the parade ground. They let out such a roar I thought the war must have come to an end. Then I heard such remarks as "Going back to blighty mate" and "Ain't it bloody cold out there." In fact I was cold and shivering but I did see the funny side of it. Having arrived at the hospital I was allotted my space on the platform where I lay with the luxury of Mike's Great Coat hoping the sweat would come. No medicines, not even quinine. At the end of three days I was usually taking an interest in life again, but extremely weak. My friends ration of rice was supplemented by mine. One of my closest friends John Rae frequently suffered from stomach ulcers. He never complained. He was a great gentleman.
There was a large pond in the camp where the Nips kept ducks and each hut was allotted twenty ducklings. I was nominated to look after our hut's ducklings. A Nip would call every day to check the numbers and I received a thick ear on one occasion when four had died. Eventually all the ducklings died. Why they were all farmed out instead of being kept at the pond in natural surroundings was beyond me. We did our best to look after our charges. It was quite a challenge and a joy to tend such young creatures.
One morning after roll call I found myself in command of two hundred men. Gunners Gordons, Sappers, Seaforths, Norfolks, etc., and the work for the day was building more huts. A Korean guard came over to me and, as if he was a C.O., I called my squad to attention and saluted. Much to my concern it was the dear Singing Master once again. It could of course have been the Coffin Maker whose reputation with a bayonet was well-known. The men set to work encouraged by barks from the Singing Master. This went on for three days without anyone being bashed up. The third day finished with disaster. On completion of work I was ordered to parade the men and call the roll. I knew that spelt disaster for me. Ten men had failed to parade. They may have left early in the day. The guard wanted names of the missing men, and I would not have had them even if I had known. Standing to attention I braced myself for the worst. The usual preliminaries, i.e. shouting and gesticulations to draw the attention of all to his powers of command. None of us understood a word. Then it came, a swinging right to the jaw. To my surprise and the guard's disgust I remained standing. Perhaps the second blow was harder. In any case I had wisely decided to fall. He then put the boot in.This type of punishment was common, but much more preferable to standing to attention outside the guardroom for hours or days in the heat of the sun and the bonus punches or kicks from bored sentries. The kicks were not too bad, it depended where they kicked you. Their boots were rubber.
Japanese troops were still being poured into Burma and they were now finding that war was not all success and victories. Large numbers passed our camp day and night, usually singing their marching songs. Except for the early part of captivity at Changi, Singapore, we had never been caged in, but now approaching the end of 1944 we found that we had to produce some kind of deterrent to keep us safe in camp. Instead of a paliade or barbed wire we were put to work digging a very large ditch round the camp about six feet wide and eight feet deep, and this happened at our last two camps. At night we would amongst other things discuss reasons for this large entrenchment round all camps. (a) that the work was to keep us employed now that the railway was finished.(b) that the Nips really thought that such a ditch could prevent anyone getting out of camp or getting in. or (c) lastly that, in the event of their retreat from Thailand, we would be forced into the entrenchment and exterminated by machine guns. We decided that we had most probably been employed in digging our own graves. We knew that when they had executed prisoners the victims were made to prepare their own burial ground. In the case of extermination of many thousands of P.O.W.'s the graves would have to be very big. How they proposed filling in was their problem or perhaps they would not have bothered. They did not possess bulldozers.
Our guards often told us that the war would last one hundred years and I am sure that they really believed this. Subsequent episodes convinced us that the end for them was approaching. One late evening we heard planes followed by the sounds of bombing and judged that one of our camps was being strafed. They were obviously attacking the long railway sidings and rolling stock. We learnt that the bombing had caused quite a few deaths of P.O.W.'s and a large number of serious injuries. For some time we had been building deep shelters for the Nips. The senior British officers appealed to the senior Nip camp commanders for permission to dig shelters for ourselves, without any success.
Shortly after this the bridge over the River Kwai was bombed. We could hear the bombs and see the puffs of smoke from AA shells. The AA guns were manned by Indian gunners who had gone over to the Nips on capitulation. We had used the same guns in the defence of Singapore.
Shortly after the bombing incidents one of our planes came over and dropped leaflets and in spite of the Nips efforts we were able to pick up the odd one.
The leaflets were obviously intended for us and the native population. Included in the message were words to the effect that we should not worry as "it was in the bag." The Nip officer, having had the message interpreted, decided that a bag had been dropped with some very secret message. In order to find ‘the bag’, which must have been picked up by a P.O.W., he ordered us all to parade and we were kept standing to attention in the hot sun for hours. He was finally convinced that no bag had been dropped and that it was the peculiar British sense of humour.
Before we left this camp a large party of officers and men, only picked fit men, marched out of camp for work in Japan. The ship on which our boys embarked was torpedoed, and I discovered after the war that two of my men survived. They were picked up by an American submarine and eventually arrived home. They were able to give the names of a number of P.O.W.'s who were still surviving when they left Thailand. It was the first news my wife had received of my welfare although we had sent a couple of printed cards which probably never left the camp.
It was very late in 1944 when some Red Cross parcels arrived in the camp. They were of American origin but, although we knew they were in the camp, it was some months before they were released. It was a red letter day when they were finally released and ,although twenty or more shared one parcel, it was the first joyful day for years. One of each party was appointed the honour of opening the parcels and as each item was taken out he described it. We had at least one cigarette each, squares of chocolate, etc. The consignment of parcels had obviously been thinned out from the time of arrival at Singapore Docks and during transit to the various camps. The knowledge that someone other than our close relations knew, or hoped that we still existed brought us the greatest thrill.
Surprise, surprise, we discovered for the first time that the Nips knew something of the Geneva Convention, well one of them. All officers were to be segregated from the rank and file. A sensible arrangement by the Nips, in view of their reverses in Burma and the possibilities of uprisings of P.O.W.'s in camps led by officers. The Nip arrangement whereby officers and rank and file were together in camps was, from our point of view, a good one and worked well. The discipline was extremely good.
The Nip or Korean guards were in command of all working parties, but a Commissioned Officer, in theory, was i/c and he was held responsible for any misdemeanours. The punishment was summary, a mild or tough beating. We preferred punches and kicks. The bamboo was not only more painful but the after effects could be worse. The bamboo was always well split before application so that the skin would be torn. The guards liked to see blood - ours.
I had worn my wrist watch as a P.O.W. for three years and had many suitable cash offers from guards, but it was of great sentimental value to me. One of my friends asked if he could have my watch to sell for cash to a native. His brother was seriously ill in the hospital compound and he wanted to buy eggs for him. The brother I am glad to say recovered and some weeks after our arrival home I received an unexpected cheque as payment for the watch.
Black markets often existed in some camps and certain prisoners took home many cheques and I.O.U.'s as a result of their work. It was not an evil trade as the men often risked their lives breaking out of camp and contacting Thais for food.
I think it was early January 1945 that we (officers) paraded with our few pathetic (to us precious) belongings and moved by barge to our next camp ( the last camp we had stayed at before moving to the River Kwai more than two years previously.)
When we left the camp the Senior Warrant Officer took over. There were records to be kept such as nominal rolls, records of deaths, pay, etc. We had a high standard of conduct and it was very rare for a P.O.W. to kick over the traces. I can only remember one case. A P.O.W. approached a Senior Officer with a complaint which could not possibly be satisfied and he had to be restrained from using violence. He was eventually handed over to the Nips and I am sorry to say that he had an unmerciful beating.
We were not over-worked at this camp, but we were blessed with the worst Nip officer of all time, Lagushi I think his name was. Our previous Camp Commandants in comparison were angels.
Our first major labour at this camp was digging the now fashionable huge ditch around the perimeter. I had a minor part being the oldest, carrying water to the diggers. The great majority of officers were now in this camp and there were many reunions and discussions on our various experiences up and down the River Kwai.
Small working parties were called for from time to time and my party was employed for some time collecting bamboo from the old and empty camp previously occupied by the builders of the notorious bridge over the River Kwai. We used to scavenge amongst the remains and my greatest memory was of a young officer finding some wire with which to use as laces for his decrepit pair of boots, his most valuable possession, his day was made. My find was an old Chinese currency
note of five or six figures which I still possess. Like the previous holder I found it was worthless. Twice during our visits to this camp we had bombing visits and like our guards we felt the right thing to do was to make ourselves scarce. The Indian AA gunners must have taken similar action as there was no sign of aggressive action.
Two of our senior officers were taken away by Kempietai, Japanese Military Police, feared by everyone, even their own people. Their methods of extracting information, confessions, etc., were notorious, and even their presence was dreaded. We did not expect to see the two Colonels again. They were both about fifty and quite weak and frail, but after many weeks we were delighted to welcome them back to camp. A secret radio kept us in touch with certain news but during the latter months the war news must have been so good that it dare not be revealed.
It was at this camp where a secret radio was discovered being run by an Officer and a few rank and file. They were made to stand to attention all day in the hot sun for a week. They were severely beaten up each day. They were eventually put out of their misery and their bodies thrown into a camp latrine. I quote this particular gruesome episode to emphasise the necessity for the greatest care in distributing news items. The slightest rumour to the Nips that we were running a radio would have had catastrophic results, especially at this stage of the war, possibly for all P.O.W.'s. One of my greatest friends who had suffered for weeks from an incurable illness died on 29th February, 1945. He was a great guy and had been beaten up from time to time trying to protect his own soldiers from the same treatment. The Nip guard turned out at the guard hut and in their way saluted the body as we carried him out for burial. The bloody hypocrites, perhaps they had provided the rice sack for his shroud.
The effects of deceased men, if any, such as shirts, shorts, etc., were given to his comrades. Nothing could be wasted, there was no Quartermaster's store.
Our planes were now passing over our camp very frequently on their way to Bangkok, bombing godowns on the docks, railway stations and other key points. Most of us got up from our platforms ready to dive into the ditches about 2ft. deep. There was no point really in doing anything. The ditches offered us no protection if bombs fell among the huts, but we liked the disturbance and the planes nearness. We could visualise the plane crews and envied their return to base. Pamphlets were still being dropped but we had little opportunity now of picking any up. Sometimes they were in Burmese, obviously 'posted' at the wrong house.
A single plane came over one day in daylight and the boys called out "pamphlets" but we were very quickly disillusioned. The guards were more discreet and quickly scuttled for their deep shelters which we had been obliged to build. We thought it was after a locomotive on the railway a few hundred yards from us. I stood up watching the plane manoeuvre and then saw a dark object drop away. At first I thought it might be a container with pamphlets but when I could see that its descent was speeding up and destined for our camp I joined the other boys in the ditch. After the explosion I stood up again and was quite fascinated watching the debris gracefully ascending into the air and spreading out. Knowing that some of the debris would fall my way I again joined the boys in the ditch and hoped for the best. A large lump of earth hit me in the back and laid me flat. Fortunately the bomb had made a direct hit in the latrine and it was mainly sodden earth that descended on us. The boys carried me into the hut and laid me on our sleeping platform. I was in no pain and wanted to get up but was persuaded to stay put. Only six had been injured and I found myself in the hut for the sick, alongside a Dutchman who stopped a bullet. The plane had come lower and the gunner had got in some machine gun practice. The Dutchman had only one leg, he had lost the other one at the camp which had been bombed some months before. Such are the fortunes of war. I was kept in the sick bay for a few days for observation as I was spitting up blood.
Whilst on the sick list some of my brother officers visited me and one of them found out that I had not received news of my wife and two daughters since they had left Singapore three years previously. He said he would help me and left me
puzzled and pondering what he had meant. Two days later he visited me again and to my astonishment and great joy brought me a card with twelve words from my wife. It was the greatest joy I have ever experienced. I read and re-read those twelve words for days. They had got back to England safely. We had known for a long time that a lot of mail was lying in the Nips offices and a few were released from time to time after they had been vetted by the Nip interpreter. It would appear that the interpreter-come-censor would work on the mail whenever he felt like it. I gathered that he had a couple of British officers to help when necessary. The root of the trouble regarding mail lay with our own kith and kin who did not observe the rules. Some officers received letters containing many pages, containing local news and even fat stock prices. One Colonel received a letter from his wife who was working in a hospital in India where Jap wounded were treated. Amongst other nonentities she wrote: "Aren't the Japanese delightful little men, just like little children." The greatest number of us wanted a few words from our loved ones such as the one I had received. Why couldn’t people be sensible and abide by the rules? Many thousands of P.O.W.'s would have been immensely thrilled and happy to receive a card of twelve words. I well remember a P.O.W. being called to the Jap office for interrogation regarding a letter to him from home. A sentence read, "You will be glad to know that the old battle axe is still going strong." He had the greatest difficulty explaining and convincing the Jap censor that it did not refer to a British battleship, but to his mother-in-law. How could we ever expect the Orientals to understand our sense of humour? It was just as well they did not understand otherwise there would have been many more beatings. Under any conditions the British soldier's humour helps to make the most miserable conditions bearable.
One instance of Japanese humour was related to me by an early P.O.W. taken during the retreat in Malaya. A very old Chinese man was walking along a road minding his own business. Some Nip soldiers grabbed him whilst another poured a can of petrol over him and set him alight. The Nips roared with laughter to see the poor old man endeavouring to free himself from the flames. Humour, the Nippon version.
From time to time the Nips, with the gracious permission of the Commandant, allowed us to have camp concerts. It was amazing to see the quality of some of the acts and the ingenuity required under such conditions to produce such quality entertainments. The Nips always occupied the front stalls, squatting on the ground. They welcomed light entertainment and were most excited at the sight of the leading lady, a raving beauty enacted by a young subaltern. We all fell for him.
We used to bring back into camp bamboo and wood with which to make chairs and stools. Most of us became proud possessors, but not for long. Our charming Commandant thought we were getting too comfortable and ordered all seats to be burnt. Some of our scientific comrades were now producing paper. They had been working for months on the project. In the past we had used leaves from trees and water, if one was fortunate to find a bottle. The Dutch had always used water for toilet purposes. We had also built a well in the camp and water was drawn from it by teams of young subalterns in much the same way as in India, except that oxen were used not white coolies.
We had been in this camp for a few months when we learnt that we had to prepare for another move via Bangkok, and strangely we had preliminary parades carrying our few possessions for inspection, with special attention to weight, we surmised that the march was to be a long one. Parties left the camp at intervals to entrain in the usual cattle trucks. Quite a large ration was issued for each man, ninety five per cent rice and cooked in different shapes. This had to sustain us for two days. The train was not far from the camp. The line was the same one which we thought was the target for the plane which had bombed us just some weeks previously.
My party was the last one to leave the camp. Not many officers were left. Mike
was one, so I arranged to carry his Greatcoat as a thank-you for his kindness in allowing me the use of it. None of us relished the idea of travelling by rail. It was always a favourite target for bombers and we had no wish to be wiped out by our own boys when we were sure that the war was nearing its end. At various places we would stop for hours, sitting ducks for bombers. What a relief when the train got moving again.
Eventually we came to a bridge over a river. It must have been the Mekong. Here we had to detrain and cross the river by barge. Looking up at the bridge it was obvious why we had to cross in this manner. The railway was single line and the bridge had been damaged by bombing. Quick repairs had been effected but not sufficiently for a train and wagons to cross in the normal way. A train and wagons were crossing as we watched. It was being manhandled by P.O.W.'s and the wagons contained Nip troops and stores. We felt sorry for our comrades who were employed in pushing this rolling stock over a most rickety bridge. The bridge had very little support and at first glance appeared to be just rails and sleepers. Pushing the rolling stock over such a frail structure frightened us. We could well imagine the fear that possessed our comrades. They had to judge each step from sleeper to sleeper. One false step and they had a long drop into the river below.
We had to await our train for the next stage of our journey and, having obtained water from the river and boiled it, we relaxed for a few hours after feasting on the usual diet of water and rice. The train arrived. All the doors of the wagons were open and ,as we selected a clean wagon ,we discovered one full of Nip soldiers who were in a disgusting condition. The sight was revolting and had to be seen to believe that sick men could be dealt with so inhumanely by their own kind. We tended them to the best of our ability, giving them water and rice. Most of them were so ill they could not or would not accept help from us.
We never could understand how their minds worked. In battle they gave no quarter and expected the same conditions from their opponents. We should have known from past experiences that these men would have resented our attentions. How long these men had been in the truck unattended we would never know. Obviously they had been dumped somewhere in Burma. This was the first proof we had that even for their own sick they had no thought to help or care for them. The sick therefore must know that they could not expect sympathy or help. It can therefore be assumed that the sick either got well through their own exertions or died. Was this attitude peculiar to the Nip Army? They had hospitals in Japan. It can only be assumed that the Nip soldier, during his early training, was indoctrinated to believe that soldiers only fell sick because they did not have sufficient faith in their cause and religion.
We eventually arrived in Bangkok where I expected some form of Red Cross reception for the sick Nips. As we left the station I saw a couple of the sick crawl out of the wagon onto the platform. We thought that we had been treated with inhumanity, after all we were the enemy. What sort of men are they who can treat their own comrades in this manner. Their only offence was falling sick whilst in the execution of their duties. The Nips had a very large army in Burma, the majority had marched through the jungles of Thailand and had been met and forced back by our army ,almost to the Indian border. They were very strong and tenacious little men, but their medical arrangements were in no way comparable to ours. Thousands of Nips must have died through tropical diseases.
The next stage of our journey was by boat. It was night time and we thought we were near the docks. This was confirmed when we found ourselves herded into a large godown, undamaged as yet. We now had concrete beds. This was the least of our worries. Godowns were nice big targets and could be assumed to be storing war-like materials. We hoped our stay would be very short.
Whilst here we were ordered to parade and made to stand to attention for hours. No reason was given for this action until our senior officer asked to see and speak to the top guard. Apparently one of our number had been seen to receive a gift or message from a Thai. Naturally no man admitted this. After another two hours we were dismissed.
After two or three days we entrained again and after a short time the train stopped at a large station in Bangkok. Our bombers had been busy quite recently. Various station buildings had been destroyed and we could see air raid shelters. Nips and human beings walking around about their business. We spent about three hours in our wagons possibly waiting for a driver or our guards amusing themselves in a brothel.
Our orders were to stay put in the wagons no matter what happened. We knew it would be very painful to take absence of leave. We departed Bangkok railway station and saw much more damage from bombing. The planes we had heard passing over our camp had really done their stuff. Apart from the discomfort of being uncomfortably crowded in the trucks, the dirt and then hot embers from the locomotives wood fuel, it was more comfortable than marching. We arrived in the middle of the night with no idea where we were detraining. We could see nothing and it was certainly not blessed with a railway station. We were very hungry and tired. The guards soon brought us to life with their usual loud and harsh commands and we were not happy to discover that the train could not reverse to the point required. We had to push the train about a mile. Our comments would have been the envy of any British soldier, but the Nips would certainly have taken exception to the compliments, had they understood. Apparently there was a large quantity of stores in some of the trucks which had to be unloaded into huts alongside of the rail track. This entailed another two hours work. The darkness did not help and the language was not becoming of officers and gentlemen. It must have been about three in the morning when we finally picked up our belongings and commenced marching to our last camp. Had we known at the time it was to be our last camp, we would almost have kissed the guards.
This was to be the most arduous march. We had not eaten or slept for twenty four hours and had no hope of food until we arrived at the camp. I had the additional weight of Mike Wingate's Greatcoat. At least I had a pair of boots which I had zealously looked after and hardly worn for more than three years in anticipation of a long march. When daylight came we found we were marching along a road (about third class) and the surrounding country was very flat. A halt was called at midday, near quite a clear stream. There was a temple and small village nearby and the small children stared at us. They must have seen thousands of other P.O.W.'s pass by. Buddhist priests could also be seen near the temple. No conversation was allowed with the natives . We had witnessed the cruel punishment meted out to those who had the temerity to talk to us and therefore would not attempt to approach them. After a reasonable rest we started off again. The sun was very hot and the sweat , flies and urging on by the guards aggravated the conditions. Some of the weaker ones were finding difficulty in keeping up with the main body and were constantly urged on by the guards and told that it was only another kilometre. Another halt was called near quite a large village.
It was evening now, but our spirits raised when we saw a vehicle arrive with some of our comrades who had brought some rice and drinking water. We were ravenous and the food containers were quickly emptied and those of us who had water bottles filled up for the last part of the march. It was with great relief that I handed over the Greatcoat to one of the officers returning to camp on the truck. It halved the weight I was carrying. When we asked how much further we had to march ,our comrades told us the camp was not far. Had they told us the truth they knew we would be very despondent. It was another twenty kilometres. Off we marched again fortified by a full belly of rice. It was evening and we would soon be marching through the night. The pace had slackened and we had to halt quite often to allow the weaker ones to catch up. We were all extremely weary and at short stops a few would lie down in the road and fall asleep. When forced on again it was quite a job to wake some of the boys. In fact we had to carry one man for miles. He was the one and only Frenchman. My feet were very sore now, but the fact was that the soles of my boots had worn right through and even my socks. I was not aware of this at the time. We were now walking automatically and I was suffering from hallucinations. I imagined seeing huge hangers and other buildings and quite vividly Frimley Railway Station, which I had last seen when marching to Farnborough on draft from India twenty years previously.
The road had now become a very rough track and I doubt if any of those who fell survived, but the guard kept saying "one more kilometre." When we eventually arrived in camp we fell down anywhere and went to sleep immediately. When I woke up my closest friends found me a space alongside a small pony. They had a job with the Nips transport. I took off what was left of my boots and socks and now joined the army of the bootless. The boots had served me well for the greatest part of the march. The bootless suffered for weeks with lacerated feet.
Saguchi was unfortunately still with us, but we now noted that he was not making his pompous presence felt so often. In our previous camp he was often walking around and receiving our subservient bowing, saluting and standing to attention.
I was now quite happy to be with the friends I had been with for nearly four years and to find other friends, some half dozen small ponies. My virtuous couch was now a stable floor alongside of a pony. His 'stalling' at night would splash me and wake me up but, having experience of horses for nearly twenty years of army service, I loved their very near presence. Besides stable management my work entailed boiling their maize over an open fire. I took the odd handful for myself.
One day I was lifting a container from the flames and accidentally spilt it over my bare legs. I found myself once again in the sick bay. The most painful part of my treatment was some days later when an orderly tried to remove the skin remaining from the drying blisters with a pair of tweezers. I was very much relieved when he left me for another job.
There was a concentration of Nip troops quite near us. This was obviously the beginning of their withdrawal from Burma and Thailand, and we were all getting very concerned as to our fate.The mass grave had been prepared and they now had the means of making a quick job of exterminating us, with little hope of anyone making a quick break for freedom. The first little rumour of peace came on 16th August and, much to our joy and relief, the end was confirmed on the 17th. Our Nip Commandant offered to hand over a large amount of paper money to us, which we declined to accept. We had an idea that the end was drawing near because our Korean guards were now making attempts to ingratiate with us and treat us as long lost friends.
The guards were given two hundred dollars each, the stars were stripped from their uniforms, and they were sent out of camp and told to get lost. In spite of their brutal treatment I could not help a feeling of sympathy for them, being cast out to fend for themselves in a foreign land. They were not likely to be received with open arms by the inhabitants. They would be treated as pariahs. The Thais had suffered their unwelcome presence in Thailand (land of the free) for four years. The only contact I had made with the Thais was on a few occasions when I had been sent to Tarsao Nip HQ to plead for more cooking utensils when we had to split our numbers to make camps north and south of the main camp. I did see the Nip officer i/c of all camps on the Kwai but never received an audience. He was a superior looking type with the nail of his right fingers about six inches long. I never did find out what a long finger nail indicated.
A Nip guard always accompanied me on the barge up the river. He was always armed and amused himself by firing at beautiful birds. He was not a marksman - fortunately. The barge was navigated by a Thai helped by his wife and other relatives. We could not converse but I was always made welcome. They insisted on me joining them at meal times. The Thais were no friends of the Nipponese but there were times when they had to put up with their brutality. The Thai women were very modest.
On the 17th August a dapper little American with a Thai guerrilla walked into our camp. He was immaculately dressed in tailored shirt, shorts, pistol in holster. He appeared as a god from another world. We all felt that the right thing to do was to fall on our knees and worship him. I wonder what he thought of our appearance. He stood on some high ground and addressed us. He related how the two atom bombs had caused the Nips to surrender. The Emperor of Japan had declared that the Japanese forces should lay down their arms.
It is still being discussed and argued that the atom bomb was a mistake, an error of judgement, not cricket, etc. Although the bomb exterminated thousands of Nipponese they also saved millions of lives. The Japanese as a nation are fanatical and would have been prepared to fight to the last man even on their own native land.
Two of our planes flew over our camp. One of them dropped supplies over the other rank's camp and we now awaited the day when arrangements were made for our departure to civilization.
The Jap Commandant had reason to return to our camp, and seeing the Union Jack flying from the guardroom, halted and saluted. It was shortly after this that Laguashi was arrested by Sukiyama, Senior Nip Officer, for his brutal treatment of Dwyer, one of our officers at Kanchan Buri. Dwyer was acting as interpreter to Laguashi and one day many of us heard a hell of a noise coming from the Nips private quarters. The cause of the quarrel was not known, but they had certainly come to blows, with the guards joining in on a severe beating up of Dwyer. Dwyer spent a long time in the guard hut, and when my party left for our last camp he gallantly sang the National Anthem as we marched out. We learned later that he had been imprisoned underground with the smallest possible ration of rice and water. When it is realised that he had to contend with calls of nature, complete darkness and loneliness, I only hope that he remained sane until release.
Laguashi was one of the many war criminals jailed in Changi Prison and was executed. The Singing Master, my basher, received ten years.
When the Nip store was open to our needs, cases of medical stores were found, sent by the Red Cross, but would never have been handed over. There were also
some parcels from various sources in England, the contents of which were shared as fairly as possible. My share was a lovely new white towel. I shall never forget how thrilled I felt. The parcel had been sent by the Women's Institute in Bermondsey. I took great delight in waving it to our low flying planes.
The medicines would have saved many lives and alleviated the pains many men suffered when operated upon for amputations, most of which were carried out without the aid of anaesthetics. We had found it difficult to obtain medical supplies from the Thais and what small items we were able to obtain had to be paid for from our wages of ten cents a day. Food was our main problem and ten cents would not buy much. Our doctors must have been infuriated to have to treat our guards, more so at the end when cases of medicines were right on hand.
During our days of waiting for transport to take us to Bangkok and freedom we were obtaining meat etc. from the local Thais but we had also to watch that they did not thieve our few precious rags. The Thais we had to remember had for four years been unable to trade with other countries and they themselves had to suffer the shortage of items like clothing, medical supplies etc. Our only trouble now was how to combat the thousands of sand flies which had plagued us for weeks. We just had to suffer them.
We had been left the ponies and thought it would be great to hold some races. A couple of officers set up as Bookies, but a shortage of cash did not help. However we had fun.
Two French priests came to the camp. They were bare footed and had long beards. They pleaded for clothing and money. We couldn't help them. We moved from this camp in parties at night and had to march some miles through some rough tracks until we reached the road. Nip transport was waiting for us. We had memories of foot slogging along this road some months before. Now we had the luxury of transport.
The Nip driver appeared very tired and he would probably have preferred ditching us all. We halted at day-break and dismounted to stretch our legs. We were surrounded by young Thais. They were not frightened of a Nip now and could be openly friendly. A few hours later we found ourselves in Bangkok and on the
airfield. We quickly found a small tin hut which was to be our new home for a few days. We had orders not to venture out into Bangkok. In our wretched state we had no inclination to frighten the Thais and, most important, we had no money. It might also be wise to keep out of the way of our late enemy. Meeting them might have caused some unfortunate scenes. We had not been at the airfield long when one of the boys called out "Char (tea) up! Come and get it." We were amazed to see a white woman and to us a Goddess, serving cups of tea and biscuits and sandwiches. We all fell in love with her and shyly accepted. She wore a summery dress, long hair, and treated us like human beings. Our reaction was to stay as long as possible just gazing at her. The nights were very cold but we were extremely happy. That we were still sleeping on the ground with no bedding was something we had got very accustomed to, and we still had the company of the mosquitoes.
We were free and possibly would be on a plane the next day for Rangoon and there would certainly be tea and refreshments from the hand of our smiling hostess. Our lady had been a civilian internee in Bangkok during the war. Other P.O.W.'s came to join us on the airfield.
One day we heard the roar of planes and instinctively looked around for cover. They were our Dakotas and had come to take us on the next stage homewards. There was no regimentation or roars of orders to parade. The plane crews were a mixture of British and Canadian who politely asked us to come aboard in parties of twenty or so. They did not remark on our condition and treated us as if we were as clean and smart as themselves.One or two Nips were nearby and, to our amazement, our Pilot ordered them to carry our bundles. We still clung to our few bits and pieces. We lost no time in exploring and our plane took off. We left a country where our trials and tribulations had been one long nightmare.
The pilot flew over part of the railroad. Our thoughts turned to our close friends who lay in graves along the two hundred miles or so of the railroad. Most of us knew that the Nips would be eventually conquered. The thing was to live through the years of slavery and return to our loved ones. An airman handed around biscuits and chocolate, bless him. He was another Cockney and I immediately thought of Dixon who had been so attentive to me in the early days. I prayed that he had lived. He had all the instincts for survival and I am sure that be was clever enough not to get caught pinching from the Nips.
Having crossed the Indian Ocean the plane landed at Migladon airfield near Rangoon. We were greeted with torrential rain, but who cared. We were still concerned with our valuables. Transport awaited us and wafted us to a building where high tea was laid out on tables with white cloths, etc., and the ladies of the W.V.S. to wait on us. We were being killed with kindness. After tea we were taken to a hospital tent where they compiled a list of the various tropical diseases we had suffered in captivity.
Telegram forms were provided for us to inform our next of kin that we were alive and safe. This was our greatest thrill. All of us received a thorough medical examination and at last my leg was cleaned and bandaged.
Eventually we were led to a large Burmese school where classrooms had been transformed to dormitories. What a surprise,- beds and bedding, mosquito nets and all so white. As if by a magic wand a nursing sister appeared and bid us welcome and to make ourselves at home. Ablutions were at hand. No drudging down to the River Kwai. Seated toilets, chairs and tables, how all these things were once again, taken for granted. Before retiring we were called to dinner, the first feast for years. We had been warned not to eat too much. For most of us this warning was not necessary. It was not easy to get used to comfort and I found it difficult to get to sleep and very easy to wake and get up early in the morning.
Whilst in Rangoon, Lord Mountbatten and his charming wife came to see us. They were visiting many groups of ex P.O.W.'s welcoming us all back. He was very emphatic as to the treatment of war criminals, especially Nip officers and guards who were guilty of brutality in P.O.W. camps.
We were all given forms to fill in with particulars as to our personal experiences of ill treatment, giving names of the offenders. The names of the Nip officers were well known, but most of us only knew the Koreans by nick-names, such as Donald Duck, Coffin Maker, Singing Master, Ape, Tiger and so on. Mountbatten assured us they would all be rounded up. My Gunner friend and I wandered around seeking out Gunner units. We found the 26th Field, but found that all their officers were away on leave. Well-earned leave no doubt. We also went into the town of Rangoon. There was much damage but not much business. Anyway we had no money and perhaps the authorities were wise keeping us a bit short. We were suspect.
Many thousands of our worst cases who required urgent medical attention had been flown direct to hospitals in India, also mental patients. We now had to wait for shipping to be made available. We were very happy, but of course were eager to be on the way home. I cannot remember how long we were in Rangoon, but one day we finally embarked and found every comfort available and three meals a day. We were informed that Ceylon was the first stop and clothing would be available at Port Suez.
On arrival at Ceylon all the ships in harbour greeted us on their sirens with the V.J. in Morse code. We were allowed ashore and were entertained by uniformed personnel which included some very smart Wrens, W.R.A.A.C.'s and W.R.A.F.'s.I met up with two officers who had left Singapore before capitulation and had the luck to remain in Ceylon during the war.
Two days later we were off to Port Suez and on arrival were again entertained and warmly greeted. Suitable clothing was issued for wear in the U.K. Everything was wonderfully organised, especially for the women and children who were unfortunately internees for years and had suffered many hardships.
The ship now set off for Liverpool, the last stage of the Journey.
Published by Mrs. L. M. James (c) 1989.
cover by Sylvia Ridgeway B.E.M.