The initial military successes of Japan in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and the Philippines, resulted in thousands of POWs becoming available for slave labour. The Japanese had not anticipated so many people being captured and little provision had been made, so life in the camps was a constant struggle for survival for the prisoners, without Red Cross parcels to bring the diet up to subsistence level.
The Thai Burma Railroad
Within the camps all aspects of discipline and welfare were governed by the Commandants who had ultimate power over the POWs in their charge. One of the first orders was that prisoners should sign a non-escape oath. Any attempted escapers would be executed in front of others as an example. Escape then, became almost impossible. Overall the death rate in the camps approached one in three. Prisoners were ordered to work to be entitled to ‘extra’ rations although the food levels were so low, comprising almost totally rice, that scrounging to survive became part of daily life. Their Japanese pay was used to barter when the opportunity arose, although its value kept falling and many had nothing left to trade, losing literally, the shirts off their backs. The mistreatment of the POWs was due largely to racial differences and the treatment was one of callous neglect, with a lack of food and medicines, as well as brutal punishments meted out for various ‘misdemeanours’. The harsh discipline of beatings was reflected within the training methods of the Imperial Japanese Army. In their weakened state, many prisoners succumbed to the diseases attendant with malnutrition and lack of care: beriberi, cholera, dysentery, dengue fever and malaria.
The plan for the railroad was to cover the 260 miles from Ban Pong, across into Burma and to Thanbyuzayat to allow the Japanese to service the Burma campaign. The terrain was ferocious for the slave labourers, from the low-lying Siam in the south, to high mountains, all within the jungle. The Japanese engineers had estimated that to construct the railroad could take up to five years; Japanese command ordered that it be completed in eighteen months, by hand. It was a formidable undertaking. After construction began, orders came to finish the railroad more quickly, so from then on the word most heard was ‘Speedo’.
The numbers of POWs involved were around 61,000, although establishing accurate figures is very difficult. Almost half were British, 18,000 Dutch, around 13,000 Australian and 650 American. These numbers have been quoted in ‘Prisoners of the Japanese’, Gavan Daws (Robson Books, 1995). Huge numbers of Asian civilians were used too, treated just as harshly as the POWs and outnumbering them by as many as four to one. The tools available to the labourers to build the railroad were pickaxes and shovels, buckets and hammers. Most of the bridges under construction were of wood, with logs hauled by the prisoners.
The medical care available to the prisoners was extremely limited and the medics resorted to ingenious methods to treat their patients. The pressure from the guards to send prisoners out on work duties even when unfit was continual, such was the determination to complete the railroad regardless of the numbers who perished. A major problem was the ulcers suffered while working barefoot on the railroad. A small cut could turn into an infected open ulcer in no time, the only treatment being to cut out the dead flesh before the infection spread further. Amputations were undertaken with crude tools. The conditions also led to a cholera epidemic. For six months cholera was an enormous problem with men falling prey to it in their hundreds. The deaths rose rapidly, particularly among the Asian workers. Dead POW cholera victims were cremated to try to stop the spread of the disease.
The POWs were desperate for news and many secret radios existed at the railway camps. The Japanese Military Police, the kempeitai, were greatly feared, but at Kanchanaburi it was the camp guards who meted out the punishment when a secret radio was discovered. One of those terribly beaten was Eric Lomax who wrote of his experiences in ‘The Railway Man‘ (Vintage, 1996).
Extracts from memoirs held at the archive demonstrate the terrible conditions facing all POWs involved in the construction of the railway:
Fred Seiker was born in Holland in 1915. He served in the Dutch Merchant Navy after attending the Rotterdam College of Marine Engineering. During the war he served on the North Atlantic routes and between the Far East and the UK. In 1942 he became a prisoner of the Japanese after the invasion of Java and was transferred to Changi Prison in Singapore. He was sent to work on the Thai-Burma railroad and was not repatriated to Holland until 1946. That same year Fred moved to the UK and has remained here since, pursuing a successful career in engineering. His poignant series of paintings depicting his experiences as a prisoner are displayed at The National Memorial Arboretum. He describes the type of work he undertook:
Our group was soon put to work on the foundations for the Kwai Bridge at Tamarkan. We were detailed to work on driving wooden piles into the riverbed for the foundations of the concrete bridge supports. I would like to explain how this highly complex and technical feat was executed. Several triangular wooden pole structures were erected which carried a pulley at the top. A stout rope was fed over the pulley.
One end of the rope carried a heavy steel ram; the other end was splayed into several leaders, which were held by POWs standing in the riverbed. Straight tree trunks were obtained from the surrounding forest, transported to the bridge site by elephants or floated from up-country downstream, where a Jap decided which ones were to be used for piling. The piles were hauled into position beneath the ram and we began pile driving, on the command of a Jap standing on the riverbank shouting through a megaphone the required rhythm at which he decided that piling should take place. You pulled in unison, you let go in unison. ‘Ichi, ni, san, si, ichi, ni, san, si’, on and on and on. Hour after hour after hour. Day in, day out. From dawn to dusk, unrelenting. On returning to camp at night it was often difficult to raise the spoon to eat the slop issued to us. Your arms protested in pain, often preventing you from snatching some precious sleep. And yet, come dawn you repeated the misery of the previous day. I often wondered about the miracle of the human body and mind. Believe me, it is quite awesome.
Other work involved building embankments from track level up to the top of the growing hill:
You carried a basket from the digging area to the top of the embankment, emptied it and down again to be filled for your next trip up the hill. Or you carried a stretcher – two bamboo poles pushed through an empty rice sack – one chap at each end, and off you went. Simple really. But in reality this job was far from easy. The slopes of the embankments consisted of loose earth, clambering to the top was a case of sliding and slithering with a weight of earth in attendance. This proved to be very tiring on thigh muscles and painful, often resulting in crippling cramp. You just had to stop, you could not move. Whenever this occurred the Japs were on you with their heavy sticks, and beat the living daylight out of you. Somehow you got going again, if only to escape the blows. Also, the soil alongside the track varied considerably, affecting the volume of earth an individual could move during a day. At the start of each day a Jap would decide the total volume of earth to be dug out that day. By the nature of things, some finished earlier than others. The volume the following day was fixed by the fastest time obtained the previous day, thereby increasing the total workload of the entire team. It was a truly ‘no win situation’. If a team was running late, everyone worked on until the volume for that day was achieved. This meant that the Japs also had to stay behind. They relieved their anger and frustration by random beatings of POWs, sometimes resulting in serious injuries.
There was continuing, and increasing pressure to add sick men to the list of ‘fit’ to work:
The orderly who presented the Japs with his sick list was always, and I mean always, beaten up in a show of Jap rage. The poor, sick individuals were then dragged from the so-called hospital, and forced to turn out for work on the railway. Sometimes they returned to the camp that night, carried on a sack stretcher, dead! These were, by no means, isolated incidents: they occurred on a daily basis all along the rail track.
Fred Seiker writes graphically of the punishment he received on one occasion:
In one camp in the north of Thailand it occurred that it was my turn to raid the Jap cookhouse in the hope of finding something to eat. It was known to us that the Japs had confiscated a consignment of Red Cross parcels, which was their usual procedure. I was able to nick a tin of fruit. On my way back to my eagerly waiting mates, I was suddenly confronted with a glistening bayonet, followed by a kick in the groin. I was terrified. I was marched to the guardhouse with the bayonet in close attendance.
The ritual beating began. Several of them pounced on me all at the same time. When eventually the sergeant in charge of the camp appeared, he ordered them to stop. I could not have been a pretty sight; I certainly did not feel like one. He drew his sword and pointed it at my neck, grinning. He addressed me in broken English, from which I understood that stealing from the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) was a serious crime, and would be punished by chopping my head off. At some point I managed to explain to him that I could not possibly be a thief by taking something that was mine in the first place. He did not appreciate the logic of my defence, and he ordered that I be taken to the punishment tree some ten yards in front of the guardhouse. I had watched many a comrade undergo the sergeant’s favourite punishment and realised that it was now my turn. I was propped against the tree, my arms pulled back and tied at the wrists behind the tree trunk. My feet were tied together with barbed wire and secured to the tree trunk. After a few more punches in the face, they left me alone. The pain that lashes your body after a while, I must leave to your imagination. When morning broke they put a bucket filled to the brim with water in front of me and left me to it. A sophisticated torture if ever there was one. Parade was called, when it was explained that this was the punishment for stealing from the IJA, and that I would be executed later on. I do not remember much after that. As you are aware by now, the execution did not take place. The terror of it was, that you never knew whether it was an idle threat or an official statement. I came to in the ‘hospital’, with an orderly trying to pour water into my mouth.
The fear of cholera and its spread is clear in Fred Seiker’s memoir:
Overnight the huts were filled with the dead and the dying. The Japs were terrified of this disease and hastily retreated to a safe distance up the road after barricading the entrance to the camp with X-shaped barricades and rolls of razor wire. We were instructed to incinerate our dead, not to bury them. Cholera strikes swiftly without warning. It is terminal in the absence of medication. Our medic’s kit did not even contain an Aspirin tablet. Combined with the emaciated state we were in, the onslaught was terrifying. You could be OK in the morning and dead in the evening. Once dehydration set in, your place on the pyre was assured. I was one of a team attending the funeral pyre for a while, and depositing the bodies of my friends into the flames. This was a round-the-clock operation, 24 hours a day. It was particularly macabre and frightening at first. Bodies would suddenly sit up, or an arm or leg extend jerkily. But even this horror soon became a routine job.
The reaction, when it became apparent that the war was over for the Far East prisoners, was overwhelming:
After a while a few natives appeared, telling us with gestures and much excitement that the Japs indeed had gone during the night. Later we learned that the War had ended three days earlier on August 15th. We wondered whether the Japs had known. I cannot begin to tell you how this news was received by us. Some sank to their knees and prayed. Others just stood there, tears streaming down their haggard faces. A few were running around, wildly gesticulating and screaming. I could not grasp the enormity of what had happened. I had become a person again as sudden as it was ripped away from me all those years ago. I remember the feeling of triumph that swept over me. I had done it!
Post war Fred suffered with an enlarged spleen and liver and a permanent disorder of his digestive system as a result of the prolonged spells of dysentery. The physical problems were one aspect, but the mental battles faced by large numbers of the Far East POWs were harder to spot:
I had a little difficulty in adjusting to normal living and was treated by a psychiatrist for a while. Within a year of returning to normality I was ready to face the world again, and that is what I did. One incredible point I have in common with other POWs still alive, we still have nightmares after more than half a century of civilized living. It would seem that the brain does not forget, however hard one tries to wipe out certain events.
David Rintoul was born in Ardrossan, Scotland and studied for a Natural Sciences degree at Kings College, Cambridge before joining ICI in Singapore in 1937. Captured in Singapore David Rintoul suffered a terrible journey by rail before reaching Ban Pong camp, where he described the conditions he discovered in his diary:
The RAMC are doing first class work under appalling difficulties. They have next to no materials. Dressings- back bandages, and lints have to be boiled and used again and again – a thoroughly unwholesome business in a place where every wound goes septic almost automatically. The doctor performed one bowel operation by the light of one electric torch and two hurricane lamps – unfortunately the patient only lived 12 hours, while the doctors contracted malaria from the mosquitoes attracted to the naked lights.
Such is the shortage of drinking water that we were told when filling our water bottles at 2.15 pm today that that water had to suffice till the end of tomorrow’s march! The troops opposite us, who are not moving tomorrow, very decently offered to give us a drink from their bottles before we leave in the morning. For some reason Lawrie was made responsible by Lt Kayzan for reveille tomorrow at 5.30 am. When he suggested that the Jap guard be asked to call us, it was not approved. The officers for some reason still regard the Japs as some kind of ogre and are frightened stiff of them, when the Japs were finally asked to call us, they agreed with perfect good humour. This is no isolated case and causes a great deal of unnecessary discomfort.
Marching with HQ at the head of the column we were soon greeted by Thais at the roadside offering us limes. Under normal circumstances one suck of a lime would make me screw up my face for a week – but we ate them gladly and found them marvellous thirst quenchers. Passing one group a small 6 year-old stood and looked proudly up as we passed and said “I am Christian”. As we went on we realised the Thai’s sympathy for us. They showered oranges and bananas and limes and small packets of salt on us.
Reached our camp about 9 am. Before we could disembark Col Lilley appeared on the steps down the bank. He asked who and how many we were – and told us quite definitely that there was no food worth speaking of in the camp, and certainly no roof for us tonight. When he learnt that we had had no food since mid-day yesterday he said in a tone of utmost sympathy “Dear, dear, I’ll go and put something on for you”. This was delightfully Lilleyesque. We knew his position was like that of Mother Hubbard but we knew that if anything was to be had we should have it. Within an hour we had as much rice as we could eat, a heaped dessert spoonful of sugar (the first since River Valley Rd) and a cup of really strong tea. This was one of the best meals I have ever eaten – but while I was waiting in the queue I remember thinking quite definitely – “This is marvellous – but of course the sugar won’t last until we get to the front of the queue – but it did – and it was doubly appreciated because both meals yesterday were plain rice with a little flour in salt water solution
A young L Cpl in the Gordons died early this morning from dysentery after Dr Pavillard had done everything in his power for him, with next to no medical facilities. Apart from some quinine. I don’t think the Japs have given us any medical equipment for this journey – we have had to depend entirely on what we have been able to scrape together ourselves.
The Japs don’t think we are working hard enough and demand that we dig 1 cu metre per man per day. Col Lilley is a great trier for getting conditions improved. This evening he was seen leading the Jap commandant out of his hut – showing him two water buffalo the other side of the river and saying “Look – that is meat!”
In the evening the Jap officer in conversation with some of ours began to discuss the position that will arise “when Germany collapses”. He quite definitely used the word ‘when’. Such is our sickly state of news hunger that we are prepared to read a significance even into this sort of thing. The cookhouse has another pig on hand for tomorrow. Horace looked at it and said my idea of a reasonable sandwich now is that pig between a couple of medium sized bakeries. During the afternoon Richardson came across a green stick insect with long thin legs and a tubular body about 3 inches long and 1/8″ diameter. He gazed at it in pity and murmured, “Poor devil – he’s almost as thin as I am”.
Volume 2. 1943
The Jap emperor’s birthday. Last year we had a Yasumi (rest day) in celebration, and a tin of pineapple. This year the Japs still keep our noses to the grindstone – they must certainly be wanting this railway finished. . .The Japanese were rather ruffled in the evening when they decided to have a full dress roll-call and really try to check our numbers – when they descended on the hospital we were short of 14 patients, who were roving free over various parts of the camp – we narrowly missed getting our faces smacked…
The Japs are again complaining of our sick rate. Of 600 odd in our battalion (originally) only 180 are now working on the railway. They combed out the remaining people in this camp and sent 25 to the north camp this morning. The conditions at the north camp are bad – the place is full of flies, food inadequate, and work very hard – diarrhoea figures are up alarmingly – no room for more patients here so have had to establish a sick bay up there. At supper last night we had some fried dried meat, of unknown beast, and onions. It wasn’t bad, but I don’t think we can be considered fussy as the hospital dog wouldn’t touch it – in spite of his normal omnivorous appetite. Yesterday I found a maggot in one of my boiled eggs – but it was only after I had eaten it that I wondered if I had been wise – no remarkable results noticeable as yet.
Late last night the adjutant got a story that at a POW camp 60 kilos north there have been 22 deaths from cholera. How I hoped that we would be spared this. I feel that we can hold our own for a long time yet against anything the nips can do in the way of bad feeding and bad living conditions – filth and squalor, but cholera may strike down hundreds in no time. Dysentery, as I said before is not a pretty death – cholera must be a great deal worse.
We are all desperately keen that our next move, which should take place in a few days – shall be southwards – and desperately afraid that we may go north for more work and more hardship on this damned railway – oh how sick of it we are – some men have aged years in the last few weeks. . . I am lucky to have the sanitary job inside camp and not have to go out to the track where the task has been increased to 1.8 metres of rock drilling per pair of men. Am a minor sick parade in myself although I have nothing serious enough to go sick about – or damp my optimism that there is a good time coming. I have a sore throat and tongue (pellagra?) – impetigo on my face – ring worm on my bottom – skin shedding on the scrotum – puffiness of the face due to beri-beri – and 16 septic wounds between my right knee and ankle – measuring one quarter to one inch diameter – and almost as many on my left!
The other day the Nip medical sgt who insists on anything from 25 to 50 sick men doing work in camp in the morning petulantly asked of Lt Col Dunlop who is anything but Jap happy “Why so many sick men”? and showed signs of being truculent. Dunlop replied sharply, pointing at the graveyard “Why so many men dead?” – and the Nip said no more.
A party of sick native labourers being moved by river down south were put ashore here for the night – I saw about 50 coming up from the river – only about one third could walk without sticks and all the rest had inadequate dressings on the most ghastly ulcers. There was one elderly Chinese woman who progressed by taking a two handed grip of a stick and stopping after each pace to drag her basket of belongings after her. Ten others could not walk at all and moved on their hands, buttocks and heels – more appeared to have had to jettison all their belongings, one carried his rice bowl on his head. There was not a single smile out of the whole lot. They all looked like beaten dogs. I should like a moving picture of the whole scene simply as documentary evidence against these bestial fiends. Two Nip guards were present chivvying these wretches along and none too sympathetically.
Last night the Japs decided to disperse the flock of young ducklings which they were keeping for their own benefit by giving 40 to each unit commander to keep. This was because of an outbreak of pneumonia on the flock.
Now ducks is the sole conversation among hut commanders. They meet and discuss problems of duck housing and duck vital statistics. We have to tender figures every morning and evening of deaths , and the ‘Tiger’ is keeping a control set in case anyone’s death rate appears excessive – at present his set has the highest death rate – presumably because the batmen over at his quarters are on our side.
Some of the most poignant passages in David Rintoul’s diaries concern the situation of the POWs after Japan’s capitulation.
For three whole years, ever since we came in contact with Korean people, even the mildest people have been threatening what they would do to the first Korean they met when they heard they were free. And yet now they were treated with neither truculence nor surliness. Of course by this time the camp was seething with excitement and I began to wonder what the nips were going to do about the eight o’clock roll call and saluting formalities. By 7.10 pm the word had got round that Col Harvey and Major Corlett had said that the war was over and that we were free, but we were still afraid to believe it completely. Five minutes later our bugler played the English ‘Fall-in’ call. . . This was greeted by a terrific cheer, everyone rushed out of the huts onto the square. . . Then we sang “God save the King” with very large lumps in our throats – I noticed several people with tears on their cheeks and many more with ash white faces. Then the Dutch sang their anthem. We asked for the Americans to sing theirs – but only 3 out of 15 coming forward they decided they were too coy – so we gave them three cheers and the crowd broke up.
What a joy to feel that life is so worth living that one shaves every day! On 17th I did a thing I hadn’t done since Oct 1942, turned on a water tap. It ran dry before my water can was half full – but I had turned it on.
The Centre is honoured to hold two of David Rintoul’s meticulously maintained and enthralling diaries, chronicling his experiences during captivity. An earlier diary was buried for safekeeping but David was unable to recover it later on. Post war, David Rintoul married June Landon in July 1946 but was tragically killed in an explosion at an open cast tin mine in Malaya in May 1949, just a week after his daughter was born.
Copyright of original diary and all quoted passages to Mrs J Wingate
Capt Harry Silman
One of those involved in providing medical care in the camps was Capt Harry Silman, a Medical Officer with the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers. Born in December 1910, Capt Silman had already seen action in France, waiting two or three days to be evacuated from Dunkirk. During this wait Capt Silman delivered three babies in a café! After the capitulation of forces in Singapore, Harry was taken to Changi Gaol and from there he moved from camp to camp treating tropical diseases.
The Centre holds a typescript copy of Capt Silman’s diary, which covers the period April to December 1943 when he marched with F Force up-country.
Sunday, May 23rd
I am now seated in my own small portion of a leaky attap hut, during a storm in an unknown camp near the Burma border in northern Thailand. The journey from Changi to here almost defies description. It is a tale of hardship, suffering, hunger, thirst and disease, in conditions which could never have previously been imposed in a civilised society and which have taken their toll on the health of the men. Truth is stranger than fiction, and we have come up against conditions which would seem unbelievable in a novel.
We left Singapore and travelled for five days in a metal truck, 27 men to a truck. No room to stretch one’s legs, and one meal a day. There were numerous cases of heatstroke and dysentery. It was impossible to take a man’s temperature as the air in the trucks was about 103°. The floors of the trucks were filthy and oily. There was no way we could rest. Rice and stew covered with flies formed the main meal of the day. We reached Bampong, our first stop, which I think is about 70 miles from Bangkok, and we were told to leave all our heavy baggage at the station, and take what we could carry on our back, as we were to march to Thailand. Little did we realise then that over 200 miles would have to be covered, marching by night and snatching a little sleep by day when it wasn’t raining. The officials at Bampong laughed at our pianos, lighting sets, etc. that we had been told to bring. We marched to the first rest camp where we were searched, numbered, pushed about, herded altogether in large huts. Numbers of men fainted on the short march after the exhausting rail journey…
Each night march covered about 15 to 20 miles. This may not sound much, but when only two thirds of the men are fit when leaving Changi, exhausted by a long, stifling train journey, having to carry all their kit on their backs, struggling through jungle paths and swamps, and often through tropical storms on very poor rations, with diarrhoea rife, struggling on night after night, with blistered feet, very few medical supplies – all these throw a different light on the picture…
I was medical officer in charge of my train party and marched at the tail end of the column which often straggled out for several hundred yards. Consequently, at a halt, I treated the stragglers and by the time I caught up with the main group, the halt was almost over. I had really the world’s worst job of assisting the sick, lame and the weary, supporting them, carrying stretchers, helping with their kit, in spite of my own kit which I had to carry. The fifth night march took its toll of my health. I had been losing weight, had diarrhoea, and tenosynovitis of my tendo-achilles. My mental and physical condition can be imagined as I struggled on through a tropical storm, through water, swirling and rushing waist-high on two occasions. One of my shoes was torn off, so I discarded the other one and completed the journey barefooted. Every step was agony. I had never realised before what it meant to go through such a night of mental and physical torture.
On arrival at his camp Harry Silman tried to treat patients but little help or equipment was available:
The position is going from bad to worse. There are over 100 cholera patients and there have been nearly 40 deaths. There are 18 bodies waiting to be buried today. Labour shortage for essential tasks in hospital is acute. We have no men to clean up the place or carry the food and fluids to the patients. Some cholera patients have waited 20 hours without a drink to be admitted. I have found that looking after the MI room and the hospital is really far too much for one MO, and so I am concentrating on the hospital.
I appointed a messing officer for the hospital to keep up the supply of fluids to the patients. It is tragic to see all the dehydrated patients lying for hours without a drink. The one bucket that the hospital possessed has been stolen.
HQ had a conference with the Nips this morning and tried to get a moratorium on the working parties building the railway until the illness peak has passed. I am afraid that HQ will get very little sympathy from the Japs as they are blinded by the God of Road and Railway. They will find out their mistake very soon when the number of fit men is decreasing daily to almost none at all…
I have been over to the cholera centre. It looks like a scene from a film, completely unreal. There is a long, dark, attap hut, with over a hundred thin skeleton-like beings, writhing on the long platform, vomiting and passing motions where they lie. Groans and cries are the only noises to break the silence. Two or three orderlies with masks over their mouths were giving intravenous injections of saline, using Heath Robinson contraptions. About nine corpses lay outside covered with blankets and groundsheets, and a little distance away, the smoke of the pyre where the corpses are burning could be seen.
Deaths have now topped the century – a hundred and six. There are a hundred and twenty cases in isolation, and about twenty awaiting admission. There were four deaths in my hospital amongst the waiting list. There was one death from diphtheria today. One feels so helpless. With these cases there are no antitoxins, just rest, and the men are choking to a slow and painful death.
Great difficulty today in raising sufficient fit men for the daily working party, so the Japs went round the hospital picking out men they thought were fit and increased the number by 50. The MO’s had the difficult task of sorting out the convalescent cases into fit and unfit.
Yesterday, a bombshell! When we got up we found that Col. Wilkinson, Robbie, Jack Feathers, Bill Anker, Jim Bradley and three other officers had slipped off during the night, and made a daring bid to escape. The Japs were very annoyed and created a hell of a flap. We were on a roll call parade for two hours and all closely questioned. Col. Banyo imposed a penalty of five days starvation on all the officers, and said that next time, Col. Hingston would be shot. Fortunately the ban on food was lifted for MO’s and officers on working parties. Food was secretly slipped in to the others during the night.
Capt Silman did not add in his diary that he had given Jim Bradley some M & B 693 tablets from his small supply and had guessed that an escape was being planned.
The escape of Jim Bradley, written of in Capt Silman’s diary, is an incredible testament to the will and ability to survive under the most testing circumstances. As one of the five remaining men from the initially successful escape attempt, James Bradley was ultimately saved from execution by the intervention of Colonel Cyril Wild MBE who argued his case.
James was born in 1911 and joined a Territorial anti-aircraft battery in Chester when he became aware that war was imminent. As he had a Cambridge engineering degree, James transferred to the Royal Engineers and was already married with a young son when he arrived in Singapore as part of the 18th Division. From Changi Gaol a party of seven thousand had to march 300 kilometres to work on the railroad. Almost one third of those who started the march were already unfit and had been removed from the hospital. The pressure for more workers at Sonkurai camp number 2 at the end of the march is described in James Bradley’s memoir ‘Towards the Setting Sun‘:
The Japanese engineers were our complete masters, and were in no way controlled by the Camp Commandants, who were mostly junior NCOs. It was a pitiful sight each morning, as we were handed over to the engineers for the day and, in some cases, half the night as well. The engineers demanded a certain quota of workers each day, and this number always exceeded those who were not actually in ‘hospital’, and thus they would literally drive out, with sticks or weapons, men who were almost incapable of walking. A man with something to show, such as a blood-covered bandage round his leg, had a better chance of being excused work than a man dying of dysentery or malaria, although in some cases the Japanese engineers would kick the wound dressing to see if he screamed in pain, before excusing him work for the day.
Having been diagnosed as a cholera carrier, James Bradley was ordered to move to an isolation camp nearby, with those already suffering from the disease. As the only officer, he was put in charge of organising the cremations, an experience which he has never been able to forget. The Japanese did not provide any food to those in the isolation camp, the only sustenance came from the working men who sent across some of their own meagre ration.
As James had sailing experience he was asked to join a planned escape attempt. The others involved in the escape were Capt Bill Anker, Capt Jack Feathers, and Lt J F Robinson, all of the RASC, together with Lt Ian Moffat, Lt Guy Machado, Lt T P D Jones, Cpl Brown and an Indian fisherman, Nur Mahommed. The escape party was led by Lt Col Mike Wilkinson, Jim’s Company Commander, known as ‘Wilkie’. It was estimated that the party would need to cover 80 kilometres and it would take around three weeks. The escapers hoped to reach Ye and then obtain a boat to sail westwards. Jim had spent ten days prior to the escape on 5 July 1943, cutting through the jungle to a small river to allow the party a head start on their pursuers. The escapers had accumulated about 70 pounds of rice, soya beans, dried fish, chillies and a few tins of fish.
Early in the escape the party made reasonable progress, with two men cutting with parangs to open a track and another with a compass to hold them on course. At night they would make a shelter and try to keep a fire going. Unfortunately the escapers soon ran into denser jungle and steep terrain which left them exhausted and weak:
At night, I just lay thinking of the past, realizing what a happy life I had lived and how fortunate I had always been. Perhaps at the time, I had taken this for granted, but I knew now that I would never again accept anything as being my right. There was only one thing I wanted, and that was my family, with a small home, no matter how humble. This was my driving force.
Soon the men in the party started to become casualties. Firstly Cpl Brown, who had developed gangrenous tropical ulcers and who disappeared one night, having courageously decided not to hold up the others; secondly, Jack Feathers and then Wilkie, who had been suffering with severe pains around his heart. Lt Robinson and Lt Jones were to be lost shortly afterwards, leaving just five men to continue. By this point the escapers had been travelling for six weeks, the last two weeks without food. In mid August the five men arrived at the Ye River and struggled to build a raft, but it broke up in the fast-moving river. Fortunately two Burmese hunters came across the men and gave them some food. However their relief was short-lived as they were sold by the Headman of the village of Karni, back to the Japanese. After the war, the Headman was tried for war crimes and was arrested by Col Wild.
From the start, all the escapers were aware that their fate on recapture would most likely be execution. After a train journey to Moulmein the men were interrogated and then examined by a Sikh Doctor, Dr Sohan Singh who was appalled at their physical state. Jim Bradley by this point weighed less than six stones and Ian Moffat’s leg ulcers were extremely serious. Dr Singh had no bandages but tore up turbans to bind Ian Moffat’s legs. Then:
On 7th September we were moved to a Japanese camp where the four of us were made to sit in a line, cross-legged, with a bamboo pole lashed to our wrists behind our backs. The Japanese Captain tried to kick in Machado’s teeth with the wooden clogs he was wearing and, being trussed so tightly, Machado was unable to take any avoiding action. Later that evening another officer ordered that we should be released and allowed to lie on the ground for the night, and we were given two rice balls each.
The following day the escapers were moved to Thanbyuzayat where they were told they would be executed. Some of the prisoners in the cholera isolation camp were ordered to cut wood for the escapers’ bodies to be cremated after execution. These tactics were designed to demoralise other would-be escapers, a tactic which would be repeated at other camps in which Jim Bradley was held. It was never clear why the executions were not carried out, however Jim believes:
There is little doubt that we owe our lives to the efforts of all those senior British officers, who had been brought from various railway camps down the line up to Nieke to witness our execution, and in particular to Capt Cyril Wild, who spoke Japanese with such fluency that he was able to reduce Col Banno to tears by impressing on him the disgrace and shame that he would bring upon the Emperor and the Imperial Japanese Army if he allowed the execution of what he termed ‘these brave men’.
Tragically, Col Wild lost his life in 1946 in an air accident when acting as a War Crimes Liaison Officer.
After 52 days in Outram Road Gaol, Jim was sent to Changi camp as he was in such poor health and was fainting almost every time he needed to stand up to collect his food. In desperation he had even tried to break his own arm. At his court martial in June 1944 he was sentenced to eight years’ hard labour, yet the Presiding Judge told Jim to take care of his health and gave him a bag of sweets!
Post war Jim bought his own fruit farm and after the sad death of his wife Lindsay, he remarried and has a second family.
Another of those who had been initially held at Changi, was Maurice Cunningham, whose memoir ‘Forever Yesterday’ stresses how difficult it was for him, and so many others, on his return home:
As it was almost Christmas 1945 before I got home, I suppose as the Japanese War had ended in the August, this was why there was not much interest shown on our return. A volunteer car driver did take me to my sister’s house and we were given ‘travel tokens’ to travel on buses in Birmingham. The conductresses were kind to us, they knew where we had been. I remember travelling to the city centre by tram and seeing a chap in uniform with a large white circle on his back on the same tram going to the city centre. I was astonished to be told that he was a German POW on his day out. I did find it difficult to adjust. I was 25 years old, I was 19 years old when I left England. I did not meet many of my old friends of the football team, most of them were married and settled down. As I travelled about I felt like a fish out of water. I even thought of signing on in the Army again. I eventually went for a Medical in February 1946, which consisted of a tap on the knee, testing reflexes, stethoscope on chest, then passed ‘A1’. What a farce. When I filled in the form marking out the illnesses I had had the medical orderlies didn’t know what they were. Later I went back to work at the firm I had gone to when I left school. This was a small firm only, one other chap in the same room. This was a mistake, as I found out afterwards. I needed to work in a large firm with plenty of workmates. It took two years or more for the effects of the ‘POW’ life to surface. I was just married and my wife must have had a terrible time. Sometimes I didn’t go to work, I just walked for miles, sometimes around the area where I had lived before joining the Army. I used to wake and sit up in bed startled, then realising where I was, was a great relief.
I read recently a book by another POW of the Japs. He said his Doctor told him he should have some mental care, but he thought as we all did at the time, that this would be a stigma. I eventually had some ‘ECT’ treatment. Some time later I met another POW who I worked with and a friend of mine. He told me he had spent some time in a Mental Home, so I was not the only one.
The outstanding memory of Maurice about his journey home, is the overwhelming kindness shown to him and his fellow POWs by the American sailors aboard the USS Block Island:
Those sailors were marvellous, they helped every way they could, transferring us to boats by harness, then taken to aircraft carrier where as we crawled up gangway steps they manned every step of the way to help us up. I remember as I neared the deck hearing a band playing welcoming us aboard, each one of us individually, I almost burst into tears. I had never felt like this before. I was determined not to cry, I don’t know how I managed. All I knew the Americans were to us like mothers to babies, they were on guard all night manning steps to latrines to make sure we were OK. It was there I saw myself in a mirror and scared myself.
Maurice had arrived at Taichu camp on Formosa in October 1942 and was forced to help dig a river bed to prevent flooding in a nearby town. He then moved to Haito to dig stones to be used in constructing runways. In early 1945 Maurice marched to a new camp that was under construction:
The work here consisted of going further up the hill side and cutting the long grass needed to thatch the roofs of our huts, and carrying down trees that we used to build the framework and other uses. As some of the trees we carried down were fairly large in length and girth, some required 8 men to carry down the hill side, accompanied by Jap guards, screaming and pushing. We had to negotiate streams and other trees and bushes. Being the last of the POWs to be allotted a tree was tough. We had no help to pick up the tree. I recall two of us finally managing to lift a tree on to our shoulders, then a Jap guard pushing the tree so as to force us to run down the hill side. We dare not let our legs buckle and bearing in mind I weighed at that time 35 kilos, my work mate about the same, we were at our last gasp.
At this time quite a number of us were showing signs of madness. On a working party gathering long reeds, one American asked a Jap for a cigarette in exchange for a beating. He got punched all right, don’t know about the fag! Another POW threw down his bundle, fell to his knees and with hands together lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed. The Jap guard laughed. At that time I didn’t care what happened to me, whether I was bayoneted or not. I took my time over the work. I never felt like that before. I thought that if the war went on a few more months none of us would be left alive.
The Centre is also fortunate to hold the recollections of John Wyatt of the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment, who reiterates the important point that for so many POWs the construction of the Thai-Burma railway was not the end of their nightmare in captivity.
A number of ‘Hell Ships‘ transported POWs to Japan to work, among them the Asaka Maru. Of the 750 POWs on board, 43 died before the ship hit rocks off the island of Formosa, weakened by disease and the horrendous conditions in the hold in which they were incarcerated. The 707 POWs were transferred to the hold of the Hakusan Maru where the situation was even worse:
There was no air, it was overcrowded and the heat was unbearable. We lay naked on the wooden shelves, the sweat was pouring from us. It was exhausting even to move. We fixed lines across, put our G-strings or any clothing we could find on them and pulled the strings to get some air. We took it in turn to do this from morning till night. We hardly spoke – it was too much of an effort. There was darkness all around except that there was one dimly lit bulb swaying in the corridor. There was nothing to do but just lay there sweating hour after hour, thirsty and hungry, watching that bulb swaying to and fro, to and fro… I was getting near breaking point. Every night two or three men died from exhaustion. Rumour was that we were nearing Japan. It must have been right for our convoy was attacked by American subs. I could hear guns and explosions on either side of the ship and, one night, the buzzer alarm went off and the ship shuddered from an explosion and then they closed the watertight doors. I stood up and looked through the porthole and I saw the sea just above it. There were 400 of us down that stinking hold. I heard somebody say “We’ve been hit. Every man for himself”. There was fighting, panic broke out, some POWs had to be held down by their mates. There was no air. I said to Mick “We’re trapped”. He said “Don’t lose your nerve, just keep quiet and wait”. When after about half-an-hour things started to calm down, the engines started to throb and we were on our way to Moji in Japan.
John Wyatt’s job in Japan was to load pig iron into a big truck; both ends of the factory were open to the elements and at night he shared a hut with 300 POWs:
We had to lay side-by-side, head-to-toe, plus all your bits of sacking and mess tins. We were squashed like ants; no room to turn or stretch; stinking feet in your face; the smell of wet clothing drying on bodies; urine from beri-beri patients; and dysentery was still rife. The Benjo (Jap word for lavatory) was outside. In the freezing temperatures men with dysentery had to trample over you to get to the ladder; some couldn’t make it, leaving excreta everywhere. Eventually, all dysentery cases were put on the lower platform. To all that was added the misery of bed bugs and lice. After a hard day’s work, you could get no rest or sleep.
The Japanese civilians too, endured the ever-present threat of starvation and brutal treatment:
The Kempetai (Japanese secret police) used to watch us going to work. One morning we were straggling and some civilians broke through our ranks. It was about 7am when suddenly the Kempetai shouted at them, beat them about the face and made them stand to attention. They were still there when we got back from work at 6pm.
After a night raid by the American forces on Osaka, the factory was destroyed and John Wyatt was transported to a camp of American POWs, who were forced to unload cargoes of cement and bombs from ships. As a POW in Japan, John Wyatt suffered a bout of pneumonia and then yellow jaundice. His description of what it meant to him to be finally released is very powerful:
People ask me what it was like to be free. I could not explain, there are no words, only you know how you feel, after being deprived of the things we take for granted. Just think to yourself, water is there at the turn of the tap, bread, butter, beans, milk, eggs, a cup of tea, an aspirin. Deprive yourself of them for even two or three weeks, plus starvation, bashings and all the deadly disease. And, above all, your freedom to walk, talk and do what you like, when and where you like. That is what freedom means.
Sydney Burrow joined the Signals section of the 4/5 battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers and then transferred to the Royal Signals.
He was born in November 1917, the youngest of eight children and was brought up by his elder sister, Nellie.
The remaining passage is from the Foreword to Jim Bradley’s memoir ‘Towards the Setting Sun’ and written by his wife Lindy, who is in the best position to assess how his experiences affected Jim postwar:
In 1945 Lady Louis Mountbatten asked Jim to write a book about the escape, but out of respect for the feelings of the widows and families of those who had died such terrible deaths, he would not do it at that time… Ever since he returned home in 1945 he has been unable to speak of his appalling experiences, and it has all been ‘bottled up’ inside him, plaguing him relentlessly with nightmares. All he wanted to do was try and forget, and it took a great deal of persuasion on my part to convince him that his remarkable story should be recorded for posterity. Bringing the memories to the forefront of his mind was an ordeal for him, but now that it is done, he feels that a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders…
For Jim there is no mental escape. However, he bears no malice towards the Japanese people, insisting that one must look to the future with friendship and mutual understanding, and learn from the mistakes of the past. The young Japanese people of today must not feel guilty, nor must they take the blame for the actions of their fathers and grandfathers, and of course, it must be remembered that, traditionally, their sense of values was so different from our own. At the time of the Second World War they still felt that it was honourable to fight to the death and die in battle, and that it was a humiliating disgrace to be taken prisoner and held in captivity.
The building of the Thai-Burma railroad was a monumental task and one ultimately doomed to failure, for it became a target for Allied bombing, leading to more deaths among the POWs and Asian workers. The cemeteries and personal accounts serve to remind us at what human cost this great feat of engineering was completed.