Kenneth Alexander Astill was born at Cessnock on 19th February 1919, the fourth of eight children to Jim and Mary. He attended school at Aberdare and later at East Cessnock. Having obtained his QC he went to the Technical College at South Cessnock.
These were the depression years and at 14 years of age he left school to cut timber. As there was very little other work many men were doing the same and there was little money to be had, so Ken left to work in dairy farms. It was during this time that he met Joyce O'Hara, who he was later to marry. At 20 he went to work on the roads between Bellingen and Dorrigo.
War broke out and Ken enlisted in 1940. After 3 months basic training he was sent to the Malay Peninsula. When the surrender came in Malaya in February 1942, Ken became a prisoner of the Japanese. He was originally sent to Changi jail and from there out to work at Bukit Timah. After 10 months he was returned to Changi to work on the Changi Aerodrome. In April 1943, Ken went to work on the infamous Burma Railway where he was to spend 12 months. 1 in every 3 Australians who went to work on the railway died. However, other nationalities suffered far greater losses. In the return to Changi he was sent again to Changi Aerodrome and then to the West Coast of Malaya digging foxholes. This was dangerous work. Loose sandy soil and no timbers. Men were continually being dug out of cave-ins. On 15th August 1945 they heard on a hidden wireless that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. He arrived back in Australia in September 1945.
On 27th October, 1945 he married Joyce O'Hara who had waited for his return. After convalescing he went to work on the railways as a fireman and Learner driver. He left after 12 months and started work at Cessnock Hospital as a gardener. He then went to Tech. at night to gain further education, completing his welding and fitting and machining courses. Over time he was a boilerman, assistant engineer and then Engineer. Other than 12 months when he went to work in the mines, he stayed at the Hospital until his retirement in 1983.
Along the way Ken had 2 children and had 6 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. Ken's life has been difficult and is a fine example of how a man can overcome the odds and achieve his goals.
3. BUKIT TIMAH
4. SINGAPORE WORK PARTIES
5. CHANGI AERODROME
6. CHANGI GAOL
7. TO THE "LAND OF MILK AND HONEY"
8. THE RAILWAY
10. BACK TO CHANGI
11. IT'S OVER
We were taken prisoners at 8 pm on 15th February 1942. We were told to assemble on the Tanglin Barracks square the next morning. The square is a large flat area of land used for drill purposes. It was at this square where I lost my only souvenir of the campaign, the silver Engraved Trowel that laid the foundation stone for St. Andrews Cathedral in Singapore. It was engraved with the date and who laid the stone and had a white ivory handle.
We were here for a couple of days while all the troops assembled, and then we had to march about 20 miles to Selarang Barracks carrying what we could with us. It was while on this march that we first realized the amount of damage done by the Japs.
The navy were out at sea shelling the town and all over the area where the troops were. They also shelled the Cathay theatre which was used as a hospital. The air force had open slather because we had no planes left. They were that cheeky that they would fly little biplanes over and drop hand grenades down on us from above. They used planes which had the reverse colours to the bull's-eye on their wings and fuselage which they had captured in Thailand.
When we got to Selarang it was about midnight and we just laid down and slept till morning. When we got breakfast it wasn't much, a bit of bully beef and biscuits. We, our unit, were housed in the coolie quarters which weren't the best. Sleeping on a concrete floor with a ground sheet under you and your blanket over top. We were here for about two months. The food was that scarce that we were boiling and eating the Hibiscus leaves. The plants finished up just sticks. The Hibiscus shrubs were used as hedges the same as in England to divide the different properties.
Lt. Couch used to call me his No. 1 scrounger because I was always looking for something to eat. Lang, Jack and I used to pinch yaks (a small cow) from the Indians and kill them for the men in our unit. One day a Jap came to the House. He had his hands shaped like ears up the side of his head saying "moo, moo" - of course we didn't know what he was looking for, not half. We would catch it, throw it, kill and skin it and we always had a hole dug to bury what couldn't be eaten. Lang was a coloured fellow. His father was a Kanaka brought over from the islands for the sugar industry in Queensland and Lang could fight like a thrashing machine.
It was at this camp that I was bitten by a centipede about six inches long and put one of those big fangs in each side of my toe. A fellow by the name of Jack Reid who was a cook said "we'll have to make it bleed", so he got a razor blade and cut rings off my toe until he came to blood. I had a flat ended toe for a while.
The work on the shrine and memorial roads around the golf links has a lot of memories too.
I often went on a long "Benjo" (toilet). I used to go and search the old slit trenches for tins of food, some of which had been laying in the sun for at least 4 months and still we ate it with no food poisoning. Incredible but true.
One day I came across a pig which I'd say was eating the bodies in the slit trenches and I chased it for quite some time but never caught it. I also found a bottle of Hennesys three star brandy.
One day while I was searching the trenches I found half a dozen bottles of Burton on Trent beer. You can imagine how they were received when I got back. I had one when I found them and I kept one for my brother, Keith, then I shared the others. Another day we found a fuel dump which had been bombed and in some of the drums there was still petrol for which we soon found a ready market, the Chinese, at $10 a gallon. The tools we sold to the Chinese were also another source of income. Extra income was needed because the Japs gave us $0.10 a day and a coconut would cost from $0.75 to $1.50 depending on the size.
The McRitchie reservoir was just below the shrine and we had to build a foot bridge across it first to get to the hill on which to build the shrine. When we first started working on the shrine, I'll bet there were 3 tools to each P.O.W. but by the time we left I doubt there would be 1 tool between 3 P.O.Ws. Working late at night 9 or 10 o'clock and dark, men would just drop tools into the water - it's a wonder that the population of Singapore didn't suffer from rusty water poisoning.
One form of punishment was that the tool you were using became the punishment. For instance, if you were using a shovel it would have to be held out horizontal to the body for hours on end. Believe me it doesn't take long for the back to bend and the stomach tries to support your aching arms. If you were caught you would be bashed with whatever they could get. Golf clubs were a favourite because there were hundreds of clubs left at the golf club when the war finished. It was too bad if you were unlucky enough to be working with, say a 10lb sledge hammer. They were always the last tool to be picked up of a morning and the first to drop in the water at night, and then a bashing for not having the correct tally of tools.
One fellow, Whimpy Price from Peak Hill, hit a Japanese while we were working on the bridge. It was one of those curved bridges you see in Jap photos and there's not a piece of metal in their construction. They are morticed and dowelled together. As I was saying, Whimpy jobbed the Jap and about a half dozen Japs took to Whimpy who took off for the camp about 3 miles away. He went to the camp and cut off his beard but the Japs got him and tied him up to a post. A guard of P.O.Ws kept watch, in secret, on him all the time. The Japs took him away about 4 a.m. in the morning and we never saw him again.
We could hear the Chinese women screaming at night while the Japs raped them not far from the houses where we were billeted.
Working on the roads we were building around and through the golf course was one of the toughest jobs at that time, some funny instances also. There were rollers to flatten the roads, about 5 petrol and 1 steam. The fellow working the steam roller used to go every morning and collect his drum of petrol which he used to sell to the Chinese on the quiet. Ray Long was his name. One day he was off sick and another fellow took on driving the steam roller, he lit a fire in it and you know what happened. The Japs were there in no time flat. Poor bloke didn't know that Ray was hiding the petrol in the flue box of the steam engine and he used to sell it the next morning. Another time someone sold an axe and the count was short so they kept us out working until midnight. We let it go going back to camp singing all the songs we could think of. When the Jap lined us up for the check count at the camp he said "We no understand, we belt you, we work you late and still you all sing"; one way of getting back at them.
The big memorial at Bukit Timah Hill was a huge wooden carved pole, probably forty feet high. The P.O.Ws used to take white ants to the site and let them go. I often wondered whether the Japs found any around at the time.
Carting huge blocks of blue granite (6 foot*3 foot*3 foot) from the waterfront to the shrine was a dangerous job. The Chinese used to split the 6 foot*3 foot*3 foot blocks into 6 foot*1 foot*6" slabs for the hundreds of steps to the shrine, which had seven different sorts of materials on the roof. It had about eight rooms and they put a hand basin in every room. The Japs were throttle and brake drivers and accidents were numerous. One fellow sitting behind the cab and between the blocks of granite had his thigh bone pushed right through his hip when the granite slipped forward and crushed him onto the cab after the Jap was involved in an accident.
One of the Jap drivers, the 'Yank', (we called him that because he came from America and spoke like a Yank) used to pull the truck up and siphon the petrol from the tank to sell to the Chinese. If there was a racket going he would be in it.
It was while working out here that the Seleator drome was sabotaged and the Japs caught 5 of the natives and cut off their heads. They stuck them on poles in the main street with a sign underneath stating what they had done and a warning telling the people not to sabotage the Jap war effort or they would lose their heads also. This was known as a "Bukit Timah haircut".
It was also about this time that the Krait went into Singapore harbour and mined the Jap ships in there. Of course, when this happened the Japs took it out on us.
We used to watch the Chinese cemetery near the camp, and when a funeral was held late in the evening, we would wait for dark, get through the wire, and raid the grave for all the food the Chinese used to put on the grave to help the dead through to the next world. I wonder whether he wanted it more than us.
It was while we were working out on this job that I, while having a long "Benjo", found dead Chinese all wired together and their clothes rotted off the bones. I went through the pockets and found quite a bit of money, but, I didn't think! As you know all Chinese carry their wealth in their mouth - all those gold teeth. Anyway I told one of the fellows in the camp about the dead Chinese and he went and got the teeth which he later showed me.
Some of the rice that we ate at this camp was pretty bad. It appears that during the war large rice dumps were scattered around Singapore Island and covered up with tarpaulins. Just away from our camp there was such a dump. When the rice started to get scarce the Japs decided to use it, little knowing a Chinese had been shot on top of it and rotted right through. It really made you sick to smell it, let alone eat it.
It was while we were at Bukit Timah that the Japs tried to make us sign a paper stating,
When Black Jack Callaghan refused to let his troops sign the paper they put 14 thousand men on one small square of land which used to be the Gordon Highlander's parade ground. There were makeshift toilets and cook houses around the place and men were forced to sleep in the open. Very soon sickness started because of the flies from the toilets. After about ten days Black Jack told the men to sign the paper, but it would not be used against them as it was done under orders and extreme duress from the Japs.
We were out at Bukit Timah for about 12 months and then we were taken back to Selerang for a while. We were sent on working parties to Singapore and other jobs around the island.
SINGAPORE WORK PARTIES
If you got on the party which worked the dock area loading the ships, you always had a chance to pinch a bit of salt or sugar. You would take anything that could be eaten or sold. Quite often ships would come in damaged. German ships also came in but the Germans didn't like the Japs even though they were allies.
We used to make a 'G-String' which was a piece of cloth with a bit of rope or string to go around your waist. But we used to make them like a long narrow bag which went between your legs and formed a pocket. In this we would put sugar or salt. There was always someone willing to buy it even though it had hung between your legs all day.
We loaded a lot of tin ingots which measured about 4"*4"*12" and were quite heavy when you are only skin and bone. Whenever you could duck the Jap guard you would sell the rice bag that you had to pad the bones on your shoulders while carrying the ingots. Loading rice was heavy work. The rice is in 4 bushel bags and the men would walk in single file to the heap where 4 men would lift it up onto your shoulders and you had to carry it onto the ship.
One day the Yanks bombed us while we were working in the Alexandria workshops. They were incendiary bombs mainly and everything was going up in flames. There was a lot of oil stored there in drums and they were exploding. They were so hot that we had to wrap bags around our hands to roll them out of the shed away from the fire. I pinched a claw hammer that day and sold it for ten dollars. They put us in a large shed while the bombing was going on, and a Jap was outside with a machine gun. When our shed was hit he took off and we all got out and got into the monsoon drains which were dug all around a six foot fence. Monsoon drains are large open drains about 4 foot wide by 4 foot deep to carry the water away from the buildings in the monsoon season.
We worked also on the Changi 'drome. It was just a mangrove swamp and a big hill nearby. We used the hill to fill in the mangroves. Big tipper trucks pulled on rail lines by a little engine would haul the dirt to where we had to level it. The Geneva Convention states that P.O.Ws were not allowed to work on military work so they got around that by saying it was a ground leveling exercise.
The cooks would boil sea water away until it evaporated to get the salt. 10 gallons of sea water would give us about 1 pound of salt. There were a lot of coconut palms and we soon found out that you could eat the cabbage (that's what we called it) out of them. We would cut into the top of the palm where all the fronds came out and in the centre was the cabbage which was actually all the young fronds. Also on the menu were the little walking fish about six inches long. We'd catch them and grill them over the fire.
One day during an electrical storm we (about 150 men) were sheltering under the sides of the tip trucks with our heels on the rails and some sitting on the rails when lightning struck the rails. You should have seen the way it threw the men through the air. Some had injured ankles, others sore behinds.
I think that it was in this period at Changi that five of us caught a fox terrier type of dog and killed and ate it. It took ages to cook and was tough to chew.
The Japs used to teach the young pilots to fly from the 'drome. We would watch for the young ones coming in to land and there would be chorus of "Crash you bastard". Then the Japs would give a bashing or two because they reckoned we wanted their friends to get hurt - not half we did.
It was in the mangroves that we found more shot Chinese. They had been tied together and dumped from barges off Changi beach.
Down near the 'drome the British had installed 15" guns during peace time. One gun was just near where we were working. It was enormous to us, because we had never seen this sort of gun before. The shells were 15" across. It was this gun we used to hear when the Japs landed on the island. We would hear the projectile going through the air overhead. There were 5 of these guns on the island which came off the Queen Elizabeth 1st battle ship and it was the only one with a 360 degree traverse. Therefore it was the one used on the Japs. The British always guarded against a sea landing and gave no thought to the Japs coming down the mainland behind them on their push bikes. In a mock exercise before the war that's the way the "enemy" came. Down behind the "defenders" and conquered them. Slow thinking on the part of the Poms.
5. CHANGI GAOL
While we were held at the gaol we had gardens which were looked after by the light duty personnel. We used the workshop in the gaol to make large containers out of the steel lockers to collect the urine from the men. This was mixed about 8-1 and put on the plants, and by smoke didn't they grow. One of the greens was called Amaranths which in Aussie is a flowering shrub. We used to say we were cooking our own urine.
The urine was also used to quieten a Warrant Officer one night. He was always having a go at somebody. These containers held about eight gallons which is a lot of urine. One night two fellows waited till he went to sleep and crept in and poured a drum of urine over him. Because of this a few days later I copped "chasing the bugle" for two weeks. "Chasing the bugle" meant on every hour climbing about seven sets of stairs and reporting to the orderly room. We were all lined up to get our night meal when this W.O. came along and started telling everybody to get into line and I told him to 'Get the hell out of it as he stank of piss" which didn't please him, so he had me charged with insubordination.
One sergeant disappeared and when they found him he was dead as he had been put head first down the toilet (a large round hole 12" in diameter).
Sometimes we would have a little sport in our unit and it was while playing deck tennis that I broke my ankle which kept me off the 'drome for a little while. While I had the plaster on my leg, the Japs told us they were going to shift us to another camp which had plenty of food (which was always a good bribe as food was always short). When they were taking names for it I volunteered but the C.O. said I couldn't go as I had my leg in plaster. I went over to first aid and asked them to take it off. They refused at first but I talked them into it. Then I went back to the C.O. and told him to put my name on the list to go to the "land of milk and honey". Was he surprised to see me without the plaster.
TO THE "LAND OF MILK AND HONEY"
We were taken on trucks to the railway station in Singapore. They loaded 37-40 per rice truck which was about 12 foot*7foot. You could not sit with your legs straight out and we worked it so everybody got a go at sitting in the doorway to get fresh air. When we pulled up to get water in the engine we would get under the big hose they filled the engine with so we could get a wash. You can imagine the smell with so many men in a little tin box. If you had to go to the toilet, as a lot had to because of dysentery, two or three men would hold you out the door and hope nobody was in line in the next truck. When we stopped it was either toilet or shower. If some were a bit slow at the toilet and the train started to go, you would see the men running to get on.
For 5 days travel we had 3 meals of watery pumpkin soup consisting of chopped up pumpkin and onions. Towards the top of the isthmus of Malaya you could see the sea on both sides as you went along. There are some beautiful flats up there full of rice.
As usual the Officers had their batman and they were supposed to take only what they could carry. Well the Officers had great boxes of clothes, shoes, books and things which were of little value. When they were told that they could only take what they could carry, well, they had to leave a lot of gear and that's where I got my boots from. The other things we sold to the Thais to get money to buy food. Eggs were 14 for a dollar, so the first 14 I sat down and ate straight away. After that I just took it easy and ate them a few at a time.
Bampong was the town where the train stopped. We were at Bampong for a couple of days when the word came "All men marcho" to the start of the railway line. Gone was the "land of milk and honey".
There was an underground well in the camp and when we got word of a search being on, anything that might get you into trouble went into the well. I believe there were some firearms and hand grenades went to the bottom too.
My ankle gave out after the first night. It was swollen to twice its normal size and extremely difficult to walk on. I rested one night then went on the next day with another lot marching through. We set off in parties of about 500. It meant that I couldn't catch up to my original group. We were marched out at dusk and marched all night, mostly single file, along little tracks through the jungle. The Thai temples are quite frequent along the tracks and one camp was called the "Temple Camp". You had to keep your wits about you because the Thais would steal your haversack or whatever if you went to sleep on any of the "yasmeas" (rest) periods.
My first stop was Nikki Nikki on the banks of the river. It was here we had the first casualty in our group. A fellow from the 2/15 artillery drowned himself and it was also here that I saw my first operation done by Dr. Pete Hendry. It was an appendectomy. The next operation was the inserting of hollow bamboo into a fellow's ankle veins to inject saline into his blood. He had cholera.
Ringer Edwards came in one day leading two yaks. Evidently he found them tied to a yak cart with the driver dead underneath. They were good eating at any rate. Food was scarce. Bamboo shoots, snake (green bamboo snakes) and green vines that were much like rhubarb when cooked, all added flavour to the rice.
After quite a spell here Meggsie Mathews and myself made a shirt and pair of shorts each. We took the fly off a tent and cut it to the pattern of our old shirt and shorts. We used suture needles and medical scissors, the thread we got from an unraveled webbing belt.
Tich Freeman was the fellow I teamed up with on the Railway. He was only a bit of a kid. He had his 21st birthday in Changi just before the war finished. One of the fellows went out and got a bit off a Jap zero that crashed just below the gaol and we made a 21st birthday key from it and everybody that was left of our unit engraved our names on it. He came over to our place in Hickey Street one time and he still had it. He was a very sick boy in Burma. I used to get what I could for him. I got some condensed goats milk one time from a trader going through the jungle with an elephant train. They used to pack the elephants like camel trains and trade as they went through. The Japs took a very dim view of us trading and, if caught, it always meant a bashing.
It was at Nikki that I first experienced malaria. I felt off colour so I thought it was just another of the sickness that occur in the tropics. When I started having the rigours I saw Dr. Pete Hendry. He said "You've got malaria" and gave me some quinine. It's as bitter as gall. I couldn't eat and one morning about 3a.m. I woke up with something in my throat. I could just reach it with my fingers and eventually I could get hold of it and pulled it out. It was dark and I couldn't make out what it was so I thought that it was part of my intestines so I put it out where I could see it in the morning. I was relieved to find it was not a part of me but a large red worm about the length and size of an ordinary lead pencil. Later in the morning I went to the latrine (which was a large hole with poles across to stop you falling in) and I passed another through my bowels. It appears that because I was not eating, the quinine sent the worms looking for something else. We got used to the worms. We used to call them rice worms. They would make good fish bait.
The going was tough on the railway. We had to build a corduroy road first to take trucks and then dig out the earth, (1 cubic metre per man), and carry it in those baskets you see the Chinese using for about 30-50 yards. We used the hammer and gad or jumper bar to drill holes in the rock for blasting and many a finger was broken by somebody mishitting the drill. The Japs would load the charge and set it going by lighting the fuse. If the rain soaked the fuse it would not set the charge off and then one of us would have to dig the gelignite out of the hole with pieces of bamboo. The senior Jap officer would come around and give the junior officer a certain amount to be done that day and if it wasn't done then the senior would bash the junior who in turn would flog us. The Jap hand saws were like a big cane knife with the teeth going in the reverse direction and it had about 15" to 18" with teeth and about 2'6" long over all. You pulled the saw towards you to use it.
One day the Jap officer made a Jap private cut down a tree about 3 foot in diameter as a punishment. Of course, we copped it the next day. Their favourite thing to use was twisted No.10 wire about 3 foot to 4 foot in length and boy, when you heard it whistling down onto your back, you knew it would hurt. It would leave big long blue twist marks on your skin which took days to disappear.
Bashings were frequent but one of the worst tortures was being made to kneel on a bamboo split in halves which would cut unto the person's knees and turn into tropical ulcers, which generally meant the leg had to be amputated. Ulcers used to be cleaned of dead flesh with a sharpened teaspoon till you got to the raw flesh. All this was done with no anaesthetic.
We were shifted up to Songkuri just below the Burma border near Three Pagoda pass to build a bridge across the river. This camp was used before us by natives and they were all dying of cholera. There were corpses all over the place; a lot of whom were Tamil Indians. It was a pretty swift flowing river and right in the middle of the cholera belt. The troops were dying up to 27 per night. We had it worked out how long it would be before the last of us were left. It was at this camp that Pat O'Rourke and myself, both Aussies, and 3 chums (British) got into a little party of our own with one Jap. Pat and I could use the axe and crosscut saws so we would fell the trees and cut them off at the top and the Pommies had to bark them. It was a shame to see the beautiful long and straight teak trees which were cut to build bridges that were to be let go to waste. It was good to get into a small party and also this Jap guard was easily led into corruption. If we came across a yak the Jap was always willing to be in it for a little extra meat as they were also cut down in their rations.
The yak meat which came down from Burma was in boxes about the size of a 15 dozen egg crate or roughly 15" square, and by the time it got down to us it was white with maggots. The cooks had to put the meat into the boiler and when the water came to the boil, the maggots came to the top, and were scooped off by the cooks. But as good as the cooks were, they couldn't get rid of all the maggots. So when we came into camp about 9-10p.m. you couldn't tell maggots from rice, unless it was one of the old maggots with the two hairs sticking up on their rear end which would get caught in your teeth.
The Japs had a couple of pigs up at Songkuri and they got big ulcers on them. The Japs sent some fellows out to kill them and burn them. The fellows killed them, skinned them, cut the ulcers out, and brought them back to the cookhouse where they were cooked and later eaten.
There were times when we could laugh. We had a wireless in the hospital hut which was located quite a long way from the main camp, I suppose about 2-3 hundred yards as the crow flies. Whenever there was a spot search to take place in the camp the bugler would play "Come to the cook house door boys", which was a signal for the hospital to hide this wireless. On the march up the Japs unknowingly helped carry the wireless. A Pommie had a piano accordion and he used to play it as we marched along. At times the Jap guard would have a go at playing, little knowing that the wireless was in the bass of the accordion.
The 2/15 unit were the truck drivers bringing up supplies through the jungle on the corduroy roads (which we built for the Japs) and it was the duty of one of these drivers to always break down near our camp. The driver would then walk to our camp and tell the C.O. who would in turn tell another person in the camp who would go to the hospital, pick up the battery from the wireless and take it out to the truck and change over the battery. By doing that we were always sure of having a fully charged battery in the wireless. One day the Jap in charge called the driver over to find out why his truck stopped. The driver told the Jap it was due to a short circuit. The Jap next morning lined up all the drivers and told them before they left to make sure all their circuits were the same length as he didn't want trucks left along the road due to a short circuit.
The Japs had a good way of fishing in the fast flowing rivers. They would put a group of P.O.Ws who could swim in the water and then go upstream about 200 yards. They would throw hand grenades into the river which would explode half way to us. The fish would all come to the surface and we would have to throw them onto the bank. When we first started doing this the Japs didn't get all the fish. We would always manage to snitch one or two, but we were caught, and after that one Jap always stood on the bank where we had to put the fish. I don't know what sort of fish they were but they were big red fish like those they get up north on the coral reefs. I know they were good eating though. Of course, I was the one who started lifting the fish so I was the one bashed. Not a bad bashing this time, but it hurts the pride more than the body when the little fellows have practically got to jump up in the air to reach your face to hit you.
The line was connected up about October 1944. Men were working from the Burma end and we came from Thailand. The Japs used the line before it was connected by driving their trucks onto the lines and then changed the wheels to train-like wheels to fit the tracks. They would drive to the end of the line, change to ordinary truck wheels, drive on the road to the start of the rail, and change over again. It meant less road work to maintain the corduroy roads. We came back down through the jungle a lot easier than we went up. We rode back on the flat tops.
We all came back to Kanchanaburi, a large hospital camp and assembling point for prisoners coming back down to Singapore. The day I was to leave for Singapore I got something wrong in my lumbar region. Major Hunt put it down to Lumbago, but I could not even sit up. They used to have to lift me onto the bedpans in hospital. The bed pans were made from hollowed out bamboo trunks.
While here we used to have to go down to the river in parties to bring back water for the camp. If we had a "good" Jap we would get a swim in the river. There was always something going up or down the river. There were long log rafts which you would think would sink but they didn't. There would be a little hut built on the raft for the men operating it and it had to be poled and pushed as it was only drifting with the flow. Some of the rafts were a couple of hundred feet long and about 40 feet wide.
It was while on one of these water parties that we saw the Thai prisoners with their leg irons and chains. They had their chain around their wrist linked to the chain around their ankle. They were working in a saw mill.
There were Kapok trees along the track to the river and we used to get the ripe pods and make pillows from the Kapok.
Xmas 1944 I'll not forget. Everybody put in a bit of money and the Japs allowed us to buy some ducks which were a treat when you were used to rice, rice and more rice. We also used to buy dried fish. They stank to high heaven, we called them "modern girls" because of their high smell. We would fry them and add them to our rice.
It was at this camp that the fellows started making home brew. All the rubbish in the place went into it. We used to buy gulamalacca or shindiga which is a sugar substance. The brew would fairly boil while fermenting. It was so strong that it nearly took the enamel off the bucket in which it was fermenting.
The Japs frequently had rat catching days. They were big rats nearly the size of ferrets. Anyhow, all the Japs would be chasing rats the same as the P.O.Ws were. We had to go through the Jap huts too, to make sure, if we could, that we got all the rats. The Japs had nice red and black striped blankets. Somehow two of them found their way into my clutches and I, in turn, sold them to the Thais. Quite a bit they were worth too. Another thing we were always on the look out for when the rat chases were on, was quinine. The Thais would pay $1 tablet. They reckoned they used them for birth control.
The Pommie air force used to fly over us on their way to the docks at Bangkok. Their base was up in India somewhere. We always knew some time before the planes arrived. You would hear the Japs yelling from one camp to the next to black out the camp.
Some of us used to lie out on the ground to try and get some sleep because of the bed bugs. They were nearly the size of those green bugs you find in the garden. We used to say that to lie in bed was to get a blood transfusion from the guy next to you.
Well the day finally came when we were told we were going back to Singapore. Of course there were always rumours about how the war was going and how we were winning. The Japs were always telling us how they were winning. It became a common joke to say to them "Bomb Brisbane" "Yes"; Bomb Sydney" "Yes"; "Bomb Melbourne" "Yes"; "Bomb Phar Lap" "Yes". The food on the way back on the train was about the same as going up, little and scarce. The same procedures going down to Singapore as we had going up to Thailand.
9. BACK TO CHANGI
When we got back to Changi Old Black Jack went crook on his officers for allowing his boys to be treated in this fashion.
We started working back on the 'drome till they decided to send some of us out on another working party to Johore Bahru on the mainland. When we got there they lined us up and asked for carpenters. I had seen enough to know that carpenters got a better deal than the ordinary worker and I stepped forward and got one of the carpenter's jobs. It consisted of building sleeping huts, a cookhouse and store shed. While building the store shed the Japs caught me eating the sugar and gave me a bashing. Not to be outdone I built a trapdoor in the floor so that I could get some extra food. I used to get through the barbed wire at night, crawl along a drain and get up under the store, get in and pinch whatever I could eat. The Japs were only about 8-10 feet away in the next room sleeping. Harry Condon from Dubbo used to say "They'll cut your bloody head off if they catch you". Harry Condon knew what I was doing because he was my "mucking mate", (food mate). You always kept in pairs so that if one missed out on getting something the other one might be more fortunate.
They had electrical wire on a roll inside a shed. I used to hook the end through the slats and unroll the wire. The Chinese would always buy it.
If it was too wet or there were no materials for the building we would be sent up to the foxhole gangs. The fox holes were for the defense of Malaya, but one of the Japs told us that when we finished the fox holes we were to be put inside and killed. Not bad is it. Digging your own grave! The fox holes were about 24 metres apart and went into the hillside about 12 metres. They were linked at the back and about 2 metres high and 2 metres wide with no timber supports and quite often we had to dig fellows out as the tunnel fell in. They were really hard Japs up there. It was there that the Japs wanted a diesel engineer to go to another camp. The Jap in charge said the fellow from our camp could go but he had to be brought back every night. It so happened the other camp had a secret wireless and we used to get the news when he came back. We knew things were going alright when he came home and said "Uncle Joe had gone into the land of Soya beans" (Manchuria). We often heard the planes going down to Singapore. We could always tell whether they were ours or Japs. They would fly very high and if there were 4 vapour trails they were ours because the Japs only had twin engine bombers and each engine gives off the telltale vapour trail. The Japs used to say they were theirs but we knew different and we didn't let on.
It was while we were on this job that the war finished. We knew the night before because we got the news, but our Officer in Charge told us to go to work the next morning as though nothing had happened, which was hard to take. About 10a.m. there was a hell of a commotion coming from the camp area and a Jap came out to the working party and said "All men Campo. War finished".
We went back to Changi gaol and in line with the old saying of "you must keep the troops occupied", we had the job of cleaning up the quarters where the Japs were and I found a box of Vegemite. The little tins of about 4oz weight. So I took them back to camp and shared them with the rest of our crew.
Pat Brishan, our corporal, and I went to Singapore (AWOL) to get on the ships that had all the food. When it came time to go back to camp I told Pat that I was staying on board to see the movie. We had a lovely meal which started with two tots of rum. It had been so long since we had knives and forks that I couldn't handle them. One of the chums said "here digger you might handle this better" and gave me a spoon. It was easier and not so embarrassing. Pat went back to Changi because he could lose his stripes for being AWOL. Next morning I landed back at Changi and the C.O. said "where were you at 2 a.m. this morning?" I said "On the H.M.S. ACTIVITY". He said "Well you should have been here and you would've been on your way home. That's when the plane left".
The planes came over and dropped leaflets to tell us what we should do and what to eat. They also dropped the food and medical supplies by parachute in large long cylinders. They had different coloured chutes to denote what was in the cylinder.
Lady Mountbatten came around and there were a lot of fellows under the showers out in the open. She never blinked an eye. Sister Bulwinkel who survived the Banka Island massacre came around to see the fellows that were left.
Food has always been my downfall. Because I got a bit extra from different jobs, I got sick and had to be carried onto the "Orangie", the hospital ship, that I came home on. I was under seven stone, which was down a bit from 15 stone when taken prisoner.
After being carried onto the "Orangie", it wasn't long before I got myself going and we came into Darwin with the evidence of the Jap bombing lying in the harbour. The wrecks were everywhere. When we docked I called "Anybody from Cessnock here?" and sure enough Ken Bowden was on the dock. I and a couple of others untied the scrambling net and Ken came aboard. He was one of the first to come on to the ship. The next day he got a jeep and took me on a sightseeing tour of Darwin. Quite a bit of damage had been done.
We left Darwin and went around Cape York to Brisbane and let a few more off down the coast to Sydney. What a welcome sight to come around the heads with "Jack Lang's Coathanger" in the distance.
Well that's about all. Written early 1990.
The Kenneth Astill story was given to me by members of his family Rhonda and Greg Astill when I was visiting Cessnock in New South Wales April 2012. The story was not available, at that time, in electronic form. It has been retyped for publication by Marie Wilson (see photo below), who along with Jean Hartz and my wife Helen, has done much typing for this website. Marie resides in the same Retirement Village as Helen and I.