Towards the end of April, 1943, a total of 6,998 Australian and British prisoners of war who had been held in Changi camp since the fall of Singapore, were sent north through Malaya to Thailand. When they set out they imagined they were destined for a health camp in a pleasant climate, but before the last of them returned to Singapore a year later 3,087 of them, including 1,058 Australians, were dead and there was not a survivor who had not suffered privation, cruelty and sickness. In the intervening period they had helped to build a section of the now notorious Burma-Thailand railway and had lived and died under the most appalling conditions imaginable.
The story of those awful 12 months has now been told by Major B.A.Hunt A.A.M.C., formerly a Perth physician, who was one of the medical officer prisoners attached to the ill-fated “F” Force, as it was called. His story tells of the sufferings of the men, their courage and the hopeless fight which was waged against the Japanese overlords to obtain better conditions, more food and sufficient medical supplies to alleviate the general sufferings. Had even a little humanity been displayed, many hundreds of lives could easily have been saved
Maj Hunt arrived back in Perth recently on a short visit. Early in the New Year he and other medical officers will return to Singapore where they will give evidence at the trial of Japanese war criminals who were responsible for the sufferings imposed on “F” Force. It will be remembered that Maj Hunt was the first West Australian whose voice was heard over the Singapore radio following the Japanese surrender.
Major Hunt’s narrative, which follows, is the general story of “F” Force from the time of the departure from Singapore until the last body of the survivors returned just a year later. It is compiled from records kept and observations made at different labour camps by Maj Hunt and other senior officers. It must be remembered that the events narrated took place, not in the comparative security of a permanent P.O.W. camp, but in the remoteness of the Thailand jungle and at the hands of a callous and vindictive enemy. The conditions existed over a long period to which, at the time, no end could be foreseen except the likelihood of death by starvation, ill-treatment and disease. Here was no heat and excitement of battle, and yet the hardships and privations endured by all were as bad as any likely to be met with on active service and the casualties were, unfortunately, at least as great.
“In these conditions” said Maj Hunt, “the unbroken spirit of the force and the steady devotion to duty of many officers, N.C.O.’s and men, themselves often seriously ill, were indeed remarkable.
MOVE TO “HEALTH CAMPS”
In April, 1943, Maj-Gen Arimura, who was G.O.C. Allied Prisoners of War in Malaya, issued orders that “F” Force, to be composed of approximately 3,600 Australians and 3,400 British (the ultimate figures were 3,662 and 3,336 respectively), should proceed by rail from Changi camp, Singapore, to a northern destination. These orders further stated that 30 per cent of these 7,000 men were to be unfit.
In answer to inquiries, Maj- Gen Arimura’s headquarters explained that the journey would entail no marching and that the force was not required for labour but was destined for “health camps” in a good climate where food would be abundant and the unfit would have a better chance of recovery than at Changi. These orders , and the shortage of fit men at Changi, caused the inclusion in the force of 2,000 unfit men, while the majority of the remaining 5,000 also had some kind of medical history since the surrender, many of them being recent convalescents from such diseases as diphtheria, dysentery and beri-beri. All were already reduced in strength by malnutrition during the previous year and the promise of better food and treatment put everyone in high spirits at departure.
The Japanese orders for the move north stated the bands were to be taken as well as all tools and cooking gear and an engine and equipment for an electric light plant. Gramophones, blankets, clothing and mosquito nets would be issued at the new camps, where a good canteen would be available after three weeks.
The force entrained at Singapore during the latter part of April, 1943 in 13 separate parties at one-day intervals. The men travelled crowded into steel rice trucks, 27 to a truck, and arrived after a journey of from four to five days at Banpong, in Thailand. So crowded were the trucks that it was impossible for the men to lie down. Food and water were scarce throughout and none were available during the last 24 hours of the journey.
THE MARCH FROM BANPONG
As each party arrived at Banpong it learnt to its astonishment, that the force was faced with a march of indefinite length, as no transport was available. Consequently, all heavy equipment of the force, including hospital equipment, medical supplies, tools and cooking gear, and all personal kit which could not be carried on the man, had to be abandoned in an unguarded dump at Banpong. Practically the whole of this material (including three quarters of the medical stores) was lost to the force throughout the eight months spent up country, as the immediate advent of the monsoon – which always begins in early May- prevented the Japanese from moving more than a negligible portion of it by lorry.
The march which followed would have been arduous to fit troops in normal times. For this force, burdened with its sick and short of food, it proved a trial of unparalleled severity. The route, of about 200 miles, started as a metalled road, but after two stages degenerated into a rough elephant track through hilly jungle. The parties always marched at night: the monsoon broke in earnest soon after the march began, and conditions rapidly went from bad to worse. Everyone was loaded to capacity and such medical equipment of the force as could be carried was distributed to individuals. Men toiled through the pitch blackness, sometimes knee deep in water, sometimes staggering off bridges in the darkness: sprains and bruises were common, broken arms and legs occurred and stragglers were set upon and looted by marauding Thais. Of the large and growing number of sick many fell by the wayside, and they and their kit had to be carried by their comrades.
At the staging camps, which were merely roadside clearings in the jungle, there was no overhead cover, it was sometimes a long carry for water and it was impossible for the men to rest properly. Food generally consisted of rice and onion stew (often the onion stew was missing), with hot water to drink. This was insufficient to maintain health and entirely inadequate to support the physical strain of a march of this description. These staging camps were in charge of truculent Japanese N.C.O.’s who forcibly drove the sick to continue the march night after night in spite of the protests of their officers.
CONDITIONS IN THE LABOUR CAMPS
The ultimate destination of the force was five jungle camps spread over a distance of about 30 miles close to the Thailand-Burma border. When the men arrived at these camps it was found that the camps had not been completed and all ranks were housed in unroofed huts, exposed to the continual downpour of the monsoon rains. From most of these camps men were taken out to work by the Japanese as soon as they had arrived, without opportunity to rest, although many of them had just completed six successive night stages.
Unlike nearly all other P.O.W. in Thailand, “F” Force remained nominally under the administration of Maj-Gen Arimura’s headquarters at Changi. The local Japanese commander was Lt Col Banno, who proved incapable of either administering the force or protecting its members from the outrageous demands and treatment of the Japanese engineers under whom it was put to work. The camps were commanded by junior Japanese officers or N.C.O.s of the Malaya P.O.W. Administration, and the guards were Koreans. The former, with one exception, were entirely subservient to the engineers or themselves actively hostile, while some of the Koreans also treated the prisoners with senseless cruelty. The officers and men of the engineers, whose sole responsibility to the men was to make them work, behaved with calculated and extreme brutality from start to finish.
Cholera broke out at the first camp early in May at a time when parties were continually passing through on their way to more forward camps. In spite of an urgent appeal to Lt Col Banno to stop forward movement or to by-pass the infection point, nothing was done. The march forward continued and by the end of May cholera was epidemic in all five camps.
The work demanded of all men, without consideration of their physical condition, was heavy navvy labour on the rushed construction of the 30 mile stretch of the railway through the hilly and flooded jungle immediately south of the Three Pagodas Pass on the Burma-Thailand border. This work was arduous in the extreme, men having to carry logs far beyond their capacity and pile-drive up to their waists in water. The hours were generally from first light to dark; but frequently men were kept out as late as 2 am the following morning. Men working in quarries without boots had their feet badly cut and these cuts developed into tropical ulcers.
There were daily beatings of officers and men at work, some of them even being beaten into unconsciousness. These beatings were not for disciplinary purposes but were intended to urge sick and enfeebled men to physical efforts quite beyond their remaining strength, or to punish officers for intervening on their behalf.
A GRIM SPECTACLE
Every morning the same grim spectacle was repeated in the camps of parading men for work at first light. Emerging from their crowded huts or leaky shelters in the pouring rain, even the fitter men appeared gaunt and starving, clad in rags or merely loin cloths, most of them bootless and with cut and swollen feet. In addition, some 50 or 60 sick men from hospital, leaning on sticks or squatting in the mud, would be paraded to complete the quota and would become the subject of a desperate argument between the officers and the Japanese engineers. Sometimes all of these, sometimes only part, would be taken out of to work and would leave camp hobbling on stick or half-carried by their comrades. Many of the fitter men had not seen their camp in daylight for weeks and had had no opportunity of washing either themselves or their clothes.
The P.O.W. headquarters, under Lt-Col S.W.Harris O.B.E. of the Royal Artillery, was handicapped by the obstinacy of the Japanese refusing access to the various camps and by Lt-Col Banno’s failure to make protests felt by the engineers or to ameliorate conditions himself, as required. Written protests to Maj-Gen Arimura were never answered. Only once was direct access to the regimental commander of the engineers obtained, and that by chance, when a personal appeal by Lt-Col Harris and his staff resulted in the postponement of an order which would have caused the immediate and permanent expulsion of 700 desperately sick and dying men from the hospital hut into the open jungle during the worst of the monsoon rains to make way for a native labour force. This order had already been endorsed by Lt-Col Banno’s administration.
The hospital, so called, in every camp was nothing but a dilapidated hut with leaky roof, no walls or lighting and with split bamboo flooring on which men were crammed, their bodies touching on another. In these grossly overcrowded conditions even such mosquito nets as the Japanese provided could not be used, with the result that over 90 per cent of the force were speedily infected with malaria. Sleeping mats and blankets were never made available except in negligible quantities.
THE JAPANESE ATTITUDE
The attitude of the Japanese guards towards the sick was a mixture of callous indifference and active spite; for their sickness the men were regarded as impeding the Japanese war effort. Remarks made by Lt Fukuda, commander of one of the camps, to Maj Hunt at official interviews gave an indication of their attitude of mind.
During one interview Lt Fukuda had asked for co-operation when stressing the need for hard work by the P.O.W. Later in the same interview Maj Hunt asked for co-operation in securing better hospital facilities, to which Lt Fukuda replied; “You use the word “Co-operation”. You have no right to use that word. Co-operation is only possible between equals. You are not our equals; you are our inferior.”
On another occasion, in reply to complaints about brutal slave driving of P.O.W. labour, Lt Fukuda said, “At present Japanese soldiers are working very hard to complete this road and railway. P.O.W. must work hard too. Japanese soldiers are prepared to make sacrifices to obtain this objective. P.O.W. must make sacrifices also. Japanese soldiers are prepared to die, providing the job is done. P.O.W. must have the same view. Some Japanese will die in making of this railway. P.O.W. will die also.
Before Maj Hunt left Lt Fukuda’s camp to go to Burma he had a final interview with the Japanese officer who, in the course of conversation, remarked: “You have in the past spoken somewhat boastfully of the Geneva Convention and humanity. You must remember that you are our P.O.W.; you are in our power; and that in present circumstances these things do not apply.”
Lt Fukuda was also responsible for the remark “International law and the Geneva Convention do not apply if they conflict with the interest of the Japanese Army” when replying to another officer who had protested against the Japanese practice of ordering officers out of camp to perform manual labour.
PREVALENCE OF DYSENTERY
Although cholera killed about 756 of the men of “F” Force, by far the most deadly disease was dysentery, aggravated by malnutrition and generally complicated by malaria or beri-beri, or both. Over a long period no food was available for such patients except rice and beans, and the quantities provided for the sick were deliberately reduced by the Japanese to starvation point in the expressed belief that this would compel them to go out to work. The inevitable result was that hundreds of men died in a condition of extreme emaciation and complete despair.
By June 20, two months after leaving Changi, only 700 of the men of the force were out at work and most of these were sick. The remainder, except for the small medical and administrative parties, were lying in improvised hospitals in each of the labour camps.
At the end of July the position of the force was desperate. Communication between the camps and with either Burma or Thailand had practically ceased owing to impassable roads and bridges; 1,800 of the force had died. In one camp alone the following diseases were prevalent: Cholera, typhus, spinal meningitis, smallpox, diphtheria, jaundice, pneumonia, pleurisy, malaria, dysentery, scabies, beri-beri and tropical ulcers. With the exception of quinine there were very few drugs and no dressings available throughout the area, and severe tropical ulcers were dressed with banana leaves and puttees, or with dressings improvised from old shorts and shirts. The result was that some 70 amputations of limbs were necessary entirely due to lack of dressings and because the men suffering from ulcers had been forced out to work by the Japanese. Deaths in one camp alone were averaging 12 a day.
RETURN OF THE SURVIVORS<
Work at the labour camps ceased about the end of November and the majority of the survivors of the force were returned to Singapore by the end of December. Left behind were about 700 men (comprising 550 desperately ill cases and 150 medical staff) at Kanburi in Thailand, and 320 (including staff of about 100) at Tanbaya hospital camp in Burma. Of the 220 sick men in hospital in Burma, 96 died before the camp was evacuated down to Kanburi in February. From Kanburi both parties returned to Singapore in April.
Of the survivors who eventually reached Singapore 95 per cent were heavily infected with malaria, 80 per cent were suffering from general debility, and 50 per cent required hospital treatment for a long period, chiefly through dysentery, beri-beri, chronic malaria, skin diseases and malnutrition.
On that “health” trip the force lost 3,087 out of its total of 6,998. The Australians, who had totalled 3,652, lost 1,058 men, representing 29 per cent of their number, while the British had lost 2,029 out of a total of 3,336, representing 61 per cent of the total.
MEDICAL STAFFS’ DIFFICULTIES
Following the train journey from Singapore to Bampong and the arduous march to the labour camps, Maj Hunt was the Senior Medical Officer at one of those camps, Shimo Sonkurai, from May to July 1943. On the march itself the medical staffs had an unenviable task. Little rest could obtained at the staging camps along the route, particularly by the medical officers and orderlies, most of those time was taken up in attending to the sick from their own and previous parties and in dressing hundreds of blistered and ulcerated feet.
Treatment of the troops, particularly the sick, by the Imperial Japanese Army guards varied from march to march and from camp to camp. At some camps the M.O. was allowed to leave behind, without interference, such men as he considered unfit to march. On other occasions he was subjected to much interference and in several places men with active malaria or dysentery or with large infected ulcers on their feet were compelled to do a whole night’s march.
“One such episode is worth recording,” said Maj Hunt. “At one of the staging camps I was informed that all sick men had to be submitted for inspection to the I.J.A. medical officer. There were 37 sick – 27 of them with infected feet and 10 with malaria or dysentery. The Japanese officer agreed that none of these men was fit to march, but the corporal of the guard only gave permission for the 10 to remain. He even refused to accept a letter of instruction from the Japanese M.O.
“At the time scheduled for the parade I fell in the 37 men apart from the main parade and Maj Wild (an Indian Army officer with us who acted as interpreter) and I stood in front of them. The corporal approached with a large bamboo in his hand and spoke menacingly to Maj Wild, who answered in a placatory fashion. The corporal’s only reply was to hit Maj Wild in the face. Another guard followed suit and as Maj Wild staggered back the corporal thrust at him with his bamboo. I was left standing in front of the patients and was immediately set upon by the corporal and two other guards. After knocking me to the ground, they set about me with bamboos, causing considerable bruising and breaking a bone in my left hand. After I was disposed of the corporal then made the majority of the sick men march with the rest of the troops.
Most of these men, including an Australian chaplain, died during succeeding weeks, largely as the result of his calculated brutality.”
HEROIC NURSING VOLUNTEERS
At Shimo Sonkurai camp conditions were far from satisfactory, but repeated pleas for better treatment and improved medical facilities were without result. The cholera epidemic which struck this camp in the same way as the others during May aggravated an already desperate position. The epidemic, however, served to show the extreme courage of the men.
“At first the outbreak was mild,” said Maj Hunt, “with just a few cases for the first four or five days. Then suddenly, we had 35 cases in 24 hours and owing to the shortage of medical orderlies, it was quite impossible to cope with the nursing problem unless we could get volunteers.
“The men were out working all day on the railway and came back after dark soaked and exhausted, having done about 12 hours’ work in the drenching rain. When they were on parade before being dismissed we asked for volunteers. We explained to them the nature and severity of cholera and pointed out the extreme danger anyone would face in nursing the sick cases. We told them, however, that volunteers were urgently wanted to start nursing that very night.
“As soon as the parade was over we started taking volunteers. I stopped after I had taken the names of 75 men who were prepared to start straight away and there were then still between 20 and 30 men waiting to volunteer.
“I never on any occasion asked for volunteers for nursing the sick without getting all the men I wanted. Those men, drawn from combatant units, did a wonderful job. Twenty of them lost their lives from cholera during the epidemic, yet the supply of volunteers to fill the vacant places never failed.”
HOSPITAL CAMP IN BURMA
At the end of July a hospital camp was set up at Tanbaya, in Burma, about 50 miles from the labour camps. The object of the Japanese in establishing this camp was not to help the medical situation, but to remove from the labour area men who were too ill to work. The carrying of food for these men was putting too much strain on the available transport. The administrative side of the camp was under Lt Col C.T. Hutchison, M.C. of the Royal Artillery and Maj Hunt was in charge of the hospital.
To that camp were sent the greater number of desperately sick men from the labour camps. The conditions of transport of these men was appalling and every time a batch of patients arrived from the labour camps it would be found that five to 10 had died on the journey. Any hopes that had been held out for better conditions for these men were quickly shattered and conditions there were almost as bad as anywhere else.
Between August 1943, and January, 1944, a total of 1,924 ill men were sent to Tanbaya hospital camp. Of that number 750 died.
At Tanbaya, as at other camps, a system of “wardmastering” was instituted with outstanding success. As there were insufficient medical officers and N.C.O.’s to staff the hospitals, officers from combatant units were employed to take charge of wards, being responsible for everything in those wards except the actual medical treatment. One of the wardmasters at Tanbaya was Capt G.W. Gwynne, of Perth, who had been with the 2/4th Machine-Gun Battalion.
TRIBUTES TO CO-WORKERS
Maj Hunt pays heartfelt tributes to the work and devotion to duty of officers and men with whom he was associated during his 12 months in Thailand and Burma. Many British officers worked hard and well in the interests of their troops. Outstanding were such men as Lt Col Hutchison, Lt Col F.J. Dillon, M.C., of the Royal Army Service Corps, Maj Wild, Maj W.J.E. Phillips, R.A.M.C. (who was 2IC at the hospital at Tanbaya) and Assistant-Surgeon P. Wolfe, of the Indian Medical Department. The last mentioned officer, under incredible conditions, saved the lives of 19 men who had been left to die by the Japanese.
Amongst the Australian officers he particularly mentioned the work of Lt. I. Perry, of Queensland, Capt E.R. Howells, of N.S.W., Capt Ben Barnett (the former Australian Test cricketer), of Melbourne, Lt G. Bourke, of Queensland (who took charge of a hospital dispensary when he was so ill that he could not stand up), Capt. Gwynne, Capt S. Roberts, of Queensland, Capt F. Stahl, of Victoria, and the medical officers Capt. R.L. Cahill, of N.S.W., Capt R.M. Mills, of N.S.W., Capt J.L. Taylor, of N.S.W. and Capt F.J. Cahill of Victoria.
Several N.C.O.’s and men also did wonderful work. Sgt. A.J. Buttenshaw, of Sydney, was so competent that he was at one time placed in sole medical charge of 400 patients. L/Cpl K.R. Marshall, of Sydney, worked tirelessly and saved the lives of many men suffering from cholera. Sgt J. Gorringe of Kondinin, W.A., an N.C.O. from the 2/4th Machine-Gun Battalion, displayed outstanding nursing ability. Others who worked untiringly and cheerfully amidst terrible difficulties included Pte G. Nichol, of N.S.W., Pte D.E. Murray of N.S.W., Pte A.E. Staff, of N.S.W., Sgt A.R. Deans of Victoria and Sgt C.H. Boan, of Victoria.
REASONS FOR FEWER DEATHS
There was a big disparity between the deaths amongst the Australians (29 per cent) and the British troops (61 per cent). Maj Hunt advanced several reasons for this big difference. Firstly, he said, the general physical standard of the Australians was higher because they had originally been selected more carefully than was the case with the British Army. The Australian administration had adopted the policy of sending whole units or sections of units away together when movement of troops was ordered, whereas the British selected the required number of bodies without worrying about units. The unit spirit amongst the Australians was thereby retained and assisted greatly in keeping up morale and also in controlling the men.
Another factor which assisted the Australians was that they were more adaptable than the British soldiers. They could settle into a camp quicker and could improvise much better. The discipline amongst the Australians was also more rigid. This particularly applied in regard to the enforcement of regulations about sanitation and the sterilising of messing gear. It became widely recognised that the more strictly discipline was enforced in these jungle camps, the lower was the death rate. Finally, there was in general a closer bond between officers and men amongst the Australians, and the tougher the conditions the more tightly that bond was forged.
THE JAPANESE MENACE
As for the Japanese, Maj Hunt has had an opportunity to study him as great as that of any soldier who was a prisoner of war. His comments on the Japanese are therefore of considerable interest and importance.
“The Japanese,” he said, “are a race apart from us. I have had many dealings with them. I have negotiated with them and have run camps where the Japanese were in command, and I do not know of any common ground where we and the Japanese can meet together. They do not see things the way we do, they do not think the same way, their instinctive reactions in given circumstances are different, their attitude towards life, towards honour and towards keeping one’s word are different. I do not see how we can ever establish a relationship in which there can be mutual trust with the Japanese, and for that reason as an Australian I am still in deadly fear of the Japanese menace in this country.
“If you are dealing with a Jap the only argument he can understand is one where you can ‘put it across’ him, preferably with a Tommy gun. He understands ‘force majeure’ and so the only way to meet him is to have that ‘force majeure’ yourself.”
This article, written by Major Bruce Hunt, first appeared in the West Australian Newspaper on 29 November 1945, just thirteen weeks after the end of the war. It is incredibly detailed and seems to have been one of the first accounts of conditions that the POWs slaved under. The West Australian is pleased that material from their archives will be read, by people with interests in this topic, with interest today.
Of the 43 Australian Medical Officers (Doctors) on the Burma Thailand Railway Hunt was one of the most outstanding Medical Officers. His group was located on the most remote area of the line and had the highest death rate of all the allied prisoners on the ‘line. Hunt was a veteran of the WW1. He died in 1964, aged 65.
Lt Col (Ret’d) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD.