Sydney Howard, when a POW on the Burma Thailand Railway, had a double amputation. That was an amputation below the knee, followed by an amputation above the knee on the same leg. The following is an outline of the circumstances of the wound and the surgery.
Syd as a member of the 2/3 Machine Gun Bn had fought and was wounded in Syria. He was subsequently captured in Java when the Dutch stopped fighting and the remaining forces surrendered on the 12 March 1942. In January 1943 a force of 875 POWs, known as “Dunlop” force, was sent from Java to Thailand to work on the Railway. This was being built by the Japanese Imperial Army to connect the rail systems of Burma and Thailand. In due course, over 60,000 POWs and around 250,000 natives (coolies) were sent to labour on the construction of the railway.
On 22 June 1943 Syd was working on a section of the railway in the vicinity of Hintok. Syd, and others, had a run in with Jap guards. A guard gave him the usual slaps and knocked him to the ground. Then followed an embellishment where he received a warning or threat from the guard in the form a having the end of a bamboo stick placed in front of his eye. The implication being that if he didn’t co-operate, the stick would be thrust into his eye. Upon standing up, the guard kicked a bandage on Syd’s leg, which was covering the early stages of a tropical ulcer.
That was the start of the further development of the ulcer. Syd was examined by Major Corlette (affectionately called “The Gangster”) and by Lt Col “Weary” Dunlop. The decision was made to shift him to a location where better treatment could be done. He was shifted initially to Tarsau and the following day to Chungkai. It was here that he came under the care of the brilliant Canadian surgeon Captain Jacob Markowitz. Marko (as he was known) amputated over 100 limbs whilst a POW. Lt Col Albert Coates in Burma was the only Medical Officer forced to amputate more limbs.
Markowitz wanted to take Syd’s leg off above the knee, but the Senior Medical officer at Chungkai directed that the amputation should be below the knee. However, five days later Markowitz told Syd they would now have to repeat the operation, above the knee this time as gangrene was still rampant in his leg. The operation was a success. Syd says of Markowitz, that he was effusive and inspired confidence.
Syd says he was not aware of anything during the operation. It seems that ether or chloroform must have been used. This was unlike the situation in Burma when ether or chloroform was not available and a spinal block of a cocaine mixture had to be used.
During his time as a POW Syd never had an artificial limb. Instead, he used crutches all the time. (And very effectively). Syd was moved to Nakhon Pathom Hospital Camp and, with other amputees, remained there until the end of the War.
On return from the War, Syd was fitted with an artificial limb. Initally he felt quite clumsy and suffered some embarrassment, especially when using public transport. With determination he overcame the embarrassment. He was employed by the State Electricity Commission as a repairer and tester of electrical meters.
At the time of writing this article (December 2004) Syd had just celebrated his 90th birthday.
This article has relevance to earlier articles “Jack
Thorpe’s Recollection of Lt Col Albert Coates (Surgeon)” and