It is estimated that up to 250,000 “Coolies” were impressed to work on the Burma Thailand Railway. I have used the term “Coolies”, but they have also been variously described as “Romusha” or natives. They were sent to labour on the Railway in addition to the over 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War. The Coolies originated from Java, Singapore, Malaya (including Tamil workers on the rubber plantations) and Burmese.
Due to the depletion of “Coolie” numbers by death and disease, the Japanese made the decision to send medical teams to Thailand and Burma in an effort to maintain them as part of the (slave) labour force.
On 25 June 1943 the Japanese sent 30 Allied Medical Officers and 200 Other Ranks to Thailand to live near and support the Coolies medically. The composition of this force, known as “K” Force was:- British 163, Australian 55, Dutch 11, Other 1. Total 230. The officer in charge was Major EED Crawford RAMC. Amongst the 30 Medical Officers there were 5 Australian Medical Officers with 50 Other Ranks. The Medical Officers were:-
On 24 August 1943 a second force known as “L” Force was also sent to Thailand. This was a force of 15 Medical Officers and 100 Other Ranks. The composition of the force was 42 British and 73 Australians. A total of 115. The Senior Officer in charge was Lt Col HCB Bebson RAMC and amongst the Medical Officers there were three Australian Medical Officers. They were:-
Both forces were advised that they were going to well equipped hospitals in Thailand. A.S. Walker in his authoritative book “Medical - Middle and Far East” (first published in 1953) said that they were to care for sick prisoners of war in established hospitals. On arrival these parties soon discovered that they were to be employed in a great variety of tasks. Some went to the hospital camps, but, the bulk was dispersed as small medical teams with the estimated 250,000 Coolies. Usually K and L Force worked as teams of one Medical Officer and 4 other ranks (2 medical orderlies, 1 cook and 1 carpenter) allocated to 800 Coolies. The team lived in the vicinity of the Jap lines, but, adjacent to the Coolies camp.
Both K and L Force, when sent to the Railway remained under Japanese Singapore/Malaya Command. As with F and H Forces this made their existence more difficult than those Forces which had been transferred to Japanese Thailand Command. Later K and L Forces were transferred to Thailand Command and remained in that area to the end of the war.
I now want to cover the stories of a number of people who formed part of K & L Force. They are Medical Orderlies Robert Banson Cussen, Bill Fitch and Arthur Lawlor and Medical Officers Captains Tim Hogg, EB Drevermann, John (Jock) Frew (later Sir John Frew), Major HL Andrews Major GFS Davies and Major MJ Murphy.
1. ROBERT BANSON CUSSEN VX54784
Robert Cussen did not talk much about his POW experiences after the war. Robert died in 1971.In 1996 his widow Joan decided she wanted to record his war history. She went to the Australian War Memorial and trawled through the records to establish her late husband’s story. I am indebted to Joan Cussen for her permission to publish the Robert Cussen story, which follows:-.
Robert Bansom Cussen VX54784 joined the Australian Army in Benalla on 2/5/1941 and immediately started training at Royal Park A.A.M.C. Eng. Dept. On 14/8/1941 he was posted to 13th A.G.H and trained at Caulfield.
Bob embarked H.M.S “Wanganella” in Melbourne 2/9/1941 arriving in Singapore 20/9/1941 where he served with 13th A.G.H. until 26/3/1942. This was the time of the Japanese invasion and Bob was listed as missing until June 1943 when he was listed as Prisoner of War. The 13th A.G.H apparently fell without harm, which records show, did not happen at all hospitals (one such incident when a patient on the operating table was bayoneted along with the orderlies).
As officers had heard of atrocities committed against nurses at another hospital, they sent the 13th A.G.H. nurses away by ship but they were wrecked just off shore by Japanese bombers. On returning to the beach they were all shot by Japanese ground troops. Only one, Sister Vivienne Bullwinkel, lived. She feigned death and was washed ashore only to be captured and live through the war as a Prisoner of War (this story is well documented and can be obtained in public libraries).
Bob was sent to Changi prison until July 1943 when he was transferred to Kamburi in Thailand with “K” Force as batman to Dr Timothy Hogg (see separate account which follows).
Much has been written about Changi’s camp conditions, overcrowded, food and medicine quite inadequate and the cruelty of the guards, especially Sikhs - quite unbelievable. There are many books in public libraries where these occurrences can be studied. All POWs suffered there.
The trip to Kamburi took eight days in rice trucks which prisoners did not leave. These were crowded to standing room, very hot with no eating or toilet facilities. Fortunately those with a little money could buy food at some wayside stops. The doctors of “K” Force (30 doctors and 200 orderlies) were told they were going to a well equipped hospital in Kamburi to look after Australian troops. On arrival they found no hospital and no facilities and were broken up into small groups (1 doctor, 2-3 orderlies) and had to “look after” Coolies working on the railroad. Fortunately, the doctors did not trust the Japanese so they had hidden some medical supplies on their bodies, atebrin, quinine and M & B 693s.
At Kamburi all personal goods were confiscated, medical, Red Cross and personal which meant the only supplies they had were those they had smuggled through. “K” Force was under “Singapore Command”. Those prisoners under “Thailand Command” were reputedly a little better treated, but “SC” suffered terrible conditions.
Dr Hogg, with Pte Lawlor and Bob were sent to Wanye. There was a Pte Ward with them also, as yet I can find no official records of him but I will mention that later. Each small party (1 doctor, 2/3 orderlies) was alone with hundreds of Coolies. Conditions were terrible, a small amount of rice only to eat and little water, no toilet facilities. The Coolies were dirty and unhygienic, resulting in terrible stench and millions of flies resulting in rampant diseases – malaria, dysentery, ulcers and beri beri. The small amount of quinine etc smuggled through was severely rationed, bandages were made from banana leaves or the clothes from the dead (boiled), saline solutions made from rock salt and water boiled and strained through bamboo. Bamboo was used extensively.
Captain Hogg, Pte Lawlor and Bob were at Wanye until October 1943 when the rail line was completed and it was in this time that war crimes are recorded from them. I will precis these documents.
I had always known that Bob gave evidence (for the War Crimes Tribunal) but it wasn’t until this research that I found the facts. It seems that soon after their arrival at Wanye, Dr Hogg developed an eye infection and went down the “line” to seek medical attention, leaving Pte Ward and Bob alone at the camp. That night Pte Ward was called out to the arrival of many hundreds of sick Coolies. Most had malaria, dysentery, ulcers or beri beri and these he found huts for. Another group of 170 – 200 were suspected cholera and these he had to isolate. He was then ordered to give each of these patients 8ccs of morphine. Next morning Pte Ward was ordered to make a strong solution of potassium permanganate (poison) in a kerosene tin which he took to the patients still living and each was ordered to drink a cup full. The following morning he was called on to dispose of the bodies which he burnt 50 at a time.
Captain Hogg also gave written evidence which I read and noted that Bob was witness to these incidents.
These are the facts as written at the War Memorial Research Centre but I must add some personal facts.
Bob’s health records show that he suffered malaria (31 recurrences) dysentery (amoebic and bacillary, numerous attacks), haemorrhoids since 1942, acne (acute outcrops lasting 4 –5 days, about 2” across and half inch deep on his back) tropical ulcers, hookworm, chronic orchitis of left testicle (left with shrinkage) and beri beri (three attacks).
On return to Australia Bob was demobbed in December 1945, but about six months later he was in hospital for many months with recurrences of his illnesses. In about 1947 haemorrhoids were removed, about 1965 he developed cholecystitis of the gall bladder – on removal it was completely rotten from malnutrition- and went on a small pension at this time. He died suddenly in 1971 of a heart attack, heart weakness caused by bouts of beri beri.
A letter from Dr Hogg in 1983 (copy in Hogg account which follows), confirms that Bob and Pte Lawlor were with him throughout the years in K Force. They were alone for about two years travelling from camp to camp on the railway line getting as far north as 13 kilometres from Moulmien. They lived in tents, occasionally bamboo huts close to the Japanese.
When Bob returned he never spoke of the war, but he had nightmares for many years. At these times when I woke him from yelling and thrashing about, he told me of some of the things he dreamt about. Mainly it was just being brutally bashed. Once he told me the Japanese thought some quinine was missing so the orderlies were taken out separately and bashed to find the culprit. One man did not come back and the others had heard a shot. On reading official records this incident is not mentioned but I will check on Pte Ward if possible as I feel he was the one shot at that time.
Another incident (perhaps at Kamburi) a native woman threw them a fowl to eat. She was caught and punished by being strung up outside their camp and all prisoners had to look at her slowly dying (which took one and a half days) as they passed on their way to work.
The time and place of this incident I do not know of, but evidently any soldier caught had to kneel in front of the Japanese captor and the back of his neck was cut and broken by bayonet. Then he was left there to die. One day Bob picked up one such soldier and he still had a faint pulse. He was taken back to camp and revived; the hundreds of maggots in the wound had prevented infection. I think this man was an artist who buried his drawings in a pipe under the tent, producing a sketch book in the 1980s (which I have not been able to locate).
Bob’s regard for Dr Hogg was the highest. They could not have survived without him. Just putting grass into the rice was important. His mottos were “to survive at all costs” and “better a live coward than a dead hero”.
There are many things I still cannot understand. For instance, when Bob left Benalla for the war, the tennis club gave him a gold cigarette case. He still had this on return (Trevor, his oldest son now has it). I once asked about it and he said “that case kept me alive many times, the Japanese are an odd race and all the guards knew I would not voluntarily part with it”. I wish I knew more about that.
Another thing, after all the searches Bob still had photos, obviously taken before capture when he returned. One is of the nurses and orderlies of 13th AGH. There are many books on Japanese atrocities and degradation committed during these years and it would be a good idea to read some of these and so understand better.
Worth reading if ever in Canberra is:
Series/Accession No AWM54
2. ARTHUR EDWARD LAWLOR NX8315
Arthur Lawlor was born in Richmond NSW on 25 March 1920. He enlisted into the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) and originally underwent training as a machine gunner, but, sought a transfer to a medical unit. Eventually he managed to transfer to the 2/3 Motor Ambulance Convoy (MAC) as a medical orderly.
Arthur went to Malaya as a member of 2/3 MAC and served with B Section transporting sick and wounded from the battle area to Medical units further south. Whilst carrying out evacuations the vehicles were often straffed and bombed and they had to drive their ambulances into the rubber and hide their vehicles. Two of the 2/3 MAC vehicles were the last vehicles to cross the causeway onto Singapore Island (behind the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders).
As with Bill Fitch (see below), Arthur was involved in the collection of the sick and wounded from the battle field following capitulation. He also formed part of the orderly/nursing staff at Roberts Barracks Hospital from March 42 to June 43 when “K” Force moved to Thailand.
As a member of “K” Force Arthur was in a team comprising Capt Tim Hogg TX2185, Bob Cussen (see story above), and at some time there were two British POWs with them. They were Pte Ward and a Sergeant Chapman. At another stage, Arthur had two Eurasian medical orderlies with him named Ralph Jones and Reg Leahy. Arthur remembers two of the Japs he had close contact with, they were Yoshykawa (Sergeant) and Hikiuma (3 star Private). Communication was achieved with combinations of broken Japanese and broken English. Arthur remembers being in many locations, but, only recalls the names Wang Yai 124 km, Anaquin 369 km and Ronshi 357 km, although in Capt Tim Hogg’s material it appears they were at one stage close to Moulmien (beyond the Northern end of the Railway which the POWs and Coolies built). Movement into Burma was by train.
At some stage Capt Hogg was injured and he moved back to Kamburi. And it seems the teams became individual units of one man. He had a small supply of bandages and drugs. The Japs provided medicines to Arthur for themselves and a lesser amount and selection of medicines for the Coolies. He lived in proximity to the Japs and visited the coolie camps or had the Coolies brought to him. In these circumstances Arthur was required to treat the Japs first and then the Coolies. When Arthur was on is own, he understandably was close to his Jap supervisor who sometimes provided him with extra better food and they attempted to give each other lessons in their own language. Arthur thought his Jap supervisor was reasonable.
Some Coolies had their wives and children with them. The females did some work. Arthur recalls an incident where he was treating a coolie female for a leg ulcer, when a Jap told him to leave. The Jap it seems, then remained with the female. Still later the same Jap sought Arthur’s assistance with a sexual problem.
The condition of the Coolies deteriorated progressively. But, despite this, occasionally a coolie would bring him food, possibly as a token of appreciation. It was after the construction of the line was finished that Arthur was in Burma providing medical support to the Coolies who were there doing maintenance on the line.
When he was finally brought off the line in 1945, Arthur ended up in a camp north and east of Bangkok called Pratchai. There the POWs were forced to dig tunnels in the hill. He recalled the end of the war. There were no work details for a day or two and the Siamese were calling out to them saying “War over”. In due course there was an announcement by the Jap commander and strangely they were supplied with better quality rice. As was the experience in other camps, in a short time, national flags of the POWs appeared and were flown. The POWs remained in their camp for some time, before arrangements were made to start their journey home to Australia.
Strangely Arthur was able to keep his photo album throughout his incarceration. At least one Jap knew of the existence of the album and, in fact, asked for two photographs, which Arthur gave to him on the basis that had he not given the photos, the Japs would have just taken them or perhaps the whole album.
Article prepared by Lt Col (Ret’d) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP following a visit to Arthur Lawlor and his wife in Gorokan on New South Wales Central Coast. in 2004.
3. FREDERIC WILLIAM (BILL) FITCH (NX8382)
Bill Fitch has provided his own recollections of his experiences which are embodied in the article.
Bill Fitch was born at Bombala in the Southern Highlands of NSW on 5th October 1921. He enlisted in the Australian Army on 10th May 1941 and was allocated to the 2/3 MAC. He had trained in first aid with the St Johns Ambulance Brigade and the NSW Ambulance Transport Board and a 6 month course at night in the Accident Department of the Sydney Hospital, as well as working in a normal job in a warehouse during the day. Early in May 1941 Major Robert (Bob) Dick NX70970 had visited the Ambulance Station suggesting that he would like to take a few of the boys from the Manly branch with him into the unit he had been asked to form. Five accepted the offer. (Bob Dick was a fishing acquaintance of Bill's father).
On Monday 19th May at 0700 hrs "C" Section (30 members) boarded the "Zealandia" and at 0900 hrs were passing through the Heads on their way to Malaya via Melbourne, Fremantle and Singapore where they joined up with the ASC side of the unit, about 250 drivers, mechanics, technicians etc.
He was with the 2/3 MAC during its support of Malayan Command over the period from 7th December 1941 to the capitulation on 15th February 1942. The deeds of the members of the 2/3 MAC are a story in itself. Following the fall of Singapore, Bill as a member of the MAC, was involved in the collection of sick and wounded and transporting them to the primitive medical facilities in Changi. This included the concealing of panniers of drugs and surgical equipment mostly under wounded stretcher cases. They carried out this work for up to 3 weeks, clearing an estimated 9,000 patients to the primitive facilities in the Roberts Barracks Area. The medical orderlies had to do the work formerly done by the Nursing Sisters who had been evacuated from Singapore just a few days earlier. (It is well known that many of the Nursing Sisters lost their lives in tragic circumstances.)
Most of the 2/3 MAC medical orderlies initially worked in the first Surgical Ward opened in Roberts Area in the bomb damaged NAAFI building and under their C.O. Major Robert Dick. After a couple of weeks Major Bruce Hunt was given the task of opening the first "Medical Ward", as a number of malarial cases and other illnesses had appeared. Bill with other MAC nursing orderlies was transferred to this first Medical Ward and over 12 months formed a great admiration for Major Hunt and his dedication to his patients.
In June 1943 Bill became part of "K' Force sent to Thailand to give medical assistance to native labour (Coolies) which was now being used in the construction and maintenance of the railway line. He became part of a medical team comprising Captain E.B. Drevermann VX61260, Sgt. Brown (cook) both 13 AGH, Brian Hutchison NX8327, Bill Fitch (2/3 MAC) and Sgt. Harry Craig NX46231 2/10 AGH (carpenter).
MY K FORCE STORY BY BILL FITCH EX 2/3 MAC
K Force was a comparatively little known or little publicised working party, sent on 25th June 1943 by the Japs to look after a large number of Tamils, Malabaree, Chinese, and other native labour, with the job of maintaining the "Burma-Siam" railway line after each section had been completed. K Force comprised 30 medical officers and 200 medical orderlies, of which the Australian component was five officers and fifty orderlies. The trip north to Bampong was in steel "rice trucks" each containing from 26 to 30 persons cramped into a space not sufficient for all to sit down. However, by packing all our gear on the steel floor and squeezing into as small a space as possible and with some grumbling, we all got some broken sleep as the train made its slow trip northward for eight days. With no toilet facilities whatsoever we opened one of the two central slide-opening doors so that we could gain some relief. A really tough ask with morale generally being really fantastic.
Next stop after Bampong was Kanchanaburi with monsoonal rains where we were divided into small groups of five, one doctor plus four orderlies. Our group was (Capt. E. B. Drevermann - Sgt Brown (cook) both 13th AGH, Sgt. Harry Craig (carpenter) I0th AGH, Ptes B. Hutchison and W.Fitch 2/3 MAC). We were loaded onto a Thai river barge (with one other group) and taken upstream in monsoonal rains to a landing place about 6 or 7 miles downstream from Takanun, where we parted company with the other group and were forced to walk along a muddy track carrying all our gear (lost my sandals) to a coolie camp on the bank of the swollen river (around the 220 Kilo mark-see Bill’s sketch). Arriving well after dark, soaking wet and smelling like a latrine - we found out why next morning! 6000 coolie labourers and not a single dunny in the entire camp, except for the Jap’s. And they would not allocate any labour to such a job!
By our second day with the monsoonal rain still belting down, our Captain (Dreverman) was really ill, a very high temperature and not very lucid. Brian and I decided to use the few M&B 693 pills which we had, with the hope that they would help - and they did. By the morning of the 3rd day Drev had turned the corner. Early that same day a Japanese army doctor passed through the camp and diagnosed “Tuberculosis". Within 2 to 3 hours Drev was on his way to a hospital in the Kanchanaburi area and I did not see him again until I caught up with him in 1955 on a trip to Melbourne.
We, the four remaining ORs were then told that we were responsible for all "hygiene" in the camp! - digging the latrines and burying any dead. As I had learned to speak a little of the Malay language prior to the outbreak of the war, I could make myself understood with most of the native labour. And, with the Japs having had to learn rudimentary Malay for their job on the building and maintenance of the line, things could have been a lot worse.
The monsoonal rains continued, malaria appeared, as did tropical ulcers, dysentery and then after a couple of weeks we had Cholera in the camp, a couple of cases on the first day, then a growing number as time went on. On our worst day, probably after two months or so, we buried, with some help, 69 in a mass grave in the jungle. After 6 months close to 3000 had died from various causes and each of those remaining survivors were given an injection by us of a cholera vaccine and a couple of days later divided into two groups each with around 1500 natives, and sent by train to two different camps.
Brian Hutchison and Sgt Brown were sent to one site and I don't know what happened to them - (except that Brian got back and settled in Tasmania). Harry Craig and I were sent to an empty camp at the 245 Km peg with 1504 native labourers and our lives changed considerably from this point.
We were just 12 km downstream from Konquita: There were five uniformed Japs, the boss cocky (an officer of a fairly high rank) remained inside the largest hut most of the time, he rose late, bathed and dressed late, remained dressed (with cap on) all day, consumed large quantities of saki - and left the supervision of the rail line maintenance and the running of the camp to "4 fingers" with two "nothing" Jap assistants plus one "less than nothing" character who spoke only Japanese, and was the chief lackey, served as batman, bath attendant, cook, saki bottle opener, receiver and storer of food supplies etc. etc. One or two of the "nothing" Japs had to maintain the Camp in spick and span order, each of the huts had to be rain-proof or at worst not leak much, whilst the main control on the railway maintenance and the bridge was predominately supervised by "4 fingers".
We lost our jobs as "Banjo Diggers" but not our jobs as grave diggers, this being part of the responsibility of the medical team, and compared with our previous camp it was a breeze. A couple of days after our arrival and while the camp was still a bit of a mess, I put the hard word on "4 fingers" for a hospital hut (so that he would not lose too many workers). No way "buggero' and more expletives then waved his wooden sword at me. Next day I tried again and half won - we could build our own "hutchy" to sleep 2 with an open area in front in which to examine any "byokee" or "orang sakit" (patients) plus our own little kitchen. These wins did not improve our rations in any way, the "less than nothing Jap", when I approached him for food supplies, didn't understand a word of what I said and disappeared like the startled fawn, which meant that we had to rely on dear old "4 fingers" for our rations and, depending on his mood at the time, decided our food supply for the next week or so. We supplemented our basic rice meals with whatever we could find "greens” from the jungle alongside the river, bamboo shoots, we grew pumpkins which were confiscated by "4 fingers" and cucumbers which were mature enough to eat in about 6 weeks.
Both Harry and I had a few small tropical ulcers, occasional bouts of malaria and dysentery and we lost weight. I went under 6 stone and Harry about 7 stone. He had been a lifesaver with the Merewether Surf Lifesaving Club near Newcastle NSW and was a great swimmer, I had been reared at Manly on the north side of Sydney, and as the rains eased and the river went down we explored the bottom and found a few "Kerpa" (a clam about 12 to 14 centimetres long) and our chance to get a few proteins into our diet. Any person with a fever could have malaria or dengue and just had to put up with it, the same for those with tropical ulcers except that the natives all covered the open ulcers with a banana leaf or some other and a makeshift bandage over that. Harry and I had a full time job persuading all ulcer patients to attend our RAP then take them down to the river bank to let the little freshwater fish pick off the dead areas of the ulcers. Both Harry and I had tried out this treatment and it worked - I had a pretty bad one on the upper side of my left foot, and it had eaten its way through to the sole leaving the sinews exposed, little fish cleaned it up; others broke out occasionally on both legs and received the same treatment. (After the war they broke out again in mid summer, and in 1974 1 underwent surgery to rectify a few inadequate blood vessels).
We were about 12 km downstream from Konquita and occasionally had to walk to 2 camps in that area to do what we could for a couple of small groups of Indonesian, Dutch and British POWs then return to camp the next day. On one return trip we were stopped by a Jap guard we had never seen before. He laid me out cold with a pick handle blow to the head followed by blows to the back. I passed blood in the urine for close to I0 days and reckoned we were blessed to never see that Jap again!
As the year progressed our health deteriorated as did the Tamils etc. The bridges on the line were bombed and strafed with .5 machine gun fire from British aircraft from Colombo and one of the bridges nearby was hit, with not a great deal of damage done- we lost one Tamil worker from the repair gang when a replacement timber for one of the damaged bearers was being replaced.
The way we were treated for a while made us think that we were to blame for sending messages to the enemy. Our little hut and RAP was hit and both Harry and I next day were tied with our hands together and in front of us with a plaited jungle creeper and hung on two stakes with rail spikes at about 6 and a half feet: We were both about the same height and our toes touched the ground, we both survived this treatment which lasted about 30 hours. We had many other bad episodes in this camp.
Not long after our last bombing before Xmas 1944 our camp was closed, there were only 1027 labourers remaining. Harry and I were separated, Harry with 500 natives went to another site, and I never saw them or Harry again on the line. The remainder of 527 and I were sent to a small camp just up-stream from Takanun, we were rid of "4 fingers". The five Japs running this camp were the opposite of any we had encountered at any time before - they were polite, spoke reasonable English, were not regular army. I dug a vegetable bed and planted cucumbers. I asked for a small hospital to take 4 patients and it was built in a day! Next day I asked for a young Tamil boy to help out in the Hospital and cook for me. OK. A couple more days and I was approached by one of the Japs who confided that he was "girl sick" and would I treat him if he obtained some medicine? "OK”, said I and 2 days later he was on my doorstep again, with some Neosalvarsan. I had a good syringe and needles and proceeded to give him 2 injections per week.
My next ask was for some "inkie" (quinine) - he would try - a week later I was called to the railway line. There was a four gallon drum of quinine sulphate- enough for a year's supply! Having had 24 or 25 bouts of malaria since my arrival in 1943, all untreated, I was ecstatic and started to treat myself. It took a while to work out a dosage and eventually got it partially under control.
At the end of 6 weeks I supplemented my meals with some juvenile cucumbers. After around 8 weeks there was another spate of bombings along that part of the line and within 2 days I had been returned to Kanchanaburi where I met up with a number of my unit, but not anyone from K Force. I had acquired some medications etc in the last camp (including some of the quinine) and this was all confiscated, leaving me without any treatment for my malaria. After a further few days in this camp we were sent by train to Nakhon Sawon, and to Takri, whilst I went on to a small camp of about 100 or more including some of our doctors where a small aerodrome was under construction. I was still pretty crook with malaria, so I was allocated to light duties. Three days after the Japs surrendered we were found by a British Major Geoffrey Lockett and his radio operator Martin who ordered a food and medication drop. It arrived in two days. We had small pox in this camp so were quarantined for a further 14 days before catching a train to Bangkok and we were free!!
Bill Fitch also provides the following anecdotes.
Little Bathing Incident at 245k Camp:
One never-to-be forgotten little experience at the 245k camp: It had been raining for a few days and the river had started to flood a bit. I had a bout of dysentery- not a bad lot- and dressed in a G-string I went down to bathe, on a sandy bottom and with water to the waist I had a pain in the belly, I removed the G-string and had an uncontrollable urge- with no ability to change destiny, - I let go and in about 5 seconds or less there were little fishes everywhere, one silver fish a bit bigger than the others grabbed the bait, I could feel the teeth, I yelled and jumped high, the fish dropped off and I made the bank, still in one piece I!
Early on at the 245k Camp, shortly after we had built our own small hut plus RAP and kitchen, we bunked down for the night. We slept on a knee high flattened bamboo platform with a purloined double mosquito net. On one side was space through which to walk to the galley and at the head was space through which to walk to the RAP. I was first up and as I sat on the edge of the bunk I noticed that the floor, which had been swept the night before, had some footprints on it, they came through the galley door, across to where my head must have been, then turned and went out the opening to the RAP. The camp had some Tamil "jaggars" (security guards} who were supposed to raise an alarm should anything untoward happen. They didn't want to create a false alarm, so had kept quiet about the wanderings of the nocturnal visitor. A couple of weeks later at night, one of the Japs shot a very large spotted jungle cat near our hut.
Every person who was sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway must have - as I did - gone through periods of utter black despair, the starvation, the illnesses, the bashings and other maltreatment by the Japs - the utter helplessness of it all - "will this never end" followed by "Speedo - Speedo" and the blackness of it all as one tried so hard not to let it get to you. It was so insidious it got at one's very soul (I'II finish this later if I can)
The monsoon was in full force, the river was rising quickly, a lot of flotsam, and it was filthy, great trees and rubbish from upstream. We noticed some pomelos floating by and then some belongings from one of the Thai trading boats. Harry and I watched all this unfold and dived in when something edible came by, occasionally a tree bumped the river bank became stuck, a quick dive in, swim to the stationary tree, and wait for something to pass by, grab it and back to the river bank. Only once did it happen that I salvaged a couple of pomelos then, back to the tree to throw them to Harry on the bank- woops !l - Harry wasn't there. I was adrift and headed for a great cauldron of surging water with whirlpools and all. I made it, minus the pomelos - otherwise I would not be typing this.
Still at the 245k camp, there was a bit of a commotion one day approaching mid-day and coming from the maintenance area, and unusually making a bit of noise, was a group of 5 or 6 Tamil workers, carrying a dead (head chopped off) very large python - when measured it went 29 feet, with a girth of around 2 and a half feet. It had been caught because of the very large lump at about 1/3rd of its length, which, when opened was a partly digested deer with antlers, and it had become caught in the dump of bamboo as it was disturbed by the workers and a parang (machete) is a most effective implement when wielded by an expert. We scored one piece after it was cut up - it was delicious!
The Big Fish
On one of Harry and my visits to a camp of about twenty Indonesian and Dutch prisoners close to Konquita, with no closer medical help than ours, and most of them unable to do any work at all because of malaria and tropical ulcers, we were able to help by cleaning and dressing their feet and legs and reassuring them that if they were prepared to keep the ulcers clean and covered they could in all probability get out alive. As we were able to show them how we had treated our own, by letting the little fish in the river pick off any dead or dying skin etc. We took five of the worst down to the river which at this point was about 60 yards wide and on a large bend Apparently the Japs had thrown one or more grenades into a deeper hole upstream, and on the other side of the river we noticed a couple of small fish floating by, so I started to swim over to try and collect them. Before I reached them I noticed a really big one just upstream a short way. I waited for it to get nearer and ran my hand along its side and into its gills on its left side. It wasn't quite dead and started to try to escape by swimming deep - I hung on - and kicked for the surface and made it still with the fish. It took a while to swim back to Harry on the bank - I rested - while Harry found a length of bamboo which we passed through its gills and we lifted it. We were both 6 feet tall and its tail dragged on the ground, so back to the hut- you guessed it - the Japs appeared on the scene and confiscated it!! But did give us two little ones for our evening meal.
Lt Col (Ret’d) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP visited Bill Fitch and his wife at Kingscliff NSW in 2004 and had prepared an article. However, Bill kindly followed up with the above account, which is very detailed.
There is little definitive information on the Australian Medical Officers who formed part of “K” and “L” Force. It has only been possible to assemble information on six of these officers (and their support staff above), who must have had an almost impossible task to care for the Coolies. The Japs provided little in the way of medical equipment and drugs. To compound the problem was the language difficulty when communicating with many of the Coolies.
1. DREVERMANN ERNEST BARCLAY Captain VX 61260 Medical Officer
Captain Drevermann was born in Bairnsdale, Victoria on 13 April 1913. His military career commenced with enlistment into the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) on 7 August 1941. He was appointed a Medical Officer in the 13 Australian General Hospital (AGH). The unit sailed from Melbourne on 2 September and arrived at Singapore 15 September 1941. There is little on record of Captain Drevermann’s work other than the following extracts from “Reminiscences of S/N Phyl Pugh (Mrs Campbell)” around the time of the Japanese advance and attack on Singapore-
Captain (Dr) Roy Mills in his books “Doctor’s Diary and Memoirs” makes the following references to Drevermann-
There is little on record to show where Drevermann got to during the remainder of his incarceration. He was discharged from the Army 9 January 1946.
In a booklet produced by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1996, it is said that whilst on the line his only book was the Bible, which he read three times. From then on he delighted in confounding various padres with his biblical knowledge, as he had a very impish sense of humour. A tall, wiry man, he weighed under eight stone on his return from Thailand and was nicknamed “Shadow” by his troops.
2. HOGG, TULLOCH GRAHAM HEUZE (Tim) Captain TX 2185 Medical Officer
Tim Hogg was born in Launceston 11 June 1906. He enlisted in the AIF on 1 August 1941 and was appointed Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps (AAMC) and posted to the 13 AGH. His passage to Singapore was probably the same as Captain Drevermann above. Subsequently, he went to Thailand as a member of K Force and two of his Medical Orderlies were Robert Cussen and Arthur Lawlor - see their stories above. Captain Tim Hogg’s movements are covered in the above stories. He was discharged from the Army 8 March 1946.
In 1993, at the age of 86 and being a recently retired orthopaedic surgeon, he was honoured by having a ward named after him at the Launceston General Hospital. In a lengthy article in the media, there are only three lines devoted to his military service. They appear as-
In 1983 his wrote a letter to Mrs Cussen (refer to first article above) which said-
“I can put your son’s mind at rest. As far as I know there were very few Japanese Doctors on the Burma Thailand Railway Line- no doubt at some of the camps there were possibly one or at the most two.Now our force that went up on the line was K Force and we were told that we were to start a hospital there to look after the Australians and British sick. However as soon as we arrived th Thailand we were split up into small groups and allotted to various Japanese groups ( engineering) working on the line and we had to look after the Chinese, Malays, Thais, etc (Coolies) who were working on the line. I had Bob Cussen and another medical orderly Lawlor and we went with this Jap force wherever they went on the line and each day we would go from our camp various distances to treat the Coolies. We never treated the Japanese. I only once saw a Japanese doctor. All we were given to treat these people were condies crystals, quinine tablets and bandages, which we made from banana leaves. As to the best of my knowledge, no Japanese doctors looked after the Coolies and they were not treated by Jap medical orderlies. .
The three of us were together alone for about two years and when the line was finished were brought back from the line to base camps for Britsh and Australians in Thailand. We moved from camp to camp on the railway line getting as far north a 13 kilometres from Moulmein.
Mostly we lived in a tent but at times had a small bamboo hut close to the Japanese huts. Bob (Cussen) and Lawler (sic) were two great men and we were always as happy as could be under the trying circumstances.
I am certain this will clear your son’s worry. Tell him he can be proud of his father and the two of them looked after me and later when we returned to our own camp I was able to buy duck eggs periodically sharing them with my two men. I feel they helped us to survive.
Yours sincerely, Tim Hogg
PS We received no Red Cross parcels whilst on the Burma Thailand Railway line. In fact, during our POW days I received two. One in Changi before we went up the line and one in Indo China just before we were relieved and I got from mine, a handkerchief and a tooth brush.
3. FREW JOHN LEWTAS Captain (Later Sir John) VX39181 Medical Officer
Born Carlton Victoria 10 September 1912. Enlisted into the AIF 19 December 1940 and appointed Captain in the AAMC as Medical Officer. I have not identified his initial posting, but, clearly he became a member of the 13 AGH (as did the above two Medical Officers).
Despite being a titled person there is little recorded about this medical officer’s work as a POW. Fortunately Doctors Jim Dixon and Bob Goodwin in their book “Medicos and Memories” recorded some detail on the man. I have been given permission to reproduce that information. It follows-
Jock Frew was an energetic, talented physician who gave maximal effort no matter what the circumstances. Before graduating in medicine in 1935 he had played rugby, and had achieved Melbourne and Australian University Blues. He remained an ardent rugby fan for the rest of his life. He was already a foundation member of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) when posted to the 13 AGH as a Captain. On arrival in Changi, he was chosen to address the medical orderlies, drawing attention to the increased importance of their new role as carers and operating theatre staff, now that all of the trained nursing sisters had been evacuated.
Jock Frew was sent to Thailand with a specialist medical force known as K Force, consisting of 30 British and Australian doctors, and 200 orderlies (five Australian doctors and 50 Australian orderlies). They took with them emergency supplies of essential drugs and surgical equipment, and their purpose was to rescue as many as possible of the Allied workforce that had gone to Thailand before them. Part of K Force stayed at Kanchanaburi, (Kanburi), where a large base hospital was to develop. A special role was to provide medical care to the thousands of indigenous Coolies at many camps where they were being decimated by cholera. Some doctors, including Jock Frew, reached Nike, north of Konkoita. From July until November 1943, Jock had a roving role attempting to stem the tide of disease among the coolie workers, and also amongst the Allied POWs. In mid-September 1943, he was seen working with a gang of Coolies on the railway at Nike. On 28 November 1943 he was consulted personally by Captain Roy Mills who had a roaring otitis. Between August 44 and April 45, Jock worked with a Japanese mobile laboratory carrying out valuable diagnostic and investigational work for both POW and coolie camps.
In the post-war period, his energies saw him fill every post that a physician could hold at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, including chairman of the board for 6 years. He was appointed censor of the RACP in 1954, becoming censor-in chief from 1966 to 1970, and President 1972-1974. He served on innumerable committees, and at the time of his death was a member of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Ethics Committee. He was an early participant in RACP involvement in courses of advanced medicine in Singapore and Malaysia. Despite all his activities Jock managed to carry on a busy consulting practice, including large numbers of doctors and their families, to whom he never charged a fee.
Sir John Frew collapsed and died at Tullamarine Airport at 7 am on 8 May 1985 on his way to attend a meeting of the RACP in Sydney. He was aged 72 years.
In Roy Mills book “Doctor’s Diary and Memoirs” there are 3 references to Captain Frew.
Captain Frew was discharged from the Army on 4 December 1945.
4. DAVIES. GEOFFREY FRANCIS SEYMOUR Major NX76351 Medical Officer
Major Davies was born in Melbourne 20 August 1900. He enlisted in the AIF 28 July 1941 and was appointed a medical officer in 13 AGH. His movement to Singapore is likely to have been the same as the above officers. There is little recorded of his service and I rely on the following quote from “The Long Days of Slavery – The Royal Australasian College of Physicians 1996”.
“As a major in the AAMC he was pathologist to the 13 AGH Malaya from 1942 to 1945 and was assistant pathologist to the combined AGH in Changi prisoner of war camp.
Geoff Davies was a gentle retiring man with a wonderful sense of humour, sometimes with a satirical slant to it. He found the realities of war more distressing than most because he hated physical discomfort. However the tales of his behaviour during the dreadful days of his Changi confinement were full of praise for his help, kindness and resourcefulness; and especially for his wonderful cheerfulness in the face of deprivation and discomfort.”
The following is taken from the “Senior Year Book 1939 of the University of Sydney Medical School”
“Alas! She’s cold, her blood is settled and her joints are still.” “Romeo and Juliet”
“A pathologist is a man who possesses a panoramic phraseology, a fluency of graphic diction which can illustrate all shades and transitions of description and meaning – and Geoffery Davies is a pathologist.
Well known to students from Fourth to Final Year, a more genial yet painstaking person is hard to imagine. The commonest morbid changes are full of little points of interest, and macroscopic appearances are described by picturesque names. “Fading oak-leaf myocardium”, “thrush’s breast myocardium”, “raspberry spleen” become commonplace.
Perhaps we like him also for his tolerance of our smoking and idle chatter.”
Major Davies was discharged from the Army 23 January 1946.
5. ANDREWS, HOWARD LYELL Major VX39316 Medical Officer
Major Andrews was born in Omeo, Victoria 26 September 1900. Accordingly he was one of the older Medical Officers in the AIF. He enlisted in the AIF on 10 January 1941, with the rank of Major and was posted to the 10 Australian General Hospital. The unit moved to Malaya during 1941. Subsequently, he went to Thailand with “L” Force in August 1943. He was the Senior Australian Medical Officer in that Force. The only information I have been able to locate on this Medical Officer follows in an extra from “Railway of Death” by John Coast first published in 1946.
“On the fourth afternoon a tired procession of Tamils, Malays and Chinese marched in, despair in their eyes. Like patient creatures they squatted in rows and waited for the cholera-swab to be taken which was the universal welcome to any camp. The Nips clouted us because the camp wasn’t ready, and for about a week small parties continued to go down to rig up more tents as the Tamils were still coming in. An Australian M.O. turned up, too, with two orderlies. He’d only left Singapore last month, where volunteers to help us in our cholera epidemic had been asked for. He had volunteered, and now, not knowing a word of their language, was the solitary M.O. to about 3,000 Asiatics.
The Tamils’ work was just the same as ours, though they seemed to do more of the breaking of stones for ballast than we did. Their rations were worse, likewise their accommodation. Their wages? Well, they saw one dollar a day out of the promised three dollars, and could only buy limited supplies from an exorbitantly expensive Nip-controlled canteen. But the medical side! Poor Dr. Andrews was driven almost crazy within a week. The Nips regarded their fellow Asiatics as machines pure and simple, and utterly failed to regard them as men – as human beings. Consequently, when, as was inevitable, cholera hit the camp after only a few days, the Nips forbade the M.O. to waste time treating them. Their way of thinking was that the Tamil who got cholera would die, therefore don’t bother with him, let him die; but just try to keep enough of them fit till the railway was through in that sector, as it should be in a few weeks.
Being a resigned and fatalistic people, and not knowing their doctor’s language, the Tamils unfortunately did little to help themselves. Cholera cases were put in tents just over a stream that supplied the camp’s water; the doctor was flatly forbidden to go near them, and they received no food. When they died, which they did fast, they were put in shallow trenches two feet deep and less than 20 yards from the water supply. In vain did the doctor protest and entreat; nothing was altered in the slightest. By night he and the orderlies used to creep over in the dark to the doomed tents with saline and water; but the survivors were very few. Let it be remembered, too, that mixed in with all these horror camps, the Nips had allowed women and children to come and live.”
The above incident, as best as I can ascertain, occurred around Brankassi (approx 200 km from Banpong).
Major Andrews was discharged from the Army 2 July 1946.
6 MURPHY PATRICK FRANCIS NX70489 Medical Officer
Born Brisbane 13 May 1904. Enlisted in the AIF 24 July 1940. In 1941 he was a member of the 2/10 Field Ambulance when it was sent to Malaya/Singapore. In August 1943 he was one of three Australian Medical Officers sent to Thailand (Siam) as a member of “L” Force. I have located a reference about him in a book titled “One for Every Sleeper” by Jeffery English. The description of conditions etc is so distasteful. However, I feel that it should be recorded here. Jeffery English had some contact with Murphy in a camp. He mentions that Murphy’s job was to be in charge of a nearby coolie camp. “In Charge” was an exaggeration, as Murphy, accompanied by two medical orderlies was allowed to visit the coolie camp once a day. There were over 2,000 coolies in the camp and his daily supply of drugs from the Japs was one bottle of iodine, one bottle of quinine and one bottle of bicarbonate of soda. The condition of the dysentery ward defies description. Those in the dysentery ward were refused rations and water. The Japs attitude was “what is the point - they will die anyway”. Some corpses were in the latrines. Once a day a fatigue party would collect and bury the corpses. The fatigue party refused to collect the bodies from the latrines. The Japs suggest to Murphy that British POWs could be brought in to do this job.
Major Murphy was discharged from the Army 9 January 1946.
I can find no record of any of the Medical Officers of “K” or “L” Force ever writing for, general publication, in detail about their time with those forces. If the above description of conditions even remotely reflects their experiences, it is no surprise.
Article assembled by Lt Col (Ret’d) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP with the assistance of Mrs Joan Cussen, Mr Arthur Lawlor, Mr Bill Fitch, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and access to the Senior Year Book 1939 of the Sydney University Medical School (provided to me by Mrs Joyce Duncan, widow of the late Doctor (Captain) Ian Duncan).