|The Medical Orderlies of Songkurai No 2 Camp
|As told by Reg Jarman
Reginald (Reg) Thomas Jarman was born in Coraki, New South Wales on 18
September 1920. He was educated at the local public school and
worked on the family dairy farm. Around this time he joined the
15 Light Horse Regiment, a Militia unit. On 13 June 1941 he
enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces in the 2/10 Field
Ambulance. His regimental number was NX33194. The unit
moved to Malaya/Singapore in August 1941. He became a Prisoner of
War in February 1942. In April 1943 a party of 7,000 POWs was
sent by the Nips to Thailand to labour on the infamous Burma Thailand
Railway. This party comprised 3,400 British and 3,600
Australians. On arrival in Thailand they were force-marched
around 270 kilometres towards the border of Burma. Around August
1943 Reg joined 9 other members of his unit and went to the British
Camp called Songkurai No 2 where the death rate amongst the British was
probably the worst of any camp on the Railway. The Medical
Officer with Reg was Captain Peter Hendry (see his story
elsewhere). Reg now tells his story of their time in Songkurai,
in his own words:-
I have been asked to describe the function or role of medical orderlies
as they existed at Songkurai on the Burma Thai Railway some sixty five
Ten orderlies, with Capt. Peter Hendry (Medical Orderly) of the 2/10
Australian Field Ambulance, as part of 'F' Force, arrived at Songkurai
No 2. Camp, also called 'Bridge of a Thousand Lives', to bring its
strength up to 1200 British and Australian P.O.W.s.
All medical equipment was carried in a pannier (large cane basket) by
four men with poles on their shoulders. Much of this equipment
was of necessity used enroute, especially at Neeke and Suma Songkurai,
where we were for some weeks with a Cholera outbreak.
There were many times when orderlies were required to perform medical
procedures way above their training. ie. a man died and an
orderly was asked to take the body out of sight of other patients and
remove his brain and bring it back for inspection by the only medical
officer available. In this case, the diagnosis was Encephalitis.
When Cholera first occurred two orderlies were requested to remove the
first two Cholera casualties to a place out of view and there remove
samples of their soft organs, such as liver, spleen, lung, pancreas,
kidney etc…for inspection by the medical officer. Doctors
and orderlies had no protection (gloves or drugs) when dealing with
On arrival at Songkurai the medical orderlies under Capt. Hendry were
confronted with a terrible mess and set about to improve the hygiene
situation for so many very sick men. On of the Japanese officers
in charge here was a 23 year old engineer named Horoshi Abe who, at his
war crimes trial, admitted losing 900 men. He couldn't see how he
had done anything wrong. After all, they were his
labourers. About eight months later when his section of the line
was completed, only about 200 men remained.
During this time conditions deteriorated to the extent that everybody
had lost at least one third of their normal body weight through
starvation, hard work, long hours, torture, Cholera, Encephalitis,
Berri-Berri, Dysentry, Malaria and, worst of all, tropical ulcers and,
of course, 'mechanized dandruff' (body lice). Coupled with this,
we had long since exhausted all our medical equipment. The supply
of bandages, dressings, painkillers, antiseptics or anaesthetics of any
kind had long since been exhausted. By the way, Horoshi Abe
didn't consider Malaria a sufficient reason for missing work.
It was utterly frustrating having been trained to care for casualties
in a war situation, to now trying to care for patients who were dying
of starvation, plus diseases we had not previously heard of.
Ingenuity was our only weapon.
The average day for a medical orderly would be comprised of the
following tasks:-Up before daybreak to collect the 'half ration' of
food for those not working, ie. the sick and dying; feed those who
couldn't feed themselves; clean up all the mishaps of the night from
dysentery patients who tried but couldn't make it to the latrines.
The Japanese guard would then arrive to do a head count of all the sick
while all the orderlies paraded outside. With this over, two
orderlies would then go through both hospitals and remove all who had
died during the night to an area outside. The daily average death
rate was 4+. (I can remember one day when the death count was 10.)
Each body was then carried on a makeshift stretcher to a guard post to
be recorded, then to the burial ground away from the camp site.
They would then dig the grave, remove any clothing before burial,
complete the job, then return for the next body, and so on, until all
the dead had been buried. This process could take most of the day
as we only had one well-worn shovel to work with. Any clothing
kept from those who died would be washed and, if not utilized as
bandages, would be given to the those in the greatest need as, by this
time, almost everybody's clothing had rotted off our backs from
humidity, perspiration, mud and slush. Everyone's boots had long
since rotted off their feet, long before we reached Songkurai.
The following examples describe the workload for medical orderlies on an average day:-
a) Cardiac Berri-Berri - To give relief to a man with Cardiac
Berri-Berri (also known as Wet Berri-Berri) the medical officer would
insert a hypodermic needle into the peritoneal cavity, which is
sometimes full of fluid. An orderly would then take over to
manouvre the needle, if necessary, to keep the fluid from this
cavity draining, possibly all day, sometimes removing at least 10
litres of fluid.
b) Cholera - the treatment we would use would be to boil river
water, combine this with Condies Crystals to make a weak solution, then
force-feed the solution through a tube down the patient's throat, into
c) Dysentery - It was an ongoing process to attend to each patient's hygiene requirements as a result of having dysentery.
d) Tropical Ulcers - There is no pleasant way to describe
draining oodles of pus from under the skin, whilst coping with the
terrible stench associated with tropical ulcers. Following this
process we would cover the wound with banana leaves to keep the flies
away. Tropical ulcers would devour the flesh at an alarming rate,
revealing the bones of a leg in a couple of days. While not a
daily occurrence, an amputation was sometimes necessary to give someone
a fighting chance of surviving, if they had no other diseases. In
this situation the patient would be taken out of the hospital and laid
on a bamboo bench where at least eight orderlies restrained him while
the medical officer did the scalpel work. The orderlies would cut
through the femur with an old carpenter's saw at the appropriate stage
in the procedure.
The days were long and tiresome, trying to attend all the very
legitimate calls and requests for some relief from the pain and
suffering the men were enduring. The stench of rotting flesh was
always with us. To end the day, the two orderlies rostered to
bury the dead the next day would go through each hospital and
straighten out any who had died or were about to die, before rigamortis
set in. This 'average' day happened about 240 times.
Of the ten 2/10th Field Ambulance orderlies, three lost their lives during the time in the Songkurai region.
Lack of food (malnutrition) was one of the main problems. Three
meals a day amounted to approximately three cups of sloppy rice.
Occasionally, a few other bits were thrown in such as some
greens. There was never any salt or sugar included in any meal.
Toward the end of WWI, in 1918, meat was dry salted, packed in wooden
crates, stamped with a broad arrow meaning 'army goods'. It must
have been sold to Japan as excess to needs. 25 years later some
of it found its way to Songkurai, presumably for Japanese use.
They must have left it in continual rain for some weeks, which washed
off the coarse salt from the exterior of the meat. As a result,
along came the blowflies. When the Japanese came to use it, the
crates were a moving mass of maggots. It was then given to the
P.O.W. cooks who made soup out of it, so it could go around many
hundreds of P.O.W.s. Each cup-sized ladle of soup contained about
100 full-sized maggots. Because of the welcome taste of the salt
not one maggot escaped. Such was the absolute hunger of
everybody; we will never forget the sight of hundreds of emaciated
bodies, no hats, no shirts, no boots and lining up for a ten to twelve
hour work shift. Men over six feet tall who would normally weigh
around 12 stone were then weighing about 8 - 9 stone; smaller men who
would normally weigh around 9 - 10 stone were then weighing 6 - 7
stone; a virtual bag of bones, called fit for work. No wonder
someone has described this place as 'living in a suburb of hell'.
Barbed Wire and Bamboo - Issue April 1994, page 17
Barbed Wire and Bamboo - Issue December 2003, page 3
Note 1. All figures mentioned in the resource articles listed above have been rounded down to the nearest hundred.
Note 2. Horoshi Abe's command of afore-mentioned 900 men was, in fact,
in excess of 1000 men ie. 'The Bridge of a Thousand Lives'.
Following the end of the War on 15 August 1945, Reg was discharged
finally on 4 April 1946. The delay in his discharge was due to
ill health. Post War he studied and became an optical dispenser
in partnership with Harry Williams, his mate and fellow Medical Orderly
in the Songkurai Camp. Reg retired in 1980. In 2007 Reg and his wife
Lorna live in Nambucca Heads, New South Wales. (Reg is contactable on
phone number 02 6568 6503 or email email@example.com.
Article written at the request of Lt Col Peter Winstanley OAM RFD.