In mid-July 1941 we arrived in Singapore to a welcome of torrents of rain from the blackest of clouds. We were taken by truck from the “Johan van Oldenbarnevelt” across the Causeway to join the first contingent of 8 Division. Signals, who had arrived in May, on “Queen Mary”. We lived in tents, four to a tent, not far from the Sultan’s palace. We found our cooks had brought their Australian July menus with them, featuring porridge for breakfast and two meals of stew.
We were not given leave until we proved we were fit by running about a mile in six minutes, a course set between the camp and a milestone down the road. As I had run three laps of the Rosebery race-course, where we were in camp, each morning, and had won a skipping competition on the ship, I was fit enough to do this. Unfortunately the main part of my job was to bring the company records up to date, and I recall having about six lots of leave, going to the Singapore Swimming Club on a few occasions. As our signal units were already with the Battalions, radio parts and equipment had to be kept up to them, which meant driving between Singapore and towns on the mainland. Our Company headquarters consisted of a
We were at the rear of the convoy comprising British, Indian, and Australian troops moving slowly on the road that led to the Causeway. Spotter planes directed bombers to the group of vehicles, and the result was horrendous. Whole vehicles and their occupants had been blown to nothing; there were dead bodies and bodies torn in half, lying on the road, and all we could do was to get help from the nearest Military Police post, and Casualty Clearing Station (CCS). It was frustrating not being able to help, and shook us up considerably.
We were directed to an orchard near Bukit Timah, where our C.O. ordered a full inspection. Once again this was spotted, and we were subjected to a long artillery shelling. From here we moved back to the Singapore Gardens, keeping in touch with our detachments, and carrying equipment to them. At a British Ordnance store, our C.Q.M.S. requested automatic weapons for our Signalmen and Linesmen attached to the various battalions, and was refused rather rudely. It was extremely galling when some of our men were sent by the Japanese to this depot, where their job was to open many great cases, and pass on to the enemy hundreds of automatic weapons, never used. On another occasion, we had telephones to a unit on the West Coast. We came to some Sherwood Foresters, who told us the Nips were just over the hill. We pushed on and met a Machine Gun (MG) platoon, who told us the same thing. We reached the village, to find our people had moved with the battalion, but a company of Indian infantrymen were there. The officer asked me what he should do. I suggested he go down the coast road to find his unit near Singapore, and we retraced our route. The M.G. were gone and the Foresters had gone too. I drove towards the North hoping to find our Unit, but around a corner about three hundred yards ahead came a Jap tank. I don’t know how, but I was around the other way in two movements and heading the other way, expecting a shell to come through the back of the ute, but it didn’t, and we arrived back at the Gardens in one piece. Next night I drove two specialists to a junction box near Bukit Timah, to destroy the wires leading to the city. The town was alight, and shells from both sides were whistling overhead, those falling short causing the blaze. While waiting, I walked to a mile post, and found an officers map case on top of the post, marking all our positions. I took it back to H.Q. as soon as we got out of the burning town.
I drove two officers to a house in Hollands Road, where Generals Wavell, Percival and Bennett were meeting. Twenty minutes later, three planes appeared and attacked the house. Many bombs were dropped, and I found a depression to squeeze into. It was scary to hear the bomb breaking through the trees surrounding the house and exploding so close to me. One landed a few feet from me with a thud, but did not explode! After the conference we were told that the road had been cut off by Japanese, but Bren Carriers opened the way for us to return to Singapore. Our C.O. decided he wanted a tent pitched, so four men were detailed to erect a white tent in the green expanse of the Gardens. We were seen by a spotter plane which directed mortar bomb fire on to us. I was struck on the back of the head by a fragment of steel. Luckily, I had put my chin strap at the back of my head, and his softened the blow. I didn’t hear it, but bled a lot and we did not proceed with the tent. On Sunday the fifteenth of February, our C.Q.M.S came to our trench, and said “It’s all over, we have surrendered”. I was thunder struck! I had been prepared to be wounded or even killed, but was totally unprepared for this. I hadn’t been prepared for victory after I heard that Major Kerr, of the 2/10th Field Regiment, had been ordered to cease fire on Johore Bahru, after the Nips had moved in to that city.
I had lived in the ute, and had been able to act as a Don R. when the motor bike chaps had been sniped at from the side of the main roads. I had been able to deliver hot meals to one of the battalions, when their cooks had been unable to produce because of the conditions, and it had provided shelter when a sniper had tried to get me at Tanglin. So it was with reluctance that we put sugar in the petrol tank, and it was handed over to the Nips.
We marched from the Gardens to the Selarang Barracks at Changi, with some of our own provisions for a few days; then we began our diet of rice and very little else. Our first task was removing barbed wire from the beach with bare hands, and scrounging what we could for the kitchen. We were short of fresh water, so used sea water to cook rice and were able to smuggle in, in the buckets covered with palm leaves, some coconuts, which the kitchen used.
In May 1942, we were driven from the Changi camp to the docks, to await transport to a destination of which every one seemed ignorant. Rumour has it that we were to be exchanged for Japanese P.O.W.s, in a neutral area! Here we found out that the Nips weren’t really nice. As we sat on the wharf, we could see that there were lots of goods in the shed. One at a time we were able to crawl under a truck, into the shed, and grab something and get out quickly. There were six in our little group, so singly we went in. I was early in, and in the gloom, grabbed two boxes and got out. One was tobacco, the other mustard. I don’t smoke, and we had nothing to put mustard on. One of our chaps was seen and beaten with a stick, but we were not searched. After sitting all day, we went on board at night, and found the holds were in terrible condition, with about half a metre of boards for each person. Toilets were box-like affairs over the side of the ship, and we used the ships hoses to keep ourselves clean. Meals were rice and a watery type of stew made mostly of tinned vegetables taken from the wharf. The ship called at Medan and took on board Dutch P.O.Ws. Next stop was Point Victoria where about 1000 men were put ashore. We landed our next party at Mergui, then sailed on to Tavoy, where our party went ashore, and we slept in a rice mill, which was a great change from sleeping on deck on “Toyahashi Maru”. Next day we marched about twenty miles to the aerodrome site and slept on stones in a hangar. We were allotted to huts and began work extending the runway. We worked 8 or 9 hours each day, wet or dry. It was from here that eight men of the 4th Anti Tank Regiment escaped but were brought back and shot. I had washed what clothes I had, when a Nip soldier came into our hut, and pointing said “You, you and you, come!” These men had to dig the grave for the executed men, and were very shaken.
In September 1942 were shipped to Moulmein, and for the next three years worked on the Burma Railway. When we left Sydney, my wife was pregnant and I worried for two years, before I had word that she and our daughter were well. Our first task was carrying soil to build up the level of the line. We were told that moving a certain amount each day allowed us to return to the camp. This was a test, and the amount was increased tremendously over the next weeks; anyone not working to the guards’ satisfaction would be bashed about the head and shoulders. As work progressed on the railway, rations became scarcer, and sickness more frequent. I met with my younger brother from the “Perth” at Tanyin (35 Kilo Camp), and we managed to stay together for some time, until he became ill, and was left at the hospital camp. We worked from daylight until one hour before dark, working on bridges, and digging cuttings for the evenness of the line. We knew the camps only by “30 Kilo Camp” or “50 Kilo Camp”, and it was here I had pellagra, many men suffered from lack of vitamins, leading to beri-beri and other diseases. It was at a camp (18 Kilo) called Hlepauk, that we had the first of many deaths. Where a few drugs could have saved a life, following a simple operation, the little the doctors had, were taken by the Nips, leaving our troops helpless. Appendicitis meant death, tropical ulcers led to terrific suffering and amputations. In one camp we lost five men in a day from cholera; malaria became black-water fever; malnutrition and dysentery claimed many lives. The doctors were heroes in these situations.
From the 70 Kilo Camp on, Malaria became more prevalent; I had 34 attacks, plus 3 more after discharge. The Jap engineers were becoming impatient, and the guards were forcing sick men out to work despite our doctors protestations. We were working 16 to 18 hours a day, often having to return to our camp in pitch blackness, pouring rain and feeling our way across the framework of bridges, 30 feet in the air. On one occasion, with another ten or so sick men, I was forced to go to the railway after midnight, to bring supplies to the camp. In pouring rain we carried 35 bags of rice (240lbs. each), baskets and bags of rotting vegetables up 50 yards of slush to the road, a 45 degree angle making progress nearly impossible. It took four hours of “Speedo speedo” before we returned to our sick bays.
While driving piles for the railway bridges, eight or ten men would be pulling on ropes, while standing up to our waists in the river. The guards had a kind of chant, “Ichi nee nesarnya:, and we would let the ropes go making the dolley drive the pile a little further in to the bed of the river. Our own version of the timing was “Tojo is a bastard” which could not have been understood, but if the pile took too long to be put in place, we had “Speedo speedo” yelled at us; we were bashed, and a piece was sawn of the top of the pile to make it level with the others.
On more than one occasion, a pile was placed on top of a half submerged pile and another fastened to it with spikes. Small wonder we were not keen to travel by rail, especially over bridges. As the base of the line was laid, the rails and sleepers followed quickly. The sleepers were mostly heavy teak wood, and many men suffered from strains. I believe that it was this work that gave me the hernia, which still bothers me. When the sleepers were laid, bogies carrying the rails were backed up to that point, and the rails run off. The rails were then squared with crowbars, and spiked into position. Ballast was obtained by travelling at night to a dump some miles away loading it into rail trucks by hand, returning to the nearest work, unloading the stones, and packing it between the sleepers with shovels. At daylight we would be finished and sent back to camp sometimes to eat our rice and go back to work laying more rails.
The 80 Kilo Camp (near the Apalon River) was a horrible place. So many died and were buried there. The position of the camp was badly chosen, as it was divided by a wide, steep gully. When a man died he was wrapped in a mat, we could not afford to use a blanket, and carried from the hospital, down one side of the gully, and up the other, making numerous stops as the bearers were too weak from sickness and malnutrition, to make it in one go. The Last Post was sounded, more often each day as the weeks went by, making everyone depressed. The Nip engineers could not have cared less about our feelings, and we were driven harder, preparing the way, and laying the line, as we grew weaker, each day seemed longer, and work became harder. While trying to join some points, the N.C.O. in charge of our party could not understand the Nips orders. The Nip flew into a rage, and as I was nearest to him, I was bashed on the neck and shoulders with some wire he was holding. We worked from 6am to midnight under pressure to finish the line and in mid October it was done. I didn’t see it as I was down with malaria. We spent some time at Niki, then were taken by train to a “Rest Camp”, Tamarkan. We were made to work, taking food to the lookout post on the hill, or working in the ack-ack post behind the camp. It was here the Americans bombed our camp, killing 14 British soldiers. Men’s nerves gave way after this and I can still hear the rattle of bamboo slats, as scared men ran to their slit trenches at night, when bombers flew over.
We could hear more frequently, bombing nearby, as the war went our way. One place that received most attention was the Wampo Bridge, and no one wanted to go there. After the Tamarkan Bridge was attacked, we were set to build a second bridge, just below it. When some unexploded bombs were found, we had to dig them up and take them to the river, where they were dumped. No one was injured, but it was a hair raising job. The guards were becoming very jumpy, and when air raids threatened, everyone had to race back to c amp. Here, after a raid, some of our chaps were struck by bullets, and I was able to give blood, but the Dutchman died. I was given an easy job, going to the town by barge to collect provisions. The Kluang (Muang?) camp also did the same. One of their guards took a dislike to me. One day when I left the hut to wash my shirt, he called me back, and said that I was trying to escape. Our guard was in the town, so he stood me up, with his bayonet poked into my bare back, waiting for an opportunity to push it through. I sweated for half an hour, until our guard came back and believed me. One day, at our camp, the Nip cook had received fresh meat, and took the baskets, covered in blood, to be washed. I had to lift these heavy things, (I had just bathed) and said something about the bloody baskets. He misunderstood me, and I was bashed for that. When the river was in flood, a boy fell from a canoe in midstream, and I was able to save him. His family showed their appreciation by bringing fruit and vegetables to the hut. The Nip guards took them. Following a raid on the Wampo Bridge, a work party was sent there. Of course I was on it. It was not hard work, but nerve-wracking, as we were bombed from time to time, luckily being able to find shelter. The shortage of fuel meant work parties were needed. I was sent with a party of 12, under a W.O., with an R.A.P. Corporal as medico to Cre? Here we felled trees, and cut and split them into metre lengths, and carted them to the railway line. Malaria bouts became more frequent and I believe that I would have been buried at Cre, if the war had not finished. On August 20th we were taken to Tamuang, and forgotten. About a month later we went to Bangkok, and on to Changi, then home.
The doctors I remember were:- Captain R. Richards, Major S. Krantz, Major Hobbs, Captain Andrews, Major Chalmers, and a Major I saw at Kluang, who I believe came from Newcastle.
Sickness. I believe the mortar splinter on the back of my head was a war wound.
Whilst P.O.W., I suffered, as did so many others, Pellagra, Beri-beri, Tinea, Malaria and Dengue Fever, Ulcers on my leg, Diarrhoea and Dysentery, Arthritis, Hernia, Nervous tension regarding our future, concern about my wife and family at home, concern for my younger brother, who had been badly wounded on “Perth”, and whom I had been able to help by scrounging and cooking meals for him.
Keeping a diary as best you can, with the knowledge that a surprise raid on your hut could mean the discovery of that diary, and a bashing if the guards interpreted it, and took exception to something you had written, meant that references to them or the Jap army, had to be very low key. Unfortunately I have kept it at such a low key that I can’t remember what I was referring to, in many cases.
I remember going from our barracks to the gaol at Changi on work parties, and feeling so sorry for the internees locked in the main body of the gaol. Women and children would crowd the windows; we would wave and call to them, but the guards soon stopped us. We had no water for some time at the Gordon’s quarters, so any opportunity to go on a work party to the beach was grabbed. It meant a swim or a quick wash over with sea water. On occasions the tide was so far out, there were only mud flats to walk on, and no swims. One of the first water parties discovered five Chinese roped together and machine gunned, then left. There was nothing they could do, as the guard hurried them away.
Another thing that has stayed with me for all these years, is the smell of death throughout our march from the Gardens to Changi. Bodies lay where they had been shot, on the streets, and nothing had been done to remove them.
Among the things that puzzle me are:- Why did the British Engineers make such a poor job of blowing up the Causeway, after we had crossed to the island, and why was Major Don Kerr disciplined for firing into Johore, when the remnants of the Japanese Army were assembling there, prior to crossing to Singapore Island. Also, who was signalling from the Cathay building at night to someone outside the city? Harry Mills saw this, and reported it, as the Cathay building was being used as a hospital, with a large Red Cross on it.
Harry also saw orders from British Headquarters, giving details of retreats by Australian forces, well ahead of the actual dates. This may explain why our little party of Capt. Patterson, Robby and me, were left in a clump of trees at crossing of railway and road near Labis for three days without explanation or apparent reason. We watched the town and railway being bombed; a little pig farm about 200 yards away from us was destroyed, but our spot was untouched. I was greatly relieved when we were ordered back to our base at Johore.
Pages taken from my diary – written in pencil, needing a magnifying glass to make it readable. Starts from February 15th 1942.
February 15 Capitulated Botanical Gardens – hope the news that we are OK gets home.
At this stage, I must say that we had been told we could be heading for a neutral port, where we could be exchanged for Japanese prisoners! That was why the direction was important to our high hopes.
Sun May 18 Dutch Army Officers arrived – Pulled out 7.45pm. Saw beautiful mountains – smoke stacks – 3 other POW ships apparently.
Oct 1 Came into Salween River, reached Moulmein about 1pm. Berthed at 3pm. No.14 Platoon had to clean up. Marched thru city to a church, about 3 kilos. Slept in church grounds. People here were very good, handing us food as we passed – even soap. Had tea and a good wash.
March 1-2 Work at 29 kilo peg – Americans bombed Thanbyuzayat
April 1 Second anniversary
May 1-6 Touch of fever – feeling pretty crook. Quinine treatment.
June 1 Fever
July 1 Still sick
August 1 Leg poisoned – tropical ulcer – day off
Sept 1-3 Still off
Nike and completion of railway line
Nov. 1-6 Still off with fever.
From Nike to Tamarkan
Dec 1-3 Beri-beri. No duties
Tamarkan – Kluang
Feb 1 Gavin has fever
March 1-2 Still on coffee round. Concert at night.
End of Diary at Tamarkan
My diary ended here – we had another year and four months to go. I haven’t covered the best job I had – the barge parties to Kanburi. The move to Wampo Bridge, where no one wanted to go, because of the bombing. Move to Kluang where I worked in the Cemetery. Move to Cre? (Our guess – it may have been Gwe) where we fell trees and provided wood for the railway. We were there, a party of 12, with a Warrant Officer in charge, and a Medical orderly, with about 5 guards when war finished.
1944 TAMARKAN AND BEYOND
Now that the diary has finished, I have no idea of dates and times but places and things that happened are not easy to forget. As I said earlier, I always tried to work, and felt that working kept me going, and helped to keep my mind occupied. One of the jobs we shared with other nationalities was taking supplies from the Nip cook-house to the Nip observation post, on the hill behind our camp. Australians one day, British the next, then Dutch, then American, in rotation. We first worked around the cook-house, cleaning up, drawing water, and just before lunch time, carrying wooden buckets of rice and stew up a very slippery path to the post, collecting the used buckets, and returning to the cook-house to clean the pots and buckets. One day the Dutch party was returning just as an air raid began. The party ran towards the camp, and threw themselves on the ground as the planes came over. The Nips fired at the planes with machine guns, but were well astray, as one Dutchman, flat on the ground, had his water bottle, at his waist, hit by a machine gun bullet. On one of our days at the cook-house, a young private offered me part of his lunch. It was the first sign of compassion I had seen. I refused, as he seemed about sixteen or seventeen, and they didn’t seem to be eating much better than we did. Next day, three American planes bombed that camp, killing all in that area and landing one bomb in our camp, killing fourteen British POWs. It appeared that the planes let their bombs go in unison anywhere, and we also suffered. We dived for cover, and I found myself behind a tree about three inches thick, watching the grey smoke rise from the bombing, and dead scared that the planes that were swinging round would make another run. They didn’t, and disappeared the way they had come. We were on tenko parade at the time, and anxiously asked each other, “Ours or theirs”, ours being Nippon by now. The Dutch had shot through, and our officers called “Stand Fast”. This wasn’t easy to do, as the Nip ack-ack guns opened up, so we looked for shelter. On another occasion, an American plane attacked the lookout post, and came across our camp, firing cannon and machine guns. I lifted my head high enough to see two parallel lines of machine gun bullets going across our parade ground beside us. It was up for two seconds. We had tin hats on, as some of the Nip fire fell in our camp. This was when two POWs were shot and the doctors tried to get blood donors to keep the victims alive. Gavin’s blood matched one of the Australians, and mine matched the Dutch soldier. Unlike modern ways, we were asked to try to find other donors, so went through the huts asking for help. No coffee and biscuits. Gavin’s man survived, but my Dutchman died. It is hard to believe the ability to improvise that came to light in these days. A Dutch chemist, Bill Roberts from the Perth, and Plummy Kynvin, also from the Perth, made medical equipment from bits and pieces. That amazed the doctors. I worked for a while as slushy in the cook-house, cleaning all the utensils after every meal. It was rather tedious, but essential. A couple of our chaps, who were builders, organised working parties to bring clay from the river, and built a baker’s oven. With a mixture made of ground rice, rice water, and salt, little loaves were made, and served out to a portion of the Australians, each second or third day at evening meal. They were small and heavy, but we had not tasted bread since Tavoy, so it was appreciated.
Soon after this I was given a job on the provision barges that went to and from Kanburi. The barges had no motors, so were towed by a diesel powered boat; two at a time. There were some great chaps in this work party, and I became very ? with Laurie Blake, from Nagambie. When our barge reached Kanburi, we would meet the party from the camp at Kluang, and go by truck into the town to pick up supplies, everything being in baskets, meat, vegetables, fruit, tobacco and at times Mr. Boon Pong, the Chinese merchant would put a newspaper in as packing. When the first barges were loaded, one of us would go back with it, to make sure everything arrived safely, and have an early day. On one occasion, the man on the barge offered me his wife’s favors in exchange for a hand of bananas. I preferred the bananas! The Dutch unit forced an officer on the party (our highest rank was W.O.) and he soon showed his true colours. While waiting in the hut at the landing at Kanburi, he suggested that we could hold some provisions back, and sell them. He lasted one trip! As far as I know everything that was loaded for our kitchen arrived there. The Nip cook-house was different. We had to be fairly strong, to carry bags of rice and peanuts down a slippery bank, over a gang plank, on to the barge. When the river flooded, the trip became rather exciting, as we rushed toward Kanburi. It took a long time to return upstream, dodging logs and debris, giving us time to see the changes the flood waters did to the banks of the river. Deep wells became semi-circular holes, where the rush of water carried the soft soil away. Lovely kingfishers had their nest holes demolished, and sat forlornly on branches near the bank. We had never seen so many, and their colouring was beautiful. During the flood, a young chap was thrown from his canoe, we heard the cries of the people on the bank, so I got out of my boots and shorts in one movement, and was able to catch him about midstream. Tom Beenie (VX65487) dived in to support him, and he got only a ducking. I couldn’t come out of the water until someone handed me my shorts. I was still surprised to find my bootlaces still tightly tied. The people who had gathered were very pleased and next day brought lots of fruit for us, which the Jap guards took.
As I have probed deeper into memories of those days, I find I have had some missions in various events, when the time and the place eludes me. One instance was when Gavin and I pooled our resources, and found we had over twenty dollars, enough to buy two blocks of palm sugar (chindegar). The coolie workers were permitted to have traders sell them food, but we could not buy anything. I decided to try to buy as much as I could, so went with two others into the coolie camp to a hut where business was enacted. I had just bought my sugar, when there were shouts of “Kurra”, and my heart sank, as two guards rushed in, and caught us red-handed. They hauled us back to our camp, where luckily Major Jacobs had heard the noise, and came running. He awoke to the situation immediately, and said, “Go for your lives when I give the word”. As were being threatened by two guards, who were set on shooting us for trying to escape, we were only too keen to agree. Seizing our sugar, and shouting at the top of his voice, Major Jacobs slapped our faces, and quietly said to us “GO”. He took the bundles to the guards, distracting their attention, and we ran for it. An order came from the Nip officer next morning, saying that anyone found outside our camp would be deemed to be escaping and would be shot there and then. Strangely enough, we all got our sugar back, a few days later.
I found a name in my diary, Neil Strike (NX26262); and remembered being unable to eat anything while laid low with malaria, although my mates brought the food, I couldn’t face it and they were worried. So was I. Neil worked with some Dutch Javanese soldiers, and was told certain jungle plants, when cooked, were good for you. They pointed out some of these, and he risked the Nip guards’ wrath by dallying to gather some of the leaves. He cooked them, they looked like spinach, but were something I could eat, and I picked up from then. I had one meal in eleven days, and remember Neil’s kindness gratefully. At one camp, there was a well near our hut. I was very feverish, and woke about two o’clock one morning, to find my waterbottle empty, and a raging thirst in my whole body. This camp was in the cholera area, and we had been warned to drink nothing but boiled or chlorinated water. I grew thirstier by the minute, and thought, “If I am going to die, it won’t be of thirst”, and took a large mug (made from a small billy), and drank about a pint of the well water. No champagne ever tasted more sweet or refreshing. I didn’t die, but I didn’t chance my luck again, with well water.
When we left the Gardens in Singapore for Changi, we had the clothes that we wore and were allowed extra shirt and shorts, blanket, and either ground sheet or cape. I passed my cape in, and thought no more of it two years later, when some clothing was found to be issued to the small group going back to cut wood for the trains, and I was handed a cape with NX72540 stamped on it. Where it had been I’ll never know, but it was in good condition, and most handy.
Among the crowd thrown together, as workers on the line, apart from those already written of, were some great chaps to work with.
Jim Cortis (VX46490), with whom I’d worked in the Bank of Melbourne.
Jack McCombe, who was a P.O.W. in Germany, told me he had started a diary, but found he was entering in it, so many ‘same work today’ LIES, that he felt it was a waste of time continuing. Thinking back on the days at Tavoy, each day was much the same, with the exception of Sunday, when at first we had a day off. We had a trader from the village bring food for sale, mostly bananas and pomillos, sometimes eggs, each week. He was given the name “Ali Baba”, and thought it fine, until some one told him of Ali Baba and the Forty thieves. He saw the connection, and lost his happy disposition rather suddenly. We found out after we had left Tavoy that it was noted for its ruby mines. Just prior to our Ruby wedding anniversary, I wrote to the Mayor explaining the reason and asking if I could buy a Tavoy Ruby. I did not receive any reply.
We slipped down the life style scale, working on the railway. Mud seems to have been our main bogey, as well as the attitude of the guards, both Nip and Korean. Moving camp, with as much as you could carry on your back, while two of you carried kitchen utensils on a pole, sloshing through mud for ten kilometres, then finding filthy huts, with an inch or so of mud, and sometimes a stream of water running through the walkway, was not fun. When the dry season came, we had the chance to rid our belongings of bugs and lice, although they were seasonal. It seems that the bugs ate the lice, and later the lice seemed to overwhelm the bugs. We would bounce our bed mats on the ground, bugs would fall out, and the heat of the sun would kill them.
With air raids gradually occurring more often, the Nips began to run the trains at night, and hide them under camouflage in the day, and their camouflage was good. On one occasion a work party was sent up the line to bring back stone ballast. The night was calm, cloudless, and the stars looked beautiful. We shovelled enough ballast into the rail trucks about 1am, and set out on the return trip. On each truck a lookout was posted, and it was quite pleasant lying on the small stones gazing upwards. We saw planes in the distance, but they must have been on their way to bomb Saigon, and we got back without any incident. Had a few hours sleep, then had to spread the ballast.
Going back to Tavoy. When the two runways were completed we were told that a plane would land to test our work. As it approached its touchdown, everyone standing right round the area, was thinking, “Prang you so and so, prang”. And he did! The Nips had no way of moving the plane, so gradually, little pieces of it disappeared. Aluminium plates and spoons and dishes appeared right through the camp.
There were sentry boxes at each corner of the camp, and as absurd as it seems, we, the prisoners, had to do night guard duty, against what I can’t guess, but the opinion was that the Nips were scared of the dark. One night I heard the sound of a tiger, not far away, so was glad to finish my stint.
These are rather trivial items, I know, but I don’t seem able to stop. At one camp, we were guarded by an older man, whom I only saw once. He seemed more sympathetic than the others, and that day no one was bashed. When the lunch-time meal was brought out, he sat near us, and wanted to talk. He was a school teacher in Japan, and because of his age, had been put on guard duty. He went to great pains to give us his version of the war, and said he hated war, and only wanted to get back to his family. He drew diagrams in the dirt, to support his argument, and believed that the U.S.A. had forced them to make the move they did. He said the U.S.A. was putting economic pressure on Japan, so their only means of retaliating was war, and they had to deliver the first blow. At another camp, a very cocky Nip, came across to our smoke-oh group, and said, “Ha, Australia all finish, Darwin bombed, Sydney bombed”. We didn’t know this was true, but thought it some type of propaganda, and someone said, “What about Melbourne?” He replied “Melbourne bom-bom-bom, All finished”. The chap said “Bullshit!”. The Nip said “Hai, Bullshit bom-bom-bom, Finish.” While we were at the first camp, one of the guards was upset at the derision given to his orders in English, so he played his trump card. He got on a box, drew himself up to his full five feet, and said, “You not smart! You think I know f… nothing. I know f… all”, and never found out why everyone nearly died laughing.
The Yanks made sure December 7th was remembered, by flying down the line shooting up everything that looked Japanese. One Australian work party was caught in the middle of a bridge, and had no time to take cover. The officer in charge did some very quick thinking and shouted, “Wave to them. Wave your shirt, hat and your shorts, if you can, but wave like mad.” They all did this, the firing stopped and the plane gave a wiggle of its wings and flew on.
One of the crew of the “Perth” found that elephants are pretty smart, while we were trying to move large clumps of bamboo from the surveyed part of the line. When we were unable to move one, an elephant was called on, and had no trouble in pulling it right out of the way. While we were having our midday meal, the sailor made a ball of rice, and approached the elephant, teasing it by pulling his hand away. He didn’t notice the little steps forward by the elephant, until it grabbed his wrist, and he nearly dirtied his pants. If the owner of the elephant hadn’t made it let go, the sailor probably would have been badly injured. On a work party up river to cut bamboo, we surprised a herd of six elephants, at the river to drink and wash. They disappeared with speed, knocking down quite a lot of bamboo for us.
One of the guards from the Kluang camp took an obvious dislike to me, and soon found a way to show it. While the guard from our camp was away with the truck, obtaining our daily ration, I went down to the barge from our camp, where the woman was doing some washing. I asked her could I use her soap, as I hadn’t had soap for over a year, and I thought I would wash the smell out of my only shirt, when there was a yell from the guard, and he made me go back to the top of the bank where he stood with his bayonet on his rifle. He didn’t hit me but shouted that I was trying to escape, and could be shot for that. He stood me, facing the Thai people from the barges, and put the point of his bayonet in the middle of my back. He was really enjoying his power over me, and wanted me to make a move, so that he could push that bayonet into me. I stood quite still for about twenty minutes, (it seemed like half the day), when I heard the truck come back, and our guard shouting at my captor. Our guard was senior to this one, so I was able to go back to the hut, and then take part in the loading of the barges. The W.O. in charge sent me back on the first barge, and I was very glad to go.
While the floods were raging, many strange things went racing down the river, cattle that had been drowned, timber from bridges that had been knocked down, even parts of huts, and trees. One morning, standing in the bow of the barge, the guard called, “Come, come”, and we saw, as the flood waters surged, a body, appearing and then sinking with the roll of the current. “Thai, Thai”, the guard said, and though it was obviously a Jap, we all agreed most definitely, not wishing to be bashed. Later, we heard that a Jap had fallen, or been pushed off a bridge, further up the river. It made our day.
Strangely enough, the first time I had iced coffee was in Kanburi. Working in the heat at a store, loading the truck, the guard allowed us to rest. The store owner produced two glasses, half filled with ice, and poured some hot coffee on to the ice. It was very much appreciated.
On one hard working day, I was last to get back to the camp, and was thankful to get into the river, and clean myself up. A guard called me, and indicated that I should take two baskets used for carrying meat to the Nip cook-house. They were dripping with blood, and I was as clean as I could be under the circumstances. I said, “Not these bloody baskets”; and received a bashing from the Nip for calling him a bloody bastard! No doubt, a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, for me. That job was the best I had, getting us away from the camp, and giving us some sort of freedom, for part of the day.
The officers were taken from our camp to a special camp at Ratburi, and I did not see Gavin again until we met in Bangkok. We felt that plans were being made for us to go on more work parties. Air raids to nearby areas became more frequent; Kanburi railway yards and the Wampo Bridge being the main targets. On one occasion I think it was 7th December, American planes followed the railway line, bombing bridges and damaging any object that could help the Japanese war effort, such as sidings and buildings, even culverts. Our steel bridge was attacked, but because of its open structure, not a great deal or damage was sustained. However some bombs landed in the mud and failed to explode, and we were given the job of removing them and disposing of them further upstream, in the river. After this the Jap engineers decided to build a second wooden bridge, slightly downstream from the steel bridge.
One of the less popular means of using us, was to take work parties to the corners of the camp where the ack-ack guns were placed. We cut green branches from trees to put in large bamboo containers with water, rather like vases of flowers, and keep the area clean. On one occasion, the British work party had put the camouflage around, and were working in the ammunition shed, when the alarm was sounded for an air raid. The Nips immediately slammed the door of the shed, and locked it, giving the poor old Poms a very nasty half hour.
We heard the next party out was a work party to Japan, and only white people were to go. I think this was to aid to our humiliation, as the papers that we managed to see, still spoke of the Greater South East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, aimed at bringing the Thais and Burmese into Japanese dominance. On the first parade, the fittest men were selected. I was shivering with malaria at the time, so missed that trip. I was well again when the next work party was to be sent, and stood on the parade ground with all my kit. The guard doing the counting got as far as the man next to me, and said “Finish”. That was the party on the ship that was torpedoed by the Americans.
The Nips then decided to close the camp, and move the remaining men to Kluang, a short distance away on another branch of the river. It had a huge cemetery, mostly British, and I was given a job placing crosses on graves. There was a permanent burial party, as it was a hospital camp, and a team made crosses and located graves. There was an unfortunate error made when a cross was placed on a Jewish Soldier’s grave. It was soon replaced with a star, and a lesson was learned. At the far end of the cemetery was a huge mango tree, but I was not in the camp long enough to benefit. I took over a garden plot with peanut plants and tomatoes growing, but was moved out before they ripened. No one wanted to be sent to work on the Wampo Bridge, as it was constantly bombed. It seemed that as soon as the bridge was repaired, it was bombed again. However, I could not escape, after an American bombing had done heavy damage everywhere. From our camps, both Tamarkan and Kluang, we could hear the attacks on the bridge. We were not sent with the engineers party to repair the bridge, but were a carrying party, which was kept out of sight in the daytime, and unloaded railway tracks at night, loading this onto barges, which took it across the river, where another party, whom we never saw, loaded it on to a second train, which took its load up to the front line. We carried everything, two men on a pole, Tom Beenie working mostly with me. I was on the back position, so that I could get my hand into the baskets without being seen. We were able to add to our food supplies by this means. We lived in tents on a sandy spit, with guards, a Nip cook, and lots of slit trenches. The stupid cook would panic when air raid alarm was given, and would make anyone standing near throw water on his fire. This sent a column of smoke into the air letting any observer know that a camp was there. We had two air raids while we were there, and the accuracy of the British bombers was amazing. One of our engineers, who was caught in the middle of the bridge, and was able to squeeze into a cave in the wall of the cutting, said that in five bombs dropped, four were direct hits, and one a near miss. It was fascinating to watch the planes peal off, and make a run towards the bridge, trying to calculate as the bomb bays opened, if the bomb could hit us. One of our party, declared he would stay in his bunk, while we were in the slit trenches. The ground would reverberate each time a bomb exploded, but he stayed on until one day, the blunt end of the bomb, a solid piece of steel, about two feet in diameter, whistled through the air, and his tent, and landed a few feet from him. After that he was happy to join us.
We’d had Liberators and Flying Fortresses and all sorts of B21s , plus reccy planes, fly over us, but on the day that repairs to the bridge was completed, a Mosquito, equipped with cameras, swooshed in, followed the bridge around, then swooshed off. It was about one hundred feet above us, and we didn’t hear it until it had photographed the bridge. It scared the daylights out of me, and didn’t do much for the others. This visit made the Nips think another raid would follow shortly, so our group was sent about 10 miles up the river to wait. We lived in tents, and had no set work to do. It was nearly a holiday. We stayed there for about ten days, until the Nips decided we would be better working back up the line, felling trees for firewood to keep the trains running. We took our tents, and had two moves, finishing at Cre. Our task was to work in pairs, select a tree, bring it down, trim it, and cut it into metre lengths, split these into usable pieces, and deliver them to the railside. It sounds easy from this distance, but using blunt saws, with bamboo pieces as handles and axes with bamboo handles, was hard work. We found that the broader the leaf on the tree, the easier it was to get our wood from it. Each day there was a rush for the best trees, as the thin-leaved trees are really tough. Luckily there were no casualties, but a few narrow escapes. As we cleared the timber, a small railway line with little flat trucks, enabled us to go further into the jungle.
At one camp we felt very uncomfortable, as the road and railway line, with shunting yards was on the East side of the camp, and the river was about fifty yards on the West. Over the river to the North, was a row of hills. The light bombers, called “Whispering Death”, would fly in low, just clearing the hills, and bomb the railway and the road, then clean up any shipping on the river. We learned to hit the ground very smartly in this camp. On one occasion we were unloading rice from a store, on to rail trucks, when the warning was sounded. I noticed a number of the natives dived for cover, under the rail trucks, which were the target, as I dived into a ditch behind the store. They must have been American, as none of the trucks were hit. As I got out of my shelter I found an unexploded fifty-pounder around the corner. It was in this camp that the cooks were able to outwit the Nips. A number of trains would pass through in the night, taking soldiers back towards Bangkok. They were scared of disease, but very short of water, which they insisted should be boiled and were prepared to pay a dollar per bucket. Our cooks got as many containers as they had, full, and warmed it, then stood near the railway line, getting a dollar a bucket for warm river water.
We had enjoyed fairly good trading relations with the natives, until we were joined by the Dutch. We could be doing some washing in the river, when a canoe would come round a corner with bananas or pomillos to sell. The price would be reasonable, about twenty cents for hand. The Dutch would see us eating, and we were silly enough to tell them how to get them. They would offer more than we could, so no more for us. Also, at one of our larger camps, a work party found a large number of graves uncared for. Some of the officers volunteered to put things in order, and were happy enough to be away from the camp, without a guard. They were seen by natives, and given some fruit. They indicated that they were grateful, but would like to pay for it. They arranged alternate days for small groups to do the work, and each day brought back fruit or vegetables, most of which they took to the hospital. Unhappily, Dutch officers heard of the work; insisted on being allowed to do the same, and that was the end of the Australian outings.
I may be selfish, and feel sorry for the civilians who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the atom bomb actually saved millions of lives, mine included. We were at Cre, when a trainload of Aussies went past the camp, yelling that the war was over, and we would be next to be freed. We were a party of only about a dozen, by this time, all sick. I was having three days of malaria, three days better, then three days of malaria again, with no medication. There was a quick search of our pathetic gear; a sign that a move was imminent, and we were told to stand by, ready to move. Next day nothing happened, we were still standing by, but the next day, I think it was the nineteenth of August 1945, our trip to freedom began, although we still had some doubts. When we were finally detrained, at a place we learned was Tamuang, we formed up to march to our camp as two priests in long robes came past us. We asked what news they had, and they replied, “The victory is ours, thank God”. That was the greatest news, but we had to wait some time before we found out how it happened and some time before complete power was taken from Japanese hands. We were allotted a space in a hut, then found out the camp was run by the Dutch, so we didn’t expect much. I was given Indian issue trousers, shirt, and jacket. Shrunken as I was they were still too small for me, but they were clean. Some clothing was dropped by American planes, but our issue fell into a pig yard, and sank about six feet into the mud. It is possibly still there, in its container. Provisions were dropped from DC2s or DC3s, on to a large tennis court. It was interesting to see the crew pushing bales of goods out of the plane, and never losing one. To provide some entertainment, American planes from the carriers, performed aerobatics over the camp. They were shown what Australian pilots could do, as the Dakotas went though the same routine, looping and rolling. That made us feel good. We found that the British had not been far away in the past few weeks, and had parachuted rescue teams in to supervise our release. Colonels, aged 26, were a shock to us; but they were most efficient.
After being left for three weeks or so, we were taken by train, still in goods trucks, but with lots more space to Bangkok, where I was given a job as a clerk, at the Hotel Orient, on the bank of the Canal, where Gavin happened to be billeted. We had lots to talk about, particularly home news, and it was wonderful to have no Japanese around. I could try to forget the four 4th Anti Tank, who tried to escape and were shot; the attempt by Captain Mull and two companions, who were killed by pro-Japanese Burmese police; the murder of Sergeant O’Donnell; the treatment of Captain Drower, and the unnecessary deaths of thousands of men, caused by the inhumanity of the Japanese. Only two good things come to my mind:- the boy at Tamarkan who offered me food (but was killed next day), and the Lieutenant, whom we called Whiskers Blake, because of his beard, who saw the men eating stolen food at Niki, and politely asked Colonel Anderson to stop them. He could have punished the whole camp, as other officers we had encountered would have done, but chose not to.
We waited in Bangkok, thinking we may have got home together, but Gavin was flown home first. We were moved in groups to Bangkok Aerodrome, to be flown to Singapore. There we had lots of hot water for showers, and Indian barbers, who trimmed what hair we had, and massaged our necks, and shoulders. It seemed rather luxurious, contrasted to what we’d had!
The following is a photo of a page Ian Campbell’s diary:-
A letter written to Major General Allan Morrison in 1985 follows:-
37 Cape Nelson Road,
Major General Allan Morrison,
I enclose my brief history for your consideration. While writing it, I thought I could add many uninteresting things, but it has all been done before, and better. I wonder if any of the members of the boards have taken trouble to read any of the accounts of those three and a half years. It is hard to explain what went on in our minds in those days and since, but overall I think that comradeship and sharing helped us all greatly. Possibly a healthy country background helped as well.
I have waited a while, in case something may come through from Melbourne, but nothing has.
It is appropriate that I am writing on this day as it was on the !st. April 1941 that I first went into the Army, after being turned down by the Navy and the RAAF.
Thank you for your interest in my case. I feel indebted to all those who are trying to help me.
With best wishes,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The above article was given to Lt Col Peter Winstanley (OAM RFD F Fin JP) by Gavin Campbell (Lt RAN survivor of HMAS Perth and brother of Ian Campbell. Ian Campbell is the author of this account.) Ian’s daughters also provided material for the article. I am indebted to my wife Helen for typing the article from the original produced by Ian Campbell (Sgt RA Signals).