Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 and around 100,000 allied troops became POWs in the Singapore region. Early April 1943 the Japanese demanded 7000 allied prisoners of war from the Changi area, to be sent north to a camp where there would be better food and no work. Accordingly light sick could be included. The make up of the party would be about half British and half Australian and was known as “F” Force.
My name is Vanessa Wade and I am the daughter of John Parkes, here present today together with fellow ex POWs - Bill Lawson from the UK , Bill Haskell (Perth), Fred Hodel (Queensland), Cyril Gilbert (Queensland), Bill Flowers (Victoria) and Roy Whitecross (New South Wales). This is John’s story in his own words.
It is generally conceded that “F” Force suffered most of all the groups sent to labour on the Railway. Certainly, the mere stats of the deaths would suggest that. 61% of the British and 28% of the Australians died in the time they were on the “line”.
The first party of F Force to leave Singapore was known as Pond’s Party, a group of 700 fit and semi fit men. After we left Singapore Pond’s Party had no permanent contact with the rest of F Force.
On 17th April 1943 we left Changi early morning arriving at Singapore railway station at daybreak. It was obvious from the start that it was not going to be a pleasure trip. The train was ready at the station. It consisted of nothing more than metal rice trucks and an engine and nothing more. The guards were yelling and screaming, waving sticks and cramming about 30 men into each truck.
The train trip lasted 4 nights and 5 days. Food and water were scarce and if you wanted to go to the toilet someone had to hold your arms whilst you hung out the open door.
Finally we arrived at Ban Pong in Thailand. There we discovered that we had to march about 300 kilometres to the region of the Burma border. We stayed overnight in a filthy camp and for the next 17 days we walked by night along a narrow jungle track with no light to guide our steps. We slept by day, if we could. The day temperature was over 40 degrees and the monsoon rains were just starting
On the second night we arrived at Kanchanaburi or Kanburi as we knew it, on Anzac Day 1943. The town was small then and on the edge of a dense jungle. We left the next night and walked through more jungle under similar harsh conditions. We had little food and water. Some nights we walked for hours with no water or food. It was a dreadful walk.
We moved north and passed through Koncoita. This was about 260 Kilometres from our start point. We stayed there one night and moved on to Teimonta. We had hardly any time to settle into our accommodation of huts with no roofs, when we were put to work pile driving. After this we started work building embankments. Initially the quota for moving soil was 200 baskets per day for 3 men and after you had reached the quota you could return to camp. This arrangement didn’t last long because the quota was fairly easy to meet. The Japanese decided to up the quota and it rose gradually and finally got up to 700 baskets per day per 3 men. This was a nearly impossible task, men were struggling to achieve this and we had to stay there until the quota was filled even if this meant that you worked on into the night, working under the light of bamboo flares. We never saw our beds in daylight, as we were up before dawn for sick parade, a bowl of rice and then off to walk the 2 kilometres or so to the work site.
It was at Teimonta that cholera stuck. It was the start of the monsoon and the rain did not stop until we finished work several months later at Takanoon. We were working, eating and sleeping in the rain much of the time. A separate cholera tent was set up and the medical staff led by Dr Roy Mills and George Beecham did their best to treat the victims of cholera for whom there was little hope. Men were dying every day and we had to cremate bodies every day. Dr Mills tried to treat men with intravenous injections (IVI), but it was almost hopeless and very few survived. He was unable to cope with the workload on his own and trained his medical orderlies in the IVI procedures. The cholera continued to strike right through the rainy season from Teimonta to Nikke and down to Takanoon. Approximately 56 from Pond’s Party died of cholera.
The Japanese wanted 300 reasonably fit men to go to Nikke. Many of these so called “fit” men were quite sick and some were later sent on to the hospital camp at Tanbaya in Burma, along with our well respected Signals Captain, Fred Stahl. A third of the men sent to Burma died there.
At Nikke there were a lot of Burmese bullocks loose on the edge of the jungle and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss to have some beef. In the 9 days we were there, we acquired and killed 23 bullocks. The first night we sat up all night eating, the meat was tough and stringy and it didn’t do our digestive system much good, but it filled our stomachs.
We returned to Teimonta and joined the rest of Pond’s Party and walked and worked our way back 70 kilomteres down to Takanoon, carrying all our stretcher cases, cooking gear and tools. Whenever we moved the guards made us carry heavy bundles of tools up to 10 to 15 kilometres before we could return to the camp for something to eat. As soon as we were out of sight of the guards we tossed some of the tools away into the jungle and retied the bundles as before. The guards never once found out what we had been doing. We were lucky as other parties were dealt with severely for losing tools etc. This went on whenever Pond’s Party moved.
Once again, when we arrived at Takanoon there were no huts and we had to establish a cookhouse and dig latrines whilst sleeping at night under old tents. Some of us built our own humpies with whatever materials we could scrounge. The camp was built on what was essentially a mud heap on the edge of the jungle. The tents leaked most of the time and men were stacked in like sardines and lying in the mud. We lived under these conditions for 5 months.
During this time 150 of us fitter men were sent 4 kilometres north to work on building embankments. One morning a party of Japanese arrived with rifles and bayonets and they marched us out to a ledge on the side of the river. We were made to line up and they ordered us to remove the few clothes we had on, including the bandages covering ulcers. We had to line up against a wall naked and it looked a bit like the end. We really believed that we were going to be shot. We said goodbye and shook hands with one another. The guards searched through our clothes and we were puzzled to find later that they had also gone through our meagre belongings back at camp, though we couldn’t imagine what they thought they would find.
During our time at Taknoon, our rations were cut. The Japanese said that as sick people couldn’t work their rations were cut to one meal a day. Those who were working all agreed to give some of their rations to the sick to help them survive. That enabled everyone to have at least 2 meals per day.
The only food available from the jungle was wild bananas, about the size of your finger and full of black seeds, the young leaves of the banana palms, the red banana flowers and bamboo shoots. Our rations per day for the month of May 1943 were 537 grams rice, 12grams onion, 1 gram towgay, 1 gram dried whitebait and 1 gram of beef per man. Hardly sufficient to maintain anyone let alone men working up to 16 hours a day.
From Takanoon we went back up 70 km to Teimonta to the place where the railway line ultimately joined up. We then had to walk another 20 km back up the line to catch the train, even though it was going right past our camp at Teimonta. A ridiculous waste of time and effort for us and a ludicrous organizational effort by the Japanese.
For the 9 months we were on the line approximately 50% of F Force died, two thirds British and one third Australian and in Pond’s Party similar statistics prevailed. Without the efforts of our wonderful doctor, Roy Mills and his medics I believe it would have been worse. He and the medical staff worked day and night to try to help the sick with limited or no medicine or medical equipment. Roy Mills himself had been ill all the time he was with us. He carried shrapnel in his shoulder from the defence of Singapore until he managed to have a British Medical Officer remove it on 18 October near Koncoita. Unfortunately Dr Mills contracted TB and on his return to Australia, was unable to work and spent 2 years in hospital.
The sense of humour displayed when times were bad and the mateship amongst the men of Pond’s Party were I believe important factors for survival and an important part of what got us through the experience. For many of us, the friendships made then have lasted over 60 years and continue today.
Lest we forget
Sig CJ (John) Parkes