John Henry Schurmann. Born Collie, Western Australia 12 October 1919. Enlisted into the AIF 23 July 1940, as member 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion WX5007. Trained Northam, Woodside and Darwin. To Singapore as part of 8th Divison on Aquitania. Arrive Singapore 24 January 1941. Wounded in Battle for Singapore. Became POW 15 February 1941, whilst in hospital. To Burma as a member of "A" Force May 1942. Slaved on the infamous Burma Thailand Railway. On completion of the railway to various camps (included 203 kilo Jungle Camp) in Thailand. At end of war volunteered and went back up the railway as part of a team of 16 to search for Cemeteries and Graves. Discharged from the Army 11 April 1946. Whilst convalesing in Hollywood Hospital met a Nurse Daphne Reid SFX32198. They Married and had four children. Changed his surname to Sherman. In 2006 resides in Manjimup Western Australia.
Singapore: The rushing roar - approaching - overhead - and then diminishing - exactly like an express train at tremendous speed - the passage of a shell from the big naval guns of Singapore’s defence, headed for Johore Bahru. The towering columns of jet-black smoke, hundreds and perhaps thousands of metres high, from the burning fuel tanks. One morning, we were all black and soaked in oily carbon, as it had rained and brought down lots of that smoke upon us.
Dawn, A company on the move in trucks and pulled in to cook-house encampment for some breakfast - one morning we got a cooked meal. Towering over us was one of the smoke columns from a fuel tank. Drawing our rations we scattered a little among the trees to eat, when from behind the smoke column dived several enemy spotter planes, machine guns blazing, then up behind the cloud, to pounce out at a different spot and down to shoot us up. As the planes passed over we got the machine gun attention from the rear crewman of the 3-man aircrew. Distinctly remember hugging the butt of a 15-inch tree and edging around it in the endeavour of keeping it between me and the tree-top planes, one after the other.
Prior to Feb 9th, 1942 when in tented encampment in rubber plantation (A Company) we had our first close-up view of enemy reconnaissance plane, directly above us just above tree-top height and carrying crew of three, the rear member having a swivelling M.G. mounted on top of fuselage in front of him as he faced the rear. The hated round red insignia beneath the wings our introduction to the grimmest collective period of our lives.
Before Invasion by Enemy During A Company movement, halted on road on high ground west of causeway and could observe enemy vehicles detraining in Johore Bahru. We were told our artillery was not permitted to fire on them.
Sunday, Feb 8th, 1942 Major Saggers transferred to E Company and Captain Thomas assumed command of A Company.
Monday, Feb 9th, 1942 0500 hours Tengah Aerodrome A company moved out of rubber plantation to Tengah Drome. Sudden attack by enemy mortar fire on 5 Platoon trucks moving past buildings (Tom Hayward my driver), some very close near misses but no casualties. 5 Platoon positioned along crest of hill (_ guns) on drome to oppose enemy on edge of airfield. Number of enemy planes - some two-seaters, some 3-man crews, and always it seemed float planes (spotters with front machine guns and rear gunner). These planes sweeping down to almost land and go up again - time after time.
A number of large packing crates on airfield, said to contain fighter aircraft from England, but still crated.
Battalion H.Q. staff (including Captain Hill) evaluated our position and we were ordered to withdraw at 1500 hours and take up a new position. It seemed we were in an isolated position with no support.
Feb 9th, 1942 1500 hrs Assumed defensive position astride CHU CHAO CHUNG Road, 800 yards east of Bulim Village. Observed what (in hindsight) probably was 5th Column observation of our positions. Two Asians passed through our position carrying flagon of spirit and glass, offering drinks (generally refused). Halted and searched but carrying no weapons and were allowed to proceed. (We were very green troops.) One enemy figure observed covertly observing our position from swampy position ahead of us was shot.
Tuesday, Feb 10th, 1942 Reformatory Road position heavily bombed by 54 planes at 30,000 feet.
'A' Company Feb 10th Position 784118 Into position wooded area (or rubber plantation) early hours of darkness and almost immediately came under heavy barrage (artillery) of Allied guns. Subsequently learned this area had been evacuated of Allied troops (probably Indian) and was believed to be occupied by the enemy.
Wednesday, Feb 11th, 1942 0400 hrs 5 Platoon (Lieutenant Walton) Arrived G.B.D. and instructed to take up defensive position astride road with mounted M.G.s. Encountered no enemy action in this position.
Thursday, Feb 12th, 1942 Ulu Pandan: A Company H.Q. subject to sniper fire from heavily wooded area.
Corporal J.J. Dore was wounded in the thigh by fragment and moved to R.A.P.
I recall that some time later I was with a Battalion H.Q. unit in the grounds of a large building and had failed to find my platoon or A Company - there was heavy enemy shelling of the area as well as infantry battles taking place.
Sudden resumption of fighting and call for grenades, and finally enemy position wiped out, with about three or four (I think) of machine gunners on their feet.
Sunday, Feb 8th, 1942 'A' in reserve in rubber plantation. Day of very heavy shelling from Johore Bahru, and we could count the blast of guns directly ranged on us, and it seemed there were four guns firing directly on our positions, and firing as a battery, the four reports very close together. Then came the whistle of the shells which took some time to arrive as we were back from the coast several miles. The whistle to scream as the shells raced in and every shell seeming to be aimed at the individual. They say you don’t hear the one that hits you, and luckily most of us heard them all. Bill Short got out of his slit-trench to see what sized crater they were making and copped a slice of shell in his backside. Collected his own crater.
Enemy aircraft were everywhere, reconnaissance planes droning around at just above tree top height, the crews clearly visible, quite a few were float planes (amphibious).
Recce planes were over us from dawn until near full-dark every day and I never saw one shot down. The big twin-engine bombers flew in flights of nine, and usually in a formation of 27, at 30,000 feet and so were untouched by the Ack Ack fire poured up at them. On some particular targets, and A Company was on one in Reformatory Road, 27 planes flew North to South and dropped their full load then immediately 27 more flew west to east and dropped their load on the same target. As we lay on the ground to avoid flying metal and concussion the ground fairly convulsed under us.
Thursday, Feb 12th, 1942 - Night time Don’t really remember being helped in to R.A.P. after being wounded by grenade burst, but came in through Ken Skinner’s position. All around here we were undergoing heavy artillery shelling and I remember suddenly entering from the blackness outside into the lighted interior of the Regimental Aid Post - some solid building, whether house or otherwise I don’t know. There were many wounded, mostly being, I’d say, casualties from artillery bursts. One most clearly remembered with his lower face and jaw sliced off and conscious. Here was Dr Claude Anderson, working as quietly and calmly as though in a base hospital, as I’ll always remember him, while the shells burst around the building, some very close. Along with him and just as calmly worked his orderlies and they have my greatest respect, for this would be the first time they were pitched into a slaughter house of that magnitude.
In due course some of us were loaded onto the back of an open truck and with lights out from there, through road blocks and manned positions to one of the Australian Army Field Hospitals -perhaps the 13th A.G.H. We were placed on stretchers on the concrete floor, with a building over us (I believe a school) and a wall perhaps six to eight feet high around the floored area, and an open section to the floor of the building above.
Sunday, Feb 15th, 1942 Night, managed to get two sleeping pills from an orderly and got off to sleep. They were good, slept all night for the first time in weeks. Awoke in the morning and was telling someone about the efficiency of those pills and was told our high command had capitulated to the enemy, and the guns had stopped firing at 8 p.m. the night before. We were Prisoners Of War, with a most uncertain future and the knowledge that through the campaign the enemy had butchered all sick and wounded and almost all those taken prisoner.
Another day perhaps Feb 18th, 1942 Four of us were loaded into an ambulance (taking our turn) and set off for a better organized hospital. Stopped repeatedly at road blocks, the ambulance door opened and the appearance of Japs with fixed bayonets on their rifles inspecting us, and then on to the next roadblock, but finally the hospital. Who would have thought that we’d finish that trip as we did? Not I.
As soon as I was able to move around freely enough I searched the camp (8000 Aussies) and finally found my cousin Chris Schurmann, giving him the shock of his life for some of my mates had told him I’d been killed in action.
There was a Paddy’s Market on the go each night where anyone who had anything to sell (legitimately or stolen) congregated and circulated (illegally but wisely ignored by authority). In the circumstances of a previously wounded person leaving hospital, even his clothes often would be cut, ripped or blown off him and he just had no possessions excepting his identification tags. A mug-gunner at the hospital by the name of Krasnostein (one of our blokes) scrounged me shorts and shirt, groundsheet and mess gear and safety razor with one blade (blunt). After cultivating (on the expiration of the blade) a full beard and perhaps beginning to look like a Biblical figure, or a modern Aussie, I could stand it no longer, and somehow purchased or traded a cut-throat razor at Paddy’s Market, which honed (later on) on a stone plucked from a Burmese stream, kept me reasonably clean shaven for three and a half years. In the 105 Camp (Burma) a few reckless fellows allowed me to shave them, but that didn’t last long. Some people just can’t stand the sight of blood - their own.
Burma (105) Acting on the information of a Javanese Dutchman (about the only advice I ever accepted from a Dutchman) I used to gather mushrooms in the jungle, ghostly white, small, thin fleshed fungi, growing on the giant bamboo stalks (which grew close to 100 feet high and eight inches thick), and which I harvested three feet or one metre from the ground, and no, you won’t believe it but I used to eat them. The real mushroom flavour too.
Returning from the railway cuttings or embankments when available we picked a jungle weed we called snakeweed and took it in to the cooks to add to the rice feast. Also a very onerous and extremely necessary job always, was the collection of leaves (in lieu of loo paper - never one issue). Every insect that flew, jumped, crawled or just stayed there either bit or stung, or kicked, many doing a combination act. This is the gentle environment of Burma. Also many of the plants harboured a substance (on the leaves) or, or/and, prickles or stinging hairs on the underside. Most of these plants seemed to have the largest leaves in the area, and we were collectors. Not only our own needs had to be catered for, there were our sick mates in camp, plus those on camp duties that had no opportunity to slip into the surrounding supermarket, where everything was free. Especially experience. Therefore one had to be extremely careful of leaf selection, or one ran the risk of making enemies of friends or at least offending.
Port Moresby, Aquitania Royal Mail Steamship (R.M.S.) converted to carry troops - 40,000 tons four funnels. Our battalion had come from Darwin in two ships - the Marella (previously Kaiser Wilhem of Germany’s yacht, pre World War I and briefly our private yatch - Darwin to Moresby), and Westralia (armed merchant cruiser and sometimes used as trooper).
Aquitania was anchored several miles from shore with Westralia lashed on one side and Marella on the other side (three in one) with H.M.A.S. Australia a couple of miles distant, with painting platforms over side and men at work.
Cruiser Australia moved into motion picking up speed - the paint parties still overside, and out to the open sea. We were given the news, Rabaul was being bombed by the Japanese and that wasn’t so far away. From memory we were given a further ten minutes to get the most important stores transferred, so we checked for fighting stores, and that’s how the officers’ mess furniture and other items got left behind. Never admitted liability to higher command.
Just into motion following Australia’s three funnels and personal orders to me (why me? in those days we didn’t ask; we carried them out). Six Platoon’s, not five platoon’s, grenades had mistakenly been sent down into the ship’s magazine in a primed condition. 'So, Sergeant, take a couple of men down and remove the primers.' This would make them reasonably safe of course, so knowing little about ship’s procedures we did just that in the magazine. On mature reflection and more experience, I have sometimes thought that I should have been instructed to bring the boxes of grenades onto deck, away from the magazine which was chock full of ammunition and other unstable commodities, whilst the accident-possible procedures were proceeded with. Some of us are professional (and mighty lucky) survivors.
Those seas north of Australia are wondrous, in colour and the life abounding in them. The brightest blue water (and clear) I have ever seen, and to stand at the stern of a big ship and see the pure white, dead-straight wake of your passage, clear to the horizon is breathtaking. (The same sight witnessed at night in the Indian Ocean with the sea phosphorescent is also unforgettable, and there we saw whales.) Banded sea snakes, yellow and black, by the hundred; turtles, flying fish and the ability to see so far down into the clear depths will never be forgotten.
In Moresby harbour, some of the boys swimming from the anchor chain, up which they climbed to the ship (not everybody was working), on the port side native boys were diving for coins thrown over by the soldiers, following the coins down into those clear depths until they diminished in size and disappeared; the reappearance and their rapid growth as they neared the surface, a silver coin brandished in triumph, along with a big grin, and the coin safely tucked into an ear. Strolled to the starboard side toward the stern, and there in the water was what appeared to be a native sarong with a huge shark nosing it.
Took on more troops - total 4,000 and then off for another cruise. The life on the ocean wave. As always whilst travelling to war by ship the Battalion was kept busy with parades, physical exercises and of course eternal gun drill, drawing and handling rations and for some, sentry duty, black-out sentries to police the ship through the hours of darkness to see no glimmer of light showed, not even a cigarette. There were enemy raiders out there as well as Japanese and German submarines in our waters. The most unpopular perhaps the kit inspections, when each soldier had to produce or account for every article ever issued to him, and many items passed one to another by sleight-of-hand, an everlasting contest. Many articles were declared 'in the laundry'.
Fremantle It became evident that our convoy was due for a W.A. port - always providing it stopped. Could you believe it, Fremantle! Don’t remember the entry in particular, but the Aquitania dropped its hook out in Gage Roads, as did some other vessels.
Whilst on this little ramble from Fremantle a short anecdote. When gallantly puffing and straining up a rise, somehow a coupling broke or slipped undone, and the engine surged ahead. The rear section stopped, paused and began to run backwards. The bugler being wide awake through having to get up early to blow 'Reveille' poked his bugle out the window and blew 'Retreat'. Nice going.
Then just after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and Singapore on December 8, 1942 we went cruising on the Marella and Westralia -to Port Moresby and beyond. And thus we really began our serious travels as 'Dollar A Day Tourist'. We called five shillings a dollar (slang) in those times and that was the basic rate of a soldier’s pay (Private 5 shillings, Corporal 9/-, Sergeant 10/-or one dollar). And that’s how we’re now in Fremantle.
Fremantle Saga The Aquitania was a big ship of many decks and sited around these decks were light Anti-aircraft gun stations, mostly twin Vickers MMG’s, but air cooled. No. 1 gunner fired the twin guns which were locked together from a fixed swivelling mount, standing beneath the guns; No. 2 gunner rotating with the guns also and tending the belts. May not have been very effective against attacking aircraft but gave the gunners a chance to hit back and are good for morale, and sometimes are very effective.
Not sure the guard had an officer, but it had a Sgt in Charge, yes the expert of course. Well, in addition there was the ship’s brig (gaol) and the inmates thereof had to be inspected, exercised and fed, and locked up and guarded, and perhaps lectured. Why worry the ship’s crew with such matters when you’ve got swaddies (naval for soldiers) aboard? Merely a detail for this experienced guard commander.
Personally saw the roof of my sister’s house at Cottesloe, and as the day wore on had ideas of ducking off after the guard was changed.
It was awe inspiring to see the escorting destroyers at work protecting their big charge as we sailed West and North, hearing the story of the loss of our Aussie cruiser 'Sydney' in these waters from crew on the Aquitania, who were, I think, in the vicinity at that time, and said to pick up a boatload of survivors from the crew of the German raider that sank Sydney; being in turn sunk by Sydney, which then disappeared forever.
Once more there was to be a transhipping of our Battalion at sea. All troops who were destined for Singapore (including reinforcements we were carrying, for our own Battalion and other units in Malaya) went into Dutch island-trading steamships, the 2/4th spread over three ships. We transhipped in fairly closed waters, either a big bay, or actually in straits between islands. Our escort was out in open waters - there was much activity out there, the thud of exploding depth-charges, and we guessed at the truth of that activity and learned later that an enemy sub had been destroyed. This in or near Sundra Straits, where a little later a midnight naval battle saw the loss of H.M.A.S. Perth and U.S. Houston and others.
The well-trained Second Fourth, confident and tough, having just spent three months in Wet Season Darwin were ready and willing to take on the tropics, and that march of only 30 kilometres nearly killed us. Phew! The humidity on that island; inside a kilometre our clothes were black with sweat and shortly our legs turned to jelly, but of course we made it. Hadn’t we done 65 kilometre marches with pack and rifle up and down the Mt Lofty mountains and gorges, many in a day’s march? We didn’t call ourselves Anketell’s (Colonel) Mountain Goats for nothing.
Burma Having months before acquired about a ten inch length of strap for the purpose of stropping my straight razor, and having now realised that the wet season had come upon us and my razor strap badly rotted with mildew, something had to be done. Well, we were in the midst of jungle, no supplies of fat, oil or grease were available and things looked pretty hopeless. At the time (as at most times) clearing for the railway-bed was proceeding. Eureka! there was a fairly small tree with appropriate hollow and bees flying in an out. Bees, honey, beeswax (beeswax to dress the leather, of course). By now the scantily-dressed (reluctant) workforce was used to the bees alighting on bodies and limbs to suck up the salt nectar from sweating skins; just don’t trap and squeeze one or more bees in your armpit.
Picking up a very blunt coolie-axe, the attack was mounted. Having read that bees will never attack someone who is not afraid, there was nothing to worry about. The chips began to fly (slowly) and the bees began to investigate the disturbance, and as the cloud of angry insects swarmed about me I realised that the author of the bee-book had something.
Suddenly I was afraid and just as I realised it, about three stung me. Quickly returning to the job that Emperor Hirohito wanted me to do, the matter was duly considered. After a while the buzzing subsided, the stings were removed, and the wax was still needed.
Burma 14K This would be where we became acquainted with Korean guards and we soon voted we could have managed without them, as they and the Japs really hated one another, and with us that made a three-way split, but we were in the middle.
This camp was the venue for a daily spectacle that was a bright spot in our lives, and for which I gladly woke up at dawn to behold each morning. Brother Jonathon lined his Korean buddies up on the parade ground just outside the hut I slept in (no walls as such) and gave them a real work out in calisthenics then lined them up and starting at one end would work through to the other, no favouritism, he wouldn’t miss one, and saying a few endearing words to each would do a two-handed bashing exhibition, which would doubtless have cleaned up his liver and had him fit for the front-line in no time.
General During three and a half years in the tropics our research showed us just what a degenerate life we had lived in Aussie. Small boys would have loved some conditions we encountered. For instance, when washing in streams, bamboo buckets, or while having a shower (out in the rain) we never got soap in our eyes, for we never had any, and were never issued any. No need to polish shoes, lots of blokes didn’t have them, and who’d need polish anyway? The capitalist who may have owned a toothbrush in the beginning, but never toothpaste, wore it out and had to join the proletariat and use wood-ash on a finger. And of course, no visits to the dentist, we didn’t have them. Perhaps a doctor or a handyman possessed a pair of rusty pliers, and these worked very well - didn’t really need sissy things like anaesthetics. Most times two or three good mates would volunteer to hold the patient steady.
203K Thailand Personally assisted a small red-headed Dutch doctor one day at the 203K Thailand to remove a cyst from a mate’s stomach (the size of a walnut) out in the open air. My part was easy, just had to help a couple of others hold the patient down, and the Doctor did the rest (no anaesthetic, of course, for such a simple job.) Didn’t continue my studies as medical assistant - returned to the shovel, it suits me better.
General Bridge Building Experiences A versatile railwayman has a lot to learn, especially when he’s only travelled on trains. Personal experience of course was not lacking, for at the age of sixteen years, I had signed on a construction job to help build a traffic bridge over the Swan River, Guildford to Bassendean, and as this experience lasted for a year, no doubt I was capable of building a few in Burma. No, not the boss, but I used to talk to him every day - or perhaps the other way about. Being officially 'The Nipper', great was my importance. Sometime striker for the blacksmith, a greaser-up of all the piles of beam ends (to stop them splitting), threader of bolts after the smithy and I had jointly forged them, go-for for everyone, and tarring the bolts and timbers and most important of all boiling the billy for lunch. But on the hot days being forced to dive down into that cool water to retrieve dropped tools, and I had a few mates who didn’t mind nudging a few over. However I never refused to retrieve.
04Km Kandor This camp (nearest to Thanbuzayat, the Death Railway junction with 'Burma Rail') which ran north to Rangoon was on the site of a rubber plantation. Here were numerous water-courses -dry at times - often turbulent torrents which had to be bridged. Included in party with Dick Riseboro and maybe a few more was this artisan (and builder of bridges) out on the floodplain lined up with pegs and formers for embankment and bridges. Logs had to become beams and lifted up into place after shaping to carry ties and rails, the shaping being done by handsaws drawn backwards (not as we push saws to cut).
The Japanese engineers on the job (who could not speak English) and the labourers (us) who could not speak anything but English and a few foreign swear words had rather a torrid time. Dick saved our bacon perhaps, as he could see how they intended to do the job, or thought he could, so he became 'poncho' or boss. The next interesting thought was how to raise those prepared beams to perhaps 2 to 3 metres high and place them? No trouble, up rumbled a couple of logging elephants and guided by their 'mahouts' or drivers did the job so skilfully, lifting and placing and shifting even an inch distance if required, the mahout sitting on the head and holding a spike or panga (knife) to direct by touch the efforts of his charge (3 metres high at the shoulder). Tusks would be slid under the log on the ground, and the trunk over and holding around - the log balanced perfectly and then placed, ever so exactly.
At Kandor, seven months into captivity, and accidents and Jap-inflicted wounds becoming numerous daily, there existed the increasing need of bandages, and no means of obtaining same in the jungle surroundings, and no such medical supplies from our captors. Camp doctor, Captain Claude Anderson set his orderlies to work at tapping a few of the rubber trees, thus producing latex which was used in lieu of bandages, very successfully.
In Kandor there lived a Burmese family which was one of the very few to help us and managed to obtain a few elementary but very welcome medical supplies for our Aid Post. After the war the head of this family was given the job of gardener or curator at the Thanbuzayat War Cemetery as a reward and carried out a very creditable job.
Victoria Point Burma In retrospect this was the most ideal period (if there was such a thing) of 'Green' Force’s three and a half years in the tropics. The force was divided into two parts, one being quartered at the air strip (perhaps three miles inland) and the other housed in the native police quarters (of British times) at the tiny port. The first task at the port was to roll full 44 gallon fuel drums through the village up the steep hill road into the interior and stack same into fuel dumps. Three men to a drum in the pouring rain, up the muddy track, then back to the jetty for the next one. Here we witnessed the evidence of what had happened when the previous British fuel dump had been destroyed. This also had been stacks of drums and not large tanks and the burnt-out drums were scattered for half a mile around and must have made a wildly beautiful sight from a distance as they exploded and rocketed through the air - unless you lived in that tiny town.
Here was quite a well populated Burmese cemetery, and on the memorial stones were token offerings of rice, food of other description, individual little treasures, and tobacco, all for the use and comfort of the departed on their journeys into the unknown. It is believed that some Aussies enjoyed many a 'holy smoke'.
'Lieut Shirasi' was the Engineer officer in charge at the 'Point', and the only one of the enemies I met of whom I can offer a good word. On the ground where we paraded for our roll calls (tenko) and work details he told us that he had been ordered to erect a barbed wire fence around our camp, which he had done, and his orders were to shoot any prisoner who went through that fence. This order he would obey to the letter - but - he had left a gap on the shore where it was possible to pass without going through the fence.
This gesture of humanity allowed us access to a small beach where we could enjoy a salt-water bath, but as we were Aussies it also gave us a conduit to let us travel around the coast where we happened to find coconut trees, a pineapple field and Burmese gardens. I fear the local population suffered a disastrous season for the harvest of their crops, and the Aussies often had a little something with their rice.
Burma 105K Camp As a survivor the following anecdote may seem unlikely, but when you’re 'troppo' in the jungle, don’t seek too hard for logic.
Burma 14K This was our second work camp on the railway, and although the work-load was heavy and sickness rife, our death toll has scarcely begun, as when we marched out of this camp after two months, we left only a single lonely grave, alongside a native cemetery. One day at 'quitting time' Whaler Wallace slammed his shovel into the ground and said, 'That’ll do me for today.' 'Kurra', the scream of a guard on a five-foot embankment and Whaler was called to stand in front of him, to be kicked in the face by this 'son of heaven', and endure a screaming Japanese tirade. Then the retrieval of his shovel to be held at full stretch above his head until we moved off. We made it into camp and dismissed for the immediate shout of a 'paper boy'. 'Read all about it! Whaler Wallace in big railway holdup!'
This is where we were subjected to the first of many searches of our belongings. At the end of the day’s work and return to camp we were told to go to our huts, pick up all our belongings (at this stage some people had a bit of gear left), return to the parade-ground and lay the things out on groundsheet or blanket. There were Japs stationed all through our huts to watch proceedings so there was not much else we could do.
Everybody was very busy, squatting down with gear on groundsheet and many hands busy scooping holes in the earth beneath groundsheets, eyes on surrounding Japanese troops and that day there were knives, compasses, at least one pistol and ammunition, several grenades, watches, and all sorts of things hidden beneath those groundsheets. Also were many articles of loot displayed including two huge headlamps from a motor car belonging to Martin Flannagan, and to think that when we were marching up the railway from Ye to Thanbuzayat I helped an exhausted Martin cart his flaming kit-bag, after discarding some of my own gear. That Irishman nearly lost me as a friend that day of the search. Most things were confiscated by our captors that day, but the secret radio, the pistol and grenades were not found on that occasion.
We were here for Christmas 1942, and Johnny Cheek, who was my mate, shared with me the single tin of herrings he had hoarded and carried since he first entered Changi, ten months before. This was the sort of thing we called 'mateship'. This was the occasion on which Johnny made up two copies of a fictitious Christmas Day Menu, kept to this day.
Burma 75K More Bridges Here came the mid-sized bridges and the largest on which personally I worked, along with elephants at one stage until an elephant, have been struck by a wee yellow man, simply nudged him over the bridge and into the water - quite a drop - like swatting a buffalo fly.
Jungle Bees 105K Burma One party clearing trees for the track had a huge C.P.O. (Chief Petty Officer) about two metres tall and big framed with it who had the bad luck to be falling a tree which was the home of the huge jungle bees of those parts. These bees descended on the CPO to protect their hive and attacked him unmercifully; forced on by the Japs he continued until he collapsed and was allowed to be carried back to camp.
105K Burma On the Embankment For this yarn we were three mates. Working in teams of three, one would wield the pick and shovel and his mates, one each side of a 'tunga' (carrying stretcher made from rice bags slung under a bamboo pole for the shoulder) would carry the spoil (dug and loaded by the third man) from the excavation to the embankment (or vice versa in a cutting) and dump same. Over and over and over and over. Ross Dunbar and Brian Todd were the carriers and yours truly the typical navvy. But Toddy was special and I bless him yet, for hour after hour -day after day - for months Toddy recited 'Gunga Din', The Man from Snowy River, many indeed were the ballads known to this mate of ours, and perhaps the most memorable was 'The Red Eye of the Little Yellow God.' Bless your memory, Toddy.
Burma 105K This camp had a small stream flowing past and on the first day here we made its acquaintance to wash ourselves and generally clean up after the march up from the 75K - we needed it. One of the boys casually picked up a human skull from the creek bed and stuck it up on a post or broken sapling whilst coming out with some amusing sally, and this was truly an omen for us at this camp. Here also was a camp of native labourers, I think many were Tamils, and there were quite a few sitting on the stream - back upstream from us - picking scabs from the sores of smallpox, and of course they floated down to us. Our vaccinations must have been 100% effective for I don’t recall one smallpox case among the Aussies.
One morning going out to work we passed the chewed-up carcase of a bullock in the depth of a cutting - too far gone for us to eat, and returning to camp that evening the carcase was missing. The remains were observed to be up above the 2.5 metre bank and old Mr or Mrs Stripes must have sprung up there with the carcase.
During the clearing for the track my gang observed what appeared to be bees flying in and out of a tree hollow, and always being on the lookout for anything to add to the diet, we anticipated honey. As the tree hit the ground this bunny dashed up to investigate, got to within about ten metres of the hollow and was struck instantaneously by five bees on the one knee. Result in about five minutes one knee resembling a soccer ball, and a miserable hobbling back to camp at the end of the day, and at the end of the work-party - with pleasant thoughts for this was truly tiger country, and worse still we knew it.
This is the first jungle camp in which I remember Bob Ritchie revealing a talent that left the Japs and Koreans bug-eyed for days. The guards were told Bob would find water in or near the camp and this he divined with a forked stick - dig here - it was dug there and water discovered and hence the protruding eye-balls. Bob did this in a number of camps, always with an admiring bunch of spectators. On the well was rigged a pump made from bamboo, and split bamboos erected above ground led to the kitchen and so water was laid on. Much better than carrying half 44 gallon drums with a bamboo shoulder pole, and from one kilometre away in the jungle.
To the 105K camp came cholera, and we became aware of it first because lots of the natives from the neighbouring camp cleared out - spreading the disease to wherever they fled. To avoid the Japs some bullock cart drivers abandoned their bullocks and carts, and a few tough Aussie lads slipped past the guard at nights and caught and slaughtered some of those abandoned bullocks and for several days the wonderful smell of cooking beef and soup was to be savoured, and the more solid fruits of their enterprise enjoyed.
Then of course on the way to work and again on the return to camp, bodies would be found and buried. Not very salubrious a task.
One day some bragging Japs had carried into the camp a huge deer which they had shot, my estimation was the size of a three year old Jersey cow. We saw this magnificent animal but of course, nary a taste.
After completion and linking of both ends of railway, my particular party left the 105KM Camp in Burma, by train, and proceeded to Kanburi, arriving in that camp at night. There we were greeted with a ½ pint measure each of water for either drinking or washing. After such a long, hot and dusty trip this had to suffice until the following day when we were given access to the river.
Here a quaint sight unfolded as a P.O.W. drove down a mob of ducks to water, using a long stick as control. The ducks belonging to the Nips, the duck custodian had to pretty well protect them with his life - amongst thousands of hungry POW’s no light task.
Then some of us enjoyed a barge-ride up to Chungkai Camp, where Colin Cameron was in charge of Camp Duties and Kitchens. Scored a job of building and repairing ovens and saw large numbers of duck eggs coming ashore from barges - tasting of fish, and some of the eggs a virulent green interior, but all used up at the kitchen.
Chris Schurmann, who had accompanied me to Chungkai was picked to go up-country, and although having no political pull to get him off the list, had a heck of a job getting myself put on to it, as I was then afflicted with a dose of malaria and also dengue fever. However made it.
One day two of us held down a patient on an outside bamboo platform, whilst a Dutch doctor cut out a cyst from the patient’s stomach, and then dissected the cyst to show us its makeup.
Tom Hampton had left us on a stretcher to be carried to another camp (with I think a perforated stomach ulcer), and underwent a very painful operation without anaesthetic or operating theatre amenities, and very proud to have come through the torture successfully.
For me there followed a period of which I had no memory, and still a blank.
ONe of the men from my hut was Corporal Ron Volz of Queensland, who did me the honour of asking me to join his small party who intended to make a break and escape attempt, afterwards successful. At this time I was hopeful that we might get a chance, like parachuted arms into camp or convenient area, to get us back into action, as a last-ditch stand, but owing perhaps to Japan’s capitulation after the atom bombs, this was not to be. I did hear later that General Slim had such an idea, as an ultimate action for us.
Telling Ron that I believed it was not yet time to make a break, I declined his invitation but did not attempt to dissuade him, and I heard through later enquiries that his party did join Communists or parachute troops at the end of the hostilities.
From this great distance in both time and miles, I can scarcely write for laughing - perhaps a little residual hysteria?
Finally the Nip’s nerves were totally shattered, and ours well on the way, but tickled pink about the Nips’ state of nerves, we speculated on what would happen next.
As the snakes were known to be living in an earth mound, perhaps twenty feet high and thirty through the base, a working party was directed to demolish and remove the mound in the usual way. Hoe and shovel and baskets and Aussie muscle power. Mission accomplished, mound removed, snakes discovered and despatched, and consigned to the kitchen.
These reptiles were monsters, King Cobras, deadly poisonous and known to attack almost anything if disturbed. I have my figures from that day and although not of the working party (for a wonder - I seemed to get all the odd jobs) one was 16 feet in length and the other 12 feet, and I’m sticking to my story. Almost miraculous is the fact that no one in those weeks of terror by night was bitten.
Many prisoners were shunted through a multitude of camps and of the movement of my party (I can’t remember any who were on it) I can remember little, except that some part of the journey was by boat on a river, and finished for the night at a godown at Bangkok. Concrete floors again - I knew how hard they are to sleep on and chose the top of a pile of sandbags piled up in one place, and passed a reasonable night. In the morning the news that I had slept over the top of an unexploded 500 lb bomb was quietly received. Well, it hadn’t gone off, had it?
Next recollection is of being in Nakom Nyak. Digging tunnels in the hills, the rice paddies around the camp. Digging the bund (trench) at the camp - to be the shooting gallery and we to be the clay pigeons. That halt on the way to work one morning, sitting down for 2-3 hours, and the speculation. Return to camp. Rumour that the war was over. An armed Allied soldier marching up to the gate and into the Guard-house. (Most of us did not know that he had been in the camp the night before and gone out before dawn so that he could march in officially.) The call to parade, the announcement that the war was over, we heard of Atom bombs.
The emotion of that day I cannot describe. bit can tell you how the Union Jack (where from?) shot up a pole, closely followed by the Australian flag, after a while a Dutch flag, and a few Yanks were rushing around looking for coloured cloth to make their flag.
The unexpected (by most of us, at least) arrival by motor transport of Lady Mountbatten who addressed us on the parade ground, and then went on to other camps.
My trip over (about four miles) to report to Captain Thomas in the Officers’ P.O.W. Camp, and learn what news was going on.
JHS Manjimup 19/11/90