Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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The Medical Orderlies of Songkurai No 2 Camp 
As told by Reg Jarman

 Reg Jarman

Reginald (Reg) Thomas Jarman was born in Coraki, New South Wales on 18 September 1920.  He was educated at the local public school and worked on the family dairy farm.  Around this time he joined the 15 Light Horse Regiment, a Militia unit.  On 13 June 1941 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces in the 2/10 Field Ambulance.  His regimental number was NX33194.  The unit moved to Malaya/Singapore in August 1941.  He became a Prisoner of War in February 1942.  In April 1943 a party of 7,000 POWs was sent by the Nips to Thailand to labour on the infamous Burma Thailand Railway.  This party comprised 3,400 British and 3,600 Australians.  On arrival in Thailand they were force-marched around 270 kilometres towards the border of Burma.  Around August 1943 Reg joined 9 other members of his unit and went to the British Camp called Songkurai No 2 where the death rate amongst the British was probably the worst of any camp on the Railway.  The Medical Officer with Reg was Captain Peter Hendry (see his story elsewhere).  Reg now tells his story of their time in Songkurai, in his own words:-

I have been asked to describe the function or role of medical orderlies as they existed at Songkurai on the Burma Thai Railway some sixty five years ago.

Ten orderlies, with Capt. Peter Hendry (Medical Orderly) of the 2/10 Australian Field Ambulance, as part of 'F' Force, arrived at Songkurai No 2. Camp, also called 'Bridge of a Thousand Lives', to bring its strength up to 1200 British and Australian P.O.W.s.

All medical equipment was carried in a pannier (large cane basket) by four men with poles on their shoulders.  Much of this equipment was of necessity used enroute, especially at Neeke and Suma Songkurai, where we were for some weeks with a Cholera outbreak.

There were many times when orderlies were required to perform medical procedures way above their training.  ie. a man died and an orderly was asked to take the body out of sight of other patients and remove his brain and bring it back for inspection by the only medical officer available.  In this case, the diagnosis was Encephalitis. When Cholera first occurred two orderlies were requested to remove the first two Cholera casualties to a place out of view and there remove samples of their soft organs, such as liver, spleen, lung, pancreas, kidney etc…for inspection by the medical officer.  Doctors and orderlies had no protection (gloves or drugs) when dealing with these situations.  

On arrival at Songkurai the medical orderlies under Capt. Hendry were confronted with a terrible mess and set about to improve the hygiene situation for so many very sick men.  On of the Japanese officers in charge here was a 23 year old engineer named Horoshi Abe who, at his war crimes trial, admitted losing 900 men.  He couldn't see how he had done anything wrong.  After all, they were his labourers.  About eight months later when his section of the line was completed, only about 200 men remained.

During this time conditions deteriorated to the extent that everybody had lost at least one third of their normal body weight through starvation, hard work, long hours, torture, Cholera, Encephalitis, Berri-Berri, Dysentry, Malaria and, worst of all, tropical ulcers and, of course, 'mechanized dandruff' (body lice).  Coupled with this, we had long since exhausted all our medical equipment.  The supply of bandages, dressings, painkillers, antiseptics or anaesthetics of any kind had long since been exhausted.  By the way, Horoshi Abe didn't consider Malaria a sufficient reason for missing work.

It was utterly frustrating having been trained to care for casualties in a war situation, to now trying to care for patients who were dying of starvation, plus diseases we had not previously heard of.  Ingenuity was our only weapon.

The average day for a medical orderly would be comprised of the following tasks:-Up before daybreak to collect the 'half ration' of food for those not working, ie. the sick and dying; feed those who couldn't feed themselves; clean up all the mishaps of the night from dysentery patients who tried but couldn't make it to the latrines.

The Japanese guard would then arrive to do a head count of all the sick while all the orderlies paraded outside.  With this over, two orderlies would then go through both hospitals and remove all who had died during the night to an area outside.  The daily average death rate was 4+.  (I can remember one day when the death count was 10.)

Each body was then carried on a makeshift stretcher to a guard post to be recorded, then to the burial ground away from the camp site.  They would then dig the grave, remove any clothing before burial, complete the job, then return for the next body, and so on, until all the dead had been buried.  This process could take most of the day as we only had one well-worn shovel to work with.  Any clothing kept from those who died would be washed and, if not utilized as bandages, would be given to the those in the greatest need as, by this time, almost everybody's clothing had rotted off our backs from humidity, perspiration, mud and slush.  Everyone's boots had long since rotted off their feet, long before we reached Songkurai.

The following examples describe the workload for medical orderlies on an average day:-
a) Cardiac Berri-Berri - To give relief to a man with Cardiac Berri-Berri (also known as Wet Berri-Berri) the medical officer would insert a hypodermic needle into the peritoneal cavity, which is sometimes full of fluid.  An orderly would then take over to manouvre the needle, if necessary,  to keep the fluid from this cavity draining, possibly all day, sometimes removing at least 10 litres of fluid.  

b)  Cholera - the treatment we would use would be to boil river water, combine this with Condies Crystals to make a weak solution, then force-feed the solution through a tube down the patient's throat, into their stomach.

c) Dysentery - It was an ongoing process to attend to each patient's hygiene requirements as a result of having dysentery.

d)  Tropical Ulcers - There is no pleasant way to describe draining oodles of pus from under the skin, whilst coping with the terrible stench associated with tropical ulcers.  Following this process we would cover the wound with banana leaves to keep the flies away.  Tropical ulcers would devour the flesh at an alarming rate, revealing the bones of a leg in a couple of days.  While not a daily occurrence, an amputation was sometimes necessary to give someone a fighting chance of surviving, if they had no other diseases.  In this situation the patient would be taken out of the hospital and laid on a bamboo bench where at least eight orderlies restrained him while the medical officer did the scalpel work.  The orderlies would cut through the femur with an old carpenter's saw at the appropriate stage in the procedure.

The days were long and tiresome, trying to attend all the very legitimate calls and requests for some relief from the pain and suffering the men were enduring.  The stench of rotting flesh was always with us.  To end the day, the two orderlies rostered to bury the dead the next day would go through each hospital and straighten out any who had died or were about to die, before rigamortis set in. This 'average' day happened about 240 times.  

Of the ten 2/10th Field Ambulance orderlies, three lost their lives during the time in the Songkurai region.
Lack of food (malnutrition) was one of the main problems.  Three meals a day amounted to approximately three cups of sloppy rice.  Occasionally, a few other bits were thrown in such as some greens.  There was never any salt or sugar included in any meal.

Toward the end of WWI, in 1918, meat was dry salted, packed in wooden crates, stamped with a broad arrow meaning 'army goods'.  It must have been sold to Japan as excess to needs.  25 years later some of it found its way to Songkurai, presumably for Japanese use.  They must have left it in continual rain for some weeks, which washed off the coarse salt from the exterior of the meat.  As a result, along came the blowflies.  When the Japanese came to use it, the crates were a moving mass of maggots.  It was then given to the P.O.W. cooks who made soup out of it, so it could go around many hundreds of P.O.W.s.  Each cup-sized ladle of soup contained about 100 full-sized maggots.  Because of the welcome taste of the salt not one maggot escaped.  Such was the absolute hunger of everybody; we will never forget the sight of hundreds of emaciated bodies, no hats, no shirts, no boots and lining up for a ten to twelve hour work shift.  Men over six feet tall who would normally weigh around 12 stone were then weighing about 8 - 9 stone; smaller men who would normally weigh around 9 - 10 stone were then weighing 6 - 7 stone; a virtual bag of bones, called fit for work.  No wonder someone has described this place as 'living in a suburb of hell'.

Barbed Wire and Bamboo - Issue April 1994, page 17
Barbed Wire and Bamboo - Issue December 2003, page 3
Note 1. All figures mentioned in the resource articles listed above have been rounded down to the nearest hundred.
Note 2. Horoshi Abe's command of afore-mentioned 900 men was, in fact, in excess of 1000 men ie. 'The Bridge of a Thousand Lives'.

Following the end of the War on 15 August 1945, Reg was discharged finally on 4 April 1946.  The delay in his discharge was due to ill health.  Post War he studied and became an optical dispenser in partnership with Harry Williams, his mate and fellow Medical Orderly in the Songkurai Camp. Reg retired in 1980. In 2007 Reg and his wife Lorna live in Nambucca Heads, New South Wales. (Reg is contactable on phone number 02 6568 6503 or email

Article written at the request of Lt Col Peter Winstanley OAM RFD.

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