Boon Pong – and other forgotten heroes

Tucked into one of the books on Barry’s shelves about Far East POWs was a little photocopied leaflet of 1998, being re-issued for ‘X’mas 2000’. It starts:

I am one of the persons who had seen the event about the railway construction from Kanchanaburi to Myanmar during World War II when I was 19 years old, 1941. As a saleswoman at Khao Chon Kai (Chungkai) War-prisoner Camp.

page 1 of Lulu's story

page 1 of Lulu’s story

Her name was Lulu Na Wanglan and she tells her story, explaining that even after 50 years, ‘I dreamed of those war-prisoners before I started to wright.’. She supplied prisoners until she had ‘no more capital to trade or sale goods.’ At this point she was given some money, probably by the local underground, to continue supplying prisoners. She was suspected of spying by the Japanese and warned by Mr Bunpong (Boon Pong) in time to escape. The prisoners thought she had been shot (confusing her with a brave French spy, ‘Lulu’ who had been killed by the Japanese) and they missed her. After the war UNO staff painted Lulu on their vehicles. Prisoners remember her in their memoirs.

Boon Pong (Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu) was a Thai trader whose sympathies were aroused by the state of the prisoners. In early 1943 he became the interface between the V organisation and the prisoners. The ‘V’ organisation was run by an interned British man, Gairdner, with a free Thai wife, Millie, and many free business connections. Many others were involved and as the prisoners’ conditions worsened they raised large sums of money on loan. Millie was among the those who dared to risk passing money and drugs directly to prisoners via the many POW lorry drivers.

Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu

Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu

The upriver camps had almost no supplies of medicine and very little food, especially higher up-river where barges could not go. Conditions became dire beyond imagining and their only source of relief was the money and drugs that Boon Pong managed to get to them, acting always as a legitimate trader. He also obtained and supplied ‘Canary Seed’ (radio batteries), if the Japanese had discovered this he would have been tortured and killed. There were other traders, but his prices were lowest. He worked the length of the river, but after the railway was complete and the men poured down-stream in vast numbers to the big base ‘hospital’ camps, his role became even more crucial in saving lives with supplies of food and medicines and even violin strings.

In a story by Brian Brown of the Royal Signals in Beyond the Bamboo Screen (ed. Tom McGowran) he quotes another POW saying the Boon Pong’s wife swam their camp moat at night with medical aid round her neck. The effect on morale of the efforts by this family were incalculable.

Australian Surgeon and POW, Colonel Weary Dunlop, kept a diary. 25 October 1943 reads: The hospital today obtained some most useful drugs and money *. The footnote reads: By grace of that magnificent man, Boon Pong. His entry 30 December 1943, A Valuable supply of drugs and 3,000 ticals [this was due to the wonderful services of Boon Pong, the river trader]. And so on.

In the aftermath of the war in September 1945, Boon Pong was shot outside his shop in Kanchanaburi in front of his wife and father. Julie Summers in her book about Colonel Toosey, The Colonel of Tamarkan writes:

A British officer, …Captain Newall heard the shots and rushed to the scene. ‘He had been shot through his neck and left arm and he had also been shot clean through the back. There was a large hole in his chest where the bullet emerged and spent itself. He looked up at me. “Thai police kill me.” That was all he said.’

A British medical team gave him blood transfusions and operated on his wounds and, amazingly, he eventually recovered. In 1947, Colonel Toosey heard that Boon Pong, now running a bus company, had got into financial difficulties.

Bangkok

Bangkok

Toosey asked fellow prisoners to contribute and they raised £38,000. Boon Pong’s company became successful and his sons now run it. He received the MBE in 1948. He is popularly supposed to have been awarded the George medal, but Clifford Kinvig in The River Kwai Railway, says there is no official record of this.

Boon Pong and ex POW in his shop after the war

Boon Pong and ex POW in his shop after the war

He died in January 1982 and in 1988 The Weary Dunlop Boon Pong Fellowship (http://www.surgeons.org/member-services/scholarships-awards-lectures-prizes/international-scholarships/weary-dunlop-boon-pong-exchange-fellowship/) – an Australian exchange fellowship for Thai surgeons, was set up.

Boon Pong is remembered in many memoirs and I have only given a rather scrambled outline here of his contribution to humanity. I apologise for any errors.

52 thoughts on “Boon Pong – and other forgotten heroes

  1. Thanks Hilary. Boon Pong, Lulu and others who risked their lives to help the POWs define what it means to be humanitarian. I also like the way the POWs stuck by and helped Boon after the war. It’s a great story. –Curt

      • Not like Japan does, have you ever had a discussion with a Japanese person over war crimes? In the quite a few I have talked with they almost to a person deny everything. I had this one Japanese guy say the Bataan Death March was an alledged event. The reason for this is because the post war Japanese government put out word to every form of media of the day to always portray Japan as the victim of the allies and to downplay or outright deny any and all war crimes. There are former Japanese soldiers who have written books that have admitted to committing heinous and brutal atrocities, one is named Jintaro Ishida who was in the Philippines, he made numerous trips to the Philippines after the war to apologize to as many Filipinos as he could. A man named Sabaru Ienaga was a text book writer who tried for many years to get his truthful text book into the schools of Japan, but in the end was denied over and over and was ultimately censored. There is “Dr.” named Yutaka Anno, he goes even farther with this, he feels Japan won WW2 because there are no more US or European colonizer so left in Asia. People like the Dr. Anno just make me shake my head in disbelief. Because of these things 3-4 generations of Japanese have grown into adulthood thinking their WW2 soldiers did nothing wrong. It’s funny the entire world knows how brutal they were except the Japanese themselves, but very slowly some are learning with the wealth of info available on the Internet…

      • Guilt is very difficult to admit to. It took the Germans a generation and a half to begin to accept and teach the next generation about their guilt. I think things are slowly changing in Japan too.

  2. I have read this story somewhere before, there must have been many like Lulu, Millie and Boon Pong, unsung heroes and heroines whose selfless works saved many lives.
    May history never forget these Angels of Compassion and Mercy.
    Excellent post.

  3. Thank you Hilary for your beautiful commitment to sharing information. What a sacred trust you have with the gathering and sharing of these wonderful stories of the real people who were superheroes in their time.

  4. Hilary, do you happen to have something on the survivors of the “Prince of Wales”? As far as I know, they went to Singapore and later POW camps for the railroad – anything more specific or a resource that might have more?

  5. Thank you GP Cox. Hilary, it was GP who informed me of your blog and here I am! Wonderful site.
    I am researching my paternal grandfather’s British Navy service. He was a survivor of the sinking of the Prince of Wales in 1941. His naval record states that he was part of the company of the Prince of Wales on Dec 10, 1941 (the day it was attacked and sunk) then on the very next day his records say he was on a ship called HMS Lucia.
    I believe this entry was an administrative convenience and at the minimum he surely would have spent at least a few days in Singapore after the rescue.
    I have not much doubt he did serve on the Lucia but the time he spent in Singapore after the sinking is a “grey area.”
    I have now written 2 blog posts about this if you care to take a look https://www.expatinbacolod.com/writing/prince-of-wales/
    If you are able to assist, I would be grateful.
    Best Wishes
    Stephen

    • Hi Stephen, I have made a brief visit to your blog, but I am rushing around at the moment. This is not an area I know much about, but as I mentioned to GP above, I have one book, published in 1944 by a survivor and his father. It’s called One Year of Life: The Story of H.M.S Prince of Wales by Alan and Gordon Franklin. It is miraculously available on Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/YEAR-LIFE-story-H-M-S-Prince-Wales/dp/B0007IZWAS. I don’t know if it will help your enquiry, but if you haven’t seen this book you will find it an interesting first-hand account. Alan was evacuated to Singapore on the Express and later went by train to help the evacuation of Penang. he then fetched up on the crew of Jupiter but was invalided out and sent to Colombo before the Jupiter was sunk. I’ll keep on the alert for further information.

  6. So inspiring to read about those who help their fellow man in spite of dangers to their person and that of their family.
    You may be familiar with all of these:
    Ghost Soldiers – Hampton Sides
    Last Man Out – Glenn McDole – not my favorite writer but informative about the situation
    Beyond Courage – Doreen Rappaport – About the Jewish resistance
    To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima – Charles Pellegrino

    http://www.warbrideproject.com/

    I am looking for something written about the American Japanese internment camps.
    If you have any to refer please let me know.

    thanks for the post…enjoyed learning about this family.
    and thanks for the like on my page.

    • Hi Vicki, I have not yet read the books you mention. There are so many books directly relating to the (British) POWs that I am interested in that I have many still to read on my shelves. While I have read several Australian, Malay Volunteer and Java Dutch accounts, I have read very few American ones, as they were rarely in the same place as the Brits (and they didn’t always get on very well). The few that I have read speak of great individual heroism and comradeship and appalling Mafia-style gang-based coercion. I will try a remember where I read these and keep an eye out for anything relevant. I dipped into the war bride project just now and found it delightful, and fascinating. These links were between soldiers who had not been POWs and Japanese girls. My father was sent to Germany after the war and here too romances flourished between soldiers (who had not fought in Germany) and local girls. It is good that meeting the ‘enemy’ quickly dispels prejudice against a nation as a whole.

      • No, not POWS…as you say these met after the war.

        Apparently the US military didn’t want the soldiers to meet or marry the woman of Japan and especially didn’t want them bringing them back to the US.

        Not sure Americans get on so well with many other nationalities. We can’t seem to get along with each other so well either 🙂

        My parents were stationed in Japan in 1952 (before I was born) so not too long after the war ended. I saw many home movies they took (my oldest brother was a baby) while in Japan.
        I have a particular attraction to the area and the people (and their gardens). We were also stationed in England after I was born…I adore the English – lots of fond memories and wonderful children’s stories.

        My sister-in-law’s parents met in Germany after the war – her mom is German and dad was American. Her mom is one of my favorite people.

        Please let me know if you have books to recommend about the doings of ordinary people.

        We saw the movie “Silence” a couple of weekends ago…a not so pleasant historical time in Japan. The subject was thought provoking.

      • This is interesting. My father’s aunt died when her evacuation ship from Singapore in 1942 was bombed by the Japanese, yet her grandsons both married Japanese girls. My father’s great nephew also has a Japanese wife. So, in spite of some very negative press for immigrants, the world is slowly mixing and maybe one day nationality will no longer be such a divisive issue.

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