Chorus Girl – POWs 19

In Chungkai camp over the period late 1944 to early 1945 there were some highlights in the POWs lives, in particular the theatre provided not only distraction but some lifelong happy memories. Barry remembers:

In the summer of 1944, one of the Dutch POWs started a concert party and built a small stage. I was co-opted into the early productions as a stage carpenter and odd job man. Later on a fine new theatre for plays was built and used by several different groups of producers. As a small slim, handsome young man and a good dancer, my true potential as a chorus girl and romantic actress were eventually recognised. Most of the shows were mixed variety concerts with a line of chorus girls.

Cast includes Bob Garrod & Barry (Custance Baker)

Cast includes Bob Garrod & Barry (Custance Baker)

Leo Britt, a Corporal in the RASC, put on a number of straight plays in which I had minor parts. Leo was very strict with us ‘girls’. Report to the theatre after first rice and from then on wear skirts and high heels to become used to moving like a woman. Some of us became anxious that we might possibly be becoming ‘too too’ girlish, and to prevent this we kept a stock of barbells and weight bars (bamboo and logs) behind the stage, which we could lift from time to time as an assurance that our manly muscles were still there.

The parts for the plays were either copied out from books, which we happened to have in the camp, or more often written down by someone who knew the play well from having acted in it or produced it before the war. In my best scene (in Hay Fever), twisting around on a very hard bamboo sofa with the host, I was often worried that our kisses might cause giggles or rude comment, but we got away with it and the host, Leo himself, once whispered to me, “They’re taking it OK, do it just once more”. So we did, and the Japs who came every night and sat in the front row just loved it.

A small part with Dickie Lucas, the main leading lady at the time in a Café Colette show has given me my best-loved anecdote. We did a dance routine to the tune of “Yam” a popular song of the thirties. We danced separately and then as a pair, finally in the chorus line. When walking back to my hut after the show I overheard two soldiers, one of whom I knew, discussing the show. “Those two fucking tarts, they were more like real fucking tarts than any fucking tarts I’ve ever met”. My best theatre crit.

Other members of Barry’s original unit, 27 Line Section, who fetched up in Chungkai, were also stars of the stage. His lieutenant Bob Garrod acted in a very successful production of “Night Must Fall” in June 1944.

Night Must Fall  Chungkai Theatre

Night Must Fall Chungkai Theatre

Meanwhile another member of the unit, Reg Hannam, was still on the railway driving lorries on maintenance work and in spite of this also performing regularly. His son (also Reg Hannam) found concert programmes for shows in Brankassi Camp at 208 km up the line. There was clearly a flourishing cabaret act in which Hannam and his friends performed to entertain their mates.

Reg Hannam in Love Thais

Reg Hannam in Love Thais

It is difficult to overestimate the morale-boosting effects of theatrical performances. The enthusiasm and dedication of those who performed were crucial to the survival of many of their fellow POWs. How much these events mattered can be seen by the fact that such fragile mementoes were preserved.

The cast of Love Thais

The cast of Love Thais

Hospital reader and Lady Almoner – POWs 17

All through spring and summer of 1943 starving and diseased POWs from the up-country railway work camps (in Thailand) trickled south to the bigger camps such as Chungkai. Barry reached this camp in July 1943 and was soon fit enough to do some work.

My first and simplest job was basically as a storyteller or rather reader. I would take a likely book from the camp library and sit down on the end of a bed space in one of the sick huts, and read a chapter or two. Then I would move down the hut, twenty or thirty yards, and read the same piece to another lot of sick men. This was judged to be a useful employment, so I was never called on to join a maintenance party.

In October the two parts of the railway, Thailand and Burma, joined up at Konkuita and from then on sick and dying men poured into Chungkai transported by barges or on the railway itself. Meanwhile Barry began to enjoy the theatre and concerts got up by enterprising prisoners, but found that:

These jolly functions contrasted harshly with our work in the sick huts, which got steadily worse as more parties of sick and dying arrived from up river. We were burying ten, fifteen, or even twenty every day, and it was disconcerting during my readings to become aware that one or two of my audience were never going to hear the next chapter.

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

He progressed from reader to Lady Almoner

The job of Almoner, or “Lady Almoner” as it was called, involved the actual distribution of goodies bought from the welfare fund, to the sick men in the huts. The most useful purchases were eggs, honey, palm syrup, and occasional pots of vegemite, the Australian marmite. There was, of course, not nearly enough for everyone, the M.O. in charge of a particular hut would give me a list of the men due to receive these extras and the quantities for each one.

I did not at first realise the difficulty of the job but it became clear soon enough. Most of the very sick men got nothing at all because, as the M.O. told me, they would die anyway. The extras, very carefully husbanded, would go to those men who were able to profit from them and might just recover with their help but who would die without. At least I was spared the agony of deciding who got what, but every day I was faced with the need to find answers. “I am much sicker than Joe, Sir, why does he get two eggs this week and I get none?” An unanswerable question to which I had to find some reasonable answer day after day. I talked to the other Almoners and had no comfort from them, all in the same position as I was. “Tell them Orders is Orders, and you are just doing what you are told to do.”