First real news after 3 years – POWs 23

Some time at the end of April 1945, Phyllis, with the dossier of information and photos of Barry’s men, interviewed a Sergeant Smith, from the Royal Signals. Smith had been a prisoner of the Japanese and was rescued after the sinking of the transport ship Hokofu Maru. He knew Barry and other men from 27 Line Section. In her notebook Phyllis  scribbled entries for each man who Smith remembered having seen. For example:

Appleton. Saw him in June ’44. Excellent condition. Down ? Tech. Party due for Japan but hadn’t left [‘Japan party’ are the groups of men selected to be shipped to Japan]. Worked with Smith as Cook after completion of railway in Tamarkan hospital camp. One /or 2 attacks/malaria but survived them well, often spoke of his children and wife.


Jim Bridge

Bridge. Died 1943??

Canning. Tropical ulcers on leg in Thailand sanatorium. April 1944. Ulcers healed unable to straighten his leg. Very clean. Mentioned wife & mother. Health otherwise O.K.


Hugh Canning

Dawson. Seen end Jan 44. Condition pretty fair. No party for Japan then.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Douglas. June 44. Sick in 1943 but recovered. Worked in Japan cookhouses as servant which gave him extra. Mentioned both wife and son. Kept out of trouble.

Jack Earnshaw

Jack Earnshaw

Earnshaw. 1944 June. Health quite good. Mentioned fiancée a lot. (sister?) Packed up on railway in 1943 August. No party for Japan.


Henry Farrell

Farrell Plumber? Friend of Walls? Last seen June 44. Health fair. Trouble with asthma. Kept bright & cheery. In hospital October 43. Down for new San. (?) Looked after by Thai Red X.

Garrod 43. Last August 1943 Condition quite good – bright & cheery. Not due for Japan. Mentioned wife.

Graham June 44. Quite good health. Pelagera [pellagra – lack of vitamin B3] – but recovered by June 44. No party for Japan.

Harrison. Early 44. Quite well.

Jennings June 44. Quite well. Not on railway.

Reginald Jennings

Reginald Jennings

(In September 1943 The War Office had written to Mrs Jennings to say that her son, Reginald, had died of beri beri malaria on 18.7.43. Scepticism had long since set in among the relatives and she had still sent a photo and information about her son to Phyllis for the dossier. The War Office had been right and Smith must have thinking of another Jennings.)

Charlie Johnstone

Charlie Johnstone

Johnston. June 44. Might be sent on draft to Japan. Always speaking of his wife and children. Well & cheerful. Knew Barry. Kept going very well.

Jones. June 44. Working in hospital dispensary. 2 camp. Not changed – keeps well.

Kittwood Last seen early 44. Very seriously ill – malaria.

McDonald June 44. Good health. Worked on railway 10 months – Then hospital orderly in Tamarkan camp. In original 27 Line in France.

Neil McDonald

Neil McDonald

Parker. Same cargo boat for Japan. Probably killed.

Russell June 44. In quite good health – quite cheery. Always speaking of wife & 2 boys.

Walls  Speaks of wife and son. June 44. Well and cheerful. Pretty good health.

Hospital Orderly, Chungkai – POWs 22

As often happened in the course of 1943 and 1944, the theatre in Chungkai Camp was shut down for a period, because a production had offended the prison guards. During one of these periods Barry remembers:

With the closure of the theatre, I rejoined the group of volunteer orderlies in the ulcer ward and here met Dr Jacob Markowitz for the first time. For some months more and more men with large infected ulcers had been arriving at Chungkai from up-river camps.

Chungkai unloading the sick2

These ulcers were nearly all in the legs and were caused by scratches from the thorny bamboo, which like most wounds in the jungle soon became infected and ulcerated. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb would be amputated.

The doctors had a supply of Dental Cocaine and this was used as a spinal anaesthetic, very suitable for leg amputations. As I worked up and down the ward with the other volunteers, cleaning and dressing the ulcers we would regularly be asked “Will it be my turn soon?” Most of the men were anxious to be freed from the misery and pain of an ever-growing ulcer, and were prepared, even anxious, to undergo the risk and pain of an operation.

Chungkai ulcer ward

I worked for a short time as a member of Dr Markowitz’s team. My job was to tend a small fire under a cut-down paraffin can in which the instruments were boiled. We had, as I recall, two scalpels, a bone saw, and several retractors made from table forks. The operating theatre was in the open, without a roof as it was the dry season.

The area was surrounded by screens of rice sacks on bamboo frames. My job was to keep the fire going and to fish out the instruments with homemade bamboo tongs and to lay them on a piece of sterile cloth on a small bamboo side table.

There were no comforting pre-med drugs, so the patient was immediately rolled onto one side and one of Markowitz’s assistants inserted the needle into his spine and injected a suitable dose of cocaine. Marco usually had one or two doctors assisting him. When tests showed that the anaesthesia was satisfactory a very tight tourniquet was placed around the patients upper thigh or groin and the operation proceeded.

I believe about 80% of patients survived these operations, a great advance on certain death in a fortnight. Many of the ulcer patients would have preferred death to a continued endurance of their miserable condition.

Ulcer patient, Chungkai

Extremely debilitated British soldier – amputation and multiple diseases, Chungkai. Recovered (Old)

There were no painkillers and the next few days must have been agonising after the anaesthetic had worn off. These patients, referred to as the “Amputs”, lived all together in a separate hut and no doubt comforted one another. By the end of the War most of the survivors were getting about on some sort of bamboo prosthesis.

Goods for these and other operations were supplied very secretly by Mr. Phi Boon Pong, a Siamese merchant and barge trader.

Boon Pong and other members of his family were crucial in the delivery of life-saving supplies through the underground to some of the camps. Many, many prisoners owe their lives to him.

Boon Pong Sirivejjaphand

Boon Pong Sirivejjaphand

age and procrastination

I have noticed an interesting effect of age. I no longer put off doing a major job properly. So in the garden, finding the protective mortar flaking off the lowest level of bricks in one area – which was in the same state four years ago when I was laying paving slabs there – I know that I must deal with it. I have this feeling with all heavy work in the garden; best to do it now, I may not feel like it in a year or so’s time, and best make a good lasting job of it.

This feeling spreads to other areas not necessarily involving physical strength. There is no longer anything to be gained by waiting for a better/quieter/more mature period in my life. While the tendency to cook up long term schemes and projects has not left me, perhaps I am finally learning to live in the moment.

I read that you should only touch a piece of paper once – meaning that when you open a letter you should answer and file it in one go. Looking at the pile of paper in the box that masquerades as my in-tray, I still have a way to go on that front.

Of course it may not be age at all. I have just finished reading an unpublished memoir of a WWII Far Eastern Prisoner of War (Dishonourable Guest, by W G Riley). Riley is a young Signalman who starts POW life in Changi, works on the Thailand-Burma Railroad, gets transported on the doomed Hokofu Maru troopship, and is one of the 23 Britons rescued in the dramatic Cabanatuan Raid at Luzon. I have read many POW memoirs in the course of the last three year’s research. Elements are the same, but each man’s story is unique. You would have to be very obtuse to reach the end of even one of these memoirs and not learn to appreciate the moment.

Riley made, in his son’s words, ‘anguished attempts to get the work published’. His whole life was affected, not only by his experience as a prisoner, but also by his need to get his  story written and known. It was never published as a book, but his son, Steve, had the second version of the text (the first was lost) typeset and printed 1988. This certainly puts the odd rejection by agents or publishers into perspective.

Luzon Raid – correction

In the COFEPOW quarterly newsletter, there is a short piece about the memoirs of Signalman W G Riley, Dishonourable Guest. He was rescued on 30 January 1945 by Americans in the Cabanatuan, Luzon Raid. Checking in my newspaper cuttings from the period, I realise that it is this raid in which Thomas Potter was rescued not the later February one. The memoirs are available at the Imperial War Museum or, for a very small fee to COFEPOW, as a PDF via the author’s son. (If anyone wants these try the COFEPOW website or get in touch with me).

Luzon Raid

I see on the WordPress site several mentions of Luzon and a raid to rescue internees in February 1945. Some of the POWs rescued were Brits, one of them was Signalman Thomas Potter of the Royal Corps of Signals, 27 Line Section. Potter was one of the men in my father’s section and after being repatriated was interviewed by the war office and also by my mother, who was trying to get news of all the men in 27 Line Section. I have put together a book about my parents and the wives and mothers of the men in 27 Line Section from the many letters I have. I am interested in making contact people who might have relatives from 27 Line Section or know of any other internees rescued in the same raid and still with us.

miscellaneous day

Yesterday was a weird day. We were expecting bad weather yet the sun was shining bright, so I scrambled into gardening clothes and went mad in the garden, mending the hose that takes water from one rain butt to another, clearing paths and finding the edges of them. EG had set a fine example a week ago clearing all the moss from the side path. I kept expecting the sun to disappear, but it was so warm I went coatless.

In the afternoon we went to the funeral of our 92 year-old neighbour. She was a feisty and determined lady. She lived alone in the house her father built, and insisted on maintaining standards as she thought fit. When we came to live next door – more than thirty years ago – I lived in dread of her. She went in for unparalleled frankness and had many things to say about our house and garden, but over the years we became friends and she was always kind and generous to the children. Latterly she became a great supporter of my writing and would lend her copies of my books to all her friends – insisting that they read them.  She was lucky in having devoted friends, on whom she made great demands, who made it possible for her to stay in her own home to the end of her life.

After the funeral, as the bad weather still held off, I rushed into the garden and started work on the brick paths and beds in the area near the new drive-to-be. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the exhaustion of labour. I positively relish moving earth around and realising designs that had started out as pencil on paper. I think the two maples will look great in their re-made beds.

Later in the day, a lovely email from the researcher of the magazine on Far Eastern Prisoners of War to say that my article was OK. Much relieved. Apart from corrections, I did no writing yesterday.

To finish off the day I took myself off to a Lindy Hop session. This was mad. It takes place in the basement of a pub with limited floor room. Tonight there were suddenly about 15 newcomers. A crazy, lively and very noisy session, but not much room to dance.


On the TV last evening a program about a right-wing group at the beginning of the WWII. The consequences of their treasonable behaviour are linked to the rounding up of all ‘enemy’ aliens and their internment. At the same time I am reading the sad story of the Arandora Star (Maria Serena Balestracci), torpedoed on its way to Canada while carrying 2000 or so German and Italian internees, many of whom lost their lives. These internees were for the most part harmless individuals well-integrated into British life. They had been given very little time to leave home, with minimal goodbyes and often even the arresting officer thought they would be back the next day. Such unnecessary suffering, lives torn apart pointlessly, it is maddening how often humans create misery for each other.

Tearing a manuscript in half

Torn between a new project – redesigning parts of the garden near new drive to be – and further work on Border Line. Had enough discipline to spend a couple of hours, working on dialogue of one character and checking the re-written story of another, then allowed myself to play with the garden. Much measuring in freezing wet conditions, but I now have a passable plan to scale, so ought to feel cheery. I feel pleased with the plan, but slightly unfocussed.

Actually I am frustrated that the weather is too foul to get to work, and I am dissatisfied by my writing today. I also had feedback about Writing to a Ghost from a dear friend. Love the feedback, but the dilemmas remain. Do I try to publish as is, or do I tear it to pieces and create three different kinds of books. I could fulfil the Pen & Sword requirement for a 50 – 70,000 word social history, by using only the relatives letters, and write the story of Phyllis and the dossier and the wives and mothers. Hmm, I can feel the juices flowing a bit as I wonder how to set about this.

FEPOW article

Yesterday I sent the first draft of an article to the Researching FEPOW History group for their magazine. I found it very difficult to stick within the 2000 word limit. I realised this was because I was trying to tell the whole story of the book. I rewrote it telling only the story of finding the materials with samples of the letters. I hope this is what they had in mind. There is so much material. I did not give the book a title in the Article in case when/if it gets to publication they change it. At the moment it is Writing to a Ghost: Letters to the River Kwai 1941-45