Beyond the call of duty – POWs 15

As the cholera epidemic raged, the POWs including Barry and the remnants of 27 Line Section were still working long hours on the railway. He remembers:

Towards the end of June 1943 several of us found it increasingly difficult to swallow and digest even the small ration of watery rice porridge that was our daily portion. We rapidly became so thin and weak that we were no longer able to get out to the working site. I carried on for a few days trying to do something useful in the camp or cookhouse, but eventually gave up.

The Japanese commander decided to make up a party of thin useless men and send them south in barges. We were a group of about twenty, I believe, unable to walk and barely able to stand, it was assumed that we would soon die, which most of us eventually did.

The day chosen for the evacuation was a Sunday, one of our rare ‘yasme’ (rest) days. We had about 7km to walk to reach the barges. Two of my men helped me, one carried my pack and I was supported between the two of them. After a short distance we found that we were making poor progress and one of them took me on his back and carried me the rest of the way. The two names of Gibby Douglas and Corporal McWhirter are in my mind but I cannot be at all sure that this is a true recollection.

The first proper camp the sick men reached was Tha Khanun (Tarkanoon). One of the POWs there was Dr Robert Hardie. His diary describes: “a lot of very sick men are coming down from 211 camp in a shocking condition – gaunt spectres of men, riddled with malaria and food deficiencies. One can do very little for these people. They can’t assimilate the sort of food we have except eggs, of which we have very few”.

Barry, and the men who reached this camp alive, were welcomed by:

 a proper reception committee of doctors and orderlies who first examined us very thoroughly to make sure that none of us was carrying a cholera infection and then did whatever they could to restore our strength. After we had been thoroughly tested we were all weighed on a beam balance, built in the camp and calibrated against a 50kg rice sack. My weight, about average for the group, was noted as 5 stone 12lbs, or 37kg.

Hungrier, thinner, speedo and then cholera – POWs 14

Barry and the remaining men of 27 Line Section reached a big well-run camp, Tha Khanun, more than 200 km up the river Kwai Noi. To their disappointment they had to march on up-river and then inland:

When we reached the site of (the misnamed) 211kilo camp it was as usual raining and there were no preparations at all, in particular there were no huts or latrines or cookhouses. Our Jap O.C. pointed out a heap of green tents… There were not nearly enough to accommodate the whole group but fortunately these tents were supplied with separate fly sheets, and these extra sheets could be pitched on improvised bamboo poles to provide extra cover although without ends.

On our first morning at 211 we were roused out very early, in the rain and in darkness for a full scale Tenko [parade headcount]. Through the medium of a Japanese interpreter who spoke very little English, our Jap commander told us that the progress of the railway building had fallen far behind schedule and that this was caused by the idleness and incompetence of the British workers and their officers… This speech was recognized as a “speedo”, which meant longer working hours and more harrying, shouting and beating by the guards.

There was no barge traffic up to 211 camp and our rice ration came up through the jungle paths on a hand cart or carried on our backs by ourselves. A 50kg bag (one hundredweight) is not an impossible burden for a fit man, but by now most of us were far from fit and were anyhow already fully occupied building the new section of railway, so that the rice ration was small and became steadily smaller.

…the rice ration, now down to a very few ounces, would be calculated strictly according to the number of men who went out to work. This put us in the unhappy position of being forced to detail for work men who were too weak to stand. It was quite usual to see a man actually suffering from a malaria rigor being supported between two others on the march out to the railway site. Such men were, of course, no use for actual work.

One day a few dysentery cases started violent vomiting as well as producing sudden dehydration and death within a day or two. Men who had served in India recognised the symptoms of cholera… The cholera spread rapidly and it soon became impossible to bury the dead so, on the advice of those who had experience of such epidemics in India, we started to burn the bodies… The fire was kept burning continuously by a small duty party. We never ran short of fuel.