Finding big errors

This is a thank you to the whole business of blogging. A few posts ago, I wrote about Barry in the Japanese POW camp, Chungkai, in Thailand in 1943 and 1944. I mentioned the Thai merchant Boon Pong, and because of your interest in this amazing hero, I did a little research and added a post about him. In the course of that research I discovered an error in the book I have put together using letters and memoirs of that period.

Barry was in his eighties when he wrote about his time as a prisoner. He was in Chungkai camp from July/August 1943 to February 1945. He remembered in detail (far, far greater than anything I have posted) working for the surgeon Marcowitz as he carried out amputations on those men with incurable tropical ulcers. But he remembered this period as the end of 1944, beginning of 1945. Marcowitz left Chungkai in January 1944. It is over the previous Christmas period that Barry worked for him.

I have had to move several chunks of text around, all with some tricky knock-on effects on the rest of the story. But I am so grateful to have discovered this. So thank you everyone.

A little spring cheer to say thank you, a marigold is still blooming in the vegetable garden (and I have been squashing greenfly on the new rose growth today).

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The most cheering pre-spring sight I know – winter aconites springing up all over. Sorry it’s not a great picture, but they really are unfurling in every corner of the garden.

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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.

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

Phyllis and the War Office – POWs 20

Page of Dossier for War Office

Page of Dossier for War Office

In September 1944 the Hofoku Maru (http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?59634), one of infamous Japanese transport ships (hellships), suffered aerial bombardment from the Allies. Among some 150 prisoners rescued, about 60 were British POWs from Thailand, including men from the Royal Corps of Signals. Interest in their accounts was intense. The War Office planned to debrief each survivor to try to ascertain the fates of the 40,000 British troops missing in the Far East.

Phyllis, thinking about Barry’s men, contacted the War Office. She realised the immensity of their task in finding out about the thousands of missing men from the few rescued individuals. With the help of Queenie, the wife of Lieutenant Robert Garrod, she decided to compile a dossier with personal details and if possible photographs of the men in 27 Line Section for use in the debriefing sessions. She wrote to relatives the replies flooded in.

Dear Mrs Baker,… it does certainly help to know that someone is personally doing their best for us. … Your heart must ache many a time like mine and we can only pray for strength to bear it. I am enclosing a snap of my husband [George] taken in Malaya soon after they arrived there, I have marked my man with a cross. He is of average height about 5’5” and of a slim build. His hair is medium brown and blue eyes. The only prominent feature is his nose, which is rather big.

In civilian life my husband was employed at John Walton’s Bleach-works, a firm which belongs to Tootal, Broadhurst, Lee, Co. Ltd., but which always goes under that name. His dept at that time was Anti-Crease, you will remember Tootals Products are famed for their crease resisting properties, that was a part of his job, treating the material to be crease resisting.

(George had already died on the Railway, probably of dysentery, on 8 August 1943)

Dear Madam I am writing on behalf of my sister Mrs Bamford as her and her husband is no scolar and I have to do all the writing for them, now in regards to her son William Bamford which is a prisoner his Mother had a card from him last July 1944 to say he was alright working with pay … as far as we know he had no nick name just Willie he did not speak very clear the last time we seen him but he had false teeth before he went oversea but we did not have the pleasure of seeing him with them in before he went away, … now I do hope and trust you may be able to send his mother some good news concerning her son as he is their only child and they are just living for their boy.

(Willie had already died of septicaemia from a tropical ulcer in Tha Khanun on 30 September 1943. Willie was, according to another POW, a: ‘Good kid, 100% well liked by everybody. Died quickly’.)

Sometimes the information was lost in an outpouring from desperate relatives.

Dear Madam,    In the first place I am not very good at letter writing, so I must ask you to excuse me if this is badly written…

He is my Grandson and I brought him up from a Baby having lost his mother and father. and unfortunately I lost my Husband so I was forced to put him and his brother into the National Childrens Home and he had just finished serving his time at the printing Trade, when he was called up. so I don’t think I have seen him for about 3 1/2 years. in the first place he was sent to Malaya, and no doubt you know what happened their, when the Japanese got their. So having received that card at Exmas it is a little bit assuring don’t you think so, although they are such a long time before they reach you, one never knows as they are not dated, as their is a person who lives close by me, and I believe her Husband is in Siam well he wrote her a card in May and she has only just received it. But I must tell you that I send him a Japanese P.C. one a fortnight and I address it as this. A.H. Newton 2361041. Signalman, British. P.OW. Sandaka. Borneo, and I also have to put my address, but of course whether he receives them or not that is another matter, but it is not for want of trying for I do my best. and occasionally I write to the Red Cross in fact I sent to them at Christmas asking them to put a message of 10 words through for me so you see I am not backward in doing all I possibly can to try and let him hear from me.

I am every so sorry for the Relatives and friends of all those poor fellows that were on that Ship In fact for all those who are going through such a terrible time in this bitter cold weather, it is Heartacheing when you think of it all. not only our poor fellows but all of them, that has been done to Death, I sometimes wonder why God lets such things happen, although we have been bombed out of our home, that is nothing compared to what they are going through. I am sorry to say that I only have one Photo of my Grandson and that I cannot spare, but I have one that was taken at the Home if you would care to see that. Well I think I have told you all I know, and I wish I knew more, but I do hope what I have said is correct so I will just go on living in hopes and trust in God and pray that we may come together in not so long a time so wishing you all success in your most trying work…

Phyllis extracted all the information from the letters and made a page for each man (including many not on 27 Line Section). Finally, on 12 January 1945, Phyllis went to the War Office and handed in her dossier to a Mr Rogers. He did not know this at the time, but he was going to hear a lot more of Phyllis between now and late 1945.

More pages from the dossier.

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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.”

Wang Po (Wampo), a handmade viaduct – POWs 11

Barry and the men of 27 Line Section, much reduced in numbers but still a coherent body, continued to work their way up the Kwai Noi building the Thailand-Burma Railway. In April 1943 they reached Wang Po (Wampo) Camp.  Barry remembers:

This was to be quite a different “one off” job, unlike the usual jungle clearance and embankment. Wang Po is at the 113 km mark, and when we reached it in early 1943, was quite a new camp, the rains had not started and the camp was quite dry and fairly clean. We were by now dying off quite frequently but not more than one or two each day and we were still on two bowls of rice per day, not one.

Wang Po area 1980s

Wang Po area 1980s

… near the village of Wang Po the river makes a sudden eastward loop into a rocky gorge that cuts into the line of the railway and here it was necessary to build a viaduct about half a mile long to carry the rails over the gorge beside the river.

Wampo Davies book

Our camp was set up on the west bank, opposite the working site as the gorge made it impossible to build a camp on the east bank. The camp was located on the edge of a forest of teak trees, which were to be the source of timber for the construction. We were a big group, a thousand or more I think… . One half of the group worked on the trees preparing the beams, the rest, of which I was one, worked in the gorge.

Wampo pc3

Our first job was to clear rocks and boulders from the planned route of the viaduct, which we did by drilling and blasting. The holes were made with a rock drill. One brave man holds the drill while two others smite the head of it with sledgehammers. We Linemen were used to sledgehammer work and did not often damage the hands of the drill holder but some of the other parties suffered several damaged or broken wrists. There was no power machinery of any sort in the whole construction, just hand tools.

By the time of the midday tea break our holes had generally gone in deep enough, and while we rested and drank our tea (no midday rice now), the Japanese engineers packed the holes with plastic gelignite and set detonators and lengths of safety fuse in them. There might have been as many as fifty blasts set off at once and it was important, both for us and for the Japs, to make sure they all went off. In the afternoon we shifted all the broken rocks and carried them down towards the riverbank.

When all the boulders had been cleared we set about making the concrete foundation piers, all built by hand with hand mixed concrete. …  which had to be carried to the site on the usual rice sack stretchers. Wet concrete makes a very heavy load. The Japanese engineers had already set up wooden shuttering for the piers… .

I should have mentioned that we had to cross the river from the camp to the site, morning and evening, but as it was in the dry season the water was quite shallow and you could walk on the bottom most of the way and only had to swim in the middle.

While we were clearing the rocks and building the piers, the other half of the group were felling teak trees. Very tiring work, as fresh teak is extremely hard. The trunks when felled were cut to length and then squared up by Japanese engineers using an adze. I have seen one of their engineers square up a log fifteen foot long and around two foot thick in one morning’s work.

When the concrete piers were nearly finished, 27 Line Section and others rejoined the timber party and started the very heavy task of carrying the squared timbers down to the riverbank. The intention had been to float them across the river but some of the POWs who had worked in the Burma teak forests insisted that green teak is so dense it will not float. The Japanese were unconvinced but the first trial proved the point. From then on we swam the beams across the river fastened to bundles of bamboo to keep them afloat.

Wampo pc1

A few elephants with their Burmese mahouts helped in this work of shifting the beams down to the river but they were the only powered machinery on the job. They seemed extraordinarily precise, even fussy, in their handling of these heavy loads seemingly without any orders from the mahouts. There were not enough of them, of course, and we had to do much of the carrying ourselves. I reckon these beams must have weighed around 3/4 of a ton (or tonne) each, more or less, depending on their length. At first we tried to get them up on to our shoulders like undertaker’s men with a coffin. But the edges were too rough and sharp, so instead we used the ever-present bamboo poles. Eight or ten stout poles pushed under the beam and then lifted with one or two men at each end and the beam could then be carried down to the river looking like a giant caterpillar.

There were no cranes, simply intricate bamboo scaffolding fastened onto the rocky cliffs above the site and multi sheave pulley blocks fastened to it. A long rope over the pulleys with 50 POWs tailing on to it served to raise each of these beams into its proper position, where they were then all fastened together with dog spikes.

When the trestles were in place, held up by more bamboo props, then the even heavier horizontal beams which connected them together had to be heaved up into place by the same method and then spiked together. With the crudest estimate there must be between 500 and 1000 beams in the viaduct. While we were doing this other groups of POWs had laid sleepers and rails on the prepared embankment and were ready to go on over our viaduct as soon as each section was completed.

[The next section of the Railway had already been completed, so] we POWs who had built it were actually carried forward for a short section of our next march in railway trucks over the viaduct. I remember it as a very scary proceeding. The train went at a walking pace and at each rail joint, with its sudden change of direction, we felt that the wheels might easily jump the track and tumble us all down into the River. We got over without incident but I heard that the engineers kept a working party permanently on the viaduct with crowbars to lever bogey wheels back on to the rails if they came off.

Wampo pc4

I have to admit that when this job at Wang Po was finished we POWs felt a certain mixed up pride in the work. We could see the completed viaduct and it worked and we had built it ourselves without mechanical aids of any sort beyond hand tools and a few elephants. I was left with a great admiration for the skill and planning ability of the Japanese engineers and an ever-growing bitter hatred for our guards.

[The b/w photo is from Peter Davies, The Man Behind the Bridge. The others are postcards from the 1980s/90s]