Surviving the Death Railway – to be published

Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoirs and Letters from Home

To my intense joy and relief the military publishers Pen & Sword and will be launching this title in June/July 2016.

For six years I have been researching and editing a story using a unique collection of letters and a memoir. The letters between my parents, Barry and Phyllis, and my father’s memoir of life as a Japanese POW tell a chronological story of a young couple during World War Two – these are special, but not, perhaps, unique.

What is unique is another collection of letters and a dossier. Phyllis spent the war looking after her baby son AND trying to look after the relatives of the men in Barry’s Royal Signals Unit, 27 Line Section. There were 68 men under Barry’s captaincy and Phyllis had addresses for many of the wives, mothers and fiancées. She sent circular and individual letters, at first to keep up spirits, later to co-ordinate information, and towards the end of the war to create a simple dossier of the men to help identification by rescued POWs at the War Office. To do this she gathered information about each man.

If it is of any help my son was a jolly natured chap, with wavy hair and a gap between his front teeth.

Although there was nothing outstanding in his appearance… he had a tattoo done on his right forearm, it began at the wrist, and went almost to the elbow. It was the figure of a highlander in full national costume…

These letters are heart-breaking and heartwarming and give and insight into the lives of ordinary people coping with the wall of silence that came down with the Fall of Singapore on February 1942.

Barry memoirs record, without  bitterness or bravado, what the lives of the men were like during those years.Wampo pc1He helped to build the Wampo viaduct, he nearly died, he became a chorus girl and he assisted at amputations. After giving blood he remembers a happy encounter with one of the men from his Unit:

“Sir, yesterday I had some of your blood, and last night I dreamt about a woman for the first time since capitulation!”

This story records the two streams of life in Britain and the Far East. What I find so moving is that year after year these relatives wrote into the blue. Although some received a few multiple-choice field cards; no one, as far as I know, ever received an answer to a letter in three and a half years.

Please forgive me, but for the next two months I will only be a very rare visitor to your blogs.  I am already deep in the final editing of the manuscript, gaining permissions for the ninety odd illustrations and preparing them and the maps for publication.


‘Those Magnificent Men…’

[This is a post for aeroplane nuts, feel free to pass on by.]

On Saturday we went with aeroplane enthusiast friends to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. This is an airfield, plus many great hangers, with aircraft spanning both world wars and up to today’s fighting/rescue aeroplanes. I did my best with my little camera. Here we have a Gypsy Moth.

DSCN6312And here is the Rapide from the 1930’s, in which people can take joy-rides from Duxford.



The Boeing B 17 Flying Fortress Sally B being fettled before she took off. Memphis Belle

One of the most exciting displays was the wing walkers. Here is one warming up.

DSCN6343And here they are in the air. One of them is piloted by David Barrell, who used to be a partner in our local garage, keeping my series of very fourth-hand cars on the road.DSCN6366 DSCN6367 I worry about the G force.

Here’s one (a Shorts Tucano) that sat in front of us for some time. It’s paint job made me think of your blog, Pierre, so this is for you. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Though I gather that this wonderful Canadian-built (1943) Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina is more to your taste.



She was majestic in flight and slow enough for my camera.

Catalina flying

Catalina flying

At one point there were four Spitfires and a Hurricane in the air. Here’s just one Spitfire and below a Spit and the Hurricane – CORRECTION – 2 Spits (the second with the squarer wings is a later version).DSCN6454IMG_0565There were many, many highlights in the day, but I particularly  enjoyed the WWI re-enactment using replica planes. These included the 1912 designed, Royal Aircraft Factory BE2; 2 Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a (1917 design) ; 2 Fokker DR1 (1917 design); a Sopwith Triplane (1916 design); and 2 Junkers CL1(1917 design). They appeared over the horizon, having  been flown from another display in Southampton.


DSCN6471 DSCN6473 DSCN6474




The show ended with an exciting display from an Avro Vulcan and two Hawker Siddeley Gnats. IMG_0730IMG_0732  IMG_0733

There were scores more planes. They taxied up, posed in front of where we were standing, then took off. There was always one, or many, flying at any one time.

The following day, when we were not able to attend, there was a much anticipated visit from a Canadian Lancaster. This plane, Avro Lancaster B Mk X, is one of only two that are airworthy. We hoped it would fly over our house at some time in its display, but we were disappointed (though the Red Arrows flew dramatically over our heads), so here is a far better picture from the Duxford Air Show catalogue. Avro Lancastercopy

And that’s it folks. We had a wonderful and very noisy time. I’ve probably misnamed an aeroplane here or there, so feel free to tell me. And if that seems like a lot of bad photos of aeroplanes, there are another 300 odd…

I did sneak off during the show to revisit the Burma War gallery, where there was a small exhibition of relics from Far East POWs, including some paintings of the POWs at work by Jack Chalker and others. I will return to the POW story – probably after Christmas.

A tiny extra – LeVier Cosmic Wind, Ballerina. One of the original three built in 1947.DSCN6379





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.

The Railway Man

Yesterday I went to see the film of The Railway Man (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada). Last night I re-read the book on which it is based that came from my father’s shelves.

DSCN4650The film was a moving depiction of a man finding redemption late in life, through the love of a woman who helped him to confront his traumas and finally to meet and even make friends with one of the men responsible for his traumas. It is ‘based on’ rather than an exact version of the true story.

The film also does two important things:

It renews my shame, as a UK citizen, at being even distantly connected to inhumanity of Guantanamo Bay and what the American military are still doing there. We have in the last twelve years thrown away the right to condemn any other nation for treating people inhumanely.

It gives me hope that people have the capacity to forgive their enemies, if they can only meet and talk.

The film is only a brief window on a relationship in trouble and the torture Eric Lomax underwent during interrogation. What the film does not, cannot, do is give the full long-term picture of what Eric Lomax and thousands of other men suffered as Far East POWs and the suffering consequently visited on their families when they returned. After lengthy torture, Eric spent a year or more in unimaginable squalor and imposed silence in Outram gaol. After release, first in India, he met the ignorance and indifference to his their sufferings that blighted these men’s lives – a lady volunteer who suggested that since they had been POWs during most of the fighting, they must now be anxious to ‘do their bit’. In England, so much had changed. Eric’s mother had died in 1942 and his father had remarried. People had suffered and were not keen to revisit, let alone deal with, something that was over and done with.

The book, not surprisingly, tells a more profound, detailed and informative story. There are many tributes to the book. Ian Jack of The Guardian writes: ‘This beautiful, awkward book tells the story of a fine and awkward man.’

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).

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.


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.



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 ( – 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.

*Edit 21/7/20 The only award Boon Pong actually received was ‘the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, a rare and most prestigious decoration. He was also made an Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Dutch’. Thank you Nick Metcalfe for this information.

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

Haunted by war

My research has meant reading around the subject of Far East POWs, but recently my recreational reading seems to have homed in on the subject of war too.


Amand Hodgkinson’s 22 Britannia Road, is a touching and human portrait of a young Polish couple and their baby, split apart by war (WWII) and each living, for six years, through their own separate nightmares. The story tracks back and forth between their new home in Ipswich, and their war experiences – a difficult trick to pull off, but it worked for me. This is a very convincing portrayal; the almost feral small boy, the war-shattered woman and the lonely and determined young man struggle to find common ground and a way to move forward. There are complications and a past that has too many secrets. The period features were well handled and there was a wonderful level of atmospheric detail to all the descriptions.

The scope of this book is intensely, and intentionally, small. War is outside these people something that happens to them in which they have no active role. They simply survive. For this reason it would be inappropriate to talk about my second ‘war’ story (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun) in the same post.

Two tricky reads

These two books, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Sandakan A Conspiracy of Silence by Lynette Ramsay Silver, are both important, admirable, interesting to read and yet painful in different ways.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad came with starry recommendations from many sources. The writing is sharp, uncomfortably realistic and funny. It tracks forwards and backwards through the individual lives of a group of people who all have connections with each other. For me, the milieu – the American music and celebrity scene from the 1960s to some terrifying future – is strange and alien.DSCN4543 - Version 2 So, as a reader I felt a bit of an outsider peering through the bars in a zoo. Only occasionally could I empathise with the characters.

This distance vanishes with the graphic section (flow charts, not comic strips) of the book (set in the year 202-). This is a child’s diary and also a brilliant description of day-to-day family life with an autistic sibling. I loved this, it is 3D writing at its best, it has the concentration of poetry, but an almost sculptural structure.

Did I enjoy this book? Not really, but I am immensely glad I read it.

Lynette Ramsay Silver’s Sandarkan, A Conspiracy of Silence (4th Edition), I bought for research purposes. It is the story of the death by disease, malnutrition, brutality and outright murder of 2428 POWs in Borneo during WWII and the failure of Allied plans to effect any rescue. The majority of the men, 1787, were Australian, but the among the 641 British were four young men from Barry’s 27 Line Section. DSCN4542 - Version 2There was a total of six survivors, all Australian. This book is a monument to the memory of these men and to painstaking research. Every name, every known detail of the men, their lives, their deaths, the recovery of bodies and possessions littering inaccessible jungle areas and their burial, has been uncovered and recorded.

My research has made me familiar with the worst deprivations, diseases, brutalities and appalling working conditions of Far East POWs in WWII. So as I started reading about the Sandakan POWs, the early years of their incarceration, though grim, seemed better than for POWs on the Thailand-Burma Railroad. From late 1944 onwards, however, their lives grew unspeakably awful and death inevitable. Large numbers of the men were marched in groups across impossible territory until they fell out and either died or were despatched by their guards. Others were starved to death, massacred in Sandakan or even killed by allied bombing.

The book is even more painful to read because, with hindsight, we know that all their attempts to survive were futile. The ones who died early on were the lucky ones. Even worse is the knowledge that rescue attempts, planned but cancelled, could have been successful.

I am in awe of the monumental task undertaken by Lynette Ramsay Silver and very grateful to her for the scope of her grim, but I hope rewarding, research. For me it has been necessary, but anguished, reading.

WWII letters across the world – POWs 18

In January 1944 , in response to a circular letter from Phyllis to the relatives of Barry’s men in 27 Line Section, several of them wrote back to say that they have had cards from their men. Although one wife writes:

…You see, Mrs Baker, I received a postcard from my husband in August but it had taken a year to come from the time of writing and he was fit and well then, next came the War Office communication confirming that he was a P.O.W. [more than a year after he went missing].

Just a few weeks later the War Office notified me that my husband had died from malaria in Thai Camp and that the date of his death was unknown…

While devastating for this family, this information may have given false hope to others, thinking that if they had heard nothing their men were still alive and well. Phyllis, still without any direct communication from Barry since early 1942, keeps sending the brief permitted typed slips.

Phyllis notes1

This one, sent in January 1944, miraculously reached Barry 9 months later.

Sometime later in January 1944 Phyllis had her moment of hope, a POW card from Barry reached England. This was addressed to his parents house and the Post Office readdressed it across the Atlantic to Barry’s parents in San Francisco, where they were broadcasting to the Far East in Malay. This small card, having traversed the globe, reached Barry’s parents who then cabled Phyllis with the good news.

BCB POW card1

BCB POW card1R

Phyllis was now among the lucky ones, she sent another slip to Barry.

Phyllis notes2

And she shared her joy with the other relatives of 27 line section. This reply, from the wife of one of the men who saved Barry’s life nine months earlier, shows that by now relatives are at least partially aware of the bad treatment of Far East POWs.

Dear Mrs Baker, Many thanks for your nice letter, and let me say how glad I am to know that your husband is safe and in the same camp as my own husband. [Relatives naturally assumed that “Camp or Group 2” referred to a fixed Prison camp.]

Things seem to be moving a bit now, with the Japs getting a foretaste of what’s to come, so maybe a few more blows will make them decide that better treatment of their prisoners would be beneficial.

Also that twenty-five words included the date, which I had not known, so I’m hoping, that my previous notes, have got through.

I was most interested to hear that you have a small son Mrs Baker, as I am very fond of children, and having one of my own, I know what a comfort he must be to you. My little boy is nearly seven, and it’s due to him that I kept going during the long period which his daddy was posted as missing.

It will be a wrench parting from him to take a job, but in the circumstances I think it would be best for you and will help to keep you from worrying. Often I have wished I could take a job myself, but having my father and sister to look after, (they are doing important work) along with my son, I seem always to have plenty to do.

I don’t think any more mail has arrived from the Far East since December, and although it’s unlikely that another postcard will arrive for a time, I’m just longing to hear that the men have received some mail from home.

Badly off as we think we are, it’s so much worse for them, not knowing how things are at home or how their dear ones are faring. Your father-in-law’s remark that the government hasn’t just let things slide, is very heartening, since he is in a position to know, so it’s up to us to be as brave and patient as our men, and who knows, it might not be too long before they return, when we will be able to make up to them a little for what they have gone through.

Hoping this finds you and your little son well and happy.

In late 1944 this correspondence that Phyllis kept up with the relatives became crucial when some Far East prisoners were rescued after the sinking of a transport ship.