My Dad, Mac GREGSON, sailed to the Middle East as a reinforcement for the 2/2 Pioneer Battalion in September 1941. He was 28.
Dad spoke very little about his time in the Army and as a P.O.W., especially until he reached about 70. Most of what I now know, I have had to piece together from books and from records held by the Australian War Memorial. But I was fortunate to have a copy of “Behind Bamboo” by Rohan Rivett, published in 1946. It was in our home from before I can remember. Dad had put little marks in it by the names of men he knew and places he was at, and had written short comments. These gave me a basic framework for his time as a P.O.W.
Dad was born in August 1913 in Balwyn and left Blackburn State School in 1927. He worked briefly at a Post Office, Surrey Hills I think, before becoming employed as a roof tiler. For about 3 years prior to joining the Army he worked as a roof tiling contractor. When he enlisted on 26th May 1941 he was super-fit. It was all in a day’s work for him to cycle from Blackburn to Frankston, RUN, and he stressed the “run”, up and down ladders all day with a pile of tiles on his shoulder, lay 2000 tiles, and then cycle back home again to Blackburn.
Dad did most of his training at Puckapunyal Camp, Seymour, Victoria. When he finished he was a Lance-Corporal and was recommended for officer training. He went up near Albury to do it. When he decided this wasn’t what he wanted, he told the Army his feet were killing him! (He told me he was getting slack.) Somewhere along the way, maybe in Victoria, maybe later on, he lost his stripe. He said he had a lot of fun losing it! I wish now I’d asked him what he did. He told me that his rank varied between Private and Sergeant, depending on which Army grouping he was with.
He embarked on the Queen Mary in Sydney on 3rd September 1941. The convoy was just the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary. They relied on their speed to carry the troops safely to the Middle East. (There were ca 7500 men on the Queen Mary so it was just as well they got there safely!) Dad arrived there on the 23rd September, when the Syrian campaign was over. He spent most of his time training or on guard duty.
On the 31st November 1941 he wrote, probably from Katana near Damascus where B Company were camped, to his friend, Bill Phillips, with the 2/14th Field Regiment in Darwin.
Was pleased to get your letter & cuttings. The only result I didn’t know was The Oaks. Couldn’t find out anywhere. Jack Hayes backed Skipton in both the Derby and Cup but wasn’t game to take 100 to 1, so apparently didn’t win much.
We are still in the same camp, but will shift soon. Looks as though we will be doing a lot of training from now on. This place is a hive of activity but I don’t think the Hun will come through here, he seems too busy, but we may have a shot. You never know what is in the wind. I’m not breaking my neck to get in to action, but if it means getting home soon would like to get into it. Since last writing to you, I have found out where Frank is. [FRANK WAS HIS BROTHER.] I was past it but that was a long time ago. He is in Egypt. It’s a good camp but of course nothing but sand all around. They get bombed pretty often, so I suppose he is good for that 50 yard burst into the slit trench by this. The boys are talking about their last trip to Damascus. The talk of course is following the usual trend. ........[HERE THE LETTER IS CUT. THE CENSOR I PRESUME?] They would be as full as googs! There are a lot of interesting sights about here. At Baalbek there are ruins of a temple used by the Armenians before the birth of Christ. They used to worship Jupiter........not the racehorse! Later the Romans used it as a place of torture. You know, David and the lion stunt. Then there is the place called [Les?] Cedars. It is the place where King Solomon got the cedar wood to build his temples. There are numerous castles of the Crusaders. Of course they too are in ruins. There were many religious battles fought here over 2,000 years ago. If one could get a car and 12 months leave, with the necessary money, it would be a very interesting place. But we don’t look at it from the point of interest. This is all for the present. So cheerio, and if you get tangled with the Japs, knock a couple over for me,
Dad spent Christmas 1941 at Rayak in Syria (as the troops called it - it was actually Lebanon) in a tent in the snow. A robin used to come inside his tent for the (relative) warmth.
In January 1942 he embarked with the bulk of the Pioneers, most of the 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion and some smaller units including the Pioneer’s Pucka mates, the 105 General Transport Company and the 2/2 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) aboard HMT Orcades. “Weary” Dunlop was aboard as a member of the 2/2 CCS. They were not tactically loaded. That is, the men were on troop ships and the bulk of their equipment was loaded onto other, slower, cargo ships in the mistaken belief that there would be time to reorganize the men and their gear on landing. The ship travelled via Columbo, Ceylon to Oosthafen, Sumatra. Dad, like all the Pioneers was part of the force disembarked there on 15th February but they were re-embarked in the dark when further orders were obtained. On 18th February they were finally ordered ashore by General Wavell at Tandjeong Priok, the port of Batavia, in Java. They were added to the Allied forces already there to support the Dutch, even though the Allies had already decided that the Netherlands East Indies were indefensible. Subsequent to this Curtin and Churchill had their famous battle of wills over the destination of (the rest of) the 7th Australian Division. But the men off the fast ship Orcades slipped through the cracks. Java was Dad’s first experience of being under fire. He told me that the supplies were frightful. At some point in the Sumatra/Java battle preparations he was given a 303 Lee-Enfield (British) rifle & 6 rounds of American ammunition! The small Allied force took a significant toll on the Japanese at Llewiliang but support was non-existent so it was hopeless.
After the surrender on 8th March he moved with most of the Pioneers to Leles, an inland village in West Java. Although they were now P.O.W.s the climate there was pleasant, they saw little of the Japanese and they were still eating Army rations.
Then, on 13th April 1942, they were moved by train to the Bicycle Camp in Batavia. Most of the surviving sailors off HMAS Perth and USS Houston had just arrived there. The Bicycle Camp had been a Dutch Army barracks for native troops. It was well laid out and the accommodation much better than what came later. There they began a meagre rice diet, though there were opportunities to scrounge and barter for extra food on work parties. There was a time when the Americans, craving meat, rounded up all the cats they could find. Next day they were selling “baked alley rabbit”. Dad wrote that, although hungrier than he’d ever been in his life, he couldn’t come at it. Another noteworthy occasion came about when the cooks in the officer’s mess decided to thicken the stew with flour. Instead they happened to use plaster of Paris! Dad wrote, “As they were not supposed to have flour for their private cookhouse, we said, serve ‘em right; that will cure their b- dysentery!” It was at the Bicycle Camp that his Party first encountered significant numbers of Japanese and, worse still, Koreans. They had to count their numbers in Japanese and bow or salute all Japanese and Koreans, regardless of rank, or they were slapped or beaten. On 26th May Lt-Col. Williams and some other officers were taken away and tortured in an effort to extract militarily significant information from them. They were sent back to camp a month later. Dad wrote, “When Col. Williams returned he had gone practically white and looked 15 years older.” Captain John Kennedy was one of a handful of 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion to be in Bicycle camp with the Pioneers. He had been captured during the fighting and tortured prior to this. Of him Dad noted, “Captain Kennedy was in the same camps as I most of the time. He was as tough as they come and didn’t care for the Japs, but was finally crippled and practically completely paralysed for 12 months.” About 14th May the Japanese rationalised the P.O.W.s in the Batavia area so there were only Australians and Americans in the Bicycle Camp. It was at this time that the Americans (Texans) of 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery joined the Pioneers. On 4th August some Australians of the 2/40th Battalion, who had been captured in Timor, were also brought to the Bicycle Camp. Dad was with some men from all of these units during the following year, 1943, the year they built the Railway and he turned 30 and felt old. Although the P.O.W.s worked whilst at Bicycle Camp they still had time and energy for sport and other activities. Dad was especially impressed with a puppet show, “Dangerous Dan McGrew” put on by Hal Hamlyn, off USS Houston. He wrote, “This was something worth seeing. I would gladly pay a good price to see it again.” Another event which impressed him was an Arts and Crafts Exhibition which included a washing machine. He wrote, “Most of these things were very cleverly made but the washing machine was a master of ingenuity.”
In October the Japanese moved most of the P.O.W.s from the Bicycle Camp in 2 parties, neither of which knew where they were headed. The first and larger party was led by Lt-Col. Williams and contained 3/4 of the Pioneers. The smaller party of about 800, left 2 days later and was led by Lt-Col. Blucher Tharp of the US Army. It contained 143 Pioneers, including Dad. Major Leslie Robertson, RAE, was in command of the Australians. He kept a Diary of the period from October 1942 - June 1944. It is available from the Australian War Memorial.
The Party had a Hell Ship voyage (on the Dainichi Maru) of 5 days to Singapore, where they stayed for 3 months. Dad said, "Changi was a palace!" He also commented that British Army officers there, who insisted on such things as saluting, were the butt of many wisecracks by the Aussies and the Yanks. (The Australians called all the Americans "Yanks" even though most of them were from the southern States.)
In early January 1943 the Party with which Dad had travelled from Java, minus a few sick, plus a few recovered from Lt-Col. Williams Party, were jammed into railway goods vans and travelled for 36 hours to Prai. At nearby Penang they were put aboard another Japanese ship, Moji Maru. In company with a small escort and another, larger transport (the Nitimei Maru) carrying Japanese and Dutch P.O.W.s who actually had life-belts, they sailed for Burma. Conditions on board were not as bad as the earlier voyage. They were allowed on deck, had their own cooks and there was ample sea water for washing. As the Japanese crew told them, it was “2 days OK, then boom, boom!’. On 15th January they were bombed by Allied planes. The larger transport was sunk and about 400 Japanese and 40 Dutch were killed. The ship Dad was on was twice just missed by bombs and the Japanese manning the 2 guns on deck added to the chaos, deaths and damage. A few of the P.O.W.s and some crew were killed or wounded. The boat’s skipper did an impressive job dodging the bombs. According to an essay written in 1991 by Harry Bishop, the Captain in charge of the Pioneers, for a competition held by the 115HMH Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, the skipper had a crewman lying on his back watching the planes and telling him when the bombs left the bomb-bay. After picking up the survivors from the other ship, the Moji Maru made port at Moulmein on 17th January.
There is an account of the bombing of the Moji Maru (and Nitimei Maru) by Lt Thomas Sledge, the bombardier on the B-24 Liberator which dropped the bombs targeting the Moji Maru, in the book “Death from Above: The 7th Bombardment Group in World War II” by Edward M. Young. Fortunately for the P.O.W.s this was the first time ever that Sledge had targeted a moving ship, a difficult process. He records that on his first time around he missed the ship by a long way and was puzzled to see a fire on the ship (started by the Japanese gunners). On his second run his remaining 5 bombs straddled the ship! It was years later that Sledge learned the significance of his near misses.
The Party, which became Thai P.O.W. Branch 5A, (who worked in) Burma, contained only about 2000 men - about 1100 Dutch, about 500 Americans and 385 Australians. Their small size, compared with nearly 10,000 men in No.3 Branch, and the jealousy between the Japanese in command of the 2 groups, adversely affected the men of No.5 Branch. At Moulmein each nationality organised the roles of its officers and the working platoons or kumis of its men. Their task was to help other POWs and native labourers build 415 km of railway from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, so that the Japanese could provide their war front in Burma with men and supplies, without using a long and vulnerable sea route. They were under the command of Captain Mizdani/Mitzutani who had a particularly bad reputation and was condemned by the War Crimes Commission after the war to death by hanging. Dad noted, "Yours truly was a guest of this animal for nearly 12 months."
Dad didn’t specifically mention or note 18-, 85- or 80-K camps where No.5 Branch worked in Burma, but I presume he was there with the main group. He said simply that he was no good at looking after the sick, but he could work and pay his contribution towards helping them. So long as he had a smoke, some salt for his rice, for which he had great capacity, and could be left alone when he had malaria, he was right. There were no radios in No.5 Branch. Such news as the men had came by word of mouth from No.3 Branch and was often distorted by the time it reached them. Rumours abounded and they did see the Japanese-produced, English-language newspaper, “Greater Asia”. Dad noted, “Many a laugh we had at its contents.” The huts the men slept in were often filthy from previous occupancy by native coolies. They were infested with bugs and leaked when it rained and the men were crammed into them. As they progressed further along the Line, the P.O.W.s went into the jungle proper and supplies, always inadequate and difficult, became even worse. In May came both the wet season, a particularly heavy one in 1943, and the Speedo period to get the Railway finished to a deadline. The men, already weakened by malaria, came down with other tropical diseases. When they couldn’t get the required number fit enough to work, the Japanese held “Blitz Parades” of the sick to pick out men to make up the numbers. Dad wrote, “ ...the Yank bugler we had, Bandy,” (Bandmaster George Galyean, off USS Houston) “on being asked by the Japs to play the call for sick men on parade, played the Fall In followed by a couple of bars of ‘Bless ‘em All’. We understood. It raised a great laugh.” There were no Australian doctors with No. 5 Branch. The Australians and Americans were treated by 2 American doctors who did their best for the men but had no training in tropical medicine. Capt. Lumpkin of the US Army was particularly well regarded but unfortunately died 1st August 1943. Of Commander Epstein of the US Navy, who had a very dry sense of humour, Dad wrote, “ He gave us many laughs.” The doctors were assisted by 4 medical orderlies - 2 sick-bay attendants off the Perth, Andy Mitchell and Jock Cunningham and 2 Army orderlies, 1 of whom may have been John Whitty. Dad said, “95% (of the orderlies on the Railway) deserve the highest awards possible.” However the Japanese withheld medical supplies and reduced the already inadequate food rations of the sick even more. So the numbers in the cemeteries increased. By June 1944, 67 of the 385 Australians in No.5 Branch had died.
Japanese inhumanity extended to their own fighting troops who, laden with full equipment, were bashed and kicked by their officers to get them to pull or carry food, ammunition and mountain guns hundreds of miles through the jungle to the war zone in Burma. Dad wrote,"This went on for about 6 months, going past our camps and work parties, right through the wet season. We really couldn’t expect better treatment ourselves."
In July 1943 at 100-K camp there were 4 cases of cholera. It was only because of the POWs strict hygiene that there weren’t more. Less than a mile away the natives were dying like flies. One of these cholera cases was in the Australian’s hut. The men near him were put into isolation. Dad was one of these. He said the evening before the man (probably Private J.W. Mathewson) died, “you would have backed him in to get home. He was as fit as any of us were and was fastidious about his food utensils.” Dad said they were afraid, if anyone else had come down with cholera, that the Japs would shoot them. This did happen at one place on the Line.
100-K was a terrible camp. It was ankle deep in mud. All water was either carried by truck from the river or came from inadequate wells close to the latrines. Containers, which were scarce, had to be used for washing clothes or one’s body. The men’s boots had long since rotted out in the jungle conditions - Dad had a pair of clogs. And they were working in stony conditions. Once when Dad was shifting rocks, his group had a good guard who shot them a yak. (This was what the P.O.W.s called the Burmese cattle.) They were able to get a feed of meat during the day and, despite wearing only loincloths, to smuggle some cuts back into camp where the meat could be better prepared.
It was probably into the 100-K camp latrines that a fellow dropped his false teeth one day when Dad was there. Dad called “Grab them Snowy, grab them. You won’t get any more.” But Snowy, looking at where they had gone, shuddered and couldn’t bring himself to put his hand in!
The men were napping stone etc at 100-K and flying chips caused great increases in the numbers suffering from tropical ulcers. These were one of the major killers on the Line and the cause of one of Dad’s “narrow shaves”. On the 24th August Dad, who had a terrible ulcer on one foot, rated a special mention in Maj. Robertson’s Diary. He was one of 4 “walking unfit” (i.e on crutches), sent to the 80-K “hospital” camp. Forty years later the horror of it was still in his voice when he told me, “They sent me to the Death House!” Ken Barrett, who, like Dad was in 4th platoon, B Company, arrived at the “hospital” 5 days before Dad. He wrote a very detailed and meticulous account of his experiences as a POW within 2 years of his return to Australia. The AWM hold a copy. It includes an excellent description of the dreadful conditions at the “Death House”.
Everything there was run by the Dutch to the detriment of the Australians and Americans. Of the ca 200 patients in the hospital hut, about half were Dutch and about 50 Australian and 50 American. The Dutch, whose hygiene standards were lacking, were along one side of the hut, the Americans and Australians along the other. The hospital was (broadly) divided into 3 sections; the fittest; intermediate; and those who couldn’t fend for themselves. The Doctor was a Eurasian who treated only the malarias and played patience the rest of the time. Two Dutch medical orderlies managed to dress half the ulcer cases each day - a dreadful and time-consuming job. On the rare occasions when the two Koreans in charge of the camp walked through the hospital they wore masks. Even so there were more flies in the Dutch-run cookhouse than in the end of the hospital occupied by the sickest! Very occasionally the hospital managed to get a little iodoform to treat some of the ulcer cases. This was always given to those with the smallest, least severe ulcers on the philosophy that they had the best chance of recovery. I gather that Dad didn’t receive any. He told me that he had 2 rags which he soaked alternately in boiling water and applied to his ulcer to draw out the pus. He was probably one of the partially able-bodied doing essential jobs about the camp. He didn’t leave there until the Railway was completed, No.5 Branch subsumed into No.3 Branch and the “hospital” was evacuated on the 7th December 1943.
Then he was taken to 105-K. “Still lucky!”, he said. The men at 105, in dire straits themselves, were shocked by the condition of the evacuees and did all they could for them, so it may well have been here that “the fellow who ran the black market” gave Dad a duck egg. He said to me, “It’s impossible to understand today the value of that egg.” Major John K. Lloyd, who kept a diary from 8th April 1942 - 3rd November 1945 published as “Rice & Radish”, was Camp Adjutant at the 105K camp at this time. He also compiled affidavits presented at War Crimes Trials. In one of his affidavits he wrote,“ I will never forget the 206 P.O.W. who came off a train on December 7. Thirty were dying and did die in the next few days. The remainder were in almost as pitiful condition, many looking like skeletons.” Dad was one of these men.
Major Lloyd also wrote that on 20th December 1943 “the Java P.O.W.s received letters from Australia dated up to November of last year - 13 months en route.” This was their first mail since becoming prisoners. I gather Dad got some because he annotated Rohan Rivett’s book -”The happiest day in P.O.W. life!”
According to Major Lloyd’s diary, the P.O.W.s left 105K for the Kanburi/Tamarkan area in Thailand in six groups, one per day, between 30th December 1943 - 4th January 1944. He wrote of Camps 1,2 and 3 and said that he was at Camp 1, Tamarkan, and “Coates” was also there until late January. Later Major Lloyd wrote of Kanburi 2 and 3 Camps. Dad’s service record notes that on 1st February 1944 he was “Now rep(orted) P.O.W. - Interned No.3 Camp, Thailand.” Dad told me that he tried, alone (because it was “over the fence”) and on crutches, to reach Dr Albert Coates, who was in a camp a few miles away, to have his leg off. However the jungle was impenetrable and the terrain cliffy and Dad couldn’t make it. So he went back to camp and continued using his two rags and boiling water.
This apparent misfortune turned out to be lucky. Dad wasn’t chosen for the Japan party because he still had his ulcer when selection was made and he came home with both legs because one day, Andy Mitchell, a medical orderly from No.5 Branch, came into camp. Dad said he had met him at the No.5 Group “hospital” and he is mentioned as being there during October 1943 in the book, “Building the Death Railway” by R.S. La Forte and R.E. Marcello. (Dad had probably been shifted to Tamarkan by the time he saw Andy again because he wrote of it, “Twice I landed there pretty sick and both times soon regained reasonable health.”) Andy had a small bottle of iodoform. Lt. Dodson, 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion had traded his watch for it. Dad wrote, “It is to these two men that I am indebted for having at least my leg, and in all probability my life.” Andy told Dad that when he saw him again he thought, “This guy’s fighting”. He used a pinch of the precious iodoform on Dad’s wound then bandaged it and left it for a time. When he took the bandage off he said, “That looks as if it’s going well.” So he put on another pinch and bandaged it up for a bit longer. By then it was almost healed. So he said, “Greg, if you don’t mind, it’s pretty right now. I won’t put any more on. I’ve got others to heal”. That was fine by Dad. From then on he used boracic. It was slower to mend the wound but by the time the war ended it was nearly healed. As a small child in the ‘50s I remember both of us sitting on his bed in our pyjamas, me pointing to the puckered skin on the top of his right foot and asking “What’s that Daddy?” and him replying, “That’s where I had my ulcer”.
Later in 1944 Dad had another monsoon season in the jungle. Major Lloyd records that, on 6th June, a Party was selected for Hindato, 198-K from the Thai end of the line. This group is mentioned in a series of entries from June to September 1944. Dad was sent to this camp and he made an annotation in “Behind Bamboo” about it. Major Hellyer was in charge, George Evans was his adjutant and Dr Cumming was M.O. The P.O.W.’s job was to cut wood for the steam-trains and perform maintenance on the Line. There, Dad noted, he had his last serious illness - probably malaria and blackwater fever due to the lack of quinine. It would have been this illness that he was referring to when he wrote that “Captain Cumming looked after me once when I was very sick.” Despite the conditions he didn’t recall them losing a man. He said, “We stuck so close together.” Dr Robert Hardie wrote in his (published) Diary on 20th Aug 1944 that 30 “malarial wrecks” came to him at Chungkai from Hindato. He wrote of the lack of quinine and how their shocking food improved when Lt Noguchi, the bearded Japanese Adjutant at Tamarkan, went up there. Dad wrote of “Bluebeard” or “Whiskers Blake”, as the Adjutant was called, “The gamest Jap I ever saw and the best camp commandant we ever had.” He was one of the few acquitted at the war trials, unlike his namesake at Kanburi.
In November the Japanese received orders to build bunds with deep moats and palisades around all prison camps to facilitate the liquidation of prisoners. Dad was one of those involved in the digging when an innocent piped up, “I wonder what they want this for.” Another man snorted, “What do you think they want it for!” The Japanese machine guns were trained on the camp.
On 29th November Tamarkan was bombed by the Allies and 14 - 18 men (accounts vary) were killed. There was much confusion the next day when bombers flew over the camp again and many men went through the fence. Two men were missing. At the time it was believed they had been directly hit. There are several accounts of this incident. Major Lloyd, Rohan Rivett and Cornel Lumiere, the pen name of the interpreter, Cor Punt, in his book, “Kura!” all recorded it. However the Pioneer’s Battalion History added the fact that after the war ended two men walked into camp, safe and sound. They had lived with American parachute troops in the hills nearby since they escaped during the confusion! Dad told me, ”Later in the war I was given the chance to escape. Some did get through to Allied troops behind the lines. I would have gone if I could have got good, trustworthy friends to go with me, But we found out later that they didn’t want us to escape as it may have given away their position.” When he said this I had the impression that he had been at Tamarkan. Later, on the basis of accounts read, I thought I must have been wrong but now, on the basis of further reading and Dad’s location at War’s end, I believe my initial impression was correct.
From late November 1944 until February 1945 the Allies significantly stepped up their bombing of the Tamarkan area. The Camp was not allowed to display a Red Cross sign visible from the air and nerves were decidedly on edge. Dad wholeheartedly agreed with Rohan Rivett’s statement that, “There are few things so testing of morale as being bombed in a P.O.W. camp.” In a December raid he tried to get into one trench but it was full, so he got into the next one. The first trench was machine-gunned. On 5th February he was an inmate of a hut which was burned down. He was able to salvage his belongings but, “Most others lost all.” Upon release he wrote to the mother of his mate Bill, “I still have some snaps of you all. Priceless possessions in this life!”
Tamarkan was evacuated in February 1945. The officers were sent to Kanburi and the Battalion History records that the Pioneers were then sent chiefly to Tamuan, a P.O.W. Camp about 17km closer to Bangkok and Chungkai. I believe Dad must have been sent to Tamuan. Rohan Rivett wrote that when he was at Kanburi he learned “officers were to be moved to an area 100 miles north-east of Bangkok” and Dad noted “I was within a mile of this camp. It was from here I was released.” Rivett travelled from Kanburi to the officer’s camp at Nakom Nayok, near Pratchai, arriving there on 16 August. Ern Corrie, (“Survival Against Odds”) and Dr Stanley S. Pavillard, (“Bamboo Doctor”) both left Tamuan for the other ranks’ camp at Pratchai in May 1945. All wrote of their five day train journey. Some rode in filthy, open cattle trucks in driving rain, some had to hang on to carriage roofs whilst troops rode inside. There was plenty of waiting and tenkos in railway marshalling yards and other mosquito infested and military targets. The bridges at Nakon Chai Si and in Bangkok had been destroyed and the rivers had to be crossed by a hair-raisingly rickety bridge or in barges. Dad noted “There were no military objectives that were not flattened in all the hundreds of miles I travelled in Siam.” And the occasional spotting of Allied planes didn’t make the trip any more relaxing! At the end of it came a march to camp. Rivett detrained at Nakom Nayok and had to march 48k/30miles. Pavillard detrained at Saburi and marched 15km/9miles.
Dad told me he knew the war had ended when the P.O.W.’s bugler played “Fall in A, fall in B”. Until then all their bugle calls had been those used by the Japanese. Men came running from everywhere. Even from the latrines with no pants! But the ex-P.O.W.s had to be very circumspect until the Japanese troops in the area, about 30,000, were disarmed about a week later. The announcement came in different ways at different places, but Ern Corrie and Stanley Pavillard both wrote of that special bugle call on 16th August 1945 at Pratchai, so I believe this was where Dad was released. Pavillard also wrote that they later learned that Allied landings were planned for 18th August in Siam, that the Air Force did not know there were P.O.W.s at Pratchai and that the Japanese had orders to kill all P.O.W.s if the Allies landed in Siam or Malaya. As this camp had one of the great trenches around it and the machine guns were manned day and night, the P.O.W.s had another close shave!
Soon after release Dad wrote to his lifelong friends, Bonnie and John Sell.
Thailand, 9th September 1945
Dear Bon & John,
In the last mail from you, you told of another daughter. How many more since? I suppose they’re quite grown up now. What a lot of babies I’m going to see when I get home! I wonder what’s happened to you both since you last wrote. I do hope John managed to keep out of this hellish mess. [JOHN WAS A PRIMARY PRODUCER.] How about his brother? Is he all right too? I forget his name. My memory has gone to the devil. How are your mother and father? Also John’s? And your sister too. I even forget her name.
The last few years has been a bit of a nightmare and, at times, didn’t give myself much of a show of getting through. But those thoughts were only spasmodic. On the whole felt pretty confident. Will give you a brief resumé of the last few years. We left Syria just after Xmas. Went to Palestine. Left for Egypt and sailed late in January. Stopped at Columbo. My Army mate got off there with a broken leg. Two days from there we heard Singapore had fallen. We went to Sumatra but didn’t stay there long. Went to Java. Raced around trying to contact Japs. Finally did. Shot off a few rounds and ended a prisoner. Stayed there till October. Went to Singapore in a Hell Ship. Now this is dinkum; no newspaper talk. God, you couldn’t breathe! We were down in the hold with the hatch covers on. 500 in a space about twice the size of your lounge room. We ate, slept (?) and lived in it. Two men at a time allowed to the latrine; lots of men with dysentery. If you made it, OK, if not, bad luck! We stayed at Singapore till January ’43, then left again. This time the boat wasn’t so bad. We were allowed on deck occasionally. After 3 days our convoy, 2 ships, was bombed. One ship was sunk. The one I was on scored 3 near misses. One went through a life-boat. Boy it was close! They left us then, badly ablaze, but we put the fire out and at last made the shore. Many were wounded and killed. We were in Burma by this and, as you probably know, built the famous Thailand-Burma Railroad. What a job! It was absolute bloody slavery! I had a fair bit of illness but finally made it to the finish. Then we went to Thailand, where we had it fairly easy. But by this time malaria had got me pretty badly. Had it practically all the time for 18 months. Had a tropical ulcer too. Was on crutches for 6 months. But was luckier than most others. Plenty died because the Japs didn’t care. We were camped near a big bridge and the Air Force boys made us keep our heads down for quite a while. We had 14 killed in one raid. But after that just a few odd ones, mostly by machine gun. Since then we’ve been building airfields, gun-positions etc. The end was welcome. Since then we’ve had planes drop supplies. It was a real thrill the first time. Then yesterday we saw the first white woman since Java. Lady Mountbatten came to the camp. She is a very charming woman and is doing a real job. I don’t know how long we’ll be kept in this hole. It’s been too long now. I know I’m impatient, but I can’t help it. Well Bon the paper’s getting short. Will write again as soon as possible. Fill the ice box!
Lots of love,
About a week after this Dad was trucked to Bangkok, then flown to Singapore. It was the monsoon season. The flight was so rough that he was afraid he was going to die in a plane crash on the way home! He left Singapore 29th September on the Tamaroa and arrived in Melbourne, to a wonderful welcome from family and friends, on 16th October. He never remembered the date, but always knew it was “the Tuesday before the Caulfield Cup!”
Although officers spoke of the terrible time the men had had on the Railway, Dad wrote, “I am pleased I was a private rather than one of the senior officers who had to take all the kicks from the Japs and also the lamentations of a few of those who thought they should be able to take the necessary steps to prevent the Japs from their bashing and terror raids. Also to make them give us food and medical supplies.”
Dad said to me once that he wouldn’t wish his wartime experiences on anyone - but he wouldn’t want to have been without them.