Terrible Changi… Just a Myth

By Sapper Leslie Ernest Cragg, NX65934; 2/12 Fld Co AIF RAE 8th Div 27 Brig

About the Author:

Born 15 April 1917 – Died 15 April 2006

Leslie (Les) Ernest Cragg enlisted in the AIF on the 26th November 1940 at the age of 23 years. His camps before leaving for overseas were Bathurst – Recruit Training with his Unit – North Head on Defence Works and South Head also Defence Works, these last two were great postings as he was attached to Coastal Command and were the sites of Coastal Artillery (6” Guns). The view was great. However Heaven was soon to finish; on the 29th July 1941, Les embarked on the Dutch Ship “Johann van Olden Barnveldt”, with the rest of his mates from the 2/12th Field Company AIF Royal Australian Engineers, 8th Division, 27 Brigade.

As a testament to his life and the lives of his fellow servicemen/women, this article is told by his hand, given to President Peter Wilson of the Bass Hill RSL Sub-Branch who gave the eulogy at Les’s funeral.

Les’s story will be told over several newsletters.  I am sure all will be interested as it will show (from a “sapper’s” point of view) the hardship and man’s inhumanity towards his fellow man causing death or permanent injury.  Les was one of the “lucky ones”.  There were many who weren’t!

Les’s Story:

On the night of the 6th December 1941 the Unit moved out in blackout conditions to our hideaway in the rubber at Kulang (war began on the 8th) and again the Unit split up in a line across the State of Jahore {now Johor}.  We made roadblocks for placing in position later if need be, mining aerodromes, checking bridges for demolition and doing any preparations apart from placing the charges.  The Parit Sulong River bridge was one we checked out.

As the fighting was still in the north of Malaya, Christmas went by peacefully.  Our planes were rarely seen.  Dutch obsolete bombers bravely headed north for targets but soon there were none.

New Year’s Eve the war finally caught up with us.  We had so many air-raid warning sirens that had been false alarms we ignored them.  We were working beside the Kluang Aerodrome making roadblocks by passing lengths of railway line through holes in forty-four gallon drums and then filling the drums with concrete.  Effective, but bloody awkward and heavy to handle.

The ack ack (anti-aircraft warfare) commenced firing and we found ourselves in the flight path of twenty-seven low flying Japanese bombers that were already dropping bombs and machine gunning.  We became a target for some of the machine guns as we raced for the trenches and for good measure they dropped a bomb among the trenches but no one was hit, a ruptured eardrum was our only casualty.

Later we moved north to Segamet, our Section went along the Muir River to prepare bridges for demolition after the Allied troops had retreated back across them, there was only a punt at Muir.

It was while we were at Muir Road my mate Charlie had his face badly burnt when the truck caught fire while he was doing repairs on a hot engine.

The number one Section went north to Gemas to prepare the river bridge there for demolition as part of an ambush planned for the Japanese, it was the blowing of this bridge with those Japanese had passed over into the trap that started the war for the A.I.F. on the `4th January 1942.  The Unit never gets any credit for it in the stories I have read.  The 2/30th Infantry take all the credit, an egotistical lot who wanted to erect a memorial plaque there after the war but the local authorities told them where to put their plaque.

Actually, the ambush did not go as planned.  Someone flew a signal wire to the artillery overhead.  A Japanese officer spotted it and cut it with his sword before he was shot with the result the artillery did not open fire on the roadway and the area on the other side of the river, however, the ambush was a success.

The tactic of circling and infiltration through the jungle by the Japanese when held on the road areas caused the retreating to continue so night and day it was blowing bridges, rubber factory machinery and chemicals, anything of use to the Japanese war effort.  If there was a timber yard beside a bridge we blew, burning the timber was taboo (British Orders)  so the Japanese had a flying start to rebuild the bridges.

Most of the time the Japanese planes would be machine gunning and dropping anti-personnel daisy cutter bombs as we worked on bridges so we did some ducking and diving into the slit trenches.

Working day and night, moving back at night, often to be woken up by the provo’s to move back quickly to avoid being cut off was taking a toll on all of us.  One night I rode shotgun in the back of a truck with a load of explosives.  I remember starting out and waking up back in the hideaway next morning in between nothing.  No one bothered to wake me up when the explosives were unloaded.

From there we had to do a midnight dash with rifles at the ready back to the Yong Pen Junction to get behind the Japanese using tanks that had the A.I.F. 19th and 29th Battalions and other Units cut off at the Parit Suleng River bridge. (We had no tanks).

The Australians unable to take the bridge against the Japanese tanks were given the order to break out and find their own way back to the Main Force, the wounded had to be left behind with volunteers only to be murdered.

Some groups made it back, others became POW’s and some groups just disappeared never to be heard of again.  The Japanese using boats had once again been able to land almost anywhere without opposition from the air and sea, then push inland to cut the roads.

The English Loyals had tried to fight through to the Australians but they were just off the boat and had no knowledge of the jungle or jungle fighting and could not make the breakthrough and had a hard battle getting themselves out to Yong Peng.

In a break in the bombing and machine-gunning of the Yong Peng Junction we went a couple of miles north to Paloh Road running east and west between the main north south road and the railway line.  The task was to blow all the main bridges.  In the present conditions, it seemed a waste of time and very risky as the Japanese were pushing down the road and railway as well as heading for Jong Peng.

Blowing the rail bridges in the swamps appeared to be the best action to take but orders are orders.  One of the other Sub Sections lost two sappers killed when a dumb corporal decided to test a detonator after wiring up a bridge.  He hooked the bridge wires to the plunger instead of the detonator and blew the bridge killing the two having a wash under it.  We were all called in to put in a low-level bridge using local trees so we could get our own trucks out.

All engineers not required in the demolitions were withdrawn at dusk.  As our bridge was the first to be blown our truck and the Lieutenant’s ute were to be used to pick up those left to blow the bridges working east to the railway then drive down the railway to Kluang but it did not work out that way  The Indian troops covering the railway had vanished and the Japanese were already setting up a roadblock as they could hear the demolitions getting closer.  Luckily they were not ready when the trucks arrived and fire from a tommy gun gave enough cover for the sappers to hit the jungle without casualties, although Ken Gray got a bullet through his foot.

After spending twenty-four hours wading through the swamps they rejoined the Unit two days later.  Losing our truck meant I lost all my spare gear and I only had the clothing I was wearing.

The rest of us had raced south through the Yong Peng and Ayer Hitam Junctions.  Next morning while on stand-to (at the ready) rifle fire started up just around the bend in the road.  A bren carrier raced past with an officer shouting the Japanese were just around the bend.  We prepared for a fight but the Japanese patrol had pushed further inland well being our forward troops.

The 26th January 1942 (Australia’s anniversary day), near Rengam was to be our last day in Malaya.  Three of us had been allotted the duty guard on about 1000 pounds of explosives and landmines which were stored under a house on tall stone piers and back from the main road.  The area was swamp and a foot down the water seeped into the slit trench so there was not much protection.  I took the opportunity to wash my shirt and hung it out of sight in the trees to dry.

I was discharged on the 29th January 1942 to the General Base Depot on a golf course.  At the General Base Deport there was a batch of reinforcements that had just arrived by boat from Australia.  A lot of kids with a couple of months training including the boat trip.  Talk about lambs to the slaughter.  The whole boatload should have been kept in Australia as the position was already hopeless.  A few Hurricane fighters had been assembled but too late and too few to be of any use.

I rejoined the Unit on 1st February in a hideaway near a huge petrol storage depot at the 11 mile post.  After working for a few days setting up water points for the Army water tankers (we now only had the water on Singapore Island after the causeway had blown).

I went down with malaria on the 5th February.  The Unit had not been issued with quinine tablets only large bottles of liquid quinine.  With all the action that had been going on, we rarely got an issue, so back to the hospital I went.  Days later on the 9th, the Unit copped a bombing on their hide-away resulting in 4 deaths and injuries.  However, they got their revenge later.  The Japanese forced a landing on Singapore Island on the night of the 8th February.  Later on, when it looked like the oil depot would fall into Japanese hands Lt. Watchorn (with a select party) moved in to blow the tanks but the truck carrying the explosives was hit by a shell and blew up so another load had to be got.  By then the Japanese were almost to the depot.  Their voices could be heard but the party quickly placed their charges, moved out from the tanks then blew them, turning night into day.  Escaping petrol spread out through the swamp areas trapping Japanese in the flood of fire.

For their action in destroying the tanks Lt. Watchorn received a Military Cross (M.C.) and several others a Military Medal (M.M.).  When it was all over Major Shaw received a Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) in recognition of the Unit’s efforts during the campaign.

When the malaria fever finally broke I was moved out to the big tents.  Later the Hospital came under mortar fire but there were few casualties.  We were told to just lay in our beds but most patients now knew that it was safer below ground level so we made for the ditches and gutters.  When the mortars stopped we went back to the tents to find mortars had exploded inside.

On Friday 13th February plans were made to surrender the Hospital.  The hospital was now forward of the front line.  And white flags were put out but the Japanese were held off long enough for the Hospital to be evacuated by trucks and ambulances under cover of darkness to the Cathay Building, the tallest in Singapore City.  The Hospital was set up in the basement and ground floor.  Lucky for us as the Japanese massacred patients and staff of the British Army Alexandria Hospital on the 14th February as the Indian troops had retreated through the Hospital.

On the morning of the 15th February 1942 I was moved to the Convalescence Depot in the floors above the Hospital.  It was one hell of a day.  Four Japanese long-range guns that had been shelling Singapore from Jahore since the 8th February stepped up their rate of fire using the Cathay Building as the target.  The Commanding Officer of the Convalescent Depot told us to lay on our blankets, the shells could not hit as low down as the floor we were on because of a hill at the back which did not explain why an ambulance two floors below was on fire.  So when the silly B– left we moved to the other side of the building putting as many walls as we could between us and the shells.  Then we sat and counted the shells as they were fired and then came screaming in and exploding, blowing walls out.  Those that missed the building passed onto other parts of Singapore.  All except one shell which went through the roof of the Cathay Theatre building also used as a Convalescent Depot which was on the side of the main building.  It exploded on the concrete balcony a few yards from where we sat when we had been recalled from Singapore on 29th November 1941.  Although I did not know until I rejoined the Unit at Changi, Charlie had been killed in the blast.  The Cathay Building took seventeen direct hits this day.

When the shelling eased off in the late afternoon I went to get my gear only to find it covered in bricks and mortar and a hole in the wall where my head would have been if I had stayed there.

Later on, things went quiet but we had to keep down and away from the windows as sniping was still going on.  Later we were told that we had surrendered.

(In 1978 we visited the Cathay Building.  It had been reduced to less than half its original height and the Theatre was a vacant lot.  In 1985 a new Cathay Building and Theatre [were erected].)

On the 16th February, I searched the upper floors of the building previously used as an Army Headquarters and a radio station.  I found enough mess gear and a few items of clothing including a giggle hat, a blanket, a rain cape that doubled as a ground sheet, a small haversack and a gas mask haversack, a towel, one safety razor and three Minora blades and a small Marmite jar I could use to sharpen the blades.  A comb and a housewife (sewing kit that was to be worth its weight in gold), a small Army compass (I threw it away in Thailand about October 1943 while on F Force).  I had the dial and needle hidden between two thicknesses of canvas in the gas mask haversack so the compass case looked like an empty pocket watch case.  I put a few buttons, needle and threads and the razor blades, with no chance of using the compass and risks becoming too great I let the jungle have the parts.

I also found a blue pencil.  I used it to make a pack of cards from cardboard cigarette packets.  The Japanese made a few issues of them early in our POW days and I found them enough for a pack of cards.  I used them for playing patience when I had time, like in hospital.  They became very tattered and torn but they sure helped a lot during captivity.

I felt I was reasonably prepared for what might be ahead of us.  I still had my paybook, it being the only possession other than a colour patch that would return home.

On the 18th February I set off with all the walking patients on the sixteen mile hike to the Selarang Barracks, Changi, still groggy with malaria as after the first few days I had little treatment because of the Hospital being moved and the amount of wounded that poured in and the Army had already put the nurses on boats to try and escape.  On the way to Changi a Japanese patrol stopped us and took my watch.

At dusk, we reached Changi where helping hands took our gear and helped us to our Units quarters.  It was then I found out Charlie was dead.

Selarang Barracks, Changi

I could not shake off the malaria.  I was put in the Convalescent Depot on 26 February 1942, but because it was too long after the first attack the blood test did not show a positive, so no treatment.  I also had diarrhoea for five days, no treatment.  It was recorded as enteritis and I was discharged on 6th March 1942.  The doctors seemed to have little knowledge of tropical illnesses at that time but they came through with flying colours later on.

Back with the Unit, the switch to rice did not help and I continued to get so weak that a couple of weeks later on 22nd March I was put into the Roberts Hospital and treated for MT Malaria and low blood count.  Twenty-three days later on 13th April, I was discharged back to the Unit.  I was still weak but otherwise OK and ready to eat anything.  My medical history shows I was supposed to have three months Atebrin suppressive treatment but I don’t remember receiving the treatment.  As a matter of fact two months later I left Selarang on a Singapore party.

On 14th May 1942 most of the Unit left on “A Force”, but Major Shaw refused me permission to go with them, saying I was still not well enough.  I was not to see any of them again until we returned to Australia.  They sailed to Burma to work on the railway from the Burma end but we did not know that at Changi at the time.

About three weeks later in June I was included in a party for Singapore city.  The camp was on the corner of Serangoon Road and McPherson Street between two smelly canals.  The huts had Attap roofing and concrete floors but no sides, no toilet facilities and a couple of strands of barbed wire to keep the locals out.  We managed to scrounge enough material while on working parties to give us a bit of privacy.  Work was cleaning up and re-stacking things at the Hume Pipe and Ford Works.  In June I had diarrhoea.  On the 20th July, I had a temperature of 102 degrees and the doctor decided it was non-specific dysentery so I was returned to Changi hospital on 28th July.  It turned out to be a bad case of diarrhoea so I now know I had two unwanted friends for the duration of my POW life, malaria and diarrhoea.

A Force sent to Burma

B Force sent to Borneo and their Death

C Force (Manchuria) sent to Japan (Senior Officers)

D Force sent to Thailand

E Force sent to Borneo and their Death

F Force sent to Thailand

G Force sent to Japan

H Force sent to Thailand

Members of “A Force” also went to Japan after the railway was finished but because of the shortage of ships, most remained in Thailand.  Two of the Unit were picked up by the USA Sub that torpedoed the ship they were on.

At the beginning of August 1942, my eyesight became another problem.  My eyes began to fail.  Buildings appeared to have two outlines.  I could not read and I could not see steps in the concrete paths.  I spent three weeks in hospital with granular cornea (permanent damage).  Back with the Unit the eye doctor put me on a teaspoon of rice polishings a day which stopped the eyes deteriorating any further.  Treatments in the Regimental Aid Post (R.A.P.) are not recorded in the files.

The 30th of August, 1942 I was given the duty of Australian Headquarters runner for the day which turned out to be a busy one.  Japanese officers arrived at Headquarters with orders for all troop to sign a non-escape form.  I had the duty of pedalling a bike around the Australian camp finding all the Unit Commanders and have them sign an order to report to Headquarters when the order was relayed to the troops.  The decision not to sign was one hundred percent so the Selarang Square incident followed (See L & W pages 148 to 152).

After the Square incident things went back to normal POW life working on jobs around the camp such as drilling the deep borehole toilets, grinding rice flour with homemade grinding stones, saltwater parties, cleaning the drains, morning and evening check parades that the Japanese always seem to get wrong and we stood around while they checked their counting.

3oth October 1942 I left Selarang with a party for Havelock Road, River Valley, Singapore.  We worked around Singapore on different jobs, sometimes on the wharfs.  I had the usual diarrhoea (this was the time I began the habit of splitting cardboard into thinner pieces for bum fodder).  On the 21st December 1942, the party returned to Selarang Barracks for our first Christmas as POWs.

1943 for me was to be one year of malnutrition.

1st January to 20th January 1943 I was in hospital with BT malaria.  The new year began with a period noted for vitamin deficiency troubles.  The poor rations began to take its toll on most POWs and I copped my share.

HAPPY FEET that ached like hell mainly in the instep.  Night was the worst time, walking eased the pain so a lot walked around the camp at night until exhaustion finally brought sleep.  Others put their feet around kitchen fires.

RICE BALLS  (Medical term was scalded scrotum) was very painful.  Enlarged cracked and weeping scrotums, the victims would sit in the sun with no trousers.  The heat would help dry the cracked scrotum and with no clothes to irritate; it felt better.

EYESIGHT  continued to cause trouble.  The complaints were treated as follows.  A little “Marmite”* for special cases.  A small amount of locally made yeast, if lucky a teaspoon of rice polishings was the main treatment.  All treatment given at the R.A.P.  The grass extract machine was to be constructed later in 1944. *(Marmite is shown in the dictionary as French origin.  Adopted 1758 as a slang term for a bomb, a high explosive shell)

The Japanese began giving us needles.  Mine was listed in my pay book as follows:

DYS 1  22-1-43  DYS 2  29-1-43

TAB 1   5-2-43   TAB 2  16-2-43

Something was in the wind.  It turned out to be “F Force”.

On my 26th birthday, the 15th April 1943, the eye doctor Major Orr marked me fit for “F Force”.  I think he thought he was doing me a good turn as there was some talk of better rations.  Some birthday present it turned out to be.

In the early hours of the 18th April, I left with the first party of “F Force” by train for Thailand.  We had an inoculation at Kanburi, Thailand.  We were supposed to be cholera proof but how wrong it was.

We marched two nights and rested on the third.  All equipment, kitchen, medical etc. had to be carried and each one was supposed to take his turn.  During the night marches a bugler occasionally played a batch of tunes to keep us going.  In the night air, the tunes could be heard over long distances.

We had been on the track sixteen days (nights) and walked one hundred and sixty miles.  By the time we reached our first camp Konguita (some blokes call it cholera camp) we stayed a couple of weeks (Most parties picked up cholera at Konquita).

We built a road bridge and culverts, also built up the road with black soil which turned to slush when the heavens opened and the monsoonal rains began.  Yak carts became the only means of transport assisted by six men.  The second party joined us to make our party seven hundred.  The other parties of “F Force” passed through us to camps near the Burma border.  Our party was detached from Malayan Command to the Thailand Engineers.

16th May we moved on to Taimonta.  The huts had no roofs and tents had to be put up on the bamboo decking.  A bridge had been built over the river below the camp to take road traffic but as yet the line had not been surveyed (later the Japanese surveyors using elephants for transport, pegged the line) so we still worked on the useless road.  A few trucks tried to use the road but stayed bogged until the dry season.  Eventually, the railway was to join between Konquita and Tiamonta on 17th October 1943.

Shortly after we reached Tiamonta, a Lieutenant of the 2/10th Engineers (Victoria) drowned himself in the river.  The only other suicide I know of was the fellow who dived head first down a bore hole toilet.  We stood around for hours before his body was located and were dismissed from the check parade.  That was at Changi Gaol.

The food position at Tiamonta was bad and getting worse with each day as no rations could get through and we were on the end of the Thailand supply line.  The other parties that had passed us could get food from the Burma supply line and did a little better than our party.  We were down to two cups of rice a day with a little onion water.  Later one cup of rice pap or porridge (plain) and one cup of rice and stewed banana shoots a day.  I went down with acute diarrhoea and was put in with the dysentery cases and just for company, a bout of malaria, so I don’t know much that was going on around the camp except that cholera had struck and already claimed a few victims.

With the food position desperate some POWs stole out at night and went up the track to a Yak carters camp and knocked over a yak.  After killing it they brought the legs back to camp to share with their mates.  The rest of the yak had been dumped in the river.

The officers found out about it… after all, starving men have an acute sense of smell where cooking is concerned (Japanese included).  So orders were issued that any yaks knocked off had to be reported and a party would be sent out to bring the rest back to camp as the whole camp would be punished if there was trouble.  More yaks found their way into our cooking pots and a parcel of meat would be left in the Japanese kitchen.  The Japanese never questioned where it came from.  Without the meat, heaven only knows what the death rate would have been in the party.  The death rate was already high and worse was to come.

I was back on my feet by the time the Japanese decided that as the rations could not reach us.  The fit would move north to the rations.  On the 20th June, we started the first stage back to Konquita all the materials and tools had to be moved.  The Japanese gave me and several others a coil of fencing wire each to carry as well as our own gear on the six-kilo hike.

After struggling through the mud until we were out of sight of the camp we rolled half the coil into the jungle and carried one coil between two of us on a bamboo pole.  The Japanese at Konquita were none the wiser so we got away with it.  But it had been bloody hard going just the same.

24th June the Japanese materials and tools stored at Konquita we set off back down the track heading for Takenon.  All the sick that could not walk had to be carried.  I only had my own gear to carry but soon I was struggling way back in the rear walking with a Victorian sapper for the 2/10 Fd Coy.

We finished up miles behind with no guards to worry us.  A lot of coolies had crawled into the jungle to die on this stretch of track and the smell was terrible.  We made it into camp late at night.  I think it was Krian Krai.  The Victorian sapper died of cholera during the night and was cremated.

26th June we set out again.  I was soon in the rear.  When darkness set in four of us were struggling along in total blackout with rain pelting down, with mud halfway up our shins and we probed with sticks to find the bridges and bends in the track.  While we stayed in the mud we were on the track.

Late at night a “pommy” voice at the side of the track told us to come with him and he took us off on a side track to the pom’s camp and we bedded down on a bamboo platform with an Attap roof.  We were given a mug of a vile-tasting broth but it was hot and we appreciated the hospitality.  The camp was Tamuron, part of the site we had camped in the open on the way up.

27th June we left the pom’s camp at daybreak.  Two miles down the track we came across our patty on what turned out to be a five-day rest as rice was available from the pom’s store.  I guess we buggered up the count for a while that morning.  What had been one night’s march coming up; was now taking two-day marches going back.  By noon I was very sick passing green fluid both ends.  A sure sign of cholera.  Although the absence of a lab or microscope the doctor agreed with me.

A sick camp was to be set up in the old paddy fields.  The only bit of civilization for over one hundred miles.  The fittest men began making bamboo platforms to pitch tents on but meanwhile, I was given M & B tablets and placed in a tent.  Big Darby Robinson, one of our Unit from Kyogle, took the best of my clothing (a shirt and a pair of shorts), and traded them at a small native kampong for a small packet of biscuits and five bananas.  Clothes were no use if you were dead.

The course of M & B finally began to stabilize the cholera and intravenous saline was not necessary.  By the time the main party moved off on the 2nd July on a two day march to Takanun my chances of recovery was good.

Fifty-six remained in the paddy field camp.  One officer ill and rarely sighted, he kept to his tent which he shared with a sergeant who was a chemist, and now our medical officer and three medical orderlies, 51 patients, 22 or 43% were to die in the eight weeks we were there.

I had a small bamboo platform for a bed.  It was about three inches above the water in the paddy field and under the main platform on which the tent was pitched.  I stayed there until deaths made room for me on the top platform.

When my health picked up I gave the orderlies a hand and also I began making crosses and carving name and numbers on them with a penknife then place them in a plot we had fenced off beside the track (no bodies, just crosses).

After about four weeks I also became the local gravedigger.  Orders from the Japanese said we had to cremate the cholera dead; but gathering that amount of wood was out of the question; so we buried all the bodies secretly behind a large mound of earth in the lower end of the paddy field.  The Japanese guards had a hut on the roadside on the opposite side of the camp and only came to check the dead off their list.  I only dug a grave three foot deep.  If two died I put them in a four-foot grave.

A party of pom’s working on flying signal wires for the railway across the bottom of the paddy field had a sick Argyll and Southern Highlander so we took him in.  Unfortunately, he had cerebral malaria and all we could do was comfort him until he passed away and I made a cross and put it with ours.

During this time I made myself a sleeveless vest and two pairs of shorts (drawstring waist, one-inch leg with gusset and dicky hole) from the blue inside lining of a piece of tent I had scrounged in Singapore and I wore them until the war finished.  Thread from the piece of tent was used to sew together the seams in the tents that came apart as the stitching perished.

Another job I had was collecting greens for the kitchen.  The Thais in the small Kampong had shown us a plant like a cats egg plant which had edible leaves.  I hunted around the edges of the jungle finding all the plants I could.  I would take a few branches off each one until I had about a sugar bag full then the patients would have the job of stripping the leaves off for cooking.  This was the only greens we had so every second or third day I would do the rounds for another bagful.  They were cooked in with the rice.

Our rations were rice and dried tapioca flakes which were tasteless and we never solved the problem of how to cook them soft.  We also had an occasional melon.  After about a month we received two very small, very skinny cattle that had been driven up the track.

The first one killed by the orderlies, come cooks, come butchers became a problem.  The Japanese took what they wanted first then we had to work out how to make the meat and edible innards last.  Some were salted and the rest smoked over the kitchen fire.

When the Japanese said it was time to kill the second one they spotted a bigger Yak at the other end of the paddy fields, so the orderlies were told to swap our skinny one for it.  So the second yak killed went the same as the first.  We thought that was the end of the meat but the Japanese said the one we had swapped was still ours so it followed the others.

Unfortunately, two thirds of the deaths happened in the first month when the meat and greens were not available.  Cholera, malaria, berri berri {beriberi} and dysentery being the main causes of the deaths.  One dysentery case went insane before he died.  I had a couple of attacks of malaria while here but they only laid me low for three or four days at a time.  Diarrhea persisted but little could be done about it and I had berri berri in the lower legs which meant I could not wear my boots.  A couple of nicks on the left ankle turned into tropical ulcers.

During the second month, hundreds of coolies working on the railway embankments at the lower side of the paddy field camped on the other side of the small stream that ran from the hills down through the paddy field.  It was our water supply.  The coolies were a miserable, selfish, undisciplined lot that fouled up everything around them.  They used the stream for bathing, washing clothes, dumping kitchen waste and also as a toilet.  Their dead, they tied to a pole, carried the body to the river and tossed it in.  Water for the kitchen etc. had to be obtained high above the camp so a Victorian sapper named “Danny” who could devine water (he had a very large tropical ulcer on one leg that kept on getting bigger * ) decided to try for water within the bamboo rail fence which had been necessary to put up to keep the coolies out.  Using a forked stick he crisscrossed the area then marked a spot he said would give water.

*“Danny” built himself a lean-to from bamboo and banana leaves so others would not have to put up with the stench from the decaying flesh.

The orderlies did the digging while others that were able raised the buckets of earth and spread it around the well to stop the surface water running in.  At six foot jet of water about as thick as a finger was located.  After digging the well a couple of foot deeper we had own own water supply.

On the 27th August, the 34 left in the camp boarded a barge to be towed down the Kwee Noi River (Little Kwai) to Takanun to join the main party again leaving 22 of our dead and the “Pom” behind in unmarked camouflaged graves.  They are probably still there.  From these paddy fields to Tiamonta the camps and remains of the railway are now submerged by water from the dam above Takanun.

At Takanun we were sprayed with a disinfectant as we came ashore.  On the 26th July, seventy very ill men at Takanun had been sent down the river to Kanburi Hospital.  On 17th August another eighty were sent down river.

It was getting towards the dry season and the river was dropping slowly from its flood peak and we were getting some fine days.  Takanun camp was tents or what was left of them on the same site we had camped out on the way up.  I was put on light duties around the camp collecting the rations.  One day I was told I was wanted for a special job.  About half a mile from camp beside the railway embankment that had been completed I was shown a large tree that had been felled and roughly squared.  It was to be a memorial and I was expected to carve the names and numbers with a penknife.  It was hardwood, the crosses I had carved at Tamarumpat had been soft timber I had selected myself.  If I had a hammer and chisel I would have given it a go but I was able to convince the officer it was a no go.  The long list of deaths would continue to grow faster than I could have carved them with the penknife.  I  often wonder who dobbed me in for that job.

Here at Takanun there were rows of yak carts stacked on their ends.  I wondered how many yaks found their way into the cooking pots.  On the marches, we came across Burmese dying in their carts and all we could do was give them water.

I had my good blanket stolen while I was out of camp one day.  Someone flogged it for a good price with the barge people.  I needed it for my malaria attacks.  After a couple of days, I was given an old thin grey Japanese issue blanket (it probably had been used by one of our dead) and it had to be handed back before I left Thailand.

6th September Captain Curlewis took a party of the fittest back up the line so again I drop out of his story.  I won’t see him again until we are both out of the jungle and in Kanburi Hospital camp.

Shortly after I got the lucky break that was to get me home, fifteen light duty men were to be billeted at our Japanese Headquarters at Takanun for general duties and I was one that struck the jackpot.  Had I taken on the carving job I would have missed out on it.

For the first time, we had a small clean Attap hut.  Waterproof, bamboo sleeping deck, dry earth floor and a kitchen with an Attap roof over it and a Japanese cooking vessel.

Our jobs consisted of unloading barges, carrying water for the Japanese kitchen and gardens, gathering bamboo for the Japanese and our kitchens, working in the Japanese vegetable garden (the lightest job was walking around hunting insects off the vegetables), carrying rice from the depot about a mile away along the railway line that had now been laid past the camp, filling and heating the water in a 44 gallon drum that the Japanese used for a bath in order of rank.

Unloading the barges was the worst job as it was twenty feet to the top of the steep bank and sometimes when the knees began to buckle the Japanese corporal would be on the spot to give a hand.  Slipping was another problem if the track was wet as I was barefooted owing to ulcers on my ankle.

The Japanese here were not a bad lot.  They didn’t like their Captain Maruyama either so at least we had one thing in common.  They were happy to be at headquarters while Maruyama was up country.  The old sergeant, known to us as “Dadda”, always lined us up each morning and allotted us jobs he thought we could do.  The corporal kept us working when we were on his party but we always got our ten-minute break every hour and a helping hand when needed.  “Happy” the batman managed to find a few cigarettes or a little food in left-overs from the Japanese kitchen.

The best Japanese of all was the dead one who had a memorial post near one side of our hut.  It had a bamboo fence around it with two small banana plants growing inside the fence.  We had to keep the area clear of leaves and footprints.

The fittest in the other camp had moved back up the line and once again Clive Bowen was left in charge of the sick camp.  He called in to check on us every couple of days and dress our ulcers.  I was still getting malaria attacks.  To give me a break I was given the housekeeping job for three weeks.  All survived my cooking.  I never asked if there were any complaints.

Once we had been invited to go along to a Japanese concert at night at the stores depot but Captain Maruyama (a real bastard) was in camp so we all pleaded too ill.  Had we gone the mile to the depot he would have said sick men don’t want to go to concerts and we would have found ourselves heading up the line.  He was full of tricks and we had to be careful.  One trick was asking the sick if they liked wine?  If anyone said yes he would say sick men don’t like wine; out to work you go.

Another night when Maruyama was back up the line “Dadda” took us along to a film night.  It was a two-way screen.  We sat behind the screen, “Dadda” sat on a box with us sitting on the ground around him in pouring rain.

There was plenty of Japanese propaganda films and comedy which was hammed up a lot so we could follow the story.  But we never understood one word all night.

While we were here the line was completed on 17th October and we were lined up with the Japanese salute when the official train crawled past.

On the 31st October, we began the move back to Kanburi.  Together with the sick camp personnel, we boarded two barges to be towed down the river.  Danny the water diviner was not on board, so I guess the tropical ulcer finally killed him as I was not to see him again.

It was quite a trip, down rapids, lying flat on the bottom of the barges as swift running water on the bends swept the barges under overhanging branches.  Calmer water that let us see the beautiful picture past card scenes that hide the torment of the line.

At about 4pm we landed at a railway depot beside the river at Kinsayok.  It was about a mile up the branch line to the main line.  The Japanese said the train would be there at 5pm and pushed us along, stretcher cases and all.  I was carrying about ten pounds of rice, part of the party’s rations.  Walking the evenly spaced sleepers proved to be too much for my legs and about halfway along they gave out so I sat on the rail well and truly buggered.  After a while when the stretcher cases caught up, to lighten my load I left my boots I could not wear; beside the line and got moving again, needless to say, the train did not arrive until about 9am the next morning.  One stretcher case died and was buried beside the line.

The train ride was in open trucks.  It was slow, bumpy and at times hair-raising.  We had doubts about crossing flimsy bridges and one hundred feet sheer drops where the line was cut into cliffs or just propped up against them.  Finally, we left the ranges behind and later crossed the Kwae Yai River (Big Kwai) to stop beside the Kanburi Hospital Camp joining the Malayan Command again.

The worst was now over, but deaths here very heavy from what happened up country.  My malaria and diarrhea persisted, but I did get treatment for my ulcers with “Zip” (zinc, iodoform, palm oil base) and some black stuff that was painted around the edges.  The smaller ulcer healed OK but the largest one was covered by proud flesh.  The skin being purplish.

I had a job well enough making back rests for the hospital using bamboo and wire.  Using players and penknife for tools.  I made two a day.  They could also be adjusted to three positions.  I also made myself a pair of clogs from a piece of packing case, so I no longer had to go barefooted.  Food rations were fair after the poor rations up country.

The bugler that had lifted our sagging spirits on the way up country was now insane.  Twice he had gone to the Japanese guard room and abused them.  Our officers had talked the Japanese out of taking action against him but they said the next time he would be shot.  He was placed in our hut and the sick took turns keeping an eye on him and called for an orderly if he attempted to leave the hut.  However, after about three months he passed away.

My Thailand medical records reads on one little piece of paper:

  • May 1943 Diarrhea for 7 months
  • Malaria numerous attacks
  • Berri berri {Beriberi} all the time in Thailand 7 months.
  • Swelling mainly in lower legs.
  • Cholera 27th June 1943
  • 2 Tropical Ulcers left ankle June to December

It sure was one year of malnutrition.

On the 18th December 1943 I departed Kanburi for Singapore by the same railway trucks we came up in and packed in as before.  While still in Thailand dysentery or diarrhea hit me.  At Padangbesar railway siding four of us were taken off the train and placed under a motor lorry on a flat top trail truck on another train to God knows where.  At the last moment, someone had a change of heart and we were quickly put back on the Singapore train as it was about to move off.  The rest of the trip was spent hanging the bottom out of the door or hopping off the train every time it stopped.  Russell Braddon of “H Force” was also on this train (see “The Naked Island” pages 222-225)

Late afternoon 23rd December we arrived back home (and I mean home) in Singapore.  Trucks took us to an old RAF camp on a golf course at Sime Road.  The huts, Attap roof, weatherboard sides, concrete floor, no doors or windows, just openings.  A trainload of Poms were already here.  They cooked the evening meal then tried to entertain us but we were all well and truly buggered.  From five days of sitting up and we just wanted to stretch out on the concrete floor and sleep knowing Singapore was underneath us.  Sime Road Camp became known as “P” Party.

The dysentery and diarrhoea had eased off.  We and all our gear went through a delousing chamber to get rid of the lice that had plagued us in Thailand.  I scratched the proud flesh on my ulcer and in twenty-four hours it was as big as ever.  After days of trying different treatments, the doctor cleaned the ulcer out and filled it with neat Condy’s Crystals and left it bandaged for four days.  When it was unwrapped and cleansed the puss pockets were gone and it soon healed for good.

On the 15th February 1944 (two years a POW) tests showed amoebic dysentery.  Shortages of drugs meant only enough to stop but not enough to cure so I became a bit of a guinea pig.  One experiment tried to swallow about half of an acriflavine tablet one end and flush the other end out with dissolved acriflavine.  None cured but it did stop the dysentery for a while.  I spent two months in hospital.

One of the hygiene measures we brought back from Thailand was the scalding of mess gear before receiving our meal.  No scalding, no meal and it continued for the rest of our POW days.

Life at Sime Road was easy enough.  Duty around the camp.  Only an occasional party worked outside.  We learnt to count in Japanese and all check parade orders were in Japanese.

A king cobra was killed in camp.

On 7th May 1944, we exchanged our camp with the civilians interned in Changi Gaol.  All POWS on the Changi area gathered in the gaol and surrounding buildings so there was a reunion when after a few days the accommodation was sorted out and we rejoined our Unit.

All the Australian Engineers were allotted the middle floor in cell block A.  Four to a one-man cell.  One on the concrete bed block with its concrete pillow, one on each side on the floor and one crossways on the floor at the others feet.  This improved when one from each cell slept on the expanded steel mesh spanning the light well.

The plumbing in the cells did not work.  Boreholes were sunk in the courtyards so it was a bit of a hike if you had to go to the toilets after lights out.

Water was short.  The tank in the tower filled overnight and most of the cooking was done during the night in the steam cookers, the English Engineers had converted the unused oil burning boilers to wood burners.  Water was rationed to certain times usually for a set time when a working party returned to camp.

We had electric lights, a limited number of globes but enough to spread around so we could get around after dark, but best of all a solid waterproof home to come back to with well-cooked rice and whatever else there was.  Sometime the leaf vegetables, some fast-growing weeds from our gardens would be cooked in with the rice until the rice broke up and it looked like sludge which it was quickly christened despite official orders that the word “sludge” was forbidden.  As there was more water than sludge we got a bigger ration, so it was popular.

Changi gaol was a home away from home for those of “F”  and “H” forces in Thailand.  “The Terrible Changi” was a myth created by those who never left the area.

Russell Braddon’s “The Naked Island” covers the gaol era very well.  Tipping the end of the war had been going on since the first days of our capture so all the members of the Unit in the gaol decided to run a competition one pound entry fee so a list of names and dates selected was drawn up.  I picked about 14 months ahead to the 12th August 45.  Having selected a date I soon forgot all about it.

I worked on the construction of the aerodrome, in the gardens, towing the wood trailer for miles to grub rubber tree stumps for the kitchen fires.  Also, the salt water tanker down to the beach to fill it with salt water for the kitchen and have a little swim at the same time but the salt water party duty was very seldom.

August 1944 I was sent to Singapore with “Hamilton Party 100”.  The camp was in Orchard Road.  It was a good one.  It was a two-story timber and Attap with straw mats on the sleeping bays.  It was built for Japanese troops and very new.  We had to observe some Japanese customs like taking our footwear off at the door etc.. There was a cookhouse and mess hut with tables and stools, the only ones I had in three and a half years.

A request for clothing was met with an amazing assortment that surprised us more than the request being granted.  Woolly long johns and singlets.  Japanese nurses old pantaloons etc. none of which we were game to wear outside the camp or during daylight but we wore them at night to put on a show after being given them.  The clothing had to be given back of you were transferred from the camp.  It was as the party name suggested, 100 men strong or should I say weak and there were no set tasks as it was a work poll for any jobs that came along.

On the 5th September 1944, my luck ran out.  I was returned to Changi Hospital with amoebic dysentery and some berri berri.  On the 8th I had conjunctivitis and on the 10th lab tests showed Strongyloides.  Twice I had the (steel stallion) sigmoidoscopes.  After 42 days in hospital I was returned to the Orchard Road “Hamilton Party 100” on the 18th October 1944, however, three days later I had bowel trouble again.  On 21st October my papers were marked N.Y.D. Dysentery (not yet diagnosed) and on 25th October 1944, I was returned to Changi Hospital my papers marked Changi Permanent.  This was the last attack of dysentery.  My face and legs were swollen with berri berri I remained in hospital until 15th November 1944.  While in hospital allied aircraft began to appear and a nose cap off a Japanese 3.7 AA shell came down into the hospital hut.  No one was hurt but we flattened out as we heard it coming.

I was given a light duty job cutting the grass and cleaning the concert area known as the “playhouse” but it came to a sudden end when the Japanese took offence at a locally composed song called “On Our Return”.  They closed the “playhouse” down and it did re-open after our release so I worked in the gardens when able until after the war finished.

27.1.45 to the 18.2.45 I was again in hospital with chronic colitis and strongyloides.

With the coming of the flying fortress reconnaissance plane on its sweeps over Singapore life became more interesting.  Later bombing and incendiary raids on Singapore wharfs and other strategic areas began.  We could hear it at Changi and we hoped the POWs in Singapore were safe.  The bombing was very accurate and casualties were low.  I didn’t hear of any POWs being injured but there could have been as some parties worked in the target areas.

Berri berri, diarrhoea, strongyloides and malaria continued on their merry way. Along with:

  • 4th April 45 to 11th April Malaria BT +++.  I was also getting MT attacks.
  • 30th May 1945 readmitted to hospital with berri berri and blurred vision.
  • 2nd June weight 9 stone 6 pounds.
  • 9th June weight 8 stone 12 pounds (minus 8 pounds).
  • 16th June weight 8 stone 7 pounds (minus 5 pounds).
  • 22nd June discharges to Unit.
  • 26th Readmitted to Z ward malaria BT ++, cough for a week moisture in lungs.
  • 28th June chest screened.  After days on mist tussi chest almost clear.
  • 2nd July weight 7 stone 11 pounds (minus 10 pounds), lost 23 pounds in one month.
  • 3rd July discharged to Unit.

About the 1st August 1945, some of us were moved to the bigger cells in the European section of the gaol and t5hat was where Dick Cochran brought us the news of the Japanese surrender on the night of the 15th August 1945.  The gaol really hummed all night with everyone awake and talking but it was working parties as usual next morning and a few days more.  Maybe it was just as well as it acted as a cooling down period in what could have been a tricky situation as the guards had not been told the war was over.

19th-25th August in hospital Malaria MT+.  We moved out of our cell to a hut behind the gaol s the Ex-POWs.

Returned from Singapore and Malaya camps and the Japs moved out.  We wandered around the Changi area when not on duty.  Some headed for Singapore and stayed there for a few days.  I went down to the wharf on the Jahore Strait where an English landing craft had tied up.  We were given goodies to eat and we caught up on the news and exchanged experiences.  On the way back to the gaol I took a shortcut through the rubber plantation and found a 5-inch gun that had been concreted in.  A field of fire had been cleared and the gaol was right in the middle of it ready to give us the chop when the time came after an Allied landing in Malaya.

Next move was one of the houses previously occupied by the Japanese guards.  I had a touch of malaria on the 13th September. At the houses on Half Moon Road, we were on standby for the move home and could not leave the area while Dick Cochran gave me a list of names that owed me one pound as the winner of the tipping contest.  The family was about to break up.

Eventually, on Wednesday 19th September 1945 we boarded trucks and headed for Singapore and boarded the “T.S.M.V. Duntroon”.  We moved out and anchored in a stream for the night.  Next day we were joined by the “Awawa” and sailed for Australia.

First meal on the “Duntroon” was tripe which was nice but a bit ironic as the Dutch and Indonesians had been known as the “offal eaters”.

My stomach could not stand meat so I had to go vegetarian for the voyage.  Only 6 of the Unit came home on the “Duntroon”, two of them were on my list and insisted on paying the one pound when we received Australian Money.  The rest decided to forget.

We missed the boat with the Australian uniforms and were given some English clothing on the boat.  At Darwin, the Army came good and we came home as Aussies.

We arrived at Darwin on the 27th September.  The troops on the “Arawa” went ashore first.  Then sailed for Sydney via Brisbane.  We went ashore next morning and late in the afternoon we sailed for Sydney on the 28th September via the east coast arriving back at the wharf we had sailed from, 11 Woolloomooloo Sydney on the 7th October, 1945, 53 days after liberation where we were met by Major General Gordon Bennett and were taken by double-decker bus to Ingleburn Camp and went on leave immediately.

14th November to 5th December, I was in Herne Bay 10th AGH Hospital with a double dose of malaria.  Also, a lab test showed I still had strongyloides but I received no treatment for them.  (I finally was cured by Doctor Mills in 1993).

27th December 1945 Discharged from the Army (P.S. All of our officers survived).

2/12th Fd Coy Death List

Killed in Action7
Borneo Death March37
Lost at Sea (Rokyu Maru)21
A. 10
Dysentery & Berry Berry
Dysentery & Pneumonia 3
Dysentery & Malaria4
i. 4
Malaria & Dysentery & Berri Berri
Malaria & Berri Berri1
A. 3
Cholera & Berri Berri
i. 2
Cerebral Haemorrhage
Ulcers Operation1
i. 2
Cardiac Berri Berri (Davis Brothers)
Amputation & Dysentery1
Killed in Allied Air Raid1
Blood Poisoning1
i. 1
Accidentally Killed
i. 1
Unknown Causes - 3 Borneo & 1 Japan

The Webmaster would like to thank Les’s family for permission to publish his story.