This article was written by Alf Lockhart, one of the first members of Blind Veterans UK I had the great pleasure to meet when I joined the charity in 2010. Alf’s article was published in the March and April 1988 editions of the Review to mark the 45th Anniversary of the completion of the Burma-Siam Railway, as he was one of the FEPOWs to work on the Railway.
Alf came to Blind Veterans UK in 1946 as he developed retrobulbar neuritis, as a result of malnutrition whilst working on the Railway.
A skilled cabinet maker before the war he tried to work as the cabinet maker after the war but was turned down for work as his sight was not good enough to complete the more intricate work. That was until he went to a family firm of cabinet makers who were Jewish and was told. “We would be honoured for you to join us. You can do what you can see to do, and anything you can’t see to do, someone else will complete and we will pay you the same rate as everyone else. You were fighting for us and it is right that we now look after you.”
Recollections of the Burma-Siam Railway. By Alf Lockhart.
I worked on building the raily from the start in November 1942 until its completion (in my section) in July 1943. The duration of this time was spent at Kanu, a most nororious campy, which I left in August 1943. After a period of convalescence at Tamarkan and Chung-Kai, the remainder of my time in Siam was spent on the maintenance of the railroad. Although my recollections deal in the main with my own experiences, they are very general and could apply to almost any working camp along the railway.
Disease was a major factor, and malaria and dysentry were to be the cause of many, many deaths of the prisoners of war. Malnutrition was another killer. This was more insidious than the more easily recognised illnesses and was a contributory cause in all deaths. I was one of the very few who did not contract dysentry at all, and did not get malaria until January 1945. My good fortunte in remaining free of malaria and dysentry meant that I was continuously on a working party, even though I was suffering the effects of malnutrition. Consequently, by the time the railway was finished in July/August 1943 I was, as they say, but a shadow of my former self.
We arrived in Banpong after about a week’s train journey from Singapore. We had been told that the Red Cross were arranging everything in Siam so we were rather surprised to find only a few attap huts and sheds available for our accommodation. However, the rations were reasonable according to Japanese standards, and we were told Banpong was only a transit camp, and that our premanent camps were up country. Very good camps, with running water, we were told. The running water proved to be only too true.
After a couple of days at Banpolg, we moved on the Kanjanburi. Not the town, but a camp alongside the river. We stayed there two days, preparatory to making our way to what was to be our working camp. Also, for so many British Servicemen it was to be a journey to their last resting place.
The journey to the alloted camps was made either on foot or by barge, or by a combination of both. In this instance the journey was made entirely by barge. By now however, rumours were circulating about our destination. Was it to be a camp run under the supervision of the Red Cross, or was it to be a Labour Camp?
Already there was talk of our having to build a railway. However, we left Kanjanburi with mixed feelings, but without any rations. We were told we would get a meal at the next stop. We did. Five days later, at Tarso.
The meals were made up of rice and an extremely watery soup: about a pint measure of boiled rice and a 1/4 pint of soup. This fare was the general norm during 1942 and 1943 and 1945. October/November is the tail end of the rainy season in Siam, and we arrived at Tarso in the middle of the night during a tropical rainstorm. Tarso, which was supposed to be the base camp, consisted of a group of half finished huts — the usual bamboo and attap type. As we stood in the mud at Tarso, rainsoaked and wretched, we began to realise the devil we didn’t know in Siam was likely to turn out far worse than the devil we had left behind in Singapore. It also began to sink in that the railway rumour was due to become a fact.
We left Tarso again in the barges to make our way up river to Kanu. There was a bit of light relief on the way. On the second night of the journey (it took three days to reach Kanu), the subaltern who was in our barge declared that the Colonel had instructed the junior officers to see that the other ranks were kept cheerful, if necessary, by entertaining them.
‘If he thinks I am a bloody chorus girl who can sing and dance to you, then he is bloody well mistaken,’ he said. ‘But what I can do,’ he added, ‘is to recite a rather bawdy poem called Eskimo Nell.’ This he did, to great acclaim from the men. ‘That is my complete repertorie,’ he said when he had finished. ‘You will have to make it last until we reach our destination.’
We arrived at Kanu in the evening, and found there was already a working party in residence. This party was known as E Bn, and were mostly men of the Suffolk Regiment. Our party was known as W Bn and comprised a very mixed group of Naval, Army and RAF personnel. E Bn having been at Kanu for a month, already had some huts built. This proved a great boon to us as it rained constantly for the first two or three weeks — in fact it did not stop raining until the start of the dry season in December. However, tropical storms or not, we had to start work from the first day: some on camp building, and others on jungle clearing in prepreation for the railway.
The Camp Commandant was a very nasty piece of work indeed. His name was Lt Isuki, but he was always referred to as the ‘Kanu Kid’. He issued orders saying all PoWs must salute the Japanese Officers, and also the Japanese and Korean guards.
This order we completely ignored. We never ever saluted any Japanese at Kanu, and only if commanded to do so by a British officer anywhere else. I do not think this was the reason the Kanu Kid kept us on short rations, he was just an arrogant, bullying swine who was probably selling our rations to the Thais.
Kanu must be a very unhealthy spot. Almost as soon as we arrived, men started to go down with malaria and dysentry. Our two MOs, Major O’Driscoll and Capt McNally, were hopelessly overworked by they performed admirably in the circumstances, and also gave us lectures on health care in general. What little medicine was available was withheld by the infamous Kanu Kid, thus aggravating an already critical situation.
The doctors therefore, tried to get the more severe cases sent down river to the base camp at Tarso. Tarso by this time had developed considerably, and was now the headquarters of 4 Group, of which we were part. This system of evacuating the very sick was to become a feature in the working camps along the railway.
Another odd fact which emerged concerned the officers. They never seemed to die. They weren’t all old soldiers. I cannot recall an officer dying at Kanu, or indeed anywhere else, in the railway camps in Siam. This may have been connected to the ‘local purchase’ system. Commissioned Officers, it appears, are given preferential treatment.
They are given pay, and are allowed to use that pay to obtain ‘comforts’. They received this pay whether they worked or not, or if they were sick or not. Other ranks only received pay, and an exceedingly small amount at that, if they were part of a working party. If we were sick, we received no pay, and our rations, already at starvation levels, were reduced still further. From any pay which was received, either from the Officers Allotmen or from the other ranks’ earnings, the Senior British Officer imposed a tax of 10%.
This money was used to buy food locally to supplement the needs of the people in hospital. Although local purchase was not freely available at Kanu, there was some, and the Officers, whose purchasing was at least 100 times that of the men, had a distinct advantage in the survival stakes. Still they do say ‘rank has its privilege’. I being a Private, received my full lack of privilege.
By this time E and W Bns were joined by J Bn. There were members of the FMSVF and SSVF — Volunteer Forces from the Malay States and the Straits Settlements, comprising mainly rubber planters and other businessmen. All British, of course. We continued working from down to dusk, clearing the jungle to make a path for the railway. By now sickness was taking its toll. Men were dying. One or two, at first, but gradually and relentlessly, the death toll mounted. Because of the alarming increase in the death rate the MO and SBO made representations to both the Kanu Kid and the Japanese officer who was an engineer i/c of our section of the railway.
The engineer officer while agreeing that the matter was serious, said that his only concern was to get sufficient labour to build the railway. If the other ranks died off, then we would use Officers. ‘In any case,’ he added, ‘I have authority only on the railway. Lt Isuki is the officer responsible for administration of prisones of war.’
Lt Isuki, as usual, ignored their protestations and things went down from bad to worse. Under such conditions the role of the doctor became increasingly important, and both Major O’Driscoll and Capt McNally were in perpetual conflict with the Kanu Kid in their endeavours to obtain more food and medical supplies.
In January 1943, we were joined at Kanu by a party of Australians. Among their number were two men who became quite well-known and were highly respected by everyone who was fortunate enough to know them. They were Colonel Dunlop and Major Moon. Both officers were brilliant surgeons, and Colonel Dunlop also had the quality of leadership and authority, which he exercised whenever possible, to improve the lot of the prisoners of war. Although there were plenty of officers floating about, it was only the Medical Officers who had any bearing or significance on the life of the other ranks. That is the reason why only doctors are mentioned.
It was about February or March 1943 when the Japanese discovered, or so it was said, that the Kanu workforce was building their section of the railway in the wrong place. Apparently, our section was not in line with the rest of the railway. This meant that all the work which had been done during the last three months, had been fruitless, and that time would need to be made up. This heralded the start of the notorious ‘Speedo’. The Speedo time was a most traumatic experience for everybody. Even the officers.
Because of the new line of the railway, we had to move camp. We moved from Kanu Riverside and set up, or rather built a new camp at the top of a nearby hill. This became known as Upper Kanu, or more commonly, as K1. During the ensuing months, the Japanese made ever increasing demands for more workers. The sick were increasing in number, the death rate was mounting and the Japanese were getting more behind schedule. And very soon it started raining again. By this time most men had malaria several times, whilst others were going down with dysentry, perhaps for the third or fourth time. Everyone showed signs of malnutrition, but no extra food or medical supplies were forthcoming.
With the start of the wet season, everything worsened. Men who were ill with malaria or dysentery were taken to work by the Japanese, despite all the efforts of the MOs. Many of these men collapsed while working, and had to be carried back to camp on stretchers. The only compassion shown by the Japanese to these unfortunate men, was to allow us to put them in the shade until it was time to return to camp for the night. It is small wonder that so many men died. All the day long the Japanese would be running about, shouting ‘Speedo, Speedo,’ at the same time giving all and sundry a whack with their bamboo metre rods. This had very very little effoct on productions though, everybody was either unable or unwilling to respond, and just plodden along at the usual slow rate.
By now, it was April. Colonel Dunlop and his party had gone to set up camp at Hyntok, a site about five or six miles upriver of Kanu. Another camp was set up at Tampi, roughly the same distance down river. This camp was manned by a group known as F Force. Between K1 and Tampi, a small working camp was set up — this was K2. Between K1 and Hyntok another camp called K3 came into being.
K3 was a bad camp, even by Kanu standards. No huts, only leaking tents, the whole of the area was a sea of mud about 12 inches deep, and the work was very hard going. It involved making holes: some, one metre and some, two metres deep. These holes were then stuffed with dynamite, blasted, and then all the debris had to be cleared. This work took a heavy toll. The object of this task was to blast a cutting through solid rock. This cutting, when it was eventually finished, was about half a mile long and about 100 feet high at its highest point.
By May, the camp at K3 was taken over by Australians. These were the 2/10th, 2/15th and the Anti-tank. The few remaining British stayed on and carried on as usual.
Malaria, dysentry, and now beri-beri were rife and still taking a heavy toll. At K3 the British were so depleted that it could not muster enough fit men to make a funeral detail for one of our men. In such cases we called on the Australians.
All through the summer the rain continued to pour down. An outbreak of cholera at Tonchan quickly spread to Kanu. There was not much that we could do about cholera. In such conditions as we were living, one is either lucky or one is not.
Doubtless because of the mud, yet another insidious scourge put in an appearance. This was the tropical ulcer. These are terrible things. They can eat the flesh at an alarming rate, and can even attack the bone. Constance vigilance was needed to protect these ulcers from blowflies. These flies seemed to lay their eggs in the wound, or even the dressing which covered it as they flew past, and the next day the ulcer would be full of maggots. It was not unusual to see a man picking out the maggots with a pair of tweezers made from bamboo.
By the end of July 1943 the railway had reached Kanu. With the arrival of the railway, most of the survivors of E, W and J Bns were sent down river either to hospital camps or to other types of rest camps, to enable us to regain some strength. Thus the latter quarter of 1943 was spent in camps along the lower reaches of the river. In these camps food was fairly, and according to jungle camp standards, plentiful.
At Tamarkan I came across Major Moon, one of the Australian MOs from Kan Riverside. He was doing sterling work in the Surgical Ward. He saved many a man’s leg with his skill in healing tropical ulcers. Unfortunately, many were too far goine and amputation was the only answer, if the man’s life was to be saved. Not that this was always successful. Most men were at death’s door when they were sent to such camps.
On the journey down to Tamarkan, I passed the much talked about bridges at Wampo and Tamarkan. Although Tamarkan Bridge is the one depicted when the Bridge Over the River Kwai is talked about by pundits, it has very little to do with the British PoWs. In fact, this bridge was originally over a river in Sumatra. It was dismantled there by the Japanese, and brought to Thailand along with a large number of the Dutch. The bridge that became the folklore of the railway was the bridge at Wampo.
Wampo Bridge is actually a viaduct. It runs around a cliff which forms the bank of the river at this point. It is several hundred yards long, about 200 – 300 feet above the river, as far as I can recall, and is a most ramshackle, Heath Robinson looking construction. I have been over both bridges a number of times, but Wampo Bridge always made my hair stand on end.
In December 1943, the railway was at last completed. There was a general regrouping of the various PoW groups, which by this time had become intermingled. All 4 Group personnel in the area of Chung-Kai were brought together and encamped there until such time as the new 4 Group base was established, at a place named Tamuan.
Several months were spent at Chung-Kai. The food was good and plentiful in this camp, but the huts were old and absolutely lousy. I don’t mean lousy rotten, I mean lousy with lice and bed bugs. Fortunately, in the 4 Group intake was Colonel Dunlop — the Colonel I mentioned earlier at Kanu Riverside. He was most unhappy about the state of the hospital which, although it had doctors in charge, was almost completely staffed by volunteer helpers, mostly untrained albeit willing. Colonel Dunlop first collected all the RAMC and RAAMC personnel who were in the camp and put them to work as nursing orderlies.
He then decided to get rid of all the vermin from the hospital wards. This he did by organising working parties to disinfect the hospital. Everything that could be boiled, was boiled. This got rid of the lice. The next job was the bamboo slats on which we slept. Many fires were built, and the slats were passed through the flames until all bed bugs had been destroyed. After disinfecting the hospital, he then set about the ‘messing’ system at Chung-Kai. He organised a diet which suited the needs of patients suffering from various ailments. Where all this extra food came from, I do not know. But with Colonel Dunlop in command, it certainly went to the ones most in need.
In May 1944 the camp at Tamuan was ready, and 4 Group established itself there. This was a clean camp, not in the jungle but on the plains. Those who had recurring illness such as amoebic dysentery and/or malaria still had relapses, but on the whole the MOs were able to cope.
During the next 12 months, large parties of men were taken from Tamuan and sent to Japan. We were to learn later that a number of transports which had carried these men were sunk by Allied submarines. What a sad thought — to have survived the Railway of Death, only to be drowned — and by our own forces at that.
We who remained in Siam, were put to work keeping the railway in repair. Work parties were sent up and down the line, wherever the need arose. The biggest problem was the encroaching jungle. We were not greatly troubled by the RAF except at Non Pladuk, where a large number of men were killed or injured.
When the end of the war came, I was in a hospital camp at Nikom Paton. In this camp were all ranks of British, Australian and Dutch prisoners of war. The first camp orders put up by the British Camp Commandant, read as follows:
All British personnel below the rank of Sergeant will parade at 0630 hours tomorrow for PT. Only leg amputees are excused from this parade.
What a profound thought. After more than three years of being worked to the point of exhaustion, all our Officers could do for us, was to organise a PT parade.
Alf Lockhart led a full life and after the death of his wife Elsie he moved into Blind Veterans UK centre in Brighton where he lived until his death in December 2011. He is still missed by all who knew him.
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