APPALLING ORDEAL OF PRISONERS
ON "DEATH RAILWAY"
Jap Persecution and Brutal¡ty
By ROHAN D. RIVETT, Formerly of THE ARGUS, who has just returned
from Siam, where he was a prisoner of war for three and a half years.
I have just left some 4,900 Austra- lian prisoners of war scattered throughout a dozen prison camps in Siam. Already some hundreds of them have been flown to Rangoon In RAF Dakota transports and are being "vetted" there by British medi-
All these men are anxious to get one message home to their families. This is: "Don't worry about us now. "We are safe in British hands and have more food, clothes, Red Cross goods, and letters than we have seen
in years. We hope to be home in the next few weeks. All our love to those in Australia."
The Japanese began transporting war prisoners from Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and Timor in May, 1942, to Burma and Siam. The job ahead of these Allied officers and men was the construction of 415 kilometres of railway to link Thanbyuzayat, Burma, on the Moulmein-Ye line, to Ban Pong, Siam, on the main Singapore-Bangkok line.
The planned track lay through some of the densest virgin jungle in the world, mosquito infested, and swarming with every form of insect life. Serried ranges of precipitous mountains on the Burma-Siam bor- der, scores of streams which became raging rivers in the rainy season, steep ravines and abysses which had to be bridged made this an under- taking which, though often contem- plated in the past, had never been effected. It demanded the very latest in modern clearing, engineer- ing, and bridge-building equipment.
But the Japanese provided the prisoners with none of these things. The only "mechanical" aid came from a handful of elephants, most of whom died from overwork and underfeeding.
The plight of white men facing the heaviest coolie labour in such an area was desperate enough. But un- speakable living quarters, denial of medical supplies, and a steady worsening of the rations, which at best were never suitable nor ade- quate, made the death of thousands inevitable.
Japan's much-vaunted "co-prosper- ity sphere" and policy of "Asia for the Asiatics" was seen in actual practice along this line. British medical officers who were attached to the Asiatic coolie camps estimate that at least 100,000 and probably a quarter of a million Malay, Tamil, and Burmese coolies lie dead along the railway. These Asiatics certainly got their Asia-five square feet of it apiece.
'When the monsoonal rains broke over the Burma jungle on May 22, 1943, with a 72-hour nonstop down- pour, the majority of prisoners were already nearly at the end of their physical reserves as a result of the months of incessant labour on an inadequate diet.
The rains, which immediately con- verted the embankments, the cut- tings, and their approaches into a quagmire and drenched the men day and night, set the death rate soar- ing. Almost simultaneously cholera laid its hand on several of the camps where thousands of men already lay helpless under the ravages of dysen- tery, malaria, chronic diarrhoea, beri beri, and tropical ulcers.
Its worst results fell on the 3,500 Australians and 6,500 British who comprised F and H forces. These men were brought up from Singa- pore in April, 1943, and then marched 200 kilometres into the jungle carrying all their camp gear and personal possessions, and left practically without rations through- out the nightmare journey. As a re- sult of the appalling conditions they faced, 6,000 of the 10,000 today lie
in jungle-choked graves along the railway.
FROM DAWN TO MIDNIGHT
At this time the destruction of the whole force seemed not improbable in the eyes of many British and Australian medical officers. But the Japanese ignored the rising tide of death and instituted a general speed-up of work called the "hurry hurry" policy. The prisoners never had an hour of daylight to them- selves, and were kept working in shifts of 14, 20, and even 36 hours at a stretch. Virtually naked, for their own clothes were in rags and the Japanese issued little or nothing, railway gangs toiled often knee-deep in mud from before dawn until mid-
night or after.
When, immeasurably weary, they lurched back to their huts, they were given a pitiful ration of rice and "stew," often consisting of noth- ing but radish or bamboo roots in boiling water. They then fell into exhausted slumber, jammed on top of each other in leaky, wind-swept bamboo and attap huts, only to be driven out once more before dawn by the pitiless bugle.
All work was on a task work basis. Each man had to dig out and carry to the embankment anything from two to 3.2 cubic metres of soil a day. This meant that the man digging
often had to excavate seven or eight cubic metres while two team mates trundled the earth by the coolie "basket and pole" system up to the embankment—such "carries" often exceeding 100 yards. The poorest of spades, picks, axes, and chunkels were the only tools available for this work, which was of a heart-breaking monotony and dreariness.
Even worse than embankment work was the bridge-building. Piles were driven in with great weights, hauled up, and then dropped on the pile by men toiling on ropes. Thousands of men worked day after day, months on end, often up to the
waist in the swift torrents precipi-
tated by the rains. With one Burma bridge party the method of the en- gineer in charge was to enforce all
orders by hurling iron rivets and bars from his perch on top of the bridge at the heads of our officers and men working below.
All work along the line was carried out under a barrage of screaming and yelling from Japanese engineers and Korean guards. Brutal beatings by sadistic bullies followed the many misunderstandings resulting from the language barrier and the massive stupidity of the Korean guards. Sick men driven out to work were kicked or beaten with fists, bamboos, and tool handles like anyone else.
The blitzing of camp "hospitals" was perhaps the most revolting feature of this period. Ignorant Japanese officers, NCO's, and even privates, overrode or ignored the Allied MO's, and forced sick men out to work.
Official statements by responsible Japanese officers reveal the Japanese attitude to their prisoners right through 1942-1943. One Japanese field officer said: "We will build this railway if necessary over the bones of the POW's." The commander of a group of 2,000 prisoners stated: "Any sick man who staggers to the line to lay even one sleeper will not have died in vain." An even more categorical statement of the Japanese viewpoint was made by the engineer-commander of the Tarso area in Siam: "You will never see your homes again. You will work for the Japanese until you
With this Japanese attitude it is not surprising that men died like flies, despite the gallant efforts of the overworked medical officers, whose hands were tied by the utter lack of all instruments, containers, drugs, materials, and hospital requisites. Outstanding among the MO's were a band of 15 Australians, headed by Lieut-Colonel Albert Coates and Lieut-Colonel E. Dun- lop, of Melbourne, who toiled day and night against heartbreaking difficulties with a selflessness and devotion which will never be for- gotten by the men they succoured.
The railway was completed in Sep- tember, 1943, but, although work eased, the death rate continued high, for at the end of the rains the rations in most areas deteriorated still further, thanks to Japanese thefts, bad transport, and the un- scrupulous "squeeze" levied by Japanese officers, NCO's, and pri-
DEATH RATE AT LEAST 30% Out of just over 60,000 officers and men-British, Australian, American, and Dutch-Japanese official figures admitted 13,300 dead by March, 1944. Since then, thanks to Allied victories and a growing realisation that annihilation of the prisoners might cost Japan dearly, there has been a considerable alleviation in general conditions. But even in August, 1945, one group in the Mer- gui area was struggling with condi- tions comparable to the worst days of 1943, and had a shocking death rate. Altogether approximately 15,000 Allied prisoners lie dead in Burma and Siam, while many more who worked along the line have perished in Malaya, Japan, or on the high seas. The total death toll of these 60,000 prisoners is conserva- tively estimated at 30%.
Even when things were blackest the morale and spirit of the prison- ers, particularly the Australians, were beyond praise. The boys would come in, weary and filthy, after the day's grind, and after their miser- able meal would start yarning about Sydney beaches, the girls they knew, the parties they had, why Colling- wood won the football, about this race and that race . . . reminiscing endlessly about home and the days when they had been free men.
One factor contributing tremend- ously to the high morale of our men was the operation by a gallant band of officers and men of secret radios known along the line as "Jungle Dickie Birds" or "Nightingales." In Burma LAC Arch Caswell, of Mur- gen, Q, and in Siam the brothers Webber, of the British Army, operated sets with a disregard of the enormous risks involved, which will never be forgotten by their comrades. Port Melbourne foot- baller Bob Skilton was among other Australians who operated a "Dickie Bird" at various periods.
Another important factor was the work done by our own camp com- manders, such as Colonels J. M. Wil- liams, G. Ramsay, and C. M. Black. Colonel John Williams, who has just arrived in Australia with the lists of prisoners of war names, fought the Japanese with the greatest courage on innumerable issues, de- spite repeated beatings and punish-
CAMPS IN DANGER AREAS
Over the last 12 months of the war a principal anxiety of all POW's was the bombing of camps by our own planes. The Japanese made it a deliberate practice to place prison- ers against railway sidings, supply depots, ammunition dumps, and workshops, and would not even allow identification marks on the hospi- tal huts where thousands of men lay helpless. Thanks to amazing luck and the general accuracy of our bombers total prisoner of war casualties in Burma and Siam are believed to be under a thousand, but 250 of these have been killed.
The survivors of the Burma-Siam railway demand that full justice be executed on all Japanese responsible for prisoner of war administration in Siam and Burma, and particu- larly on those in Tokyo who sent white men to labour in such condi- tions without any provision for their supply. But an even more eloquent demand must stand in the names of our 15,000 dead comrades who will not return to tell the tale of per- secution and brutality.