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POW's Died In Hundreds

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.

When Allied prisoners were first moved to Burma and Siam to work on the railway we were assured that there was no need to take much   in our medical panniers, as we would be plentifully supplied with all medi- cal requisites and our sick cared for in modern hospitals. This state- ment was widely publicised in the Japanese Press throughout Asia.

Here is the story of how the Nip- pon authorities fulfilled their promises.

The first hospital in Burma was

established at POW headquarters for the Burma groups at Thanbyuzayat, and was placed close to the railway junction among supply sheds, dumps, and Japanese troop camps without any distinguishing mark being per- mitted. Inevitably it was bombed out. On June 12 and 15, 1943, Liberator aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the hospital area, causing casualties of nearly 100, of whom over 50 were then killed or died subsequently. The Japanese reaction was amusement.

Until a new group of hospital huts was built in January, 1943, all Burma sick were housed in filthy, verminous coolie huts, dilapidated and leaky. One of the worst of these was the dysentery hut, a veritable charnel house, where scores of men died in a few weeks, being denied even a pint of water to wash in.

From the very beginning, accord- ing to the computations of Sgt Bev Brown, pharmacist, from Launces- ton, Tasmania, this base hospital did not receive even 2% of its require- ments from the Japanese. The only thing adequately supplied was quinine, and as the Japanese con- trolled most of the world supply this was hardly surprising. Instruments, sterilising, washing, and cooking gear were not provided at all, but had to be improvised from old tins, petrol drums, and wide bamboos. Ban- dages and dressings were so scarce that at some of the up-country camps, where the need rose to a thousand bandages a week, the Jap- anese issue was six a month-this for two or three thousand prisoners, most of whom had tropical ulcers.

From the first, even at the base hospital, which was well off com- pared with the so-called "hospital huts" up-jungle, no base for making antiseptics and dressings was pro- vided. We were entirely dependent on supplies of axle grease smuggled in from the Japanese workshops by men working there, who risked bar- barous punishment to aid their sick



As the months wore on and the rains came, the inadequate diet and the long hours of heavy work sapped the resistance of the majority in all camps, and more and more suc- cumbed to the scourges of malaria, cerebral, ST and BT, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, beri beri, pel- lagra, chronic diarrhoea, and cardiac trouble. Finally, in May, 1943, cholera descended on several camps.

All along the 415 kilometres of pro- jected track the condition of both the sick and fit steadily worsened through the rainy season of 1943. Our MO's struggled heroically, but often vainly, owing to their lack of nearly all their chief essentials. Increasing malnutrition carried off  

hundreds monthly who on a normal diet would easily have recovered from their ailments. A leading Mel- bourne surgeon said to me that 90% of our dead would be alive today if we had had British "Tommy's" rations along the line.

At the 55 kilometre camp, which became the main hospital in Burma after Thanbyuzayat was bombed out, utter dearth of everything pro- duced amazing improvisations by a band of devoted MO's and orderlies, assisted by convalescent officers. Colonel Albert Coates, of Melbourne, carried out 150 major amputations with a common meat saw, duly re- turned to the butcher's shop to carve the daily meat ration, whenever

there was any.

Lacking all anaesthetics, a clever Dutch chemist named Boxthall ex- tracted novacaine from the dentist's cocaine supply, and this provided a local anaesthetic for half an hour. No general anaesthetic was ever ob- tainable despite the most passionate pleas to the Japanese. Toes and fingers, rotted by tropical ulcers, were snapped off with a pair of ordinary scissors without any anaesthetic whatever.


The same chemist made a brilliant contribution by extracting emma- tine, the only counter to amoebic dysentery from the ipecacuana plant, and thus saved many lives. Cattle    

entrails provided the gut for  

sutures. Bamboo provided crutches, washing mugs, trays, tubes, and a dozen other vital necessities. "Beds" for the worst cases were constructed with rice bags on bamboo frames. Bandages and dressings were im-  

provised from all rags, scraps of   clothing, the bottoms of mosquito  

nets, and old clothes. Tin cans and other junk provided bowls and con-


At one time in this hospital, out of 2,400 very sick men, over 1,000  

had serious ulcers, some of which laid bare the leg bone from knee to ankle. According to the handbook of tropical diseases in the camp, the tropical ulcer is "found chiefly among slave gangs working on star- vation diet in disease-ridden jungles and marshes." Salt was often the only thing available to dress these hideous sores, and pus-soaked bandages had to be used and re- used for months on end. The general prevalence of diarrhoea and dysentery immensely complicated the problem of keeping even a semblance of cleanliness, and in-

evitably the stench in every hut was overpowering. The hospital could be "smelt" 200 yards outside the camp



With typical courage, many Aus- tralian other ranks risked impris- onment and terrible beatings to get out of camp and buy meat from the natives on the "black market" with money provided by officers or from the sale of irreplaceable clothing or precious personal possessions.

Working tirelessly from dawn until long after dark, the MO's and or- derlies under Colonel Coates never slackened in the face of discourage- ments and lacks before which Hip- pocrates himself might well have quailed. Among the medical offi- cers who did yeoman service in   Burma were Major Ted Fisher, Cap- tain Don Cummings, and Captain John Higgin, of Sydney; Major Alan Hobbs and Major Krantz, of Ade- laide; Major Chalmers, from Tas- mania; Colonel Eadie, of Melbourne; Captain Anderson, of Western Aus- tralia; and Captain Rowley Rich- ards; while in Siam Colonel E. E. Dunlop and the other Aus- tralian doctors stood head and shoulders above any other medical officer in the country.

In Burma the bulk of the work of orderlies was done by the 2/4th CCS unit, mainly Tasmanians. Men like Cpl Wally Roberts, Melbourne; Sgt Taylor, Cpl Iles, Cpl Ben Brookes, Tasmania; and Bombardier Des Woodbridge, from the Hawkes- bury, Sydney, were a few of many whose tireless devotion and kindness helped the medical officers tremendously.


Yet, despite such work, when this camp was closed up after six months there were 500 graves in the adjacent cemetery, while in a near by camp, where F and H force personnel were "hospitalised," it is believed that there were nearly 2,000 graves. Many of these deaths oc- curred during the hideous rail jour- neys of the sick from the working camps such journeys often oc-   cupying up to seven days, although the distance was seldom more than

60 miles.

Two factors contributed enor- mously to prevent a still higher death rate. Officers contributed all but 20 rupees of their monthly pay to the sick by the end of 1943 the buying power of 20 rupees was about 3/; and the operators of the secret radios up and down the line kept the hospitals supplied with news, the effect of which on morale was incalculable. Nowhere in the world was the advance of Montgomery across the Western Desert, the turn- ing of the tide in Russia, the bomb- ing of Berlin, and the gradual pro- gress in the Pacific watched with deeper interest or more passionate anxiety than among the thousands lying prostrate in the filthy hospital huts of the Japanese jungle camps.

Conditions for most prisoners in Burma and Siam improved con- siderably in 1944 when the Japanese realised that the war was going   against them. Finally, in May of that year we got our first issue of Red Cross medical supplies. Thanks to these, and to the establishment of a somewhat better base hospital at Nankom Paton, in Siam, not far from Bangkok, the general death rate was relatively low through the last l8 months of captivity.

But those of us who have survived can never forget the 15,000 Allied officers and men lying dead along the railway, or the way in which, despite our utmost efforts, their captors allowed them to die.