So the journey went on, stopping and starting, shunting here and there and four days after leaving Changi, we were unloaded off the train at a station in Thailand called Ban Pong. From here we were marched approximately twenty miles to a camp at Non Pladuk. This camp housed about 500 British soldiers and it was during our short stay here that we heard the rumour of a railway to be built through the jungle to Burma. It appears the Japanese construction workers had already begun bridging the Kwai River at a place called Thanbyziat about fifty miles north. As for our holiday camp these English solders thought it a huge joke. "You Aussies have sure been conned!" they said.
Within a few days, we "Rabble" were off again, marching north along roads that took us through small towns and villages where the Thai people watched on silence as we trudged along, never attempting to throw us anything in the way of food. Bananas, pineapples etc stacked in roadside bazaars looked so tempting to us as we had eaten no fruit since Kuala Lumpur and unknown then to us all, not to be eaten again for another two years.
For over the next two weeks, we walked over 150 miles and, as we trudged from made roads to jungle tracks, we had our first real taste of Japanese brutality. Our guards had changed at Non Pladuk and these new Koreans must have been especially chosen for their hatred of prisoners and ability to make us suffer all kinds of misery, just as long as they managed to get the ultimate out of us as a work-force. Whenever we passed them on camp duties, we had to stop and bow to them and it took many bashings before the Australians would concede to this indignity. Before long we had names for the more vicious ones such as "Billy the Bastard", "Jungle Jim", "Jack the Ripper" and so on.
The years have never dimmed the memory of that march and the cruelty that followed in the times ahead. In the evening after a day’s march and when too tired to talk, still hungry after our meager meal of dirty rice and boiled vegetables, we would be alone with our thoughts and I would wonder how much I could take before I gave up. One night we camped in an area surrounded with wild frangipani and the very smell of the flowers brought back memories of a safe and secure life, where I used to clean and polish my push- bike on a Saturday afternoon under another frangipani tree. So far away and possibly never to be seen or experienced again. I wonder how many cried as I did in the dark in those early days of hardship. I had staunch mates in Hugh Cory, Ken Heyes and Ken Walker etc and it helped so much to know they too felt as I did. As a matter of fact, the whole 2,000 odd men of our "Rabble" force thought the same, I am sure, and it was this terrible comradeship, even in times of dire stress, as one fought for his very own survival, that gave is all added strength and the will to see it through. As men died I think we tried even harder to survive.
During this march, we lost a few men as they tired and sickened. I did not actually see them die, but heard reports later that they weakened and fell further to the rear, then they were beaten and forced along until they could move no further. Unlike the infamous Borneo march of a year or two later, the stragglers were not bayoneted, but left in the jungle to either die, or as it turned out in rare cases, were assisted by local natives.
At last we arrived at a place on the Kwai River known as Konyu. A small native village on the opposite side of the river was almost deserted when we arrived and within the week was completely deserted. Where we were halted was a small clearing in the jungle on the banks of the river. After a short rest we were issued with tools and told to attack the various clumps of bamboo and prepare to build a camp. We were taught by the Japanese engineers who accompanied us, (walking too all the way, but of course on better rations and on food to which they were used), how to make use of bamboo for structures and the forming of the attap roof with folded and laced bamboo fronds placed in such a way as to be almost waterproof.
It took us almost a week to build enough huts to house ourselves. We then slept on raised bamboo platforms inside the huts and approximately 200 men to a hut. As this was the dry season, we had little or no rain on our march and sleeping out in the open was tolerable. However, the bamboo slats were slightly more comfortable than the hard ground. We continued to build huts until we had erected about twenty or more. In the years ahead, this camp was to house thousands of prisoners as the railway advanced. We did not know then that this was the first camp built by prisoners in Thailand and the beginning of the railway from our end. Other prisoners were shipped up the west coast from Singapore to begin building the line towards us in Burma. At this stage, we knew nothing of this or even if the rumour of a railway was true. We were soon to find out! One delight we experienced at this camp was the opportunity to swim in the river at the end of our day’s work. As it was the dry season, the river was down to a shallow, slow-moving stream and clean, clear water. In the later months and during the monsoon, it was to rise up to eighty feet in a few days and develop into a roaring torrent of dirty water, full of disease carried, we were told, all the way from southern China.
I must remark on an incident that occurred early one morning soon after our arrival at Konyu. About 4am, the whole camp was rudely awakened by hideous screams coming from the surrounding jungle. Everyone was up and talk was rife about someone being tortured but to our relief it turned out to be the screams of perhaps fifty or more baboons who had arrived in the trees above us. They were to stay with us in the weeks ahead and we became quite used to their chattering and never again heard this awful morning racket. Perhaps they were so surprised to see us laying out in the open and so many of us, in an area where before was a small uninhabited area of jungle.
Once the camp was completed, we were issued with tools to begin the preparatory work for the laying of the rail-tracks. Now we knew the rumours were true! The track followed the river in our area, high up, to be above the monsoon torrent, but necessitating small bridges and cuttings through rocky hillsides. We worked with sledge hammers and drills that came to be known as "hammer and tap" work and then, after drilling holes to a metre depth, the Jap engineers would place dynamite charges. After these charges were fired, men would be employed with mallets to break up the larger rocks ready to be carried away by others to pre-designated areas that needed building up into embankments. This was the type of work carried out by us during our stay at Konyu, plus one or two small bridges that were built and supervised by Jap engineers.
Our guards kept us to a strict time-table making our day begin at dawn and after a breakfast of pap, (rice boiled almost to water) then issued with a dixie of rice and dried fish for lunch, off we would be marched to the railway site. At this stage, we would work till midday, have about half an hour for lunch, then work on till around 5-6pm. Sundays we would have off when we could catch up with repairs to clothing etc. Most of us were by this time, down to tattered shorts and shirt and Nipponese sand shoes. Later on, within months, the Japs could see our clothing was absolutely worn out so they issued is all with loin-cloths made of some rough fabric. Two to each man and once my shirt and shorts had disintegrated, about the middle of 1943, I wore nothing else day or night for the remaining time as POW. These loin-cloths became known as "Jap-Happies".
At this time, most men were coping with the hard work. Between us, we would pick out the weaker ones, mostly those who had not been used to manual labour at any stage of their lives and allot them the slightly easier tasks such as taking away the rubble after firing. This the Japs allowed us to do as it made common sense, even to them, and kept the week’s work target up to schedule. Later on this was to change so dramatically.
Even at this early stage of the line the Korean guards would sometimes look for trouble and delight in knocking us around for such small things as accidentally bumping them when passing over rough ground etc. One day ,as I was breaking up a big rock with the iron mallet, a chip of rock flew off and hit a guard on the cheek. He grunted some epithet in Japanese, to which I mumbled "Serves you right, you yellow bastard!" Unfortunately he heard me, or at least picked up the word "bastard". He apparently had learned its meaning and at once yelled "Kiotski!", which means "Attention". I stood up and he then stopped in front of me and yelled "Bastard!, bastard, bastard, you, you, you, Australian bastard!" - I could see his right fist coming up to hit me and keeled over a little to ease the blow, when suddenly he brought left arm up with his rifle and hit me so hard with some part of the rifle to knock me out cold. This kind of treatment was not at all unusual and a bashing could be given for the very slightest fault.
As food became monotonous and almost too little to sustain us with the hard work we were doing, the ingenious mind of the Aussie once again began to show. Improvisation was the order of the day. Different types of traps were made to catch any animals that may be on the nearby jungle and even snakes that were caught were given to our cooks to augment our diet. It was some time before I could face up to cooked snake, but eventually accepted it as others did. There were hundreds of small lizards in and around our camp and these nested in small holes everywhere. We would see their heads pop up, look around and if no-one was about, they would venture out. We got the idea to put a small noose of twine over the hole and sit back some distance away and as soon as the head popped up, pull on the string, making the noose tighten around the lizard’s neck. Virtually hundreds were caught in this way and I was surprised to learn that if blind-folded and asked what the cooked lizard was, the answer would always have been "chicken".
So work here at Konyu went on until our section of the work was completed and ready for the line to be laid. This was done by another force that followed us. So now after many months, we had to move further into the jungle and closer to the Burmese border. We again marched along a jungle track for approximately 20 miles to a place called Hintok. On the way we passed two other camps of prisoners who were preparing for the line between Konyu and Hintok. This gave each camp approximately 5 miles of track to prepare for rail-laying. Hintok camp was about two miles inland from the river and once the camp was established, we had to walk this distance morning and night to and from the rail site as it was still following the river. This camp was to be the end of the line for hundreds of our "Rabble" force.
Map of P.O.W Camps