The monsoon broke soon after our camp was established. First came weeks of light rain known as the "Bamboo Rain" and this was closely followed but months of heavy rain. It was hot and humid day and night, rain or shine, but the work went on. We were wet for months on end as even at night our huts could not keep out the heavy rain and we would have to lie in a wet "Jap-Happy" on wet bamboo slats. By this time, no-one had blankets, so perhaps we were fortunate that the weather was so hot. After a month or so, the Japs decided we should build another camp closer to the river and rail site, so this we did and it became known as "Hintok River Camp" and the other "Hintok Jungle Camp". Eventually as the men became sick, the jungle camp was made into a hospital camp and all "fit" men transferred to the River Camp.
About this time I became ill with Bacillary Dysentery, a rapid killer as three to four days was generally the life for an untreated victim. To my dying day I shall be grateful to Major Corlette, one of our unit doctors, for saving my life as he supplied me with all the "M&B" tablets (84 in all) he had with him. He said it was only enough to combat my disease and therefore one life could be saved. So many others were to die of dysentery over the coming months, because of no medication whatsoever. The tablets did their job for me and I was up and about within a week or so.
By this time the monsoon was fully upon us. The river was up and mud everywhere. Owing to our poor diet, we began to lose a certain amount of balance and going along jungle tracks, up and down hills to work, we would continually be falling over and it was frustrating to see the Jap guards handling the greasy conditions without effort. We worked through the rain and ate through the rain and slept through the rain! As the days, weeks and months passed, the men began to fail, either through dysentery, malaria, avitaminosis or general debilitation mainly caused through sheer hard, constant work and very little food with any nutritional value. Pap for breakfast, boiled rice and fish or a slab of dried meat for lunch and the same again for dinner when we returned about 6pm. We were allowed a spoonful of sugar every Sunday on the only day of the week we had off.
Hugh Cory was in charge of the food stores in this camp. He did his best to see our ration given from the Japanese was the correct one and often scrounged an extra bag of rice or dried meat which in turn gave us all a little more in our dixie. He also got our cooks to sometimes fry the rice if he could manage to procure the odd drum of cooking oil. This made the rice a little more palatable. Hughie did much to help us with rations and I saw him often give away his meal to a worker who was ailing and needed more sustenance to keep going.
One night shortly after the River Camp was built, a large party of Tamils passed through our camp and next morning our whole parade area was covered in filth most of which was excrement. Men were detailed immediately to clean it up before proceeding to work. It was just two days later that our first case of cholera developed! Also about the same time a party of over 1,000 British prisoners arrived and set up camp next to ours. We were in a pretty sorry state, but these men were walking zombies! We were losing about four or five men per day before the cholera epidemic but the British were losing three times that amount. Once the cholera took hold, we lost over 10 men per day and as we returned from work each day, it was quite usual to see up to 30 British prisoners laying in the rice sacks with only their feet showing, awaiting burial, most the victims of cholera. It was a dreadful time for all. Wet all day and night and despite the rain, it was so hot and humid.
Everyone was scared of cholera. One never knew when or who it would strike next. It always began with shocking cramping pains in the stomach which soon developed into vomiting and bowel movements, both uncontrollable. The vomit and excreta would turn into whitish water within hours and if not treated, the patient would die a very painful death usually within 24 hours to 36 hours. Every one of those hours he would suffer these terrible stomach cramps, the only treatment being intra-venous injections of saline into arms and legs to make up in some way for the fluid lost. Our three doctors, Dunlop, Moon and Corlett, worked tirelessly for the weeks this first outbreak occurred, plus the nursing of the other patients with varying diseases.
All of us had malaria quite often and fortunately the Japanese gave us supplies of quinine to combat it. If one went down with it, they were kept to their hut for three to four days with a supply of quinine and had to look after themselves through the sweats and the shivers which alternated throughout an attack. It always left one weak, as during the period if sickness, one had no appetite. At this time the tropical ulcers began to appear as men tore their bare legs on thorns or rocks etc. These sores untreated soon spread and developed into huge deep, pussy areas eventually covering whole limbs. Limbs were amputated when the spread of the ulcer reached proportions where life was threatened. In a lot of cases even amputation did not stop the ulcer spreading and in these cases death could not be averted. Of all the amputations, about fifty percent were successful. The crude operation table was a platform made up of six bamboo posts and about a two foot wide length of bamboo slat, similar to those we slept on.
It was not long before more than half the British camp of over 1,000 men had died. We even had to help bury them after our return from work. Soon the Japs marched off the survivors and we never knew where they went or how they fared. They were a dead loss as a work-force and wherever they went, I would feel sure very few would have survived. By now we too had suffered dreadfully and lost over 300 men since leaving Java. As the officers never had to work on the railway, they were kept occupied in camp, keeping things as shipshape as possible. As cholera was so contagious, also dysentery, all water had to be boiled and this alone kept a few officers occupied. Others assisted in digging graves. Later most cholera victims were cremated.
By this time Ken Heyes, Ken Walker and myself and others of our unit were working from the River Camp. The Jungle Camp was now mainly the hospital area. Work on the railway in this section was hard and demanding owing to the nature of the ground and to make matters worse, we were made to work seven days a week from daylight to 10 or 11pm under flares. There were two reasons for this extra work. Firstly the monsoonal weather had delayed work to some extent and secondly, as we found out later, the Japanese forces on the Burma front were at last being hard pressed by the Allies and it was imperative to hasten the completion of the railway so that troops and supplies could be transported at a faster rate than at present, where it was carried through the jungle over a crude road system.
This was the beginning of the worst months of our POW existence! "Speedo-time" the Japs called it. Bashings were the order of the day. The slightest infringement brought a punch or open handed slap across the face. All of us I think very seldom missed a day without a punch or slap of some kind. One would be toiling as best one could when suddenly a slap or punch from behind and the word "Speedo!" bellowed in the ear. I still to this day will forget none of those weeks and months when all if us came very close to giving up. Men cried from exhaustion and frustration. Big bushmen types, to city men all so very fed up and worked almost to a standstill. No word of how the war was progressing - just always so tired, hungry, weak and very depressed.
When I look back I often wonder how we came through it. Still I suppose the will to live is strong in most if us and where some would purposely refuse to look after an ulcer, I would religiously boil water in the camp kitchen no matter what hour I returned and bathe my ulcers until I had killed the infection and they had healed. Not to look after an ulcer no matter how small was foolish, because untreated sores would later worsen and eventually lead to painful treatment, amputation, or quite possibly death.
The cholera epidemic was over now as the rain began to ease towards the end of 1943. However, the other diseases kept taking their toll as the men’s stamina began to wane and were open to all kinds of sicknesses. Our resistance was so weak and diet so poor, avitaminosis began to affect us. Some eventually swelled to the size of footballs and in these severe cases they eventually burst and of course causing death. The only real cure was better food. I was swollen for months, but fortunately never became too abnormal to walk. However they ached day and night.
As there were more bridges to build in this section, I had some relief for the hard slog of "hammer and tap" work when parties of us were assigned to collecting struts, stays and beams for bridge-building. Most of the trees felled for this were teak which grew profusely in this area of Thailand. Once we had felled the timber close to the track, we had to go further afield for the wood and this would entail hard work in getting the logs to the line. However in some areas where the hills were close to the river we learned a trick from the Jap engineers. We would fell the trees as we progressed up the hill and once on the ground, the Japs told us to de-bark the log. With teak it appears there is an unusual amount of sap under the bark, so the log would be face downhill and then slid out of the loosened bark. Depending on the steepness of the hill, so depended the speed and distance the log traveled. In some instances, the log would travel almost to the line, thus saving us the heavy haul to the correct place for use. In only one area did we have the assistance of elephants. They proved to be too slow-moving for the Japs, so the work given to these animals was very limited.
A few men committed suicide in this camp. One young chap from our unit whose home was only a few miles from my home in Australia, began to show signs of abnormal behaviour. On returning from work one night at the end of a particularly trying day, this chap was seated on my bed space without his "Jap-Happy" on. He must have sneaked off the job early for he was shaved and seemed clean enough. However at this stage we were all edgy and easily roused, so when I saw this fellow sitting naked on my space, I asked him to move and to get his cloth on. He completely ignored me and just sat there staring straight ahead. When he did not move on my second request, I forcibly removed him. He put up no resistance whatever and just walked out of the hut still naked. That was the last time we saw him alive. Next day his body was found at the foot of a cliff near the river. Apparently his mind had snapped.
One day I made up my mind to have a day off. It was almost impossible to get off the daily workforce. Sick men were forced to go out and in many cases these just collapsed on the job and were left in the jungle until we all returned and carried them back to camp. I had noticed that since the "speedo" was brought on, counts were only made before we went out and after we returned and very seldom on the rail site. Although we were supposed to march out to the job, once on the jungle track, we developed into a struggling mass.
This day about half-way out, I ducked off the trail and was quickly hidden by the thick foliage. I had told Ken and a few of the boys what I intended doing so they would know where I was, also it was dangerous for more than one at a time to disappear for the day. Once off the track, I walked only a short distance before I decided to look for a place to settle for the day. I certainly did not want to get lost as that would not be accepted by the Japs as an excuse for not returning to camp with the gang. In another camp we were in, three would-be escapees were duly executed with such an excuse!