I found a spot under a large tree and settled for the day. I slept most of the morning and awoke around midday and ate my rice and vegetables, then slept again. Suddenly, very close by, a rifle shot rang out and woke me with a start. My immediate thought was that I had been discovered and must have been shot. There was no pain and no-one in sight. I lay perfectly still and waited. I did not move for quite some time during which I heard movement a little distance away. Someone was moving through the jungle but I was in good cover and the noise of their movement seemed to be fading. After quite a long period, I stood up and listened, but no more sounds of movement came from any side. By this time it was beginning to get dark so I crept back towards the track and waited for the boys to return from work. Eventually they came along and I joined in with them without the guards seeing me. I never found out who fired the shot or just who it was. It had to be a Korean or Jap possibly hunting an animal or reptile, which they occasionally did. However, I had received such a fright that I never attempted to again take a "free" day, nor did any of my mates. It was such a relief to be back with them.
Ken Heyes and I took another chance one day and this time we paid for our little stunt. It was usual for about 10 or 12 men to carry the dixies containing the guards and engineer’s food each day. We all took it in turns and one day when Ken and I were carrying half a dozen dixies, as well as our own, we decided to fall back, sneak into the jungle, have a look into the dixies and perhaps just sample a little of the food and hope the little we took would not be noticed. Sure enough it was simple to dodge away and we soon had the dixie lids off. The most beautiful long grain white rice was in each and in another a whole tin of herrings and tomato sauce. Herrings were out of their tin and laying in the dixie. We just tasted a little at first, but it was impossible to stop eating. The rice was the most delicious we had ever tasted for it was first-grade against our brown and insect riddled grain. We ate the lot! All six dixies full! Fish, rice and all!! We virtually just could not stop!!
We had to make up a story, so we dropped the dixies in the mud and got them nicely covered in dirt and raced to catch up with the other boys. On arrival at the work-site, we put the dixies with all the others and hoped for the best. I think we knew we would never get away with it and our minds were not on our work that morning. Sure enough at the lunch break, there was a scream and bellow from the Jap & Korean area and at once it was "Kiotski" (attention) and we all had to fall in line. The three Koreans whose dixies we had enjoyed, stood in front with the mud covered containers and screamed "Who brought today! Ah-ah! Who brought today!" Of course Ken and I stepped forward and tried to explain that we fell over and all contents dropped out in the mud. Our story was not believed for one second!
We were grabbed and stood to attention away from the others and got the biggest hiding of our lives, with nose and lips bleeding from punches and legs bruised from kicks. We fell down and were made to get up when we were belted again. Finally we were made to stand to attention for four hours, practically all afternoon, with arms outstretched and a piece of bark placed in each open palm. If the bark fell off, we were bashed again. Of course this happened regularly as our tired limbs dropped down. This punishment was often used on prisoners who had done something to displease our captors. However Ken and I were sore for days after this episode, but I always said it was definitely worth it!!
The year went on as did the work. The rain eventually ceased but the heat continued and the jungle grew almost as one watched it. Graves were soon covered with fast-growing plants almost as quickly as they were filled. By now our numbers were decreasing at an alarming rate. Men who were with you for all those months and even years, from our Middle East days, became ill and more than often died in the jungle camp. It was in so many cases, pure luck that kept you healthy, while your mate succumbed to sickness. There were so many illnesses that one contracted even if one was strong, debilitating diseases such as dysentery, both "bacillary" , the fast killer and "amoebic", the slow one, Malaria B.T., the safe type, as we called it, or S.T. and M.T., which affected the brain and was almost certainly fatal. Blackwater fever, a certain killer, was feared by all as was cholera. Many of these diseases were so highly contagious and even the strongest of us could easily fall victim - so in many cases, it was "But for the Grace of God, there go I."
We were within a couple of miles of finishing this particularly hard section of the line and looking forward to a break from the long hours of work, when it struck again and this time with a much larger cost in lives. Cholera!! I think it began with little Jimmy Findlay. He belonged to our unit and came from Brisbane. He was only about 5 ft 3 in tall but managed to keep up with the best of us. It was early one morning when I heard this groaning and as time went on it worsened, until a few of us got up and found Jimmy lying in the centre aisle of the hut, all curled up and holding his stomach.
He could hardly speak, so we helped him up and sat him on the bed platform. He immediately fell back again, curling up and clutching his stomach. We first thought it was some form of poisoning, but then he began to vomit and soon after, began passing loose motions. All this time we could see he was in agony. We got hold of Major Corlette, our only doctor here in the River Camp and on examining Jimmy, came to the conclusion we had anticipated but heartily dreaded. It was Cholera! Although this camp was not equipped for serious cases, he was able to be treated with a saline drip immediately. By this time it was daylight and we had to be ready to go to work.
On our return that night, Jimmy was worse and Corlette said he would rather he was at the "Jungle Camp" where more saline was available. So four of us laid him on a rice-sack and one to each corner, carried him the miles along the dark track over the hills to the hospital camp. All this while Jimmy moaned and often screamed with pain, also since that morning, his body was reduced to almost skin and bone. By the time we reached the hospital he was unconscious and he died before daylight. This was a typical case of Cholera. Terribly painful and the quick wastage of the body was frightening.
This particular outbreak was the worst of all. I do not remember the number of men who contracted the disease but it was in the two hundreds. This time the death rate was about eighty percent as the River Camp was unable to cope. Drs Dunlop and Moon had their hands full at the Jungle Camp with hundreds of other patients.
Both Ken Heyes and Ken Walker, my work-mates of so many months (or was it years) contracted cholera within a few days of each other and only a day or so after Jimmy. Naturally I was scared as I bunked near them, shared food with them. I even kept imagining I had stomach aches. I had not been brought up with a great deal of religion, but I prayed a few times during those terrible days of the cholera epidemic. Only one good thing came out of these outbreaks and that was that we never saw Japs or Koreans in our camp during this time. They were very scared of cholera and kept to their own camp-sites.
Being a small area, the screams of the victims were heard day and night and we could not escape it until we went to work. I must say that these two to three weeks while it lasted, were the worst days of my life! Best mates nearly dying, some dead, long hours of hard work and not knowing how much longer I could hold out. No knowledge of the war or how it was progressing, being punched regularly for the slightest sign of having a rest and to make matters worse, as men fell ill, it left less to go out on the line and the guards and Jap engineers tried to get more out of the survivors.
Thankfully both Ken Heyes and Ken Walker survived. How they pulled though God only knows, however for the remainder of the POW days, they were never the same. Weakened and emaciated they could not even lift their head for a week or more. Eventually they managed to walk around and slowly gained a little weight and strength but never worked on the railway again. It was about a week after Jimmy’s death that I was called off morning parade and told to report to a Major Woods, an Australian Permanent Army Officer who had been doing intelligence work in Java when we were landed there. He had been with the "Rabble" all through and we all liked him as he was "one of the boys".
I knew he was in charge of the kitchen staff in this camp, so I thought he may have a job for me in the kitchen. On reporting to him, he told me to take a certain direction out into the jungle and there I would find Mick Hornibrook and I was to help him in what he was doing. I soon found Mick, a RAAF ground staff mechanic who hailed from Melbourne. He handed me an axe and told me what wood to cut and how to stack it. This was like Christmas to me - no Japs - no Koreans - just we two working together. However it was not long before I realised the wood we chopped was not for the kitchen fires. It was for the building of pyres for the cremating of the cholera patients, who were dying then at the rate of almost ten a day. The pyres were built in a special way so that as the body burned, the outside logs would both fall in on the body and completely burn it away. We would light the fire as soon as we saw the men approaching with the body and then by the time the body was on the pyre, it would be burning fiercely enough to be sure it all burnt away, also assisted by the body fat.
I can still remember the first one, for Mick had lit it a little early and the fire was too fierce to get near with the body. He called to the bearer and me, "Quick, piss on it for Christ’s sake, I don’t want to have to build another one!" We did what we were told and it all worked out OK. Mick and I burnt 88 bodies, all mates of the "Rabble" force, in just under two weeks. We became so blasé about our job, that by the second week, we were cooking some rice we pinched from the kitchen in our dixies as the fires burnt down. Poor Mick did not see out the war as he died some months later from dysentery in another camp. After about three weeks, this short but deadly epidemic ended and I went back to work on the line. The "rest" away from this work gave me a chance to regain a little strength and I found myself able to cope with the conditions in a slightly better frame of mind than before. Both the Ken’s were on the improve and at least I could see them on my return from work when, although late at night, they had a little extra food for some of us.
At last this dreadful section of the track was ready for the line-layers who had caught up. We even heard the whistle of an engine bringing up the rails on flat-cars. Not one of us ever had a feeling of pride in what we had achieved, only sheer relief that it was over as each section was finished. Now we packed up our little and pitiful amount of belongings and were ready to march further up river to another section. How glad we were to see the end of Hintok! Our ‘Rabble" now was down to under 1,000 men and not one of us much more than a scarecrow. It was just as well we had no possessions, for we could not have carried them.
The sick stayed in these two camps until the line was through and then were brought back over the very railway that almost took their lives. Major Moon stayed with these cases and Drs. Dunlop and Corlette marched on with us to the next section about 20 miles up river, to a place called Kinsayou. We all owe our lives to these three doctors. Any man who eventually returned home will never ever forget them and I for one will be grateful to them to the day I die! This feeling I am sure, is reiterated by every one of the "Rabble". They were tireless in their efforts to keep us alive. Under unbelievably shocking conditions they operated and treated the sick with very few drugs at their disposal and frustrated all the way because of this. Dr Dunlop pleaded with the Japs to give us more food and more medicines and mercifully sometimes it worked. However, I can say with all conviction, that every death on the railway was due to lack of proper treatment and this indictment must be carried by the Japanese. All the diseases however contagious and dangerous, could have been treated with the proper medication. Men were emaciated before contracting diseases, so had the odds stacked against them from the start. Here I am only writing about one body of men - there were so many others on the railway all the way from Burma also and they too suffered as we did and died as we did. In my opinion, the Japanese nation can never erase this blot on their conscience.
At this point in my writing I am sorry to say that out of these three brave doctors, Moon, Corlette and Dunlop, only Dr Dunlop is still with us. (Dr Dunlop passed away in 1993) Dr Moon survived the war and lived to carry on his practice in Sydney until his death 20 odd years later. Sadly, at a National POW Reunion, I learnt of the death of Dr Corlette. He became ill and had to give up his Sydney practice and went to live with his son in Tamworth where he passed away. His passing affected me more than most, as this man had so much feeling for his patients and many a sick prisoner, including myself, survived through Dr Corlette’s dedication and skill.
Burma Railway Bridge