A Report of 'F' Force in Thailand
April - December 1943
by Major C. H. WILD (later to become Colonel)
In April 1943 Major General ARIMURA, G.O.C. Allied Prisoners of War in Malaya, issued orders that "F" Force, to be composed of 3,600 Australians and 3,400 British, should proceed by rail from Changi Camp, Singapore to a northern destination. These orders further stated that 30% of the 7,000 were to be unfit men. In answer to enquiries, Major General ARIMURA's headquarters explained that the journey would entail no marching and that the force was not required for labour but was destined for "health-camps" in a good climate, where food would be abundant and the unfit would have a better chance of recovery than at Changi. These orders, and the shortage of fit personnel at Changi caused the inclusion in the force of 2,000 unfit men, while the majority of the remaining 5,000 also had had some kind of medical history since the capitulation, many of them being recent convalescents from such diseases as diphtheria, dysentery and beriberi. All were reduced in strength already by malnutrition during the previous year and the promise of better food and treatment put everyone in high spirits at departure.
The Force entrained at Singapore during the latter part of April 1943, in 15 separate parties at one-day intervals, and proceeded, crowded into steel rice-trucks, 27 men to a truck, to BAM PONG in THAILAND. The train journey lasted 4 to 5 days. Food and water were scarce throughout and none were available during the last 24 hours of the journey.
As each party arrived at BAM PONG, it learned that the Force was faced with a march of indefinite length as no transport was available. Consequently all the heavy equipment of the Force, including hospital equipment, medical supplies, tools and cooking gear, and all personal kit which could not be carried on the man, had to be abandoned in an unguarded dump at BAM PONG. Practically the whole of this material (including three quarters of the medical stores) was lost to the Force throughout the 8 months spent up-country, as the immediate advent of the monsoon (at the usual season) prevented the Japanese from moving more than a negligible proportion of it by lorry.
The march of 300 kilometres which followed would have been arduous for fit troops in normal times. For this Force, burdened with its sick and short of food, it proved a trial of unparalleled severity. The road had a loose metal surface for the first two stages but then degenerated into an old elephant-track, widened into a hazardous dry- weather trail, through dense and mountainous jungle. The march was carried out in stages of 20 to 30 kilometres and lasted 2½ weeks. The parties always marched at night. The monsoon broke in earnest soon after the march began and conditions rapidly worsened. Everyone was loaded to capacity and such medical equipment of the Force as could be carried was distributed to individuals. Men toiled through the pitch blackness and torrential rain, sometimes knee-deep in water, often staggering off bridges in the dark. Sprains and bruises were common, fractures of arms and legs occurred, and stragglers were set upon and looted by marauding Thais. Of the large and growing number of sick, many fell by the wayside and they and their kit had to be carried by their comrades.
At the staging-camps, which were merely roadside clearings in the jungle, there was no overhead cover. It was sometimes a long carry for water and it was impossible for men to rest properly. Food generally consisted of rice and onion stew with hot water to drink and often of rice only. This was insufficient to maintain health and entirely inadequate to support the physical strain of a march of this description. These staging camps were in the charge of truculent Japanese NCOs who demanded large fatigue-parties when the men should have been resting and forcibly drove the sick onto the road with blows to continue the march night after night, in spite of the protests of their officers.
On arrival at the destination (five jungle-camps spread over a distance of 50 kms in close proximity to the THAILAND-BURMA border) it was found that the camps had not been completed; and all ranks were housed in unroofed huts, exposed to the continual downpour of the monsoon rains which continued without intermission for the next five months. From most of these camps men were taken out to work by the Japanese engineers as soon as they arrived, without opportunity to rest, although many of them had just completed six successive night-marches, and were in the last stages of exhaustion.
Unlike all other POWs in THAILAND, 'F' Force remained nominally under the administration of Major General ARIMURA's head-quarters at Changi, Singapore. The local Japanese Commander was Lt. Col. BANNO, who proved incapable either of administering the Force or of protecting its personnel from the outrageous demands and treatment of the Japanese engineers, under whom it was put to work. The camps were commanded by junior Japanese Officers or NCOs of the MALAY POW Administration and the guards were Koreans. The former, with one exception, were entirely subservient to the engineers, or themselves actively hostile, while some of the Koreans also treated the Prisoners with senseless cruelty. The Officers and men of the engineers, whose sole responsibility to the prisoners was to make them work, behaved with calculated and extreme brutality from start to finish.
Cholera broke out in the first camp early in May, This was directly attributable to the criminal negligence of the Japanese. For at KONKOITA the last staging-camp but two, every one of the fifteen marching-parties was forced to camp for one or more days within a few yards of huts filled with hundreds of cholera-stricken coolies, on ground covered with infected faeces, where the air was black with flies. British officers asked for the loan of spades to remove this filth but the Japanese replied contemptuously "use your hands". Lt. Col HARRIS protested vigorously to Lt. Col BANNO, warning him of the inevitable consequences, and demanding that either all forward movement should be stopped or that the infection point should be by-passed but nothing was done. The march forward continued and by the end of May cholera was epidemic in all five labour camps.
The work demanded of all men, without consideration of their physical condition, was heavy navvy-labour on the rushed construction of a 50 kms. stretch of the railway through hilly and flooded jungle immediately south of the THREE PAGODAS PASS. This work was arduous in the extreme, men having to carry logs far beyond their strength and pile-drive up to their waists in water. The hours were generally from first light to dark but frequently men were kept out as late as 2 a.m. the following morning. Men working in quarries without boots had their feet badly cut and these cuts developed into tropical ulcers. Through incessant work in deep mud, trench feet became practically universal and rapidly developed into ulcers also.
There were daily beatings of officers and men at work, sometimes even into unconsciousness. These beatings were not for disciplinary purposes but were intended to urge sick and enfeebled men to physical efforts quite beyond their remaining strength or to punish Officers for intervening on their behalf.
Every morning the same grim spectacle was repeated in the camps of parading men for work at first light. Emerging from their crowded huts or leaky shelters in the pouring rain, even the fitter men appeared gaunt and starving, clad in rags or merely loincloths, most of them bootless and with cut and swollen feet. In addition, some 50 or 60 sick men from 'hospitals' leaning on sticks or squatting in the mud would be paraded to complete the quota and would become the subject of a desperate argument between their Officers and the Japanese engineers. Sometimes all of these, sometimes only a part, would be taken out to work, and would leave the camp hobbling on sticks or half carried by their comrades.
Many of the fitter men had not seen their camp in daylight for many weeks and had had no opportunity of washing themselves or their clothes. The POW Headquarters, under Lt. Col S. W. HARRIS, was handicapped by the obstinacy of the Japanese in refusing access to the various camps, and by Lt. Col. BANNO's failure to make protests felt by the engineers or to ameliorate conditions himself as required. Written protests and appeals to Major General ARIMURA were never answered. Only once was direct access to the Regimental Commander of the Engineers obtained, and that by chance when a personal appeal by Lt. Col. HARRIS and his staff resulted in the postponement of an order which would have caused the immediate and permanent expulsion of 700 desperately sick and dying men from their hospital hut into open jungle during the worst of the monsoon rains to make way for a native labour force. This order had already been endorsed by Lt. Col. BANNO's administration.
The hospital, so-called, in every camp was nothing but a dilapidated hut with leaky roof, no walls or lighting, and with split bamboo on which the men were crammed, their bodies touching one another. In these grossly over-crowded conditions even such few mosquito nets as the Japanese provided could not be used, with the result that over 9O% of the Force were speedily infected with malaria. Sleeping-mats and blankets were never made available except in negligible quantities.
The attitude of the Japanese towards the sick was a mixture of callous indifference and active spite for by their sickness they were regarded as impeding the Japanese war effort. Two remarks made, at official interviews, by Lieut. FUKUDA, commander of one of the camps, will serve to illustrate this attitude: "International Law and the Geneva Convention do not apply if they conflict with the interests of the Japanese Army"; and again (to a senior Australian Medical Officer), "You have in the past spoken somewhat boastfully of the Geneva Convention and humanity. You must remember that you are our prisoners-of-war, that you are in our power and that under present circumstances these things do not apply.
Although cholera killed approximately 750 of the Force, by far the most deadly disease was dysentery, aggravated by malnutrition and generally complicated by malaria or beriberi or both. Over a long period no food was available for such patients except rice and beans and the quantities provided for the sick were deliberately reduced by the Japanese to starvation point in the expressed belief that this would compel them to go out to work. The inevitable result was that hundreds of men died in a condition of extreme emaciation and complete despair.
By the 20th June, two months after leaving CHANGI only 700 men of the Force were out at work and most of these were sick, while the remainder, except for the small administrative and medical parties, were lying in improvised 'hospitals' in each of the labour camps.
By the end of July the position of the Force was desperate. Communication between the camps in either BURMA or THAILAND had ceased owing to impassable roads and broken bridges -1800 of the Force had died. In one camp alone the following diseases were pre-valent:- cholera, typhus, spinal meningitis, smallpox, diphtheria, jaundice, pneumonia, pleurisy, malaria, dysentery, scabies, beriberi and tropical ulcers. With the exception of quinine, there were very few drugs and no dressings available throughout the whole area and hideous tropical ulcers were dressed with banana leaves and puttees or with dressings improvised from old shorts or shirts. The result was that some 70 amputations of limbs were necessary, entirely due to lack of dressings and because the men suffering from ulcers had been forced out to work by the Japanese. Deaths in one camp alone (SONKURAI) were then averaging 12 a day and of the original 1600 British troops who marched into that camp in May 1200 were dead before December.
By the end of December when the Force arrived back in SINGAPORE, more than 3000 men were dead out of the original 7,000 who had set out in April, and 1,000 had been left behind in BURMA and THAILAND either as sick, incapable of surviving, or as medical and administrative personnel in charge of them. Of the 3000 survivors who returned to SINGAPORE, 95% were heavily infected with malaria, 80% were suffering from general debility and 50% required hospital treatment for a long period, chiefly through dysentery, beriberi, chronic malaria, skin-disease and malnutrition. Six weeks after their return, two Japanese Medical Officers examined these 3000 survivors with a view to selecting men for further work on aerodrome construction. They could only find 125 fit for light duty.
The events narrated here took place, not in the comparative security of a permanent POW Camp, but in the remoteness of the THAILAND jungle and at the hands of a callous and vindictive enemy. They persisted over a long period, to which at the time no end could be foreseen except the likelihood of death by starvation, ill-treatment and disease. Here was no heat and excitement of war, and yet the hardships and privations endured by all were as bad as any likely to be met on active service and the casualties were unfortunately at least as great.
In these conditions, the unbroken spirit of the Force and the steady devotion to duty of many Officers, NCOs and men, themselves often seriously ill, were indeed remarkable.
On 25th September 1946 a Dakota KN 414 crashed two minutes after take-off. On board was Colonel Wild.
Several days before his death, Colonel Wild had made it known to the American Authorities, via Generals MacArthur and Willoughby that he had acquired enough evidence to be able to convict Emperor Hirohito of War Crimes (including bacteriological warfare experiments).
Colonel Wild had been ordered to cancel any further work in this direction and to hand over all the documentation he had so far accumulated. The air crash, in which he was killed, happened at Kai Tak, Hong Kong as he returned from Tokyo after giving evidence at the War Trials on the atrocities committed against the POWs.
On 15th February 1942 Colonel Wild had walked beside Lt Gen A E Percival carrying the white flag when Singapore surrendered. He was the British Interpreter at the meeting when Singapore was officially handed over to the Japanese Lt Gen Yamashita. This 'never to be forgotten' surrender ceremony took place in the Conference Room of the Ford Motor Company at Bukit Timah.
Colonel Wild was present at Itagaki's surrender to Mountbatten in Singapore after the War and interrogated Lt Gen Yamashita in Manila. He also interrogated Lt Gen Fujiwara Iwaichi in Singapore in January 1946. Fujiwara had accompanied Yamashita at the British surrender on 15th February 1942 at Bukit Timah.
The following poem was written by Colonel Wild when in a POW Camp at Sonkurai, Northern Thailand. An epidemic of cholera had broken out and hundreds of POWs died, a large number being British but an even larger number were local coolies who, it is said, were the first to contract the disease.
At Sonkurai where hope lay drowned
Beneath the bridge the earth is browned
With mould and monsoon vapours veil
The jungle and the creepers trail
Like snakes inert their coils unwound
And there our rear-guard kept their ground
Eight comrades laid beneath each mound
A thousand dead without avail
Freed from the captive's weary round
Homeless, a lasting home they found
Let not our faith their courage fail
'Til with the dawn the stars turn pale
And, silent long, our bugles sound