A Story Of Unimaginable Suffering
By Cyril Ramsey, Royal Norfolk Regiment
Cyril Ramsey is a very good friend and supporter of COFEPOW. This harrowing story was written for us and is told in Cyril’s own words an
"After working on the Burma/Siam Railway from start to finish, we were taken to the base camp at Chungkai, all suffering from malaria, beri-beri and dysentery.
The Japs then decided to send who they called "fit" men to Japan. 750 of us were then herded onto an old cargo vessel of about 5,000 tons call "The Osaka-Maru". It had been built on the Clyde at the beginning of the 19th century. The Japs must have bought it from us off the scrap heap, still on the bridge, on a brass plate, was the name "The Glasgow Bell" We were one of a convoy of 38 ships.
After about 4 weeks, the stinking food and bad conditions were now affecting everyone. The smell of the bad rice and stinking miso (a kind of thick yellow stew(?) made from a powder) served in hot salty water, caused one to vomit at the odour.
Beri-beri was now becoming very bad, in the form of swollen ankles, legs and faces and one got the impression that the whole body was turning to water. You woke in the morning stupefied by the foul air and men were becoming mentally affected.
We had now reached Borneo and had our first death at sea. Poor boy, after days of unconsciousness, he died of beri-beri which had affected his brain. Dysentery was now becoming an epidemic. We were now going up the coast of Luzon, and the fury of a storm was so sudden and vicious, the waves were bursting over the ship, smashing everything on deck. Huge wooden galleys and forty gallon iron boilers used for cooking the Jap rice, were wrenched from their holdings.
By now the ship was filling up with water and as far as we knew, we were alone. As time passed the storm continued to rage, it was dark and we were wet, cold, hungry and frightened, and with the tossing of the ship it was impossible to lie down. At midnight, a red glare appeared, it was one of the ships in our convoy. It was ablaze from stern to stern. The Japs told us it had been torpedoed. As we watched, gripping tight to anything we could hold onto, we now felt the odds were heavily against us. To have let go would have meant being swept overboard. Our boys in the torpedoed ship either burned to death or jumped over the side into a blazing sea of oil. I felt so sick.
When at last daylight came, the storm was still in full fury. It was a miracle our ship was still afloat. We had lost what little kit we had. In the holds the conditions were indescribable, the stench from herded bodies, the vomit and the excreta (plus the rats) was overpowering. The doctors, while trying their best, had a impossible task. The benjo (toilet) arrangements on these old ships were wooden boxes slung by rope off the side of the ship and you can guess this was a hazardous venture. To make it worse these boxes all disappeared, so no need to elaborate our difficulties in this direction with several hundred men aboard and nearly all with dysentery.
All cooking facilities had been swept overboard. The only thing to eat now was the scrapings off the sides of the rice boilers, that had been sacked up and brought from Thailand. As we fetched this out of the old store, the rats ran every way. It was now middle afternoon and the storm had died down, but the waves were still breaking over the ship.
We were faced with a new danger. The emergency signal was given from the bridge for action stations, the Japs rushed to their antiquated gun and loaded it with a shell. By now the Japs were rushing about like mad people, collecting belongings and shouting "American submarine". We could see dead Japs floating past our ship. Our officer said afterwards, he thought the American Sub Commander had our ship well in view and saw the mass of prisoners on the decks. The ship, by now, was practically out of control and anyway was doomed. The pumps had failed and efforts of the Japs and P.O.W.s to get rid of the water was now abandoned. It was a question of whether the ship would remain afloat long enough for us to head for land. I fell asleep, but was awakened by a terrible crash, bells ringing and the screaming of the alarm. In the darkness, there was confusion and shouts from the Japs.
We staggered to our feet and asked each other what’s happened now. The Japs were now securing their personal belongings and our officer was told we had struck a rock and anything might happen at any moment. A heavy sea was still running, the risk was the old ship breaking up. After going for a benjo, I was told to get back down the hold where most of the men were in a coma. Our officer had been told the order was coming to abandon ship. For two days and nights we had been soaked to the skin. We huddled together to try and keep warm and waited for the dawn. The old ship was now firmly wedged between huge rocks. A second night of torture was spent on the rocks.
It was not until the third morning that help came to us. Two Jap Destroyers anchored close by and the old lifeboat from the "Osaka Muru" was lowered with the object of taking a line to one of the Destroyers. Three hours later, one trip had been made, then another lifeboat attempted to link with the other Destroyer, but was carried away across the bay. Lifeboats from the other Destroyer were lowered. All day they plied backwards and forwards in the rough sea, carrying a few POWs at a time. By seven in the evening, we had all been transferred aboard the Destroyer. We were so crowded on these Destroyers, there was no room to lie down. We had had nothing to eat for days. At day break, we found we were running off the coastline of Formosa. The Destroyer sped through the night at speed. The Jap sailors viewed us with curiosity as we were all bloated with berri-berri and the only time we were allowed to move was to go to the side to urinate.
We arrived at the port of Formosa, where we were put on another ship called the "Hakusan-Maru". We were put down into the filthy holds again. It was airless and hot, the portholes all closed. It was not long before our thin bodies were in a pool of sweat, dysentery was now very bad and the death rate was now several a day. We were told the distance from the port we had just left to Japan was a thousand miles. We passed through the East China Sea, The Yellow Sea and finally the Korean Straits.
We thought we were now safe from subs. To our astonishment the convoy was attacked, but once again we were lucky. As we reached Moji we now faced about twelve hours of torture and terror, every night two to three died of heat and exhaustion in the filthy holds. We eventually arrived at a port on the 28th August and were immediately taken to a disinfecting centre, where what little bits of clothing we had, was taken from us and sterilised. From the disinfecting centre we were returned to Moji harbour side and handed over to a group of Jap soldiers. We were then taken to Osake, which took twelve hours. Jap children were running by the side of us spitting. Our work the next day was a steel factory called Otanis. Existence in Japan for us was prison indeed, we were guarded day and night. You had to report every visit to the latrine which was ten to twelve times a night, this was due to the rice we were given. We now had to face a cold winter and boys started dying with pleurisy and pneumonia. We spent twelve months in Japan and were now in a sorry state. I know we couldn’t have held out much longer. At last our luck changed - the Atom Bomb dropped and meant we were free at last. The Yanks came into these pigsties where we slept and I have never seen grown up men cry so much. We cried for joy and they cried seeing human beings looking like skeletons.
American doctors arrived and put the worst cases on stretchers. I couldn’t walk, so was taken to a Jap hospital to be deloused and a medical examination. I was then taken by train, still on a stretcher, to a hospital ship at Yokohama. On board the ship the doctor told me we were off to Okinova, as the Americans had a big field hospital there. As I was carried into the hospital, the last thing I could remember was this huge sign saying to the "X-Ray Dept". On coming round from the operation after a few days, I was told about the operation I had had. It was a perinephric abscess of the kidney.
The surgeon that did the operation came and sat on my bed one day and was asking me about the Burma Railway. He couldn’t believe what I was telling him, He must have sat there for an hour and on leaving my bedside, he laid his hand on my shoulder and said " You don’t realise what a lucky guy you are, do you know how long you would have lived - you would have lived another three days at the most, the abscess was about to burst with peritonitis that would have been it - lucky old you".
I was then taken down to Australia on another hospital ship to Herne Bay hospital in Sydney. I was kept in hospital for about two months, being spoilt and given all the right foods and vitamins. At last the day came when they said I could go home. I was taken to Sydney harbour and the old "Aquitania" was waiting to take me, and hundreds more, home to England. You just could not stop the tears.
It took a month to get home after a very pleasant journey. I must tell you this, a little girl, who was on the boat with her parents, used to talk to me and ask all sorts of questions about the war and she also taught me the words of the latest song of the day in 1946 - "Don’t Fence Me In"
We docked at Southampton and I arrived home in Norwich in the middle of the night in March 1946."
Cyril Ramsey, 5778449, Royal Norfolk Regiment