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Condition of POWs in Thailand

‍May to December 1943

NOTE: This report by Colonel F.J. Dillon, MC - Royal Indian Army Service Corps was asked for by the Japanese Kempei (Gestapo) after "F" Force had been brought down to Kanburi, Thailand having finished the Burma- Thailand railway. The story of "F" Force, sent up from Singapore, is told below. Needless to say nothing whatever was done about this report, apart from isolated camps, which had improved conditions according to type and temperature of the Japanese camps commandant. Colonel Dillon was second in command to Colonel Harris of "F" Force.


The representative of the Military Police of the I.J.A. required a frank report to be made on the recent condition of Prisoners of War in Thailand with suggestions for the improvement of Prisoners of War generally. Accordingly this report is made in two parts:- I Facts; II Suggestions. Part I is neither a complaint nor a protest but a statement of facts, all of which can be substantiated by officers who were present.

The suggestions in Part II are made in the sincere hope that the conditions of Prisoners of War will improve in the future, since it is our belief that our recent experiences have not been in accord with the policy or intentions of the I.J. Government in Tokyo or the Japanese Red Cross who cannot have been aware of the actual state of affairs in Thailand.

Three 'fit' workers at Shimo Sonkurai No 1 Campby kind permission of Tim Bowden

I Facts:

(1) Early in April orders were issued to prepare 7000 Prisoners of War for a move by train. The order stated that -

(a) The reason for the move was that the food situation in Singapore was difficult and it would be far better in the new place.

(b) This was NOT a working party.

(c) As there were not 7000 fit men in Changi, 30% of the party were to be unfit men, unfit to march or work. The unfit would have a better chance of recovery with good food and in a pleasant hilly place with facilities for recreation.

(d) There would be no marching except for short distances from train to a nearby camp, and transport would be provided for baggage and men unfit to march.

(e) Bands were to be taken.

(f) All tools and cooking gear and an engine and gear for electric light were to be taken.

(g) Gramophones, blankets and clothing and mosquito nets would be issued at the new camp.

(h) A good canteen would be available in each camp after three weeks. Canteen supplies for the first three weeks were to be bought with the prisoners' money before they left Changi.

(i) The party would include a medical party of about 350 with equipment for a central hospital of 400 patients, and medical supplies for three months.


(2) As each trainload of 600 arrived at Bampong, they were informed, to their astonishment, that a march of several days had to be carried out by all men including 30% unfit. All kit that officers and men could not carry was to be dumped at Bampong. This amounted to about 15 railway trucks of stores and baggage.


(3) The march, in fact, was one of 300 kilometres in 15 stages and lasted for two and a half weeks. Marching at nights along a rough jungle track (except for the first two stages) and the fact that all torches of Prisoners of War had been taken at Bampong, control of Prisoner of War officers and N.C.Os was difficult or impossible.


(4) After the first stage, the unfit men became increasingly ill and were a heavy handicap to the other men, who were at first fairly fit, but they rapidly became ill and exhausted as they helped and even carried the increasing number of men who were unable to walk unaided.


(5) Conditions at the staging camps were:-

(a) At no stage was overhead cover provided, except for tents (for 100 men) at one camp. Weather was variable and the rainy season started while the march was in progress.

(b) Food supplies were generally very poor and in many camps consisted of rice only.

(c) Water was very short in many camps and at Kamburi drinking water had to be bought by prisoners at a privately-owned well. Col. Harris protested, but the matter was not put right.

(d) No proper arrangements existed for retaining sick at these camps and the men who were absolutely unfit to march owing to disease and weakness were beaten and driven from camp to camp. Officers, including Medical Officers, who begged and prayed for sick men to be left behind were themselves beaten at many camps. In one particular case the Japanese Medical Officer (Lt.) ordered the Japanese corporal in charge of Tarso camp to leave 36 men behind as they were too ill to be moved. The corporal refused to obey this order, although it was repeated in writing, and a British Officer (Major) interpreter and an Australian doctor (Major) were severely beaten when they protested. A bone in the doctor's hand was broken. Of these sick men who were compelled to march, nearly all have since died, including an Australian Chaplain who died at the next camp. (The Jap Medical Officer had particularly said that the Chaplain should not march as he was an elderly man with a weak heart and was already at the end of his strength.)

(e) The men marched all night as a rule from 7pm to 7am. They had to perform camp duties, get their meals and wash during the day, so they got very little rest.


(6) Medical

(a) Such medical supplies as had been hurriedly collected at Bampong and carried by hand by the marching party were rapidly exhausted and the march continued with no medicines at all.

(b) Dysentery and diarrhoea broke out in all parties and exhaustion was general. Ulcerated feet occurred in large numbers due to sick men with blistered feet being forced to march on day after day.


(7) At Concoita the marching parties were quartered in the same camp as a Thai

labour corps who were suffering from cholera. Infection was picked up by each of the 13 marching parties.


(8) On 15th May, cholera broke out at Shimo Nicke. Col. Harris (C.O.) immediately reported to Col. Banno, the I.J.A. Commander and suggested that movement should cease until the outbreak was under control, and that Konkoita camp should at all costs not be used for further parties. Unfortunately Col. Banno was unable to comply with this request and as a result, cholera was spread to all 5 camps occupied by the force.


(9) Only a very small quantity of medical stores at Bampong were brought up later by lorry. (Over three-quarters of it was still at Bampong when the force returned to Kamburi in December.) The I.J.A. were at this time unable to provide or produce any medical supplies whatsoever except cholera vaccine and quinine which were always supplied as required. Col. Banno gave 6 tins of milk of his own property.


(10) By the end of May about 5000 Prisoners of War had been distributed to several different camps. The camps consisted of huts without roofing, although the rainy season had now started and the rain was falling heavily every day and night. The camps were not fully roofed for several weeks during which time men had no proper shelter, consequently deaths from pneumonia were numerous.


(11) In spite of the above conditions, the general state of exhaustion of the men, the presence of the epidemic cholera in all camps, the practically universal malaria, diarrhoea and dysentery, the men were put to work at once by the I.J.A. engineers.


(12) Maximum numbers of men were taken to work each day. This left insufficient numbers of men in camp for sanitary duties and for nursing the sick, whilst disease of every kind increased. In some camps Red Cross personnel were forced to go out and work on the roads, but this was quickly stopped by Col. Banno,


(13) In several camps the scarcity of tools made improvements and sanitation difficult or impossible. The tools which the prisoners had brought from Changi and which were part of the heavy baggage at Bampong were never brought up.


(14) It was clear to all prisoner officers that if the engineers continued to take all fit and convalescent men to work every day, there would soon be no men at all fit to work. In fact the engineers were rapidly destroying their only available source of labour. This aspect was explained to our own I.J.A. H.Q., who clearly agreed but were unable to prevent the engineers from doing apparently as they liked. The task in front of the engineers and the need for speed was fully realised by us, but the destruction of their only available labour was just as bad from their point of view as ours. A little common sense on the part of the engineers could, early in June, have saved the situation for themselves and us. Unfortunately for us, this short-sighted policy continued, and by the end of June, only about 700 of the 5000 men north of Nicke were at work daily, and of these at least half were unfit and useless for heavy work. Of the remainder, except for Red Cross personnel (including officers) all men were lying ill in the camp hospital.


(15) By this time the road from the south was impassable and to the north was difficult, and the scale of rations fell below the level required to keep men fit and in health and far below the level required to help sick men back to health. It has been said that we were on the same rations as the I.J.A. soldiers, but this was not true as could easily be proved. The rations of the men in hospital were fixed at far too low a scale (250-300 grams. of rice a day with a small quantity of beans). In our opinion this was a great mistake and we continually said so to the I.J.A. There seemed to be an idea that the lack of pay and rations would drive the men out of the hospital, but this, of course, would only happen if the men were not really ill. There was, however, no deception about the illness of our men, and men were dying in large numbers.


(16) As the heath of the men grew worse, the demands of the engineers were more and more difficult to meet and their treatment of our weak men whilst at work became more and more brutal. The work was often beyond what reasonably could be expected of fit men, and it was certainly beyond the strength of our weak men. This especially relates to the carriage of heavy logs. It was noticed that with Thai or Burmese labour, two or three times the number of men were used. It became common for our men to be literally driven with wire whips and bamboo sticks throughout the whole day. Hitting with the fist and kicking also frequently occurred throughout the day. It was emphasised that the beating was not for disciplinary purposes, but was intended to drive unfit men to efforts beyond their strength.


(17) Hours of work were excessive, 14 hours a day was a common occurrence and work went on day after day without a break for months. Many men never saw their camp in daylight for weeks on end, and never had a chance to wash themselves or their clothes.


(18) In some camps where the numbers of fit men fell below the engineers' demands, the engineers came into the camps themselves and forced the prisoners out of the hospital to work. Except in isolated cases, officers were not made to work outside the camp, but the engineers often made the threat that officers would be taken for work if more numbers were not turned out from hospital.


(19) At Sonkrai where conditions were worst, the I.J.A. engineering officer, Lt. Abe himself came into the officers' quarters, and asking to see the six officers who were most seriously ill (of whom three subsequently died) said, "Unless more men are produced for work tomorrow, I will send my men to take these officers out to work." This engineer officer was conspicuous at all times in failing to stop the brutal treatment of prisoners by his men, even if it happened in his presence. Of the 1600 men who were originally sent to Sonkrai camp in May, 1200 were already dead and 200 more were still in hospital, of whom many are not expected to recover. Many petitions and appeals were made to Lt. Abe but he treated them with contempt. The result would have been worse if it had not been for the arrival of Lt. Wakabayashi (of the Malayan P.O.W. Administration) in Sonkrai camp at the beginning of August. From the day of his arrival things gradually improved.


(20) By July, more than half of the force were without boots and this caused a large number of poisoned and trench feet from the continual work in the wet. Blankets were not issued as promised (in Changi) to men without them. Clothing issues were negligible. Issues of medical stores were totally inadequate; bandages and dressings were seldom used and only in small quantities. For hundreds of tropical ulcer cases, dressings were improvised from banana leaves and bandages from sleeves and legs of men's trousers. Consequently many limbs had to be amputated unnecessarily and many patients died.


(21) By the end of July the road from Bampong was still impassable, but although the river was open to traffic and was in use by the I.J.A. and Thai shopkeepers, our medical and other stores at Bampong were still not brought up, and in the end were never brought up. This was in spite of our repeated protests.


(22) It was during the foregoing period that several men, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, disappeared into the jungle. Some probably had the idea of escaping, some undoubtedly left so as to die in freedom rather than in captivity, of disease, illness and ill-treatment. The men on the whole were in despair. The choice in front of them seemed to be death from disease or never-ending toil and brutal treatment at the hands of the engineers. Their officers were unable to protect them in spite of all their efforts. One party of officers, seeing their men dying and ill-treated around them, and in despair of getting any redress from the I.J.A., attempted to escape so as to let the world know what was happening to the prisoners and to obtain help from the International Red Cross. This party failed as was inevitable. Five perished from privation in the jungle and the remaining four were recaptured.


(23) In August a hospital was established in Burma and about 2000 men were sent there. Unfortunately the rations were still deficient of the necessary vitamins and 800 died. Nevertheless the Burma hospital did great good for there was no regular engineer work and therefore many men had a chance to get well slowly.


(24) From August onwards things improved at Sonkrai, but did not improve much at Kami-Sonkrai. As late as October, for instance, the engineers were blasting in a quarry behind the prisoners' hospital in such a way that rocks and stones fell on the hospital huts at each blast. The huts were crammed full of patients, many of whom were dying; (about 8 a day were dying). All patients were terrorised. Many were hit and more or less seriously injured. One man had his arm broken and subsequently died from a combination of this injury and his previous disease. This went on for over a week before representations made to I.J.A. officers in charge of the camp were successful. Blasting continued in such a way that rocks did not fall on the hospital, just showing that the previous practice had been avoidable. In this camp also, the latrines used by several hundred Tamil labourers were within 10 yards of the prisoner officers' quarters. The Tamils had suspected cholera and smallpox at the time.


(25) At all camps accommodation was inadequate. Men actually slept touching each other. As a result skin disease infection was 100% throughout the force. Excepting at Sonkrai, officers were as badly off as the men.


(26) The move back to Kamburi took place in November, but the men were in such a state that, although the worst cases were left in Burma, 46 died on the train journey and 186 more during the first three weeks in Kamburi, in spite of better food and living conditions. It is certain that several hundreds more will die within the next month or so from the result of their treatment in Thailand.


(27) Our guards on the whole treated us well. Face slapping of all ranks was discouraged by I.J.A. officers but was still fairly common. It nearly always arose from language misunderstanding and was not in itself serious although it makes the maintenance of discipline very difficult for prisoner officers when their men see their faces slapped by young Jap privates. Similarly when men are slapped and beaten it merely breeds resentment and bad feeling which will last long after the war. There were some guards, however, who seemed incapable of being put in charge of any task without losing their tempers and hitting prisoners. The most flagrant case was that of Chunsoko Toyama, who claims to be a well-educated man. At Bampong he hit officers and men of every party with a heavy steel shaft golf club. He cut one major's head open and badly damaged another major's arm, and severely hurt many others. The cause of these assaults was never known. Later, at Shimo-Sonkrai and at Kami-Sonkrai camp he habitually hit officers and men on every possible occasion for just cause. He has an ungovernable temper and is apparently uncontrollable by his own officers. Apart from actually striking he was always at pains to be insulting to officers, especially senior officers.


(28) There were many cases latterly in which our guards prevented engineers from ill-treating prisoners.


(29) It may be thought that some of the above report was exaggerated. It is, however, only the barest outline of a period of intense hardship suffered by parties of prisoners of war. If proof is wanted, it is surely sufficient to point to the fact that of 7000 prisoners who left Changi in April, now in December about 3000 are dead, 3000 more are in hospital or convalescent, of whom hundreds more will die within the next few months as a result of the hardships they have undergone.


(30) We know from letters we have received from England and Australia that it is believed there that prisoners of war are being well treated by the Japanese. If the actual facts regarding Thailand are known abroad, the news will be greeted with indignation and amazement.


II Suggestions


We ask firstly that we should be treated in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, particularly those of 1906/7, both of which were ratified by Britain and Japan. It has been suggested that the unconditional surrender of Singapore placed the prisoners from Singapore outside the terms of the Hague Convention. This is obviously not so. The position of any prisoner who is captured on the field of battle is that of unconditional surrender, but no-one would suggest that he is not covered by the Convention. How then can the nature of the Singapore surrender (which was correctly made at the written request of General Yamashita in order to avoid further loss of life on both sides, and especially the lives of the civilians in the city) put the Garrison of Singapore outside the terms of the Convention.

Detailed Suggestions

The following detailed suggestions are all consequent upon this general one:-

(1) Doctors and Red Cross personnel are not Prisoners of War and should not be treated as prisoners (Geneva Convention 1907 Art.9).

(2) Prisoners should be humanely treated (Annexe to Hague Convention 1907 Art. 4).

(3) Work should not be excessive (Annexe to Hague Convention 1907 Art 6).

(4) Prisoners should be treated as regards rations, quarters and clothing on the same footing as the troops of the Government which first captured them (Annexe to Hague Convention 1907 Art 7).


Note 1

All the above Articles were broken in Thailand.

Note 2

As regards rations, it is not sufficient to fix a scale of rations and clothing; it is essential that the rations should reach the prisoners. It is suggested that the Military Police undertake the duty of seeing that the scale of issue allowed does in fact reach the prisoners.

Note 3

As regards quarters, it should be remembered that officer prisoners PAY for their quarters.


(5) Officers must not be employed for labour. (This equally applies to being threatened with labour. Annexe to Hague Convention Art.6). There were not many instances where officers' parties were made to labour but it is known to all of us that many hundreds of officers' and other parties were forced to work as labourers on road and railway construction in organised gangs. The treatment of officer prisoner of war is without precedence in the history of modern war besides being a direct breach of the Hague Convention. It will not be forgotten for 100 years.

(6) Red Cross Representatives should be allowed to visit P.O.W. camps (Annexe to Hague Convention 1907 Art.15). No representatives were allowed to visit us in Thailand.

(7) Proper arrangements should be made to collect deceased personnel's effects (Annexe to Hague Convention 1907 Art. 14). This has not been done. As a result many effects have been lost.

(8) Soldiers to be respected and taken care of when sick (Geneva Convention 1900 Art.1). This was often broken in Thailand and sick men made to work.

(9) Games, entertainments, reading, education classes and lectures should be encouraged to keep up morale.

(10) Arrangements for letters to and from home should be improved. Letters arriving have been one year old and we have not been allowed to write a single letter home, but only a few lines on a postcard twice in two years. Prisoners of war in all belligerent countries in Europe are allowed to write as follows:- Officers - 2 letters and 2 postcards each month; Other Ranks - 1 letter and 1 postcard each month.