The Endurance of 7,000 Pows in Thailand
by Carol Cooper
The material for this article comes from information I have researched, details from my father's diary and partly from a report written by POW Major Cyril Wild who was with "F" Force throughout its horrendous ordeal in Thailand. Also included are some extracts taken from the book ' Beyond The Setting Sun' by James Bradley which recapitulates the plight of these ill-fated men with harrowing details of how they were treated by the Japanese after leaving Changi Jail. James Bradley had been in the "F" Force party himself but miraculously survived, possibly because he was not sent into Burma as my father was. His permission was sought to use some extracts from his book.
Large groups of the prisoners began leaving Changi as early as June 1942 for destinations unknown. All groups - or parties as they were known - that departed from Changi were identified by a letter of the alphabet starting with "A" Force. These "Forces" containing hundreds and even thousands of men were sent all over South East Asia to wherever they were needed to serve the Japanese as slave labour. Men from many of the regiments within Changi managed to stay together, initially, but over a period of time as they were moved from destination to destination they often became separated largely due to illnesses and the inability to move. The men within these "Forces" were of multi nationalities, mainly British, Dutch and Australian and later some Americans joined them.
The parties that were sent up into Thailand were transferred from the Singapore Japanese administration to Thai/Burma Japanese administration.
Unlike the others, "F" Force was not deemed to be a working party. The prisoners of war allocated to this force were all sick men, regarded as not fit enough to be transferred to working areas. The 7,000 men within this unit composed of 3,400 British and 3,600 Australians.
The reason for moving them was necessitated, or so the Japanese said, by the lack of provisions. Food was running scarce in Singapore and good conditions and supplies would be abundant in a better climate to enable the sick to recuperate. They were allowed to take loads of equipment such as blankets, cooking utensils, gramophones and even a piano. Transport would be provided so they could take whatever they needed. Plenty of food and medical supplies were promised. Unfortunately the British Officers believed these promises which, as it turned out, were empty promises and in reality the Japanese wanted these men out of Changi and away from Singapore no matter what consequences befell them.
The "F" Force started leaving Singapore in groups from 18th April 1943, but previous to this, on Tuesday 5th January 1943, my father wrote in his diary that he had diphtheria and over the following days and weeks he fights for his life to survive, but it is not until 22nd February that he is feeling stronger and is allowed up for 1 hour a day. His progress is slow through March and he still hadn't recovered when, on the 8th April, he wrote "told officially that all H.Q. is moving up country"
On Sunday 11th April: "As yet I don't know if I am going but I am going to the hospital to ask if I can go."
Monday 12th April: "I'm going. In fact all Div. H.Q. are going, we can take all the stage props, piano etc."
If only, if only, if only he had requested to stay on at Changi, he would have stood a chance, he might have lived. Instead, by asking if he could go he signed his own death warrant.
On 18th April the ill-fated "F" Force, under the command of Lt. Col S. W. Harris, began to leave in 13 train loads heading for Ban Pong in Thailand.
The majority of the prisoners that made up "F" Force had some kind of medical illness brought on since their imprisonment. Many of the diseases that were prevalent were diphtheria, dysentery and beri -beri. All suffered from malnutrition.
My father left on the 24th April. He wrote: "Left Changi by truck approx 4.00 am and arrived Singapore Station at 5.20 am. 27 men to a railway truck, left at 7.30, very hot when the sun came up."
I was to discover that these metal rice trucks were completely enclosed with no ventilation and a double sliding door each side. (On my visit to Thailand I climbed into one of these trucks.) Most men were unable to sit down, having to take turns with their knees tucked up under their chins. There was no sanitation and as many of the men suffered from dysentery, conditions become intolerable. When nature called, men hung their backsides out of the door, but many were too weak to hold onto the moving train and their mates used to help them for fear they would fall out and be killed.
As the heat intensified, the trucks became like ovens and they all suffered from severe thirst. The train had to stop occasionally for water and fuel and the men were given the chance to alight and squat down in the fields.
The country they travelled through was flat, paddy fields and rubber plantations. Through Jahore to Malaya, passing through Kuala Lumpur, Ipor and Alor Star over the Thai border and on to Ban Pong. The journey took five days.
Weds. 28th April "After travelling since Saturday we arrived at a place called Banpong, Thailand. Rotten trip. One case we went for 36 hours without food."
Arriving at Ban Pong the men unloaded, exhausted, having been unable to sleep, ill through their various medical conditions, hungry and thirsty and worse of all, not knowing what lay ahead. What was their fate? Not knowing what was in store had a bad psychological effect on the morale of all the men.
Having unloaded at Ban Pong the men were ordered to dump most of the supplies they had brought with them, including the much needed medical supplies. The Japanese promised to follow on with these supplies in trucks, but if they intended to, it never happened because the monsoons broke out and they were unable to move any transport through the torrential rain and mud. It was later learnt that all their supplies were looted by the local Thai people.
From Ban Pong station the weary and very sick prisoners were ordered to march to the nearest camp. This proved very difficult for many of the weak, seriously ill men, who had previously been told they would not have to march anywhere.
Arriving at the first camp they were appalled to see what awaited them and began to realise that they were not headed for a decent camp and the promises that went with it.
The sight before their eyes was one of filth and squalor. Attap huts with bamboo platforms running down each side, had a space of about two feet for each man laying side by side. The ground consisted of several inches of thick dirty mud. The place was crawling with bed bugs and flies and the makeshift latrines were crawling with thick white maggots.
This was the first of many such camps as they were forced to march, mainly at night, up through Thailand. Changi Jail by comparison was a holiday camp.
Thurs 29th April: "Left Ban Pong at about 9pm to start a march up country. We did approx 20 miles, it was like hell had arrived."
This following narrative : 'F Force in Thailand April-December 1943' was written by Major C. Wild (later to become Colonel) of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Major Wild wrote "As each party arrived at BAN PONG, it was 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 BAN 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 three hundred kilometres which was to follow 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 before widening into a hazardous dry-weather trail through dense and mountainous jungle "
The next few weeks became a hell on earth for these poor, sick, tortured men. They became zombies, stumbling and staggering one foot at a time, mostly at night, unable to see and often in pouring rain with thick mud bogging down their every move. Many died, but my father managed to write a few words in his diary most days. Even on the 7th May ( my parents wedding anniversary) he wrote simply "God Bless you Darling"
May 14th: "Allowed to rest all day, if possible in this heat and flies everywhere. The food is very bad, just rice." He is now at Tarsoe - (better known today as Nam Tok)
The journey took the men along the banks of the Kwai Noi river until reaching Chungkai at 57 kms, where an enormous cutting and embankment was being worked taking a huge toll of lives as they dug out incredible amounts of rock by hand, working both day and night at bayonet point.
They reached the Wampo viaduct at 114 kms with a sheer drop of 20 - 30 feet into the river below into which many weary and half blinded men fell.
Leaving Wampo the jungle became much more dense as they battled on before coming to a large hospital camp - Tarsoe at 130 kms, a base headquarters.
"It was at Tarsoe where Captain Wild and Major Bruce Hunt, an Australian doctor from Perth, were badly beaten up when they pleaded for 36 men to be left at the camp, as they were too ill to carry on"
The men became weaker and weaker, catching every disease going. They were not allowed into some camps because the Japanese were worried about the spreading of diseases Some men had to be left, dying soon after and a little food and water was quickly passed to the weary men from the POW workers in the camps. Any stragglers were beaten to keep
Up. If they stopped because of constant urges through dysentery then they were kicked and punched. The men and their officers tried desperately to help each other and to support each other physically.
The Camps where they were allowed to stay overnight often had no shelter, they would drop to the ground, but it was only the foolhardy who dared to remove their boots for fear of not being able to get them on again. Their feet were swollen, blistered, burnt and covered in sores and cuts as for many their boots were gradually deteriorating .
They passed Hintok at 155 kms and then to Kinsaiyok at 172 kms along tracks which other poor souls before them had to blast out the rock, but this camp was badly affected by cholera at an epidemic level, so the men of "F" Force were once more pushed on without stopping.
POWs working in these camps at the time of "F" Force passing through have been known to say that they thought their own plight was insufferable, but that of "F" Force could never be described, hundreds of them, passing through the camps for days, dead on their feet, dead in their expression, not seeing, just moving one leg in front of the other, staggering to keep up or they were lost, dragging themselves on and on,
" The march was carried out in stages of twenty to thirty kilometres and lasted two and a half 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, sometimes 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 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 might after night in spite of the protests of their officers "
The Japanese had intended that "F" Force would replace any of those who had already died on the railway. As they moved on and up through Thailand any, if there were any at all, who were deemed fit to work were pulled out of the march and set to work, but as the majority were very sick men from the very beginning on leaving Changi, then so very few were unable to work and the treatment they faced was a far greater trial than any other POW on the railway.
They passed through Rin Tin at 181 kms which was a foul decaying place where a huge number of deaths occurred and then there was Hindato, 198 kms, and the terrain was becoming more impassable until they came to Konkuita at 262 kms. It was close to here where the rail track from the Burma end was to meet up with the rail track coming up through Thailand. The joining of these two tracks took place on the 17th October 1943. For the Japanese it was a special occasion and they celebrated joining the two sections with a golden spike.
But returning to my father. On 6th June 1943, he arrived in Nikki, a camp beside the railway in the northern section of Thailand, but is ill again with malaria and terribly weak, not having recovered sufficiently from the diphtheria. He was utterly exhausted as were his remaining comrades. Nikke was the headquarters camp of "F" Force at 282 kms under the command of Col Banno of the Imperial Japanese Army, an indescribable place of utter filth, a sea of mud, being the monsoon season, and makeshift huts. The 'attap' huts as they were called, made from bamboo and palm leaves were hardly water-proof, so the men lived and slept in dripping wet conditions on narrow platforms, about 2 ft each, just above the mud
The camps in Northern Thailand were reputed as being some of the worst that any POW had to contend with, specially Nikke and Upper and Lower Sonkerai. Conditions in these camps were appalling when the men arrived, rife with diseases and squalor left by the previous occupants - the local coolies.
These Asian workers were not very clean with little knowledge of Western hygiene. The POWs were subjected to fifthly huts and camps covered in excrement and millions of germ-carrying flies, subsequently malaria and cholera broke out and spread very quickly.
The Asians were also very lax in burying their dead and this all contributed to contaminated camps which affected the men of "F" Force very badly, already weak from malnutrition, other debilitating diseases and the lack of medicine Many camps were no more than a clearing in the jungle with no protection overhead to ward off the searing heat of the sun or the torrential rain in monsoons.
"F" Force became known as the "ill-fated" Force because of the numerous adverse medical reports
" Cholera broke out in the first POW camp early in May. This was directly attributable to the criminal negligence of the Japanese. For at Konkuita, the last staging camp but two, every one of the thirteen marching parties was forced to camp for one or more days within a few yards of huts filled with hundreds of cholera-stricken coolies and 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 L. Co. Banno, warning him of the inevitable consequences and demanding that: either all forward movement should be stopped or the infection point should be by-passed. But nothing was done, the march forward continued and by the end of May, cholera was an epidemic in all five labour camps. "
On the 18th June 1943 my father wrote: "Food short, weather still the same with tons of rain, how I wish they would take us back to Changi."
By now of course they knew for certain that the promises issued to them in Changi by Major-General Arimutra were all lies. It had been a lure to get all sick men out of Changi without an uproar from the medical doctors. Officers fell for the bait and all now realised that the thousands of sick and under-nourished men were given tasks far beyond human endurance and few, if any, would survive.
Shimo Nieke, Nikke, Shimo Songkrai, Songkrai Camp No2 and Kami Songkrai were the five camps around Nikke, which the "F" Force occupied. The numbers were now down to 5,000 men and they had been given the task of completing a stretch of 37 kms of railway through hilly and flooded jungle just south of the Three Pagoda Pass. The work was arduous in the extreme with men carrying logs far beyond their strength and with many of the prisoners standing for hours in waist-deep water, hauling on ropes with block and tackle constructing yet another bridge for the rail track.
My father writes of the terrible conditions in which they are living and dying. A filthy hell hole, it is rotten with constant rain. He writes of 167 deaths this month while in Nikke with 28 deaths in one night from cholera. He wrote: "Its simply a case of plain murder" He helps to carry away the dead and wrote "What a night, it is horrible, the poor chaps are simply stripped and dumped 8 to a grave"
While they were carrying out the levelling of the terrain for the track, all the material they used had to be carried by hand in flat baskets. If men died they were taken back and left laying on the ground until roll call. The death of my father's friend bears testament to this cruel act.
It is one of the saddest entries in his diary when his friend Reg dies. His words convey how terribly upset and devastated he is, how he tries to comfort him all night, trying to keep him warm and the mosquitoes away. He describes poor Reg and what he went through but sadly he died and had to be left in the tent all day until the Japanese roll call.
Forced beyond all endurance, they collapsed at night into their huts where they lay in the dark on bamboo platforms that were their beds. Their clothes were virtually non existent. My father wrote of his one pair of holey socks which are filthy and he said my mother would not use his towel for a floor cloth. Most only had a "jap-happy" to wear - a simple loin cloth. Their boots were now worn out, so their feet suffered badly from cuts and tropical ulcers. Several men suffered from poisoned feet and trench foot from constantly working in the water.
My father was to stay at Nikke until Monday 9th August during which time he wrote constantly of the terrible conditions, the continuous rain, the increasing toll of deaths. He describes it as "one big hell hole" He is continually ill with malaria and the doctors have diagnosed him as having post diphtheria heart and cardiac beri-beri, due to the diphtheria he suffered a few months earlier.
Unlike other POWs in Thailand "F" Force never came under the Thai administration, but remained under Major Gen Arimura's headquarters at Changi. The responsibility of "F" Force was delegated to Lt. Co. Banno at Nikke who was incapable of protecting the POWs from the outrageous demands of the Japanese engineers. There appears to be little communication between the Colonel and the Chief engineers.
The Japanese belief was that if they did not feed the sick men then they would be forced to get up and go to work . But the men could not be driven, they were past being driven, being too sick even to work for food, so many continued to die not only from their diseases but from starvation.
After Nikke came Songkarai at 294 kms.
My father wrote: Monday 9th August : "Left Nikke about 9 o'clock, passed No 1 Camp but had to stop at No 2 camp (Sonkarai) due to bridge being down."
On the 12th August my father remembers my sister's birthday and wrote:
"Many Happy Returns Darling Daughter and God Bless You All, my thoughts are with you all today. We are still under canvas at this camp waiting, another of our party has just died from dysentery.
Saturday 14th:" It seems we are sort of forgotten men because no one seems to worry about us and we are still stuck in this pigsty of a hole. There are over 2,000 men here and the deaths average 9 a day."
There were many camps in this area which was right on the Burma border, including Lower Sonkarai and Upper Sonkarai. These and the five camps around Nikke were the main camps along a 37 kms stretch immediately before the Three Pagoda Pass, the border point.
Col F. Dillon of the 18th Division said of Sonkarai that the conditions there were probably worse than any other. Engineer Officer Lt. Abe made no attempt at any time to try and stop the brutal treatment by his men, even in his presence.Hundreds of men are reported to have died in the Sonkarai camp from May 1943 and during the following months.
"I shall never forget the torrential rain which had been coming down virtually unceasingly for days, but as we moved across in the pitch dark with all the sick it seemed worse than ever. One report says there were 175 men, but I am convinced in my own mind that the number was nearer half that but sadly many men died that night.
Next morning as soon as it was light, I looked around our new sodden camp site and was horrified to find it had been the cremation area for the coolies and was littered with partly cremated bodies."
Capt P.U . Coates wrote about "F" Force in his diary entitled "Up Country with "F" Force" - he scrawled the words:
"This move was altogether the most inhuman thing I have ever witnessed."
On Tuesday 24th August my father wrote of moving onto Burma and they have been told that the new camp will have good food, fresh vegetables and eggs. He said they wanted to get there as soon as possible.
Wednesday 25th August: "Things are definitely moving. Natives are doing most of the work now and the railway is progressing, it runs through this camp and they are building it at the rate of 2 kms a day."
On Friday August 27th my father writes of leaving the Sonkarai area - camp No. 5 and at about 12.30 passed into Burma through the Pagoda Pass.
Although I have been unable to find out why, I have discovered during my research that most of the "F" Force stayed in the camps south of the Burmese border, but after arriving in his new camp (it is Tambaya, but he does not mention the name) he writes that the food does improve and the rain stops. But he also wrote that every night another party of men arrives. (I believe they may be some of "H" Force.)
On the 2nd September he wrote another party arrived this morning bringing 14 bodies with them - men who died on the way. My father now has malaria again and temporarily loses track of the days. When he writes again he has learnt that 2,000 men have died out of the 7,000 men that left Changi with "F" Force. Tambaya is classed as a 'hospital' camp and there are over 1,700 men, all of whom are very sick. A few days later he wrote that 80 more men have died in the past seven days.
He writes that many limbs have to be amputated through ulcers, but a few days later he is very ill again with Malaria.
The first week in October he learns the railway will soon be finished and they will return to Changi. But he is obviously becoming weaker and writes less each day. On the 27th October he write that 573 have now died since they arrived.
In November those who have survived finally start being moved back down the line. On Saturday 20th November my father wrote, "first party of 200 leave today", but he is very ill and cannot go.
He wrote "There will be about 300 of us left, but we will be following in a month or so"
I know now that those remaining 300 never left. My father died on the 17th December 1943.
I now have a copy of the Tambaya Hospital diary and it clearly shows the decision that was made to leave the very sick behind. It was decided they would not survive the journey back south, but they did not survive being left either and I so often wonder if the remaining 300 were given the chance to leave just how many might have clung on and made it.
N.B.Of those that survived the journey from Burma back down south to Kanchanaburi, and eventually back to Singapore, some were miraculously still alive when liberation finally came. For others it was not to be. Having survived the terrible savage ordeal of the march up through Thailand with "F" Force, they were sent on to other destinations to work as slave labour. Their poor emaciated and disease-ridden bodies never had a chance to recover from those appalling months in Thailand and plunged yet again into conditions which defies belief, they were doomed to die.
I have written this brief account of the evil that was bestowed upon the tragic and pitiable men of "F" Force so that those who visit this web site can reflect upon their courage as they faced the certain knowledge that they were encountering death with every step they took.
Following the end of the war, a long series of War Crimes Trials began which lasted through 1945 and 1946.
Colonel Cyril Wild, who had reported on the conditions suffered by the "F" Force (extracts mentioned in the article above), found himself in a singular position in the months following the Japanese surrender.
Although still not fully recovered from his own ordeal after three and half years as a POW, Wild did not give himself up to the longed-for journey back to England. He remained in Singapore to use his incalculable knowledge and experience during the primary work of starting the war crimes investigations
He was given the task of tracking down all Japanese, whatever rank, who had carried out atrocities against prisoners of war and to whom charges could be laid in respect of war crimes.
Being fluent in Japanese was a great advantage to Wild in his investigations as he was able to discover, through personal interrogations, the truth about many atrocities which might well have remained a mystery for ever. But he also bore the personal scars of one who had suffered much at the hands of the Japanese while with "F" Force and consequently he carried a great determination to see that justice was done.
Wild was therefore in a very unique position. He was a first class interpreter, as his investigations progressed he became a ruthless interrogator and his own experiences made him a first-hand key witness.
The task of seeking out those who were accountable for the barbarous criminal treatment of "F" Force was a duty Cyril Wild was eager to undertake. He had not only witnessed, but had also been victim of the horrendous treatment metered out to the POW's who were sent up through Thailand. The Japanese officers and guards, responsible for the deaths of so many men who died with "F" Force, had much to fear when Cyril Wild was due to give evidence at the trials held in Singapore.
But his evidence was never given. Shortly before he was due to appear in court Cyril Wild was summoned to Tokyo to give evidence at war crimes trials being held there. His task completed in Tokyo, Wild was very apprehensive and keen to get back to Singapore as soon as possible so as not to miss the Singapore trials on the "F" Force atrocities.
He left Tokyo and flew first to Hong Kong, but then faced a delay waiting for a flight to Singapore. He was then offered a last minute chance to board a Dakota scheduled for Singapore. The date was 25th September 1946. The plane took off and crashed almost immediately killing everyone on board. Cyril Wild was 38, his body was found and buried in Hong Kong.
The day after the fateful 'accident', and there were many who did not believe it was, the "F" Force trials began in Singapore. The trials lasted for four weeks and Wild's written testimony played a vital part in seeing that, in the main, justice was done. His death was more than a tragedy; he had worked relentlessly for months to bring the perpetrators to trial. He knew the alleged criminals, he knew first-hand the crimes committed but he had not come through unscathed. Was it irony, an accident or something else that ended Cyril Wild's life so abruptly and so tragically?