The Mergui Road, Burma
by ALBERT EDWARD GEORGE RAVEN(Ex-18th Division - Royal Corps of Signals)
This account was written several years after the Second World War to provide self-therapy and perhaps to stem the flow of violent and regular nightmares experienced by Albert. I bear witness to the fact that the nightmares continued.
Some thirty-five years later, and shortly after we were married, we visited some of the places which had been the scene of the horrors described and the nightmares stopped!
He expressed the opinion to me that much had been made of the suffering by POWs on the 'Railway of Death', and rightly so, but considered that his experience while helping to construct the escape road for the Japanese was the worst he had had to undergo and that he was extremely fortunate to have survived.
The droning noise in my ears was persistent and grew louder and louder until I was forced to open my eyes. My head was spinning and my ears buzzing, my lips swollen and cracked and my throat was dry. I was soaked in sweat. The sores on my arms and legs had dried and crusted and my groin and armpits swollen with poison. My fingers cracked as I tried to clench my fists.
"He's waking!" I looked up into the face of the MO kneeling by my side. He spoke to an orderly. This then had been the droning noise that had awakened me. "How do you feel?" he asked. As I opened my mouth to reply a sharp pain ripped at the corners of my mouth. The sores had split. The orderly bathed my lips with water and I drank greedily. I tried again but this time could only manage to croak. Finally I managed to mumble something sounding like "not too bad". He nodded and turned to the orderly and, through the haze, I heard snatches of conversation "….spinal malaria ….malnutrition….septicaemia, beriberi…." I heard no more. I was safe! I was alive and that was the only thing that mattered to me. I had come back to Nakom Paton from the hell and nightmare of the Mergui Road.
Three months previously I had left Nakom Paton with a party of 1,000 'light sick' for a camp down the Kra Isthmus. The Japanese had specially requested a party of light sick for an easy job. Good food, light work and plenty of relaxation were promised. We were glad to go. Nakom Paton was a hospital camp and the whole atmosphere fast became irksome to men recovering from illnesses. Despite its neat appearance, it was a grimly dangerous camp for morale. We should have known better than to look forward to this 'easy job'! Three years of captivity should have taught us the bitter lesson of believing Japanese statements. Rumours of Allied successes on all fronts had apparently taken the edge off our memories of what had happened during those three bitter years. We actually thought that the Japanese were relenting in the face of defeat. How mistaken we were!
To the ordinary man in the street the sad history of Far Eastern prisoners of war brings to mind the famous Railway of Death - and rightly so. It was a supreme tragedy in which thousands of lives were lost under conditions of utter tyranny and suffering. The building of the Mergui Road in 1945 was much smaller in comparison but an even greater tragedy. Its thousand cast were all seasoned veterans of the Railway: they had all taken their share in that first tragedy. They were tired, they were not fit. Few men returned from the Mergui Road. Some, like myself, were luckily evacuated in July. Hundreds died. The remaining few were rescued by Allied troops after the cessation of hostilities.
We left Nakom Paton by train on April 3rd 1945 and arrived at Pretchup Kirikan in Southern Siam early the following day. We were fairly contented as rumour had it that we were going to erect a new camp for POWs. We learned the truth at Kirikan. The Japanese had been constructing a road across the Kra Isthmus connecting Kirikan in the Gulf of Siam with Mergui in the Bay of Bengal in Burma. The road was being literally hacked out of the virgin jungle, up over the road between (?) Tanasserion Yomas mountains before falling into the coastal plain and on to Mergui. Various sections of the road had been completed by native labour. Our task was to join up the various sections and finally link up with the Mergui end. There were no natives left on the road - they had either died or run away. Camps had been established at intervals along the road and having been split into parties, we were to march to our various camps. I was in the last party and our task would be to join up the road at its highest point; an 80 kilometer march in four days.
Vainly we protested. The Japs brushed our protests aside. Again we protested. Then followed the usual familiar pattern of events. The Japs cajoled, they promised us everything - food, tobacco, rest etc. They threatened, they screamed, they swore. Finally there came the inevitable platoon of infantry to face us, rifles raised. We knew that we had gone as far as we dared. We gave in, still protesting. Within an hour we were on our way through the jungle.
The march was four days of torture. The atmosphere was humid and the tropical sun beat down mercilessly. Leeches abounded, clinging to our legs and sucking the little blood remaining in our bodies. Our clothing and footwear, such as we possessed, became sodden with sweat. We stripped, took off our footwear and walked barefoot through the dust, mud, rocks and thorns, clad only in our loin-cloths. Allied planes zoomed over the jungle road at frequent intervals sending us crashing into the undergrowth to emerge bruised, scratched and badly shaken. These planes were armed with cannon.
Water was precious. We were allowed one filling a day in our containers. If we were fortunate enough to come across a stream, we jumped in eagerly, ignoring the guards. Dirty water? Who cared? We were past caring. Each night we staggered into a broken down bamboo staging camp, sited by a stream. Here in the darkness we would bathe, have a meal of rice and dried fish and bed down for the night. The camps were infested with bugs and mosquitos with an ever-present stench. Each night became an eternal battle between the mosquitos, the bugs and our weary bodies.
Each day's march was the same. We rose before dawn: a mess tin of rice for breakfast and a refill for the journey. We carried our sick from camp to camp and at each camp we picked up further things to carry. We picked up our supply of shovels, axes and chankols. We picked up our rice supply in two hundred-weight sacks together with our supplies of dried fruit and seaweed. At our last camp we even picked up our cooking equipment. We were ill-equipped to face this task. Three years of harsh and bitter treatment had tried us sorely and our bodies were weak through lack of proper food plus disease.
The last day's march for our party bound for the top camp was even worse than those preceding. We turned off the road through a narrow jungle track. Ragged, unkempt, haggard and weary we made our way slowly through the undergrowth. The track was uphill and slipping, the undergrowth thick and wet. The tall trees, pushing upwards for light and air above the undergrowth, closed in on us, enveloping the whole atmosphere in a gloomy world of semi-darkness. We were now high up the slopes of the mountains and the effects of the constant marching were taking their inevitable toll. May collapsed and needed to be carried on improvised stretchers; others tottered or staggered, always helped along by their comrades and inevitably the whole burden of carrying the equipment fell on those of us who were comparatively fit. Now and again came the shout of 'Yazume' from our guards and wearily we would sink to the ground. To speak was an effort.
Late that afternoon we reached our camp. There, in a small jungle clearing, by the side of a narrow, shallow stream stood two broken-down bamboo huts, their attap roofs a mass of holes. In many places the bamboo sleeping platforms had broken down and collapsed and lay on the floor in a tangled heap. It was more foul and primitive than any camp I had ever seen. Its mud floors were littered with filth and a horrible stench permeated the atmosphere. A feeling of fear and foreboding gripped me. Both ahead and behind us lay the dense jungle. No further supplies of food would reach us until the road was through from the base at Kirikan and we would never leave this camp until we had flung the road over the mountains towards Mergui. We were trapped high above the world in this seemingly impenetrable jungle and the only means of exit rested entirely on the efforts that could be extracted from our weak and weary bodies.
The beginnings of an awful truth behind this project had been nagging at my thoughts all through the march and then it flashed. This was to be a one-way road not, as we thought, a supply road for the Japanese in Burma. We had been prisoners for so long and our senses so dulled that it hardly seemed feasible that the Japanese offensive in Burma could be so quickly turned into a retreat. They were retreating headlong before the victorious Allied Armies and this road was to be an avenue of escape. Hence the urgency of this task and the need for its completion before the monsoon season in July.
We started our task the following day, pushing steadily forward towards Tenasserion. We felled trees, removed clumps of tough bamboo, shifted great boulders and generally levelled a surface of roughly 20 feet wide. Our tools were bad - our picks too light. The axes and saws had long since lost their keen edges. We had no time to spare for proper care and maintenance of these tools and they became daily more dilapidated thus increasing our difficulties. We dug, picked and shovelled. We toiled from dawn to long after darkness, returning to camp only when the Japanese were satisfied that we were physically incapable of further work for the day. The heat of the day was stifling and the perspiration dried on our bodies in a fine layer of salt. This salt attracted swarms of wasps, buzzing angrily around our weary bodies. Leeches clung to our legs and toes, dropping off only when their bloated bodies could draw no more blood. At night, we toiled by the light of naptha flares.
Our guards, mostly Japanese, were less harsh in their treatment of us than those on the Railway. Gone was the sadistic outbreak of violence, the bashings and kickings but they were never lenient.
As we toiled on through April into May and June we were steadily getting nearer to our goal. Each morning took us further away from camp to commence our task. Every night at 10, sometimes midnight or even early morning we trod our weary way back to camp. The food was appalling, consisting of rice and seaweed stew and sometimes dried fish. The accumulation of these wretched conditions inevitably took its toll. Each day fewer men paraded for work and each day the few fit men had to do the full quota for the whole party. Malaria, septicaemia, beriberi and malnutrition took their heavy toll and our death roll mounted slowly. Our food supplies dwindled and even rice became scarce. Again and again we appealed to the Japanese, only to meet with the same blunt answer - "Road finish, lorry bring food." Thus the lives of all rested on the few remaining fit and their chances of putting through the road before the monsoons.
We finished the road in July and took a well-earned rest waiting for the lorries to come from Kirikan with food but it was too late. The monsoons broke and the top slopes of the road became a slipping, sliding quagmire through which no mechanical transport could run. The lorries came only as far as the half-way stage and if we wanted food, we would have to walk down and carry it back. We were also informed that none of us were going back even though the road was completed. We were to stay on and maintain the road during the rainy season, thus ensuring it would be kept in good repair. We were stunned by this awful news. We somehow felt then that, for us, the end would not be long delayed. No food, the greater part of our camp down with malaria, no quinine, no drugs and the monsoons upon us. Utterly exhausted, we were in no condition to offer any resistance to the forces ranged against us. England's green and pleasant land was a fast, fading dream.
Now I was sick. After working the whole of the time on the road, I had finally succumbed. Attack after attack of malaria had weakened my resistance. I strove desperately to shake off this vile fever but supplies of quinine were inadequate. My ankles swelled with beriberi, my tongue was blistered and raw and the jungle sores on my arms and legs had turned septic. Weak, weary and dispirited, my mind was growing dull with the eternal misery and hopelessness.
Then, to me and a few others, came a challenge - a challenge to fight for very life itself. I do not know where the instructions came from: Nakom Paton may have heard of our plight or the Japanese may have suddenly become afraid of the situation which was swiftly getting out of hand and rushing headlong towards its inevitable end. The sick men who could walk paraded before the Japanese Gunso. I managed somehow to join them and stood swaying on my feet in the burning sun with my blanket around my shoulders. Slowly he passed in front of us muttering and nodding. He looked at me. "You malaria - Ka?" I nodded. "You taxan malaria - Ka?" I nodded again, then replied "Taxan malaria, go-ju times." "You go Kirikan" he said. "Malaria no goodena." He passed on down the line and picked out about 20 men. We were to go back down the road to Kirikan on foot. This was our only chance and I for one was determined to make it even if I had to crawl there.
So we started off back down the road. Some walked by themselves. Others, myself included, walked in pairs or groups helping each other along. We took one guard. The marks of suffering and agony showed in each and every one of us: gaunt, haggard and unshaven, our hair hanging down to our shoulders, the bones in our faces, ribs and thighs standing out as terrible evidence of the malnutrition. Slowly but steadily we pushed on towards the next camp which we somehow reached by nightfall. Here we found that the conditions were much the same and we left the following morning, taking with us a further quota of 'walking sick.'
That night, we staggered into the half-way camp to come across the most distressing sight I have ever witnessed. It was as if one had entered a graveyard. The attap-roofed huts, once lofty, had through wind and general neglect, become dilapidated. Many of the bamboo sleeping platforms had collapsed and now lay on the ground in a mass of dusty bamboo and attap. Many preferred to sleep in the open. Virtually the whole camp was sick, lying there staring into space. A few were able to make their way slowly to the cookhouse. It was a camp of walking dead. Here lay the results of the last mad and sadistic acts of the Japanese; the final tragedy in the drama that had lasted for 3½ years. These men were too sick to be transported to base.
I made my way slowly down the steps to the stream and lay down full length in the shallow water. I was tired and weary and I could feel the heaviness and languor slowly creeping over me and it was evident that another bout of malaria was on its way. My legs and arms were stiff with the jungle sores and it was an effort to move my fingers. I dried myself in the loin-cloth, slipped on my tattered shorts and made my way wearily back to the camp area. My head was aching and my ears buzzing and I began to shiver. Wrapping my blanket around me, I laid down before the huge fire that was burning in the area to sink into a fitful sleep.
Dawn came and with it transportation to take us to Kirikan. I staggered to my feet to join the party and by an effort of grim determination I managed to crawl the 20 yards or so to the truck. Someone lifted me aboard and I sank into a corner of the lorry oblivious to what was happening around me. Vaguely, I remembered the bumps, the swaying and the frequent stops before the final arrival at Kirikan. Here we rested by the side of the railway track for our train to take us to Nakom Paton.
The rest partially revived me and although the fever was still with me I began to take notice of events around me. Kirikan had changed; it's hive of activity being replaced by an air of desolation. Frequent air strikes by Allied aircraft had left a train of destruction. Buildings had been flattened and the ground was pock-marked with craters. A few smiling Siamese came over and chatted to us in the universally used pidgin English, completely ignoring our guard. They brought us coffee, bananas and tobacco which we accepted gratefully. They told us the news of the end of the war in Europe and the headlong flight of the Japanese in Burma.
We entrained that evening, slowly making our way to Ratburi. Allied planes were sweeping the skies almost continuously. Many times we stopped and took to the paddy, running helter-skelter away from the train which presented a sitting target. Fate was with us and we wended our way slowly towards Ratburi and into a scene of utter chaos. The town had been blanket-bombed the previous day. The railway track was the focal point of utter wreckage. The bombers had scored a direct hit on a troop train. Pieces of carriages and metal lay everywhere and a gaping hole presented what had once been the station. A span of the giant steel bridge that carried the railway over the river was missing and hastily erected to bridge the gap was a crazy, swaying, narrow bamboo construction.
By now I was again shivering with a further attack of fever. I accepted a mouthful of rice and a drink of water but immediately brought the lot up. I was beginning to get delirious and I could not co-ordinate the thoughts of my brain with the movements of my limbs. We slowly made our way towards the bridge, climbing over the debris as we went. I put my foot on that swaying bamboo catwalk and immediately fell on my hands and knees and crawled over. Through the oblivion of my mind one thought prevailed. I must get over. I got over and collapsed in a heap on the grass verge on the other side.
The remainder of that journey was a haze. We passed through the old staging area of Ban Pong where so many of us had camped when we first came to Thailand. We stopped at Non Pladuk - scene of the disastrous bombing by Allied planes early in 1945 where so many were killed. I remember being propped up on the parade ground at Nakom Paton. I awoke in hospital two days later. I was alive! I had beaten the combination of the Japanese and spinal malaria.
THE NIGHTMARE OF THE MERGUI ROAD WAS OVER