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The Pits

By Frank Tantum

The time and date is June 1945. I am a Prisoner of War of the Japanese and with a group of other prisoners am working digging a large pit. The pit or trench is thirty feet long, twelve feet wide and ten feet deep. Where we are is on the border of Thailand and Burma alongside the River Kwai railway. We have not been told what the pit is for by our Japanese masters, not that they usually tell us anything, but we POWs have surmised that the pit is a tank trap, ready for when our army pushes down this way which is the route our own forces will take from Rangoon. We have been told on our grapevine that Rangoon has been taken by the 14th Army.

It is continually pouring with rain from grey, leaden skies. We prisoners have been here now for three weeks. It has rained every day. We have not seen the sun since we arrived by rail truck from our last camp at Non Complaton Hospital Camp situated fifty miles from Bangkok, just some miles beyond the Bridge over the Kwai. We are a party of United Kingdom ex-soldiers taken at Singapore 200 strong and all of us had worked on the building of the railway in 1943 - now we are back on the railway and our camp is situated in the notorious Nikki area where so many of our men had died back in 1943.

There are a lot of Japanese troops in this area, all tucked away in well-hidden camps. Our camp is well hidden in thick jungle. The whole area is swampy and surrounded by low hills. There are about thirty of us working on this pit job and other men are working on other pits in this area. Some men are working on the railway track. The Australians in the next camp half a mile away are digging out tunnels in the hillsides for Jap hideouts. We never get a chance to communicate with them. They have a night gang on their job. There is no let up on this important work. The Allies are not far off and no train dare travel in daylight because of the Allied Air Force which sends a daily recce plane down the line, straight down the railway track over our heads and then back again to Rangoon.

There is no other human habitation around here, just us POWs spread around in different camps and the Japanese. Our sole link with civilisation is the single line railway track and the rough road - one way to Thailand and the other way to Burma. Our food, mainly rice, comes up from Kanburi by a devious system only known to the Japs, some vegetables perhaps if we are lucky, a bit of dried fish or meat. All of this goes to a central store depot two miles down the line and it is then distributed around the camps. We are not short of rice which is almost our sole source of food. Our daily ration of rice is 1 pint mug of cooked rice for our three meals of the day plus whatever we can get to go with it from our camp cookhouse. Our sick in camp get the same ration, as within a week men are falling sick from malaria, dysentery and other ailments. We have one Dutch doctor plus a couple of medical orderlies. There are also, besides ourselves, three hundred Dutch POWs, mainly Indonesian who are coloured. They are digging tunnels in the hillsides to be used by the Japanese Infantry. These Dutch prisoners also work a night shift and work inside the tunnels by the aid of small coconut oil lamps. It is work, work, work for all of us except the sick. It is seven days a week - no let up - shall we survive?

The Japanese soldiery in charge of us are reasonable in their behaviour - not shouting and bellowing orders and demands as I had seen in 1943 during the building of the railway, although there was one particular Jap who was nasty and ready to hit out at anyone if it suited him. He had spectacles and was referred to as 'four-eyes' Keep clear of him, that was the best thing - he was actually one on his own so to speak. We prisoners knew we had got to do the work so we just obeyed ordered and got on with it. We had to keep well if possible so that we could all keep going and I can say that our group of fellows got along well. Men who fell sick were allowed to stay in camp until they were well enough to get out to work again. The Dutch doctor supervised this and although I never knew his name, I must say that he was a good man.

The worst job to be on was the pits. In addition to the one alongside the railway track another one had been started. This was hidden in a part of the jungle. The whole of this area was very thick and intense jungle. Sometimes I went to this other pit which was about the same size as the other. So now we had two big projects and strangely no one ever talked about what they were for and the Japs, who were always with us at these sites, never said anything - they kept us at it digging and shovelling. Any man who stopped to straighten up his back would often get shouted at to get working. Sometimes Japs would jump down and start digging furiously as if to show how good they were or to show off, especially if the Japanese officer arrived on the scene. The men who were in the pit were all almost naked, no boots on and a lot of us had no hats, although it was not the sunshine that we had to face every day, it was the pouring rain and everywhere became wet and water soaked. We were wet through all day - the pit became a sea of mud. I had a thin bit of towelling tied just above my eyes to keep the rain out of them. We had to have men on the ground around the pit whose job it was to simply shovel the huge pile of mud that had accumulated away from the sides. We had men in the pits and men on the top all working away - the Japs with us - railway engineers, I suppose, who stood around talking to one another watching us, having a fag. They were able to stand on the permanent way which was well above the pit so they could see everything that was going on. No trains came along in the daytime.

At one o'clock, we stopped work for one hour to have our meal of almost plain cooked rice. The Japs also sat or stood together and ate their food. Some of our men would stay in the pit sitting on the shovel. Others, like myself, climbed up and stood or would sit on the railway track to eat our rice. It was all so very miserable. We would not be sorry to start work again and then at around 5.30pm we would finish, wash our shovels and chunkals in a nearby stream and, if possible, wash the mud off our bodies. We would then traipse along the railway track back to our camp. It would be dark when we got back to our hut but we had thankfully made it again. Our evening meal was a lot better as we would get warm rice with some stew and a drink of some sort, burnt rice, coffee or tea. After that we had roll call, often in the darkness. Fortunately the Japanese at this outlandish camp did not make a lot of roll call - get it over with quick. They knew, the same as we did, that we were better off inside this camp than outside in the jungle. This camp had one unusual feature. It had a good, tall bamboo fence around - this was not to keep us in but to protect us from wild animals as this was tiger jungle. I was to see evidence of this whilst on a later excursion into the jungle with some Japs. I was to go on other jobs with the Japs which was a break from the pits and there was an improvement in the weather which was a blessing to us all.

After a few weeks I was down with malaria, not surprising as I had had six bouts of malaria in the past and had only just managed to survive. I saw the Dutch doctor and he took my temperature and then gave me some powdered Quinine to take. I was allowed to stay off work and stay in the camp for a few days until I was reasonably well enough to go back to the work gangs. This break did allow me to rest from the work but I was allowed to stay off five days at the most. I only had a very thin blanket which didn't provide much warmth. Some men had not even got that.

It was very quiet in the camp, the hut was silent, just the few of us sick lying on our bed spaces covered up with our bits of blanket etc. It was dark inside the hut and a section at one end was just for men with dysentery and diarrhoea. There were always men suffering from diarrhoea. I was to finish up in this place later also with dysentery.

Sometimes a Jap guard would walk through the hut and out again. Smoking was not allowed inside the huts. As I have said before, we never saw the sun all the time we were at this camp as it was the monsoon season. There were men dying now inside this very hut. Two men were dying with cerebral malaria, both unconscious. They died and were buried in the little graveyard which had sprung up. I didn't even know their names. I knew one of them well by sight as he was often out on the work party with me. There was no struggle for life on their part and they just simply faded away. One man read a few lines from a prayer book that somebody had managed to keep and that was it.

I was very fortunate to be in better health than I had ever been in the previous three years in Thailand, even though I had many bouts of illness - malaria, beriberi affecting legs and privates, cholera, sprue, which had been very debilitating, two minor operations on each big toe, an abscess on my left arm and many bouts of diarrhoea and skin diseases. This was mainly because I had been in hospital camps to recuperate from the privations of working through 1942 and 1943 in the jungle when building the railway and the road. Most of 1944 had been spent in Non Pladuk hospital camp where the food had been good and, like many more, I had been able to have a work-free time. All the men here had been workers at one time on the railway. Some of them should not have been on this party because I could see that they were not strong enough. They became the first casualties.

There were two bridges, approximately 4 miles down the railway track, which I must mention. When our gang first arrived and de-trained, we had to cross over the high rail bridge and then walk up the track to our present camp. There was also a road bridge about 100 yards from the rail bridge. Both were very well constructed and I knew when I first saw the rail bridge that a lot of hard work had been done by the prisoners who had been here in 1943. It was a long bridge - 100 yards across the divide and then there were the approaches and the drop about 150 feet to the river below. These two bridges were known as the Bridges of Sonkurai. I did not know that at the time and only found out years after, when I read a book entitled 'The Bridges of Sonkurai', about what happened to the party of men who were sent here to build the bridges and the railway. This was the ill-fated 'F' Force from Changi, Singapore who came here in 1943 - 7,000 British and Australian men, many of them sick but with the promise that it would be a rest camp with plenty of food and amenities - all a deliberate lie by the Japanese. 3,000 of them were to die from sickness and starvation. I was to come across one of the big graveyards hidden in the jungle whilst out on a walk to some Jap camp on a carrying party. Colonel Pope of my unit, Fortress Signals, and other men I had known died here. Captain Angears, Adjutant of Signals, was also here but he survived and years later said that he would never forgive the Japs for their lying and deceit. The Australians have also never forgotten this event and a well-known Australian War Historian has written a book on the subject called 'The Ill Fated 'F' Party'.

Here I was at this same location - the railway running as it was meant to and the bridges still standing and in good order. Bomb craters were all around but they had survived intact.

This whole district and the valley through which the railway passed was known as Nikki and before we started on the journey from Kanchanaburi we knew that we were going to a bad place. It was the last few miles of the railway on the Thailand side, almost on the Burmese border.

It was now into July and we had lost 50 of our men. They had gone elsewhere to work on some other pit. We had been asked by our senior soldier, a CSM, as we had no officers in charge of us, for volunteers for this party. Men soon wanted to go hoping for better conditions and a lighter workload. I did not go as, in fact, I did not know anything about it until they had gone. We had men dying and men sick in camp but no pressure from the Japs forcing sick men to work.

The food was no better and we were still on the same as before - a pint of rice gruel for breakfast with a taste of salt in it and a pint of burnt rice coffee. Midday meal was a pint mug of dry, cooked rice with a spoonful of sugar in it. There was no hot drink whilst on the job, just water if you possessed a water bottle. I still had my Army water bottle but there were plenty of small fast-flowing streams around. However, as we were not working under a hot, scorching sun we did not require much liquid. The evening meal was the usual pint of warm rice with half a pint of vegetable gravy and a cup of hot, make-believe rice coffee. That was it! There was nothing available to buy even if you had any money other than Thai rough tobacco for those who smoked. I still had some Thai money paid as wages by the Japs a year earlier. One fellow, little Bernard Smith, asked me if I could lend him 50 cents so that he could get some tobacco, which I did. I did not want the money from him and the fact is, none of us received our wages for the 11 weeks that we worked for the Japs (I actually worked only 9 weeks as I went off again with dysentery) and this was still owed when we were freed a few weeks later.

When I went down with dysentery it was different to the bout I had had before. I was not at all well. The Dutch doctor arranged for me to be moved into the partitioned end of the hut which was occupied solely by men with diarrhoea and dysentery. There were about 8 of us and we were cut off from the rest of the men. Each day I had to show the stools I was passing and to do this had to get half an empty egg shell from the Dutch boys next door. They had somehow got eggs from a Thai trader. These Indonesian POWs were very adept at getting stuff from various sources. Anyway, I used the egg shell to collect some of what I was passing. It was like jelly with blood in it and two other men next to me were passing similar stools. I had to show this to the Dutch MO every day.

This period at the camp was a bad experience for all of us and we were lucky to be alive when the surrender came in a matter of weeks. The Japs in charge of us must have known that the situation was at a critical stage in the War. They were not so aggressive to us and did not come round to inspect the sick.

Daily, a British plane, which looked like a Spitfire, would circle the tall wooden railway bridge and then fly away back to Rangoon airfield. That was all it did.

I felt fortunate to be off sick as the weather was bad with pouring rain. The fit men had to go out into this with their bits of sacking and bare feet. The hut was dead quiet all through the long day with just us sick men in the camp. The Dutch were present in their huts next door to us during the day as they would be out in the tunnels at night, digging and scraping soil out.

We did not know that this camp was Sonkurai and was the area where the ill-fated 'F' Force from Singapore had come to build the high level rail bridge and the road bridge, losing 3,000 men from disease and hardship. When I first arrived here, I could sense badness and something rotten about the area. I now knew why the Jap soldiers had laughed when they first told us of our destination. They knew what had taken place here - the gross ill treatment of officers and men, the high death rate, the cholera, the sickness and the terrible treatment of the prisoners.

So here I was still in the dysentery ward. This was a cholera area so it was no wonder that the Japanese guard, on his patrol around the camp, walked quickly past the end of the hut. We were in the safest place in the whole camp even though it was always looked on as the nastiest part.

Little Bernard, who was lying next to me, was very pale and thin. We had an open fire in a small trench to keep us warm. It was quite cold here as there was no hot sunshine to warm us up and it was still the monsoon season. It had been the same in 1943 when 'F' Force was here and men had to work into the night, including sick men on a very low rice ration. Senior officers and men alike all had to work. I noted the bridges and the long length of railway track that had been constructed. It must have been awful as was testified by the high death rate. This was because construction of the railway was behind schedule and the terrain was some of the worst along the line.

Things were different for us and the Japs behaved differently. They must have known the War wasn't going well for them.

Our small party had now shrunk to about 150 men. We had lost 50 men who had gone elsewhere and also some had died. We later discovered that the 50 men who had left had had a hard time although they had been hoping for better things when they left us.

I was now back on the working party as I was better or as well as could be expected. The sick did not get any better food or any medicine because there was none available. They were just left to it and many died in the bleakest of circumstances although they were all given a decent burial, which had to be organised by the sick men.

The situation had not changed for us work-wise and we were required to work just as hard in the mud and the rain. I had found a piece of dirty sacking in a Jap rice store and tied it around my neck and over my shoulders. I also wore a piece of towelling above my eyes to keep the rain from running into them. I carried my boots fastened to my water bottle and only wore them if I was on a job which meant walking along the railway track. I did not wear them when digging in the pits as that meant working in water.

One occasion that I have never forgotten is when I and 6 more men were taken all the way down to Kriankrai, 3½ miles along the railway track to a store depot. I wore my boots which I might add were on their last legs. It was, in a sense, quite an interesting walk. We walked at our own pace with two Japanese from the Engineers' camp. They walked on their own, talking casually to one another, probably about the present War situation, which we knew very little about as there were no hidden wireless sets being operated at our camp. It was a fine day and the track along this section, all the way to the high rail-bridge, stood a lot higher on firm, solid sandstone. On our left was the jungle with rising ground and that is where the Aussies and the Dutch workers from our camp worked in the hills which overlooked the railway. On our right the ground fell away until it hit endless jungle with a valley in between where the road ran which was built by prisoners in 1943 at great cost of life.

When we reached the wooden rail-bridge we walked over it in single file, taking care to walk in the middle. It was quite scary as there were no hand-rails and some of the men were frightened. If you had toppled over the edge, you would have been badly injured or even killed as you would have fallen on the huge chunks of stone which had been put around the timber supports to protect them from the rushing river. Men had been killed here in 1943 during the construction of the bridge. The Japs had not been too fussy about the safety of the prisoners.

We got to the depot camp and had to collect a Japanese cart. This cart was adapted to be pulled by men or by a mule and we had used them a lot in Singapore to shift stone and rubble. It would seem we had to collect some goods, mostly food, for the Japs in our area and take it back the long way by the road. It was a good thing I was wearing my boots. None of the others had boots on and it was going to be rough underfoot. It was tough but, fortunately, it was not a heavy load, being about 3 cwt but there was also the weight of the cart which would easily be another 3 cwt. This had to be manhandled along very rough roads and up two long climbs by men who were all in a low state from living on such a poor diet.

We started off after having had an hour's break to eat the rice we had brought with us. One of the two Japanese was a 'Gunso', a sergeant in the Japanese Army, who was a decent little fellow. I never saw him cross or angry and he spoke a little English. They did not carry any arms and just left us to it. As I had boots on, I went into the shafts which was the hardest work. I could not expect the chaps who had no boots to do this. It was going to be a tough pull. The Japs led the way some yards in front. Two men pushed at the back and there was one on each side. Fortunately it was a fine day.

The first obstacle was the road bridge which was swimming in muddy water about a foot deep. I stopped and took my boots off and we waded through pulling the cart. I then put my boots back on and we set off. I was finding it quite a strain bending over the shafts and forcing the cart forward over the gravel and stones and down dips and holes. I did not think the other chaps were pushing enough but did not say anything.

This long haul was to be something I would never forget. We went uphill to a higher level where I could see the railway embankment snaking its way northwards to Burma. The other fellows with me were not having it easy, walking without boots on this hard stony road but I never heard any of them complain. We all just stuck it out.

Needless to say we had to keep having little rests. The two Japs did not say anything, they just stood talking and having a fag. It was now well into the afternoon and we were on the second climb. Nobody else was about and from the distance there came the drone of aero engines and we could see one of our big 4-engined planes flying high above the railway. The little Jap 'Gunso' came straight back to us and herded us into the side of the road under cover of the bushes and high shrubs. We all looked at the plane very warily and not a word was spoken by anyone. The plane soon went out of view and I found out later that it was on its way to drop leaflets on Bangkok to tell them that the War was over. We did not know that as 'Intelligence' had not reached our area.

When we started off again, one of the other men offered to take my place in the shafts and I took his place at the back, which I wasn't sorry to do. It was a real break for me to be at the back of the cart and as we went along, the other chap found that a sack on the cart contained some ripe bananas and started to help himself. He handed me one but strangely I refused it. It must have been the mood I was in as normally, if I could steal anything in the food line from the Japs, I would do so. We carried on until we reached the end of the trail which was the store hut. There was one Jap in charge and he left it to us to unload the goods into the store. It was now almost dark and one sack, which I took in, contained some small green peas called 'Kachinegu' which were very nutritious. I had my haversack with me so I just helped myself to about 2lbs of these peas. It was quite dark inside the hut and I did not tell the others for the simple reason that they were not around as this was the last bag to be taken inside. We were now ready to move off on the last half mile along the railway track to our POW camp. It was dark so our two Japs produced two flaming torches, pieces of wood dipped in some pitch, which burned quite brightly. It was quite late by the time we reached our camp.

This was to be our last job as POWs as we were told the next day that there was to be no more work outside the camp. I was among the men who were found jobs around the camp area filling in holes and levelling the ground under the supervision of one of the camp guards. We just took it easy. I took the green peas around to the Dutch hut next to ours as I couldn't do anything with them, having no cooking facilities. I gave them to two of the Indonesians who thanked me and were very pleased. They were quite a valuable commodity and I think it surprised them.

When the evening roll-call came our Senior Warrant Officer (actually the only one we had) said 'I have something now to tell you all. Be calm and listen. The Japanese Commandant has told me that the War is over and there will be no work in future. A train will arrive in the next day or so to take us all down to Kanburi.' We all listened. There was no cheering, no shouting, just nothing from us. It was 18th August 1945. The surrender had taken place on the 15th.

I went straight round to the dysentery ward to see the chaps in there. I saw the RA Sergeant but he looked, and was, at death's door. The others had told him we were free and that the War was over but he was to die the very next day, poor chap.

There was no improvement in the food as there was nothing more to give us but our rice and the usual fare.

The Japanese guards seemed to take it all in their stride. Some came into our hut to see if we had anything to sell them. There was no unpleasantness from either party and for my part, I felt nothing but curious apprehension about the future. I had survived and my old boots had survived too. There was no singing from any of us, just quietness. I don't think any of us could take it in. We were here - the dead were in the little cemetery and we would be leaving them behind. Not one of us tried to leave the camp as there was nowhere for us to go. We did hear that the Aussies had pinched some chickens from a Jap establishment and we also heard that an Aussie coloured fellow, an Abo soldier, had cleared off some days previously on a walkabout. He was found in one of the tunnels and I had seen him being led down the railway line on a length of rope. I knew him by sight from way back in some camp. He was murdered by the Japs on the very day of the surrender - well, you never did know where you were with the Japanese!