Allied POWs Called It "Valley of Death"
260 POWs Died In Last Twelve Weeks
VX39152 Sgt. F. F. Foster, an Australian who was captured in Java, exposes the recent Mergui Road POW tragedy in the following story written specially for the "Rangoon Liberator" dated 16th September 1945
Six weeks ago another N.C.0. and I were digging graves at the rate of five daily in a camp of 300 Australian, English, American and Dutch prisoners of war, on a new jungle road, which we constructed from Kerikan on the Gulf of Siam to Mergui, Burma. Our comrades worn out by the work of construction of this road, a few weeks earlier, were dying through lack of quinine and other drugs as well as food. The Japs were quite indifferent to our plight, their official attitude being that such requirements were wasted on heavy sick men who would be of no further use to them as workers.
In fact, in one camp on the Mergui Road, the heavy sick received only a cup of watery rice three times a day, and no quinine. Out of 1,000 men engaged on this work from April to August we lost 250 the majority dying in July and August. But for the surrender of the Japanese we would have lost another 100 at least this month.
Although on a smaller scale this work was even more arduous and results more tragic than the railway construction job on which we lost 1,000 in 1943.
Early this year the Japanese were frantically trying to make this short cut road to enable their troops to get out of Burma, their main lines of communication having been blasted by R.A.F. This was about 40 miles long, and the natives walked out on the Japs even though they were receiving the equivalent to ten shillings per day. Disease reduced their numbers and supplies were impossible to obtain in the remote camps in the dense jungle. The Japs then took 1,000 light sick and injured from our base hospital and put them on a camp in the jungle and set to the task of finishing the job at four pence a day, a starvation ration of rice and dried vegetable resembling seaweed, and unroofed huts. The working hours were from the crack of dawn to ten o'clock at night, working throughout torrential rains with fires and flares in almost a naked state. Footwear was out of the question.
If our captors had taken us out of this dense jungle when we finished the job in June, few lives would have been lost, but they would provide no transport and the men were too weak to walk 30 odd miles as they had walked in. We were left to rot with no medicine or supplies, and in one camp we found some of our own Red Cross supplies in a Jap store. Men slept on the damp jungle ground with vermin infested rice sacks for covering.
At the base camp for heavy sick, ten miles from the nearest town of Kerikan, we lost 160 men in June, July and last month through the callous indifference of our captors. After their surrender we found huge supplies of quinine and other medical needs in a store only a few hundred yards from this camp known to-day by P.O.W.s as "Death
Valley". There were also big dumps of blankets and rolls of cloth suitable for making clothes. The Jap Sergeant in charge named Hiroia was later taken to the cemetery and warned that he would be held responsible for this crime. What made us more bitter, was the fact that the Jap soldiers were offering to sell us quinine unofficially.
Out of 300 men only ten were able to set about to do the cooking and maintain some sort of sanitation. We managed to give every man a Christian internment but it was almost a superhuman task and eventually the medical officers had to raise the pick and shovel for grave digging as late as early last month. Thank God for freedom and the extrication of these P.O.W.s in the nick of time. Our British rescuers have done a great job and are now restoring health to the victims.
A tribute must be paid to MZ13293 Major D. B. Dewe of the Indian Medical Service, who was a senior officer along the road. In addition to medical work, he was burdened with administration because our field officers had been separated from us by the Japs early this year. Senior N.C.O.s assisted in a creditable manner and the British spirit of endurance was kept going at all times. Major Dewe worked day and night in the work of alleviation of distress and was almost exhausted at the end but would not have been able to rest until the last man had been brought out of the jungle. To make sure he searched the road in a staff car and found a few stray men a week later. He was forced to board a plane for India last week, but not before he had prepared a full report of atrocities for the British Government.
As recently as July the Japs continued their brutal assault on our men. Staff Sergeant Clive Tilibrook, who distinguished himself in "Death Valley" as a buffer between Jap Officials and sick men was brutally hit across the face for ten minutes in front of PO.W.s for insisting that he had no more fit men to move ammunition for the retreating Jap Army. His spectacles were damaged and he was indisposed for days. This method of attacking the head and face was the most popular form of punishment, and permanent head injuries have been sustained in many cases, as well as facial disfigurement.
It is just like a dream to be transplanted from "Death Valley" in Thailand to such comfort in Rangoon in two or three weeks, and the three out of four men on the Mergui Road who survived can consider themselves very lucky.