Cholera was one of the most deadly diseases that the Far East prisoners could come in contact with. The speed with which it could overtake a victim was so alarming that it struck fear into the prisoners, their Jap guards and the local coolies. Cholera was not selective in who it struck down, given the right conditions; it ran rife through camp after camp spreading so quickly the already debilitated and very sick men stood little or no chance.
On arriving in some camps, many already having been used by local coolies, the exhausted and usually starving men were faced with unimaginable filthy squalor in which they were to live and sleep. They were faced with dirty soiled huts, the departing coolies, it would seem, were oblivious to the filthy and foul conditions. Latrines were often none existent, or if they were present, the contents were swamping the immediate surroundings. In the heat, millions of flies and maggots swarmed all over the decaying excrement and in turn swarmed all over the ill and dying patients.
Men suffering from dysentery were often too ill, or found it too difficult, to reach a latrine in time, thus leaving a trail of slimy mess in their wake.
By far the biggest problem was the contaminated water. Coolies, riddled with diseases, would use the river water that later flowed through the camps and men attempting to drink this untreated water would be dead in a matter of hours.
The first priority of the POW's on arriving in any new camp was the sanitation. The strongest men dug pits, latrines were covered whenever possible, all water was boiled. If cholera was suspected, isolation huts were erected away from the main party of men.
But although their efforts obviously helped to reduce the numbers of cases infected, when cholera struck the deterioration was very quick. A man could be well in the morning and dead before sunset. The symptoms were horrific, the body rejects all its bodily fluids in violent explosions of vomiting and diarrhoea. Within a few hours a cholera patient was often unrecognisable, his weight loss was so dramatic that he would weigh far less than half his weight within a few hours.
The only possible chance was saline intravenous drips and doctors improvised in many ways to give the dying men a chance. Hollow bamboo needles and pieces of stethoscope tubing were used to provide drips and lives were saved in this way. Often the odds were against them and when men died in the dozens, day after day, their bodies were stacked up and burnt on pyres to prevent this horrific disease spreading any further.