Having Cholera & Surviving
By Frank Tantum
My story took place in 1945 when I was a prisoner of war with the Japanese.
The last two years had seen me working on the notorious Death Railway and now that it was finished and in continuous usage most of the prisoners, like myself, were in base camps still recovering from privations and sickness. The date was 9th February, the place Non-Pladuk POW Camp, Thailand and I was working again after three weeks in the camp hospital with Malaria. I was just twenty-five years old and had now been a prisoner almost three years. After a tiring day working in the hot sun building Jap huts, I was glad to get back to the camp to a cooling wash and to the evening meal of rice and stew. After the evening meal was over it was roll call and after a number of recounts we would all go to our respective huts and prepare for a night's sleep.
I was living in a hut built of bamboo as compared to a lot of timber built huts which were in this camp. Even though it was night, it was still very hot and my sleep was broken continuously by having to go to the latrines with sudden attacks of diarrhoea. By daylight I was feeling really ill and exhausted and the thought of rice porridge for breakfast sickened me; nevertheless, I went and got a cup of rice coffee, unsweetened and milkless. I then reported to the medical room with the sick parade. Looking back, it was this decision that helped to save my life for if I had gone out on a working party I would have collapsed and there would have been no medical aid. There was a queue of men and as each man came to the English doctor, they would tell him what the matter was. The doctor would examine each man and deal with him accordingly - sometimes a day or two off the working parties would be enough. A man with malaria and a high temperature would be off longer. Even the sick men were expected by the Japs to do some work, usually catching flies; the quota was fifty flies per man per day.
When my turn came to see the doctor, I told him I was feeling awful and that I had got diarrhoea. He felt my pulse and gave me the day off work. My name and number were taken and I was on the sick list. It was now only 8.30 and the morning working parties were assembling and the Japs were there ready to march them away. When the roll call had been taken the sick were allowed to go back to their huts whilst the other workers were marched away by the Japs. The sun was now blazing down and it was very hot, even inside the huts. In my case I felt quite cold and I pulled my thin blanket close to me as I lay on the bamboo bed. Other sick men were sitting about the hut, mostly only wearing a G-string.
I was now feeling really awful; cold and shivery and somehow I knew there was something seriously wrong with me, something I had not experienced before. I had had numerous attacks of Malaria before in the jungle and Beriberi but this was entirely different. I felt so weak and exhausted going backwards and forwards to the latrines. I was now only passing a thin watery fluid and I was so thirsty. Back on my bed I lay wondering what the matter was with me. In the back of my mind I had an unpleasant suspicion which didn't bear thinking about - was it Cholera? It's strange how an unpleasant hunch usually turns out to be a fact. Suddenly I was attacked by a vicious cramp in my leg which I rubbed and massaged until it was normal. As I lay there I realised I now knew the truth. I had heard all about the symptoms of Cholera from fellow-prisoners who had been in jungle camps where Cholera had ravaged and I felt sure in my mind that it was Cholera. It took some grasping; in fact, I could hardly believe it but I knew it was so. The symptoms were all there. It was common knowledge what had happened in jungle camps when Cholera had struck. Men had died like flies. It was such a horrible death and their bodies had been burnt afterwards. I even recalled the story of the Japanese officer who had shot himself rather than go to a Cholera infested area. One of the men in the hut walked past me and asked if it was Malaria. I replied - "No, it's more than that I'm afraid." I daren't tell him what I suspected as it would cause too much panic.
My next step was to go and report to the sick room but I knew I would have to take a specimen of the milky fluid that I was passing. I found a small empty tin and on my next visit to the latrines I managed to get some of the fluid inside the tin. I was going to the latrines every few minutes now and was feeling terribly tired and weak. It was an effort to walk the short distance to the sick room. The English Corporal on duty looked at me inquiringly as the sick men had gone long ago. I told him I was feeling terrible and that I thought I had Cholera. His attitude changed immediately. I showed him the tin and its contents and he told me to sit down. He took my temperature which was 102° F. Off he went off and within a minute was back with a doctor who started asking questions - "How do you feel?" "How long have you been like this?" "Where were you working yesterday?" "Did you drink any unboiled water or pick anything up and eat it?" Two things that POWs were always liable to do. As it so happened, the day before I had been working near the railway and, having drunk all the water from my water bottle, had drunk some water from a well. Also I had found a piece of fruit lying beside the railway track and had eaten it. How long it had been lying there I did not know but being so hungry I didn't mind. Most of us prisoners would eat anything if it was edible. I could see by their manner that they did not want to alarm me and finally one of the doctors said they would be putting me in isolation and that I would be all right. Turning to his companion, he said that the Japs would have to be told and off they went.
The Medical Corporal told me I would need my belongings and he left me. As it happened he went to get a stretcher and two orderlies. I made my way back to my hut for my clothes. I hadn't a lot but I did have a good pair of Red Cross boots and also a petrol tin for water, both highly prized articles to a POW. Off I went to the next hut to say goodbye to a very good friend of mine - Albert Taylor - he was also in camp, sick. I said to Albert "I've brought you these" and gave him the boots, the tin and seven Thailand Dollars in notes. He looked at me amazed; I told him I thought I had Cholera and didn't expect to get over it so wanted him to have these. I said goodbye with regret and made my way to the sick room. It was the usual thing as prisoners that when a man died his belongings went to his friend; even I possessed the mess tin of a friend who I'd left behind on the railway two years previously. When I got back to the sick room the Corporal was there with two orderlies and a stretcher. He said I should never have gone to my hut and he was quite right because by now I was feeling completely exhausted and done-for. Nevertheless I had done what I wanted and said goodbye to Albert.
It was now only mid-morning and it was obvious that without medical help I could not last much more than this day. In fact, at this stage, I had given up so I was now completely in the hands of the medical staff. The two medical orderlies picked me up on the stretcher and carried me across a sun-baked piece of ground to a small bamboo hut standing quite isolated and grimly lonesome. This piece of ground was fenced off from the rest of the camp; it was strange that I'd never noticed it before. This was where I left all my friends and familiar faces behind. The hut was empty except for an army camp bed and the stretcher and myself were deposited upon it. The hut was made of bamboo and attap and was 8ft long and 6ft wide with an open doorway at one end. The heat inside was terrific for there was no shade of any kind and the hot tropical sun shone down upon it from early morning to evening. I lay naked under two blankets having sudden spasms of vomiting and diarrhoea every few minutes. The vomiting affected me the worst as after each attack I would fall back on the stretcher exhausted. The diarrhoea was like water and smelt vile.
The two medical orderlies behaved quite marvellously, going backwards and forwards with the bedpan. They wiped my face with a damp cloth and made me drink sweetened tea every few minutes. There was a bucket of sweetened tea, no milk in it, standing outside the doorway as I had been told to drink as much as possible as my life depended upon it. This was to combat the terrific dehydration which was taking place in my body so it was up to me to keep on drinking and, believe me, I had never drank so much in all my life. Every quarter of an hour I had to swallow a tablet of permanganate and very often it would stick in my throat and start to dissolve. I would vomit immediately and the effect was nauseating.
The two orderlies, one English and one Anglo-Indian had volunteered for this duty and were being paid fifty cents a day extra as danger money. The doctor in charge of me was Dr MacPherson and he at this stage was busy, seeing to the preparation of saline which had to be prepared as soon as possible as without transfusions of saline I would die. Preparing the saline in a POW camp was an achievement as all the water had to be boiled and distilled and there was no such thing as gas or electric heating in the POW camps. The English orderly told me that if I survived today and tomorrow I should live but at that time I felt so awful and didn't care what happened. During these attacks of diarrhoea I passed, at different times, three live tape worms each about a foot long, still alive and wriggling. Then, during a vomiting attack, I spewed one out of my mouth. It is amazing to think that unbeknown to me, these creatures had been living in my stomach eating up the bit of food that I was getting. No wonder I was so thin and to think I never even knew they were there. A Japanese medical officer who called in to see me seemed elated to get these worms which he took with him in a glass jar. In fact, I thought he was more interested in getting the worms than in me for he went away all smiles. It was now getting dark and a pressure lamp had been hung up from the bamboo roof. Dr MacPherson appeared now with one of the medical orderlies carrying between them various pieces of equipment, some bottles of saline and tubing.
Incidentally Doctor Mac, as he was known to us all, had looked after me before at a little jungle camp where I nearly died with Malaria and he had been instrumental in getting me out of the jungle. He was a quiet sort of man and well liked by all men. The transfusion apparatus was rigged up above me. Outside it was dark and quietness lay over the prison camp. All the men were in their huts asleep; only the Jap guards were about, bellowing as usual when they changed guard, and beyond the guardhouse the railway with the noise of an occasional passing troop train on its way to the Burma Front. This was the end of the first day and I lay completely exhausted by the shock and the viciousness of the disease but with a new feeling - a feeling that I stood a chance. The doctor and the two orderlies spoke quietly to one another as they did this and that. Doctor Mac uncovered my right ankle and gave me a local anaesthetic on the inside of my ankle and then made a cut above the vein. I thought to myself that the knife didn't seem very sharp. He had a bit of trouble finding the vein and had to send for Dr Stone for guidance, as Dr Mac said it was the first time he had done this. Eventually the vein was opened up and the nozzle from the saline tube was inserted and the precious saline was slowly fed into my bloodstream. During the whole of this operation I would suddenly start to vomit and this would cause some anxiety on the part of the orderlies who wanted me as still as possible. After a period of time had elapsed during the transfusion my body started to shake all over and the transfusion was stopped. My ankle was bandaged up and I was covered up with my blanket. There was no such thing as sleeping as I was still having to keep drinking and, of course, this meant I was passing more urine, not an easy matter lying down. I had been provided with a mosquito net as it was important that I should not get Malaria in this weak state.
The whole ordeal was like a nightmare. The next day arrived and it was decided to give me another saline transfusion. This time the other leg was used and the procedure was carried out as before. I lay there watching and just as well as I spotted a minute particle of cotton wool moving down the tube. I told the medical orderly and he instantly removed it as it could have been fatal if it had entered by bloodstream. Another thing cropped up through drinking so much liquid - I reached a stage where I couldn't pass water and my stomach felt blown up and terribly painful and it was causing a big problem. The Anglo-Indian managed to get a hot water bottle from some source and laid it upon my bladder. I never really knew whether this did the trick but I passed so much urine that even he was amazed. He said he had never seen so much passed before at once and no one was more pleased than myself. This Anglo-Indian Orderly was a really pleasant fellow and was on duty with me in the daytime; his manner was so reassuring. It was terribly hot in this small hut. The tropical sun blazed down upon the attap roof and the heat was thrown up from the hard sun-baked ground. I was still constantly drinking sweetened tea from the bucket which stood outside the hut and in between drinking I would have spasmodic diarrhoea.
This was still only the second day and when evening came Dr Mac arrived in the hut and I was to have another transfusion of saline. This time it was the vein on the inside of my elbow joint. For some reason unknown to me, it was not possible to use my ankles again. Altogether I received ten pints of saline into my blood. The cuts on my ankles and elbow were a long time before they healed but at present, having them bandaged up in nice clean white bandages, to me seemed quite luxurious, so different from the bits of dirty cloth that we had used in the jungle camps.
When the third day arrived, there was a feeling in me that I was going to be all right, whereas at the onset of the disease I wouldn't have cared if the Japanese had shot me. It has sometimes surprised me that they didn't. It would not be the first time an Englishman had been shot who had Cholera, but in that particular case an English officer undertook the task.
Incidentally, the boots and money were taken off Albert within an hour of him receiving them and were brought to this hut whilst all the men who had been working with me were confined in quarantine. I expect that didn't please them. When the third day drew to its close it was apparent that I had got over the worst and it was a case of nursing me back to health. My life was won and I owed it to Dr Mac and the two orderlies who had stood by me in the course of their duty. Everybody here knew what Cholera meant and the very word was enough to put fear into you. The Japs were as much afraid as their prisoners; in fact I think more so. Looking back, I feel sure the Spirit of God was present in that little hut watching over me.
I was still a very sick man and for another seven days remained lying on the camp bed with the two orderlies in attendance looking after me. Each day was mostly the same for me whilst I lay recovering my strength. The two orderlies would sometimes be together sitting at the doorway in the hot sunshine talking to each other or perhaps talking to me. I wasn't allowed any solid food, only liquids and I couldn't have any visits from friends and yet I never felt hungry. All around, life was going on as usual. From where I lay, I could hear the shouting of the Japs, the noise and bustle of the prisoners as they rushed on parade for the roll calls and the clanking of the mess tins as the men queued up for their meal of rice. Everything that I had been a part of was cut off from me; the familiar faces of the friends and the chatter in the hut. I felt an outcast. I thought about the little Jap who last week punched me and hit me on the head with his steel rule. I expect he will be wondering where I am.
One afternoon I had an important visitor. The two orderlies jumped to their feet and stood to attention. There standing in the doorway looking at me was a high ranking Japanese officer. He was dressed immaculately in his smart olive green uniform, his sword hanging from his waist. Everything about him looked smart and clean whereas I looked the opposite except for the white bandages on my limbs. He stood there silent and regal, his intelligent face taking everything in. I bowed my head as much as I was able and he went away. It was a rigid rule that, on seeing a Japanese officer, even if he was yards away, to stand to attention and salute or bow. Every ordinary Japanese soldier had to be saluted also.
Another afternoon the Anglo-Indian orderly decided it was time I had a shave as by now I had a thick growth of beard. He got my army razor out of my kit and a blade and my worn-out shaving brush with a bit of soap. After brushing soap over my face he commenced to shave me but could not get any of the whiskers off. We decided that I should try and although it was difficult lying on my back, with his help in holding the mirror I was able to do it. When the ordeal was over, he washed my face and looking down at me said "Soldier, you look a new man" and that's how I felt.
In all I spent ten days isolated in that little bamboo hut. If I had died I would have been burned with the hut and its contents which was the usual procedure with Cholera. At this time the whole of this camp personnel were due to be sent elsewhere and it was decided by the Japs to send me to a big hospital camp not far away called Non-Complaton. This camp was specially for the very sick men and the day arrived for me to go. I was carried on the stretcher with my belongings and placed on an open truck. I was not able to even say goodbye to Dr MacPherson or any of my friends so I was never to see them again.
With me on the truck were a few medical orderlies who were being sent to this camp and I was put in their charge for the bumpy journey along the dusty unmade roads. On arrival I was lifted off the lorry and placed on the verandah of the reception hut. I felt very subdued and helpless lying there as no-one seemed to realise my presence until a Korean soldier came outside to me and turning to Australian prisoners said - "This man no good, 'Damme Damme' Cholera", and grinning, walked away. I now knew what it must feel like to be a leper and it wasn't a nice feeling. Nevertheless from inside the hut came four strong looking prisoners. Each took a corner of the stretcher and lifted me up on to their bare shoulders and started walking in to the main camp. Everything was new to me and eventually we reached a long wooden-built hut which I was taken into. The hut had a long low platform on both sides and was full of sick Australian, English and Dutch prisoners. I was put in a position next to the open doorway and there was a space of 15ft between myself and the nearest man, an Australian: he made it obvious that he didn't like the idea of having a Cholera case next to him and did a lot of complaining.
It was ten days since I first caught Cholera and although completely recovered I was still weak. I had been living on fluids and had not walked since the onset so I was feeling miserable. Lying here I felt lonely and yet I was surrounded by men but nobody offered to come and speak to me. It was quite a new experience for me. Whether they thought I'd no right to be there after having Cholera I don't know but they behaved very strangely to me.
I met my first friend, a tough Australian named Tiger when the evening meal came along. He came straight to me and filled my mess tin with rice and sat down beside me and soon I made an instant friend. From this meeting he became one of the closest friends I had as a prisoner although he was much older than me. In this camp there were, I knew, some old friends of mine and I told Tiger their names. He went round the camp that very evening to find them and asked them to visit me. This first day found them visiting me and naturally they were amazed to find me just recovering from Cholera. It was pleasant to see them and I felt a lot better for it.
The next day I had my first walk and it did seem strange but I soon started to find my way around. The first thing I saw outside the hut was the tall spire of the pagoda outside the camp with the sun shining on the gold leaf which covered it.
It was three months before I really felt fit again but I always found men took some convincing that I had just recovered from Cholera. In fact I never spoke about it. Looking back it is always very difficult to realise and believe that it happened to me and that I ever had Cholera but I only have to look at my ankles and arm to know the truth. Those ten days spent in that little hut are just like a faraway dream. I was sorry not to have been able to have thanked the doctor and the two medical orderlies who looked after me but I hope if they should ever read this story they will know that I've never forgotten them.
It was now June and I was to be sent with a party of prisoners back on to the dreaded railway, this time to the area in the jungle known as Nikki. The death roll here had been very high and our spirits were all very low. It was to turn out to be the worst any of us had experienced, even worse than the building of the railway. We travelled by night on the top of wagons and during the daytime our train was hidden away in dense jungle sidings whilst we idled our time, waiting and listening for allied bombing planes. During the night journey our train would come to a stop in a lonely jungle station where there would be conversation between our Japs and other Japs on the track and off we would go again. It was a nightmarish journey but eventually we reached our destination, a jungle camp, hungry and miserable. The food was poor and scanty, the work was terribly hard and the Japs, atrocious. The monsoon season had just started and it was raining all the time. Most of the men had no boots. We got up in the dark, ate our bit of rice and were marched off to dig deep tank traps which, as fast as we dug, slowly filled up with water. We were beaten and driven along like cattle. We ate our midday rice sitting on our spades in the mud; there was not a good thing to be said about our life here. The Japs had told one little group of men that we should be here until we died which wouldn't be long at this rate. There was no hospital to put the dying men in and no medicine, only a little quinine powder. It was an impossible life.
On one particular day, 18th August 1945, a sudden change came about. Something unbelievable to us here, the Japs became very quiet and we did not have to go out to work. In the afternoon we all had to assemble on parade; our leading warrant officer quietly told us that the war had finished. He also said that the Japanese officer in charge had threatened to commit Hari-kari and as our warrant officer said, the Jap would take some of us with him before he did that.
Lying opposite to me a soldier lay dying. When we told him the war was over and we were free he could not understand - it was too late. The atom bomb had saved our lives but unfortunately had not saved his.