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Tropical Ulcers

Working in dense jungle terrain posed health threatening problems other than the obvious ones of exhausting hard work.

Usually wearing nothing more than a torn pair of shorts or a modest loin cloth, commonly known as a "Jap-happy", the legs of the prisoners were bare and unprotected against the angry hard thorns of new bamboo shoots. These caused appalling wounds to legs and the starvation diet the men were forced to endure lacked the necessary vitamins and protein to help combat diseases and jungle sores. Very soon infections set in and the wounds soon turned into tropical ulcers. The lack of any sterile covering meant having to use old bits of rag or any old pieces of often infected mosquito net.

But even the smallest scratch or sore would soon develop into a tropical ulcer, they would eat into the flesh and keep growing and growing

But as the weeping sores grew larger, spreading quickly over the leg, the stench from the rotting flesh constantly filled the air, attracting millions of flies which invaded the decaying wounds. This was usually the case with men too weak to swat the flies away as they laid their eggs deep in the ugly mess and the resulting maggots would feed on the bone marrow. Gradually they worked their way up the leg, causing untold suffering and pain which often sent the men insane.

Medical notes on tropical ulcers - by kind permission of Jack Chaulker

One of the methods used to treat these tropical ulcers was to scoop out the bad flesh of the ulcer with a spoon, sharpened on one side. The sharp edge acted like a knife and when moved back and forth over the ulcer it cut away the bad flesh. The ulcers were agonisingly painful, but this scooping out treatment brought excruciating pain beyond endurance. There were no anaesthetics of any kind and men would scream in agony while this treatment took place. Another known method was to hang the infected leg in a nearby river and fish would nibble at the maggots and help to cleanse the wound.

On many occasions the tropical ulcer became completely untreatable and the only course of action was amputation. Other times the men were unable to endure the pain any longer and would scream to doctors to "cut if off - I can't stand it any more."

Amputations were often carried out using no more than an ordinary meat saw and the patients often died of shock, due to the lack of any anaesthetic. If they were lucky enough to survive the "operation" they more often than not died of infections to the wound, but successes were known and men wearing artificial limbs, made from bamboo, became a common sight