In George's Footsteps
By Val Aldridge
(As featured in 'The Dominion' New Zealand - 25th April 2000)
CLACKETY clack, clackety clack ... a death for every sleeper it is said. Clackety clack ... how many sleepers to a clack, five ... 10 ... more?
More than 13,000 allied troops and 80,000-100,000 unrecorded Asian workers died carving this rail track through dense jungle and mountainous country in 1942 and 1943.
We rattle along a reconstructed part of the original 415-kilometre Thailand-Burma Death Railway and over the bridge made famous by the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was a line that experts said would take five or six years to build and which the Japanese built with slave labour in 15 months.
Clackety clack ... The bench seats on either side of the swaying carriages are crammed. Locals visiting villages, an impassive shaven-headed Buddhist monk in saffron robes and tourists from England, Australia, Germany, Holland, the United States. Surprisingly, too, young Japanese.
Clackety clack ... hot air blasts through the open windows and Thai hawkers, containers swinging from poles over their shoulders, move through the train tempting perspiring passengers with over-priced iced drinks, food and T-shirts: 'Bridge over the River Kwai' 'Death Railway', black script on white. One size fits all.
So is this what it has come to? The tortuous labour of 60,000 POWs, mostly Australian, British, Dutch and American, and about 270,000 conscripted labourers from China, Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Singapore, working with shovels, picks and hoes, carrying debris in baskets and rice sacks. The danger, cruelty, torture, starvation and malnutrition. The beatings and allied bombings. The maggot-infested tropical ulcers, insect and snake bites, amputation, disease, sickness ... and a death for every sleeper. Tourist trains and T-shirts?
We rumble slowly over the famous bridge just out of Kanchanaburi 128km west of Bangkok, and past the two-way stream of tourists, gingerly walking the three planks between the rails, who make way for the train by flattening themselves into bays between spans; past the two replicas of the allied bombs that destroyed the bridge in June 1945, past a colourful trading post of hawkers, carts and stalls of food, drinks, clothes and tourist trinkets. The Bridge over the River Kwai industry.
I wonder what George would have made of this? George Aldridge, 55 Infantry Brigade Group Company RASC, Sevenoaks, Kent, my father-in-law who survived the hell of Dunkirk only to be captured in Singapore and find new hell here. George, who survived with his 1.8 metres (5ft 11in) frame reduced to a 44-kilogram skeleton, whose only personal possessions from that time we now own—a small, brown and fraying loin cloth and his military dog tag. And his diary. Not written daily—being caught with paper and pencil was a sure death penalty—but an outpouring written just days after the Japanese surrender.
On June 18, 1942 the first party of 1200 men and officers left Changi for what was called the Up Country Party ... We left Singapore by train, 35 men to a truck [steel-sided enclosed rice trucks; the first deaths occurred on these journeys. Some accounts talk of the floor awash with perspiration]. It took us five days to reach our destination, Ban Pong, 30 miles north of Bangkok.
Clackety clack. The train rattles across plains of sugar cane and dusty fields of red earth that shimmer in the 40-degree heat, then crawls through two rock cuttings at Chung Kai. Some historians claim these were needlessly built at the cost of many lives because of a Japanese map-reading error. We wind around cliff faces on one side and jungle-clad slopes dropping to the Kwae Noi river on the other. The hard rock, just inches from the window, is still scarred by POW pick marks.
In August we had our first real trouble. There was a lot of beating for nothing ... in the end we decided to strike, refusing to work unless something was done about it. One morning, through our officers, we refused to work. The Nipp sent for guards, the camp was surrounded by machine guns and then they commenced their efforts to get us to work ... we were stood to attention until 10 o'clock in the evening. If you moved you got a clout with the butt of a rifle, and having to urinate and relieve yourself where you were.
The officers were treated the same until six the next morning. But it achieved our objective ... it surprised the Nipps the way we stood up to them and after, we were treated with more respect ... Clackety clack. The train hugs the rock face and inches over the Wampo viaduct. The bridge looks fragile enough now, how must it have been then, before it was extensively rebuilt when it was a wooden trestle? More than 15kms of these bridges were made from jungle timber and bamboo along the railway built to supply the Japanese army in Burma. It was dangerous work and men, weak and ill, fell to their deaths. The POWs undermined the effort when they could. It was common for the bridges to be deliberately sabotaged. One, more than 24m high, became known as the Pack of Cards because it collapsed three times during construction.
... The number of men in the Thailand Command was 51,000. The men died of every disease, most caused by lack of food, long work hours, sometimes as long as three days and nights' continuous work and quite often beatings. The Korean guards delighted in this. Sometimes our boys hit back but this only resulted in being flogged nearly to death with three or more days standing to attention outside the guardroom where the sentries tormented you with blows. Clackety clack. Below, the wide river wanders brownly; the green leafy banks, splashes of cerise bouganvillia and brown thatched-roofed houses on stilts reflect in still-water bends. Behind in the dusty distance, voluptuously-rounded, misty blue-grey hills are straight out of an Asian painting. Was such beauty a solace or torture to the POWs in the camp sites?
The men, many barefoot and weak with disease, had to walk and climb five, sometimes six, kilometres every day to hill sites where they toiled for 16 hours before returning. The railway was built in searing heat and the heaviest monsoon in years.
... Life in the camps was terrible. Every day numbers of men were laid to rest, usually tied up with sack cloth. Medical supplies ran out. MOs working with nothing performed miracles. Hospitals were full of men with ulcers resulting in loss of limbs and life itself. One party of 2000 left Changi and had to march 170 miles from Ban Pong through jungle to Burma. Only 170 are alive today. It was a common sight to see living skeletons lying about with nothing to cover them, just waiting to die. Nothing could be done for them. At one time the Japs told us it would not matter if all the POWs and half the Nipps died but the railway must be finished. Thousands of families brought up from Malaya also met terrible deaths, many buried alive.
"Speedo, speedo!" George used to say when he wanted us to hurry along. Now I learn why. Work on the rail started in June 1943 at two sites, north at Thanbyuzayat in Burma and south at Non Pladuk. In July 1943, when progress for the meeting of the lines lagged, it reached a frenzied climax of demands and cruelty, the time called "speedo". One group of cuttings, known as Hellfire Pass, is now the site of a gut-wrenching Australian-Thai memorial museum. Work began on Anzac Day, April 25, 1943. About 1000 POWs, many sick and dragged from stretcher beds, worked around the clock to cut 20m down through hard limestone rock. At night they worked by the light of oil pot lamps and bamboo and wood fires. It was said the scene was like gazing into the 'jaws of hell'. An estimated 400 died completing the 600m Hell Fire section alone. By mid August 1943, there were only 100 survivors.
Fact has now blended with fiction. The film The Bridge on the River Kwai was based on a novel by Pierre Boulle. The river's name is actually the Kwae Yai though the bridge has now taken the name of the film. The first bridge, a temporary wooden structure, was built under appalling conditions. Then the present 11 span iron bridge, brought from Java, was reconstructed as the permanent crossing. It was bombed 10 times before being finally broken and war labour built a third diversion bridge.
One person's sacred memorial is another's entertainment and tourist attraction. It's hard to reconcile the two. Yet it was the film that brought world attention to the horrors few survivors could bring themselves to talk of. And from Death Railway there has arisen a livelihood that poor local people, perhaps the children and grandchildren of some who risked their lives to provide clandestine food to starving POWs, would not otherwise have had. George would have approved of that.
Roll call for those who perished
THE New Zealand Defense Department has no record of how many New Zealanders worked on Death Railway. Estimates range from 50 to 100, probably navy and airforce personnel and civilians captured in the fall of Singapore.
Three New Zealanders buried in the Myanmar (formerly Burma) Thanbyuzayat war cemetery almost certainly died working on the line: Warrant Officer Cecil Deryck Charters, 29, RNZAF, of Cashmere, Canterbury was shot down in Johore and interned in Malaya; Able Seaman Edgar James Roland McLachlan, 23, HMS Sultan, of Royal New Zealand Navy from Napier, and Wireman Kenneth Charles Rasmussen, 20, Royal New Zealand Navy, Devenport Auckland, were captured in the fall of Singapore. Two pilots, who died when their planes crashed, are buried in Kanchanaburi war cemetery among the railway dead: Pilot Officer Donald Sidney Anderson, 23, a spitfire pilot RAF Sqdn, RNZAF of Newmarket Auckland, and Sergeant Alvin Messines Dingle, RAF Sqdn, RNZAF, of Hamilton, an observer on a bomber which crashed outside Bangkok killing all three crew in January 1942.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jonathan Hunt, and parliamentarians Brian Donnelly, Shane Ardem, Helen Duncan and Keith Locke will today lay wreaths at a dawn service at Hellfire Pass and also at Kanchanaburi war cemetery.