THE BURMA SIAM RAILWAY
Used with permission: Quiet Lion Committee Bill Haskell an ex POW who spent his time in Thailand in Hintock, later went to Ohama, gave an inspired address at the Anzac Service in Kanchanaburi about Hintock
BY BILL HASKELL, FORMER POW
WX3279 2ND 3RD MACHINE GUN BATALLION
It seems incredible that sixty years have passed since we laboured on the railway to Burma, by which name we knew it at the time. Often in those dreadful days you would not have given yourself a chance of surviving for a few days let alone sixty years. It is therefore with a sense of deep gratitude that I recall the unswerving dedication of all medical staff and the abiding friendship of wonderful mates who made survival possible in a universe of madness and suffering. When you are bereft of everything, save perhaps a loin cloth or a tattered pair of shorts the only thing we could offer each other was a helping hand and encouragement to battle on towards better times.
In January 1943 as a member of a force known as Dunlop Force, commanded by Lt. Col. "Weary Dunlop" we moved up from Java into the Konyu Hintok area to commence work on the railway. Fortunately it was during the dry season and we were transported most of the way from Bam Pong in open trucks. What a great advantage this gave us over our comrades of the various forces who were compelled to march in monsoonal rain and slush to such camps as Songkurai, Nikki and other hell holes.
Our initial job was to construct the Konyu River Camp and clear the rail trace. We then moved across to Hintok Road Camp and began working in earnest. Our work area embraced the three major cuttings after Hellfire Pass culminating in the compressor cutting. It also included the curved seven metre embankment, the three tier trestle bridge and numerous smaller trestle bridges that linked knoll to knoll. Circumstances also made us available to work on the fallen Pack of Cards Bridge that was mainly built by Tamil labourers.
No matter where you worked the job was arduous in the extreme, particularly for the many men who had to work barefooted. In common with every POW camp food was at a premium. Rice, of course, was the staple diet, but there was little enough of it. For the evening meal it was served with a very watery soup, with sometimes a smidgen of meat or dried fish known as "Modern Girls". The Japanese were merciless task masters and bludgeoned men into long hours of soul-destroying work. During one of the wettest monsoons on record there were 114 wet days and our camp was worked for 92 days straight without a break. This has come to be known as the speedo period. The huge embankment was built by scraping dirt garnered between rocks into double handled baskets which were passed along a man made chain. Often the spoil was carried away in tankas a rice sack strung between two bamboo poles. Japanese strategically placed bashed anybody they thought might be slacking. In their weakened condition men often collapsed under a rain of savage blows and kicks.
The construction of the numerous cuttings probably contributed most to the ruination of so many men. The work would have been hard for men in good physical shape, but was an absolute disaster for men battling recurrent disease on starvation diets. Most of the cuttings were put in by men working with hammer and tap. One man held the drill while his mate belted it with a sledge hammer. Drilling quotas were set by the Japanese and the drilled holes were primed with gelignite and fired twice a day. After firing the clearers moved in to clear the floor for the next drilling. Clearing was an awful job universally detested. The blasting left razor sharp edges which tore bare feet to shreds. The loose rock was carried away in tankas and emptied over the side. Blasting was indiscriminate and men were frequently clobbered by falling stones. The cuttings were a sweat box from the radiated heat and the workers suffered great thirst. We were only allowed one army bottle of water a day. Many of our strongest men broke down, often doing too much to protect a sick mate. The Japanese made no concessions for sick men and often used them as an excuse for handing out more bashings. Building the three tier bridge presented all sorts of difficulties. It was a giant of a structure about 25 metres high and 250 metres long. The timber for it and all other bridges was cut from the surrounding jungle and hauled to the site by prisoners. There it was prepared and erected under the supervision of the Japanese engineers. The sergeant in charge was a sadist of the first order who delighted in throwing tools and pieces of wood at unsuspecting prisoners working below.
The long working hours, the intense harassment on the job, the lack of footwear and the starvation diet affected mens health to a point where they became absolute sitters for all the tropical diseases that were indigenous to the area. Malaria and dysentery were their constant companions. There was little quinine available to control malaria and nothing with which to treat amoebic dysentery. With the monsoonal rain the camp became a quagmire and going to the toilet at night became an almost insuperable problem for debilitated men racked with abdominal pain.
A lack of vitamins in the diet soon brought on all sorts of complaints ranging from beri-beri to red raw mouths, tongues and throats. Beri-beri caused gross swelling of the limbs and stomach, making walking in itself very difficult, let alone having to get out to the rail trace and work when you got there. Cuts and wounds on the legs and feet generally became infected due to the absence of antiseptics, disinfectants and bandages. Many lesions soon turned into tropical ulcers which often as not became gangrenous. Hundreds of men had limbs amputated as a last resort.
Perhaps the greatest scourge of all was cholera visited on our camp by passing Asian labourers who unfortunately were denied any sort of treatment whatsoever. Cholera rapidly dehydrates the body through purging and vomiting. As the fluid leaves the body so do the body salts thus inducing severe cramp in all muscles. Cholera claimed many lives in our camp before a still was manufactured from salvaged material, enabling the production of pure distilled water to be turned into a saline solution for intravenous injection into comatose patients. This procedure was marvelously successful resulting in the saving of 60% of all cholera patients.
When we look back over those troubled times is it any wonder that we thank the Good Lord for his provision of steadfast mates and above all for the doctors and medical staff who overcame incredible difficulties to return so many men to their loved ones at home.