April 15, 2009

10. Prison Camp Musician (January 1944 - August 1945)

In January 1944, Han Samethini appeared at the entrance to Chungkai camp. He was in such a state that his own brother hardly recognized him:

A man stumbles through the gate, leaning on bamboo crutches, one of his legs covered in a dirt-blackened bandage. His uniform hangs loosely in tatters on his pitiful, shrunken frame. His face is bent downwards, which is why I need moment or two to recognise...my brother, Han! Panic stricken, I run to him.


His tired eyes in the sallow face light up. "Frank! So glad to see you. They said you were dead! Oh, my leg. It hurts, it hurts. What's happening to me?"

Taking his arm, I support him to the hut, with fear in my heart as I smell the odour of a tropical ulcer. Oh my God, how far he is gone! He is so light, so awfully light! With a cold, sinking feeling I lay him down on the bamboo slats. "Jesus, not my brother, not him! You hear me?!" Han, too tired to speak, falls at once into a deep slumber. Only then do I realise that all the time I haven't spoken a single word to him. [1]

Hospital huts at Chungkai
Watercolor by POW Jack Chalker
Source: Australian War Memorial (ART91822)

As he ran to the hospital huts to summon help, Frank shouted to Han in reassurance, "No fear!" But he had reason to worry. Tropical ulcers - festering skin lesions that could begin with the smallest cut - were a disfiguring and deadly scourge on the Burma Railway. Untreated, they consumed muscle and connective tissue down to the bone. The worst cases required amputation. Less drastic treatments included regular scraping of dead tissue from the gaping wounds until new tissue formed. Typically the work was done with sharpened spoons (scalpels being hard to come by) and without anesthetics. The screaming patient was simply held down by fellow POWs while an orderly did the scraping. In addition to the ulcers and severe malnutrition, Han had contracted malaria again. But a POW doctor reassured Frank that his brother might just pull through with rest, food, and quinine treatments. These life-sustaining essentials, usually meager in the jungle work camps, were relatively abundant here. Frank elaborates:

Like Tamarkan, Chungkai is not too bad as far as POW camps go. The Japs are reasonable because their commander is humane, the work is not too hard and the food is pretty good. There is even a canteen where one may buy fried eggs, omelets, spicy snacks, ginger bread and rice flour doughnuts! Finely cut native tobacco, properly cured by former tobacco experts from the British-American Tobacco Company in the Indies, is rolled with cleverly constructed tools into cigarettes of reasonably thin paper. Scores of men, unfit for manual work, are being employed by the "factories", the entire profit of which is donated into the hospital fund." [2]

Partially healed tropical ulcers on the leg of a Burma Railway POW
Source: Australian War Memorial (P01433.028)

Though Chungkai was designated a base hospital camp, doctors had to work with scant resources under the most primitive conditions. A few drugs were obtainable through black market trading with the Thais, but the quantity was insufficient for the great number of sick and broken men. The Japanese withheld or stole nearly all medical supplies sent by the Red Cross. Malnutrition compounded illness and injury. Critical for a patient's recovery was the sheer will to live. This Han possessed, and fortified by the generosity of friends, who gave him all they could spare in food and quinine, his vitality gradually returned. [3]

Finally there comes the day when the silent prayers are answered, when the stinking holes in his leg close and the feverish gleam disappears from his eyes. In the hours spent at his bedside, he tells me all about the ordeal he had to go through, the horror of the railroad, his share of the suffering. It is nothing new. His story is but an echo of that from many others, though with typical human selfishness, we here in Chungkai had forced ourselves to forget, to push back the screaming evil into the dark recesses of the mind, until the day of reckoning. [4]

Until then, the only way to resist the Japanese was to stay alive and do everything possible to lift the spirits of the men. Han asked for his accordion as soon as he was able to sit up.

At last Han has beaten the malaria and ulcers, but it's taken almost all the strength he has left in him. He is too weak as yet to walk by himself, but he says that he can play for the boys if they want him to. And so a time is set, and one evening they take him to the stage on a stretcher. They place him in a chair before a large crowd assembled on the parade ground. For a moment or two, his fingers run tentatively over the keyboard of his old accordion. A hush has fallen over the audience. Then, up spring and sparkle the notes, rising and tumbling down, in singles and in pairs, in chords of low and high notes like a musical fountain.

First they let him play a little while on his own, but not for long. As many times before, the magic of the sweeping rhythm and harmony of his music makes them burst forth into singing. "Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me. Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee" sounds over the heads of the men. "Home, home on the range" echoes against the dusty attap walls, touching the trees looming in the darkness, touching the hardened souls of these ragged, skinny people drawn together in close unity. A unity which goes beyond the boundaries of rank and standing. For now the only important things are Dinah and My Blue Heaven, and She's My Lady Luck, and Always, and more of the songs of old. But not Home Sweet Home, that is forbidden. The accordion is only audible at the start of each tune, the singing taking over immediately, drowning the mechanical sound in the human voices of the one and same hope they all carry in their hearts.

Lights-out comes much too soon. After Auld Lang Syne the men walk back to their quarters, contented, for had they not, for a little while at least, beaten the enemy? [5]

Caricature of Samethini at Chungkai
Sketch by Walter L. "Wally" Davis

Source: Han Samethini Collection

Chungkai Theater
Pencil and watercolor by Jack Chalker

Source: Australian War Memorial (AWM ART91826)

Chungkai Theater orchestra with the cast of Leo Britt's "Wonderbar" (May, 1944)
Eight Japanese (or Korean) POW camp guards sit in the front row onstage.
Samethini sits in the orchestra pit, at bottom, second from right.
Source: Han Samethini Collection

The Japanese commander was so impressed with Han's accordion playing that he exempted him from further railroad work. Samethini was assigned camp chores. When these were completed at the end of each day, he devoted much of his free time to helping with entertainments at the POW theater. Constructed in 1943 out of bamboo and attap (palm thatch), Chungkai Theater was the locus of the camp's artistic talent. An orchestra pit delved in front of the stage accommodated the band, and the rising ground beyond formed a natural amphitheater that could seat an audience of 2,000. Prisoners crafted costumes, sets, and musical instruments out of whatever materials they could scrounge. Scripts of prewar plays and dialogue from cinema films were reconstructed from memory. Original material was written as well. Through their combined efforts, the POW musicians, comedians, actors, and dancers made the theater an island of light and laughter in a sea of despair.

Leading lights of The Dutch Cabaret at Chungkai
(Clockwise from bottom left) Joop Postma, Philip "Flip" Brugman, and Ferry.

Source: The Museon

Here Samethini linked up again with Joop Postma, his old colleague from the camp in Malang. Postma headed the Dutch show group, Het Hollandsch Cabaret, in partnership with Philip Brugman and Ferry (whose real name is not known). The British and Australians also had their own groups of performers, but artists were not strictly segregated according to nationality. Show posters and handwritten programs often displayed names from all three nations. The versatile, gregarious Samethini participated in several Chungkai bands and ensembles, as an accordionist, music arranger, and on one occasion at least, as a singer.

Postma recalls Samethini's start as a regular performer at Chungkai:

The first show was performed with Samethini and an English orchestra where he played. It had a homemade drum, a few violins, and an accordion. These were made with railroad material, of course. An old soap box with strings made of telegraph wire. We had to steal those, you understand. But anyway, we got what we needed. It was a success. We had a Dutch-Indonesian young man - really more Javanese than Dutch-Indonesian - named Liddel, with a bass made of the soap box with wire strings. It had such a fantastic sound that it drowned out everything else except Samethini, who had a huge accordion and knew every piece of music. He [Samethini] had studied four years at the conservatorium in The Hague, and was very proud he was an Indo [a Dutch Eurasian]. But it was in his genes because his father played in a dance hall. This was a good time. He easily switched between playing for the English and for us. But he always had to do all the musical arrangements for our show, for whatever instruments were available, because the English did have a conductor but he could not arrange music. And so it happened that this English conductor had composed a piece of music just like the Bolero of Ravel. That man was called Smith. Samethini had to make the entire arrangement and did such an incredible job that he became indispensable. [6]

First page of the "The Exiles"
Composed by Norman Smith and arranged by Han Samethini
(See Appendix B for the complete score)
Source: Han Samethini Collection

Philip Brugman adds:

Every POW doctor will agree that these evenings in the Chungkai Theater were the best medicine for the sick men and the other POWs, yet after the war this has never been made clear. The performers of course had the advantage that their activities entailed a lot of exemptions from railroad work. They were kept back as much as possible, especially when a work group was being formed to go up country. But most of them did have a chore in camp, and they had the extra duties to prepare the performances. And it was hard work to get a show stage-ready in five weeks time. Joop Postma, for example, was the camp cook. Yours truly, the head masseur in the hospital. We both had a full day's job, and in our free time we worked and rehearsed for the theater in The Dutch Cabaret. Every five weeks we had to stage a musical. This was our specialty. Joop Postma was the director, who also took care of the comedy parts. Yours truly was the choreographer because, before the war, I studied folk and ballet dance. The musical portion was entirely the province of Han Samethini. The songs were written by Flip van Delden and the costumes made by Puck Jonkmans. And each group had its own set designer. [7]

Poster for "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse," produced by Leo Britt 
Geheugen van Nederland/The Museon

Poster for Eddie's Road Show, emceed by Eddie Edwins
Samethini's name appears in the credits

Geheugen van Nederland/The Museon

Besides The Dutch Cabaret, there were two English groups consisting of professional actors as well as amateurs, and these groups gave performances of high caliber. Then there was a revue troupe led by the professional director Leo Britt, who also staged musicals and an operetta called "Wonderbar." Also productions of very high quality. Between our group and Leo Britt's group there was a healthy rivalry resulting in much better performances by both groups. Joop and I performed in Leo Britt's productions a few times. Then there was a road show group led by an Australian named Eddie Edwins, which performed brief improvisations like drama, singing, and dance numbers with himself as a comical emcee. These Edwins shows were on a much lower level than Britt's and Postma's. The sixth group was a musical troupe, an Allied promenade concert party performing light classics. This orchestra was conducted by the Englishman Norman Smith. Of course, Han Samethini played a large part in this orchestra, as most of the members were in his Samethini band. Sammy was very popular everywhere. [8]

In April, Frank left with a party of POWs whom the Japanese promised, "Speedo big yasme" ("very soon a long resting time"). It was a lie. The men were being taken to Japan for further slave labor. For a third time the Samethini brothers had been reunited in captivity, but they were not to see each other again for the duration of the war.

Pte. Walter L. "Wally" Davis, 5th Bn., Royal Norfolk Regiment
Drummer for the Chungkai POW Orchestra

Imperial War Museum

"English Drummer"
Sketch by Dutch POW Kees van Willigen
(The man depicted appears to be Wally Davis)

One of Han's colleagues at Chungkai was a British POW named Walter L. "Wally" Davis, who'd been the drummer for the Royal Norfolks regimental dance band. He recalls the physical hazards of playing in the presence of Japanese soldiers, who attended every performance. When displeased, for whatever reason, the guards interrupted shows by assaulting the actors and musicians. Davis began as a spectator. Of the period between between January and June 1944, he writes:

I nearly saw two [shows], as I remember a pal lent me a pair of trousers to go in, but half way there I had what we called a "slight mishap" and had to go down to the river and wash them out before returning them, and back to my slats. The only one I saw was Dr. Gottler's [sic] Revue "Thai-Diddle-Diddle" who not only got bashed up for one sketch, but also got sent away from the camp because he could not give the Japanese a satisfactory answer to what the cow jumping over the moon on the poster meant or even Thai-Diddle-Diddle. [9]

Poster for "Thai Diddle Diddle"
Produced by Dudley Gotla
The Burma-Siam Railway: The Secret Diary of Dr. Robert Hardie 1942-45

On June 15, Davis joined the orchestra as a drummer, performing with Samethini in many shows. When too ill to participate on one occasion, he was at least fortunate to avoid an especially zealous round of abuse:

Dec 25...I went down with malaria, yellow jaundice, etc. and whilst [I was] sick the Australians, British and Dutch put on a Revue "Cuts from the Movies" but owing to the Japanese thinking that the monkey in the Australian "Road to Singapore" Dorothy Lamour/Bing Crosby scene was taking the mickey, they bashed up all the band and artists, and the theatre had to be pulled down the next day. [10]

Concert program for "Sweet and Swing"
(Click images to enlarge)
Drawn by Piet van Velthuysen
Samethini credited as accordionist and vocalist.

Han Samethini Collection

Poster for "Lichten Op" (Hit the Lights!)
Dutch Cabaret show

Geheugen van Nederland/The Museon

Poster for "Zijn Groote Reis" (His Big Trip)
Dutch Cabaret show

Geheugen van Nederland/The Museon

Poster for "Van Lach tot Lach" (Laugh After Laugh)
Dutch Cabaret show

Geheugen van Nederland/The Museon

Among the groups Samethini joined was an ensemble called The Swingtette. It proved highly popular, and was sent by the Japanese on tour to other POW camps. In July or August 1944, these musicians gave a concert at nearby Tamarkan. Australian Major James Jacobs writes:

Following my visit to Chunkai, and by arrangement with Major Bill Pyecock, O.C. of the Chunkai Concert Party, we obtained permission for their "Swingtette" to visit Tamarkan and give us a programme. This swing band was a very clever combination of drums, slap bass, trumpet and piano accordeon. The accordeonist was a Dutch Eurasian named Samathini, and was far and away the best performer on the instrument I have ever heard. A sound musician, and a showman to his fingertips, Samathini made a tremendous hit with the Tamarkanites. [11]

Major James W. Jacobs
Royal Australian Signals Corps

Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-1945

A tour in November took The Swingtette up-country to a series of railway maintenance camps, where Japanese and Korean guards craved relief from boredom. Their performance at Kinsayok is recorded in the diary of C.D.L. Aylwin:

They came here primarily to play at a Nip concert on November 3rd - a big celebration of some sort but none of us attended. We benefited by two concerts during their stay. The first in this camp held inside a hut as it was raining and the second in the Korean camp in the open. Both were much enjoyed. They played light music and jazz. The illuminations provided by the Koreans for the latter concert was terrific. It was held after dark. I've not seen as a p.o.w. such generosity with candles, lamps and flares for lighting. [12]

As much as entertainments did to boost POW morale, still more encouragement came from news of mounting Allied victories and continuing Axis retreats during 1944. These reports were obtained through clandestine radios and passed along by word of mouth. One British-built shortwave receiver was kept well hidden at Chungkai. Its operators, the Webber brothers, continued their work even after the Japanese discovered a radio set in neighboring Kanchanaburi camp and beat two British officers to death. [13]

Allied air attack on the Tamarkan rail bridges, circa 1945 
Australian War Memorial (P01433.004)

The most dramatic evidence of Japan's waning fortunes came from the air, as Allied bombers hammered targets up and down the Burma Railway. American B-24s attacking the bridges at Tamarkan began their bomb runs at a point just southwest of Chungkai, flying low enough to be easily observed by Han and his comrades: [14]

....we saw many planes flying their bomb loads to a spot dead-right over the bridge, which was promptly blown up. [15]

POW railroad labor was now used increasingly to repair bomb damage. By early 1945, trains returning from Burma carried growing numbers of wounded Japanese soldiers. With these obvious signs of approaching defeat, the captors became less tolerant of entertainments at Chungkai. Davis writes:

....On Jan 10 [1945] we were told that anybody who had valuables (still) had got to hand them in for safe keeping by the Japanese....Later we were told that the officers were all going down to Kanchanaburi, concerts would be allowed but censored. Each week a new order was given until we finished up with no announcing, no singing, no applause and a Japanese tune to be played in both halves [of the concert]. Although "Bill" G. Bainbridge the conductor and "Samathini" the accordionist used to put in the odd bars of British and Dutch patriotic tunes (and Col. Bogey) this caused controversy amongst the POWs as to whether to continue with the concerts or not. Some thought to continue [would have] looked as though as though we were Jap-happy. Others thought to stop altogether was just what the Japs wanted.

We continued for a while, but as Bill kept getting bashed up before we could find the interpreter to explain such things as "Tale" of Hoffman or Vienna Woods, [we] finished up with [the]"Swingtette" going round the hospital huts.... [16]

As a result of one such bash-up, or a beating received earlier in his captivity, Samethini suffered a ruptured eardrum. He took this injury in stride, never letting it impede either his music or his easygoing nature.

Chungkai cemetery
Geheugen van Nederland/The Museon

Davis sums up the quiet determination that animated the performers at Chungkai Theater, and indeed all POWs who survived the Burma Railway:

During the daytime if one was working in camp or sick, it was usual to hear Last Post being sounded three or four times a day as the funeral parties arrived at the cemetery where over 1,200 bodies of POWs lay. [These] are things that most men who were there will never forget. When the Last Post was played all the men in camp would stand to attention and as soon as it was over, it was back to work on whatever they were doing. I mention this because with the band and concerts it was, "The show must go on," regardless of whether any of them had malaria with temperatures well over 100, touch of the trots, or feeling rough otherwise because a very close friend had passed away that day. The shows went on as usual, partly for morale and also to let the Japanese know they still could not break the spirit that kept us going. [17]

Tamuang POW camp, 1945
Australian War Memorial

On June 2, 1945 the other ranks prisoners at Chungkai were moved to Tamuang. It seems there was a small chapel in this camp, and on June 5, Samethini was inspired by the ringing of its bells to compose the song "Church Bells in the Morning." The lyrics were written by Australian POW Ron Wells, a swing musician who'd performed with the Tamarkan concert party:

I hear bells with the morning light,
Ringing clear through the air so quiet.
Do they say, "Very soon have faith,
Loved ones at home pray for you always?"
There are church bells ringing in the morning,
Reminding me of the old folks at home.
And my heart is aching for that morning,
When I'm returning across the foam.
Then the church bells of my home town,
And the choir as they sing,
Will remind me of church bells in the morning
And the faith that they brought to me.
And the faith that they brought to me. [18]

Opening bars of "Church Bells in the Morning"
Composed by Han Samethini
Lyrics by Ron Wells
Han Samethini Collection

At Tamuang the Japanese ordered the prisoners to build a theater. Davis writes:

This [theater] was up in no time but was not used until one day when Colonel Ishi had gone to Bangkok for reasons unknown, and Sgt. Kokabu told us that we had got to have a musical concert, which started all sorts of wild rumours going in camp. I shall never forget that date. It was August 15 and in the middle of the very impromptu evening musical concert with no applause, etc., S.M. Atkins told us that the war was at last over and we were free once again... [19]

With the end of the war came Allied air drops of canned food, medical supplies, and leaflets telling of the atomic bombs and the Japanese surrender. In many camps the Japanese released the Red Cross parcels they had been withholding from the prisoners. POWs also obtained goods through trade with the local Thai population. It was a sudden, almost rapturous transition from fear and wretchedness to security and plenty. But though the hunger for food could at last be satisfied, rags and loincloths exchanged for new uniforms, and proper bathing and shaving enjoyed with soap and fresh razor blades, the greatest desire of every ex-POW was simply to return home.

The jungle reclaims its own
A section of the Burma Railway, September 1945
Australian War Memorial (P02310.009)

Over 61,000 Allied prisoners of war had been forced to work on the Burma Railway. Of these, 12,619 had died. The death toll among the Asian slave laborers was even higher, in excess of 85,000. One life, it is said, for every wooden crosstie laid. Though built at an appalling cost, it never provided more than a fraction of the logistical support the Japanese Army had hoped for. Without the constant maintenance provided by the POWs, much of the railroad soon vanished into the encroaching jungle, together with the abandoned camps that lay along its now desolate track. [20]

Han Samethini would bear the marks of the Railway for the rest of his life: ulcer scars on both shins, partial deafness, eyesight weakened by malnutrition, and recurring malaria. But he was alive. All that mattered now was getting back to Surabaya to find Anna and Margie. What had become of them?



[1] The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 13: More of Chungkai.

[2] Ibid., Chapter 12: Chungkai.

[3] Australian Major E.E. "Weary" Dunlop took over command of Chungkai hospital in early 1944. His diary contains the following observations on hospital shortcomings: "21 January 1944. Camp and hospital hygiene is extremely unsatisfactory: shallow, open latrines for the most part, very offensive and badly flyblown and used as both a deposit for excreta and refuse. The dysentery wards are particularly bad....The scabies centre has no disinfestation and no large drums for boiling. As at Tarsau, almost everyone is covered with scabs and sores...." Of the ulcer huts, where Samethini was being treated, he writes: "3 February 1944. My first day in the ulcer wards: the equipment is appalling. The patients are almost all scabies ridden and many have impetiginous sores all over them. No use has been made of beef or other fats for ointment. I am at once approaching the camp command for a supply of beef fat and am urging the construction of ward sterilisers and irrigating cans. There is no boracic acid for boric ointment so I am using carbolic ointment 1% as a sort of universal dressing. Something must be done at once to deal with scabies and infectious bedding and clothing. " E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop (Wheathampstead, UK: Lennard Publishing, 1987), pp. 323, 326.

Under Dunlop's leadership conditions improved substantially as the year progressed: "Discipline, supremely high morale, and the pooling of resources in foodstuffs, money, materials, and human ability were even more important than purely medical treatment. A duck's egg daily might be all that was needed to turn the scales of a man's life. Herculean labors improved sanitation and accommodation. Patients were trained as medical orderlies, others were employed in the mass production of improvised equipment, even if they were only able to whittle with a knife on their beds. Sick-welfare money from various national and unit sources was directed into a common pool, and used with the utmost economy in a planned series of special diets, or in the clandestine purchase of essential drugs from the Siamese. For example, at Chungkai from January to April 1944 we raised 38,000 dollars from prisoners' meagre resources, largely from the officers' pay of 30 dollars a month." E. E. Dunlop, "Medical Experiences in Japanese Captivity" (London: British Medical Journal, October 5, 1946), p. 482. For details and statistics on the Chungkai POW hospital, click on the thumbnail images below:

The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Werkers aan de Burmaspoorweg, p. 249. Excerpt translated by Margie Samethini-Bellamy. On the matter of Han Samethini's ethnicity ("very proud he was an Indo"), Postma uses the expression Indische jonge, literally "Indies boy". It signifies a Dutchman born and raised in the East Indies, especially one of mixed European and Indonesian blood.

[7] Ibid., p. 252-253.

 [8] Brugman's reference to his masseur job might seem incongruous with conditions in a Japanese prison camp, but it had nothing to do with luxury. POW doctors and orderlies used massage as physical therapy, e.g., to rehabilitate muscles damaged by tropical ulcers, work injuries, or heavy beatings.

[9] Chunkai P.O.W. Camp Theatre, by Walter L. Davis. Copy of an unpublished manuscript sent by Davis to Samethini. The document is not dated, but was probably written in the early 1970s. Dudley Gotla was a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, hence Davis' reference to him as "Dr. Gottler."

Robert Hardie speculated that the title, "Thai Diddle-Diddle", aroused the suspicion of the Japanese interpreter because one of the meanings of diddle is to deceive or cheat. Robert Hardie,
The Burma-Siam Railway, The Secret Diary of Dr. Robert Hardie 1942-45 (London: Imperial War Museum, 1984), p. 141.

Assistant stage manager John Coast saw trouble brewing in the first act, which made liberal use of coarse Japanese and pidgin "Japlish" words ("Kurrah!" "Buggero!" "Benjo speedo!"). It was risky to poke fun, however subtly, at the war or the degradations of POW life.
John Coast, Railroad of Death (London: The Aiglon Press, 1948), pp. 181-182.

[10] Ibid. " Taking the mickey " is a British expression meaning to mock or ridicule. The guards believed the comical monkey character was intended to represent themselves. American war propaganda often depicted the Japanese as simian brutes. See here, here and here.

[11] The Burma Railway: One Man's Story, by James William (Jim) Jacobs (1947), page 118. Accessed on the web site Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1942-1945. Coast gives a similar appraisal: "The 'Swingtet' consisted of the double-bass, a guitar, trumpet, drums and accordeon; the Dutch accordeonist was the best any of us had ever heard, and he and the 'bass player made the Swingtet into a combination that would have been of a genuinely high peace-time standard." Coast, Railroad of Death, p. 182. 

[12] Imperial War Museum (Aylwin, Major C.D.L., IWM 67/330/1, Folder 8, 121). Text and source citation provided by Prof. Sears Eldredge.

[13] The work of the Webber brothers at Chungkai, and the murder of the British officers at Kanchanaburi, is mentioned in: Gavan Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese (New York: Quill/William Morrow & Company, 1994 ) pp. 214-215.

[14] William Henderson, an American bombardier who flew on missions against the Tamarkan bridges, writes that the IP [Initial Point] was "slightly west and south of Chungkai prison camp." Lt. Col. W. A. Henderson, From China Burma India to the Kwai, (Waco: Texian Press, 2001), p. 72. Wally Davis was one of the ex-POWs Henderson interviewed while researching his book. Davis recalled being on the wooden bridge with a work party on February 13, 1945, when American bombers attacked the neighboring steel bridge. Ibid., p. 86.

In a letter to the FEPOW Forum in 1976, Davis wrote:

"...I was in a work party in the middle of the wooden bridge at the time. We were all looking up at a lone four engined plane which we thought was on pamphlet dropping, but when his parcel did not scatter like snowflakes, we did. I dived off the bridge into the river and had just got near the bank when there was a terrific metallic crash. I cannot remember which side of the river I swum to, where I ran to, or even how long I was there. When we went back to work on the wooden bridge we noticed that No. 8 pier and span lay in the river and No. 7 span at 45 degrees from pier No. 7. I have found out since that 6 B-24s of 493rd Squadron U.S.A.A. Force were credited with this raid. I have never been able to make out if it was the noise of the first bomb which affected my memory (at the time) in some way, or whether I was just scared on February 13th, 1945." FEPOW Forum, The Official Magazine, Far East Prisoners of War Club, London (Number 15, Tenth Series, February-March 1976), p. 11.


[15] Quoted from a letter written by Han Samethini to his brother after the war. The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 13: Peace? As noted above, there were two rail bridges at Tamarkan, the first constructed of wood and the second of steel. Han refers to the steel bridge, famously known today as The Bridge on the River Kwai. Parenthetically, the "Bridge on the River Kwai" actually spans the Mae Klong River. Beyond that point the Burma Railway runs north, through the valley of the Kwai Noi River. Thus the Kwai Noi is the "real" River Kwai. The distinction between the two rivers was ignored in the postwar mythologizing of the steel bridge in literature and film. Accommodating foreign misconceptions in the service of tourism, the Thais have given the Mae Klong a second name: the Kwai Yai.

[16] Davis, Chunkai POW Camp Theatre

[17] Ibid.

[18] "Church Bells in the Morning", Han Samethini Collection.

[19] Davis, Chunkai POW Camp Theatre. Hardie gives a slightly more accurate and detailed account of the surrender announcement at Tamuang:

"17 August 1945. Yesterday, after several days in which rumours were quite subdued, there were great comings and goings. Ishii went off, they said to Bangkok, excitement grew, a small party was brought in from another camp, who said they had heard the Japanese were giving in...then a high Japanese officer arrived and was closeted with the Jap officers in their camp. Finally RSM Edkins was called across to the Japanese office, and briefly informed that the war was over and that we would now come under our own discipline.

Edkins came straight across to the hospital area, where a concert was in progress, and made the announcement to the audience. There was a tremendous burst of cheering. The National Anthems of Britain, Holland and the United States were sung, and then 'Abide with me'. One's emotions were almost numb, after such long suppression of hopes and fears. One could hardly realise that the moment for which one had waited with such desperate but such doubtful hopes had come at last. It was over: we were free again, and would soon be in touch with the outside world, home...." Hardie, The Burma-Siam Railway, pp. 175-176.

[20] See the figures compiled by Neil MacPherson: Death Railway Movements. 85,000 is probably a conservative estimate for the number of Asian forced labor deaths. The initial figure reported in the Australian press in September 1945, was 100,000 (c.f. The Argus, Melbourne, Victoria, September 13, 1945, page 20). The toll may well be higher. No one knows for certain.


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