April 15, 2009

9. The Death Railway (January - December 1943)

"We were crammed, thirty-five men, in steel compartments"
Illustration by Charles Thrale
Source: Fepow Monthly Review

The journey from Singapore to the southern end of the Burma Railway took nearly a week. Felix Bakker again takes up the narrative:

We were crammed, thirty-five men, in steel compartments. The doors were kept ajar, with a rope stretched between them, so that we could hold on to the rope when "going to the toilet." After a few days, dysentery erupted again with all its misery. Those patients had to be held tightly or they would fall out of the train due to their weakness. During the day it was boiling hot in those steel wagons, and at night we froze. Under those circumstances it was almost impossible to sleep; we had to try that sitting down and pulling our knees up. For the tall guys among us this was even worse than for those who were shorter and more supple. I was not among the latter.

Ban Pong railway station, Thailand
Source: Australian War Memorial (P00761.029)

Twice during daylight the train would stop, and from each wagon two men were allowed to get a small barrel of water and another one of rice gruel. That was all we got for food and water per day. If one of the sick men tried to leave the wagons to void, the Japs would beat him back into the train with their rifle butts. As on the ship, conditions inside the train became almost intolerable. This train trip took five days and five nights, until we arrived at Ban Pong, Thailand. There we were crammed into trucks so we could not fall out, even though we could barely stand for lack of sleep. We had to walk from Kanchanaburi to Chungkai camp. It was really more like sleepwalking, but the rifle butts of our guards made sure we kept staggering on. In the camp were already a few thousand British POWs, who had built bamboo barracks and who had started working on the railroad. After roll call, which lasted longer than an hour while the Japanese kept counting us over and over, we could finally go to our barracks, where most of us simply collapsed from lack of sleep.

After a few days in Chungkai, our group of 500 Dutch POWs had to move up country to our first labor camp, but not before we had to listen to a speech by the Jap camp commander. I, and most of us, don't remember much about his nonsense other than:

"You should be honored and feel privileged that you are helping to undertake such a great project under Japanese leadership, and therefore you shall have to work hard to earn this honor."

Well, we learned the truth of that last statement. We walked, a long line of men, on a small sandy road which soon became a jungle trail. The walk took three days. Many fell ill with dysentery, malaria, and injured feet. In the late afternoon of the third day, we halted in a clearing in the forest along the River Kwai. On one side, near the river, were three large, new tents for the Japanese camp commander and the Korean guards. On the other side, near the edge of the forest, stood an old, threadbare, grubby tent which was the hospital tent for the gravely ill. Everybody else had to find a spot near the bushes or under the trees at the edges of the camp.

Map of the Burma Railway(Click to Enlarge)Source: perthone.com

Luckily the dry monsoon was still there for a few more months. Roll call had everybody out next morning before daylight. For breakfast we got a small bowl of rice gruel. Our doctor had kept some sick men away from the labor groups. This was not appreciated by the Japs, who kicked a number of these men towards the labor details. When the doctor protested vehemently, four guards went at him with sticks until he fell unconscious to the ground. After a few hours the guards threw water on his face and allowed him to be dragged off to his "hospital tent." This way the Japs made it clear how they would run things.

The railroad to be worked on was about 6 kilometers from camp. One detail cut a wide swath through the forest by sawing down trees and hacking away the brush. Other groups started the initial foundation work for the railroad. The work was done by hand, with picks and shovels. Woven baskets were used to dump the soil where it was needed. Each man had to move one cubic meter of soil. This was measured very precisely by the Japs at the end of the day by the finished section of railroad. Only when the measurement was correct could the labor details return to camp. If not, we had to keep working by torch light. This happened more and more, as increasing numbers of men fell ill. It was very heavy labor under the broiling sun. The water in our canteens was soon gone, and water for tea was brought by two men once a day, from the river 6 kilometers away. Those men also brought the rice gruel for lunch. We got ten minutes to eat gruel and drink tea, and then it was back to work. If things did not go fast enough, or if we did not work hard enough, according to the Japs, we would get beaten with bamboo sticks, shovels, or rifle butts. For the first time in my life, I learned what thirst really meant: mouth and throat dry as a cork, swollen lips, visions of faucets giving cool, clear water, as much as you wished.

Illustration by Francess Richardson
Image courtesy of former British POW Len Baynes

"Green Hell"
Source: Geheugen van Nederland / The Museon

Due to the merciless slave labor conditions, not enough food (three bowls of gruel, and at night sometimes pumpkin soup), and lack of sleep on account of mosquitoes and diarrhea, the number of seriously ill rose daily. There was dysentery, malaria, and feet badly injured by tropical ulcers because many of us did not have shoes anymore and worked with bare feet. Now every day people were dying. Nobody escaped contagious illnesses like dysentery. I also suffered my first painful bout with that. The nights were worst when the cramps forced you to crawl in pitch darkness to the latrines at the edge of the forest. The latrines were ditches up to three meters deep with bamboo trunks laid across. Among familiar faces, I saw your father [Samethini] at a roll call of dysentery patients. In spite of his pleading, our doctor did not receive any medications. The Thai name for the camp site was Nombredai, which we immediately changed to "Nonparadise." It was hell more than anything else. And yet it would get much worse later, in the labor camps upstream in the rocky jungle mountains, in the rainy season.

We got a few days rest after finishing our part of the railroad, and then we marched to the next labor camp. I don't know the name of that next labor camp. We did not stay there long, but went on again, working on the route of the railroad, moving earth and building embankments.

Source: BBC

At the next camp, called Wampo, we worked on the rocky parts of the railway bridges. This was a huge project, as the two-part bridge was to be built underneath and against the rocks hanging over the river. As far as I remember, we were a labor force of 2,000 Allied POWs: about 600 Australians, 700 British, and 450 Dutch. There were also about 100 Thai workers, whose elephants dragged the felled trees, to be used in the bridges, from the forest to the river. The three POW labor camps were situated on sand banks in the river bend. The rainy monsoon had not arrived yet. For the first time we had tents for bivouacs. Really not enough of them, as we had to lie down very close together. But because we worked in shifts, there was barely enough room for everyone.

The British and Australians were detailed to build the bridges, and we Dutch and a few hundred Brits got the task of hacking away the huge rock, so the railroad could proceed towards the bridges. The bridge builders worked all day during daylight. But we rock cutters worked in three shifts, day and night. The first shift, by twos, had to make holes 1.2 meters deep manually, using chisel and hammer. The goal was for each pair to make two holes, so one hole per man. Dynamite was then exploded in those holes. The second shift had to clear away the debris - chunks of rock, stones, and gravel - pushing it down the mountainside with shovels, or using steel jacks for the large rocks. As soon as they were finished, the third shift showed up to makes holes with hammer and chisel. And so it went, day and night. After dark, we worked by torch lights called hellfires. During the day it was searingly hot on those rocks. The thirst was very bad, especially when we saw the river streaming below.

Southern approach to the railway viaduct at Wampo South.
Note the massive cutting in the bluff above the bridge.Source: Australian War Memorial (AWM122325)

Sketch of Wampo South by Dutch POW A.G. Muller
View from the north
Source: Geheugen van Nederland / The Museon

A section of the Wampo viaduct today
Source: picasaweb.google.com

Here also, we were harassed and beaten for any reason, or no reason. We got a little more rice than in the previous camps, and there were fewer gravely ill POWs. But the night-and-day work schedule was a killer, and the sharp stone fragments tore up our feet because most of us had no shoes left to wear. We had to keep working on those sore and cut-up feet. After a while, you lost count of hours, days, nights. No more thoughts, only work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep. The lack of sleep brought most of us to utter exhaustion. Because of this, malaria and dysentery came back in force, and the foot injuries got worse and worse. It took about four weeks to cut that rock of 15 meters height and 100 meters long to pieces. Afterwards we had to hoist tree trunks, meant for the final sections of the bridges, from the river to the rocks. When the bridges were finally completed, and the wooden cross ties and the rails could be laid down, we were marched to the next camp without a break.

Only the gravely ill stayed behind. Many of them had seriously injured feet. They were transported to the base/hospital camp Chungkai. Henri Samethini must have been among them, as he was ill, with injured feet, and because I saw him much later in Chungkai. [1]

Han Samethini was indeed separated from Bakker's party at Wampo, but regardless of his condition, the Japanese put him back to work on the railroad. He continued up-country with another group of Dutch POWs. At every camp where they stopped, Han must have asked for news of his brother. When the column reached Kinsayok, in April 1943, Han found Frank lying in a squalid hospital tent. Frank's group had started from Ban Pong earlier that month, originally a force of 900 men. After a ten day march with only brief halts, little more than 500 of them were still standing. Frank contracted dysentery almost immediately upon arrival at Kinsayok. The doctors had no medicines to combat the disease. There were not even any beds for the patients, just groundsheets laid out on bare earth. He'd been fighting grimly for his life, managing to keep down a little food long enough to be digested, as men died all around him. Frank writes:

At dusk my name is called, and a moment later my brother Han enters, sporting a long, thin beard. Stooping down, he calls my name again and again, and starts to cry, begging me not to die. What does he mean, die! I rave about flies, orderlies, the bad food and the filth. His face lights up while he brushes tears from his cheeks, saying that to hear me carrying on like that means, thank heaven, that he has no reason to worry. Is there anything he can do? Yes, a pair of pants is badly needed; I've only got one pair left on my body. He takes a pair of faded khaki pants out of his haversack and hands them over. Good old Han. A minute later and he is gone again, running all the way back to his outfit. He was given ten minutes to see me before marching off to a river camp way up north. [2]
Frank recovered from the dysentery after some weeks, whereupon the Japanese assigned him to a labor gang clearing bamboo along the planned route of the railroad. In May he was sent to Tamarkan, a base camp near Kanchanaburi. He was moved again in December, to Chungkai. With every transfer, Frank surreptitiously recorded the name of each successive POW camp on the inside cover of his bible.

Source: picasaweb.google.com

We know next to nothing of Han's movements during the remainder of 1943. A Dutch eyewitness recalls seeing him in 108 Kilo Camp (Paya Thanzu Taung), just north of the Thailand-Burma border.[3]  Apart from this sighting he figuratively vanishes into the jungle. What he experienced in those eight months he reluctantly revealed to his grandchildren, decades later, in sparse anecdotes: The terror of forced marches, where exhaustion and collapse meant certain death. The screams of men afflicted with dry beriberi, tormented by unbearably itching or tingling feet. The use of pitiful food rations, a mere handful of rice per man, as bait to lure insects which the prisoners devoured hungrily. Beatings and more beatings. Yet through it all, it was still possible for him to look up at the night sky and revel, for a moment or two, in the glory of the moon and the shining stars.

"By the Fire"
Illustration by Dutch POW Kees van Willigen
(Identity of accordionist unconfirmed)
Source: Geheugen van Nederland / The Museon



[1] Felix Bakker, personal e-mail to Margie Samethini-Bellamy (September 2006)

[2] The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 8: The River.

[3] Recollections of Dutch ex-POW J.J. den Outer, edited by G.H. Bartman: "De Vertellers van de Doodenspoorweg" [Tales of the Death Railway], Tong Tong magazine (May 1, 1971), p. 21.  Den Outer refers to Samethini as "a very good accordionist."


(Click Image to Enlarge)
Source: Digitale Tijdschriftenarchief - Moesson

(Click Image to Enlarge)
Source: Digitale Tijdschriftenarchief - Moesson


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