Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The 13th Chapter - Australian POW under the Japanese. WW2.

Merv McRae, around 1941

In February 1942,  Singapore falls and Australian troops are ordered to surrender to the Japanese. 

This is chapter 13 of the biography of  just one of these prisoners -
                    M. A. McRae VX 37907 - Driver  


It is taken from the book '"But Sir" The Autobiography of a Twentieth Century Australian. 

Explanatory notes:
‘The Bomb’ referred to was the atomic bomb. When the Allies dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and then one on Nagasaki, the Japanese finally surrendered, ending the war.
'Poms' - Englishmen.
Dunc is Merv's brother.  They were together throughout the war.
Chapter 13
Freedom Curtailed
 It is not by design that this is chapter thirteen, like many things from now on which were beyond our control. I don’t have a diary to work from, and don’t intend to go into detail about the Malayan campaign. This has all been well documented before in some fine books, such as "The Naked Island," "The Death Railway," and a recent publication, "Towards the Setting Sun." These are all authentic books if anyone requires a ball by ball description. Most (or maybe all) of these books have been written by officers and men who attended better schools than State School No. 2280. I only intend to write about the highs and lows of P.O.W. days, without the statistics, which aren’t available to me. I rely only on memory, which is still very clear.
When we finally returned to Australia I discovered that not many people knew much about what we had gone through, but were more interested in keeping their larders topped up in case of shortages. One person said to me, "And were you hungry sometimes?" That same person had a very well-stocked larder.
War is not a pretty sight - this is my version.
M. A. McRae VX 37907 - Driver.
Although there were many brave soldiers among the Aussies conditions developed into utter chaos towards the ultimate fall of Singapore. We were being sniped at from buildings, and the Japs had infiltrated the city even in peacetime, and there were found to be many Japs about.
We were up on a hill overlooking Johore, and along the beach there we could see the Japs massing with their equipment, and yet they weren’t being shelled. It was said we were short of artillery shells, but that didn’t stop the Jap from shelling us. During the last fortnight before the surrender their bombers were able to cruise at low level round the city and bomb where they liked, and one could hear the sound of rifle fire following them across the city. We had really lost the argument when the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales were sunk. The Japs were supposed to have sung "Britannia Rules the Waves" as they rescued some survivors. The finish had to come when the city’s water supply was cut off, a city can’t survive without water as disease would quickly take over.
 Dunc and I drove some nurses to the wharf to board a ship and escape to safety. We helped them onto the ship, and looked back over the already doomed city of Singapore, and wished that we could go with them. Smoke from oil tanks and other fires left a great pall over the city. We got off the ship and returned to St. Andrews Cathedral, which was being used as a hospital. Not far away an ammunition dump was alight, and all sorts of shells were exploding.
We could only imagine at that time what was to become of us all, but we had heard fearful stories of what had happened elsewhere. As a precautionary measure our authorities had men pouring thousands of bottles of spirits down the drain, to prevent the Japs from getting hold of them and going berserk. We could only wonder how bad it was to be, but as it turned out we fared better than the nurses who had left on that ship. It was later sunk, and the survivors were machine-gunned while floating in the water.
Singapore didn’t last long after that, and our last stop was at St. Andrews Cathedral. The wounded were taken there, and amputations and other operations were going on non-stop. The dead were buried in a corner of the churchyard. Then it was over, the surrender came and we were prisoners. Our unit was left alone to a certain extent for the first two weeks, but after a victory march into the city by the Japs, the rest of the troops were marched out to Changi jail.
There was an old man who used to hang around St. Andrews. He had a little cooker to cook his meals, and looked to be a real derelict. He would settle himself down close to us, all ears, and when I told him to bugger off he turned out to be a Jap.
We had to clear all patients from the general hospital, and take them to another place just a small distance out of Singapore. To me they appeared to be just dumped there with no-one to look after them, and one poor old Dutch lady was rather upset. I asked her to read her bible, and to trust in the Lord, and I believe I helped her, but we had to leave all these sick people, it seemed without help. I often wondered what became of them all.
After two weeks our unit joined the rest of the troops at Changi. We were in houses and barracks at this stage, rather than the jail itself, which held the internees. Our diet consisted almost solely of rice, and the way it was presented made it difficult to acquire a taste for it. I remember the Japs laughing about the gluey mass of rice our own cooks had cooked in coppers, as they did not have much idea of its correct preparation in those early days. The radical change of diet had a peculiar effect on us; some of us urinated frequently, but there was no solid waste, and this went on for a month or more. I feel I should tell the astronauts about this; it could be to their advantage.
There we were, a few thousand of us, herded together in Changi. There were many very talented men, as well as the communist agitator, and the criminally minded, but we all began to settle in together. After a while there were some very good lectures to attend, given by some very fine lecturers on a great variety of subjects. The lectures I used to enjoy most were those given by Captain Curlewis (who has become a judge since the war,) and I also liked to listen to Tom Mitchell and Winton Turnbull, who were both later to become members of our parliament. One could also visit the black market, and buy or sell.
I heard Winton Turnbull talking one day after we were taken prisoner and recognised his voice, as he used to give the stock reports from Newmarket before the war. I made myself known to him, and we were friends from then on. He later became the Federal member for the seat of Mallee, a position he held for many years, and he holds some sort of record for not missing a sitting of the House in Canberra for a long number of years.
The camp organised some education classes, but I lost interest in these, as they began at about grade three standard, and I took lessons in drawing instead. These were given by a Captain Greener, who I think was with Pix magazine before the war. They didn’t last long however, and were curtailed by the advent of work parties.
The engineers built a church for all denominations, and I made a drawing of that, which I still have. They also stripped some vehicles right down to the chassis, leaving the steering wheel, and these made a good four wheel wagon to cart wood to the cookhouse on. These trailers would be pulled by ten to fourteen men. Gardens were also getting under way, and we grew a type of rapid growing Chinese spinach, which could be harvested about four times, three weeks apart. The climate was perfect for such prodigious growth. At this time we were always optimistic we would be out in six months.
Some of the prisoners had a wide variety of skills, and great ingenuity in adapting to their new surroundings. Many aids to our daily lives were manufactured, including paper and artificial limbs. After only two weeks in Changi the men had found a way of getting a light for a smoke, as matches were non-existent. This consisted of getting a small coin-sized disc, drilling two holes in it off-centre, then threading a string though the holes. When the ends of the string were pulled the disc would spin at a fast rate. The other component was a tin containing cotton waste, with a flint on the side. When the spinning disc contacted the flint it would cause a spark, which in turn would cause the waste to smoulder sufficiently to light a cigarette, or alternatively the waste could be fanned into a flame, after which the tin would be closed until next time. Other men made all sorts of handy appliances, as well as useful items made from sheet aluminium scrounged from the wreckage of crashed aircraft.
We were also required to perform guard duty which I suppose was to keep us in, although I was never too sure. One night whilst performing guard duty I sold my watch to an Indian, and got seven dollars for it. The Indians were not to be trusted, as some of them were working for the Japs, but the watch had started to rust, so maybe I wasn’t to be trusted either.
Before long working parties were introduced, and the first one I was on was demolition work. We were demolishing buildings, which although knocked about, were made of reinforced concrete, and I found the work very hard. The Jap would hold a cold chisel with a pair of tongs, while I used to sledgehammer non-stop, or so the Jap thought. The first time I broke the hammer’s handle was accidental, and it took the Jap twenty minutes to make another handle and fix the hammer. I found by hitting the hammer on its heel I could crack, then break the new handle, thus getting another spell. It jarred my arms doing it, but I broke eleven handles in the one day.
Some working parties left for Singapore, and soon to places further afield, including Thailand. "H" Force was to start work on the infamous Burma railway; Curly Kirk, my mate, was taken with that force, but didn’t survive it, and we never saw him again. Another force of about three thousand went to Borneo, including several of our unit, and only six men survived from that force. This calamity was hushed up after the war, in case the Japs were offended. The Allies, ever since then, have been too busy apologising about the Bomb.
Dunc and I were then selected for another party, to be known as "F" Force. Rumours were rife; it was said conditions would be better where we were going, better food in a better climate, everything just right. It was a nice thought, but was taken with a pinch of salt.
We found out later that the Japs were terrified of cholera, and while we were preparing to leave with F Force we were to get a smear test to ascertain whether any of us were cholera carriers. This entailed filing past some Japs, then in turn dropping our shorts, and bend over facing away from the Jap, whereupon he would take the smear by putting a bit of thin bamboo up one’s rectum. This process was rather amusing for the onlooker, and had our officers in fits, until it was their turn, then we were in fits. We were all injected against cholera, but our own doctors swore the injection was only water, and later when on the railway construction in Thailand many of our boys still contracted the disease.
We set off from Singapore by train on Anzac Day 1943; nine months later more than half of us would be dead. We were in closed trucks for the next six days, with only enough food provided to exist on. The Japs were particularly obnoxious all the way up, but we were still to meet the worst of them. The train consisted of goods trucks which were like metal boxes, and we were crammed in with hardly enough room to get comfortable, sweltering by day and bitterly cold at night. As there were no toilet facilities provided we had to make our own arrangements as best we could. Many a bum was seen travelling though the countryside, as one to each side, we held our mates out the door of the moving trucks. It was awfully hard to concentrate on the job in hand.
We finally arrived at Banpong, and were able to get off the train. One fellow for some reason had brought a golf club with him, which made a good weapon when a Jap took it over and used it in a way it wasn’t designed for. After a brief stop, and a meal of sorts, we set off on a two hundred and twenty mile march. We hadn’t an inkling what was before us, and just as well.
My legs have always been short, which is a handicap when it comes to walking and keeping up with others. It puts pressure on the short-legged person which taller men don’t know about, and very soon I was one of the stragglers on the march. I was about last, and was joined by a very Oxford English officer, also with short legs, who suddenly got very angry and indignant that these barbarians could treat the English in such a degrading manner. This little protest amused me greatly, and I often wondered what became of that poor man who joined me on the first night of the march. My marching abilities didn’t improve as we continued on, and I would just catch up with the mob as they finished their ten-minute break on the hour, so I would miss out on a break altogether.
We soon sold everything we could do without, and thus had less to carry. All I had was my haversack on my back, with another smaller bundle in front, containing a pair of boots for use later on. On the march was no place to be breaking in new boots.
On the way up I got a fever, and one night could not get enough to drink. As we were getting into cholera country, any water we drank had to be boiled, so I will always be grateful to the mates who gave me a drink that night. The following day was a day off, which I badly needed by this stage. I was sound asleep under a tree, with my property beside me, when I opened my eyes to see a Jap with my things spread out on the ground. He had a few of my photographs out, and was looking at them. I saw red, and told him exactly what I thought of him, together with all the swear words. I called him a thieving yellow bastard, but when my little speech ran down I became afraid of what he would do next. I had temporarily forgotten who was who, but he must have felt he deserved the abuse, because he just walked away.
On the way up from Singapore we had passed other trains, one of which had been full of Thai soldiers. As the trains were parked beside each other we gave each other a good look over, and to me they looked hostile toward us. The women had looked curiously at us, and had tried to sell us things such as boiled eggs and coffee. Now, on this infamous march, the Thais were not to be trusted at all. We were selling things off to lighten our loads, and while we were resting they would be behind bushes, ready to trade with us. Many times they would look at something and run away with it, knowing we couldn’t follow, and many a P.O.W. was caught that way.
I remember one strange occurrence during our march north. We almost always travelled at night, and one morning it was daylight when I arrived in camp at the completion of a hard night’s march. The other prisoners were all resting by then, as I was about last, and we all settled like a flock of galahs. We suddenly all got up and ran, as if someone had startled the flock, and settled again about five chains away. I never knew why.
Some of the boys who could not make it were being carried, but I was determined not to be a burden on anyone, although I did feel guilty about not being able to carry any of the extras, the various supplies and cooking equipment that somebody had to carry. Since everyone had to make the trip the last thing I wanted was to be a burden on others, but I was just not able to help with the stretcher cases being carried.
We continued the next day, "the day of the midgies;" there were thousands of them, crawling in our eyes, ears, nose, and under our clothing. It was horrible to be attacked by them, and hard to breathe without inhaling them, however everything passes. The following day we reached a place called Tarsao I think it was, and at midnight were given an hour’s break. I had lain on the ground to rest, but when I stood up I could hardly walk, and couldn’t put my legs out in front of me without great pain. I thought I would have to stay in that camp. There was a sick parade with a Jap doctor, but I thought as I had nothing visible to show him, and he was ranting and raving so much, that I might only score a clout and be told to get on my way. I headed off up the road, with the start of the column, but I could only shuffle, and was so slow I soon found I was last. I just couldn’t step out in front of my body without great pain, and was so slow that I soon came under the notice of the Jap who was hunting up the stragglers. He waited on me and tried to make me get a move on, but there was no way I could speed up. At this stage of the march we were in the mountains, and tigers could be heard in the distance. The Japs were afraid of the tigers, and would keep in a bunch, carrying lanterns. There was no way this Jap was going to let me hold him up, and he hit me hard across the back. When that didn’t make me walk faster, he punched me in the temple, causing my knees to buckle and putting me down for the count. I would think I was only unconscious for about a minute, but when I came to the Jap was gone.
After that it was a night of despair for me; I was alone, and if a tiger had got me I wouldn’t have cared. I did a lot of thinking that night, as I continued to shuffle along. I decided that the mind and body are separate, and the mind has to do the right thing by the body if it is to survive. I saw many cases later on where I felt the mind had given up caring, and allowed the body to die. That night I decided I would make sure the mind would give the body every chance of survival.
I kept going at my own pace, and when daylight came I saw that two mates had come back for me. Lew Lemke and Ted Burrage had returned to help me, and I will be forever grateful to them. They got one each side of me and tried to help me along, but it was of no use. I couldn’t bear the pain of stepping out, and begged them to let me continue at my own pace. I got to camp eventually, where we had a desperately needed rest day. Some of the boys were getting dysentery by now, and badly needed the day off. I got it as well, and was desperate, but had about two thirds of a packet of Epsom salts with me. I took the lot in one go, and was cured, and didn’t get another attack for about three months.
At that time we were at Nikki One, and further along the line were Nikki Two and Three. Our destination was to be Nikki Three, at least that is the name we knew it by. I think the correct name is Sonkurai, but I intend to use the names we knew the places by. The monsoons had begun in earnest now at Nikki, and we had no shelter. There were cholera cases being reported as well, so we didn’t mind when we moved on to No. 3 Nikki, which was only a few kilometres from the Burmese border. Our last hundred miles of marching had convinced me that the place was uninhabited, as we were following an elephant track. By the time we reached our destination I had got some tropical ulcers, but after one day we were expected to work on the railway line.
We had moved into long attap huts, where some natives had lived and very effectively left behind their wretched lice, which very soon infected the whole of the camp. There wasn’t a hope in the world of getting rid of them, and they were to be our close companions until we returned to Changi.
The second day at Nikki 3 saw us all out on the railway; my ulcer was giving me hell, as it had gone deep. The ulcers seem to go rotten, then the flesh comes away in pieces as big as a pea. I decided to do the best for my leg, and attempt to bathe it in really hot water. We didn’t have a doctor in the camp at the time, only a medical sergeant, who would say "most unfortunate." He did allow two of us to stay in camp on the second day, and I bathed and bandaged my leg faithfully every two hours. The other fellow was very quiet, and in the afternoon he wound himself round a post, and died in peace. I felt very sad at this, he was the first one to die unattended at that camp, and I didn’t even know what his trouble had been.
Very soon the work became harder and the food lighter, as more P.O.W.s were brought to the camp. The sick men not fit to work were soon filling the hospital section, which was kept separate from the rest of the camp. In this period I helped the sick boys where I could; years later I received a letter of appreciation from a man in Sydney. I had looked after his son.
We heard that cholera had reached Nikki One and Two, so it was only a matter of time before that dreaded disease would come to our camp. Morale was at a very low ebb, everyone was in low spirits, and there was an odd fight in the camp. One morning two fellows were caught fighting by a Major Hunt, who had just walked in from Nikki Two. Major Hunt was a doctor, a big man, and after giving these two fighters a dressing down, he offered to take them on one after the other to teach them a lesson. He called the camp together, and delivered a pep-talk along the lines of how we were all in this together, and must help each other instead of fighting. He also told us that cholera was a certainty to arrive at our camp, and we must be prepared for it when it did come, and then called for volunteers to look after the future cholera patients. I was proud to have my name at the top of that list. I loathed the Jap so much, and reasoned correctly that the Japs wouldn’t be seen near the cholera ward, which was a small building across the creek eventually set aside for cholera patients. Before I could be called on however, my ulcer spread and went deeper; so deep in fact that I could see the muscles on my leg, so I never did nurse the boys with cholera.
When the cholera did arrive it was with a vengeance, and about the first thirty or so to contract it died just so quickly. It was easy to diagnose; water just drained out of the body through the bowel, and the patient would have sunken eyes and face within the hour. After those first thirty died from the disease one or two pulled through, which gave the new patients some hope. I had a mate, Horace Roberts, who was one of the first to recover from this initial attack of cholera. He gave me messages to pass on to his wife, and asked that I always see that she was alright. I promised him I would, and have since carried out that promise, but who knew what the future held for any of us at that time? Horace recovered from the cholera, only to be taken soon after with dysentery. He had shown me his paybook, where he had written a request for me to bring his personal effects home to his wife, Meryl, but an officer wouldn’t allow me to have them, and they never did get home to his wife. At this time some of us thought we should give messages to the fitter ones, so they could take them home for us, but we didn’t get around to it.
Someone stole my good boots which I had carried so far, I hoped that they went to a needy person. Dunc gave me an old pair of tennis shoes, the soles were good however, and they lasted me the rest of our stay in Thailand.
I suddenly became very weak, and for about three days I thought my time was up. On the first day I was a bit upset that I wasn’t going to make it, but for the next two days I felt as if I was floating about, and just didn’t care any more. I am certain that is how many a lad died, and was content to die. I stuck to the policy I had decided on however, and ate all the food I was given, to give the body a sporting chance. On the fourth day I came back to earth and felt stronger, and I felt then that I wasn’t going to get out of it that way, just yet anyway.
As a result of my bathing my ulcer the germ had infected my hands and both legs, so that I had about a dozen ulcers. One of these was a bad one, and this was bad enough to put me in hospital. The Australian ward was as clean and as well run as was possible under the circumstances, but there were deaths. One day a good mate of mine, Frank Lebas, sat up suddenly, then laid down and was dead, just like that. Another time Ted Burrage and I were carrying another mate, Allan Scott, to the latrines when he just stiffened and died. As a result of my mates dying like this I didn’t want to remain an orderly in the Australian hospital, so when I was fit enough I went to the British hospital, to be an orderly in a ward of one hundred and eighty patients.
When I started in the British ward I was immediately struck by the fact that some of them just didn’t care for themselves much, and didn’t look after each other in the same way as the Australians did. Many of them were fitter than I was, but wouldn’t lift a hand to help others. They died in great numbers, but one had to, and did, become hardened to that. I still believe the majority of them could have done more to help themselves and others. It was a real hell hole.
I was glad of the chance to work in the British ward because I would be away from the Japs, but it would be one of the most stinking places to work, and the smell of ulcers was vile. There was dysentery all over the place, and I mean all over the place. Two of us looked after the poor wretches as best we could; we had twelve hours on and twelve hours off. We were losing fifteen men a day at that time, and I would look over the ward and think to myself, "If that one and those four or five others died, the rest don’t look too bad," but once those few died there were always more ready to die. I still preferred helping these men to being out where the Japs were. I hated them then and I still hate them, but now only quietly, to myself. Helping these men seemed to be doing something sane in a mad world.
The ulcer cases were in great pain; I remember one man pulling his bandage off one day, and some of his toes came with it. Malaria was always about too, all through our days as P.O.W.s. We would be called to the dysentery patients with a bamboo section; that would be the bedpan. Often they would call "bring the pan," only to follow with, "too late, bring a shovel."
Not everyone could stomach working under the appalling conditions in the wards. One man refused because, as he told me, he just couldn’t do it. I understood, but our own powers-that-be handed him over to the Japs because he refused duty. He was punished all one day in the Jap compound and returned to our lines that night, but then went into a decline and was dead in a few weeks. There was by now a permanent cremation party, which gathered wood and burned the bodies up on the hill.
Dunc got very weak and thin at this time. I think I got on his nerves telling him to eat his food, but many a famous last word was, "I can’t eat." One night another man wasn’t eating, although he had food there. I growled at him, and told him he had to eat, and then he said, "Don’t you know me?" I didn’t at first, but then realised it was a Scotsman whom I had befriended back in Changi, whose name was Jock. He was very thin, but his voice was strong, and he told me all he wanted was a cigarette. I went round the ward and found him one; he smoked it, and then lay down and died content. By the time I could get back to him he was dead, and the food which I had tried to encourage him to eat had disappeared.
The Japs only issued rations to the workers, so the men in hospital had to be given a portion of the workers’ issue. This was, however, even a smaller ration than the workers received, so food was pretty scarce. One day a Jap called me over to the fence of the Jap compound, and gave me some of his left-overs, for which I was grateful. I kept an eye out for him again and the following day, and about four or five others went over to the fence for their slops also. After that it turned into a game for the Japs, to see about fifty prisoners go over and scramble for their left-overs, and I didn’t go any more, as it disgusted me to see the whole thing. To this day I still won’t take part in a smorgasbord, where the public are suddenly let in to ravage a table of food as if there is no more.
I am certain some men died because they were unable to cope mentally with the situation. I remember one young man by the name of Borthwick, a good stamp of a man who also had money, doing just that; he lay down and died. That was an example of the mind letting the body down. I had become stronger during my work as an orderly.
I had avoided getting my ulcer scraped as some did, because I was afraid of the treatment. The ulcer would be scraped by a spoon until it was bleeding, and as it was being done without pain-killers, the men would scream during the operation, and would shake and be upset for hours afterwards. Tropical ulcers are extraordinarily painful, without being subjected to this treatment. The doctors would also perform some amputations out on a table, with mosquito nets over the area, and most of the patients remained alright until they had to be shifted south. It was a disgraceful thing to see these young men, most of whom would only be in their twenties, just ill-treated and starved to death.
The only occasion on which I received any extra food was one night when I was very weak, and the food for the sick had run out. Dunc gave me some of his food, and another mate gave me a sweet potato about the size of a ping-pong ball. I took this treasure outside to where the dixies were boiled, and immersed my dixie and the spud together in the boiling water. I had just finished, and was heading back, when a Jap called out to me. I knew if he caught me with food there would be hell to pay, so I kept walking, straight through the British ward to our ward, where I took my shirt off and lay on a bunk. The Jap was hopping mad by now, and walked past me up to the end of the hut, where he belted a few of the boys, who would never know what he was on about. I felt sick and depressed by the whole episode, but will be forever grateful for the acts of selflessness by one’s mates, who one could not do without under these conditions.
Although the instance of food for the sick running out was a fairly isolated occurrence, when it did happen it was just too bad for the sick among the other ranks. There is no doubt rank had its privileges, and in the event of it happening to officers and non-commissioned officers, the kitchen would have provided more food. It would be an interesting, although pointless, exercise to ascertain the percentages of officers, N.C.O.s, and other ranks to die on F Force. In the life and death situation in which we found ourselves, I have no doubt the human instinct for survival would have entered into it, but I also have no doubt that if the pecking order were reversed the outcome would be the same. It was obvious from the condition and dress of those who were part of the administration of the camp that all things were not equal. I have related the rare occasions on which I received extra food, and the only thing I had to treat my ulcers was hot water which I boiled myself. Most of those of higher rank were decked out in better clothes and boots on our return from F Force, whereas I, as another rank had the same clothes from start to finish. Perhaps it was just that I was not a good scrounger.
I will never forget the utter despair of the young men of F Force, nor the way they died quietly and without fuss. Neither will I ever forget the cruelty of the Japs, nor will I ever forgive them for their total disregard for the lives of the P.O.W.s and the dark races who also worked on the railway.
During these times when things were so grim some of the Poms whom I had got to know seemed to like to tell me of their home and life back in England; I think it was a means of escaping their surrounds. I remember one man in particular, who loved to talk to me about farming, although he had never been a farmer. He had always thought he would like to farm, so put a proposition to me; he had the money, and we would go into partnership in a farm after the war. He was anxious to come to Australia, and his idea was that he would buy a farm and I would run it for him. It was all pie in the sky however, because he died on the railway.
Many of the men would plan to get themselves a few acres after the war, the very idea was a peaceful thing to contemplate. Some would read their bible right though, some would design houses, others would gather up recipes and compile a cook-book, and some even eventually reached the publishers. It was mostly daydreaming, a relief from the mess we were in, but generally the boys were a pretty level-headed lot, and lived day to day. It was extremely rare to see someone break down under these conditions; the only protest that could be made was to stop eating.
The Pommy hospital ward in which I worked was the last one down the line, near where a creek ran past. As the railway was nearing completion the Japs opened a quarry only about one hundred metres from the ward, which was only an attap hut. When they started to blast at this quarry they gave no thought to the patients, and our only warning of an impending blast was a whistle blow. The few patients who were able would leave the ward at the sound of the whistle, and retreat a short way up the way up the hill. At every blast, the hospital would be sprayed with rocks, and the attap afforded no protection from the fall of these rocks. On one occasion we heard the whistle, followed by the explosion, and a rock the size of a man’s head landed near my feet, coming over the top of the hut. I went back inside, and found one of the men had been struck on a leg by a rock six inches in diameter. He was in a great deal of pain, and I thought his leg may be broken, apart from the wound it had left. I sent one of the Poms to fetch a doctor, but no doctor came until rounds the next morning, so I never knew if he went or not.
The doctors were fairly helpless anyway due to the almost complete lack of medicines, and the Japs would not be a bit concerned about what befell these unworthy prisoners who had the audacity to be in hospital instead of working. It was no wonder that these lads, most of whom were only in their twenties, just died without hope. There was no-one to give them comfort as they died, they just died quietly and uncomplainingly in their hundreds. Some were in such despair I believe they were content to die, and so escape further degradation and suffering.
The Japs had become very cruel towards the finish, and were driving the men beyond their strength. Dunc was out working under these slave-drivers, one day twenty-two hours in one stretch, so it was no wonder he was now broken in health and his strength nearly nil. We were soon to move back down the track, and Dunc could barely walk. For about fifteen miles I helped him with his belongings, then we boarded the rice trucks to head south on that infamous train.
I have never heard how many Malays, Burmese, and Indians died on the railway construction, but I think at this time even the Japs would have been shocked to find how many lives the railway had cost.
The train travelled slowly south down the line, but even at this pace it was derailed three times. We had had a great deal of rain over the period, and used to shower under the eaves of the hut, but showers were hard to come by now the dry was coming. During one of the derailments some of the boys had found a river to swim in, and were coming back much refreshed. That seemed like a good idea, so off I went too, but I must have taken a wrong turn and soon found I was alone. I thought maybe the river would be over the next rise, but the bamboo was becoming too thick; suddenly something scrambled out of the bamboo behind me, and ran away as if in fright. As I was facing the other way I didn’t see what it was, but I had a fright as well, as it may have been a tiger or a wild boar; I will never find out. I eventually found my way back to the train, which later stopped down the line, and we were escorted over to the river for a wash and swim; maybe the Japs thought we were getting on the nose.
On our way south we stopped at a corner store to buy a few things, things we hadn’t seen since before we went up-country. The Japs paid the workers about ten cents per day, but as I hadn’t been a worker I didn’t get any money, although the officers got a proportion of their pay regardless of whether they had worked or not. While the others were buying what they could ( as I was broke there was no point in me getting excited, so I was sitting on a log) a Jap came over to me and wanted to know why I wasn’t buying. I explained my financial position to him, and to my great surprise he gave me some money. I was pleased to find there was a suspicion of decency in these people who had our destiny in their hands. Thank you, Jap.
After the long train trip south, we arrived at Kanburi, which was a sort of base camp, and there were others there who had been at other camps along the railway. We were saddened to hear from them of the deaths of many prisoners we had known; Curly Kirk was one, and George Tremellen had to be told that his brother Bill had died. Bill had been with us, and there were others from other units.
We stayed at Kanburi for a couple of weeks, and were able to get some food to eat. Quite a few of the amputees had lived until being shifted south, but then died. Now the food improved, and the weather got dryer, but we froze at night and sweltered in the daytime. We had to sleep under bushes in the "big blue room," and I only had a shirt and shorts, and a blanket and ground-sheet. Dunc, who was still very weak, had about the same, so we pooled our resources such as blankets, got dressed in everything we owned, and slept together to keep warm.
Dunc badly needed a boost in health, and I racked my brains to see what I could do. The officers were wanting batmen (poor pets;) they also had money, so I volunteered to be a batman and hoped to be able to get some perks. This idea didn’t pay off for some time, it only meant more work for me; I could manage the man’s washing, however, and we were soon to head back to Singapore where it could lead to something. Although in very poor health Dunc also volunteered to be a batman. His officer gave him some handkerchiefs to wash which nearly made him sick; I don’t think he was batman material.
After a couple of weeks at Kanburi we boarded the train and were taken back to Singapore. The troops were having trouble with carbuncles all round the crotch, and some crotches were so badly affected they resembled rabbit warrens. On the way back to Changi George Tremellen was in such pain he was forced to lie on the bottom of the truck. During the journey the Thai people would sell us boiled eggs and black coffee, which they would bring to the train. Some people swore that if you wanted your coffee white they would turn round and express some of their own breast-milk into it, but I can’t say whether that was fact.
Arriving back at Changi was like getting back home, to us. I think even the Japs were startled to find that fifty-three percent of the men of F Force had died up there on the railway, all of them in the prime of life. They put us in a camp away from the others and fed us up a bit. We had all our clothes and blankets boiled to delouse them, and it was a relief not to be lousy at last.


The scroll on the front of both editions of "But Sir" show the names of those in the unit.  Around half of those are marked with a cross.  The cross indicates those who did not survive their time as a prisoner of war.

"But Sir"  The Autobiography of a Twentieth Century Australian

First published by the author, Merv McRae, 1986,  ISBN 1 86252 052 5.

A second edition was published in 2014, and is available as a paperback or as an ebook.  Find it on online booksellers such as Smashwords and Amazon.




That was the last world war.  For many years, we lived in the shadow of the Cold War - the knowledge that if certain superpowers were stupid enough, they could spell the end for all of us. But so far, all the wars have been small wars by comparison with WW1 and WW2.

There are troubled times again, in more than one part of the world. Some of it is because of the greed for territory and influence, and some is because a minority of Muslims would like to return us all to more barbaric times - times when punishments such as stoning and beheadings were routine. Not for centuries have people behaved as the murderous cultists (ISIS or ISIL)  are acting.  It is looking like it will be a war between the civilised world and barbarians. It has happened before that barbarians have brought down a civilisation, so it should not be treated lightly.  On the other hand, I really do not think they will succeed. 

This web-page is managed by M. A. McRae, author of the Penwinnard novels and the Shuki Series.

Look for  "But Sir" - The Autobiography of a Twentieth Century Australian, by Merv McRae on sites such as Smashwords, Nook and Amazon.  It is available as a papeback or as an ebook.


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