It happened a long time ago, almost 62 years, but the memory is so clear, it might have been only yesterday. It was in 1943, at a P.O.W. camp named Sonkurai near the Burma Thailand border. We had been slaving on N.T. Railway for some 6-7 endless months, under indescribable conditions which can only be comprehended by those who were there.
Cholera, ulcers, malaria, dysentery and beri-beri had taken a frightening death toll of 38% of the original number, and those still surviving were ill, starving and physically exhausted. All were in the same boat and subconsciously realized we would be extremely lucky to get out of this terrible place alive. Morale was taking a real beating as each day the death toll climbed.
Incidentally, the B.T. Railway was commenced from both the Burmese and Thai railheads then in existence. It was to be 415 kms long and approx. 80% was through malaria infested virgin jungle. Some seventy two staging camps were sprinkled along its length, approx. 350,000 people were enslaved, 60,000 being allied P.O.W. The remainder were conscripted indigenous labourers. Little is known of their fate except that an estimated 230,000 perished. There were no records.
Anyway, in September 1943, the line was connected, and to mark the occasion, “all men one day yasume”, or – one day holiday – was granted, and in my camp, an extra cup measure of rice was given to celebrate and have a party.
In the following days, working parties were lessened, and the inevitable rumours started about what was going to happen to us, where we were to be sent, extra rations were to be supplied (food was always priority), and stories of bombing raids on the railway bridges etc. were rife.
It was not long before some traffic appeared on the railway. The “locomotives” at this time were ordinary motor vehicles with tyres removed and running on the rims only, strange but functional. Later conventional steam engines were utilized, wood being the fuel, they didn’t have coal. Each traffic movement always held an attentive audience of we prisoners, hoping that some rations might be unloaded. The boundary fence of our camp was only about 15 yards from the rail track. The freight was always heading north towards Burma to supply their forces operating in that country.
Occasionally a train, heading south from the Burma end would be seen, loaded with P.O.W who had been labouring in that region. These caused quite some excitement as we tried to pick out mates from our wartime units, as did the passengers from their flat tops, to recognize us. Exchanges of “Have you seen Joe Thomas or Jacky Smith” etc. hurriedly answered “Yes or No” but “Wally Johnson and Ron Currow died three days ago”. These were typical exchanges, and did nothing to cheer us up; rather they had the opposite effect. Morale was at rock bottom zero.
One day, a flat-top going south came past, carrying to our great surprise a batch of American P.O.W’s; we hadn’t the slightest idea of any yanks being in the area; there was no way we could have known because there was nil communication between camps. Seeing some of us wearing slouch hats, battered though they might be, recognized us as Diggers, and to cheer us up, one of their number called out – “Don’t worry Aussies, Uncle Sam’ll be here any day now!!”
This cheering message was answered by a very despairing Aussie – “Aw SHIT, don’t tell me the Bastards have got him too”.
This droll reply did more for MORALE than……