You won't find Songkurai on any maps; it does not exist anymore. Its history is buried and overgrown in the jungles of Northern Thailand, a place to be forgotten, except by those who lived through its horrors, for they will never forget. It was some 13 kilometres south of Three Pagodas Pass on the Burma-Thailand border.
In 1943, Songkurai was one of the many Japanese slave labour camps on the railway that was being built by allied Prisoners of War and conscripted indigenous labourers.
The Senior Officer of this camp was Lt Colonel FJ Dillon (later Brigadier), a regular soldier in the British Army, a magnificent man, revered by all who survived. Songkurai was reputably the worst camp of them all; its Death Toll was the highest. It was here that Jim Birse saved my life.
Jim was a Scotsman, Private in the Gordon Highlanders. During battles of the Malaya-Singapore campaign, the Gordons and Australians had, on several occasions, been engaged in side-by side actions. As a consequence, a great esprit-de-corps existed between the AIF and the Gordons.
I became very sick in this camp and was sent to the 'Hospital Hut'. It bore no similarity to any hospital known today. There were no beds, medicines or sheets. The Hut was made of bamboo and atap. The framework was all bamboo and the roof and sidings of atap, a thatch of dried coconut-palm fronds, effective if laid on close enough, but here the roof leaked like a sieve in the monsoon rains. It was probably 50 metres long and on each side was a bamboo platform that ran the length of the hut, about knee-high above the ground. These platforms were two metres wide and this was where the patients lay. Each patient's 'bed space' was barely two feet.
When someone died and the body was removed, it made a little more space for those surviving. My good fortune was being allocated my bed space next to Jim Birse. Jim told me that I was semi-delirious when I arrived - I had cardiac beri beri, BT Malaria, avitaminosis, dysentery and tropical ulcers on legs and feet, indeed a very sick man - but all of us in this 'Hospital Hut' were in a similar condition. Jim stacked my small haversack and whatever else I had, at the head end of my space on the platform.
The stench of this hut was beyond description. Dysentery patients were fouling their bed spaces, unable to hold on until the arrival of the bamboo bed pans; tropical ulcers, some running from the knee to ankle, with maggots wriggling in the suppuration, stinking to high heaven. As well, the open trench latrine was about ten metres away overflowing with the help of monsoon torrents and spreading the filth around an area of some twenty or more square metres.
Well you might say, one could not live through this chaos. Of course, many did not - if your luck was with you, you survived but if you were sent to the 'Cholera Hut', you did not. The bodies of the dead were cremated in bamboo fires and however the slaves kept up the supply of fuel to cremate the dead, is beyond my comprehension.
Jim would wash me and clean me when I fouled myself. He emptied my bedpan. He was the greatest mate I could ever wish for. Without a mate, you died.
Food was abysmally short. Our Japanese masters would supply the skeletons able to work on their railway with barely enough rice to keep body and soul alive.
They reasoned if not able to work, you were not worth feeding. Sick men had little chance of recovering on this starvation diet. I couldn't even walk. I was totally dependent on Jim.
Jim, somehow, would scrounge some food and share it with me. At night in pitch dark, he, on numerous occasions, would creep out into the Japanese kitchen, steal whatever he could find and bring it back to our hut and share it with me. Despite my imploring him not to take this dreadful risk - if caught he would lose his head - he said that we would all probably die here anyway.
I remember one night he came back with four boiled potatoes and we had a feast. Now that is hard to imagine, but when one is starving - not just hungry - any food is manna from heaven, be it snake, lizard or rat.
That night we were talking about home, me about Sydney, and him about Inverurie. He had heard of Sydney but his hometown was lost on me. We talked about what we would do when we arrived home, if we were so lucky.
Jim was expounding the magnificent qualities of 'Glen Grant' whisky to me. "Aye, it's sweeter than the mornin' dew" he claimed. We made a pact that if we survived the War, the first thing he would do was share a bottle of 'Glen Grant' with me! I said, "No, we will share two bottles - one each!"
At that time, I don't think I had ever tasted Whiskey. Beer, yes, and an occasional Rum but Whisky was not on my menu. I am certain that Jim was ahead of me liquor-wise, even though our ages were close enough. I think I was one year older but would be indebted to him for my life.
We both survived Songkurai. Eventually, I was sent back to Kanchanaburi (Kanburi) with the Australian prisoners of war and Jim was sent somewhere (?) with the British prisoners of war. There was no possible way that we could maintain contact. The Australians of 'F' Force were sent back to Singapore. After the Burma-Thailand Railway experience, Selerang Barracks, Changi, was wonderful. We felt we were 'home'.
Whatever happened to Jim Birse, I didn't know and there was no way of finding him. Eventually, the War ended and I came home but the 'Jim Birse' name was always in my mind.
Of course, I had a great love for this man, as you can understand. It was a wonderful experience to have known Jim Birse.
Veterans will remember in 1946-47, reports in newspapers and radio were telling of food shortages in Britain. At that time, David Jones Ltd had a facility where one could send food hampers to the UK for friends there. I sent a few of these to Jim, and he sent letters thanking me but said there was no need for this. He said they were quote okay - so life just went on and I married, and Jim became a memory on the other side of the world.
Thirty-five years later (1978), I took long service leave and went for a world trip. We went first to Honolulu, USA and then to England. We spent a week or so in London and then hired a car and just toured. Eventually we travelled into Scotland and in Edinburgh called in to the Grand Lodge of Scotland. I had joined the Freemasons here years earlier and the Grand Secretary of Scotland, a wonderful man named Stuart Falconer, made me very welcome.
Chatting, I explained to him that I would like to find a man named Jim Birse who I had been very friendly with in a POW camp in Thailand during WWII. I knew that he lived in the village of Inverurie, somewhere near Aberdeen, and that he had been a Private in the Gordon Highlanders in Malaya in 1940 and I didn't even know if he was still alive.
Stuart Falconer picked up his telephone and spoke to the Adjutant of the Gordon's Regiment about my quest. (The Gordons have records of every person who has been the Regiment for the 250-275 years). Within 15 minutes, the Adjutant phoned back to say that Jim Birse was still recorded at Inverurie in 1975!
Given some contacts to look up when I reached this village, we set off and arrived there two days later. Suddenly my most urgent requirement was to find a ladies hairdresser - my wife was adamant! Parked the car outside a shop displaying the ‘red and white striped po1e’ and went inside to ask if ladies could be catered for there. The barber said, "Certainly, in the ladies Salon". This consisted of a curtain suspended on a wire being pulled across the rear end of the shop, dividing it into both 'Ladies and Gentlemen'. His hairdresser wife attended to my wife's needs.
Naturally, I thought the next 40-45 minutes would be well spent if I had a haircut also. Realising that the “Barber" is a profession whose members are usually long term residents, I asked him how long he had been at Inverurie. He said for 25 years. “Do you happen to know a Jim Birse?” I asked. “No, but I know a Bob Birse” he replied. Thinking he could probably be a relative, I asked where I might find Bob. “Oh he has the Barber Shop about 50 yards down the road,” he answered. I explained to him the reason for my enquiries and he wished me luck in my quest. When Olga, my wife, was finished, I paid the bill and we walked down to the next Barber.
I felt a bit stupid going into a Barber's Shop after just having a haircut, however, a smallish bald man came quickly up from the back of the shop. He looked just as I remembered Jim but plumper. He said, "Canna help ya?" I asked if he knew a Jim Birse, if he was still alive or was he (Bob) related to Jim. "He is ma Brother, and yes, he is still alive" he replied. I then explained to Bob the reason for my questions. This made him excited and he asked if he could come with us 'to show me the way'. Gently, I said no, thanked him for his help - this had to be a thing just for Jim and me. He understood, and promised not to phone Jim and spoil the surprise.
I found where he was now living, bought two bottles of 'Glen Grant' Whisky at the local off-licence shop and drove to his house. I left my wife, Olga, in the car with one bottle. I, with the other, went up to his front door and rang the bell. This door had a centre panel of fluted glass, semi-opaque; I could see a figure but not clearly. Unable to open the doorknob, a voice said, "Ma hands are wet and canna open door. I'm peelin' potatoes. Will ye go 'round the back". So round the back I went where the door was the same but with a lever handle instead of a knob. He opened the door with his elbow; there he stood in apron, potato in one hand and knife in the other.
With one hand behind my back clutching a bottle, I said, "Good-day, Jim". He stared at me for several seconds, until I said, "Don't you know me?' - I was a lot different from when he last saw me at Songkurai, 30 years ago, when I weighed about 7-1/2 stone (43 kgs) and now at 13 stone (82 kgs). He said, “I feel I should ken ye, but I canna place you”. I said, “I'm from Australia and I've got a bottle of 'Glen Grant' for us!” Instantly the penny dropped! The potato and knife dropped and he just surged forward and grabbed me. "Careful, Jim, it's glass!" I yelled, putting it on the ground. We stood thus for what must have been a full minute - an unforgettable emotional minute - both with tears in our eyes. The greatest reunion I've ever known.
His wife came home from work. We four went out for dinner and Olga and I stayed the night with Mr and Mrs Jim Birse. There was very little 'Glen Grant' left in the second bottle next morning. In fact, Mrs Birse telephoned Jim's boss to say he would not be at work that day, he was too sick to go. He had had a very bad night! But OH what a memorable night!
Ken Gray Ex F Force 8th Australian Division.
Note 2 - Songkurai is
not shown on most maps, but, there is a Thai village on the site of the
former POW Camp.