Born Edi Upper Victoria 9 July 1920. In CMF. Joined AIF 15 Sep 1941. Pearl Harbour 7 Dec 1941. 10 Jan 1942 embarked Aquitania-to Fremantle then to Singapore 24 Jan 1942. POW 15 Feb 1942. To Thailand as part of “D” Force. Cerebral Malaria. Nakhon Pathom Hospital Camp. Return to Australia 1945. Story writtenby Gordon around 1980. Eulogy to Charlie Demllo at end of story.
Called up in the C.M.F. (Citizen Military Forces) and went to camp at the Geelong racecourse. On 15/9/1941 I joined the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Force) at the Guild Hall, Myers Street, Geelong . Drafted to Royal Park Melbourne and was fitted out with my gear. Was then drafted to Fisherman’s Bend Camp on open land near the General Motor’s Factory. Planes were being built at the factory the motors were being ‘run in’ day and night and they kicked up an awful noise. I was only there a week or so, received all injections, went for and got army driving license, etc. Was then sent on a recruiting tour around Victoria and the Riverina. About a dozen men, two trucks, two Bren gun carriers, an armored car and a couple of staff cars. We would cover short distances between towns by road but any trip say over 50 miles we would load the vehicles on the train. We would pull into a town and have a rally. Chaps could inquire about joining the army or people could subscribe to the war loan. Any subscriber could sign their name on a shell and this shell would supposedly be fired at Hitler. We traveled through Gippsland, then up Bendigo way across to the northeast, then into the Riverina finishing up at Jerilderie. That tour lasted about six weeks. We stayed in the best hotels and were looked on as hero’s, as the people were told that we were about to leave for overseas. It was a great trip. In November we were back at Fishermans Bend.
My next assignment was with a Major, driving around to the various drill halls to collect .303 rifles that had been called in from the public after an appeal, as the army was so short of ‘arms’. Each day we would collect a utility truck full. The armament factories were producing to their full capacity just to keep the four divisions overseas supplied and the troops being trained had to make do with anything that was available. I recall my rifle was a 1914 vintage. The Major, an old digger from the first war, and I got on well together and we would call at his home for afternoon tea on the way back to camp,
I was invited to go to Officer Training School but, like a fool, never took the opportunity to better myself, my excuse being that I would be separated from my mates.
Then, remember Pearl Harbour, 7th December 1941, when we awoke to the news that T.L.Y.Bs. had slammed into the Yanks. They as a nation were treacherous that day and will continue to be so for many generations (if they get the chance).
Within a few days a draft for overseas service was announced and all who were eligible were on it. I was transferred to Broadmeadows where we got down to some serious infantry training. I had not had a rifle in my hand since I joined the A.I.F. I was at Broadmeadows when they brought the German prisoners from the German cruiser ‘Komoran’ that sunk H.M.A.S. Sydney. Both ships were sunk but there were no survivors from the ‘Sydney’. The prisoners were dressed in our uniforms that had been dyed a brick red color. We were in Broadmeadows until early January when we were transferred to the Caulfield Racecourse and met with troops from the Bendigo camp to form the 2/10 Ordnance Field Park.
We entrained from Caulfield around 8th of January 1942 en route to Sydney. On the train I wrote letters to home and tossed them out at Wangaratta and Culcairn stations with instructions to ‘Post Me Please’. One of our number jumped from the train going through the ‘Blue Mountains’. It was just too much for him. He was picked the next morning –very dead.
We arrived in Sydney early on the 10th January upstream from the Harbour Bridge where we were offloaded onto a ferry that brought us under the bridge and around to Cockatoo Dock where the “Aquitania” was berthed. As it was not a luxury cruise, we were jammed in tight as in all troop ships. We sailed in the afternoon, through the Heads and turned South heading for Perth. Days were spent doing boatdrill, P. T. and army drill and anything else to keep us occupied. I enjoyed walking around the top deck which was a quarter of a mile a lap.
We arrived at Fremantle where we moored to take on supplies. The order of the day was no leave for anyone. However, quite a few went A.W.L. by jumping on to the barges that were servicing the ship and getting back to the shore that way. We went from Fremantle to Perth by bus. There were so many men on the old thing that we had to get off and help it over the rises. I was in Perth a day when we were told by way of loud speakers to return to the ship and it sailed at first light the following morning. I was fined two days pay for going A.W.L. but the day in Perth was well worth the fine. There were a number that didn’t go back to the ship. They arrived at the wharf in time to get out to the Aquitania, but, the Military Police put them in custody. Some later followed on towards Singapore in other vessels and were captured in Java.
We had two destroyers as escorts, and, on the way north, it was said there was an enemy submarine in the area and our escorts went off after it with a few hoots and dropped a few depth charges. Later they came back to us and circled us like an old hen coming back to her chickens. The next morning they were gone and we were on our own as it was said that the ‘Aquitania’ could outrun any vessel on the water. Our next stop was the Sunda Straits which divides Java and Sumartra –beautiful scenery, plenty of small islands with the jungle coming right down to the waters edge. There didn’t appear to be many beaches. We were hove too in a little cove and under the protection of the Dutch navy who also dropped depth charges which made everyone very edgy as we seemed to be so vulnerable. We were stopped there for a day while the powers that be had to decide whether to return us on the ‘Aquitania’ or offload us onto five small cattle transports for the remainder of the journey to Singapore, as the big liner was a sitting ‘duck’ from the Jap airforce. Unfortunately they decided on the latter.
The sun really beat down in the middle of the day so they rigged up canvas shelters to give us some shelter from the sun. We were about three days on those boats until at last we arrived in Singapore on the 24th of January 1942.
We got ashore in record time as we were told that the docks had been bombed every day for the past week and that day, for some unknown reason, the Japs did not pay a visit. There were trains waiting for us on the wharf and as soon as they were loaded we left the wharf.
We traveled across Singapore Island to the Causeway, which is the crossing into Malaya. I can recall thinking ‘Where is this impregnable fortress that we had been told about these past years’. We saw nothing apart from military convoys on their way up to the front. Our spirits weren’t very high. Here we were, an Ordnance unit, practically untrained. Many had never fired a shot from a rifle. They were young lives-armed with a rifle only, going up country to meet the enemy. We had traveled about twenty miles up into Malaya when the train stopped and the order was “Everyone out and prepare to march”. It was a couple of miles march to this deserted military camp, but we stayed outside in the jungle, as the camp had often been bombed. We camped out under the stars. I recall trying out my tin hat for a pillow for the first time. It wasn’t such a great success. We had marched only a couple of miles through jungle and pineapple fields and, when we arrived near the camp, we were almost exhausted- so much for our fitness. We stayed there that night. We went there to pick up trucks for our unit.
In the morning, we drivers went to a field park for our trucks and when the troops were loaded we headed back to Singapore, in convoy, at a cracking pace as there was less chance of being hit moving fast. At the causeway the military police were in control. As well as us there were hundreds of natives also wanting to cross to get away from the war. I was almost across when I ran into a native knocking him off and running over his bicycle. I was about to stop and offer assistance when a big M.P. bellowed out –“Get back into your truck and get the hell out of here. I’ll look after that bloke”. I was pleased with that order and promptly took off. Our destination was the Ford Works at Bukit Timah. This was the actual place where, about 21 days later, the surrender signing was carried out. Of course we had been long gone by then. The Ford works had been built on the side of Bukit Timah hill and we were basing our workshops there. The troops erected tents but we drivers dossed in our trucks, at the same time guarding them.
We had washed and settled down for the night when there was a sound of a plane coming over the hill. Our guard said, ‘Don’t panic as it one of our’s as it has its lights on’. At that moment there was a whoosh and a bomb landed, not a chain away from my truck, in rubbish from the factory that had been dumped over the side of the hill and that took most of the blast out of it. It blew great lumps of earth into the air and they landed on our trucks tearing holes in their canvas hoods with the result of a few minor scratches. From then we knew in our minds that this war was for real,
We were at Fords for only a few days when about a dozen of us were transferred to the 2/3 Ordnance Stores Co. a Queensland unit. I recall that I was just 21 years old and I was the eldest of us all. Bob Goodings, Butch Sharp, ’Ding’ Bell, Wal. Keane were ones that I can remember. We were at Marlborough Ordnance camp for a couple of days, then we went a couple of miles down the road, to form a field park to accommodate the vehicles as they were not needed when the troops retreated back onto the island.
One of our first jobs was to take delivery of twenty one new Ford V8’s from Universal Motors in Singapore. They were the same as the 1946 model- a beautiful car of that time.
While we were in town there was an air raid and we had to wait quite a while before we could leave as the streets were in a terrible mess with debris everywhere, as well as people who had been killed or wounded.
We worked for a few days at this park which was near two huge steel tanks. We were assured that they contained only water. The next day they were bombed. We then found out that they had been full of oil. The explosion that followed was more frightening through us being so close, but not so close to stop us operating.
By this time the Japs had crossed onto the island and the next morning the battle front was over on the next hill to us. Our breakfast was almost ready when we received the order to abandon camp and retreat. There was a hand grenade let off in a few of the cars. We had to leave. We arrived back at the Marborough Ordnance camp, travelling in an armoured car. Here we left our vehicle and joined with the British Loyals Infantry Battalion whose job it was to hold the perimeter almost back to our park, from whence we had come.
We held our position until the afternoon of the 15th of February when we were ordered once again to withdraw. We were sick of it. I often wondered how we would have fared if someone in authority had ordered us to advance. We, a sorry looking lot, withdrew back through Marlborough Camp and set up another line on the Singapore side of the camp. Later in the evening we were informed that the surrender was in the pipeline.
We had a couple of hours before dark, so we buried four Brits, who had been killed earlier in the day in a mortar attack. Captain West of the Loyals explained that the surrender had no conditions and said we were not to relax, as some Nip units may not know, and we had to be on our guard in case some filtered through in the night. I was the smart one and volunteered for the first guard. I figured that I’d get the first guard over with and would be able to settle down to sleep for the rest of the night, seeing that we hadn’t had any decent sleep, after being chased from pillow to post for over a fortnight.
Well, darkness closed in, and in no time the troops were lying around asleep and snoring their heads off. Where I was standing guard there was a hibiscus hedge of about four feet high and the ground fell away beyond it. After a period of quietness I heard a rustle and, in the darkness, I saw what I imagined to be a Jap getting a bead on me, and the old adage of shoot first and ask questions later came into being. So I fired. There was one big roar and a bellow and a big commotion. I’d shot a Yak. When things settled again it was the end of my shift and I settled down to sleep for the night with the rest of the troops.
The next day we were told to return to our unit, which was easier said than done, as units were strewn right across the Island. Our little A.I.F. band set off marching. I recall passing by the Tiger Balm Gardens- which is still a tourist attraction. I called at a hairdresser for a haircut. That night we had arrived back at our unit. It was to find out that our casualties had been low and hear and relate experiences but, as to be expected, not knowing what to expect from our captors, our spirits where very low. ’Bluey’, no doubt endeavoring to cheer up the troops, started singing ‘The Blue Bird of Happiness’ and was into the song a couple of lines singing with great gusto when a voice shouted ‘Someone shoot that red headed bastard.!’ Within seconds there was a report from a rifle. Bluey got the message and that finished the singing. The next day we were instructed to pile up all our rifles and other weapons and prepare for the morrow when we were to march ourselves to Changi–a matter of seventeen miles. We were instructed to carry as much food and medical supplies as possible, to see us over the initial stages of our captivity
So, the 18th of February, we started marching. There were quite a few Japs about who didn’t seem to concern themselves about us. There were plenty of the local people watching from the roadside and they appeared as much bewildered about it all as we were, having new masters to contend with. We marched all day. There were many stops and starts under our heavy loads. It was so stinking hot walking on the melting bitumen that we were all about pooped when we arrived at the Barrack Square, Selerang, near Changi at approximately 11 pm. We lay wherever we could, to get some rest for the remainder of the night. We remained in that area a day or so, until the Officers had delegated us to the area to be billeted in.
Selerang Barracks consisted of the Barrack Square of seven three-storied buildings to form a square. They housed a peacetime battalion. Adjacent were the non-commissioned officers, and further were the married officers houses. The 2/10 Ordnance field Park was allotted House 49, which was down near the Straits of Johore, leading up to the naval base-about 200 metres from the water. Changing to a rice diet was a big problem to us, as it had a different effect on our habits. Some chaps went ten days before going to the toilet and it was very distressing adjusting to it. We found the opposite affect changing back to our own diet after the war.
We grizzled and grumbled over the conditions and treatment. Little did we know what the little fellows had in store for us? It took a couple of weeks for us to repair and reconnect the water and sewerage, repair the roofs of our houses and make the area as comfortable as possible. Our cooks had to learn the art of cooking rice. The Japs cooked theirs in a ‘Kually’- a cast iron dish about a metre across and 25cm deep. The idea was to put the correct amount of rice and water in together and then boil till the water had boiled off, leaving the rice supposedly cooked. Easier said than done. As there was an acute shortage of salt, the rice was cooked in seawater for our health’s sake. Now we are told to eat as little salt as possible.
Our rice was cooked with wood fuel that was obtained from rubber trees cut from the plantations that were plentiful around that area pre-war. Wood parties were sent out to cut down the trees and bring in the wood on trailers. The trailers were made from trucks that had been stripped of their motors and bodies leaving the steering wheel and four wheels on the chassis. These trucks had still been in good condition, but as we had no petrol there was just no alternative. One chap would sit on it and steer and about ten others would push. It was all very crude, but they served the purpose of bringing in the wood. I was never actually in Changi Jail but was on wood parties cutting trees up to the walls of it. At that time Civilian Internees were being accommodated there. Later, when the majority of the troops had been sent up to the Burma Railway, those that where left went into the jail, after the internees had been shifted out.
When I was in house 49 at Selerang a huge Jap fleet sailed up the straits to the naval base. There were at least two hundred ships in the armada, battleships, cruisers, carriers, the lot. They were at the base for a couple of days for refueling before they again went to sea. Later we heard that they were on their way to the Coral Sea where the first big air and naval battle was fought, with honors slightly favoring the Allies.
In June I was sent on a working party to ‘Adam Park’ to build a monument and bridge at the McRitchie Reservoir to honor the Japs that fell in the battle of Singapore. We were billeted in the same type of government houses as we were at Selerang. The approaches to the bridge were from the Singapore Golf Course Club House which had been almost totally damaged in the fighting. This was the first time that we were subjected to the bashings that we later took for granted. On the job one day our W.O., who was of small stature, was subjected to a brutal bashing. This big Jap thug, who boasted he was a martial arts champ, threw our Officer around like he was a rag doll before taking to him with a pick handle which knocked him to the ground, and the next day without regaining consciousness he died. I was on that party for three months with Max and Graeme Baker Lloyd Markham, Bob Goodings, Bill Cook, Val Lourie, Jack Cahir and Keith Harris - most of the chaps that post war came to the reunions at Grovedale. ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn, a league footballer who had won a Brownlow Medal, was in the house with us also. At that time labor was plentiful and when any one took sick (I was one with dengue fever) were sent back to Selerang to hospital and replaced with fit personal from there.
When I was in hospital I met up again with Rod Brevington-who had been a policeman stationed at Northcote with my two cousins Ray and Kelly before he joined up- from our unit who, with another named Gale, had escaped in a boat and had made it almost to India. They were at that time in terrible shape with malaria, berri berri and starvation and made the mistake of hailing a warship, which they thought was ours, but turned out to be a Jap. They were bundled aboard and brought back to Singapore to hospital were I was. Rod was thin and in very poor health and was of course very concerned about his ultimate fate. We agreed that T.L.Y.B.’s had had every opportunity to bump them off if that had been their decision, and why would they bring them back to be nursed in hospital? Who could ever attempt to read their warped and twisted minds? But alas, later I’ll reveal what happened. In a couple of weeks I was out of hospital and back at House 49. This was toward the end of August ’42.
On ‘Tenko’ [Roll Call] parade one morning we were informed that the Japs had ordered that we sign a pledge of honor that we would not escape or attempt to do so. This, all the troops refused to do. We received an ultimatum that if it was not signed by morning we were to leave our houses and all move into the Barrack Square – A.I.F. and B.E.F.- About 15,000 men in about six acres. This was carried out and hell what a shambles. The A.I.F. was allocated to one building that was originally built to accommodate a company of 120 men. We had little room to breathe let alone move and lie down. Latrines were being dug in the middle of the square and there were queues 100 yards long of men waiting to use them. They were being filled as fast as they were being dug.
The next day our C.O. ‘Black Jack’ Callaghan was ordered to go and witness an execution. The B's had taken Rod. his mate Gale and two Englishmen, who had been recaptured after an escape bid, and took them all down to the Changi beach where they were shot. The firing squad consisted of Sikhs who had defected and gone over to the side of the Japs. When Black Jack returned and assembled all his troops he told us ‘The Japs ordered me to go and witness an execution. Instead I’ve just witnessed ‘BLOODY MURDER.’ Rod, the brave man that he was, pleaded with the Japs to spare the boy Gale, explaining as he was a N.C.O. he had ordered Gale to escape with him. This of course was of no avail. After this catastrophe our Senior Officers told us to sign the paper to appease the animals, but not to honor our commitment if we got the chance. We were then able to gather our gear and go back to our original houses. Things had been very touchy. The Japs had machinegun posts at each corner of the Square and we were warned not to step over the boundary or we would be shot so it was fortunate that no one took up their threat. It was about a month later before the Japs would allow us to go and collect the victim’s remains and bury them in the Changi cemetery.
This all occurred in the first week in September 42. For the next few months I was on day working parties to Singapore, picking up rice and other rations. Of course we weren’t allowed to speak to the natives, but we were often given news and other information from them when it was safe to do so. If we were caught we were belted up, but that was accepted as one of the hazards. It taught us to be cautious and to play a ‘cat and mouse’ game with the Nips as any information that was obtained was sought after with great eagerness when we arrived back in camp. After Christmas 1942 most of the big working parties were back in Selerang and there was talk of the troops being shifted up country
At that time the troops who had been captured in Java began coming through Singapore-‘Weary’ Dunlop was among them- on their way to the supposedly better camps and food. Later we found that some of these parties traveled by train up to the railway in Thailand while the rest traveled by boat to the Burma end of the railway. Among the latter was Warrick Cooke, a friend of mine who had formerly lived in Edi, working for Alan Newton and Bob Cook on their farms. When I saw Warrick, and spoke to him, he wasn’t in bad condition physically, but mentally he was in a very low state, as if he had a premonition that his life would be cut short. This particular boat was attacked by our planes before they arrived in Burma and Warrick was among those killed.
Then in March 1943 it was announced that another party, to be called ‘D’ force, of about 5,000 men, was to go to Thailand and I, with the most of my unit where on it. So with all our possessions, such as they were, we assembled on the Barrack Square where we were farewelled by the rest of our mates, who were not fit enough to join us. Gus. McIntee, our old cook, expressed concern that it may be cold where we were going and wanted me to take his old Irish green pullover, his prized possession. I declined his offer because of the extra weight. He told us he had no doubt that ‘D’ Force would be blessed through leaving on such an important day as St.Patrick’s.
We were trucked into Singapore Station and were allotted enclosed steel rice trucks, 28 men to a truck, and the trainload was 500 men. It wasn’t a nice feeling to hear the bolt in the door slam shut knowing there was no way out. For rest we squatted down on our haunches as there was not enough room to lie down. The toilet was a wooden bucket in the corner and in the heat of the tropics the stench was unbearable. Many had dysentery and couldn’t make it to the bucket which made matters even worse. Tempers easily flared in these conditions but on the whole the men acquitted themselves very well.
The trip to Thailand lasted five days and four nights. Meals on the trip were few-about one a day of a mug of rice, but water was our greatest need as the iron trucks were like an oven. Also we had to boil all of our drinking, for our own health, which made it all the more difficult. About 2am one morning we had stopped at the station at Kuala Lumpur in Malaya.
The yard had been surrounded by armed Japs and we were allowed off the train to stretch our legs and have a general clean up of ourselves and our travelling quarters. Our water was boiled by a steam pipe from the locomotive. Not being able to see out of the trucks didn’t make our journey easier. We arrived in Non Pluduk in Thailand in the mid afternoon with the sun belting down. I recall having to take out my dentures as my mouth was so dry. Our cooks had our drinking water boiled in a short while and the Japs arrived with a truck of bananas and that was the first so called meal we had in five days.
The next day we began our march up to the railway. Our first stop being 50 kilometres to Kanchanaburi. “Kamburi” for short - where the large allied cemetery is now. There was no shelter. We just lay down and slept when we stopped marching for the day. It could rain half the night but there was not a thing we could do about it. In the morning you would get up and shake yourself like a dog and the next day was before us
When I marched into Selerang as a prisoner, I had somewhere picked up an Indian Army issue Mohair brown blanket and I carried that blanket the whole time I was prisoner. It was not a heavy blanket but at night I’d wrap myself up in it and, although it may have been wet, it kept my body heat in.
Kamburi was on flat, fertile land and there appeared to be ample food for the Thais. I don’t believe the Japs occupied the country, they did their own thing and the Thais ruled the best they could around them. We crossed the river and in no time we were swallowed up by the jungle. Marching began to get hard going and most of us found we were carrying far too much unneeded gear and that gear was being thrown into the jungle as we marched along. One chap had a distributor from a ford engine that he thought would be of use to him when he arrived home. Another had shell casings that he thought would look nice polished up standing inside his front door. This type of gear was quickly abandoned. I had a haversack, water bottle, wallet, a few rags for clothes, dixie, razor (no blades) a few personal items and my old trusty blanket, so I was traveling as light as possible. We were on a track that had been cut out of the jungle by those that had preceded us. We were passing parties of prisoners working on embankments, but were given no opportunity to speak with them as it was ‘Kurra’, ‘Bugero’, ‘Speedo’. Our tormentors would not stop screaming. If anyone made recognition or conversation it was a bashing for him.
Eventually we arrived at Kinsayok and we stayed there 5 weeks. We had bamboo huts to camp in, as it was a kind of forward base camp. We were under cover for the first time since we left the train. We were put to work immediately on carting soil to form the embankment for the railway. I don’t remember working really hard there, but then again the conditions were easier and we were still in reasonable shape. The Jap engineers in charge were more mature - about 50 years of age. They were setting out embankments and overseeing the bridge building. Our guards were of a younger vintage and that is where our immediate worry sprang from with beatings and cursing - there was no escape. As the monsoons had set in by now, we were working in mud and slush up to our ankles which hastened our footwear to rot and literally fall off our feet. The monsoon made it more difficult to get supplies up from down river. They were usually brought up river on a barge with a motor to power them. We called them ‘Pom Poms’.
One day there were about 20 of us sent down 16 kilos (kms) to Hintok to load supplies on to one of these barges to be brought back to camp. The boat had difficulties in negotiating the rapids and we would have to get into the water to give a push. We toiled at this till nightfall when the Thai boatman tied the barge up to the bank and said ‘That’s as far as we are going tonight’. We then had to march back to camp. Our guard was an insignificant one star Jap who looked about sixteen years old. With the little Nip at the head of the column, we started off up the jungle track. It was so dark that night it was hard to see your hand in front of you, and all the scary noises that came out of the jungle. It was too much for the little Nip who got really scared and thought it would be safer for him if he brought up the rear. Then there was a noise at the rear and the Nip gave one of the chap’s his rifle and he huddled himself in the center of the column. When we arrived near camp we had a job to convince him to come to the head of the column to identify us to the guard on duty. I thought that we had good conditions there but we still lost six men. When we were there we started work on a cutting, but it was only for a few days.
We left Kinsayok and marched another 53 kilometres to Brankassi. There we were divided into two parties. The 330 who stayed at Brankassi included Lt. Howel of the 4th M.T. and a Doctor, and another couple of Officers. In our party there were 172 men under the command of W.O. Glen Bryden and Charlie Demllo was our medical orderly. The Officers had divided our medical stores and gave Charlie a couple of bottles of quinine tablets and a box of sundry items. When we arrived at Onti, which was our destination, Charlie found the box contained surgical instruments. Being of little use to Charlie, the next day he and a nip walked back to Brankassi to exchange them. The good Doctor wasn’t giving up any more supplies. Our chaps were not over impressed. Charlie had been a driver in a medical unit and because of that the Japs said ‘You No.1 Doctor’. He was landed with 172 chaps, to look after their medical needs, who were about to go through a shocking period of disease, sickness, bashings and death. Charlie was quite a few years older than the average chap and was looked up to with the same high regard which he holds to this day.
Onti was situated away from the river, but on the bank of a little stream, about 3 metres across, running down from the mountains. The banks were about 5 metres high and the track came down the banks and across a little bridge that had been built out of logs from the jungle. We were camped in tents that we had erected after the jungle was cleared. We no doubt carried the tents with us, but I can’t recall it. Bamboo was laid on the floor of the tents to try and keep our bodies up out of the mud and slush, as by now we were in the middle of the monsoons. The more it rained the deeper the mud grew and there was no relief what ever. It was a miserable hell. Our tents rotted away and our boots simply rotted off our feet. Our feet were soft and burning hot and swollen through being wet all the time, the skin broke into watery sores and they were the beginning of tropical ulcers, so vividly described and illustrated in ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s book. I recalled the soldiers of W.W.I relating the trouble they had with wet feet in the trenches and they said they got relief from urinating on them, so from then on that’s what I did. I don’t know if that was the reason, or just luck, but I had no sores turn into tropical ulcers.
Well, to the railway. When we arrived at Onti, only the surveyors had been before us. So our first job was to clear the jungle from where the line was to be built. The jungle was full of the same little red ants that I spoke of before in the fighting in Singapore. Of course, in clearing the jungle we would disturb them. They would bite and only after being pulled in half would they release their grip. We had poor quality axes and crosscut saws and we cut the big trees down with them. We had two big elephants to push the trees away from the track. If a tree was near the edge of the clearing we would saw it almost through, then the elephant would lean against and push it down away from the line, which saved us a lot of hard work. The drivers were a sadistic lot. They drove with a prang- a curved knife about half a metre long- usually with the flat of the blade. But sometimes they would do their block and use the blade edge and inflict a horrible wound to the elephant’s head. We couldn’t say a word to them or they would just as like run the elephant over us. They were intelligent animals, picking up a tree between their tusks and trunk and walking away with it. I believe those tractors which they use on sawmills are an offshoot of the Thai elephants, as they both do the same job.
Once the jungle was cleared, work was started on building the embankments. We were put in teams of four, one with a pick, one with a shovel or chunkel (large hoe) and two men with two poles threaded through a rice bag, which was called a ‘Tungah’, In fact, two dug out the earth and the others carried it on to the embankment. Each party of four was expected to cart 16 cubic metres of earth on to the embankment each day and only when that was completed were we able to go back to camp. If one man was sick, it was expected the others to work all the harder to make up his share. The Jap always had a metre stick that he carried. It served to measure the work as well as to belt you, if he thought you weren’t putting the expected effort into your work. Most times it was well into the night before our tasks were completed.
This went on for weeks on end, the mud was knee deep. When one eventually laid down for the nights sleep, it was almost impossible with the wet bedding and swarms of mosquitoes, there was no way of escape from them. The work, the screaming, the bashings, and the starvation was getting to us and instead of sleeping you found yourself in a daze working in your sleep. Before you realized, it was morning and the same blasted day started again. Reveille was before daylight, which was a good thing in a way as we ate our rice or pap in the dark and we couldn’t see the mouse and rat dirt that was mixed up with it. There was no thought of not eating it, as there was nothing else.
After our pap it was Tenko parade and the men were on their way to work. Only the men that couldn’t walk were left in the camp and even then sometimes we fit would have to carry the sick out to the line to make up the numbers, even though they were unable to work. The poor fellows would be laying on the side of the track shivering with malaria, their legs laid open with tropical ulcers, filthy blooded dysentery faeces running down their legs and the stench was putrid. Is it any wonder that few survived- and these were only kids in their early twenties- we were treated as the lowest form of scum. It was a miserable hell.
We had names to fit most of the guards- The Brown Bomber, The Boy Bastard, Piggy Eyes and the Christian Corporal were but a few. The latter didn’t last long, as he had a shred of decency about him He was unable to extract from the prisoners the amount of work required from them as did his ruthless and sadistic mates. The prisoners played on his generous nature. Each day the men were getting sicker and weaker and the work got harder and the conditions became worse. There was no escape. The fit men who went out to work had to do more to make up for the heavy sick, who were unable to work. At that time, when a chap was near death he was taken about 3 kilometres up the track to Bungan, where there was a Dutch doctor there. But as he had no medical supplies, he could do no more for them than Charlie Demllo.
At that time, there were thousands of Jap troops marching up trough the jungle to Burma. They had their gear piled high on small carts with wheels no larger than a metre high, shafts and ropes on the front with ten men pulling and another four pushing. You could hear them coming up the jungle track through the middle of the night half a kilometre away, singing ‘Ousta Ousta’, it was an eerie sound. They were on the trot all the time and when they came to the creek at Onti they were flat out down the bank, over the little bridge and up the other side. If a Jap lost his footing, he was dragged through the foot deep mud until he was able to regain his feet and trot off with the others. Those Japs no doubt were a spent force before they arrived at the front in Burma.
A sad episode was the thousands of Asian coolies that had been tricked and forced into coming to work on the railway. They were told of the good pay and conditions, so they brought all their meager belongings as well as their wives and children and when they started to die in large numbers it was all so distressing as they were left to their own devices to take care of themselves. Amid all this despair there was often something amusing that came up. We were made responsible to bury the many that died as they passed through our section of the line. One day our burial party, toward evening, came across this chap who we thought was almost dead so we decided to dig his grave and sat down to wait until we could bury him. After a while he came too. He looked at us and then saw his grave. I don’t know how, but he got to his feet and took off, and that was the last we saw of him as he got right out of our area.
When we had finished the embankments around Onti we were told to break camp and move to Bungan, about 3 kilometres away. By this time the tents had rotted away and there were at least 100 out of the 172 unfit for work. There was malaria, dengue, beriberi, tropical ulcers, dysentery, and cholera was just about to raise its ugly head. The fit had to carry all the gear as well as the sick. We had no stretches and the sick were carried by two chaps forming a chair with their hands like we played when we were kids. The men with beriberi often had their testicles swollen like footballs and were in terrible pain when being carried. By this time we travelled very light. All I had was my faithful blanket, water bottle, dixie and a few personal items that I carried in a haversack. Our clothes had rotted away and most only had g-strings to wear.
There were about 100 Dutch in this camp and they had Officers who were in control of the camp, but we still had Glen Bryden as our C.O. We were allotted a Dutch interpreter named Kamper and a Doctor named Van der Meer, who the Dutch troops said was already ‘Troppo’ and they were pleased to be rid of him. Poor Charlie was saddled with him. He was nicknamed ‘Two quinine’ by Charlie. He would prescribe that for all, when they were available, no matter what you thought you had. But then he had nothing to work with, so looking back we were a bit hard on him. Kamper, I thought was a real good bloke, as over the next few weeks he got us off the hook numerous times when the Japs started on their bashing sprees.
This all happened in the middle of July, 1943. Our first job was to build ourselves a hut of bamboo and covered with attap, which is roofing made from palm fronds. Some were out in the jungle cutting bamboo, others would be erecting it. We became real experts. Our hut was approximately 80 metres long and 7 metres wide, with a walkway down the middle. The raised benches, each side to sleep on, were floored with bamboo. Large bamboo about 18 inches in circumference was opened out to make a slab which formed the deck of the benches. These huts were tied together with rattan, stripped from trees in the jungle. Now, at least we had benches out of the slush to sleep on. The aisle down the middle was still muddy, and this mixed with blooded faeces from dysentery patients, it was a putrid smell that you can’t ever forget.
Our bed and bedding was always full of lice and bugs and if anyone still had hair it was full of lice also, so shaved heads were the order of the day. Jack Flannery was our barber and he had a table knife honed to a razor edge and used that as a razor. (After the war Jack became ‘Weary Dunlop’s’ driver.)
When our hut was livable, it was back to the line for the fit, and the working sick put the finishing touches on it. As most of the embankments were now completed, we were now bridge builders. Some men were cutting down trees in the jungle and the elephants hauled them to a clearing close by the bridge to be built. Some would be shaping the timbers and the rest would be erecting the bridge. First the piles were driven into the ground with a pile driver driven by manpower. There was a rope attached to the ‘monkey’ and to that rope was attached a dozen smaller ones. The ropes were pulled in unison by all men singing to a Jap numbers Song. The monkey was pulled to the top of the pile driver and the ropes were then let go together, letting the ‘monkey’ slam down on the top of the pile. This mournful song was kept up from daylight till after dark- there was just no let up. The Jap would walk around with his metre stick in his hand and any one he thought was not pulling his weight he would hit them over the head with the stick. The chaps would pack their hats with grass or anything they thought would cushion the blows.
The timber for the bridge was morticed and tenoned and held together with iron staples, as there was not a bolt used. I think the reason was shortage of steel and bolts were not available. Some of these trestle bridges were 30 feet high -this was the time we lost most of our men.
My first sight of cholera was when one afternoon one of our number took sick and he was laid to the side till we were allowed to take him back to camp. Mick Steel and I started to carry him, when his fluids started to flow from him, by the time we arrived back in camp he was in a real bad way and by the morning he had died. There was nothing that we could do for him. In other camps, where there was a doctor, they improvised with a drip which saved a few lives.
A few evenings later when I was on the way home to camp I passed where Ding Bell was working on the bridge near the camp. He was on the handle winching timber onto the bridge and as he hadn’t been well I asked him how he was feeling. “I’m alright mate,” he said. When his party finished work around ten that evening he was taken straight to the hospital hut where he died a couple of hours later. That was the 4th of August 1943. I had been very fortunate, as I’d not been on a sick parade since I’d left Singapore, or had a day off. So I said to Glen our C.O, that I didn’t want to work on the line the next day as I wanted to bury my mate. And he said that’s fair enough, we’ll work that out some how. Usually the fit men had to work on the railway and the walking sick did the burials. Three of us dug three graves as there were two others to be buried. There was no Padre, so all we could do was say the Lords Prayer over them. I hope they understood.
We had two more months of this grind before the line was completed and as the men got weaker more lost their lives. Of the 172 in our party 40 odd died on the job and almost another 70 died after being evacuated down river to Chungkai (a hospital camp).
There were a few other stories worth mentioning that occurred while we were at Bungan. One of our sergeants was punished for some misdemeanor and they pulled him up this large tree to the first limb, which was thirty feet above the ground and told him to stay there without food or water. Kamper and Glen argued his case to the Nips, saying that he would go to sleep, fall and kill himself. The Nips said “that’s his problem. It’s not our fault if he falls asleep!!” He was let down after two days of terror. Another day, a chap had a row with a Jap, so the Jap and his mate tied him from a tree hanging by his hands. They then built a fire under him. When the fire got under way, we all (there was about thirty of us) went in and untied him. The Japs laughed and made out it was a big joke. But they were serious at the start and they knew they were outnumbered.
When cholera broke out at Bungan, a small group of Asians were camped nearby. They hadn’t dug latrines, nor did they know any sanity drill because they were messing anywhere. The Japs ordered them to dig a trench for a latrine and told them it had to be used. We were coming back to camp past these Asians and there were three squatting on the mound of dirt doing their business. The Japs went mad and beheaded the three of them with their swords. The Japs were really scared of cholera. We were too. It seemed the Japs relished the opportunity of using their swords. Their pet game was slicing through a banana tree trunk with one blow from their sword.
The banks of the river at Bungan were at least 40 feet high from the water and our rations came up the river by barge. It was a big job to carry the heavy bags of rice up the steep banks in our weakened condition. Many of the chaps had large ulcers on their legs and the stench from the rotted flesh around them was awful. The poor fellows would crawl down to the river and dangle their leg in the water and let the thousands of little fish eat the rotten flesh away and so clean the ulcer. They would grip their legs above the sore part to try to ease the pain, but I don’t think it worked too well. In the larger camps where there were surgeons, these chaps would lose their leg and they would have a chance, but these chaps had none, because malaria and dysentery were dragging them down at the same time.
Sometimes a bullock was among our rations, if it was still on its feet. Usually it was in a far worse condition than we were after traveling such a long distance. We got what was left over after the guards had taken what they wanted. Apart from the skin there was nothing wasted, the meat and bones were made into a stew in the ‘kually’. The blood was saved and fried. With the smell of the meat cooking it would attract thousands of blowflies and before the meat was cooked the top was almost covered with flies that had fallen in. The cook would brush them aside and then ladle the stew into the dixie. We couldn’t afford to waste any so it was all eaten. There was an older chap named ‘Robbie’, who at one time was the valet to the South Australian Governor, had a permanent job to boil water for drinking. He had a 44 gallon drum with the top cut out of it and would keep the fire stoked all day. We drank a lot of water.
The bridges, embankments and the line laying were completed by this time. The line laying gangs, who were a special crew, were all fit men and well fed. They had to be, as they worked hard and long hours. The Japs had large diesel trucks that were adaptable to run on the railway line as well as on the road. They pulled flat-top rail trucks. The sleepers and rails we on these trucks and the motors pushed them up the tracks. Some men would carry the sleepers on ahead and place them down then others would do the same with the rails. More would bolt them up and put the dogs in, then the trucks would push up and the whole procedure would begin again.
The Japs put on a grand opening ceremony on the 25th October, 1943 at the place where the workers from the Burma side met the workers from the Thailand side. The Japs big-noted themselves that day by giving us a day off and took us to the river to collect fish after they tossed in a hand grenade. We got fish aplenty which was a good change.
After the line was completed, all of our sick were evacuated by ‘Pom Pom’ down river to Chungkai. This was a hospital camp set up to accommodate them. But most of the sick from up-country were in such poor condition that many unfortunately died. There were about twenty of the fittest left to do small jobs on the line as well as to clear up the camp. We weren’t sorry to leave Bungan and move down to Brankassi to join up again with the fit that were left from the original party. We were put to work on maintenance to the line, of which there was a plenty to do. There were times when whole trains came off the line, due to embankments subsiding and a whole lot of reasons, as there wasn’t much quality control when the railway was being built. Through it being unsafe, the trains didn’t travel very fast and another reason was there was very little of straight track, due to the nature of the country.
There were a few Japs stationed at Brankassi siding, looking after the trains travelling on the line. These had made their camp livable by establishing vegetable gardens, a couple of pigs and a few chooks. At this stage, “F” Force was being evacuated down the line on their way back to Singapore, and would stop at Brankassi to pick up a meal which we would have had prepared for them. We also had to bury the chaps who had died on the trip this far. Was it any wonder it was later called the ‘Railway of Death’. We would have had fires burning to boil drinking water for the fellows on the train and when the Japs were preoccupied, a couple of chooks were being cooked at the same time the water was being boiled. After the train had pulled out and we were about to be marched back to our camp the station Japs were frantically searching for and counting chooks.
After a few weeks we left Brankassi, also by train, to go down to Non Pluduk (2) camp, which was where the Burma Railway branched off the Bangkok- Singapore line. It was the beginning of the dry season when we arrived there, a real contrast from the mud and slush that we endured the last nine months up in the jungle. I had been very fortunate, as apart from reoccurring malaria and dysentery, I was still fairly fit.
At Non Pluduk, there were work parties, mostly on the railyards, that we were obliged to go on. Then I got a permanent duty on the water pump which supplied the camp water from a bore. We were a mixed crew, as among the chaps was one that could have looked very much like Joel Garner’s father would have looked. He was a West Indian in the Dutch army, about seven feet tall with jet black skin. He was a good workmate and in our spare time we started a laundry business, washing for the Dutch, mainly because they were the only ones that still had some money and still had a few clothes to wash.
Whilst at Non Pluduk we were in a few air raids and although there were quite a few P.O.W. killed, we were pleased at the apparent ease that our bombers attacked without much opposition from the Japs. One night our bombers circled us, trying to find the marshalling yards, their target, when one plane let its bombs go right across our camp. We believed it to be an error as they then concentrated on the railway. We lost about a dozen men that night; our only shelter was a trench that ran down the length of the huts to drain the water away.
There were parties selected from Non Pluduk to go to Japan. The Count and Jack Cahir were among them, however Jack got sick on the way to Singapore to pick up the boat for Japan, and in a fortnight later arrived back to us.
About September 1944, another party was formed to go back up the line to cut firewood for the engines. Most were apprehensive of making the second trip up the line because, although we were well, we hadn’t recovered from the battering we took the year before up in the jungle. However, we were shifted to Tamuang, a camp near Kamburi. We were issued with a Jap shirt and shorts and sand shoes. Big deal!!. October saw us on our way by train back up the line, which was easier travelling but also dangerous, seeing all the rail trucks lying at the foot of the embankments. It was interesting to go back past our old camps of Brankassi, Onti and Bungan, but after almost twelve months jungle growth they were very hard to distinguish.
We arrived at Konkoita and rebuilt old huts that had originally been occupied by ‘F’ force. It was good work, clean and dry under foot. We had a quota to do each day, which was fair as we could handle it O.K., We would pace ourselves each day to finish our quota with no time to spare. The Dutch working nearby had to work hard to complete the same quotas, as they had never worked manually in their lives before, being office and professional people. The wood had to be stacked near the line to be loaded onto the engines. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1944, I was digging a latrine trench six foot deep and I stood to attention there, in memory of the fallen. Conditions were the best we ever had at that camp, enough food, dry weather, a fair work quota done with little effort. Then disaster struck in the form of scrub typhus. Within a week there was no one capable to work and the men died like flies. We had a doctor there this time, but there was not a thing that he could do. The Japs appeared to have a little more compassion this time, as within a week we abandoned camp, and those that had survived went down river again.
We arrived at Tamakan (Bridge on the River Kwai fame) in poor condition on the 30th November 1944 and settled into the camp there. The next day, about 4 p m we heard planes coming down the river from Burma way. There were trenches, two feet deep, dug each side of the hut to take the water off the roof but if our planes came bombing they were used as shelters also. I looked up and saw the direction they were coming and thought I had enough time to cross to the jungle, about 50 metres away. I took off and then I heard the bombs beginning to fall, so I stopped and returned to the trenches. By this time they were full of people, and about the same time the bombs exploded, I landed on top of the chaps in the trench. There were no complaints as they were thankful to have a little cover over them. There were seventeen killed in that raid, most of them cooks, as one bomb landed in the cookhouse. It was ironic as we almost looked forward to those raids as it was plain that our planes had no opposition which only meant that we were winning the war. It was there I met Bob Bourke, a relation of mine from Queensland. Unfortunately Bob died on a working party about a month before the end of the war.
About the middle of 1944 a large camp (loosely named a Hospital Camp) was built at Nakhon Pathom. Not far from Bangkok and the heavy sick were sent there. It was about Christmas 1944 that the remains of the Konkoita party were sent there. I was so sick I do not remember the trip but I believe it was by train. The first few months were vague to me, but I recall Max Baker was there and supplied me with smokes. Eddie Campbell from the water pump at Non Pluduk, who was working building the bund around the camp, gave me money so I could buy extras from the native’s stall, when available.
I was reduced to eight stone through typhus and malaria, but later I suffered with cerebral malaria, which rendered me unconscious for a couple of days. I believe, Keith Moss, a friend from Onti, would crush and dissolve Atabrin tablets and place them in my mouth in the hope that I would benefit from them. This no doubt did me good, as I came to and began to get better. After that I was fortunate to receive two blood transfusions, as in ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s words. “to kick me back around the corner”. The men I received the blood from were “Pip”’ Orme and a man named Joyce –who I never met after the transfusion. Both were from the British army and I have the greatest admiration for, as at that time blood was not the most plentiful commodity to be giving away. We who were fortunate to be selected to be transfused can be thankful to a Capt Jacob Markowitz a professor at the University of Toronto Canada who, before the war, had made experiments to transfuse from dog to dog and tried out the same procedure on the prisoners with success. (Taken from the book titled ‘The Albert Coates Story’). “Weary Dunlop” told me years later, they had to be very selective of who received blood as it was so scarce and only those with a medical condition got the nod, but if you had an ulcer also ,’Bad Luck’. I call ‘Pip’ Orme my savior and we still keep in touch to this day.
The earlier days of my time at Nakhon Pathom are hazy but I recall later the increased air raids. The huge pagoda near our camp was used by our night bombers to check their bearings and from there they would head off to their targets. There was an airstrip quite near us and our fighters came in and shot it up. We received some damage as stray shells overshot their mark. We were out in the open enjoying the display, but the Japs would go into a frenzy and herd us back into the huts. Every morning a small Jap plane would take off and fly out over the coast on reconnaissance. This morning he was coming back at the same time as a flight of our bombers were going through on a raid. With two or three bursts of gunfire, we saw the last of that recon’ plane.
I continued to make progress, then one day the Japs wanted men for a party to go back up to the Nikki area. Our M.O’s. refused saying the men were still too sick and weak, so the Japs lined us up and we filed before them and they said ‘All men to the left back to bed- all to right go to work’. It was like culling sheep back on the farm. I was again fortunate, as I was sent to the left. Keith Moss and Bob Bourke went to the right and didn’t survive. From then I gained more strength till I started working in the distillery at the camp where alcohol was distilled from rice to be used as disinfectants. It was run by an Englishman who would allow us to sample the product at the end of the day, just like any good distillery.
Toward the end of July it was said that all the P.O.W. were to be moved to the east of Bangkok, near the Indo-Chinese border (Vietnam). A party of 300 was formed from Nakhon Pathom, and we left there on 31st July 1945 by train for Bangkok station. From there we were to go by barge down river to the ‘Go Downs’ on the wharf at Bangkok.
While we were waiting for the barge other Japs grabbed us to load drums of petrol onto another train. Some of the drums were leaking and we were scared that the lot would explode, because when it became dark the Japs lit a dirty big bonfire a bit away so we could see what we were doing. We were pleased when the job was complete and we climbed on the barge for our trip down to the ‘Go Downs’ a distance of about two miles. We arrived and settled down for the night when there was a big explosion and fire at the petrol dump that we had worked on. About thirty minutes later, a truckload of Jap troops came, swords and rifles at the ready, and it was every one out for ‘Tenko’ as they thought one of us had stayed behind and blown it up. If the count had not been correct that night, I’m sure we would have all been shot, as they were really after revenge. We were fortunate that it didn’t blow when we was working there. Every camp that I went to, the first thing to do was to look around for a place of escape. When we went to bathe in a dam nearby I would practice swimming under water, because if another episode occurred like the night we arrived, I could think of no other way of escaping than jumping from the wharf and swim as far as possible under water.
These ‘Go Downs’ became a transit camp where the P.O.W. passing through stopped and had a meal before being loaded on another train to continue their journey to Chang Mai. Our particular party stayed there to run the camp and cook the meals. The days no troops came through we had little to do. Things were very edgy, and we could feel the little fellows weren’t as sure of themselves as they once were. The transfer of P.O.W. had all but stopped and the ones that did arrive weren’t taken any further. We were taken out on working parties again and, of course, we were threatened with death if we had any contact with the natives.
I was working at a Jap hospital, building blast walls to protect their ambulances from air raids. While there one day, a Thai told us ‘Japan Boom Boom-no more’. We kept hoping he was right. Then on the 15th of August, work was as usual in the morning and then we stopped for lunch. We had just commenced our meal when the guard told us, ‘Work finished all men campo’. We loaded into the trucks and started off through Bangkok back to camp, when the people came out on the street saying ‘War finished’ and began to throw food and fruit up into the trucks, taking no notice of the Japs, who did nothing to stop them.
The Japs still didn’t say anything to us so we played it very cool by not upsetting them as they still had the guns. The next day the Jap commander told us that he thought the war was over, but was ordered to guard us against any Jap marauders that may come and have a go at us, so we lay very low for a while. The following, we were lining up for our evening meal beside the ‘Go Down’ when two drunken Kempie Tai (Military Police) staggered toward us, going to cross through our line. The first was heading directly at me so I side stepped to let him pass, but the chap behind me stood fast and the Jap ran into him. The Jap stepped back pulled out his gun and let three or four shots off, and luckily never hit anyone. About three hundred men melted from the roadway. I was about fifteen feet from the go down, but I think I made it in two steps. I didn’t want to be shot after making it this far. The Jap Guards grabbed the two and took them away.
A couple of days later, a Jeep driven by an Anglo-Indian rolled into our camp and he told us that he was with a Commando force that had been in the Jungle near the big camp at Nakhon Pathom in case there was any trouble in the change over. But fortunately all was quiet. After a few days, different Bangkok organizations came with meals and different goodies even to stage concerts. Then there was a call for half a dozen men to man the switchboard at Allied Headquarters in Sathorn Road in Bangkok. It was a turn around, as we had Japs working for us, even as drivers in the car pool.
One day, with a Jap driver, I was sent to the airport to meet an Officer coming from India. The airport was guarded by Gurka’s, and when the Jap saw them he nearly died of fright. The Japs were really scared of Gurka’s. To upset him all the more the Officer didn’t arrive, and having waited so long for him, it was too late to go back to town as there was a curfew on, so we had to stay at the airport the night. It was a very scared Jap that never left my side.
At HQ was an A.I.F. signals unit, and they were in contact with Darwin. Early one morning when I was on duty, one of the signalmen was speaking to someone he knew in Darwin, and I asked him if his friend would send a telegram to my Mother saying that I was well. She received the telegram. We filled in time looking around Bangkok and going to the pictures. I saw the film ‘Forty Thousand Horsemen’ in Bangkok.
We had two Eurasian boys working with us as interpreters. I visited them at their home, and the day before I left Bangkok their father came around with a parting gift. By this time the A.I.F. was being flown out to Singapore. At Allied H.Q. was Field Marshall Bill Slim, who was later Governor General of Australia. I met Lady Mountbatten also when she visited. When I arrived in Singapore I was privileged to meet her again.
I was on the last planeload of A.I.F. to leave Bangkok. We sat on either side of the plane with blankets around us to keep out the cold. I’ll always recall the different colors of the paddy fields as we left Bangkok, and the beauty of the coastline down Malaya, till we arrived in Singapore. There were three other planes in the flight. A lot of the chaps played cards, but I was too occupied taking in the scenery. Being a cloudless day made it all the more unforgettable.
When we landed at Singapore we were taken back to Changi, past the jail, across a runway half completed by P.O.W., which is now the International Airport, and down to an A.I.F. army camp situated close to the beach. In fact, the tent that I was in was about ten feet from the water. Here we lazed away for about three weeks, swimming, being examined by doctors, being issued with new gear, and in fact doing nothing at all. Some chaps came home by plane, but I was looking forward to a leisurely trip home by sea, simply because I had no choice. Only compassionate people came home by plane.
We received mail that had been written years before, also mail that had been written only a few weeks before. Then it was time to board the ‘Circassia’, a boat of about nine thousand tons, and we left Singapore about the middle of October 1945.
It was a relaxing but uneventful trip home, once again calling at Perth where we had a days leave. Then we were on our way to Melbourne, where we arrived on the Sunday morning before the Melbourne Cup. We were taken by bus out to the Showgrounds, where I was met by my mother and girlfriend, who had waited for me all those years.
That evening I was on the train to Edi Upper. I was on my way home at last.
Article provided by Gordon Newton to Lt Col (Ret’d) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP in 2005. In October 2005 Gordon had delivered a Eulogy about Charlie Demllo his colleague in “D” Force. The Eulogy follows. Gordon mentioned that he had a short account of his service. This is another story in the thousands of individual stories from the Burma Thailand Railway, all of which are significant. Email firstname.lastname@example.org Website www.pows-of-japan.net
CHARLES HENRY DEMLLO Corporal VX27236
I would first like to thank Charlie’s family for inviting me to speak on behalf of his army friends. Our first meeting with this great man was on the Burma Railway at a place called Onti. We were in a party of 500 men transported by train from Singapore to the Thailand end of the Railway. After arriving in Thailand we were ordered to start marching. After 172 Kilo’s through the jungle we arrived at Kinsayok and worked for two or three weeks.
We moved on 35 Kilo’s to Brankassi where the party of 500 was split. 330 stayed and our party of 170 moved on about 8 kilos to Onti which was to be our area for the next month or so. There were five officers including a Dr (Medical Officer) in the original party, but when it was split for some unknown reason the 5 officers stayed with the large group and our 170 continued on under the command of a warrant officer. We had no Dr. and the Japs found that Charlie had been attached to a unit dealing with the health of troops.
They said to Charlie, “you’re No 1 Doctor”. There was no argument, as the Japs said so. In the circumstances, we believe they could not have made a better choice. So here was this great man, saddled up with one of the worst jobs on the line in charge of the health and livelihood of 170 troops that were about to be worked, beaten and starved to death in the most horrible conditions anyone could imagine. Charlie with his few meager medical supplies and quinine tablets set up a RAP hut and treated the sick the best he could.
The Japs had a quota of men to work on the embankments each day and it was Charlie who made the decision who was the fittest to fill those quotas which didn’t earn him many brownie points at all, as every one believed, and who could blame them, that they were all unfit to fill the number.
At this time, we moved about 2 kilos to Bungan where there were Dutch Troops and we were allocated one of their Doctors to assist, with our growing number of casualties. Our chaps weren’t very pleased about this, as the Dutch troops told us they were pleased to be rid of him as they believed he was past his use by date. But Charlie told me years later that this Dr was his godsend as it took the pressure off him, as he let the Dr allocate the men he thought should go to work. The men accepted his decision and at the same time Charlie was able to have his brownie points restored.
When the line was completed Charlie, with what was left of his 170 men, went down the river to base camps. I was parted from the group then as I, with others, stayed to close the camp and went down later, and as troops were scattered across the countryside, I never saw Charlie again till we arrived home. But in that time on the railway we had built up a deep regard for the way he tried his utmost to help, without thought, it appeared, for his own survival. He was like a father figure to us.
When we arrived home we all went our different ways, but would always meet on Anzac Days. Then out of nowhere, I don’t recall how it happened, there was a little tribe formed with our families, where we had lovely times together for all these years. But unfortunately that number has now dwindled to very few and we are meeting just a couple of times a year.
OUR THANKS TO CHARLIE FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF BEING PART OF HIS LIFE.
Written by his mate-