For prisoners of the Japanese life was never easy – even though conditions had eased somewhat for many men who had survived the building of the Burma Siam death railway.
Kanchanaburi in Thailand was regarded as one of the better camps, where there was a relatively regular supply of food. Malnourishment and the associated diseases were still common here but most men eaked out a living.
Ken Adams, a medic with the RAMC who worked in the camp hospital, describes conditions at the end of 1944, when they knew from Allied bombing raids that the war was going their way. Trying to find out any details was a perilous business:
The railway station and stores also were bombed repeatedly, but our camp was far enough away from them and we avoided casualties.
Towards the end of the year Allied planes flew over our camp most days, going to bomb something or coming back from a raid, and camp security now required the excavation of a substantial ditch, perhaps 20 feet deep and at least 30 feet across, around the entire camp.
This was a massive undertaking without mechanical assistance and was similar to the ditch excavated around the camp at Taimuang. I think similar ditches were carved out around camps across southern Thailand, a reflection of fundamental changes in the world outside the camps: only a few months before a simple bamboo fence, drawbridge and gate had satisfied camp security requirements.
The Kempeitai’s presence increased through the year. These stocky little policemen with their fondness for torture, dark glasses and swords that were too big for them, filled everyone with fear. They didn’t often make forays into our quarters but were unnecessarily destructive when they did, throwing our kit about with abandon. A lingering look from them made you quake.
I remember a lad at the aerodrome camp who was trussed up in a drainage ditch near one of the huts. I managed to talk to him and he said he’d attempted to escape and was waiting for the Kempeitai. He thought they were taking him to Singapore for execution.
The Kempeitai were horrible little bastards. My most vivid memory of them is being lined up outside a hut as they beat a bloke to death who’d been caught with a radio hidden in a tin of peanuts. We had to stand to attention and listen to his screaming. The beating lasted a long time. I can’t say how long but the bastards knew how to prolong this torture and didn’t want him to die too quickly. I can still hear those screams.
While this was happening, the camp gunso sauntered among our ranks, kicking blokes in the shins if they didn’t meet his notion of standing to attention. If the purpose of the violence was to provide an object lesson in why not to build and operate a radio, it was very effective.
We speculated endlessly on the meaning of all this bombing, digging and secret police activity. We also speculated on what the Japanese were trying to achieve by making propaganda films at this time about our ‘privileged’ lives as prisoners.
We were filmed resplendent in new clothes we’d never see again, within drooling distance of fine foods we’d never eat and holding tennis rackets we’d never use to hit a ball.
Did the air strikes mean the end of the war was just around the corner? Did all the digging anticipate possible landings by paratroops and attempts to arm prisoners? Was the stage being set for a defensive tussle that might outlive us? Was the filming part of a strategy to rewrite history in preparation for a post-war world when we’d be reconciled?