Desperate bravery of Australian PoWs on Death Railway

Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW's suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri. Leslie Cole, 1945

Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW’s suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri. Leslie Cole, 1945

For the men forced to work on the ‘Death Railway’ in Burma and Thailand conditions were bleak. Not only were the Japanese forcing them to work in appalling conditions but they were compelled to do so on a debilitating diet. Malnourishment arose not only from a lack of food but also from a diet deficient in vitamins and minerals. Minor abrasions and sores that might be a common result of hard physical labour were now prone to deteriorate into life threatening ulcers and abcesses.

After a long battle Australian Corporal Tom Fagan finally had to have his leg amputated as a result of bad ulceration. It was an all too common procedure as the medical staff fought heroically to save mens lives – lives that could easily have been saved with an adequate diet. However Tom Fagan was not bitter, he was grateful – grateful to the men who put their lives on the line to try and supplement the standard rations for the sick through illicit bartering with the local Burmese.

Just over a week after his amputation Tom Fagan was still in the ‘hospital’ in Camp 55 Kilo, now weighing only 6 stone. This was his diary entry for the 10th December:

Some of my close mates I find hard to recognise, so changed are their features; sunken eyes, gaunt and fearful, they represent the last hold that separates living and dying.

Got to hand it to many of the boys here who are prepared to take their lives in their hands to go out on parties, meet up with the Burmese traders and barter for meat and fruit. They dare to do it in broad day-light. They do it, not for themselves, but their mates who are just hanging on to life by a thread.

They run two risks. If the Nips whack on a sudden body count and they are found to be missing, death, should they return, is what they will have to face. On the other hand, the known treachery of those they chance to meet, most of them bounty-hunters, could have exactly the same result. Death by bullet or bayonet; they would be deemed to have been attempting to escape.

I have nothing but admiration for these game chaps. One Dutchman I was talking to said neither he or any of his countrymen would even dream of placing their heads on a block, even though such sorties might result in the obtaining of much needed food for the very ill. ‘You Australians beat me’, he said. ‘Only wants one of the guards to change his pattern of patrol, and your friends will die’.

So far no-one has been caught, but the chances are they may go out just once too often. Those who do it are supposed to be the camp maintenance group and are known to the Nips. Some of them are so brazen they come out of the jungle almost on the heels of the patrolling guards. Only wants a Nip to turn around, catch one, and shoot on sight.

We who benefit from the activities of those courageous traders give only a mumbled ‘thank you’, when a piece of meat or a banana or two is given us. With all our possessions gone, what can we offer but gratitude? When I hear them say, ‘she’s apples, cobber; eat and enjoy it’, I feel so very, very humble. A life risked for me and my mates.

Tom Fagan’s diary can be found at PR87/230,0149/0032/0044 Australian War Memorial.

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