In the prison camps of the Far East prisoners of war were struggling to survive the brutalities of the Japanese. Malnourished and ill treated whilst forced to labour in the heat of Siam and Burma, many had already died. The insanitary conditions in which they were forced to lived were accepted as another hardship. Now it was discovered that they harboured a new, even more deadly, threat.
In Kanyu camp in mid June 1943 Henry Traill discovered that the fear of cholera was so great that suspected cases were isolated away from others, not even permitted in the ‘hospital’:
In our minds we thought of cholera in the same terms as the Plague or the Black Death of medieval times, pestilences which had no cure and which decimated whole populations. These diseases bring with them a feeling of inescapable doom, and now that this epidemic of cholera was coming upon us how could any one of us hope to be singled out among thousands to survive it? I for one, when I heard of the outbreak, felt in my heart, and understood for the first time, ‘the icy clutch of death’ …
Then one day, when we came back from work, we found ourselves confronted with the thing we had known must happen. There was cholera in our camp. Not only was it in our camp, it was amongst the officers. It was in our own tent.
The victim was Madden. He had been back and forwards to the latrines all morning, and by midday the well known and frightening signs were unmistakable. So quickly does cholera act, that in a few hours the flesh seems to turn to water, and the body becomes wasted as though from weeks of starvation.
In the aftemoon of that day Madden was carried to Hospital. On the following moming, at Roll call, we were detailed for his funeral. It was to be by cremation, so we spent the morning digging a fire trench and preparing a large pile of bamboo and hardwood.
At lunch time we found that two others from our tent had got it, Johnson and Tyler. They were moved to the new cholera compound, about eighty yards from the camp. There were also three or four patients from the men’s tents.
It was now apparent that somehow the infection had become seated in our tent, and the prospect was, that one after another of us would go down with it. Fortunately if there was one thing the Iaps feared it was infectious disease, and especially cholera, and to prevent it spreading they would do almost anything our Medical Officers suggested.
The eleven of us who now remained in the tent were allotted an isolation area some hundred yards from the camp. Each of us was to build his own individual bivouac, and these were to be separated from each other by a ten foot interval.
We cleared out of the tent at once. The canvas was taken down, and it and we were sprayed with disinfectant by a Iap done up in goggles, respirator, gloves and rubber boots. The sleeping platform and all the bits and pieces which we had left behind were soaked in oil and burned on the site.
In the afternoon we completed Madden’s cremation.
It was a good thing we had no time to brood. It was now mid-aftemoon, and before dark we had to provide ourselves with a bed and shelter. The materials at our disposal were, as usual, what grew aroimd us. To start off with we had to cut down the scrub which covered the ground. While some did this, others cut bamboos for the beds, which we made as simply as possible.
Three thick pieces of bamboo about two and a half feet wide were laid on the ground as the head, middle and bottom of the bed frame; and long pieces, flattened out, were laid on top of them. These were the standard pieces which we supplied by joint labour. Over them we each built the best shelter we could devise, most of us using our groundsheets. We had also to dig ourselves a latrine.
Tyler did not survive the night. On the following moming we again had the melancholy job of preparing a funeral pyre. Johnson still held on.
At one’s first meeting with him out at work, Johnny had seemed a cantankerous sort of person, always nagging and complaining about something. But as we knew him better we found this was only on the surface. Moreover, it was his protective armour, assumed in order to hide one scarcely knew what, unless it were indifferent health, and a too-much-felt sensitivity to his unpalatable surroundings.
We found that the real Johnny had an unconquerable spirit. However much his body might fail him, his spirit never did. Now, stricken with a deadly sickness, and alone in a small tent in the muddy compound, he remained doggedly cheerful and lightly sarcastic. As one day and then a second passed and Johnny still struggled against the disease, we almost allowed ourselves to hope he might survive …
After three and a half days of pitiful brave struggle, his poor body was finished, Johnny was not cremated, as the Japs now allowed our cholera victims to be buried in deep graves. The sun was shining on the muddy paths and sodden scrub of our clearing when we brought him round the graveside…
From under the rice-sack that covered him, a stray lock of Johnny’s hair blew gently in the wind. Impassively we saw it. Could we then feel no sorrow? No fear? No deep emotion? We saw only that the sun was shining; felt only that it was warm on our shoulders. We saw the jungle around us; we comprehended the Japs, our being prisoners, the epidemic of cholera.
And we saw the frail form, outlined in the sacking, that was Johnny; and a stray lock of his hair which was blowing in the wind.
Henry Francis O’Brien Traill: Some Shape of Beauty, Incorporated Society of Planters, Kuala Lumpur, 1986