Work begins on the Burma-Siam railway

Robert Hardie’s drawing of the view from Kenburi camp, it was through this terrain that the Burma-Siam railway was built.

Dr Robert Hardie had been a medical officer with the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force – a reserve force similar to the British Territorial Army. Along with thousands of others he had been captured at Singapore and imprisoned in Changi. Now the Japanese were intent on using the British PoWs as a labour force for their own ends. Hardie was part of an advance party sent up through Malaya to the jungles of Siam, now Thailand. They were going to be used to build the Burma-Siam railway.

Hardie kept a diary of events during the various camps he was sent to, a document he managed to keep concealed from the Japanese throughout the war. Here he describes the difficulties he faced with setting up Kanburi Camp, where many men were sick even before work started:

20th October 1942

Sufficient latrines have now been dug. A new cookhouse is not yet completed; and cooking for the camp of nearly 1,000 men is being done over picnic fires – not an easy task.

Water suitable for cooking and drinking is utterly inadequate: our only water source is the river, which is extremely muddy. Not only is sterilisation necessary if the water is to be drunk – and we are painfully short of containers for boiling it and have little chlorination material – but it is essential to remove the vast amount of suspended grit in the water before using it for cooking.

But so far we have only one filter, a wooden box about the size of a chest of drawers, filled according to the plan devised by Nobusawa [the Japanese interpreter who was their main point of liaison]. This plan consists in putting palm leaves at the bottom, then sand, and, on top, stones and then bigger stones. The palm leaves at the bottom have rotted, and in addition to having practically no filtering action, the box delivers water that stinks ofrotting attap.

We have, however, got permission to construct a box to be filled according to our own ideas.

There is no sort of fence round the camp as yet, and one can still slip out for walks in the surrounding country when one has free time. I have not had much recently, since I am pretty busy with the hospital here, which I am running with Duncan Black.

We have for accommodation only the little hut which I originally had built in the small advance party camp, and an end of one of the finished huts. We can only accommodate 20 or 30 hospital cases at present – between 200 and 300 men who can’t work owing to sickness (mostly malaria and skin troubles) have to stay in their sleeping places.

I spend a great amount of time trying to get medical supplies out of the japanese – as difficult as wringing blood from stones. Nobusawa professes to have almost no supplies for us and we have practically no dressings for our skin cases. A tin or two of quinine tablets, half a bottle of spirit, one or two bandages, three washing bowls, a couple of buckets and a bar of soap constitute the ‘hospital equipment’ in a camp of nearly a thousand men.

The japanese are building their offices and sleeping quarters with squared timber but they won’t even give us enough planking to make a lid for the filter. When the main party came up and it was necessary for 300-400 men to sleep on the ground (most in the open) the japanese issued a number of them with grass or bamboo strip mats to lie on, Now they have collected all these mats again to use them for walls and partitions in their own offices.

In the same way in the small advance party camp, because we had only a 6-gallon container to boil water or tea for drinking for all of us, they gave us, under pressure, a 40-gallon iron drum which seemed to solve our problem. But next day it was taken from the cookhouse by the japanese sergeant, who used it to make a heater for water for his bath.

Withholding as they do virtually all medical supplies and materials for promoting hygiene, they yet complain continuously of the large numbers of sick, and attribute it to our incompetence and ‘bad spirit’.

See The Burma-Siam Railway: The Secret Diary of Dr Robert Hardie, 1942-45

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