Survival strategy on the Railway of Death

The Burma-Thailand Railway.

The Burma-Thailand Railway.

There are few images available to illustrate the Japanese POW camps. Here is a painting by Des Bettany, who was a prisoner in Changi Prison on Singapore, by kind permission of Keith Bettany. See more of Des Bettany’s work at his online exhibition.

Survival for the prisoners of war being forced to work on the Burma Siam railway was often a matter of luck – the good fortune not to be struck down by any number of tropical diseases or not to be injured whilst engaged in the heavy labour. Yet it also took a particular strength of mind not to be dragged down by the situation and to give in to despair.

There seemed little point in New Years resolutions – yet Russell Braddon was determined to survive. There was no significance to the date for him, it was too much to develop hopes for the forthcoming year. Nevertheless he developed a strategy for taking charge of those few elements of his life that he had control over:

Once again time ceased to have any significance, for almost a year no man knew what day of the week nor what week othe month nor even what month of the year it was. It was just 1943 and the Railway.

If one were to survive it was essential not to acknowledge the horror that lay all around, still more not to perceive the effect it had upon oneself. It was not wise ever to look in a mirror.

Life accordingly evolved into a blur of continuous work, people dying, guards bellowing, heavy loads to be carried, fever which came in tides of heat and cold on alternate days, dysentery and hunger. All those became the normal. Upon them, occasionally, an event super-imposed itself with sufficient violence to be remembered.

There was little scope for planning one’s way of life. To preserve my health, I vowed to wash whenever it rained, lying under the dripping edge of the hut, and to clean my teeth every day, using the tooth brush Piddington had given me and ground-up charcoal for powder.

Charcoal was also useful as a medicine against dysentery. To preserve some dignity, I vowed I would shave at least once a week if only I could remember the days. To preserve my self-respect, I vowed that whenever necessary I would make the latrines or bust; and to preserve at least some mental agility, I determined to learn off by heart one page a day of Mr Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

As the days succeeded one another for the rest of that black year, this particular vow became increasingly difficult, but I managed never to yield to the temptation of excusing myself from my task – and in return derived a perverse pleasure from the daily assimilation of so much vile prose.

See Russell Braddon: The Naked Island

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