Hunger in a PoW labour camp in Thailand

Food supply and the maintenance of health were the most critical problems to be faced. After the first fortnight, during which British army rations were issued, prisoners had to make do with the Japanese ration scales, which consisted mainly of rice, and it was only gradually that the cooks devised means of making it palatable. Apart from rice, a little tea, sugar and salt were issued, together with the occasional ration of meat or fish. The Japanese refused to allow Red Cross relief parcels to be distributed, so any supplementing of the meagre rations depended on the ingenuity of the prisoners themselves
There are few images available to illustrate the Japanese POW camps. Here is a drawing from Changi Prison on Singapore by Des Bettany by kind permission of Keith Bettany. Bettany did not draw the true skeletal figures of the prisoners because he was ‘drawing to keep his morale up’. See more of Des Bettany’s work at his online exhibition.

Sergeant Bill Leaney had been captured at Singapore. Along with thousands of others he was now shipped off to Thailand to build the Burma Siam railway. December 1942 found him in Ban Pong PoW camp, which Dr Robert Hardie had passed through on the way to Kenburi camp. He described it then as a ‘nauseating sea of mud’ but Bill Leaney’s problem was food or the lack of it:

8th December 1942

I sold my gold watch yesterday afternoon. I think Mum and Dad will understand. I can buy a new watch when I get out of here but I want to get out of here that’s the important thing and much longer on their food and we definitely won’t get out of here. Yesterday was a ’Yasumi’ supposedly to celebrate the declaration of war.

I had had this tick fever for 2 days and didn’t go sick for I was sweating on the holiday allowing me to recover but the Nips held a big check roll-call at 10 a.m. and I am afraid, for the first time in my army career I fainted and had to be carried off. Of course their food for the last few days has been bad even for this place and I suppose that had something to do with it also.

Then at dinner time the Thai people who are allowed to come up and sell stuff in the camp brought up fritters and cakes and toffee and we (’Brum’, Benjy, Wilbur, and I) had to sit and watch some of our people eating it then to go down to dinner and get just salt water and rice.

It was too much, so after another roll-call at 3 where I once more had to sit in the shade to avoid ‘passing out’ I took myself down to the river and sold the watch for 35 dollars. I shan’t go into the details of how I tried to get 40 (the Thais who bought it even put it in a bowl of water when I said it was waterproof) but the bastards know we’re desperate and of course they are cashing in.

Today since we’ve had the money we’ve been unable to buy damn all except a few cents worth of toffee but please God we’ll be able to get some eggs or some sunfish soon. I feel a lot better today and so hungry I’d like to describe adequately the abject misery I felt at parting with my watch, sat on that river bank haggling with the Thais. I kept thinking of home and I could remember Mum digging it from the sideboard to give me it. Anyway they got a bargain, for it’s been a damn good watch.

Another poor chap died last night- a sergeant was found dead in his bed this morning. Only about 28 years of age and he makes the 15th in this camp – it’s astounding when one comes to think of it.

We managed to buy some food after all yesterday and we had some fritters and some eggs – very good – as Wilbur said quite the best watch he’d tasted …

This extract from William Leaney’s diaries appeared in The Faraway War: Personal Diaries Of The Second World War In Asia And The Pacific. The collected papers and diaries of William Leaney are in the Imperial War Museum.

William Leaney was to survive the hunger, hard labour and ill treatment in the Japanese labour camps in Thailand but he did not see England again. In September 1944 he was put on a boat to Japan with 2,300 PoWs, travelling on one of the 'Hell ships'. He was on either the Kachidoki Maru or the Rakuyo Maru, which were sunk by US submarines on the 12th September 1944.

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