Leo Rawlings – War artist on the death railway

Wampoh Bridge - almost a mile long and 300 ft. high, entirely built with tree trunks. A great engineering feat. (Plate 82).

Wampoh Bridge – almost a mile long and 300 ft. high, entirely built with tree trunks. A great engineering feat. (Plate 82).

As the Japanese began their last offensive in northern Burma and into India, further south the building of the Burma-Thailand railway was nearing completion. More men would die in this last push as they were forced into even greater labours to lay the track. The Japanese urgently wanted the railway in order to support their invasion army.

Suffering from a huge open ‘jungle sore’ that had eaten two inches into his left foot, Leo Rawlings had been transferred into a convalescent camp. Men in this camp were spared the hard labour but very little else of the horrors of the ‘Death Railway’. In addition to injuries everyone was suffering from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies – easily treatable conditions that, left untended, caused terrible diseases like Beri-Beri, often leading to death.

Rawlings was doing his best to record it all. An artist before the war, he risked his life to make what sketches he could of the conditions men lived under:

It was now Spring of 1944. and the Railway was moving ahead with all the speed our masters could get out of us. ‘Speedo’ the order of yesterday was now the order of tomorrow, only more so.

Men still working in the jungle camps and the railway sidings were drafted out to operate on the track laying gangs. Up to eighteen hours per day, and in some cases even more, was expected and demanded of these unfortunates, the sick along with the half-fit — for now no fit men remained. All were either physically or mentally sick.

And as the nightmare continued up country we, the more fortunate, along with a few others, were moved back even further south. Most of our party could barely walk upright but many less fortunate ones had been forced to stay and work up country in a similar condition.

We were indeed the lucky ones. We travelled by truck and rail, passing over several great bridges built by P.O.W.’s at the cost of many lives. Such a bridge, as shown in Plate 82, was Wampoh — almost a mile long and 300 ft. high, entirely built with tree trunks. A great engineering feat.

Nearby, varied working parties laboured on either extending or repairing parts of the track or maintaining road conditions. These were also lucky men to a degree as Jap overseers in this area were not as ‘Speedo’ minded as further up country. The men on such parties were the ‘old crocks’, not old in age but in body and spirit. Men who had probably done many months on the Railway before being returned as dying. But somehow many of them had recovered.

Numbers of Aussies amongst them, tough as old rope, they refused to die and dragged out each new day, doing as little as they could get away with (as we all did), not wishing to help the Nips with their war effort.

Some men even up to their ears in rackets of all kinds, some of the unscrupulous ones, would brew up an imitation coffee made with burnt rice and Guala Malacca. This they would sell to their comrades at between two and five cents per cup. By this time everyone who could was on the ‘make’. Very few gave anything to anyone. It was dog eat dog.

Along the track that ran south to Singapore many camps dotted the line and jungle fringe. Into one of these our little party was duly deposited to await further conveyance. We were all walking skeletons by this time. Frequently I would count my ribs to check on correct anatomy for my sketches. To sit, even on soft ground, was painful as your thigh bones were only covered by a layer of skin. Consequently great raw patches soon turned again into sores.

Dysentery: a naked and emaciated prisoner-of-war sits on the edge of a bamboo bed with a metal bowl covered with a rectangular lid by his feet. L. RAWLINGS

Dysentery: a naked and emaciated prisoner-of-war sits on the edge of a bamboo bed with a metal bowl covered with a rectangular lid by his feet.L. RAWLINGS

In this new camp were many natives; Indians, Malays, Chinese etc., dying from dysentery. Our Jap guard told us that to help or feed them would be death to us, (whether by his gun or the disease he did not say). These poor wretches crawled to our feet when the Jap had gone, begging for food or water. There were no cooks in this camp but a quantity of rice and a few vegetables.

Two others in our party and myself set to work to make a crude meal. We made more than was needed for ourselves and then distributed the remainder to our native fellow sufferers. At night we slept alongside them, oblivious of any fear of contaminations, simply dead weary and exhausted. By morning many of our native companions were dead. That was the only time I ever cooked rice – I hoped it was my last.

I have explained several times the conditions of the latrines, bore holes etc. In Plate 85 an accurate drawing of one of many, with a close-up sketch of the inhabitants of these cesspools of horror. Comprising of layers of bamboo protruding over the edge of a ten foot pit, the contents of which heaved and teamed with bacteria, these death traps were our only so called sanitation. As I have already stated, by a Jap order we were not allowed to fill them in. God knows why – we never found out.

Many poor devils staggering in the dark at night to use same, frequently fell headlong in and were either drowned or died later from shock. I personally had a narrow escape when, on one occasion, my injured left foot, heavily bandaged, gave way beneath me and I went up to my thigh. Fortunately for me a comrade saw my plight and hauled me out in time. I did not feel clean for months later and even when, later in Changi, water was plentiful, I always scrubbed my left leg more than the rest of my body.

See Leo Rawlings: AND THE DAWN CAME UP LIKE THUNDER. Autobiography of an artist at War and what came After

After the war Leo Rawlings worked for the Victor and Hornet boys comics, their site has more details about his life.

Leo Rawlings was born in Birmingham and studied at Mosely School of Arts and Crafts. At the outbreak of war he joined the 137th Field Regiment (Blackpool), Royal Artillery where he became Regimental Artist. In September 1941 he was posted to support the beleaguered garrison at Singapore.

He was taken prisoner after the surrender in February 1942 and then came to the notice of Lt. Gen. Sir Louis Heath who commissioned him to keep an accurate record of his experiences and those of his fellow POWs. Rawlings had no paints, paper or brushes so was forced to use plant and clay pigments, scavenged paper and his own hair in the execution of some works. During captivity he stored works in an old stove pipe buried beneath his bed, as their discovery would have been fatal.

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A typical  latrine as used by the POWs - 'cesspools of horror'.

A typical latrine as used by the POWs – ‘cesspools of horror’.

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