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Struggle to survive on the Railway of Death

H Force leaving for the Burma-Thailand Railway.
H Force leaving for the Burma-Thailand Railway.

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. See more of Des Bettany’s work at his online exhibition.

On the Burma-Siam Railway, where the Japanese were forcing the British and Australian PoWs to build them the transport route that would enable them to invade India, conditions had got progressively worse.

Dr Robert Hardie was doing his best to provide some kind of care to the most seriously ill, although he notes that there was no room in the ‘hospital’ for many men suffering from malarial fever. He was to record all sorts of appalling events in a simple and factual style:

21 December 1942

There has been a lot of anxiety and difficulty over diphtheria cases. We have of course constantly been pressing the japanese for antitoxin – Duncan Black and Max Pemberton have had endless interviews with Nobusawa.

At first he did not question that they were diphtheria cases; but he said that he had no antitoxin and that as Thailand was so backward he could not get any. This is obviously nonsense – there is a famous Pasteur Institute in Bangkok not far away.

But Nobusawa was clearly not going to bother himself about it. Several officers and men died of diphtheria during this period, and finally after continuous pressure Nobusawa asked us to take throat swabs of all cases, saying that if they were positive he would try to get some antitoxin.

The swabs were taken to him in a couple of hours. For six days now we have been asking him for the results, but can get no information – the swabs are supposed to have been sent to a japanese field laboratory at Kanburi.

Meantime he has actually given us 12,500 units of antitoxin – enough for perhaps one case under civilised conditions. Nobusawa says the japanese will themselves take swabs in future.

The number of fresh cases is now fortunately diminishing. For two whole days Nobusawa refused to do anything but fish in the river; we had to go down to the bank to make representations. Squatting there with his fishing rod, he would wave us away, saying, ‘Holiday, holidayf He made no attempt to do anything at all, even to be civil.

Another crisis which caused some excitement was over the question of officers working on the railway line. The japanese finally said they must work and that they would use extreme measures to obtain compliance with this order.

(Colonel Yanagida, the jap camp commandant, had discreetly left the camp a few days earlier leaving Osato, presumably with his instructions, in charge.) They paraded the officers in the morning and called out an armed jap party, who lined up, loaded their rifles and stood ready.

Our senior officers decided to comply, and I think the great majority of the officers concerned were in agreement with this decision. It did not really seem worthwhile to commit suicide over this question.

Eventually the Japanese claimed that their analysis of the swabs showed no evidence of diphtheria, nor did they get a result from separate tests when there was an outbreak of dysentery. They relied on this to support their refusal to provide any medicine despite the fact that men continued to die.

See Dr Robert Hardie: The Burma Siam Railway.

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