Shimo Songkurai - 288/127 klm. mark


"F" Force No. 1 Camp of 1800 Australians - Forced Labour Camp at South Songkurai

Bob's first work camp was at Shimo Songkurai. The remnants of "F" Force from no. 3 train, suffering from malaria, dysentery, diarrhoea and general ill health, due to fatigue and lack of proper food, shuffled into Shimo Songkurai work camp which was to become their home for many months while they worked and died building a section of the Thai - Burma Death Railway for the Japanese Imperial Army. The men were exhausted after the walk from Banpong and they found the camp site was in a terrible state, filthy muddy conditions with only one of 25 huts roofed, one small latrine trench and the approaching monsoon season only weeks away. It was dawn on the 15th May 1943 when they arrived, and the first case of cholera broke out within 4 hours of the force arriving, although the Medical Officers were not sure what it was initially. Inoculations were carried out on the 18th. and 19th. May.

"This is cholera!"...Play

The site was in such a poor state that Major Bruce Hunt, Medical Officer, dragged Lt. Col. Kappe from his shelter to confront the Japanese and demand time to clean up the area and roof the huts etc. They were granted a week but after 3 days told that work would start the next day on the railway. Kappe gave up on his men - refusing to stand up for them against the Japs, so Hunt, a Major and Medical Officer, took over running the camp. Kappe rarely ventured from his shelter and he lost the respect of his men - Bob discribed Kappe as a "Coward".

"Our Senior Officers were useless!"...Play

The first wave of cholera was mostly contained but then on 26th. May, a second more deadly wave of the disease took hold. An isolation area known as "Cholera Hill" was set up and volunteers called for to care for the sick. The cholera patients were housed in the tents on the left- The crude table on the right was used for amputations, ulcer treatments and post mortems. The small tent at the back, to the right was used to house the bodies of the dead awaiting burning. At this camp there was need for innovation to keep the dysentery and cholera patients alive so they were infused with saline solution made from river water mixed with rock salt stolen from the Japanese cookhouse - needles were made from bamboo. To minimise the spread of disease the dead were burned on funeral fires daily.

"Our first job on the railway was carrying ballast"...Play

At first officers were required only to head working parties. This gave them the duty of intervening between the guards and the prisoners during the many misunderstandings that arose from ignorance of Japanese or the capriciousness of individual guards; the Jap. guards and Korean warders on the railway seem to have been among the most savage. Nearly always these misunderstandings resulted in the officer being included in the soldier's beating. Soon officers as a body were made to work on the railway. One of Bob's first tasks was carrying ballast for the railway - they at first worked 12 hours a day, sometimes longer carrying ballast rock in small baskets. If they did not, they were told, "no work - no rice", and more of the sick would have to turn out. The drive to finish the railway against a prearranged timetable was intense and the guards pushed the prisoners to the last gasp.

"Because of the monsoon, we had to carry in our rice"...Play

Songkurai - 294/121 klm. mark

"F" Force No 2 Camp for 1,600 British. Site of the "Bridge of Sighs" - a terrible death camp.

Songkurai - the men here worked on the "Songkurai bridge" that the British were building accross the river. The camp was the home the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment, where the British officers had given up and took no part in managing the camp so the task was left to the NCO's who lacked the organisational skills to run such a large camp. For instance, though the camp had 7 doctors, there where no "sick" men that could be used as working parties in the camp to keep it as clean as possible, repair huts and to fetch wood for fires. The Brits. had no fires to come back to after a long gruelling days work on the railway. These fires in the Australian camps, were important to keep the men warm at night, to prevent mosquitoes entering the huts, for lighting, for sterilising eating utensils and for drying bodies and clothes. Of the 1600 men who were originally sent to Sonkurai camp - by May 1943 - 1200 were already dead and 200 more were still in hospital, of whom many were not expected to recover. The Manchesters were gutted almost to the last man so a party of Australians, which included Bob was sent to Songkurai for the building of the bridge.

"Sonkurai Camp and building the great "bridge of sighs"...Play

Kami Songkurai - 299/115 klm. mark

"F" Force No 3 Camp Kami Songkurai also called Upper Songkurai and Payatonsu

Bob along with 200 other officers and men, deemed more fit for work than most were sent to a camp just north of the main Songkurai camp. This was Kami Songkurai, which was another work camp for the "Bridge of Sighs".

"And finally the sun came out"...Play

Tanbaya - 365/50 klm. mark

"F" Force Hospital Camp - Burma.

From Kami Songkurai Bob was to escort a group of 1700 desperately sick men about 70 klms. from the Songkurai region being sent to Tanbaya from Thailand, of these 700 died in less than 6 months. The supposedly better hospital camp in Burma was called Tanbaya (located at the 50 klm. mark from the start of the railway at the Burma end) where the sick had been sent to recover but a large number died as a result of disease, starvation and exhaustion. The journey in a truck for Bob and 15 sick men was extremely rough up to 3 Pagoda Pass, where they were then put in rail wagons for the rest of the move to Tanbaya.

"Then we were sent up to Tanbaya to die"...Play

Major Bruce Hunt (as the senior MO) and Captain Frank Cahill (the only Australian Surgeon) and a small party had been sent on ahead to set up the camp ready to receive the sick. Hunt assigned several older officers to assist him with administration, another group of officers to be "hut captains", one to each hut of sick and dying men - to care for and console the dying and a third party of officers to carry water and fetch wood for the camp. Bob was included in the third party carrying water about a mile from the river in army canvas kit bags slung on bamboo poles between two men. Wood that had been cut in lenghts from fallen trees were also carried to the camp wood pile for night fires but mostly for cremating the dead.

"Hut visits were a terrible duty"...Play

One of the worst physical disabilities that the men had was leg ulsers and over time, Cahill was forced to carry out 64 amputations of which only 4 survived because of the shocking health of the men. The amputations were carried out using rudimentary instruments and a bow saw borrowed from a Jap. carpenter during his "smoko" break - Bob had the task of watching the carpenter to see him preparing to take his "smoko" break, pick up the saw, sterilise it in boiling water and deliver it to Cahill - then afterwards, clean the saw and return it to the carpenter.

"I was the runner for the surgeon"...Play

The rice diet here was supplimented with prawns from the coast even though they were in poor shape after a journey of 200 miles in a non refrigerated truck. Tanbaya was a hospital camp (some called it a "death camp" where they had all been sent to die) not a work camp so there were no bashings - the Japs kept their distance and the prisoners kept to themselves.

After the linking of the railway in October 1943, the camp was told that they would all be returning to Changi.