Word From a Friend on his fathers time on the River Kwai. A history lesson if I ever read one!

What follows was sent to me by my friend Mick in the UK after reading about our visit to the Tiger Temple in Kanachanaburi province in Thailand. His fathers experience in this area was very different from our trip. However his word hit home and goes to show you how close we are to different experiences. This was just one degree of separation for me from a place I was fortunate to visit verse someone who was not fortune to have visited this place. Mick’s final comment in the first section is very much an understatement. I have also included some of Mick research. This information is published with Mick’s permission.
Thank you Mick for sharing this with me and allowing me to post this on my blog, it really bring the whole trip experience to a different level.
Kevin April 28, 2010.

From Mick’s email

I was particularly interested in your visit to the “Bridge on the river Kwai”. I always knew that my late Father had been a POW on the “Death Railway” but that’s all I knew as he would never talk about it. My Mother wouldn’t talk about it either so when she passed away in August I finally felt that I could try to find out what he went through so I have been investigating.

I found out that he was actually used on the construction of “the Bridge” and one of the POW camps he was at was Kanachaburey or Kanburi as the POWs called it. Like almost all of the POWs, Dad caught Malaria (and Dysentery and others) and was left for dead one day on the railway – the treatment of the POWs by the Japanese and Korean guards was appalling. Dad weighed around 84 pounds when he got home after 3.5 years on the railway / in other POW camps and this was after a “fattening up” period between the Japanese surrender and him getting home. No wonder he would never talk about his experiences – I can barely imagine what he must have gone through.

From Mick research into his fathers experiences::

Dad’s World War II Experience.

Life and death on the Burma-Thailand railway (aptly known as the “Death Railway”) between April 1942 and October 1943 is well documented and I will not list page after page of atrocities here. Following are just a couple of simple facts to give an idea of what Dad endured – although, not having experienced it for ourselves, we can never fully appreciate it.

94,000 – 105,000 POWs died on the Railway – of malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, numerous other diseases and brutality. There are reports of POWs dieing on the railway weighing just 4 stones (25.4kg) while Dad was said to weigh less than 6 stones (38.1kg) when he returned.
The railway was 415km long – from BAN PONG / NON-PLADUC in the South of Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma and it is said that, for every sleeper that was laid, a man died.

Dad’s Regiment Etc:
Enlisted: 20th October 1939
4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment. (A Company?)(Motor Transport Section?) Which was part of:
54th Infantry Brigade along with:
5th Battalion Suffolks.
4th Battalion Royal Norfolks. 54th Infantry Brigade was part of:
18th Division along with:
53rd Infantry Brigade.
55th Infantry Brigade.
Artillery, Engineers, Medics Etc.

Early Days:
To November 1940 the main task for the 4th Battalion was the defence of the coast from Lowestoft, Suffolk to Mundesley, Norfolk.

November 1940 – training in St Neots.
January 1941 – training in Stobs Camp, Hawick, Scotland.
April ‘41 – training in Whitfields near Manchester.
May ‘41 – assisted in clearing blitz debris from Liverpool streets and docks.
August ‘41 – training in Hereford.
29th October ‘41 – troops told that they are going overseas, assumption is that it is to Egypt.

Sailing to War – route!
UK To Halifax Nova Scotia:
Depart Liverpool 30th October 1941 onboard the SS Andes.

Arrive Halifax 8th November with immediate transfer to the USS Wakefield.

Halifax To Singapore:

10th November 1941 depart Halifax.
17th Nov, dock Port-of-Spain Trinidad.
20th Nov, depart Trinidad.
9th Dec, dock Capetown. (All ranks granted shore leave)
14th Dec, depart Capetown.
27th Dec, dock Bombay. (Suffolks travel by train to Ahmednagar and spend 2 weeks training and acclimatising to the intense heat) (They still think they are going to Egypt)
19th Jan, 1942 – with the rapid advance of the Japanese in Asia, the Suffolks are ordered to re-embark on the Wakefield and depart Bombay. They are now informed that their destination is Singapore.
29th Jan, ‘42 dock Singapore. (By this time the Japanese have already taken most of Malaya and are only 30 miles from Singapore – bombed ships are ablaze in the harbour.) (The Wakefield is
bombed the following day while taking on women and children evacuees – 5 crew are killed and 9 wounded)

Early action:

After docking, the Suffolks are trucked to a camp just as the C in C British Army in Singapore orders a withdrawal of troops from the mainland of Malaya to the island of Singapore.
31st January 1942, 4th and 5th Battalions take up positions and are ordered to “defend the beaches at all costs”.
5th Feb, the Suffolks come under Japanese shellfire and suffer their first casualties.
8th and 9th Feb, The main Japanese attack begins.
11th Feb, 4th Battalion is relocated in an attempt to halt the Japanese advance, finally reaching their destination, the Swiss Rifle Club hill, after a 12 mile march across Singapore.
12th Feb, the 4th Battalion is ordered to advance on the Japanese and suffers heavy casualties before being ordered to withdraw.
14th Feb, the 4th Battalion comes under heavy mortar and artillery attack followed by tanks – after taking many more casualties, they are forced to withdraw.
15th Feb, 11:30 am, British officers pass through the Japanese lines holding a Union Jack and a white flag.
All allied troops are ordered to surrender at 4:00 pm.

After 2½ years training and 3½ months in transit, the Suffolks saw 17 days of active service.

In captivity:

After 3 weeks in Changi Gaol, the Suffolks are sent back to Singapore to clear up the battle debris – returning to Changi when the work was completed. Conditions in Changi are so bad that most men soon succumb to dysentery among other diseases.
From late March/early April, groups of men begin to be sent from Changi to labour camps having been told by the Japanese that they were going to “rest and rehabilitation centres”. It is at this point that the Battalion is split up with men being sent to different camps.

Working On The “Death Railway” :
(After getting home at the end of the war, all returning POWs were asked to fill in a “Liberation Questionnaire”. Given the horrors that those on the Death Railway had experienced, most wanted only to forget so did not complete the questionnaire – fortunately, Dad did.

Dad was shipped out of Singapore for Thailand between the 18th and 24th June 1942 for the 1,200 mile journey up the full length of Malaya to BAN PONG camp – the journey taking between 4 and 5 days and nights. Transport from Singapore was by rail in cattle trucks. Prisoners were loaded 30 – 40 to a truck and were fed 1 bucket of boiled rice per truck per day. Most of the prisoners already had dysentery (having to go to the toilet up to 50 times per day – although no toilet stops were allowed) following their incarceration in Changi jail so conditions in the trucks soon became “inhuman“.

“Squalid and disease-ridden as Changi might have been, the men who were sent to camps to work on the railway suffered a much worse fate. The causes of death and sickness in the camps along the route of the railway were starvation, climate, hardship, accidents, occasionally personal violence, neglect, poor physique, despair, neurosis and disease. The diseases included malaria in all its forms, recurrent fevers, dysentery, cholera, scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, sleeping sickness, hookworm, ringworm, jungle ulcers and abscesses and general toxemia. The fatal casualties of all troops in captivity totaled more than a third. Nearly every prisoner had some sickness, many had several diseases, and because of their poor diet every man lost weight, and consequently resistance to disease, to an alarming degree. They were always crowded together, so that contagion was inescapable. Washing was difficult, as water was in short supply. In some areas bathing in nearby rivers was allowed only rarely. Dirt encouraged swarms of flies as it was hard to keep eating utensils clean and in the damp heat of the jungle remnants of previous meals quickly went bad. The prisoners became vermin-ridden. The river water held the fearful risk of cholera unless it was boiled. Resistance was low so that the will to live was low too. Sick prisoners often preferred to lie down and die, for death for some was so much easier than going on under such conditions.”

The Camps:

BAN PONG: (Southern Thailand)
This was the first transit camp for prisoners coming from Singapore.

On arrival at BAN PONG some prisoners were used to construct a camp nearby at NONG PLADUC. (This was the start of the railway at the “Thailand end”) As construction began in June 1942 and Dad arrived at BAN PONG in June ‘42, it’s likely that he was used in this construction.
At the beginning the camp was the base camp for all the Railway parties and had the only prisoners hospital in Thailand for the early arrivals. The camp was on either side of the road and made up of Atap huts, one side was permanent and the other for transit.
The hospital was an Atap hut and at times the patients were laying only inches above the flood water on their bamboo shelving. It was not uncommon for the doctor to visit the patients in wellington boots and then climb onto the shelving as the water was too deep to stand in. Mosquitoes took over the area at night and brought more illness to the already sick patients.

KANBURI: (Southern Thailand)
53Kms from BAN PONG. Transfer from BAN PONG was by forced march.
Sometimes also referred to as KANCHANABURI, this camp was also the base for the Japanese 9th Railway Regiment which was in charge of the Thailand end of the construction.
KANBURI camp was also close to, and associated with, construction of “The Bridge On The River Kwai”. The bridge was completed in December ‘43 and as Dad was at KANBURI at this time it is possible that he was working on the bridge. BAN PONG, although further away, was also associated with bridge construction.

TAMARKAN: (Southern Thailand)
At 56Kms from BAN PONG, this camp was just metres from the infamous “Bridge On The River Kwai” and prisoners here were used on that construction.
Construction of the bridge (there were actually 2 bridges, one wooden and one steel) began on 26th October ‘42.
“The Bridge” was damaged many times by Allied bombers and prisoners were kept on at TAMARKAN after it was completed in order to make repairs. Dad was moved to this camp (If I am correct that “TAMKA” is actually “TAMARKAN”) in January ‘44, possibly for this reason.

LAMPANG/LAMPHUN Motor Transport CAMP CHIANG MAI: (Northern Thailand)

I can find very little relating to this camp other than that the Japanese were using POWs (predominantly British) as drivers and vehicle maintenance engineers in Chiang Mai. The camp was possibly in a Temple compound and conditions were still brutal but possibly better than the alternative suffered by many others who, after the Railway was completed, were shipped (aboard the notorious “Hellships”) to camps in Japan for the remainder of their captivity. (Many POWs who survived the Death Railway were killed onboard the Hellships when they were attacked by allied bombers and submarines as the Japanese refused to mark the ships as “POW carriers“)

End Of Captivity:

Following the Japanese surrender (in Burma/Thailand) in August 1945 I assume that Dad was sent to Rangoon for medical examination prior to repatriation. With the Suffolk Regiment being scattered so far and wide by this time though, it is practically impossible to determine exactly what happened to one particular man without having a personal account.

Coming Home:

Dad most likely came home aboard the SS Chitral.

Depart Rangoon (Burma) 1st October (Dad’s birthday!!) 1945.
Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) 6th Oct.
Suez Canal.
Gibraltar 18th Oct.
Dock Southampton around 28th Oct.
Troop train to Great Yarmouth.

Of the 450 men of the 4th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment who survived the initial action against the Japanese in Singapore, 286 died as Prisoners Of War, of disease, on the Hellships or at the hands of Japanese and Korean guards.
For the 4th and 5th Battalions combined (who were mostly Territorials and conscripts) total deaths numbered 763 of whom 124 died in battle and 615 in Japanese captivity – most on the Burma-Thailand railway.

15th November 2009


One response to “Word From a Friend on his fathers time on the River Kwai. A history lesson if I ever read one!

  1. John flemming

    I can confirm pretty all of this data as my Dad was a worker and survivor of the Death Railway. He is 97 now and living alone in England and my brother see him as often we can. Although very frail and deaf he keeps going and his mind of those days is wonderfully clear. I am writing his story foe a UK magazine and am including pictures of his spoon plus service number, bamboo pipe and dog tags. He also still has his Jay Happy which Mom would never allow in the house so it has lived in the garage since 1945 , although Mpm is dead thes many years. By the way Dad worked on the famous Kwai Bridge – it actually never existed as described in the book and film – so they renamed the river when the film, made in Ceylon, proved so successful.

    As possible.

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