Courtesy Tim Mercer, Mercer Designs
They were the forgotten army. Taken captive during World War II, they lived lives of desperation and disease, internment and ingenuity. Long unspoken, their tale is now told through the voices of those who survived.
A map showing the main locations and camps along the Burma–Thailand railway. / Bret Syfert
Prisoners of war: in pictures
The following is a gallery of paintings, drawings and carvings made by prisoners themselves, secretly documenting their surroundings and the improvised devices they constructed to survive.
Prisoners of war working on the Thai–Burma Railway at Kanu Camp, Thailand; woodcut print by George Mennie, 1943. Mennie was taken prisoner by Japanese forces in 1942. During this time he made many drawings on bits of paper he found, which were confiscated by the Japanese secret police but fortunately not destroyed. After the war they were found and returned to him. Imperial War Museums now has a large collection of his original drawings, and prints such as this, which he made later using the traditional Japanese woodblock method. / © Imperial War Museums (ART 16712 (1))
A diagram of the makeshift still made by Lieutenant Gordon Smith to purify water at Tamarkan prisoner of war camp in Thailand. Such water was vital in the treatment of diseases such as cholera. / Courtesy of the estate of Gordon Smith
Cholera tents at Hintok, Thailand, drawn by John ‘Jack’ Chalker. Chalker was a bombardier who spent almost four years in prisoner of war camps in Thailand. / Courtesy Tim Mercer, Mercer Designs
Improvised saline irrigation apparatus, drawn by John ‘Jack’ Chalker, Chungkai, Thailand, 1943. With scant resources, the medical officers often relied on the craft and guile of others within the camp – engineers, weavers, tinsmiths, tailors – to create an assortment of improvised medical supplies. To create the distilled water for saline infusions they stole piping and wire from their captors and attached them to two-gallon cans hung from bamboo sticks. / Courtesy Tim Mercer, Mercer Designs
Blood transfusion hut, Chungkai, Thailand, drawn by Private Ashley George Old, 1944. Exchange transfusion is an extreme and controversial choice of treatment for malaria, but one sometimes necessary in the prisoner of war camps. Uninfected blood was drawn from a healthy man and given to one who had active malaria. With risks including fluid overload and infection transmission, it is only recommended for severe cases and those suffering from complications such as cerebral malaria. / Courtesy © Ashley George Old (and Estate), Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria, H95.61/21
Wooden prostheses made by prisoners, including articulating joints, knees, feet and toes. Drawn by John ‘Jack’ Chalker. / Courtesy Tim Mercer, Mercer Designs
Four prisoners of war carry a large log across the river Kwai (Mae Keong river), Thailand. The Tamarkan camp housed prisoners put to work constructing two bridges that spanned the river. Drawn by Leo Rawlings, 1943. / © Imperial War Museums (ART LD 6035)
A naked prisoner of war, emaciated from dysentery, sits on the edge of a bamboo bed. Drawn by Leo Rawlings. / © Imperial War Museums (ART LD 6038)
Full documentary transcript
Fergus Anckorn: You can’t believe what I’ve survived, you really can’t. And how things became quite normal. I mean death was nothing, death was absolutely nothing at all.
Arthur Turbutt: All we could give them was physical, mental and perhaps, I don’t know, spiritual comfort. You couldn’t do any more for them. They knew they were dying and they were dying in agony a lot of them.
Harry Hesp: I’d never seen a dead person before going there. The first day we were there we tagged 700 people, then we ran out of tags.
Meg Parkes: My name is Meg Parkes and I am an honorary research fellow at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
Narrator: For the last eight years, Meg Parkes has interviewed British men who were formerly prisoners of war and suffered in their thousands at the hands of the Japanese army across South-east Asia during World War II.
Parkes: The majority of the men I interviewed would say that their overriding feeling was that they would never ever forget the waste, the destruction, the neglect that they were subjected to and witnessed.
Narrator: Their war was one of demoralisation and disease, of hardship and humiliation. Held captive by a cruel enemy, they experienced almost four years of brutality, starvation and misery. Yet from this struggle came a collective effort of medical ingenuity, compassion and care that would prove crucial to their wellbeing and ultimately their survival.
Narrator: February 1942. The Imperial Japanese Army, having torn through Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, was now bombarding the British colonial island of Singapore with fierce air attacks and artillery fire. Fergus Anckorn was attached to the British 18th Infantry Division and defending the city from the encircling enemy.
Anckorn: Our gun had been hit and I was sent down to get another one, into the town of Singapore – I was a gun driver – and on the way back I was spotted by 27 Japanese bombers, who bombed me out of existence. I just about lost my right hand in that, I was hit everywhere. And I jumped out of the lorry and in mid-air I was shot.
Narrator: Also under artillery bombardment at the Singapore General Hospital, Harry Hesp, an 18-year-old butcher’s assistant in the Merchant Navy, was adapting to the carnage of his role as an untrained medical orderly.
Hesp: The mortuaries were absolutely at overflow and the dead bodies were lying three or four deep in the corridors. The fighting was only a quarter of a mile away, so the dead and dying were everywhere – dead, dying, wounded – they were being brought in on rickshaws, on motorbikes and anything else.
Narrator: Having been found unconscious and bleeding in a ditch, Anckorn came to. He was undergoing emergency surgery in a post office, now requisitioned as a makeshift medical post.
Anckorn: The surgeon said, “I’m sorry son, I can’t save your hand, it’s got to come off.” And I said, “Well, get on with it and save me,” ’cause I was pouring with blood. And he got his orderly to put me out of it, which he did by sticking a piece of gauze on my face and pouring ether on it, which was the most terrible thing I can ever remember – couldn’t breathe in or out. And as he did that he looked at me and said, “Aren’t you the magician we saw in Liverpool?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And he said to the surgeon, “You can’t cut his hand off, he’s a conjuror.”
Narrator: After capturing the large MacRitchie reservoir, the island’s primary source of water, the Allied forces were close to capitulation. The Japanese made their final advances into the city, the Alexandra one of the first hospitals they encountered. Anckorn had been transferred there.
Anckorn: I don’t know what happened but I woke up again in the Alexandra Hospital. I didn’t know whether I had a hand or not, and there was a fellow on the stretcher next to me, and I said to him, “Have I still got a right hand?” And he put his hand up and he said, “This little piggy went to market,” and he counted each finger for me. And I remember saying to myself, “I suppose I’m dying.” And I kept going off and then waking up, and it was then that the Japanese came in and killed everybody.
Narrator: In a horrific act of barbarity, the Japanese had lined up the medical staff on the front lawn and killed them, one by one. They then marched through the wards and bayoneted the patients in their beds.
Anckorn: When they got to me I had passed out again, and my hand was on my chest and the blood was pouring out onto the bed and onto the floor, and they thought they’d already bayoneted me and walked past.
Narrator: Two days later, on February 15th, the guns fell silent. The brutal violence that the Japanese inflicted at the hospital was to foreshadow the treatment the British, Dutch, Indian and Australian Allied prisoners would soon be facing at the hands of their captors.
Narrator: Following the surrender, over 15,000 Allied troops were forcibly interned on the eastern peninsula of Singapore at Changi, an area that had formed the British military base. David Arkush was a Captain in the Army Dental Corps.
David Arkush: Changi consisted of a lot of barrack blocks, they’d been heavily bombed. It certainly couldn’t take – I don’t know how many thousands of men were there, but certainly in the damaged condition there certainly wasn’t room for all those men.
Narrator: Reluctant to provide any measures for prisoner welfare, the Japanese were content to leave the POWs to fend for themselves. Maurice Naylor was a Gunner in the Royal Artillery.
Maurice Naylor: There was no sign of the Japanese, they just left us alone. But we were asked to provide some working parties and I went on about three I think. Going down to the docks at Singapore, loading up ships and moving stuff around, basically. We had quite a lot of hardship in Changi at first because there was no water and there was virtually no food.
Narrator: Barracks designed for 800 men were now accommodating upwards of 15,000. The lack of nutrition, cramped living conditions and poor sanitation meant that dysentery quickly spread. Hugh de Wardener was a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and spent six months at the Changi camp.
Hugh de Wardener: In Singapore, we looked after a dysentery ward – a block. The block had 800 beds, our turnover was about 80 a day, so as you can see the average stay was ten days.
Narrator: Dysentery was a condition that proved to be highly debilitating for all the prisoners, and one that few, if any, avoided. Geoff Gill is a consultant at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and has worked closely on the prisoner-of-war study for many years. He describes the types of dysentery the men would’ve faced.
Geoff Gill: The commonest is bacillary dysentery, or bacterial dysentery, and as the name suggests that is due to a bacteria, and this basically gives an acute diarrhoeal disease, gastroenteritis. It’s a severe and unpleasant diarrhoeal disease characterised by the passage of loose motions with mucus and blood, with often significant cramp like abdominal pains and prostration and malaise, so it’s certainly a lot worse than the average dicky tummy that one experiences in temperate climates.
Narrator: At its peak in 1942, upwards of 5,000 men had contracted dysentery at Changi.
Gill: It’s spread faeco-orally, so infected water, infected foods, touch, infected touch and so on, and when you’ve got latrines, no proper sewage disposal system, poor hygiene, then it tends to be rampant.
Narrator: Hugh de Wardener.
De Wardener: Eventually, I got dysentery. And so I lay down and got over it. That’s when I discovered what tenesmus means. Tenesmus is the feeling there’s a pineapple stuck in your bottom.
Narrator: As if you constantly want to go to the toilet.
De Wardener: Most unpleasant.
Narrator: With the Japanese withholding medical supplies, the men had either to rely on what provisions medics within the camp already had, or on local knowledge. Harry Hesp recalls one method of treating dysentery while in a Changi jail block.
Hesp: One of the Asia lads had been the dispenser on the ship so he worked in a little cell called the dispensary. It was nothing but, the example is for dysentery, they mixed china clay in bottles and you had that.
Narrator: China clay or kaolin is a type of absorbent mineral, sometimes used in cosmetics.
Hesp: Now if you take enough of that it’ll bung you up – you’d cured the dysentery but you’d then got a bigger problem with the bunged-up intestines.
Narrator: Without access to medical supplies, Hugh de Wardener found an alternative remedy for the painful symptoms of dysentery.
De Wardener:I discovered a cure for it: you tip the end of the bed up, your feet up, because it’s oedema of the anus, and if you tip the end of the bed up, the oedema goes down and you get relief.
Narrator: De Wardener recovered. But dysentery was a condition that many men faced throughout their time in captivity – a persistent and acute threat to their health. Geoff Gill.
Gill: You tended to find that the men lost a lot of weight, they became malnourished, their food intake reduced, the absorption of what food they were taking into the blood and the body reduced. Their immunity, which was already low, went down, so they would be more frequently likely to get infections and so on. So they would just gradually deteriorate and perhaps die of pneumonia or something like that. It was a slow indolent death of deterioration, weight loss and reduced immunity, I think.
Narrator: Japan had not committed to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, which stated that POWs had a right to honour and respect. Believing that surrendered soldiers were men without honour and should be treated harshly, prisoners throughout 1942 were conscripted as forced labour, assisting the Japanese industrial effort across South-east Asia. Alistair Urquhart was a Corporal with the Gordon Highlanders. He recalls the announcement of their transfer north.
Alistair Urquhart: “You’re going up to a holiday camp, you will have three days’ work and four days’ rest, and good food.” That was a complete and utter lie, right from the very beginning.
Narrator: Urquhart, along with thousands of others, was sent to work in the dense jungles of Burma and Thailand building a railway – a strategic supply line to support the Japanese campaign in Burma and the anticipated advance into India. As a dentist, David Arkush was given notice to accompany a medical team on a transport heading north.
Arkush: We got on trucks and we were driven to Singapore station. I didn’t expect to go first class, but I thought the lowest class would be third class with wooden seats. When I saw how actually we were travelling, I realised how naive I’d been. It wasn’t first, second, third or even 50th. We were in goods wagons and with a sliding door in the middle, into which about 30 of us piled with our kit.
Narrator: After weeks spent at Changi on meagre rations, Maurice Naylor was another who vividly recalls the arduous four-day train journey.
Naylor: Throughout the time I was a prisoner I was prone to dysentery – not dysentery, diarrhoea, acute diarrhoea, chronic diarrhoea. I had to go to the toilet 11, 12 times a day. And I’d just had a bout of diarrhoea when we got into these trucks. And of course there was nothing, no facilities. And the only way to go, to do anything, was to get near the entrance to the truck if the door was open and do it outside if you could – get somebody to hold on to you. That wasn’t a pleasant journey for me, wasn’t a pleasant journey for anybody.
Narrator: They arrived at Ban Pong. Here the prisoners were searched, organised into battalions of around 600, and marched to camps deeper into the often virgin jungle to begin work on the 415-kilometre-long railway.
Urquhart: At Ban Pong we were then told we had to march 50 kilometres a day to this camp, which they referred to as a holiday camp. Don’t forget we were then on a basic ration of boiled rice, which would only fill half a cup, three times a day if you were lucky, and nothing else. And if you fell by the wayside, unless somebody was prepared to help you, you were left to die.
Narrator: The prickly bamboo, often rising 15 metres or more, hindered their advance and progress was slow. Staging camps were constructed by hand using bamboo and palm leaves. At each encampment, the first buildings erected were for Japanese guards. This would be followed by the cookhouse, then huts for the workers. Housing for the sick was typically the last to be built. Hugh de Wardener recalls his first night in one of the huts.
De Wardener: The bedding accommodation was a slat, bamboo slat on either side of a passage. But the trouble was that the huts were on a slope, and the bottom ends of the huts were in filthy water, with faeces and muck and so on in them. And I thought, my God, is this what the camps were going to be like, this was terrible.
Narrator: With each hut housings scores of men, the restricted space and poor sanitation exacerbated the spread of disease.
Parkes: The long huts, the long bamboo huts would hold anything up to 300 men, 150 each side, and they had a shoulder’s-width space, so you were literally touching the man next to you if you were all lying flat, and many men had no option but to lie flat, they weren’t able to lie on their side. They were in very close quarters.
Narrator: At daybreak the men would attend tenko – or roll call – and be sent out to work on clearing the route for the railway. Alistair Urquhart.
Urquhart: They had picks and shovels all laid out, and we were sent down to this part of the river which was virtually solid rock, and you had to physically break rocks with a pick. The work was sunrise to sunset and it was eventually named Hellfire Pass, and the loss of life was tremendous.
Parkes: From the very beginning in all areas, rice was the staple diet for POWs. It was usually polished rice, which meant that the vitamin-rich husks had been removed, so it was pretty valueless in terms of nutrition. And it was also dirty and weevil-infested, and they had to get on with that. They could in some places trade with locals; in other areas various vegetable matter was used. Little meat, little fish, and so it was really a very low-nutritional diet that they had from the very word go, and signs of malnutrition were evident within weeks of captivity.
Narrator: On such a starvation diet, in order for the men’s bodies to generate the energy they needed, the protein in their muscles soon began to break down. Called autophagy, it is the body literally consuming itself in order to stay alive. Most of the protein loss would occur during the first three to four days of malnutrition. And due to the poor diet, vitamins such as thiamin – usually absorbed from ingested food – were largely absent. Increasing their nutrition often meant scavenging for food. Some were able to acquire discarded produce from nearby villages: bananas, papaya or watermelon, or the odd rotten vegetable. However, fraternising with locals ran the risk of reprisals from prison guards. If snared, snakes and scorpions were sufficiently edible. Rats even became currency. Arthur Turbutt recalls the paltry rations.
Turbutt: Your breakfast was a little portion of boiled white rice, boiled of course in salt water. Midday, if you were lucky, some camps you had pap. Now pap was nothing more than what I think was tapioca from its consistency, it was like paper-hanger’s paste. And then in the evening you had steamed rice, on which you had your jungle juice.
Narrator: That’s simply tree leaves stewed in boiled water. Only on rare occasions would the Japanese offer something more.
Turbutt: On the Emperor’s birthday one time, the guards said they wanted us to be happy, so they increased our ration of rice and they presented us with a little goat. And I think there were about a thousand of us had to share that. And I was terribly, terribly fortunate: in the piece that I had I got a bit of bone. I thought I was so fortunate and I’ve sucked that bone thousands of times in the camp, just put it in and just sucked it, sucked it, sucked it, as a comfort.
Narrator: Now without the use of his injured hand, Fergus Anckorn used his skills as a stage magician to help obtain rare morsels of protein.
Anckorn: The Japanese camp commandant was a real devotee of magic and he got me into his hut to do magic for him, and I hadn’t got anything in those days to do it with. But what I’d do is I’d borrow a coin off him and then vanish it. And he would have a tin of fish on his table; I’d open the tin and get the coin out of it. But he then pushed the tin of fish over to me. They would not touch anything that we’d touched because we were verminous, you know, so I got a tin of fish. Then I remember doing a trick with a banana. I got him to take a card and he took the four of hearts, I think it was, and I asked him to peel the banana and it fell off in four pieces, and I got the banana.
Narrator: For the sick, tiny scraps of extra food were often life-saving. These were brought by friends who gave up part of their rations to help those gravely in need. Whether trading personal belongings for food or tending to the ill, having close-knit bonds was essential. David Arkush.
Arkush: People who were sick in the hospital, all skin and bone. They were lying on split bamboo – maybe they had a blanket, maybe they didn’t. They had dysentery, everybody had dysentery, they lay in their own excreta. Unless they had a pal to look after them, they stood little chance of survival. But if they had a pal he would see that you were cleaned up, he would feed you. Without that you would have died.
Narrator: Similarly, medical orderlies played a vital role in caring for the sick. Often volunteers, they selflessly tended to the infirm day after day, even though the risk of infection was high. Arthur Turbutt was a medical orderly with the RAF who recalls helping in one of the dysentery huts.
Turbutt: Our main job seemed to be trying to lift these poor fellows off the bamboo and, as weak as we were, trying to carry them along to an old metal cabin trunk, the lid had been taken off and the cabin trunk was lying in the centre of the floor and those who needed had to get to the trunk and try and put their bottoms over the side and do what they had to do into the trunk. Now that was swimming with filth and slime and blood and these poor fellows, well I remember on one occasion, I think he was a Canadian, I’m not sure, he went to that over a hundred times in the day, as fast as we got him back to the bamboo we had to bring him out again, it just poured from him. Of course, he died. But some of them were so thin that when they laid on their back you could see their spine, they’d gone, everything had gone.
Narrator: For some, help and recovery came from an unlikely source. Fergus Anckorn.
Anckorn: One day, a priest came in and there was a fellow in there dying who was from this priest’s regiment, and the padre said to me, “How long has he got, do you think?” I said, “I think he’ll die this afternoon.” And someone said, “Well, I want his water bottle.” And someone else says, “I’ll have his razor.” And someone said, “Well, I want his haversack.” He had been lying there for two days with his eyes wide open, with flies crawling on him. Dying. He shot up, “No one is having my bloody gear, I ain’t bloody well dying.” And he didn’t.
Narrator: With each camp required to produce a specific number of men to work on the railway construction, deciding whether men were fit enough to work became a difficult daily task for the medical officers. Each morning they had to tally all those who were sick and judge who, if any, were able to attend that day’s work detail. Hugh de Wardener was now at a makeshift hospital base in Chungkai.
De Wardener: They sometimes went out before daylight, and came back in the dark. Our job was to try and keep the most ill from going out on the railway, that was really our main therapeutic tool.
Narrator: If the number of sick increased, guards would often raid the tents and forcibly drag them to the work line. Hostility towards the sick was rampant. The Japanese regarded the infirm as shameful – they required nothing more than a labour force of utmost productivity. If your effort reduced, it was met with punishment. Harry Hesp.
Hesp: Their favourite occupation was ear bashing. They couldn’t hit you when they were stood up, they’d wait till you were sat down and then come behind you and hit your ears.
Narrator: Sometimes a convenient weapon, be it bamboo stick, shovel or crowbar, might be used. Beatings were followed by extended periods of standing to attention, for hours or days. One punishment was the holding aloft, or at arm’s length, a heavy object such as a pail of water, the prisoner being beaten if their arms dropped.
Hesp: One of the worst things about being a prisoner like that is humiliation. I got many beatings, because of my stupid attitude of not bowing and that sort of thing. I could stand beatings, but humiliation… I remember one saying to me, “British tall, Japan small. Japan: boss!” and then giving me a clout. And it takes a lot not to hit him back.
Narrator: Prisoner Jeffrey English wrote in his diary that the Japanese attitude of punishing the sick had a strange, perverse logic to it. He wrote: “If you were going to have a man die in a month’s time, you had at least to have two or three extra days’ work out of him now. If every sleeper laid on the railway cost another man his life, so what?”
Narrator: Although prisoners moved location frequently, medical officers knew it was crucial to establish strict camp discipline in order to retain good sanitation and restrict the spread of disease. Meg Parkes.
Parkes: Disciplined hygiene routines were essential. All sorts of different methods were put in place, for instance latrines – the design and the creation of latrines almost became a science in itself. Strict rotation of latrine sites, covering them over so they had designs for different types of bamboo covers, so like toilet seats they put down. These were just holes in the ground, all of which had to be dug in the tropical heat. And then they would obviously fill up very quickly, they would be covered with soil after so many days’ usage, moved to another site, that would all settle, they’d go back to – so a routine was established in some of the more organised camps – certainly up in Thailand, in Singapore and in other areas of the Far East in captivity.
Turbutt: The place was full of flies. Millions upon millions.
Narrator: Flies were a major cause of the transmission of diseases such as bacterial dysentery, so medical officers would encourage them to be killed en masse to reduce the threat of infection.
Parkes: There are examples of fly-swatting campaigns – men being rewarded by presenting the senior officer with 100 flies a day or thousands of flies a day. There were men who were too sick to work who made fly swats. They made them out of woven bamboo, that was their job and it was essential.
Narrator: To ease the escalation in dysentery cases, one Japanese camp commander even tried to incentivise the practice. Arthur Turbutt.
Turbutt: Everybody had to kill 100 flies before they could get their rice ration. So that’s what happened, people were going round killing flies, and you had to put them in a pile or line them up so that the Jap could come along and have a look, so you could eat. And that’s the way they tried to control it.
Narrator: Seeing friends ravaged by disease and illness was also motivation to protect oneself as best as possible. Fergus Anckorn recalls devising a novel precaution to fend off night-time mosquito bites.
Anckorn: I found a blanket and I stitched it up into a sleeping bag, and I put buttonholes and buttons round the top, and at night I would get in there and close it all up, and in the morning there was a gallon of water in there of course from perspiration, but no malaria. Kept the mozzies away.
Narrator: Prisoners who worked in little more than shorts or loincloths, and often without shoes, would frequently catch bamboo scratches and grazes. In the humid conditions and without clean dressings, these minor cuts would soon deteriorate into tropical ulcers, affecting muscle and deep tissue. And after several weeks, these cuts would develop into lesions of rotting flesh that would often expose bone underneath. The pain was excruciating. Geoff Gill.
Gill: Because of their poor immune status, the infection would spread and spread and you would be left with a large ulcer, which could erode very deep, including down into bone. They were very common in the railway camps, very painful, very debilitating and they were a major cause of amputation.
Naylor: Tropical ulcers were terrible. You know, we had a whole hutful… 200.
Narrator: Maurice Naylor recalls how one minor graze soon worsened.
Naylor: I got a scratch on my leg, probably a bit of bamboo – quite sharp, bamboo can be. And it turned into an ulcer.
Narrator: Naylor was fortunate that Australian medical officer, Arthur Moon, had managed to acquire several May & Baker 693 tablets – an antibiotic used during the Second World War to treat pneumonia.
Naylor: He produced a tablet of M&B, which had been smuggled in, and ground it up and packed the ulcer with it, bound it up, and it began to heal.
Narrator: With limited drug supplies, medical officers had to rely on the craft and guile of others within the camp: engineers, weavers, tinsmiths and tailors among them. These skilled craftsmen all helped to create an assortment of DIY medical supplies, such as homemade salt solutions that would keep wounds clean. But sometimes the infected limb had to be amputated. Amputees could be provided with prosthetic limbs to move around more ably. Jack Chalker.
Jack Chalker: We used to collect the big seeds off the kapok trees.
Narrator: Inside was a fluffy, cotton-like fibre that was used to make a pad.
Chalker: You could put that in an odd piece of material and crudely sew it up. We made some of our needles with odd bits of metal, very often taken off army equipment and beaten out.
Narrator: Animal hides were used to lace the material together.
Chalker: In order to sew the bucket together, any animal that came into camp – you know, sometimes you’d have a water buffalo or a bullock for about 3,000 people. The main thing was the hide itself, and they cut some of that into strips to make laces so that they could be sewn on to the front of the bucket, joined together and laced up tightly for comfort on the stump.
Narrator: From spring 1943, the Japanese were pushing for a swift completion to the railway. Called the “speedo” period by guards, every able hand was set to work. Sixteen-hour days were not uncommon. Even “no-duty” men – those who were deemed sick – were often forced to join work parties as well. Fergus Anckorn was one of them.
Anckorn: Eventually we were on the “speedo, speedo” Wampo viaduct, which was a terrible job, working 18 hours a day. We made it out of teak trees – very heavy.
Narrator: At Wampo, the hillside fell sharply into the Kwai Noi river, so a triple-tiered viaduct, 200 metres long, was ordered to be constructed.
Anckorn: When it was done we had to creosote it. So that involved climbing up to the top, with five gallons of creosote, and bamboo with a sack on the end of it. And of course if the creosote landed on you came up in a blister straight away.
Narrator: This was boiling hot creosote.
Anckorn: I had a loincloth and I had got myself a hat, that’s all. And a Japanese guard told me to climb up and creosoting underneath the rails. And as a result of the time that I was bombed out in that lorry, I had vertigo. And I told the Jap that I couldn’t and so he went and got a bamboo pole to beat me up with. So I climbed. And I climbed up there by lifting my foot up with a rope putting it on one bit, five gallons of creosote on here – very, very heavy. It took me ten minutes to inch my way to the top. And when I got there, there was no way I could do anything, I just shut my eyes and clung to the posts. The whole world was going round. And there was the Jap from the ground shouting at me to get on with it, or words to that effect. And I said no. And he came up after me and threw the four gallons of creosote over me. And fortunately, I ducked my head down and didn’t get any on my face, but the rest of me started coming up like the Michelin man. I woke up with fellows washing me. And I looked so awful with these blisters that even the Japs decided to send me down country.
Narrator: Anckorn was sent to a hospital base for treatment.
Anckorn: went and said goodbye to my friends and shook hands and said, “I’ll see you soon.” I thought once they’d done me I’d get back up. And he said, “No you won’t see us again.” I said, “Why, where you going?” He said, “We’re all going to die.” And three weeks later they were all dead. And I wasn’t, because of the creosote.
Arkush: We heard a noise in the sky and we looked up, and there – you should forgive me – were a dozen bloody great American bombers, flying low over us.
Narrator: By 1945, visible signs that the Japanese were a retreating force became apparent. David Arkush.
Arkush: This was the first sign of our people we had seen since we were taken prisoner. And we went mad with hysteria, we shouted and we screamed. It was the first attack on the bridge.
Narrator: For the camps in the remote jungle, news of the eventual Japanese surrender was overwhelming and often met with disbelief. Arthur Turbutt.
Turbutt: We suddenly noticed in the camp that discipline dropped for a couple of days, and we wondered what had happened – here were no working parties. Eventually a Japanese came out, had us on parade and said, “War finished, war finished. All men go home, happy, happy.”
Anckorn: When it actually happened we stood there, we didn’t make a sound, we just looked at each other and no one threw their hats up. We couldn’t believe that we’d survived it. It was awful to come to terms with it – you’ve actually survived, you’ll be going home.
Urquhart: The family were at Aberdeen station. My mother and father were there, my sister, and this chap was standing next to her, you see, so I said, “Rhoda, is this your boyfriend?” And he pipes up and says, “No, you stupid… I’m your brother!”
Narrator: Home: an unfamiliar, uncanny place. War was over. But for those held captive for over three years, adjusting to the seemingly routine surroundings was the beginning of a very different struggle. Stories of POW hardship during captivity had been largely hidden from the public. Returning in late September and October 1945, the ships docking at Liverpool or Southampton received little attention and no heroes’ welcome. Maurice Naylor.
Naylor: My impression overall was they were only too glad to get rid of the prisoners, forget about them, they didn’t want to know. In a way I can understand why, I mean we were part of a defeated army, you know.
Narrator: Servicemen were ushered onto military trucks and escorted on trains heading north, east, south or west, where men were demobilised and sent home. For many, adapting to home life was an unusual and difficult period. The physical effects of the harsh regime had taken its toll. Alistair Urquhart.
Urquhart: I got to the stage where I couldn’t eat. So they sent me to Stracathro Hospital, which was apparently a military hospital during the war, to see if they could, you know, get some idea of why I couldn’t eat.
Narrator: The dramatic shift to a high-calorie, starchy diet was problematic after living on tiny rations of unpolished rice.
Urquhart: For three-and-a-half years that’s all I had, and there wasn’t even any salt or sugar or anything in the rice.
Narrator: Urquhart was put on a diet of rice pudding to quell the stomach problems he faced.
Urquhart: Even now I need rice three or four times a week.
Narrator: But many of the problems faced by those who returned home were not physical.
Naylor: I reacted very badly.
Narrator: Maurice Naylor.
Naylor: I was not able to communicate with people. I couldn’t stand the triviality of conversation. I’d sit down to breakfast with my parents then I’d have to go upstairs and go to my bedroom and… I think the psychological effects of being a prisoner was much greater than the physical effects, as far as I was concerned at any rate.
Hesp: When I landed at Liverpool, I knew everything round me was familiar but the thing that had changed most was me.
Narrator: Harry Hesp.
Hesp: There was no medical treatment, nothing. You were left on your own. So you’d do what a lot of people did in those days, you tried to drink England dry to get over it.
Narrator: Talking about the experiences of being a prisoner of war was completely frowned upon.
Hesp: Nobody wanted to know about you being a prisoner of war. There were children in Liverpool walking around without arms and legs; everybody had been in a war, they didn’t want to know about your experiences.
Narrator: Even for those who could talk, those back home had little comprehension of what could have happened. Fergus Anckorn.
Anckorn: The main thing was we couldn’t identify with people. My mother said, “We only got two-and-a-half ounces of bacon in a week.” And I thought, two-and-a-half ounces! I’d have killed someone for that! And my elder sister said, “I suppose you were alright for fruit and that sort of thing?” If they’d only known that we were eating maggots and mice and rats.
Narrator: It was as if nothing had happened; the men just had to get on with their lives. Feelings of guilt and shame clouded their experiences.
Hesp: I couldn’t go for a haircut, as soon as they put a towel round my neck I would cringe and feel my heart going faster and faster. If I ever went to the cinema it was always on an end seat. I didn’t go to football matches because once they’d closed the gates, I was imprisoned again.
Narrator: Harry did manage to get a job at an engineering firm in nearby Warrington. There he met Merle.
Hesp: She was always very, very nice to me. I’d lost my mother and my father. So I don’t know how it came about, but we got married. But she could never understand me.
Narrator: Harry’s psychological torment and inability to cope began put a strain on their marriage.
Hesp: I would never talk about it, and I’d see her crying many times. I didn’t know myself what was the matter with me. I wouldn’t go on trains, I wouldn’t do anything, I wouldn’t go anywhere. And she said one day, “We’re going to Liverpool today.” I said, “We’re going on the bus?” “No, we’ll go on the train,” and it was a compartment train. I knew I couldn’t go through with it, and as soon as it started to move off I jumped out and I said, “I’ll see you at Liverpool.” So you can imagine the length of time Merle waited at Liverpool station for me. And then I had to tell her, I had to really tell her.
Narrator: In 1967, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was screening former POWs for a type of intestinal threadworm, called Strongyloides, to prevent infection.
Hesp: It was on the radio that anyone who’d been a prisoner of war should go make an appointment to go to the School of Tropical Medicine for a Strongyloides test.
Narrator: Harry went along to see one of the doctors.
Hesp: After the examination he took me in an office and he said to me, “You’ve no Strongyloides and your health’s fairly good, you’re alright. You do have two problems: one is your hearing, and the other you have a mental problem.” And he said, “I would like you to see a friend of mine, if you will. I’ll make arrangements for you to go and see a Dr Khan who specialises in FEPOW treatment.
Narrator: Dr Dion Bell – the consultant studying the former Far East prisoners of war – referred the men to his colleague at the hospital, psychiatrist Kamal Khan.
Kamal Khan: For the first time they felt there was somebody who was prepared to listen and understand their problems, and that actually really broke the ice. And they would quite often say, “Dr Khan, I’m saying this to you for the first time, that I’ve never actually mentioned this, not even to my wife or to my own family.”
Narrator: Khan eventually saw all former POWs referred by the Liverpool School. After assessing 65, Khan had begun to see patterns emerging in the problems the men described.
Khan: The conclusion was in fact that a sizeable number of these people – almost half of these people, actually – had significant psychiatric problems.
Narrator: Khan decided to run a larger study. He compared the former POWs to a control group from a regiment of veterans who’d fought for the British army in Burma. Crucially, none of these men had been taken captive during the war. The results showed that high numbers of former POWs had severe cases of anxiety and depression. He also noted that for many, there’d been a considerable delay in the onset of these psychiatric symptoms, sometimes years after coming home. The ability for the former POWs to speak about their experiences proved invaluable. Harry Hesp recalls talking to Dr Khan.
Hesp: He was a wonderful man, and he spoke to me for over an hour, he was wonderful. And he said, “You are like one of 80% of all Far East prisoners of war,” he said, “and the only problem is I’m 20 years too late.” I was able to tell him things I couldn’t tell Merle. The trouble is you have a lot of nightmares, have an awful lot – I still do.
Narrator: Vivid nightmares of harrowing scenes in the prison camps were a common problem.
Khan: When cholera broke out, the Japanese guards were frightened and scared; they didn’t want to go anywhere near the dead bodies. So they would actually make them cremate them. And when the firewood was lit, quite literally what used to happen was that sometimes these bodies would curl up as though the prisoner was still alive and was sitting and trying to get away. That was another nightmare that quite a few of them mentioned to me.
Narrator: Khan’s study revealed the extent and characteristics of the mental health problems the men had endured. He termed it chronic intermittent depressive illness, believing that the experiences of imprisonment resurfaced in periodic episodes years later.
Khan: When you are in a situation where you can’t do anything to overcome that situation, there is a concept of a kind of learned helplessness. Initially you will try your best to do something to get away from that. But when you realise that whatever you did, you are not really going to escape from that situation, you give up. Three-and-a-half years in captivity, there was nothing that they could do about it. That actually plays a large part in their psyche.
Narrator: David Arkush returned from the war and opened his own dental practice in north London. During the recording of his interview, his wife Shirley was present in the room.
Shirley Arkush: When we were first married David did have nightmares. And he would – like all the other POWs – would not talk about it. And I used to say to him, “Why don’t you talk to me about it? What was it like?” And he would say, “It was hot.” And I could never get another word out of him.
Narrator: It was only when they decided to return to Thailand that his nightmares diminished.
Shirley Arkush: We went to the camp about 20 years after we were married. And after that it just poured out of him. And I think, like all the survivors of the camps, I think they feel if they don’t speak now it will be lost. David now talks and doesn’t have nightmares any more.
Narrator: And what about reconciliation? Are such atrocities ever forgivable? Harry Hesp.
Hesp: There’s certain periods in every year that bother me. We went to the Lake District this weekend of August 15th and we stayed not too far from Beatrix Potter’s home of Hilltop.
Narrator: The famous author’s farm and gardens at Ambleside attracts tourists from all over the world.
Hesp: When we got there it was as if Tokyo had a half-day. There were Japanese in front, Japanese behind. And we were already in a queue and couldn’t get out. I just kept my head straight on and Merle held my hand. Suddenly I felt a tap on the shoulder. Merle said, “He wants to know where Mr McGregor’s garden is.” Mr McGregor is obviously something to do with Beatrix Potter. And I just said to Merle, “I’ll have to go.” I left and went and sat on a rock overlooking Lancashire, where a lot of the blokes I knew had come from, and I broke my heart. It was that because as a Christian I’d let myself down. I’m supposed to as a Christian primarily to forgive. I couldn’t do that.
Narrator: Fergus Anckorn.
Anckorn: I went out to Thailand a couple of years ago and I took photographs of 48 of my friends’ graves, and there wasn’t one of them over 22 years old. People say to me, “Don’t you hate the Japs?” I say, “No, of course I don’t. I hate the war.”
Narrator: Undeniably, the experience left indelible impressions. Maurice Naylor.
Naylor: I became a lot more tolerant, I think, one of the effects of being a prisoner. I became perhaps less sympathetic to a lot of the trivial moans and groans of people – they don’t know how lucky they are.
Narrator: Over 16,000 Allied POWs died during the construction of the Burma–Thailand railway. This number, though, was dwarfed by what’s been estimated as over 100,000 local workers – Malay, Burmese, Javanese and Chinese – who were killed during its construction.
This story has concentrated on just one area of British imprisonment. Thousands of men were dispersed across regions of Java, Korea, China, the Philippines and Japan itself, with around 37,000 British prisoners returning home following the end of the war. Just a tiny fraction of their stories and experiences have been captured in this piece.
Many of those who survived look back at the medical officers and orderlies as unsung heroes who battled atrocious conditions to provide them with a level of treatment and care. Meg Parkes.
Parkes: Liberating the camps didn’t mean freedom for so many of them. The struggle to survive continued long into postwar lives. But the fact that so many of them survived I would say is a tribute as much to the skilled craftsmen that were among them as to the medical officers that cared for them, and the medical orderlies that looked after them day-to-day. It’s an extraordinary story and it should be shared.
Narrator: Hugh de Wardener.
De Wardener: The combination of malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, dysentery, malaria and working for 12 hours a day decimated people.
Arkush: The one thing you couldn’t do was to turn your face to the wall. If you did that you died. If you gave up you died.
Narrator: David Arkush recalls seeing a friend of his in one of the jungle huts.
Arkush: He was all skin and bone, so I went to see him and I said to him, “You’ve got to fight this, Leo, you can and you will. You’ve got a wife and children at home, and if you die I’ve got to bury you and I don’t bloody well want to do that, so see that you get better.” And I got all the other Jewish boys that were fit to go and visit him all the time, not to leave him alone, to keep on the message: you’ve got to fight. This was 1944. He collapsed and died on a Tube station in 1984. If we did nothing else, we gave that man an extra 40 years. I take some pride at least we did some good.
Narrator: This audio feature was written, produced, narrated and edited by Chris Chapman. The interviews with former prisoners of war were conducted by Meg Parkes, as part of an oral history research project made possible by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Visit the website captivememories.org.uk for more information. The assistant producer was Ellie Pinney; fact-checking by Laura Dawes. Sound design was by Eloise Whitmore and the editor was Mun-Keat Looi.