Bridge on the River Kwai

The Japanese put us straight to work. This section of railway, further north, would eventually join up with that of our earlier handiwork at Hellfire Pass. We began clearing jungle, just as we had at the first Kanyu cutting. The work was certainly easier than gouging our way through the rocks and boulders of Hellfire Pass but it was still horrendous. With the same guards and Japanese officers hovering around us it was the same torment. Brutality, disease, starvation and death stalked our every step.

On the first evening of our arrival, still barefoot and naked except for our Jap-happies, we did some remedial work on the huts, some of which leaned at crazy angles like jungle versions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The roofs all needed replacing with fresh atap leaves. Whether by design or otherwise, we reverted to the same sleeping arrangements as at the first camp, taking up the same places. Men took a lot of comfort from routine and familiarities, no matter how fickle or fleeting they may have been.

After a few weeks of steady progress we were nearing the river Kwai, across which the Japanese intended us to build two bridges, the first to be made of wood and bamboo, the second to be of steel and concrete. It was going to be a major engineering operation and I doubted that we would manage it in our state and with the pathetic tools we had to hand.

We carried on clearing the path for the track of the railway, while work parties went into the jungle felling trees for the bridge and bamboo for the scaffolding.

Then disaster struck. One night I awoke with dysentery calling. Holding my aching stomach I raced to the latrines in the dark but on the way back to my hut a Korean guard stopped me. He had come out of the darkness and caught me by surprise. He yammered in my face. I had no idea what he was on about. At first I thought he was admonishing me for failing to salute him but I had never noticed the bugger. He was still talking frantically and pointing down at my midriff. To my horror I realised he was becoming frisky.

‘Jiggy, jiggy,’ he was saying, trying to grab me.

‘No!’ I shouted at him.

‘Jiggy. You me, jiggy.’

I told him ‘No’ again, firmly. He carried on trying to grab me so without hesitating I kicked him as hard as I could, barefooted, square between his legs. He collapsed, groaning in agony.

I bolted for my hut but his roaring had summoned hordes of other guards. Unfortunately I ran slap bang into one of them. He seized on to me and before I knew it they were coming at me from all quarters. Rifle butts and fists sent me to the ground. Someone stabbed me in the backside with a bayonet. Boots and fists flailed into my body before they hauled me up and dragged me to the front of the Japanese officers’ hut. Bleeding from the blows to the head and face, I waited for the interpreter, who had been summoned. As I swayed an NCO kept beating me, knocking me to the ground. Each time I fell he made me stand up again. Eventually the interpreter was raised, along with the camp commandant, the dreaded Black Prince. This was a moment of absolute terror. Throughout my captivity I had tried at all times to stay out of range of the brutal Japanese guards and now here I was receiving the personal attentions of the camp’s sadist-in-chief. The guards all stood to attention as the commandant asked the Korean for his side of the story. No doubt he left out the bit about making sexual advances towards me.

When he was done the commandant asked why I had assaulted the guard. I told them the truth. The interpreter relayed my story and when he had finished the Black Prince started screaming at all and sundry. I had no idea what was going on. I just knew I was in serious trouble. They took the Korean guard away and marched me to the front of the guardhouse, where I was forced to stand to attention. Racked with pain and suffering from broken toes, I wobbled and wilted. Any sign of slumping over brought a flurry of rifle butts to the kidneys to straighten me up again. Every minute of every hour throughout the night was pure torture. On top of the pain came the constant buzzing and biting from the camp’s abundant insect life.

At sunrise the men assembled for breakfast and roll-call before going out to slave on the railway. The guards kept me behind. As day broke I was a hopeless mess. The rising sun bore down on my defenceless body and when I lost consciousness my personal minders threw buckets of water over me and kicked me to attention.

And so it went on hour after endless hour. It was relentless. My bashed eyes had now closed and my face felt swollen as blood seeped from my head, body and feet. My body burned in the unforgiving sun and the only water I got was sloshed from the bucket as they revived me after I collapsed from heat exhaustion. I prayed that it would end, prayed for a bullet through the brain. But no, they continued to play out their game of torture like a cat with a mouse.

Sunset came. The men returned and averted their eyes – a sure sign that my predicament was serious. Nobody showed any signs of sympathy or concern, to do so was to risk reprisals on themselves. The rest of the chilly night passed in a blur of kicks and beatings. I hallucinated and felt as if I were going insane. Those bastards did not deserve to live – not in my book. Throughout the night I was more often on the ground and being sloshed with river water than I was at attention.

Come morning my officer went to the Black Prince to protest on my behalf. He was a very brave man and predictably got slapped savagely for his troubles. After the men left for work the Black Prince instructed two guards to haul me off to the black hole. My heart sank. I knew that most men kept in there, usually for three or four weeks, did not come out alive. And if they did they had been reduced to crippled wrecks who never fully recovered. The guards threw me into one of the bamboo cages. With bent knees, I leant with my back raised and arms at my sides as they squeezed its door shut. Darkness and the filth of the previous occupants engulfed me. I knelt and sobbed, falling in and out of consciousness.

The corrugated iron covering the semi-submerged cage intensified the stifling heat. In the darkness the sense of isolation was devastating and I became half out of my mind with pain and exhaustion.

Days came and went, the only notion of time provided by the arrival of a watery bowl of rice once a day. The next few days were the worst I had experienced on the railway, like a culmination of the extremes of temperature from the steel carriages on the way up to the railway, along with the death march and every other ounce of suffering endured since, all crammed into that tiny, back-breaking black hole. Malaria struck me down, causing uncontrollable shivers and pain that was diverted only when tropical ulcers and kidney stones reared to the fore. My hair matted, dirty and unshaven, lice crawling all over me, no soap or water, no drugs or hope, my degradation was complete.

I had counted six or seven bowls of rice by the time they allowed me out. As I crawled out of the dark cell and back to my hut, I deemed myself lucky to have spent such a short period in the black hole. I had been in for a week and it could easily have been a month. To me it felt like a century.

I reached my hut on all fours and Dr Mathieson and his orderlies got to work on me. Slowly they brought me back to life with lime juice, water and scavenged food scraps, a little milk and some duck eggs. Within a week, even in my feeble condition, I was passed as fit and sent back to work on the first railway bridge over the river Kwai. Happily I never saw that Korean guard again.

We marched back along the track we had been clearing until it opened up at the river. What I saw stunned me. During the fortnight of my imprisonment and convalescence the outline of a bridge had grown out of the water. It was a truly amazing sight. The bridge stood encased in a great bamboo cage of scaffolding and hundreds of prisoners teemed all over it like ants. It was astonishing to think that this had been built with little more than bare hands and primitive technology. The general opinion among us men had been that the undertaking was impossible. But then again we had thought the same of Hellfire Pass and we somehow managed to do that too.

Two Japanese engineers, who were always officers, stayed on site at all times. Though many were English-educated, most of them dictated their orders through interpreters. Their working methods were haphazard to say the least. Where we would have used tapes to measure distances, they guessed. It didn’t seem to bother them if some railway sleepers jutted out a foot more than others. But they were very demanding and prone to strike out with the four-foot iron bars that they carried. No doubt they were under enormous pressures themselves to get the bridge done but the way they treated the men, like animal slavers, was unforgivable.

The men used an antiquated rope-and-pulley system to drive teak piles deep into the river floor. The pile driver had a huge rock on the top of it and the prisoners raising it heaved on the ropes as if in a game of tug o’ war, while a Nippon engineer would keep them in time with a rhythmic count of ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi’. On his command they would suddenly all let go of the rope sending the rock crashing down on the pile below. Simple but effective, I thought. The laboured chanting and heaving, which went on for up to eighteen hours a day, made me think of the ancient Pharaohs and how their slaves had achieved the seemingly impossible by constructing the pyramids. There was certainly something biblical about our plight.

For those working in the muddied river, sometimes up to their necks, life could be much more difficult. The filthy water infected cuts and sores. It was also impossible to see where you were treading and many more injuries occurred that way. The additional danger of falling objects, including logs and struts, meant that mortality rates among these men were extremely high. Making the most of my climbing skills and head for heights, I tried to work as high up the structure as possible. Some men hated working aloft but for me it meant I could work at a more sedate pace to recover from the black hole and I was out of reach of the guards and their flailing sticks.

While the piles were driven into the river bed, prisoners made sections of the bridge on land, mostly from bamboo and teak, in a basic fabrication yard. Once they had finished a twenty-foot section elephants manoeuvred it down to the river and men built it on to the piles. After a stint on the bridge I moved to the yard and spent most of my time drilling holes, using an awl. It was a real production line: against a backdrop of shouting and hammering from the river, the logs were rolled in and hoisted on to trestles for me to drill holes into. Most of the time the logs would be too thick for the awl and I would have to drill halfway through the log, turn it over and drill in from the other side, hoping that the holes met in the middle. The metal bolts destined for the holes were already rusting and I doubted whether they would last very long. It was tough, tiring work boring into those hard jungle woods but at least I could work on my own. It also meant that I could slack off a bit and do very little, whereas those working in a group found themselves watched constantly and could not afford that luxury. When I went down to the river it was a marvel to watch the men working. To see the bridge rising from the Kwai, being built in the midst of the jungle, with no machinery or sense of civilisation, was unreal.

Building the bridge was probably the easiest time I experienced on the railway. The work was more about craft and guile than brute strength and physical labour. But it never stopped the guards from making us work at double time or administering beatings for little or no reason whatsoever. On one occasion I received a severe beating after failing to drill a half-inch hole through a twelve-inch-diameter log. It sounded like a simple job but the awl I had been given reached only halfway through the log. Once I had drilled as far as I could I turned the log around and started drilling from the other side, hoping that it would join in the middle. But of course this time that was too much to ask. Even though I had been given an almost impossible task, a rotund Korean guard, whom we nicknamed ‘Musso’ because of his similarity to the Italian fascist dictator, noticed and went berserk. He screamed in my face, telling me what I had done wrong as if I had failed to notice.

‘Do it your bloody self then!’ I snapped. I regretted those words almost immediately. Musso was a nasty piece of work and slammed his rifle butt into my face. It floored me and knocked out one of my front teeth. The tooth had snapped off at an angle, painfully exposing raw nerves. After several more blows and kicks I quickly recovered and scrambled back to work, just thankful not to have been beaten to death.

The broken tooth was agonising and hours later, after we finished work, I paid another visit to the medical hut. The orderlies breezily set about me with a pair of pliers as if they were a pair of mechanics working on a rusty old tractor. One held my head tightly while the other tugged and tugged, eventually managing to wrench out the offending incisor. It was excruciating but the orderlies had evidently become quite proficient as dentists and it was all over pretty quickly.

The building of the bridge on the river Kwai took a terrible toll on us and the depiction of our sufferings in the film of the same name was a very, very sanitised version of events. Unlike the well-fed extras in the movie, we did not whistle the ‘Colonel Bogey’ tune. Nor did we work alongside Americans, nor did we have any semblance of uniform. We were naked, barefoot slaves. And there were certainly no pretty and scantily clad local girls wandering through the jungle.

And contrary to the film, our real-life commander Colonel Philip Toosey did not collaborate with the Japanese. I was not alone in doing as little work as possible without blatantly shirking, which resulted in sadistic beatings. Energy, every ounce of it, had to be conserved for survival. To bust a gut on starvation rations was absolute suicide. We had long lost our dignity and working faster certainly would not have brought any back. In fact it would have resulted in the opposite with even more of us dying.

Instead we made constant attempts at sabotage. Men whispered orders to impair the construction of the bridge wherever possible. Some charged with making up concrete mixtures deliberately added too much sand or not enough, which would later have disastrous effects. We collected huge numbers of termites and white ants and deposited them into the grooves and joints of loadbearing trunks.

Out of sight of the guards I furtively sawed halfway through wooden bolts wherever possible, hoping they would snap whenever any serious weight, like a train, was placed upon them.

We slogged on, starving and diseased, believing that things just could not get any worse – and then, in June, the monsoon arrived. For months the land mass of the Indian subcontinent had been heating up, creating an area of low pressure that now drew in mighty moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean. The rains flooded our huts, with rivers running through them – complete with small brown fish that some of the starving men succeeded in catching. We became permanently sodden. The camp ground transformed into a sea of mud and conditions around the latrines became unspeakable. Work on the bridge and railway turned even more hazardous, magnifying our misery, yet we were unprepared for the horror about to be unleashed upon us by the monsoon.

For the river Kwai and its tributaries harboured a killer even more lethal than the Japanese and our starvation diet. As an inevitable consequence of the lack of sanitation and the tens of thousands of bodies buried in shallow graves or dumped in the jungle, the river system was loaded with cholera bacteria and the monsoon season became cholera season. As the heightened waters of the Kwai flushed Vibrio cholerae throughout the land, this fearful disease cast a black shadow over the camp. Cholera arrived unseen and unheard but soon had us in its grip. I was slow to hear about it. But I sensed something terrible in the camp. More men were falling ill than usual and the Japanese kept their distance, leaving us alone. They were scared to death of catching cholera themselves. The Japanese Imperial Army had experienced the devastating impact of cholera among its troops in China in 1937 and again in 1940 – 1, and feared its swift progress like the Black Death.

Cholera outbreaks are related to standards of hygiene, food preparation and the quality of drinking water – all of which were undeniably horrific on the railway. Rats were also rife and had muscled into our lives to such an extent that we hardly shooed them away any more, and they are also carriers of the cholera bacteria, another parallel with the plague.

One of our officers gathered us together for an extraordinary general meeting. As serious-looking as I had ever seen him, he said, ‘A cholera epidemic is threatening us all. We have set up a quarantine area and you are advised to avoid it wherever possible. Need I remind you all not to drink unboiled water? If you are unsure of its origins, find out or leave it. Understood? This is our biggest test yet.’

Cholera had infected a stream that ran past our camp. The Japanese had refused to build a bridge across it to stop it from spreading, so we had to use contaminated boats to cross the water. By the end of it all we would lose thousands on the railway quite needlessly to cholera. The conditions in the coolie camps were even worse and tens of thousands of native labourers, sometimes entire camps, were wiped out.

Overnight cholera struck me down. I woke up with explosive diarrhoea and violent, projectile vomiting. My ears were ringing and I felt dizzy. Cramps started in my bowels and soon spread all over my body as it rapidly dehydrated. I was drying from the inside out, shrivelling like a picked grape left out in the sun. The cholera bacteria burrowed into the walls of my small intestine producing toxins that sucked the vital salts and every ounce of water out of my body. I was unsure what was wrong but I knew it was serious – I did not want to finish up with the life drained out of me. I had always been extremely careful to drink only boiled water so at first I was doubtful that it was cholera. I did not know much about it but I knew that the first twenty-four hours were crucial. If you see through a day and a night, you would probably survive. Most men who succumbed did so in the first few hours, a horrible death and so quick. Men who threw the bodies of cholera victims on to funeral pyres in the morning could easily contract the disease, die and be thrown on the pyre themselves in the evening. They died in agony like crazed animals and it was dreadful to see.

I lay in my bed, unable to rise for the work party. By then I was semi-conscious and I thought this was the end. I was hallucinating. Vivid red flashes stormed my eyelids. I knew I had to seek help. After psyching myself up I managed to rise and wobble to Dr Mathieson’s hut. As soon as I walked in he knew that I had cholera. It was a death sentence and he was reluctant to tell me. Instead he simply said, ‘You’ll have to be isolated. You’ll be looked after.’

His orderlies led me to a cream-coloured bell tent, like we had used in the Scouts. As they peeled back the tent’s front flap, a deathly stench leaped out. Unknown to me this was the ‘death tent’ and I was the unlucky thirteenth occupant of a dimly lit space already full of men. When I saw their state, their eyes rolled back, rasping, unintelligible voices, raised legs with knees bent – the bizarre telltale sign of a cholera sufferer – I knew that my number was up. The orderlies were putting me in here to die. The fight was fading from me and I lay down on the canvas floor with a sense of of complete and utter desolation.

I have no idea how long I lay there. I was no longer aware of those around me or if anyone came and tended to me. My mind drifted. I allowed myself some thoughts of home, even though they were jumbled and vague. I became upset when I couldn’t picture the faces of my mum, dad and Aunt Dossie. I even struggled to remember what Hazel looked like. Feverish dreams rampaged terrifyingly through my mind. The walls of the tent seemed to move and expand like an inflated balloon, only to pop and come crashing back on top of me. A sudden death seemed as inviting as a warm bath.

Eventually, on what must have been the following day, some orderlies carried me out of the tent and back to the hospital hut. Out of the thirteen men in that tent, Dr Mathieson told me months later, I was the only survivor. His medical staff tried to keep me alive by giving me as many sips of sterilised water as possible. They also forced some coconut milk puree down my throat, as water alone was not enough. While treatment should have been relatively simple, the lost fluids needing to be replaced with a liquid mixture of sugar and salts, the Japanese refused to give us any extra supplies, even though progress on the railway had dropped off and the outbreak threatened to wipe out the whole camp – them included. I was only half compos mentis and just wanted to sleep. But the orderlies kept tapping my cheeks to keep me awake and engaged me in conversation to keep my mind and soul engaged. They found the dog-eared black-and-white photographs in my bed-space and asked about my family. I rambled on about Aberdeen and playing practical jokes on Dossie. They asked who the pretty blonde girl was – the photo more worn than others. The lovely Hazel. I thought of her and how we used to dance at the Palais de Dance, how she was the only girl who could keep up with my twinkling toes, now reduced to bloodied and mangled stumps. The orderlies tried to make me laugh, asking how far I got with Hazel, and I told them about our long walks through the dandelions of Duthie Park, how I would try to get her alone, those piercing blue eyes all to myself.

Florence Nightingale could not have faulted their patience and unwavering care. If I had given up hope, they never did. And by this time I had very little hope left in me. The idea of suicide was a constant threat, not just for me but for many men. Some gave in and threw themselves from the bridge or head first down the latrines. There was no doubt that clinical depression had muddied most of our minds.

I could have lain there for days or weeks. It was hard to be certain. A Japanese doctor visited the camp and inspected me. Eventually the medical officers persuaded him, along with the Black Prince, that I was of no further use. My days working on the railway were over, at least while in the condition I was. Permission came through for me to be sent down river to the mass hospital camp at Chungkai.

I was leaving a camp that had reduced us to animals, starved half-dead beasts of burden. It had brought out the best and the worst in us. My carers showed endless compassion but the camp was also full of men who would steal food from the sick and dying.

The next thing I knew I was being carried down to the river on a stretcher and loaded on to a forty-foot barge with a dozen or so other ‘heavy sick’, many with gaping tropical ulcers or recovering from cholera. As we were towed by a tugboat down the river, I was still so weak that I ignored everything around me and could not even bring myself to respond to the others making idle chitchat on the peaceful journey downstream. Calmly scything through the jungle I knew I was leaving the hell of camp life.

After an overnight stop, where we slept in a cutting on the riverbank, we arrived at Chungkai hospital camp. It was then that I realised how lucky I was. A massive place, it was located in a jungle clearing beside the Meelong River, near where the railway commenced and about a hundred kilometres from Bangkok. To think that all of the men in that square mile were either sick or recovering from illness and injury really tells a tale in itself. There were nearly ten thousand survivors gathered in the camp in various states of decay. It was the first time that I could grasp the vast, industrial scale of the railway.

On arrival at Chungkai British orderlies met us at the riverbank. Our state horrified them. They carried me by stretcher to a hospital hut, where they categorised me and left me alone. Lying on a short bamboo cot with no bedding, I looked around. In the long, bright hut lay about thirty others all in much the same decrepit state. Cholera had been the final straw for my health and I could no longer walk. Dysentery, malaria, beriberi and gaping tropical ulcers that engulfed both ankles and lower calves had been enough but cholera finished me off. Mentally, losing control of my legs was too much. Either I was too damned weak or they were irreparably damaged, because no matter what my brain instructed them to do I could no longer even move my legs.

I was so devastated that I thought I may as well be dead. Having led such a full, active and sporting life, losing my legs was worse than going blind for me. I had real fears that I would never walk again and so depression set in. I could not see a glimmer of light at the end of tunnel – only blackness.

Some orderlies came into the hut and gave us all a liquid meal, which had some egg in it and milk – either goat or coconut, I could not be sure. If I tasted it now, it would probably be foul but at the time it was wonderful. The best thing I had tasted in over a year.

I lay in that hut for over a week with the black dog of depression nipping at my sorry heels. The cheery orderlies and doctors tried talking to me to lift my spirits but my mind was unresponsive. I could see that they were not trying to help me walk again so I felt that they were just pacifying me. Like all of the patients I dreaded the nightly agonising round of the orderlies who scraped out our suppurating ulcers with a sharpened dessert spoon. The only highlight of my day was food. I was definitely a difficult and moody patient.

One of the doctors was a very tall Australian medical officer, and he conducted my general examination. I was greatly impressed by him during my brief consultation. A striking figure with an aura of authority and leadership, he seemed never to waste his words or actions – as if every single minute were utterly necessary and priceless. The orderlies all worshipped him.

They told me his name was ‘Weary’ Dunlop. He worked miracles at Chungkai and enjoyed the adulation of his men for taking numerous beatings from the Japanese to prevent sick men from being sent to work.

Shortly after his capture on Java in March 1942 he had personally saved the lives of four patients. The Japanese had stormed into the prison hospital and demanded that it be broken up. Their commanding officer ordered that four of the boys – two paraplegics and two blind lads – should be bayoneted. Colonel Dunlop put himself between the Japanese bayonets and a young British serviceman, Billy Griffiths, who had been blinded and lost both hands when he walked into a booby trap. In the tense stand-off that followed the Japanese backed down. (After the war Griffiths became a leading figure in the development of disabled sport in the UK and both men were reunited on the This Is Your Life television programme.)

Dunlop set a shining example of how officers ought to conduct themselves and gave all too many a showing up. He was twice threatened with execution but intervened constantly on behalf of the sick men. He introduced order, fairness, record-keeping and above all hope to Chungkai.

Dunlop became a legendary figure both during and after the war, and was knighted for his amazing bravery and for saving countless lives. When Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop died in 1993, he was rightly given a full state funeral in Melbourne.

After a couple of weeks of feeding and rest they decided I was ready for rehabilitation. I took some amount of convincing but once they hoisted me out of bed and started carrying me from the hut, my protests were futile.

My admiration and respect for the medical staff would only increase with every day at Chungkai. Despite their mammoth task and the flood of sick men dumped at the camp every day, their dedication and patience were aweinspiring. They had built parallel bars outside with a canopy over the bamboo apparatus for shade. Men used the gymnastic-type equipment to learn to walk again, holding themselves upright with their arms and upper body and retraining their legs. On my first visit the staff sat me down on a stool beside the bars and I watched a man struggle and strain, with beads of sweat streaming down his forehead, to walk the length of the bars, helpers waiting to catch him if he fell. I thought to myself, I’ll never be able to do that.

But that was to come. First the orderlies had much simpler, allegedly more achievable tasks for me to tackle. As I sat there on the three-legged stool they attached to my right foot a small bag with some sand or dirt in it.

‘Try and lift your foot off the ground. Even an inch will do.’

I tried but nothing happened. My brain was willing but my foot refused to budge.

‘Keep trying,’ they encouraged. But no matter what I tried it wasn’t moving. Within minutes I was exhausted and they told me to rest. They left me alone, stewing in self-loathing, and came back half an hour later.

‘Try again. But this time I want you to concentrate with all your might from brain to foot. It’s all about mind over matter.’

From an early age I had relished a challenge and I hated being beaten. I focused my eyes on the hairs on my foot and willed it to move. After a while the orderlies shouted, ‘Yes, you did it!’ Although I never saw it I must have raised my foot half an inch and for the next couple of hours I sat there trying to repeat it. I was sweating like a pig, the frustration oozing out of me as I made incremental progress. The old stubborn Alistair was returning. By the end of the session I could lift both feet an inch off the ground.

The staff carried me back to my hut, where I fell asleep exhausted. The next day they took me back and sitting on that stool I managed to raise my leg two or three inches. I felt ready for the parallel bars and the orderlies agreed. They lifted me up and held my shrunken backside as I dangled my useless legs. Being on my feet felt surreal, as if I had never walked before. They pushed me to try to move a leg.

‘You moved your leg when you were sitting down so you can do it now.’

Try as I might, I couldn’t get my legs to move.

‘Don’t worry about it if you can’t. We’ll try again tomorrow.’

I went back to the stool and tried again. Once I had mastered lifting one bag of weights I went on to the next heaviest. I gave up only when completely knackered, and they carried me back to the hut.

On the way back a young chap was walking towards me when he stopped suddenly and said excitedly, ‘It’s not you, is it? Is it you? Is it?’

I recognised him straight away. ‘Yes, it’s me, Freddie.’

‘Awright mucker! It’s been a while.’

Indeed it had. It was the first time I had smiled in months. Freddie Brind looked remarkably fit and well, considering. I was not surprised he struggled to recognise me, however. I had lost three or four stone and most of my dignity and self-respect.

One of the medical officers carrying me told Freddie, ‘Alistair here has been learning to walk again. He’s doing very well.’

As they carried me Freddie trailed alongside, talking at a million miles a minute. It was as if we had never been parted. At the hut the orderlies left and we were alone. We were so pleased to see each other. For me he was a breath of fresh air. I had constantly worried about him, his brother Jim and the other lad, John Scott. I still felt like I had let them down, abandoning them at Changi all those months ago. It seemed like a lifetime ago. I wanted to know everything but I struggled to get a word in. He told me he had been at Chungkai for almost twelve months, having arrived with his brother. He did not know what had happened to John, who became separated from them at Changi. But Freddie was more interested in telling me what I should be doing. He might only have been aged fifteen then but he was a truly inspirational figure.

Lying in my bed I must have looked a pathetic, sorry soul. He told me in no uncertain terms, ‘This isn’t you, Alistair. You need to pull yourself together. You can do it.’

He must have noticed the deep-rooted scepticism that lay behind my watery eyes.

‘You can do it all right, mucker. I’ll see to it. In fact I’ll have you swimming across that river before you know it. I swim across it every day to collect dead bamboo for the cooks’ fires and you can come with me, it’s a breeze.’

‘No way,’ I said. I couldn’t even walk – I couldn’t see how I could ever possibly swim again.

‘You wait and see,’ he beamed. ‘Wait there.’

He dashed off. Good old Freddie, I smiled. He had made it. The senior Gordon Highlanders officers must have pleaded with the Japanese not to send the boys to the railway and instead to the relative safety of Chungkai. I was surprised, though, that they had not been kept at Changi, which may have been safer. Still Freddie looked healthy and the glint in his eyes registered that he remained as cheeky as ever.

Freddie soon returned with some cake – and his brother Jim. It was great to see him too. He had lost some weight but still looked quite healthy. He was the same old Jim; it was impossible to get a word out of him. Instead I devoured the cake, which he called ‘Gula Malacca’ and told me was made from the sap of a palm tree. It was extremely sweet and tasty – the first amount of sugar to pass my lips in two years. It was possibly not the best thing for me, as I had some bowel problems after that but it was so delicious that it was worth it. I stopped short of asking Freddie where he got it from; I didn’t want to know. And if Freddie had been in Chungkai for a year without my supervision to rein in his unbridled curiosity and enthusiasm, he no doubt knew every nook and cranny of the place.

From then on I saw Freddie daily. He swam across the river every day to collect firewood for the cooks. All of the wood around the camp had already been pilfered so the best pickings were across the 150-yard-wide stretch of fast-flowing brown water. He would dash across, bundle together a load and haul it back behind him. For his efforts the cooks gave him extra food. The Japanese knew of his exploits but never stopped him. He was doing no harm and he always returned. Even they found it difficult to be mad with Freddie.

He was also embroiled with the Australians and their clandestine cigarette production and distribution racket. All of these activities were done at night and were so well concealed that the Japanese never shut them down as long as I was there. Freddie told me how they made the cigarettes. They used a flat wooden board, which had a thick parchment attached to it that rolled around a thin piece of bamboo glued through it. The tobacco, which must have been smuggled inside the camp through the wire, was placed on the parchment. Paper came from books – usually the Bible, which was the preferred choice as it best kept alight – and it was rolled around the bamboo stick, wrapping itself around the tobacco. Once licked and sealed it formed a perfect smoke. I was amazed at how professional the cigarettes looked. The Dutch, who mainly kept to themselves, had their own operation.

Freddie was the Australians’ top salesman. A natural barrow boy he could sell fish to the sea. He sneaked from hut to hut, group to group – he was never caught – and flogged his illicit wares. After some time, he told me, he had established a large clientele and everyone knew him as the boy in the know. He was paid a cut from the earnings and always had dollars in his pocket. While I never approved of his occupation, I was always grateful for the food he purchased for me from the sanctioned canteen. The supplements to my diet, which included two-egg omelettes, molasses, coconut and papaya, assisted in my recovery and probably later helped save my life.

Meanwhile the medical orderlies told Freddie in no uncertain terms – which were often the only terms he fully responded to – not to interfere with my rehab. But after Freddie’s arrival on the scene I approached my physical exercises with a renewed vigour. Through sheer hard toil I slowly started to make headway. Day by day my movement returned. I lifted all of the weights attached to my foot and progressed to the parallel bars. Once I could struggle from one end to the other with help from my arms, they gave me a pair of crutches. After a few weeks on them I graduated to just one crutch and eventually was walking unaided, albeit with a pronounced rolling, John Wayne-like gait.

Despite my weeping tropical ulcers and still faltering walk, I was recovering well. In the evenings Freddie and I would talk for hours, much like we did on top of the hill at Changi. I even took in several theatrical shows, which the men had organised themselves. They were always outrageous burlesque affairs, held on a rickety stage and with an improvised orchestra. There was a piano, trumpet, saxophone and drums, and always plenty of laughs. It was a real boost to the spirits.

Compared with the other camps this truly was a holiday camp. I hardly ever saw a guard, let alone a coordinated or even random beating or punishment. Men walked about freely, traded, smoked cigarettes, sang songs and even played sports.

Reading between the lines and picking up on snippets of overheard conversations, I soon realised just how unlucky I had been. The Kanyu camps, under the sadistic rule of the Black Prince, were by far the worst camps I heard about. Other men talked of earning weekly pay for their work on the railway, which they saved and spent in canteens in their camps or when they got to Chungkai. Others enjoyed days off and long weekends. Some Japanese allowed men to sing rousing songs as they worked. Other prisoners had chatted with native lassies as they strolled past and traded with locals.

As I ventured further from my hut, exploring the vast camp, I saw dozens of blokes hopping around with legs lopped off. They were mainly victims of gangrene brought on by tropical ulcers. A couple of the senior doctors at Chungkai had been doing an incredible number of amputations and with rudimentary equipment and no anaesthetics, had attained amazingly high success rates. One of these doctors, a Canadian called Captain Marko, had performed 120 amputations.

As my condition improved I was able to take in the amazing hospital camp operation. Artisans and tradesmen among the prisoners had made an astonishing array of medical equipment, adapting old Ovaltine cans, Japanese beer bottles and mess tins to become retractors, saline drips and anaesthetic masks. They employed bamboo to make shunts, false legs, a dentist’s chair and even an orthopaedic bed. They set up stills to produce surgical alcohol and distilled water. Drugs were bought on the black market and smuggled in to the camp, I would later learn, by the heroes of the secret ‘V’ organisation – interned British businessmen in Bangkok, who also alerted the neutral authorities to our plight.

Chungkai was about rebuilding minds as well as bodies. Many of us had to relearn how to socialise and to overcome the trauma of the railway. Accordingly there were plenty of organised activities to keep my mind occupied in the evenings. We had so many talented and professional people in our ranks to give classes and talks. There were professors and lecturers in all manner of disciplines but one of the most popular speakers was a cockney burglar, who regularly entertained audiences with tales of how he had robbed his way across London. Chungkai had a great theatre too, a massive and fantastically well-organised place with concerts every Friday and Saturday night. These were of classical, jazz and popular music, along with cabaret shows of a professional level. The one I enjoyed most was called ‘Wonderbar’. It included a can-can routine and the prisoners’ favourite drag queen – Bobby Spong.

One afternoon when I was at the Thai-run canteen buying a coconut with some dollars Freddie had generously insisted that I take, I saw a notice on the message board that caught my eye. I recognised the name immediately.

The handwritten notice proclaimed, ‘E. W. Swanton – renowned cricket commentator and observer to give talk on Test match cricket this evening after dinner at the hut beside the officers’ mess.’

I went on my own, as cricket and especially talk of cricket was too boring an activity for restless Freddie. I had always admired the sport and enjoyed tussling with my brother Douglas on the green down from our house. Ernest William Swanton had been one of Britain’s leading cricket writers and commentators before the war and even claimed to have been taken in his pram to watch the great W. G. Grace batting for London County. The hut was already crammed full when I entered, and pitched in darkness. Once the murmurs subsided a voice at the front began. I knew it was Swanton – he had a very distinguished voice and I recognised his impeccable accent from listening to Test matches on the wireless back in Aberdeen. Swanton, who had joined the Bedfordshires, was wounded during the battle for Singapore and was in hospital when the Japanese overran us. At Chungkai he could often be seen cradling his beloved 1939 copy of cricket bible Wisden, which he had convinced a Japanese censor to mark as ‘Not subversive’.

He introduced himself with his own blend of pomposity and gregariousness and began talking on Test cricket. We stood in reverential silence. Such were his descriptive powers that you could almost hear the compelling crack of leather on willow. Listening to him I was surprised to hear that he was full of praise and admiration for the Australians. He was envious of their hardened attitude and the way they played without fear of reputations. To the harrumphing of some English chaps who stood near me, he proclaimed the Australian great, Don Bradman, as the best player he had ever seen. Bradman’s powers of concentration, he said, distinguished him from his English counterparts, including Denis Compton. ‘It’s the blazing fire in their bellies,’ Swanton recalled. He went on to describe a century that he had witnessed Bradman score, ‘all along the ground, hardly a shot in anger, or an ounce of effort’.

Swanton had us lapping up every word he said. He told of his disappointment at being overlooked by his newspaper, the London Evening Standard, for the 1932 – 3 Ashes tour of Australia, which would become infamous as the ‘Bodyline’ tour. But he dismissed the furore over the series, in which English bowlers perfected a brutal and uncompromising tactical move of aiming deliveries at the head and body of the opposing batsmen, to thwart Bradman in particular, as media ‘hype’. Despite some men offering their views on Bodyline and questions flying at Swanton from all quarters, he swerved the topic. Instead he spoke on the English greats he had seen, including the prolific Wally Hammond, Len Hutton and Mr Bodyline himself, Harold Larwood.

After a mesmerising ninety minutes Swanton wrapped up his talk and the men retreated to their huts. Some stayed behind to speak to him, no doubt raising their contrary views on Bodyline, and I hovered around for a while. I thought of shaking his hand and thanking him for one of the most enjoyable moments I had had in captivity but he seemed well tied up, so I wandered into the warm night air. I took a walk around the camp to stretch my legs that had been aching standing there listening for so long. My ‘happy feet’ were buzzing and so was my mind. The talk had enlivened me.

While it lifted my spirits, it was a stark reminder that there was a world outside this rotten jungle. Chungkai was proving an almost enjoyable period. The only downside for me was that I knew it wouldn’t last. Always looming in the back of my mind was the notion that after my recovery I would be sent back to the railway. I knew that the Japanese periodically asked British commanders for so many men to go back to work on the railway. Obviously the fittest went first. If the required numbers were not provided, the Japanese stormed in and took men at random. Walking back to my hut from the Swanton talk finally feeling weary, I decided to stay put as long as possible. I would fake the state of my health, make it out to be worse than it was, lie to the doctors and avoid seeing them wherever I could. At least my ulcers were taking some time to heal and while they gaped open, surely I would be safe.

After six months or so, once my waddling walk had been ironed out, Freddie decided I was ready to swim across the river with him. I had my doubts but I wasn’t going to let him know that, so I agreed.

Having once been a strong swimmer – one of the best at Bon Accord Swimming Club – I had to have faith in myself. I knew that I could at least keep myself afloat. Freddie reassured me that he was there to save me. ‘I’ve got my lifesaving badge young fellow. I’m more likely to save you,’ I grumbled, as I eased myself down the riverbank and into the water. I stayed by the bank and floundered around with some easy breaststroke until I realised I could float. Not having had a proper bath or shower for more than two years, being submerged in the water was so heavenly. It was amazingly refreshing and I splashed the water over my face as Freddie dog-paddled in circles around me.

‘How does it feel?’ he asked.

‘Like I’m on holiday.’

‘Ready to cross the river?’

‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I said. ‘I’m happy enough here for now. Let me enjoy it.’

The next day we returned. We ventured upstream slightly so that the current of the river would be with us as we swam. I soon trailed behind Freddie, who was an excellent swimmer, and he treaded water until I caught up again. I reckoned it was about four lengths of an Olympic-sized swimming pool – two hundred metres. However far it was, I was completely knackered when I got to the other side. I got my puff back while Freddie gathered some dry wood, and we swam back.

After that I joined Freddie in the river crossings almost every day. I enjoyed the task and it no doubt helped my rehabilitation. I also hoped that I was improving my stock and the wood-collecting duties would prevent me from being sent back to the railway. The thought of returning sent shudders down my spine and I tried not to dwell on it.

But of course I was right. One day the dreadful news came – I was being sent back to work.

An officer found me in the hut and said, ‘Collect your things. You leave in the morning.’

‘Where to?’ I asked, already knowing the answer.

‘Who knows? May God be with you.’

I told Freddie, who outwardly took it rather well. He shook my hand and vowed to keep in touch no matter what. I think I took the departure worse than he did, fearing for the both of us. What was next? I prayed to be spared from another railway camp – even one with a canteen.

In the morning I gathered on the parade square with a few hundred other men. After much waiting around with no information to chew over, we were marched into the jungle. Within a few hours along a narrow path we arrived at another camp. This was known as Tamarkan and was much smaller than Chungkai – it was more like a railway camp, although cleaner and, since it was a recuperation camp, more sanitary. Fears of being sent to work were soothed when the interpreter told us that we would be here only temporarily, before being sent ‘somewhere else’. So for the next few days we kicked our heels. I walked about a lot, trying to keep my fitness levels up for whatever lay before me. It was extremely depressing to be there, especially after Chungkai. An air of resignation hung among us and after a few days we were almost glad to be moving again.

The guards loaded us on to trucks and drove us back to Bam Pong, where I had started my jungle trek all those months and tears ago. It took all day to get there, and we arrived choking with dust and thirst. I did not need to be told what to do when we stopped by a train: the steel carriages looked sickeningly familiar. My mind spinning, stomach churning, I was pushed inside, again with thirty or forty others. Thoughts of being disposed of returned, even though I knew they didn’t need to take us far to do that.

The Korean guard was trying to close the door but desperate men blocked it with their bare feet. They pleaded with him, ‘Leave the door open, please! Please!’

He looked confused, as if he were considering our frantic pleas. This ray of hope spurred the men on.

‘We won’t jump!’

‘We’ll close it at sidings and stops,’ another said.

Unbelievably the guard allowed the door to remain open. It made a hell of a difference. As we got moving it provided an almost pleasant breeze. We could also hang each other outside bum first to do our business in a more sanitary, albeit more hazardous manner. I could not get over the fact of the guard allowing the door to stay open, about the first act of kindness or sympathy I had received from one of them. We all agreed to roll the doors shut when we came to stops so other guards wouldn’t get wind of it and question why it was open. We still had some common sense left in us.

While the breeze helped, it was still a torturous journey. There was nothing to do but stand and wait it out. By now I could shut down my mind more easily than before and ignore terrible thoughts or happenings. But knowing that we had five days to go to get back to Singapore only made the journey longer. At least on the way up to the railway we always thought that the next siding, or next stop, would be our final destination. Now we just knew that it would go on and on, and on . . .

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