A for­mer Aus­tralian pris­oner of war re­calls how he cheated death as a slave labourer on the no­to­ri­ous Thai- Burma rail­way in a new book by Pat­tie Wright

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

LEN and his wife, Verna, are gen­tle peo­ple. They’ve been to­gether a long time and are very close. They are both over 80 years old and go danc­ing three times a week. Len started on the Line ( the Thai- Burma rail­way) at Ban Pong and over the next 15 months he of­ten worked as a

hu­man pile- driver’’ on 40km of rail­way be­tween the Ton­chan and Rin Tin camps.


THERE were 40 of us Sub Park blokes who went up on the rail­way with Syd Bar­ber as our War­rant Of­fi­cer. Our Com­man­der, Reg New­ton, called us Al­ley Bar­ber and his 40 Thieves. I was a ham­mer and tap man with Banjo Pat­ter­son, my mate from Mt Barker. His name was Wal­ter, but I was the only one who knew that, as we didn’t have much time for Chris­tian names up there. I was Bluey be­cause of my red hair. He was a red­head as well, but Banjo is ob­vi­ous, isn’t it?

The Japs used us as hu­man pile- driv­ers, as well as ham­mer and tap teams, ev­ery­thing; no lack of work up there, es­pe­cially when we were build­ing bridges. We built a big one, I re­mem­ber, up in the Ton­chan area. We would fell a thick tree trunk and then wedge four han­dles into it and use it as a pile- driver. We had to lift it up and drop it, lift it up and drop it, to drive the tree trunk into the ground, which then be­came part of the bridge.

We moved back and forth through most of the camps in that area at the whim of the Japs. It was Ton­chan South that we were most anx­ious to leave, be­cause it was there that we hit cholera for the first time. I re­mem­ber one of our blokes start­ing to vomit when we were out work­ing this day. I can’t re­mem­ber who he was now, but we knocked up a makeshift stretcher and took him back to camp and he was dead the next night. The cholera fright­ened us more than any­thing else.

Rin Tin wasn’t a camp un­til we marched in. It was just jun­gle that we had to clear be­fore we built the huts, and they quickly be­came lousy. We moved up from Ton­chan to Rin Tin by barge this day and the rope broke and for a few min­utes we were free. When it hap­pened and we started to float down­stream, we started to yell, ‘‘ We’re free, we’re free.’’ We weren’t any­where near it, of course, but it was a good mo­ment. For a few pre­cious sec­onds we mused about go­ing out to sea and sail­ing home.

This is an ex­am­ple of Jap in­hu­man­ity, one I haven’t forgotten. When we were at one of the Ton­chan camps, we were on an­other small bridge, lay­ing the sleep­ers for the Line. There was a poor old coolie work­ing on the Line with us and this Jap of­fi­cer came down fast on a rail hand­cart. We saw him in time and got off the Line, but the na­tive didn’t and the Jap came along and knocked him over and killed him. The Jap laughed his head off; he thought it was a great joke. What up­set us was the way that he laughed,


putting aside for the mo­ment the fact that the na­tive died. As they said, they were go­ing to build this rail­way and ‘‘ many men must die’’.

Reg­gie was in charge and be­cause of that he stood up and took many a beat­ing. Given what any Jap could do to you up there, Reg New­ton was brave each day. A lot of times we thought he was go­ing to get his head cut off. Ev­ery­one who was there would say that they got home be­cause of Reg.

The Tiger, the Jap in charge of our camp, was a bad one, but Reg­gie got around him. The Tiger was a gam­bler and Reg­gie worked that to his favour once, where he saved Shortie Cooper’s life. Shortie was caught steal­ing from the Japs and he was go­ing to be ex­e­cuted, but Reg got The Tiger to agree to Shortie stand­ing out in front of his hut with a sign that said, ‘‘ I am a thief’’. That saved Shortie’s life.

Over­all, I think Reg was a bully and I think he bul­lied The Tiger and fright­ened him. Reg would roar at The Tiger, hence his name: ‘‘ Roar­ing’’ Reg. We were lucky to have Reg New­ton and that is ev­i­denced by the fact that the ca­su­al­ties in D Force were one of the low­est, and it was most def­i­nitely be­cause of him.

There was a theft of a watch on the Line in one of the early camps. A chap had his watch pinched and Reg­gie knew who it was. So he picked four blokes and they dished out the pun­ish­ment and then there was no more steal­ing from then on. To me it shows how prac­ti­cal the man was; no muck­ing around for any­one, on ei­ther side.

Doc Hin­der and Reg and an­other of­fi­cer, Lieu­tenant Ralph Sanderson, were red- hot on hy­giene and clean­li­ness and we ben­e­fited from their ef­forts. You had to ster­ilise your dixie be­fore you got your rice and it worked. There were only seven Aus­tralians who died from cholera at Ton­chan South while the Bri­tish lost 132, and

there was only a lit­tle creek be­tween us. How of­ten do you hear that story, but it was true — you paid at­ten­tion to hy­giene and you got div­i­dends, which was: you stayed alive.

I don’t know how Doc Hin­der looked af­ter the sick be­cause he had such lim­ited med­i­cal sup­plies. The Japs were pay­ing us for work­ing and Reg kept that money to buy sup­plies from a Thai trader named Boon Pong. That bloke went up and down the river with food and med­i­cal sup­plies and what­ever else he could get through, try­ing to help. Now there’s a hero — he should have been knighted for what he did. He risked his life a thou­sand times over for us. We saw him on his boat on the river a few times and I know he got Doc Hin­der a sup­ply of qui­nine.

In all of the jun­gle camps we slept on a ground­sheet, mostly un­der a tent fly, which had just enough room for you to lie down. We were usu­ally so bug­gered that we’d just go to sleep, but some­times you’d lie there and think about things. I can hon­estly say, not once did it ever en­ter my head that I wasn’t go­ing home. We’d lie down and the blokes would ask me to sing, so I’d sing songs that were pop­u­lar just be­fore the war, like Show Me the Road to Go Home; Two Dreams Met ; Pen­nies from Heaven ; Maori’s Farewell ; We’ll Meet Again . Then the blokes would say, ‘‘ That’s enough, Bluey, that’s enough.’’

The day I re­mem­ber more than any other was when Ron Hol­ber­ton and I nicked a tin of straw­berry jam in the early part of it all, around Kan­chanaburi. Ron said, ‘‘ Let’s keep it for some­thing spe­cial.’’ So I said, ‘‘ It’ll be my twenty- first birth­day in May.’’

‘‘ We’ll keep it for that, then.’’ We had it with rice for my twenty- first. I spent my birth­days around the place as I had one birth­day in Sin­ga­pore, two in Siam on the Line and one in Ja­pan. We don’t talk about the bad things,

‘ It was the lack of dig­nity, the lack of not be­ing able to do any­thing about our cir­cum­stances that cut so deeply’

be­cause if it wasn’t hap­pen­ing to you, it was hap­pen­ing to some­one you knew. See­ing some­one with a piece of wood be­hind their knees, crouched down with a bit of a tree branch be­tween their legs, and ev­ery time they got up they got a belt­ing. Or they were hold­ing a rock above their heads, hardly able to hold the weight of it, with their arms at full stretch, and if they low­ered it, they would be wal­loped. And you were grate­ful that you were not in that po­si­tion your­self, feel­ing, maybe, bad that you were feel­ing like that. So we put it qui­etly away.

You know, it was the lack of dig­nity, the lack of not be­ing able to do any­thing about our cir­cum­stances that cut so deeply. There was lit­tle to no civil­i­sa­tion up there for us and the base­ness of how we were ex­pected to live, quite apart from be­ing de­prived of our free­dom and at times our san­ity, was very tough. But over all this, our main ob­jec­tive was to stay alive. Just to let them know that they couldn’t con­trol us. Be­ing young helped, and I was young — only 20.

There are de­grees of free­dom, though, aren’t there? We saw com­fort women come into our camp, for ex­am­ple. They were in the last car­riage of one of the trains go­ing through. In fact, The Tiger asked Reg­gie if he wanted women to come into the camp. I wasn’t around for this ex­change, but I heard Reg­gie say he’d pre­fer a few more bags of rice in­stead of women.

Two hun­dred and six of us went away in our unit and 120 came home, and now there are only 13 left. When we see some­one from our unit, like on Anzac Day, or when I’m with Banjo, I look at him and know that his thoughts are what my thoughts are . . . that we beat them, we sur­vived. This is an edited ex­tract from Men of the Line: Sto­ries of the Thai- Burma Rail­way Sur­vivors, by Pat­tie Wright ( Melbourne Univer­sity Press, $ 45).

Eye on sur­vival: Main pic­ture, op­po­site page, Pris­on­ers Con­struct­ing a Rail­way Bridge ( c 1945) by Murray Grif­fin; left, Bluey Goo­ley and the pay book he kept through his time in cap­tiv­ity

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