LIVES ON THE LINE
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
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,
LEN ( BLUEY) GOOLEY 4TH AMMO SUB PARK, D FORCE
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