to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

15.1 the V Men’s Club

In his auto-biography, Alfred Knights offers a deeper insight into the operations of the V Organization (aka as the V Men’s Club).

[Section 15.2 will address some of the issues concerning other efforts to assist the POWs.]

The one certain fact about the V Men’s Club is that Khun BoonPong was the tip of the spear, so to speak. It was he, with his family, who delivered the contraband that the POWs so desperately needed. They were the one who took the greatest risk and would have suffered the worst if discovered. It was BoonPong in his guise as merchant and supplier who made the necessary contacts at each of the camps to arrange for the delivery of cash and needed items. The latter were mainly medications. The cash could be used to procure items, food in particular, from the local villagers. But medications were not available that way. BoonPong was able to use his father’s position as physician and herbalist to obtain those meds with little suspicion. He successfully outwitted the fabled Kempetai many times.

But if BoonPong was the front man, who were the backers? We know a few of their names thanks to LtCols Toosey and Knights. In their memoirs, they reveal the names that were revealed to them. Immediately post-war, one of them Peter Heath sought out LtCol Toosey just prior to his repatriation. LtCol Knights writes that he met with Heath and Dick Hempson in London some time later. Knights also mentions a Madame Elizabeth (Betty) Millet as having been awarded an O.B.E.

To be Additional Officers of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire:—
Kenneth Graeme GAIRDNER, lately British subject resident in Thailand.
Edward Peter HEATH, The Borneo Company Ltd.
Richard Davey HEMPSON, The Anglo-Thai Corporation Ltd.
For services to British prisoners of war in the Far East.

dated 23 DEC 1947

The booklet provided by the Sirivejjabhandu family museum mentions the following names: Kenneth G Gairdner, R D Hamwim, David Hempson and Peter E. Heath; with Gairdner playing a leading role. Of that group, only Kenneth and Millicent Gairdner left a significant electronic footprint. Millicent was not Thai; her maiden name was DeSilva and she was born in Cambodia likely to diplomat or business man. RD Hamwin is undoubtedly Dick Hempson who Knights also mistakenly calls Dick Henson at other times in his text. Per Knights, Heath and Hempson were the principals.

The central issue to be remembered here is that this was a secret organization. The members may very well have been known to different people at different times by different names. No records were kept, no minutes of meetings, no way to identify those who belonged much less oversaw the organization.

Nor do we know the true origin of this organization. It obviously started some time in mid to late 1942, as British POWs were being ferried to Thailand from Singapore. The one man with the most direct knowledge and access to these POWs was Khun BoonPong. So it is logical to assume that he approached British businessmen that he was acquainted with to see if there was a way to provide some assistance to alleviate their suffering. These business might have access to capital but only BoonPong had access to the POWs.

This conjecture is further supported by the list of camps that received benefits as provided by Knights. These started with LtCol Toosey at Kanchanaburi and extended to Thong PhaPum which is about as far as Khun BoonPong was able to take his boatloads of supplies. At each camp, BoonPong would establish contact with the leaders and arrange a method of exchange of messages and contraband.

Except for the two (Heath and Hempson) who revealed themselves, we can only speculate on the level of involvement of others and even just how many others there truly may have been. Messages would be signed ‘V’, but it was never clear as to what precisely that stood for. One speculation is that it stood for 5 as the number of the original founders. LtCol Toosey tells us that when he met Heath in Bangkok, Heath identified himself as ‘V’. But that might have been just as way of explaining his presence as opposed to his identity as a code name.

In general, it seems as if the organization had two main parts: 1) those who solicited or donated their own money in Bangkok; 2) Khun BoonPong’s family business to make the actual delivers. Who those donors were will never be known. Of one thing, there is no doubt, a large number of the POWs survived due to their efforts.

the Alfred Knights Autobiography

It is problematic and extremely difficult to write the history of a SECRET organization unless its members come forth and reveal them. This does not seem to have happened with the V Men’s Club. I am unable to find any organized account of their efforts. Even the most ‘open’ member, Peter Heath, seems never to have written of their exploits.  

That leaves us with Alfred Knights’ autobiography.

First I feel compelled to write a general review of this book. As an overall opinion I’d rate it as 6/10 at best. Given that he provides a wealth of new (to me) information, he does so in a fragmentary way. His narrative fails to name his fellow POWs in any identifiable way (e.g. Maj Harvey, without a first name or other identifiers). There is a complete absence of dates. He often confuses names; he writes of Dick Hempson and Dick Henson, but they are the same person. He describes his trek from Kanchanaburi to Tasao (aka Tarsao) as going via LatYa. At first, I thought that this, too, was an error on his part until I discovered the route using the Tadan bridge near LatYa that workers used to get past the WangPo area prior to the completion of the trestle.

He makes many minor errors that I can identify. This brings down a curtain of uncertainty on other aspects of his narrative. What else might be incorrectly remembered? I place some of the blame for these inaccuracies on the editor and publisher. The book was not published until 2012; many years after Alfred’s death (1971). There would have been ample opportunity to use additional sources to ensure that names, dates and places were correctly identified. Seemingly, they chose to stay with Knights’ original and uncorrected text. IMHO, they failed at their job as editors. Perpetuating errors does not serve the common good nor the true history of the events in question.

In an Appendix they include a fragmentary and confusing set of ‘messages’ concerning the V Organization. The source (and therefore the validity) of these messages is not revealed. As will be shown in Section 15.2, they paint a very unflattering picture of the British war-time government’s lack of commitment to assist their POWs.

To date, this Appendix is the most complete (if jumbled and fragmentary) account of the V Organization’s activity that I have encountered. It leaves much to be desired.

[Also see Section 15.3 for an account of Danish efforts to aid the POWs]