to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead


WHATIF part 1 POW health

ALTERNATE HISTORY is a genre where one makes a simple change to a known historical event and explores how that might have changed the history of the event or even of the world as we know it. Throughout history, the entire sequence of the future could have been changed if the outcome of a battle or other event simply went another way.

One is forced to take a WHATIF look at the construction of the TBR. Both Futamatsu and Charles Fisher address the remarkable feat that was achieved in building a 415 Km rail line in about a year (the construction time depends on what one accepts as the start date in that 17 OCT 43 is the actual date that the two rail sections met at Konoita).

In reality, it took some 61K POWs and 250-500K romusha to perform this miracle. But they were forced to labor under the most severe deprivation imaginable. Men, who could barely stand, labored for hours in the relentless sun or rain. As time wore on, even those who were newly arrived on the TBR from Changi were already in a malnourished and deprived state of health. In the latter stages of the build, most work was taking place in the mountainous areas on either side of the Thai-Burma border. The geography added to the horror. Fisher tells us that that area was so inhospitable that there were essentially no permanent villages there. “Little food could be obtained locally in the mountain area, which was very sparsely settled. Such cultivation as existed took place mainly on the eastern side of the river, but was on too small a scale to yield any appreciable surplus for the thousands of labourers employed in building the railway.”  [ pg 90 ]. He also notes that unlike the lower regions on either side of this mountainous border area, the rainfall at these higher elevations was more intense. “the Burma sector, in general, since it lies on the windward side of the mountains, has a heavier rainfall than the Thai sector.” [ pg 89 ]

The Kwae Noi River that the Japanese Supply units relied on so heavily could only provide a delivery route as far as the Hintok area. Beyond Thong Pha Poom – Tha Khanun, there were no roads and no river access. The IJA units tasked with providing supplies along the length of the rail way, failed miserably at their assigned duties.

WHATIF the Japanese had made a greater effort to provide for the health and welfare of the laborers? Could fewer ‘fit’ men have done the job better and faster? Rather than provide little or no food and medications to 400-500K laborers, would say 50K healthy have been able to accomplish this engineering marvel? Perhaps even 25 or so thousand young fit military men could have been motivated to ‘get the job done’ if they had been promised a ‘respite’ upon completion. It is clear that after months of nearly endless labor, the last two years at Kanchanaburi (KAN) were like heaven compared to the actual time building the TBR.

COL Toosey’s British contingent who built the bridges over the Mae Klong, were relatively early arrivals and were still fairly fit and healthy compared to the late arrivals. They and the men (Fisher says 2000) who built the Wang Po trestle did so with alacrity and precision. Work was well beyond these points when the ‘Speedo’ period came into play in the spring of 1943. In the worst of the worse conditions, men labored in the higher regions (Three Pagodas Pass is at about 1000 feet above sea level) to complete the connection with their compatriots working from the other direction. Seemingly, the rail way that existed behind them was used mainly to transport the iron rails and other items needed for construction rather than food or other basic necessities. The other scourge that inhibited work in those latter weeks of construction was cholera. F-Force was so badly depleted that parts of H-Force had to be sent forward to assist them in completing their section of the TBR in the highlands. Could an anti-cholera serum (a crude version was indeed available in that era) have been used to keep the POWs alive? The Asian workforce suffered huge numbers of deaths from cholera.

WHATIF trainloads of such supplies had been delivered to these highlands camps? Could a fit force have completed the rail way before OCT 1943? One has to speculate that they could have. One of the driving forces behind the deadline to complete the TBR connection was the planned Japanese military offensive in Burma [ ]. Early trains were loaded with fresh troops for that theater (and some say ‘comfort women’ for such). Could this military offensive been undertaken sooner and possibly with greater success in late 1943 instead of 1944? 

One item in particular stands out in the treatment of the Allied POWs. International Red Cross relief packages were found stockpiled in great qualities in warehouses in Bangkok. The meager numbers of packages that were in fact delivered to the POWs are credited with having an extreme morale-boosting effect and in some cases saved lives. But when they were handed out, it was usually one package for 6-8 men not one per man as they were intended. It was obvious that the IRC was successfully delivering them; the Japanese simply refused (or failed) to provide them to the intended recipients. Of course, the POWs also accuse their captors of taking full advantage of these packets at the expense of the POWs for whom they were intended.

The early plans called for an AUG 43 completion date. It was when they fell behind schedule that the Railway Engineers demanded more ‘output’ = the Speedo period from about MAR-OCT 43. It actuality, they achieved their goal of an OCT completion, but the cost in human lives was extreme to say the least. The part of H-Force that was leap-frogged up to where F-Force was working was one of the few work groups that were sent ahead of their assigned sections. For example, the US POWS under LTC Tharp, spent almost their entire TBR time in the 80 to 115 KILO area in the Burmese mountains. They finished their assigned portion just on the Burmese side of the border about late SEP. But then they were put to work logging for firewood to feed the trains. They stayed in the mountains, deprived of food and basic necessities until early 1944 when they were finally moved to the KAN camp area. By 1944, trains were running regularly, ferrying in men and supplies to the Burmese Theater and carrying out the sick and wounded. But these same trains could have been used to send supplies to the POWs in those highland camps. They simply weren’t! How much of a problem would it have been to add a few bogies to a returning train at Thanbyuzayat and drop them off in the mountain camps? Instead the Allied POWs, and more intensely the romusha, continued to suffer extreme deprivation even after the TBR was fully operational. Many of the romusha stayed on in these remote camps for many more months. Few were every consolidated to KAN.

Could the failed 1944 Japanese counter-offensive [Japanese invasion of India 1944; ] have been more effective if the TBR had been completed weeks to months earlier and operated at a greater capacity? Various descriptions tell us that the locomotives had to be changed frequently along the way. Smaller, less powerful engines took the bogies up to the Hintok area, then more powerful ones were hooked on to pull the loads up into the highlands. A similar process took place on the Burmese side. These same descriptions relate as to how similar the first 50 or so kilometer sections at each end were in so far as they were traversing flat and unobstructed lowlands.

The essential WHATIF question is: Could fewer, fitter men have done the job better and faster than the way it was carried out? Could lives have been saved, suffering abated, if the Japanese authorities had had any compassion or more professional attitude towards the construction effort? It was literally accomplished by brute force rather than any finesse what so ever! The condition that Fisher found the TBR in immediately after the war attests to the haste with which it was built and brought into operation. For this reason, it never lived up to the predictions or expectations of the Railway Engineering units tasked with building, then operating the line. Immediately after the war, British and Thai authorities drew the conclusion that any commercial usage was not economically feasible. It would have taken an inordinate amount of effort to bring the TBR (as it sat) up to any commercial standard. It had served (for the most part) its intended purpose, but was no longer destine for any future use. Within a few months after war’s end, IJA POWs were used to de-construct the switch-backs at Hintok and the tracks up to Three Pagodas Pass. It took until 1957, for the Thai Railway Authority to rehabilitate the line up to Nam Tok for use primarily as a tourist attraction. Even the possible use as a pure cargo line for mining the mountains, as Fisher suggested might be possible, never came to fruition.

WHATIF part 2 POW food

There is no doubt what so ever that the thing the POWs craved the most was FOOD!

Not only were the rations that they were provided completely inadequate from a nutritional standpoint lacking protein and vitamins mostly, but they were monotonous and unappetizing: a handful of rice or a watery stew. The small amount of calorie intake they had would barely have sufficed as a starvation diet. But when the level of strenuous labor they were forced to perform is added, it become absurdly inadequate.

The basic problem was one of failed logistics.

The IJA units tasked with supporting the effort logistically obviously concentrated on building materials over food and medications. They were, after all, there to support the Railway Engineers and not the POWs.

Realistically, the logistics demand for any sort of basic necessities – food included – are daunting to say the least. Setting aside the romusha for the moment, there were at maximum level perhaps 55,000 Allied POWs present at one time. The POWs arrived in 12 (A-L) groups of varying sizes. So all 61,000 were never present at the same time; plus the deceased need to be deleted. If each of those 55K were allocated just 1 kg of supplies (food and drugs) per day, there would have been a need to move nearly 30 metric tons per day! This is in addition to the railway supplies.

It is not hard to make a rough estimate of the massive amount of those supplies required. Counting the sidings, they were approximately 650 Km tracks laid. The iron rails were in 10m sections each weighing about 300 Kg. That calculates out to 130K rail sections weighing nearly 20,000 metric tons! Since most of that iron was looted from other rail lines as far away as Java moving the rail sections alone was a nearly impossible task. Add to this at least one bridge (the existing one at Kanchanaburi) that was looted from Java. All of that had to be delivered by rail to the working ends of the TBR. Over the course of the 1-yr build time this would mean 1600 metric tons per month. Then we need to add least 800 tons per month of POW food and supplies. If we add in the 200,000+ romusha that requirement surges to 3,000 tons/month.

There were also an estimated 250,000 wooden ties (sleepers) required. Most were ‘procured’ locally by cutting and trimming trees in the jungle. In some cases, however, they had to be moved to the point of use, often by rail flat cars.

Given the priorities and the limited capacity of the rolling stock, it is a small wonder that the POWs were fed anything at all! Even the contracts let to Khun BoonPong to supply vegetables and other items to the lower end of the Thai camps by boat along the Kwae Noi River proved inadequate to the demand.

The calories provided by the basic rice diet were little enough, but the lack of protein and vegetables layered on a number of avitaminoses: Beri-beri and Pellagra among them.

The WHATIF I propose here is whether or not the POWs were able to utilize bamboo shoots as a food supplement. The US POWs sing the praises of Dutch Dr. Hekking who was taken as a prisoner on Java and stayed with the Fitzsimmons contingent for most of their TBR time. He was renowned as an herbalist as well as a physician. He is said to have instructed the men on what plants were eatable so that they might have a chance to gather them when they encountered them in the jungle. The POWs vividly recall the size and strength of the bamboo stands that they had to clear for the rail path. Surely there must have been an abundance of bamboo shoots in those stands. And yet, there is nary a mention of eating such in the survivor accounts.

Bamboo shoots

They talk of eating anything that moved or could be located in the jungle. Even at Changi, they talk of eating cats that were kept as pets by the Sikh guards. I am not aware of any culture that regularly included cat among their delicacies! Snake, lizards and all things aquatic in the rivers were fair game to supplement the meager ration of low-quality, worm-infested rice they were provided. Eggs, most often purchased from local villagers, were considered a life-saving delicacy. And yet, Melfred Forsman (OH521) is the only POW I have encountered so far that mentions harvesting shoots in the jungle. Granted they are not the most nutritious of food items, but a quick internet search reveals that they do provide some vitamins and fiber as well as some benefits to the immune system. Since rampant infections of Tropical Ulcers were a major plague, any enhancement of their immune systems would have been beneficial, no matter how small. I suppose then if, as Forsman suggests, the POWs did access bamboo shoots, they had less of a beneficial effect than I’d have expected.

We’ll likely never know exactly which jungle plants the POWs were able to scavenge and add to their diets, but I’d suggest that bamboo shoots should have been near the top of that list.

WHATIF Part 3 Mechanical Equipment

It is more than well documented that the entire length of the TBR was built with little more than hand tools. The resourceful POWs devised various methods to ease their work using what little the jungle offered such as bamboo to make a litter to move dirt. Survivor accounts note that in only two instances were air-driven drills used to ease the labor of making the many cuttings through limestone along the route.

Yet the IJA were fairly resourceful in their own right. One of the best documented ‘innovations’ were the diesel trucks that were converted to run on rails as tiny locomotives. These were apparently used to move supplies in local areas rather than running longer distances along the TBR. Yet, seemingly no other mechanical equipment was even used. It can be readily understood that Thailand would not have had much to offer in that era. Even though the Thai State Railway System was fairly well developed (due mainly to the British influence), there was a constant scarcity of rolling stock to be used in the TBR. Locomotives were imported from a number of other conquered countries and even sent from Japan itself. But there were never enough.

One has to ask why even in the area say between BanPong and Kanchanaburi where the terrain were reasonably flat, no ‘equipment’ — not even ox-carts — seemed to have been utilized to more dirt and stone. The best documented ‘equipment’ were elephants that were mainly used to move trees for the bridges and viaducts.

Of course, given the general failure of the IJA Logistics Units, any and all mechanical equipment would have added the burden to procure and supply fuel. That, too, I’d imagine was in short supply.

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