to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

22.0 ANECDOTES

There are any number of fragmentary and not well documented (and at times quite disturbing) anecdotes about the romusha and the overall TBR saga. These bear reporting if only to log them for future investigation. Many of them are provided by Prof. Boggett in his essay series (see Section 20.7).

The worst is a story that he apparently extracted from post-war trial transcripts[1] in which a Malay romusha accuses the IJA of cannibalism[2] when rations ran short in the highlands camps circa APR 1943. His account is quite vivid – almost to the point of being believable.  

Perhaps only slightly less disturbing are tales of sexual predation. The first occurred during the ‘recruitment’ of romusha workers in Southern Malaya. Boggett[3] tells the tale that Tamils he terms kiraniapparently fellow Tamils that were mid-level overseers of the plantation coolies (I believe the word is actually kerini = the Tamil word for ‘clerk’ )– were enlisted by the occupying IJA to ‘assist’ in recruitment of their subordinates. Their cooperation was reportedly induced but a promise of immunity from such deportation for themselves and their families. Boggett recounts how one of the groups targeted were young married men. Their now abandoned wives (young and pretty) were them coerced into becoming mistresses of the recruiters in return for food and shelter.

Not a few Tamils accepted the ‘contracts’ from the IJA and boarded the north-bound trains with their meager belongings and families. Boggett[4] suggests that at some of the more isolated camps the women were not infrequently sexually abused by the IJA camp guards. Fragmentary reports say that some of those romusha (to include some Burmese-Mon women) found their way into comfort stations (IJA brothels aka iangio). One of these was located where the popular HinDat hot springs pools are today. It is generally accepted that the majority of the comfort women were Koreans. US POWs report that the first train they saw on the TBR was carrying a group of such women.

While there are only a few reports of such exploitation farther north, the ‘recruitment’ of Burmese workers took a similar twist. While the IJA fought in central and western Burma, parts of the eastern sectors that bordered Thailand were administered by collaborating Burmese officials — again similar to the Vichy French arrangement in Europe. When they received requests to ‘recruit’ workers for the TBR, the first on their lists of ‘recruits’ to be rounded up were their political (and personal?) enemies.[7] It is said that so many young men were shipped south to the TBR that rice production fell to nearly starvation levels. Here the figure of 85K Burmese / Mon recruits is mentioned — see below.

Another undocumented anecdote concerns a post-war encounter between an Australian graves searcher and an IJA Corporal who claimed to have been an administrative clerk. He provided what seems to be the single first-hand (if not well documented) report of romusha numbers. The Corporal[5] related figures of 250K Malayans and 100K Javanese who worked the TBR. Of those, at least 170K were said to have died there. Since this clerk was at a highlands camp in Thailand, it is doubtful that he would have access to figures or nationalities working either in Burma or on the Kra Isthmus railway. So such figures, if accurate in themselves, are bare minimums.  

One aspect of the IJA record keeping tends to confuse any figures for the romusha. At times, the IJA counted and sorted people by nationality; at other times by ethnicity. By the former, a Malayan could be a Tamil, a native or even Chinese from Malaya. By the latter, Chinese could mean a Thai, a Malayan or possibly a Singaporean. So it is difficult to add figures from different places and times to arrive at accurate figures. The Allied POWs were seeming sorted only by nationality. The only time ethnicity might have complicated matters is that most of the KNIL soldiers (Dutch nationals) were actually Javanese natives or mixed blood Eur-Asians. Generally only the officers were European Dutch.

In another essay, Prof Boggett claims that Indian soldiers serving with the British Army in Malaya were separated from their white European colleagues and that some ended up on the TBR with Tamils from Malaya.[2] Ethnic sorting? In addition to the scant information that Vietnamese worked the TBR, Bogget also relates an anecdote that Laotians were imported as well. [7] It stems from reports of a cluster of Lao-speakers near Three Pagodas Pass more than a generation post-war. In that same essay, he quotes a Burmese author who suggests that the number of Burmese / Mon workers on the TBR was closer to 120,000 as opposed to the generally accepted figure of 85,000 — once again no actual documentation exists.

The POWs, too, introduced uncertainty into the historical record by their lack of understanding of the geography and place names. At times they simply mis-heard the Thai names and twisted them into their own usage. My favorite is the place they called Tamwin; which turns out to be Tha Muang. Many of the camps along the TBR are referred to in multiple ways. Sometimes the Americans, British and Dutch all called the same location by a different names. Upon their arrival on the trains they all seemed to know that they were in BanPong. But they failed to appreciate that after a 2-3 Km trek they had arrived at one of the NongPlaDuk camps. Other place names are a mix of Japanese and Thai; Kin Sai Yok for example where the ‘Kin’ was added by the IJA.


In another undocumented statement, Prof Boggett makes the claim that the Thai-anusorn Shrine “mentions the deaths of Japanese military personnel”[6]. I can find no such reference. The translated inscriptions clearly mention both romusha and POW deaths, but not a word about IJA soldiers. [see Section 14.3 for the full Thai-anusorn story]

One of the more bizarre stories that persists to the present day is also touched on by Prof Boggett[7]: that of the Ban Lichia cave treasure. Perhaps not quite as well known as the Philippine’s Yamashita’s treasure, the thought of spoils stolen from Burma and buried near Thong PhaPum still brings the occasional fortune seekers to that area. Boggett claims that he was able to trace the rumors of sure a buried treasure to IJA soldiers who settled in that area post-war, rather than return to Japan. [see Section 21.0 for similar stories] This controversy was reignited when a Thai Army General was found to have an extraordinary amount of (unexplained) wealth that he bequeathed to heirs in his will. He had been known to be a ‘believer’ in this treasure! Had he found it?

Another group who were victims of the war in Burma were the ‘working elephants’. Again we thank Prof Boggett for a story by a Burmese mahout [7], who says that pre-war there were as many as 10,000 elephants then by 1945 there were only 2,000. There seems to be three reasons for this: 1) some were killed for their ivory; 2) some were used on the TBR; 3) many were ‘drafted’ as pack animals as the IJA withdrew into Thailand. A lieutenant in the IJA relates how the elephants received equal pay (1 rupee per day) as their human counterparts working the TBR.

It is of note that no US POW was seriously injured or executed (murdered) by a guard. But one POW admits to murder. For the sake of his family I will not identify him nor the exact location. He related the circumstances during an Oral History interview. He and an Australian POW were involved with a Japanese guard in some black market-style trading. The guard had freedom of movement. He would take money or items to trade and return with items the POWs needed. On that fateful day, he returned with an unusually large haul. He let it be known that he was supposed to be on liberty and not at the camp. The two POWs produced a knife and killed him dumping his body in one of the open latrines. Reportedly no one ever found that body and the 2 POWs walked away with his money and goods. [To me this story seems a bit up-side-down as to whose ‘goods’ the POWs actually stole, but I can only relate the incident as it was told by the perpetrator. It also sees incredible that he would include such a confess in a public interview. Bizarre!]

Per the MANSELL website the only British prisoners working on the Burma end of the railway were known as the British Sumatra Battalion: 498 British 2 Australians from Sumatra under Capt Authored, including Australian surgeon Colonel Coates worked at the 18-kilo camp then joined the Americans under Capt Fitzsimmons.[8]

There is also a report by one of the USN personnel (again I will not ID him) stating that he had quite a disdain for LTC Tharp. In his mind, Tharp was too accommodating to the IJA guards and camp commandant. This POW stops short of calling him a collaborator, but describes how other officers — both Army and Navy — did a much stronger job of standing up for the enlisted men. He goes on to describe how Tharp managed to hide a .22 caliber single-shot pistol throughout his POW time. This POW claims that the Japanese knew of this weapon but never took it from him. [It makes one wonder if this POW was not somehow a bit disturbed and/or delusional.]

Finally, there is one additional anecdote that pertains to the US Field Artillery unit on Java. One survivor describes how, as the 2/131 moved west to prepare for the defense of Java, they dragged with them excess cannons (probably belonging the the evacuated 26th Bde) and left them disabled and unmanned all over the island. Later, the IJA questioned the members of E Battery about the ‘other soldiers’ who manned those guns.

[1] AUS War Memorial collection document 54/1010/9/94 and ANA Collection document A476/1-80794

[2] Boggett essay Part 24 text and footnotes

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Boggett essay part 28 page 81

[7] Boggett essay 22

[8] http://www.mansell.com/pow_resources/camplists/death_rr/movements_1.html