There were certain policies of the Japanese military that affected the saga of the TBR:
- The Koreans
Japan overran the peninsula of Korea in the early years of the 20th century. They turned it into a colony and attempted to wipeout the Korean culture. The natives were forced to adopt Japanese names and speak Japanese. Schools taught Japanese culture, in Japanese of course. The young men were conscripted into the military. But they were never trusted to fight. They were assigned support duties; one of these being that of POW camp guards.
2. POW policies
a. Separation by Nationality
Within the prison camps the men were separated by nationality. Each group was housed separately. Generally, there was freedom of movement within the camp but each was responsible for its own administration and daily activities like cooking and feeding. Within those groups, however, branch of service was completely ignored. All were blended together as a group.
b. Separation of Officers
A somewhat less universally applied policy was the separation of the officer from the enlisted – or as the British called them – the ORs (other ranks). This was designed to deprive them of leadership so as to better control them.
It is a testimony to LTC Tharp’s negotiating skills that he was able to maintain command and control of a large portion of the battalion throughout this ordeal. When the 2/131 met up with the HOUSTON survivors at the Bicycle Camp in Batavia, most of the NAVY officers had already been sent to other destinations. Tharp simply assimilated the sailor and marines.
For another group there was a different purpose. Many of the troops captured in Singapore were Indians. Their British officers were immediately removed. The Japanese then proceeded to try to entice them to join the IJA effort to oust the British from India. This was moderately successful. It is well documented that many of the Sikh troops sided with the Japanese and were used as guards within the camps at Singapore.
One of the early arriving groups at ChungKai were many of these Indian Army officers. It is thought that the machine-gun scene in the famous movie was based on an actual event when the officers refused to perform manual labor. But as they were the bulk of the camp’s inhabitants at the time, they were forced into construction duties.
3. TBR assignments
The TBR was built as two sectors; one in Burma, the other in Thailand. For the most part those who worked in Burma were the Dutch, Australian and US POWs who were captured on Java. They were sent by ship via Singapore.
The POWs who worked in Thailand were primarily British who were captured in Singapore and arrived at BanPong by train. Some units from Java seemed to have had their journeys stalled by lack of ships and were then re-routed to Thailand via train.
Every unit that passed through Singapore seemed to have ‘shed’ men; mainly those too ill to proceed. Later many of these men (including 36 US POWs) were swept up into the F & H Forces that were sent to Thailand as replacement workers.