There was no universal nor common path that the US POWs followed while working the TBR. Perhaps the most typical was that of the largest group, the party led by LTC Tharp himself. There are few official records of their time on the TBR other than IJA rosters that list their camps and time spent there. We can piece together the conditions and their ordeal from the stories of individual survivors as their personal stories were recorded in print.
We they arrived in Burma in Jan 43, this group of some 450 men leap-froged past the smaller (<200) Fitzsimmons Grp and were sent to work in the Burmese mountains at the 80 KILO camp. They spent almost their entire TBR time between the 80 and 110 kilo span moving closer to the Thai border as work progressed. At the time, this area was truly pristine jungle. There were no permanent villages nor inhabitants. No locally-grown foods were available to them. There were also no roads to bring in supplies nor was there a river like the Kwae Noi on the Thai side that paralleled the railway providing a means to ferry in supplies. On the Burma side, the streams and rivers crossed the path of the railway and were purely an obstacle.
Hunger, starvation actually, was the most universal enemy, but disease ran rampant through the camps. Vitamin deficiency diseases: Beri-beri and pellagra were common. Mosquito-borne dengue and malaria were almost universal. The general lack of sanitation led to simple diarrhea as well as both bacterial and amebic dysentery. The slightest wound would become infected and quite often evolved into a Tropical Ulcer. As each of these affected each man consecutively or simultaneously, their health declined rapidly; as did their effectiveness as workers.
All of this misery was compounded when the annual monsoon season began in the spring. Unfortunately for the US POWs, this coincided with Speedo period (MAY-OCT 43) of more intense work effort demanded by the engineers in order to complete the railway as scheduled. As was detailed in the early section on brutality, the US POWs seemed to have avoided some of the worst guards and camp commanders and suffered somewhat less from beatings and executions. ‘Bashings’, however, were frequent if not overtly sever. Only a few of the US accounts describe anything that could be considered torture and even that was infrequent.
Mostly their ordeal involved deprivation and disease leading to debility. As the numbers of sick men increased so did the demand to accomplish more work and faster. This led to the sick men being herded out of the ‘sick huts’ – they hardly qualify to be called hospitals — and sent to work alongside their ‘fit’ colleagues. Sometimes even men on stretchers would be handed a hammer and made to make little rocks out of big ones to be used for ballast among the rails.
There were also the psychological factors. There truly seemed to be no end in sight. Obviously, the individual work parties had no idea of the overall plan, nor when and if it would ever be completed. Each day blended into the next in one long nightmare. They describe their workday as dark to dark. Awakened before dawn, they’d consume a cupful of a watery rice stew and be handed a ball of rice to carry out to the work area. The distance from the camp to the work area varied but could be as much as 5-7 km that they had to walk carrying their tools before the day’s work began. The work-days got longer and longer until in the latter months they stumbled back to camp after dark as well. The monotony of the effort was mind-numbing.
As often as not, this all took place in the rain. In his economic assessment of the TBR, Charles Fisher offers an explanation for the extraordinary amount of rain that they describe: “Finally, 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]
Any diversion from the monotonous routine was exploited. As conditions eased somewhat after the railway was completed, the POWs would conspire to steal whatever the Japanese had. Food was high on the list of sought after items. At Changi in Singapore, especially, there are anecdotes of raids being made on the neighboring nation’s areas to escape with items like bananas. The most oft told tale involves what the Brits entitled the “King’s Bananas”. One such raid garnered the US POWs enough wood to construct a cookhouse to protect their fires from the wind and rain. There did seem to be an honor code of sorts that an individual did not steal the personal possessions of another no matter what nationality they were. Even in the early days of captivity back on Java, the work parties were always on the lookout for anything that might be utilized in some way. Even the TXNG marveled at the ingenuity of the Sailors in improvising common items like eating utensils. This was something of a necessity since they abandoned ship with literally noting but the clothes on their back.
Pets, to a lesser extent, filled a role in the lives of the POWs. The US group apparently had adopted a monkey “Mick the Yank” who would alert the men to the approach of a guard on the prowl for contraband and later to the approach of bombers. There is a common memory of a Dutch POW being rescued from the bombed ship en route to Burma. When he was pulled aboard, there was a cat sitting on his head and that cat stayed with them throughout their TBR time. There is one short-lived tale of finding some cubs (some say tiger others cheetah) in the jungle but fearing that the mother would certainly follow the scent, the guards insisted that they be returned to the jungle the next day. Those guards are said to have spent a few sleepless nights waiting for her possible attack. All this proved great fun and a very necessary means of relief for the POWs.
The best any individual POW could hope for was to be assigned a job off the actual construction gangs. There were a number of tasks that required constant effort such as cooking, gathering fire wood, tending the occasional garden or later the herding of goats and cows that were destine for the stew. These, and other tasks which required relatively little expenditure of effort, became collectively known as ‘rackets’. Each man dreamed of slipping into a racket. One tale seems to rise above the rest in this regard. SGT Luther Prunty in his post-POW interview (OH 689) tells the story of how at the Thamakam camp he came to be deemed the recreation director. He relates that he had snuck out of the camp one night intent on stealing whatever he could find in the IJA sleeping area. Before he got very far, he was apprehended by a guard who asked if he was trying to escape. With the penalty for escape being death, Prunty had to think fast! He told the guard that he was on his way to see the Camp Commander. Almost as if calling his bluff, that is exactly where he was promptly escorted. He was somewhat surprised to find the commander in other than his usual inebriated state. He hurriedly concocted a story about the men needing a diversion and asked if he would be allowed to start playing American Baseball – he was aware that baseball had been introduced into Japan prior to the war. To his amazement, the commander bought his story and named him camp director of recreation – which later expanded to the building of a theater and other sporting events. He finishes – and perhaps embellishes this baseball story with a tale of the much revered and never used “Tournament Baseball” which was in reality a wad of cash and jewelry that the POWs were successfully hiding from the guards!
In their POW-life accounts, many of the British and Australian POWs seem to spend an inordinate amount of time detailing the theatrical performances that they were able to throw together. Both at Singapore and the Java Bicycle camp and to a lesser extent at the Thai ChungKai camp these were seemingly quite elaborate. And they were resurrected in Thamakam after the completion of the TBR.
One item all the men longed for and relished when delivered were the Red Cross Packages. These contained food, clothing and various items of use to the prisoners (toothbrushes, razors). Unfortunately, the IJA Logistics personnel were no more successful at delivering these than they were with any other vital supplies. When they did arrive, they would first be pilfered by the camp guards, then 1 box per 6-8 POWs would be handed over. The intention was for one man to receive 1 box; that simply never happened. The canned food and milk in those packages were credited with saving the lives of many starving POWs. When the POWs reached Bangkok after liberation, they found warehouses full of these packages that were never even attempted to be delivered.
The other aspect of camp life that the men credit with their salvation was the formation of cliques or ‘families’. Here, groups of 3-5 men bonded to each other and shared rewards and hardships. Should one of them come into possession of some extra food, he invariably shared with the others in his ‘family’. If one was bed-ridden the others would look after him. Many men credit their ‘family’ with their survival especially if they were too sick to work or even eat.
Religion seemed to play a minor role for most of the POWs. The Japanese never allowed open religious meetings but the few Chaplains in the group were credited as working as hard as the doctors to keep up the morale of the men. Too many of those who died of whatever ailment was besieging them, seemed to succumb when they just gave up hope. Many of the survivors describe how some of the men just stopped eating and ‘surrendered’ days before dying. Today, I think we’d call it severe depression.
And yet, throughout all of this hardship, the Americans continuously amazed both their fellow prisoners and captors alike with their sense of humor. That humor occasionally dipped towards the dark side, but it sustained them in many ways. It seems that each man was assigned a nickname. This extended to the Korean and Japanese overseers as well. Since the POWs rarely knew or could pronounce the actual Asian names, each had a – mostly derogatory – nickname. There were even times when the POW stood up to a beating while enraging his assailant by laughing uncontrollably.
6.5b Bicycle Camp and beyond
Once the Java-based POWs (mainly native Dutch KNIL soldiers, some Australians and fewer Americans) were consolidated into the Bicycle Camp, life became fairly routine and tolerable. The worst part by far was the monotony of the food which consisted mainly of inferior quality rice garnished by a few unidentifiable vegetables; rarely was there any protein on offer. The American contingent fared somewhat better in that the officers had access to literally bags of money. They secured permission to venture into the local markets to buy additional food – under guard, of course.
During the initial months there, the guards were combat soldiers who generally found it easy duty and had little direct interaction with the POWs. They were happy as long as the POWs caused them no trouble. But about AUG 42, things changed. The combat units were being withdrawn and were replaced by designated POW guard units. Almost by definition, these men were the lowest echelon of the IJA hierarchy. Simply put, they were not considered fit for combat. Many had undergone judicial punishment, demotion and assignment to such units. Many were drunks, some — as the POWs would soon learn – were mentally ill. These were the senior cadre members! Working for them and making up the majority of the guards were Korean nationals. Japan had taken control of the Korean peninsula in the early part of the century and had molded it into a Japanese colony. Koreans were forced to learn the Japanese language and to adopt Japanese names. But they were never considered to be truly Japanese. Hence they were conscripted into the IJA as adjunct members holding the lowest rank with no hope of advancement. Across the Pacific Theater they were assigned support roles like POW guards. In general, they occupied a place in society somewhere just above a coolie / slave. They were known as auxiliary soldiers or ‘heiho’. They seemingly held no actual rank in the Imperial Japanese Army and received a pittance in salary. IAW the bushido code, they should have been happy to be ‘allowed’ to serve the Emperor!
Under the bushido code of the IJA, a soldier was never to surrender. He was duty bound to die accomplishing the mission assigned him by the Emperor. The IJA soldiers to man held the Allied POWs in disdain for not having fought them to the death. The only thing lower in the Japanese class system than the Koreans were the Allied POWs. In addition, physical punishment, regular beatings with whatever instrument was at hand were part of the everyday life of any IJA soldier. The Koreans were regularly so abused by the IJA regular soldiers. They may have been indoctrinated into the bushido code since birth but that don’t mean that subscribed to it.
But the ‘amenities’ of camp life shifted drastically. “Shopping trips” were curtailed; “inspections” became more frequent and the beatings – also commonly referred to as ‘bashings’ – more frequent ad sometimes more intense. In short, the Koreans had little more to do than harass the POWs.
At about this same time, the cadre began to question the POWs about their jobs and skills. It soon became apparent that they were looking for “technicians” who might be useful to the Fatherland. Some claim that it was the Australians who first could wind of the intent. There were then a lot of farmers and window-washers. Then in late SEP 42 the first group of “technicians” was told to be ready to move. The 60+ US in this group were under the leadership of Army CPT Zeigler. At about the same time, a separate group was formed to be moved to Singapore. This group of about 200 US was commanded by CPT Fitzsimmons. In early OCT, both groups boarded Hellships on their way to Singapore.
These two transited quickly through Changi Prison. The Zeigler groups was soon headed to Japan while the Fitzsimmons Party sailed up the Andaman coast to Burma.
A few weeks later, the bulk of the remainder of the US POWs (about 470) also departed Java for Singapore. For unknown reasons – possibly the simple lack of transportation – the Tharp Group stayed in Singapore until Jan 43 before beginning their voyage to Burma. In section. 9.2 I recount their rather harrowing near-miss with tragedy.
Soon after their consolidation at Bicycle Camp something odd occurred among the NAVY Officers. Most were separated and sent to Japan. This did not occur with the TXNG group. For the most part it did seem as if the military structure of most units was maintained intact as they were moved to work the TBR. But of 21 Naval officers who survived the sinking to become POWs, only 8 were sent to Burma. One, Lt RUSSELL ROSS, died at the Bicycle Camp in May 42.
As was the IJA policy to sort and house their POWs by nationality but to ignore their branch of service, the HOUSTON crew were simply blended in with the Army members. Perhaps the IJA simply thought that the Navy officers were superfluous or that they had technical skills that would best be utilized in Japan. Seven Navy and one USMC officers left Java for Japan in what was referred to as the Senior 8 Grp, however, these were by no means the most senior of the officer contingent. One officer (USMC) departed as part of the Zeigler Grp and the remainder with the main Tharp Grp. Although two of those 9 were shed in Singapore.
6.5c Officers vs Enlisted
There is no question that military officers live better than their enlisted counterparts. This dichotomy carried over in the POW status as well. Early in their captivity on Java, military discipline became somewhat relaxed; there was no more saluting, for example. At each of the various places that the POWs were housed, the officers for the most part had separate living quarters; not necessarily better but they were most often housed together as a group.
Early on, during their time at the Bicycle Camp, some animosity grew between the two groups when some of the men felt that the officers were eating better than they were. True or not it can easily been understood how this impression could have arisen. First, the officers controlled the ‘unit funds’. There was apparently a considerable amount of cash available. An Army officer received permission to travel into the market at Batavia to procure addition food items that the IJA was not providing. Again, this was in in the early months of their captivity while they were still under the control of combat troops. Their general attitude was quite hands off; as long as the caused no trouble the POWs were left reasonably on their own. The officers claim that they shared equally with the rest of the unit.
Another factor that likely figured into this impression was that the officers’ food was being prepared by the Chinese messmen from the USS HOUSTON. This was at a time that the cooks for the rest of the unit were struggling to cook the rice that they were being provided without turning it into mush.
Whatever the true situation in terms of quantity and quality of the food at the Bicycle Camp, things took a drastic turn for the worse as the US contingent began to depart Java. Each departing group would be assigned a few officers so their numbers dwindled. At each destination they would usually receive somewhat better treatment at the hands of their captors, but the distinction grew ever smaller.
Once they arrived at their assigned places of work, particularly on the TBR when the majority were sent, the officers assumed two major roles. They oversaw the operation of whatever camp they were in. This included assigning men to camp duties like gathering firewood and then assisting the cooks with the distribution if not the preparation of the food. Once in Burma, there was no longer any possibility that the officers ate more or better food.
The second duty of the officers was to accompany each of the 50-man work parties (aka kumis). Those officers would attempt to act as middle men between their men and the guards. Some were better at this than others. One who stood out in the memory of the POWs was 2Lt Roy Stensland. Although he was not an actual member of the TXNG but an ‘add-on’ who got picked up on Java. He utilized his large stature and forceful personality to do his best to protect the men from abuse by the guards. It is remarked that he would often absorb the ‘bashing’ that was meant for someone else.
The Battalion Cdr, LTC Tharp was generally perceived as an adequate if not great nor forceful leader. Some men seemed to think that he was a bit too patronizing with the Japanese; that he gave in too easily to their demands. Others, including some of the officers who were closer to him, thought that he simply knew which battles to fight and when fighting was fruitless. Like Stensland, MAJ Rogers the BN Executive Officer (second in command) was held in high esteem.
It must also be remembered that the rank and file members of the unit had little direct contact with these officers on a daily basis. So it can easily be understood that some unfounded envy and even animosity could have developed simply due to the separation.
Early on, most of the Navy officers were culled out and shipped to other camps; not to the TBR. This left the sailors and marines in the hands of their senior NCOs. But they all fell under the stewardship of the Army officers. LTC Tharp was apparently quite successful in keeping the Army officers together under his command. The overall existence of even a more relaxed state of military structure and discipline undoubtedly contributed to the survival of many of the US personnel.
Ironically, the POWs faced another threat in 1944: Allied bombers began to bomb and strafe the bridges and trains of the operational railway. Many errant bombs fell on POW huts located near the targets. Both the Thamakam and NongPlaDuk camps suffered heavy loss of life. Rivett estimates that as many as 800 POWs died as a result of these attacks. It wasn’t until a group of POWs were rescued by Allied submarines in SEP 1944 that the world learned that there were POWs along the route of the TBR.
See Section 16 for galleries of photos of the POWs taken soon after their liberation.
WARNING: some of those photos may be ‘distressing’; view with caution