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 camp 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 was misery was compounded when the annual monsoon season began in the spring. Unfortunately for the POWs, this coincided with Speedo period of more intense work effort demanded of 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 conditioned 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, 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 other 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, these were seemingly quite elaborate. And they were resurrected after the completion of the TBR.
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 ‘surrender’ 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.
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