to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

9.15 Khun BoonPong

BoonPong was 36yo when the Japanese arrived in Kanchanaburi. He and his family (6 siblings and extended family) lived in a set of three contiguous shop houses within the walled city and just a few hundred meters above the busy docks area at the point where the Kwae Noi and Mea Klong rivers met. Just up the road was the governor’s mansion.

His father, Khun Mar Khien, was a renowned physician and herbalist. One of the shops was his office and a pharmacy. Out of the others, the family ran a thriving trading business. If you wanted it; they’d supply it. Everyone knew the Sirivejjabhandu family. BoonPong himself was the town mayor at the time.

Of course, the people of Kanchanaburi were aware that the Administration of Prime Minister and Field Marshall Phibun Songkhram (ironically ‘songkhram’ in Thai = war) had capitulated to the Japanese. Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, they landed an army in southern Thailand that quickly marched across the Malay Peninsula and took control of Singapore (Feb 42). At the same time, the IJA landed a small force at Samut Prakan and demanded to see the Prime Minister.

Holding Saigon, Singapore and Burma, the IJA literally had Thailand surrounded. What military forces Thailand maintained were mostly on the north (Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai area) guarding the Sino-Burma border areas.

It wasn’t until about AUG 42 that the first IJA troops arrived at the walled city of Kanchanaburi. Again, the small garrison of Thai troops at Lat Ya guarding the traditional Burmese route of invasion were no match for the 1000 or so IJA engineers and support troops that were preparing to extend the railway to Burma. It had only taken the IJA engineers and their mostly Thai workers a few weeks to lay the 50Km of rails from Nong Pladuk to Kanchanaburi. Now the IJA support troops were there in force to support the push across the river.

Needless to say, they needed supplies. They were quickly pointed to the Sirivejjabhandu family business and they were contracted to provide basic necessities. Life was good for all concerned. Over time, Kanchanaburi became a major HQ of the IJA troops supporting the building and then operation of the TBR.

But the town’s people were shocked and appalled when Col. Toosey’s group of mainly British POWs was marched past the town walls and up to Thamakam where they would eventually build a bridge. It was NOV 1942, the Japanese soldiers had been in the area establishing a HQ and supply depot since about AUG. But the arrival of rather bedraggled POWs was a shock to all who saw them. A small group of British POWs under the command of Major John Roberts of the 80th Tank Regiment had preceded them and built the camp where they were to live.

As the work on the Thai-Burma Railway began in earnest, more and more POWs and native Asian laborers were moved through Kanchanaburi to camps in the jungles to the west. The Kwae Noi river was the major route of movement of men and supplies. The Japanese authorities awarded the Sirivejjabhandu family more contracts for goods of all types; supplying various staples and some food items like fresh vegetables and fruit. Part of the contract apparently included logs and/or finished railway ties (sleepers). Khun (Mr. in Thai) BoonPong took the lead in delivering those supplies by boat along the Kwae Noi River. One of the camps that he frequently visited was that of the largely Australian H-Force commanded by Lt. Col. E. “Weary” Dunlop in the Hintok area nearly 100 kilo upriver from KAN.

He was even more appalled at the condition of the men in that and other camps where he took supplies. He managed to establish a working relationship with Lt. Col. Dunlop and a handful of other POW leaders, including Col. Toosey. They formed what became known as the ‘V Organization’ or sometime the ‘V Men’s Club’. [I personally suspect that the ‘V’ stood for 5 founding members; in Col Toosey’s book he says that Peter Heath identified himself as ‘V’ of the organization. He was also reportedly a member of the Seri Thai resistance movement.] Over the course of the period of labor on the TBR, Khun BoonPong, his wife, daughter and sister, at great risk to themselves smuggled desperately needed items to these camps. Some of the most cherished items were drugs which the Japanese refused to supply to the POWs. Since he had a physician father and also a pharmacy, procurement was not an issue; delivery was. One of the contracts the family had was to supply ‘consumer goods’ to small canteens that the captors allowed the POWs to have access to. BoonPong provided things like tobacco and sugar. They would conceal the contraband in the items being delivered and apparently through some secret coding method would mark those packets so the POWs-in-the-know could extract those items. This was the primary method that ‘prohibited items’ like medications and medical instruments, as well as cash, were passed to the POWs. He was able to involve others — pro-British businessmen in Bangkok in particular — who provided cash currency that was smuggled to the camps to allow for the purchase of extra food or whatever was available from local villagers. Khun BoonPong’s wife, Surat, his sister, and daughter were often involved in the exchange of bundles of cash or coins to the POWs.

He dealt with a number of the POW commanders including Col. Toosey but his relationship with Dunlop was the strongest. Dunlop (a physician himself) credits Khun BoonPong with saving many POW lives at the risk of his own for the smuggling.  Soon after the war, BoonPong was shot and seriously (nearly fatally) wounded. Dr. Dunlop used his considerable influence from Australia to get blood flown in to save BoonPong.

This is but the briefest of recounting of the “Quiet Lions” saga in the TBR era and the life-long friendship that developed between Khun BoonPong and a number of POWs, primary among them Sir E. E. Dunlop. [excerpt at:

As I write this essay in early 2021, the Sirivejjabhandu family dwelling is open as a private museum. Awaiting your arrival is the single surviving member of the family who knew and lived with Khun BoonPong. She is the wife of his youngest brother and is 90+ years old. She relates one episode of this saga in that the Japanese left behind some 200 trucks. The family managed to ‘secure possession’ of them and BoonPong had them modified and began a bus service from KAN to BKK and in the KAN area. Apparently, this start-up was partially funded by donations from former Australian POWs led by Dunlop.

Khun BoonPong died in his beloved state of Kanchanaburi in Jan 1982. He was awarded the George Cross and made an MBE [Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] and the Orange-Nassau by the Dutch. Khun BoonPong’s story is not widely known, his heroic efforts are mainly recounted in POW survivor accounts of their experience. The Thai PBS network also made a mini-series a few years ago, recounting a fictionalized version (and somewhat sanitized as far as the treatment and condition of the POWs is concerned) that is available on YOUTUBE:

https://pows.jiaponline.org/2019/01/honoring-thai-hero.html

Also a 2008 Australian movie “The Quiet Lions”:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1262946/

The booklet provided by the Sirivejjabhandu family museum mentions the following names as being part of or contributors to secret V organization. They are Kenneth G Gairdner, R D Hamwim and Peter E Heath. I could only find the merest mention of Heath via an on-line search. Researching their stories could be a life-long quest in the darkness. Kenneth and Millicent Gairdner were real people who left a significant electronic footprint. Millicent was not Thai; her maiden name was DeSilva and she was born in Cambodia likely to diplomat or business man.

An interesting Bangkok Post article:

https://www.bangkokpost.com/travel/369279/echoes-of-a-storied-past

Purloined from Green Writing Room Hilary Custance Green’s reading and writing notepad:

https://greenwritingroom.com/2014/01/12/boon-pong-and-other-forgotten-heroes/

Tucked into one of the books on Barry’s shelves about Far East POWs was a little photocopied leaflet of 1998, being re-issued for ‘X’mas 2000’. It starts:

I am one of the persons who had seen the event about the railway construction from Kanchanaburi to Myanmar during World War II when I was 19 years old, 1941. As a saleswoman at Khao Chon Kai (Chungkai) War-prisoner Camp.

“Her name was Lulu Na Wanglan and she tells her story, explaining that even after 50 years, ‘I dreamed of those war-prisoners before I started to wright.’. She supplied prisoners until she had ‘no more capital to trade or sale goods.’ At this point she was given some money, probably by the local underground, to continue supplying prisoners. She was suspected of spying by the Japanese and was warned by Mr Boon Pong in time to escape. The prisoners thought she had been shot (confusing her with a brave French spy, ‘Lulu’ who had been killed by the Japanese) and they missed her. After the war, UNO staff painted Lulu on their vehicles. Prisoners remember her in their memoirs.”

Boon Pong (Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu) was a Thai trader whose sympathies were aroused by the state of the prisoners. In early 1943 he became the interface between the V organisation and the prisoners. The ‘V’ organisation was run by an interned British man, Gairdner, with a Thai wife, Millie, and many free business connections. Many others were involved and as the prisoners’ conditions worsened they raised large sums of money on loan. Millie was among those who dared to risk passing money and drugs directly to prisoners via the many POW lorry drivers.

The upriver camps had almost no supplies of medicine and very little food, especially higher up-river where barges could not go. Conditions became dire beyond imagining and their only source of relief was the money and drugs that Boon Pong managed to get to them, acting always as a legitimate trader. He also obtained and supplied ‘Canary Seed’ (radio batteries), if the Japanese had discovered this he would have been tortured and killed. There were other traders, but his prices were lowest. He worked the length of the river, but after the railway was complete and the men poured down-stream in vast numbers to the big base ‘hospital’ camps, his role became even more crucial in saving lives with supplies of food and medicines and even violin strings.

In a story by Brian Brown of the Royal Signals in Beyond the Bamboo Screen (ed. Tom McGowran) he quotes another POW saying the Boon Pong’s wife swam their camp moat at night with medical aid round her neck. The effect on morale of the efforts by this family were incalculable.

Australian Surgeon and POW, Colonel Weary Dunlop, kept a diary. 25 October 1943 reads: The hospital today obtained some most useful drugs and money *. The footnote reads: By grace of that magnificent man, Boon Pong. His entry 30 December 1943, A Valuable supply of drugs and 3,000 ticals [this was due to the wonderful services of Boon Pong, the river trader]. And so on.

In the aftermath of the war in September 1945, Boon Pong was shot outside his shop in Kanchanaburi in front of his wife and father. Julie Summers in her book about Colonel Toosey, The Colonel of Tamarkan writes:

A British officer, …Captain Newall heard the shots and rushed to the scene. ‘He had been shot through his neck and left arm and he had also been shot clean through the back. There was a large hole in his chest where the bullet emerged and spent itself. He looked up at me. “Thai police kill me.” That was all he said.’

A British medical team gave him blood transfusions and operated on his wounds and, amazingly, he eventually recovered. In 1947, Colonel Toosey heard that Boon Pong, now running a bus company, had got into financial difficulties.

Toosey asked fellow prisoners to contribute and they raised £38,000. Boon Pong’s company became successful and his sons now run it. He received the MBE in 1948. He is popularly supposed to have been awarded the George medal, but Clifford Kinvig in The River Kwai Railway, says there is no official record of this.

He died in January 1982 and in 1988 The Weary Dunlop -Boon Pong Fellowship – an Australian exchange fellowship for Thai surgeons, was set up soon thereafter:

http://www.surgeons.org/member-services/scholarships-awards-lectures-prizes/international-scholarships/weary-dunlop-boon-pong-exchange-fellowship/

Boon Pong is remembered in many memoirs and I have only given a rather scrambled outline here of his contribution to humanity. I apologize for any errors.

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I do not think that this is typical, but here is the camp itinerary of a British POW:

He left Singapore OCT 1942 and was attached to Group 4 (19 (Bridge Bn)
His work camps and distance from the start of the Railway at Nong Pladuk

1 Tha Makham 56.2 Km under Lt. Col. Philip Toosey 135 Field Regiment
R/A. Oct 42 – June 43 [likely participated in the building of the wooden bridge]
2 Kannyu 2 151 Km under Capt Douglas Viney 135 Field Regiment R/A. June
43 – August 43
3 Tha Khanun 223.4 Km Capt Douglas Viney August 43 – November 43
4 Tha Sao (Headquarters of Group 4 until moved to Tha Muang in mid 1944)
125 Km under Lt. Col. Alfred Knights 4th Bn. The Royal Norfolk Regiment.
November 43 – June 44
5 and 6 Konkoita 262.53 Km and Kree (Kri) 192 Km. under Lt. Col.
MacKellar 88 Field Regiment R/A. June – October 44.
7 Tha Makham 56.2 Km. under Lt. Col John Williamson 1 Indian H.A.A.
Regiment R/A. October 44 – January 45.
8 Phetchaburi not on the Railway (building an Aerodrome) Under Sergeant
(Lt) Ross Davidson 105 General Transport Company, Australian Army
Service Corps.

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A bit more on the history of the Seri Thai:

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