14 September, 2012

14 September 1945

438th AAA AW BN
APO 513 % Postmaster, N.Y.
14 September, 1945      1400
My dearest sweetheart –

Well as of tomorrow we lose an officer down to the point score of 97 and with more to come. You know, dear, they may get down to the 80’s pretty soon. Everything is still on the basis of the old score of VE day. I still have 20 men left in the medical detachment, but I may lose 2 more any day. It doesn’t seem now as if we’ll get home as a unit; they seem to be breaking us up piecemeal, instead, and that’s too bad. Gee we’re losing officers now that we were together with for 38 months and they’re drifting off one by one.

Last nite was quiet. I continued to straighten out my room a bit. Some of the fellows went to see a French production of the Desert Song – and I’m glad I didn’t go. It stank. I stayed here, listened to the radio and finished reading “Wild in the River”. It was fairly good, but I’ve read better by Louis Bromfield.

I’m now in my room and I’ve just finished re-reading a letter from you I received this morning. It was written the first day you arrived in Montreal. So the RCAF tried to pick you up, did they? They’re a pretty smooth bunch and rather nice. When we came over on the Aquitania there were 600 of them with us – fresh out of their equivalent of O.C.S. We all got along fine. I was also glad to read you got along well with your French. If I stay here much longer, I’ll get to speak it quite well. I’m likely to come out with all sorts of expressions, dear, like – “Hallo babee” – for example. Now don’t get me wrong, darling!

I also had a letter from Dad A – the first one since the Sunday you and the folks spent at Nantasket. He said that Mother A and he had a very pleasant day the day you and the folks came down. And of course he wanted to know when I was coming home.

Here in Nancy there’s quite a bit of excitement in preparation for a big day tomorrow. General Patton is here to become an honorary citizen of Nancy. He is credited – or his 3rd Army is – with the liberation of the City. There’s to be a parade, speeches and all that. He’ll probably eat it up too. I don’t think I’ll be able to see it because I have court – starting at 1000 and lasting all day.

Every nite now – some one wants to celebrate the going-away of another officer. I’m almost ready to quit, dear, because the routine is quite a pace – with someone leaving every other day or so. All the celebrating I want to do is with you, sweetheart; that’s all I think about, dream about, talk about. And what a celebration that will be! Talk about loving you! Darling – beware! I love you so, dear – if you only knew. And it’s almost within reach; the wars are over, troops are sailing every day, somewhere or other I’m on the list. Ohh –– boyy –––

All for now, dear. Sit tight. Love to the folks – and

All my deepest love,


about The Burma-Siam Railway
and the Japanese "Hospitals"

From Military History at Suite 101 comes this excerpt from an article written by Scott Hayden titled, "The Death Railway."
The Burma–Siam Railway, or the Death Railway as it was known because of the atrocious working conditions and massive death toll, was a construction project designed to supply Japanese troops in Burma. When Allied submarine attacks made the sea passage too risky, the Japanese needed an alternative method to shuttle their materials to Burma to support the planned invasion of India. The solution was a 415 kilometer track that would link the existing Bangkok–Singapore line in the south to the Moulmein–Ye railway in Burma.

Japanese engineers calculated it would take at least five years to complete the railway, but it was built in less than two. Mechanized equipment was scarce so the Japanese used the next best thing at their disposal — a large and expendable workforce. In 1942, POWs in Singapore's Changi prison were divided into large groups and transported to Burma and Siam (Thailand).

In Burma, the railway started at Thanbyuzayat and ended at Nong Pladuk in Thailand. There were dozens of POW camps between those two points and prisoners worked from opposite ends of the line towards the center at the Three Pagodas Pass.

These men, from 8th Division, were captured before landing and sent directly to Changi Prison.
The 4th from the right is Robert Hosking, whose granddaughter identified this photo.
The following article was written by Rohan D. Rivett who had just returned from Siam (now Thailand), where he had been a prisoner of war for three and a half years. It was published in The Argus, Melbourne, Australia on 14 September 1945. Mr. Rivett had reported for The Argus before becoming a prisoner.

When Allied prisoners were first moved to Burma and Siam to work on the railway we were assured that there was no need to take much in our medical panniers, as we would be plentifully supplied with all medical requisites and our sick cared for in modern hospitals. This statement was widely publicized in the Japanese Press throughout Asia.

Here is the story of how the Nippon authorities fulfilled their promises.

The first hospital in Burma was established at POW headquarters for the Burma groups at Thanbyuzayat, and was placed close to the railway junction among supply sheds, dumps, and Japanese troop camps without any distinguishing mark being permitted. Inevitably it was bombed out. On June 12 and 15, 1943, Liberator aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the hospital area, causing casualties of nearly 100, of whom over 50 were then killed or died subsequently. The Japanese reaction was amusement.

Until a new group of hospital huts was built in January, 1943, all Burma sick were housed in filthy, verminous coolie huts, dilapidated and leaky. One of the worst of these was the dysentery hut, a veritable charnel house, where scores of men died in a few weeks, being denied even a pint of water to wash in.

From the very beginning, according to the computations of Sergeant Bev Brown, pharmacist, from Launceston, Tasmania, this base hospital did not receive even 2% of its requirements from the Japanese. The only thing adequately supplied was quinine, and as the Japanese controlled most of the world supply this was hardly surprising. Instruments, sterilizing, washing, and cooking gear were not provided at all, but had to be improvised from old tins, petrol drums, and wide bamboos. Bandages and dressings were so scarce that at some of the up-country camps, where the need rose to a thousand bandages a week, the Japanese issue was six a month - this for two or three thousand prisoners, most of whom had tropical ulcers.

From the first, even at the base hospital, which was well off compared with the so-called "hospital huts" up-jungle, no base for making antiseptics and dressings was provided. We were entirely dependent on supplies of axle grease smuggled in from the Japanese workshops by men working there, who risked barbarous punishment to aid their sick comrades.

As the months wore on and the rains came, the inadequate diet and the long hours of heavy work sapped the resistance of the majority in all camps, and more and more succumbed to the scourges of malaria, cerebral, ST and BT, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, beri beri, pellagra, chronic diarrhea, and cardiac trouble. Finally, in May, 1943, cholera descended on several camps.

All along the 415 kilometers of projected track the condition of both the sick and fit steadily worsened through the rainy season of 1943. Our Medical Officers (MOs) struggled heroically, but often vainly, owing to their lack of nearly all their chief essentials. Increasing malnutrition carried off; hundreds monthly who on a normal diet would easily have recovered from their ailments. A leading Melbourne surgeon said to me that 90% of our dead would be alive today if we had had British "Tommy's" rations along the line.

At the 55 kilometer camp, which became the main hospital in Burma after Thanbyuzayat was bombed out, utter dearth of everything produced amazing improvisations by a band of devoted MOs and orderlies, assisted by convalescent officers. Colonel Albert Coates, of Melbourne, carried out 150 major amputations with a common meat saw, duly returned to the butcher's shop to carve the daily meat ration, whenever there was any.

Lacking all anesthetics, a clever Dutch chemist named Boxthall extracted novacaine from the dentist's cocaine supply, and this provided a local anesthetic for half an hour. No general anesthetic was ever obtainable despite the most passionate pleas to the Japanese. Toes and fingers, rotted by tropical ulcers, were snapped off with a pair of ordinary scissors without any anesthetic whatever.

The same chemist made a brilliant contribution by extracting emmatine, the only counter to amoebic dysentery from the ipecacuana plant, and thus saved many lives. Cattle entrails provided the gut for sutures. Bamboo provided crutches, washing mugs, trays, tubes, and a dozen other vital necessities. "Beds" for the worst cases were constructed with rice bags of bamboo frames. Bandages and dressings were improvised from all rags, scraps of clothing, the bottoms of mosquito nets, and old clothes. Tin cans and other junk provided bowls and containers.

At one time in this hospital, out of 2,400 very sick men, over 1,000 had serious ulcers, some of which laid bare the leg bone from knee to ankle. According to the handbook of tropical diseases in the camp, the tropical ulcer is "found chiefly among slave gangs working on starvation diet in disease-ridden jungles and marshes." Salt was often the only thing available to dress these hideous sores, and pus-soaked bandages had to be used and reused for months on end. The general prevalence of diarrhea and dysentery immensely complicated the problem of keeping even a semblance of cleanliness, and inevitably the stench in every hut was overpowering. The hospital could be "smelt" 200 yards outside the camp area.

With typical courage, many Australian other ranks risked imprisonment and terrible beatings to get out of camp and buy meat from the natives on the "black market" with money provided by officers or from the sale of irreplaceable clothing or precious personal possessions.

Working tirelessly from dawn until long after dark, the MOs and orderlies under Colonel Coates never slackened in the face of discouragements and lacks before which Hippocrates himself might well have quailed...

Yet, despite such work, when this camp was closed up after six months there were 500 graves in the adjacent cemetery, while in a near by camp, where F and H force personnel were "hospitalized," it is believed that there were nearly 2,000 graves. Many of these deaths occurred during the hideous rail journeys of the sick from the working camps, such journeys often occupying up to seven days, although the distance was seldom more than 60 miles.

Two factors contributed enormously to prevent a still higher death rate. Officers contributed all but 20 rupees of their monthly pay to the sick by the end of 1943, and the operators of the secret radios up and down the line kept the hospitals supplied with news, the effect of which on morale was incalculable. Nowhere in the world was the advance of Montgomery across the Western Desert, the turning of the tide in Russia, the bombing of Berlin, and the gradual progress in the Pacific watched with deeper interest or more passionate anxiety than among the thousands lying prostrate in the filthy hospital huts of the Japanese jungle camps.

Conditions for most prisoners in Burma and Siam improved considerably in 1944 when the Japanese realized that the war was going against them. Finally, in May of that year we got our first issue of Red Cross medical supplies. Thanks to these, and to the establishment of a somewhat better base hospital at Nankom Paton, in Siam, not far from Bangkok, the general death rate was relatively low through the last l8 months of captivity.

But those of us who have survived can never forget the 15,000 Allied officers and men lying dead along the railway, or the way in which, despite our utmost efforts, their captors allowed them to die.

Here is an interview of a Death Railway Survivor. His earlier war history ends at about 14:55 minutes in, when the Death Railway part of his story begins.

1 comment:

  1. The photos of the POW's weren't actually railway workers - these men were from 8th Division who were captured before landing and sent directly to Changi. This is a photo of these guys in Changi prison. I know this because the one 4th from the right is Robert Hosking, my grandfather.