On 1st March 1942 HMAS Perth was sunk alongside the USS Houston in the Sundra Straits by a Japanese battle fleet which was landing troops on Java.
John Wisecup was an American Marine who was captured and became a POW. In April 1943 he was sent to Thailand as a member of ‘H’ Force and was in the group of 600 sent to build the Hintok section of the infamous railway. Just 13 of these men were American. Many of these P’sOW did not survive as they were still under command of the Japanese Administration in Singapore, so a long way from communication, but they were also a long way from the life giving artery of the river which transported supplies to the POW Camps.
At Hintok the men were set the task of building large trestle bridges to carry the railway line over the rugged terrain. John Wisecup drew many sketches and cartoons showing the reality of life and death on the railway. He also wrote a poem post-war, called Saga of Bamboo Jack. This, combined with the sketches give some idea of the “part of Hell” that was Hintok.
SAGA OF BAMBOO JACK
Bamboo Jack they called him
I never knew just why,
But one good drink would start him in.
So signalled I would buy.
He was slouching at the bar now
With a dry discouraged look.
The round was served as with a bow
He grasped my hand and shook.
Jack downed his drink and then turned again
And started with his story
“I’ll spin a yarn. It may sound tame,
For in it there’s no glory.”
I starved and rotted ‘neath the Jap,
And bowed beneath his bluster
Just take a peak at Asia’s map
It shows the spot there, Buster.
We built a railroad, made it run
From Thailand into Burma,
We carted cross-ties by the ton
And cursed more than a murmur.
From Singapore Up country bound
A freight train cleared the station
In Thailand at Ban Pong town
It’s final destination.
That freight discharged six hundred men
They marched into the jungle
Four hundred n’er came out again
A cruel and senseless bungle.
Australian, Dutch, Yank and Malay,
The prisoners of each nation
We slogged on through the heat of day
A polyglot formation.
The buzzards watched from dizzy heights
With grisly fascination
The sickly fall back out of sight
Despite our exhortations.
A week long march one hundred miles,
We reached Camp Hintok hollow
Pitched our tents then with cruel smiles
Our captors bade us follow.
No brief respite in our new camp
We marched out to construction
A trestle ‘cross a swamp so damp
Would end with our destruction
We tugged the teak logs o’er the crags
In harness like an ox
Excretion running down our leg
The stench as strong as pox
Great timbers felled mid jungle hills
We sawed then hewed them to a size.
Despite the blight of swampland ills
That structure did arise.
Persuasion was a ‘slope head’s’ kick
‘Bah-gero…. Kurrah!’ Passwords.
Beatings, bashings of the sick
Were watched by hungry deathbirds.
I cursed the day that I was born
Yes I forgot to pray.
But out to work each rainy morn
We were living anyway.
Hard and callous men became A friend?…..
A friend no longer.
The niceties? None did e’re remain
Our tribulations stronger.
Seaweed, cold fish and cold red rice
For those you’d slay your kin
Starvation was the bitter price
For we beleaguered men.
We dined on dogs and cats and mice,
Those on a lucky day
Food was bought at any price
There was the hell to play.
We slept on the ground rolled in a sack
Malaria racked our bones
Home sweet home was a bamboo rack
Lullaby? Your neighbours groans.
We’d dream of home you may surmise
And Stateside when it’s done?
But home was a distant paradise
Beyond the dim horizon.
Hintok Camp! Filth ridden hole!
Our tents and beds were rotten
The lice and rain destroyed our soul
Men died forlorn, forgotten!
No pest house from a bygone age
Could match its stench and squalor.
The jungle held us as a cage
And only death could follow.
Mosquitoes, flies and lice did vex
The starving, sick and dying
This palsied lot of fevered wreck
Soon failed…long past trying.
No Jap dared enter this foul place
Stood up wind, numbed in wonder
Then shouted down from quite a space
The working party number
Cholera came and took it’s toll
We dug the graves ‘til midnight.
That mighty railroad had to run
We toiled by night by torchlight
Communal graves their final rest
Dank trenches wide and deep
One pondered was not it best
To take this final sleep
No gravestones there to testify
“Who, when or where? Their passing.
Unknown, unmarked now there they lie
In silence everlasting.
The Hintok trestles finished
The word is “pack and leave”
Our ranks are now diminished
But there is no time to grieve.
We staggered off from Hintok Hill
It’s stench I smell today
Through four decades it’s with me still
It will not pass away.
We leave it faster than we came
No need to strike our tent.
We’re used to sleeping in the rain
This move is heaven sent.
We leave behind those tattered tents
A’drip with monsoon slime.
We are a group of battered gents
As we crawl off this last time.
We shan’t forget four hundred souls
Now silent neath the clay.
Cut down in youth from Earthly goals
It was not planned this way.
The monkey’s chatter shrill farewell
As we scaled our bamboo ladder.
Our goodbyes to this jungle hell
Could not make us sadder.
We waited now at river side
Two weeks of lie and mould
Then packed aboard for this last ride
Like rice sacks in the hold.
At Tarso now a brief delay
Next flatcars in the rain.
To Kanchanaburi one night and day
Was good to see again.
A part of us was left back there
Deep in the jungle’s mist.
It may appear we do not care
We’ve crossed it off our list?
Our callous, jocular facade
Does take a bit of strain.
As through this weary life we plod
With memories of past pain.
“Say! One more round, I’ll tell you more….
Before my eyes get bleary…
Our final days at Singapore..
Perhaps you’re growing weary?”
I bought a round and let him rave,
He’s madder than a hatter!
This guy has gone too far to save
It really doesn’t matter.
Said I “You’ve lived through trials like this
The States must be a breeze.
You’d never ever go amiss
In this great land of ease?”
He mumbled, muttered “Say no more…
I thank you for the drink!”
Then turned and stumbled out the door
And left me there to think.
By John W Wisecup.
The poem and the remaining sketches which have been found are published in a book called “After the Battle – Hintok, the drawings of John W. Wisecup” and is available from the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
When you go home, tell them of us and say “we gave up our tomorrow for your today.”
Lest we forget.