Interview with Capt Reg Newton (NX34734) Anzac Day 1992
NX34734 Captain Reginald William James Newton, 2/19 Battalion A.I.F.
He was a Camp Commander of various Prisoner of War camps in Malaya, on the Thai-Burma Railway, and in Japan. He was frequently brutally ill treated by Japanese guards while endeavouring to ameliorate the bad conditions of those under his command and he was outstanding in his complete disregard for the Japanese in the interests of his own troops. His consistent inspiring leadership, courage and personal example over a long period and under very adverse circumstances, inspired and raised the morale of those under his command and his fellow prisoners. His efforts on many occasions were directly responsible for saving many lives and casualties.
Special Immediate Award. P.W. M.B.E.
Reference: The Grim Glory of the 2/19 Battalion A.I.F. by various members of the Unit Association, 2/19 Battalion A.I.F. Association, Sydney, 1975, p.803.
Reg was asked to give the Gaden family some idea of life as a Prisoner of War and the role of Captain E. W. (Bill) Gaden, NX 12543, 2/20 Battalion A.I.F.
Your father was always interested in matters appertaining to army and he joined the 17th Battalion Senior Cadets in 1933. He was a sergeant a year later, 1934, and in 1935 he transferred over to the CMF which in those days of course was militia or reserve forces today.
A year later he was a sergeant, that was 1936. In 1938 he sat for his officers examination and passed, and was commissioned in 1938.1940, July 1940 he was selected for the 2/20th Battalion A.I.F., into the 2/20th Battalion as a Lieutenant.
He was sent to the Senior Malayan officers administrative course in October 1940, sorry in – October 1940, correct, and he passed that examination and the course, was reposted back to 2/20th battalion as a Captain (promotion another rank), and he was posted second in command of Don Company, ABCD Company, under Captain Rod Richardson who was the Company Commander.
From then on of course the war time episode came into it, and he was noted for his strength. He was a big man, a solid man and it is recorded in the 2/20th history where he carried wounded men on his back across the creeks and rivers and getting out from the front positions to the rear, so he showed his worth all the way through. At the end of the war time period in Malaya, after the capitulation, he served in various small work camps around the Singapore area until Don Force was formed to go to the Thai-Burma Railway.
Various forces were formed. The Japanese found they had a large number of Prisoners of War on their hands and they had to be employed in work. At that stage the Burmese front, the Japanese were having a lot of trouble getting their supplies through to Burma, through Rangoon, because the United States subs and British subs were operating in the Bay of Bengal and sinking most of their ships, so they decided they would build a railway line from Bampong, from Bangkok through to Bampong, up through to the Rangoon area.
They followed the line of a survey which was carried out in 1896 by the British Government and it was decided by the British Government of the day that it was an impractical position, they could never build a railway through the whole of the terrain, it was too mountainous, too much as far as the epidemics of disease, the tropical diseases and what have you, and they decided against building the railway. But the Japanese in their wisdom or not, decided they had to put a railway through and so they started and they gathered their work forces from the P’s o W down in Malaya. I’m only talking about the prisoners of war, not the civilian labour which was employed also.
“A” force went up to Burma, about three thousand strong, “B” force went to Borneo, “C” force went straight to Japan in November 1942, and “Don” force of which he comprised part of, went to Thailand in March 1943.
I was commanding “U” battalion of the Don force and I selected my own officers. I did not want to take a full complement of officers of thirty-five, because the Japanese did not like non-working officers who became drones, so I made sure that I took with me people whom I knew, had known before the war because I had known Bill in the17th Battalion pre-war as a pretty bright boy and I took him with me as my second in command, for his great administrative ability which had been proven before. I only took six officers and a doctor, as against thirty-five in a normal infantry battalion and it proved its worth.
When we arrived in a place called Bampong, Bampong is a big railway junction where the railway line from Malaya goes right up through into Thailand and it turns right and goes 80 miles east to Bangkok. That is the road junction and that is where the railway started, Bampong.
Now the British prisoners of war had been taken to Thai-Burma railway in October 1942 and they started and built the line from Bampong up to a place called Kanburi. The correct name is Kanchanaburi, which is the old western provincial capital, the Walled City, known by the P’s o W abbreviated colloquially as Kanburi and that was the big Japanese headquarters for the whole of the line. We started to work from the area North of Kanburi.
When we arrived there, Bill at this stage he was a company commander under me and he was watching the administration of food, whatever food we could grab get and purloin and when we arrived in Kanburi the Japs who came from Singapore, the Japanese Singapore, decided they could then go home and just left us for dead. The Thai Japanese were not there ready to take us and receive us and we had four days freedom in which time we made contacts.
I made a contact with one man who proved our blessing throughout the whole line, named Boon Pong who was the big trader in Kanburi. He was half Thai and half Chinese. He and his wife both spoke fluent English and he was a blessing. I made arrangements with him, Bill in my company, we arranged then he would accept paper or cheques, really bits of paper, payable then after the war- IOUs in other words – if he would follow me up the river. He told us where we were going and what we were going to do because the British had been there before us (British prisoners of war).
He agreed to accept the paper payable after the war. I did not worry two hoots what interest rates he would charge as long as we managed to get food. I was only concerned with food and whatever medical supplies he might be able to gather.
Bill was in party to all this and I left him to organise all this with BoonPong and then we started to sort the blokes out. At this stage the Japs from the Thai administration were coming into the field, into the picture, and we had to round up our prisoners of war wherever we could find them, that’s another story. I was not concerned where they’d been what had happened but I had to get them all to make a roll call and find them. As a matter of fact I thought it wise to conduct a short arm parade to make sure they did not contact any VD. Fortunately it was all clear, so then off we went up the line.
Fortunately we were one of the very few parties ever to be motorised or taken up to the base camp for the railway, the base camp had moved north because the British had built the railway by this stage to a place called Tahsao which was 100 miles north of Kanchanaburi. This became the British headquarters, the POW headquarters and the forward Japanese headquarters
When we arrived there I found that there were quite a large number of Australians from OP battalions from Java in hospital at Tahsao and they had nobody looking after them. I said to Bill ‘I’m going to drop you off here Bill to watch things,, to take over and we will have to send sick blokes back to this hospital and you will be here to look after them’. He objected strongly. He did not want to leave his own men naturally, but he just had to do what he was told and he accepted it very gracefully.
This was one of the best decisions I ever made in my whole army career, leaving Bill back in Tahsao because he was a born negotiator, he was a smooth talker, he got on very well with the British and that was a blessing, because he had to fight for food, and get more than his share, which he did with the help of the blokes cooks I left with him and it proved a blessing all the way.
Now he saved a lot, a lot of lives helping the blokes and making sure they got their good food what little food was there, cooked properly by our own cooks.
This went on until August 1943 and we kept sending all our sick blokes back to this Tahsao. Now bear in mind that a hospital as we knew it was not a hospital as you have in Western civilization, dirt floors, ????? or bamboo slat beds and you’d have 100 bed hospital meant nothing, that was just jammed into one room sort of thing. They had at that stage close to ten thousand in Tahsao hospital, sick, they were sick and the British were losing a lot of men. No food and no medical supplies were issued by the Japanese and we had taken very little with us because Changi in Singapore did not have that much available to give to us to take with us. So Bill proved more than his worth in looking after all Australians because the other battalions further up the river they were sending their blokes back but nobody thought to send anybody back to look after them, so Bill copped the lot and he did a fantastic job with them.
This went on until August 1943 and the greater the number down back in this Tahsao hospital. I went down then, I asked for permission to go down to Kanburi, asked permission from the Japs, I wanted to go down to try and buy magnesium sulphate [epsom salts] to treat dysentery, bacillary dysentery, and we got nothing from the Japs and we had nothing and this was the only thing I could, my own doctor told me, Dave Hinder, and I was given permission to go down and also to try and find, if I could, through BoonPong, the Thai trader, if he had any, could get his hands onto Emetine which was the only thing that would save anybody from amoebic dysentery. They gave me permission and when I got went down river I picked up the mag sulph, as a matter of fact I bought half a ton of it and distributed it throughout the British units also. The dose for bacillary dysentery was half an ounce every half an hour for 24 hours. It killed some, but saved most. In other words purge it out of you.
Emetine was in hellish short supply. I was only able to buy 28 capsules and you gave 14 capsules as one full treatment – that was treatment for 2 men so all we could do with, talking to Dave Hinder the doctor, we just gave each of 28 blokes one ampoule each, in other words, one grain each.
On my way back, sorry on the way down to Tahsao, to Kanburi, I passed through a camp called Chungkai, another big hospital camp, it was in a disgraceful mess. Australians, nobody controlling them, looking after them, tending to them and I decided when I got back up to Tahsao I’d ship Bill back down from Tahsao to Chungkai and take over all the Australians there. When I got back to Tahsao I told Bill that I was moving him down, he objected strongly, but he saw the reasoning and he moved down freely, willingly and very happily. I gave him whatever money I had, to distribute to the men and arranged him his supplies and food though Boon Pong and left him there.
Again, he did a fantastic job because all of our Australian battalions were sending them back to Tahsao and Tahsao were sending them back to Chungkai and he had to pick them up. And that was the position right through to the end of the war. Bill finished there, at Chungkai but ??????
Then later on I had to go to Japan with a force, and I grabbed Bill, brought him up from Chungkai to Tahsao again and left him there in command of all of the Australians to more or less look after them for the rest of the war, which he did very, very, very, very well.
That’s all I can say actually as far as your father’s war-time experience is concerned, I put him in for an OBE, he got nothing. Only five prisoners of war people received anything at all for their services during the period, despite the fact they can give footballers and radio announcers and broadcast announcers anything at all today.
So you father got no rewards, nothing at all, only the blessings from those he had under command.
Various task commanders had different ideas of the Thai Burma railway. I’ll go back a bit further. I had been the only Australian officer who had been in the cold, cold world. I arrived in Changi Singapore eight months after anybody else. I know what it was like outside. I saw so many heads on pikes in every town, and I knew what was happening outside, but people Changi did not have a damn clue so I was able to tell them, briefly and bluntly, what it was all about – now – and what they would experience when they went outside. Despite all that, some of the force commanders did some of the most stupid, idiotic bloody things.
Now when Freddie Force (that’s F force) arrived in Thailand, they fell for the nips. The nips told them you’re going to a land of milk and honey, there’s plenty of food, you’ll have ample medical supplies. May we take band instruments? Yes, you can take all your band instruments. Can we take our concert party? Yes take your concert party. So they took their pianos and all their musical instruments and you name it – full office staff, full office equipment, tables chairs, you name it, typewriters, everything. They permitted them to take. When they arrived in Bampong, they put the bloody lot into a heap and left them there. The nips and the local Thais had a holiday – they pinched and took everything. The stupidity of believing the nips – they should have known, but they did not.
Freddie force suffered badly because they were badly led, and this comes right through the whole of these stories, particularly that book, which I’m going to get a copy for each of you, that’s the best book of all, and it will tell you the story where the officers did not look after their men. Unfortunately it builds me up a bit too much, only because I was applying what I’d learnt outside.
It was just little things, you had to look after your men that was you job, but unfortunately most of them forgot. Anyway it’s too late…
Kevin Fagan was a doctor, very very good doctor, a specialist, I felt that the Australians Other Ranks had a greater sense of group loyalty than the British who were badly, badly led. There was a terrible class thing in the British mind and was horrible. I’ve seen British officers at the end of a long days march as soon as they arrived at a camp just drop down on the ground and someone would say “what about the men?” “Oh, so-and-so the men, I can’t do any more” Whereas a fellow like Newton would be scrounging around trying to buy a few eggs for the sick, trying to organise the men to be together, finding out where everyone was and whether anyone ever needed a doctor, all this before you ever thought of eating or sitting down. This was the norm among those who had been out in the cold world. This was the difference between the British and a lot of the Australian officers. We had some bad Australian officers, shocking – they should have been court-martialled, put up against a bloody wall and shot, some of them, in my own honest opinion, they were bad.
Now with all that brief resume, now we’re not all perfect. They were not all perfect, the officers, and not all the men were perfect. I had one bloke – we only had one, two cases. One case of stealing- (that’s nothing ..)
What rank were you then?
I was captain then – my majority went through a fortnight / three weeks before the balloon went up and the war started, but there was no time for that to more or less go through the wheel and wheels and back to Australia and back to Malaya, so I started a POW set-up officially with three pips on my shoulder, a captain, Charles Anderson had said to me put your crowns up – he’d recommended me for them and sent the papers through, so for the rest of the POW set-up I had my crowns up, and then half colonel came after the war.
Now what else can I tell you. Some of the officers were not worth it. Some of the men were not worth it. We had all types.
Bill, your father, was much the same as myself in many ways, in the sense that he would not suffer fools gladly if at all, and he is another reason why I left him behind to look after the sick, and the ailing, and the sore and the sorry, because without any bloody playing up, he did not muck about, he exacted his own corporal punishment as we all had to, in command, if you applied it, because you could not let the nips take over and exact punishment, you had to do it yourself. So you just hit the spot, and devil take the hindmost.
Bill did the same down at Tahsao, down at Chungkai, if anybody played up he’d just clock ’em, that’s it, finished. Then they’d pick ’em up and shake ’em and they loved him for it, because they knew they’d get a belting, but very few of them played up. In my own case, I only had one case of stealing right throughout the whole of the war, that’s stealing from one comrade to the other, from the other, and we caught him with another chap’s watch. Now the chap had been killed down at Parit Sulong bridge down in Malaya and his brother was taking his watch home to his mother, and suddenly he lost the watch, and we found it in this particular person’s haversack. Now I just had to do something, and I was going to do it, I hit him myself. Then I gave him to five of his chaps in his own platoon, and I told them to take him out, give him the father of a hiding, I don’t care what you do with him, I’ll bury him tomorrow if I have to. That’s the only way you could handle anybody who played up. And he was straight all the way then until we arrived in Japan, and he started to steal from the British in the next camp. So I told the British take him out and do what you like with him. That’s the only way you could exact corporal punishment.
A lot of the officers were really shockers. It is on record in Singapore, and this is why I did not take any surplus officers, because they were an encumbrance and drones. It is on record that the officers club was formed and permitted to be formed by Fred Galleghan, the Australian commander, and which was completely wrong, and the officers club paid, young officers mainly, they paid sick people a half penny for ten snails to feed their chooks to produce eggs for their officers club. These are officers, so called officers, in Changi. Changi was an absolute rest home. It was not the hell hole it is depicted to be and had been, Fred Galleghan and 2/30th Battalion publicity officers, they always make out that it was a hell hole, it was nothing of the sort. They were able to buy some medical supplies through funds supplied by the International Red Cross. Moneys also came through to Bangkok from the International Red Cross in the hands of two members of the staff of the British Persian Oil Company (which was the Shell company) and they distributed the money to two colonels on the line, but we did not get any of it, they had to keep it very very hush hush. It’s all recorded in your histories, in all the 2/19th battalion history, and they call themselves the V organisation in Thailand. They did a very good job despite all the risks of being picked up by the Japs and getting the money through to the two British Colonels. So they did get some money through, and most of the money went to Changi. They were able to buy food and medical supplies.
How many would have been in Changi?
Changi started with fourteen thousand and the work forces which went off to various places – see, work forces went to Burma, Thailand, Sumatra, Java, Philippines, Formosa, French Indo-China, and Japan. They spread all round the landscape. Towards the end, the last twelve months of the war, there were only fourteen hundred in Changi and they had one of the best hospitals – a built hospital which had belonged to the British, the British army, before the war, fully staffed with some of the best doctors, and senior doctors so they were looked after as far as the medical side was concerned. Work was limited, they did not work that hard, so Changi is not the hell hole it was purported to be. If anybody says otherwise, send them to me please.
I understand Dad had an appendicectomony at some stage. Do you know anything of the circumstances of that, he had his appendix out.
No, I do not, I haven’t heard about that at all before. No, wait a minute, yes, yes, yes, yes. This was down at Chungkai, without anaesthetic.
He was forever …???………
What you have to remember from the medical point of view in Thailand, and out on work parties, particularly the Thai-Burma railway, the others had some ways and means of getting some. For instance, French Indo-China, the French inhabitants were way, way all the way behind the P’s OW. They supplied them as much as they could and what they wanted. The Thai-Burma railway, most medical supplies were non existent.
On the Burmese side, one of my own captains ???????????? had a kidney out without anaesthetic. He still around today. He’s all right. You can operate with one kidney as the medical world knows. Many, many blokes had amputations without anaesthetic. All you could do was to hold them down and hit them on the jaw, and this is exactly what happened.
Dave Hinder and Dick Parker, a surgeon – Dick Parker was the best surgeon we had with the Australians on the line, and he did quiet a lot of operations for Dave Hinder who was a physician, and Dick Parker would just clock them on the jaw, or get somebody else to do it, whilst he was operating.
As far as operating theatre was concerned, you did not have anybody in white gowns and all the rest of it, with marks and what have you, just a mud floor, in the rain, a bit of a tent fly over the top to keep some the rain off, but you just had to operate. Disease and all the rest of it, you had to take the risk on that. Flyblown disease or wind blown disease coming in into it. Right in the middle of the cholera season, operations still went on in the open. I only hope you never get cholera in this country. A few years ago there was a scare about cholera up on the Logan River in Queensland. It was not cholera, it was dysentery. You’ve got to see cholera, you’ve got to realise what to see just watch a body dehydrate in front of you, and dead in half an hour. That is cholera, and it can only be taken through the mouth, this was why we were scared stiff when cholera hit us. Dave Hinder and all the doctors did not know, we had no means of combating it.
Sorry, I’m talking too much about the medical side and not about your father. The whole point was, you had to adapt whatever you could, even with a bit of fishing line, to use that for gut to, more or less, what do you call it, sew up the wound. Your father handled that like a dream, I mean that was what I was told. It was just a normal thing for him.
Were you given any rations at all by the Japanese?
The big trouble was this, on the Thai-Burma railway, and this caused most of the fatalities apart from no medical supplies. The Japs, I’ll say this for them, at the base Kanburi they weighed out food in the course of what they thought should be required, or would be required. It was limited, it was foreign. With vegetables for instance, they had big cane skips about four feet -with say one hundredweight, 112 pounds of vegetables, mostly dacon, or a turnip type of vegetable, and some greens. It was a land of plenty, Thailand, but we did not see it.
Now these rations would be put onto trains at Kanburi to go up the river, to the end of the line, the line snaking through on it’s way to Burma.
The line was actually functioning?
As it functioned and the rails were laid, then they sent the food up on that railway to the various camps. The line ran from Bampong through to Tahsao, up through to what is called, the only pass available, the three Pagodas pass. There are three pagodas there, they’ve been there for a hundred years or more – a couple of hundred years or more and then on to Thanbyuzayat and to Moulmein, up in Burma – then it picks up the railway line at Moulmein, up to Rangoon. That’s the way the Japs were feeding their supplies through, and their troops. Some of their troops.
All their troops had to march from Bangkok to the Burma front, five hundred miles. Japanese troops. They came through us every day for months. They slogged it and had it all the hard way, there’s no doubt of it, and I’m glad they marched through us, because we were able to trade with them, unbeknown to them. We used to pinch everything – when they were asleep at night, we had organised “pick up parties” as I’d call them and led by a 2/20th boy (one of Bill’s boys) named Shorty Kilver, and he led twenty blokes and they would go in and pinch the stuff, watches and anything the nips had on them while they were asleep, then we’d sell it to the next battalion coming through the next day. By this means we were able to get some money to buy food and pay Boon Pong.
That was a good circle!
Boon Pong stayed with the railway?
He had the Japanese contract, he was supplying the Japs, so he supplied us. This was a bit of a sideline for him but it was a corner for him.
We were talking about people coming up the line, railway trucks coming up the line…
As the railway progressed north, the railway line was used to transport food up to the Japanese troops, that is, the prisoner of war Japanese, in command of the prisoners of war, and the engineers, the Jap engineers building the railway line, and some of the Japanese troops marching through.
Now it would leave Kanburi one hundredweight skip. Everybody’s hungry, starving, and as it went through every camp on the way up, everybody was having a dip. By the time that skip arrived at the end of the line, where it was at that stage, there were just a few crumbs in the bottom. So you always dreaded the leap-frogging principle of you battalion being sent from here, where the line was finished, up to the head of the line, because you knew you’d get no food. That was the big dread on everybody’s mind, and was the hardest work.
So mixed with rice, you had this…
So you got rice, well you got two little cups like that, twice a day, one in the morning, and one in the evening, that’s all you had, just those two little cups of rice per day. There was nothing else.
We got some jungle spinach which we cut from the jungle. The Indonesian troops taught us that one, and that was greens, we had some greens, but nothing of any substance.
Protein was nil, apart from the fact of whatever you pinched, and we pinched two yaks in twelve months – for a thousand blokes (three thousand at one stage).
This area was uninhabited at this stage?
It was all uninhabited. There were fishing fleets along the river, little fishing villages, but only about six on the whole length of it – the whole length of that river. Today it’s completely different, it’s completely inhabited, but at that stage there was nothing, nothing at all. You could not buy – the only place where the Tamils were in existence were at each end, and one place called Takamira, about two thirds of the way up. I was able to buy bits and pieces on the way because Boon Pong was ????????? money.
Where was ‘Weary’ Dunlop?
Weary Dunlop was in the camp next to me. There was one big – the Japanese are the best improvisors in the world. They built this railway and the bridges for instance. It’s unbelievable what they did in this “pack of cards” bridge.
The Japanese survey people, the railway survey, they made a hell of an error of judgement when they hit this particular place Hell Fire Pass at Hintok. Instead of going around the ravine and out again like that, they came straight up against the brick wall, Hell Fire Pass, and nowhere to go. They’d just all of a sudden, drive this Hell Fire Pass through solid rock. We lost a lot of blokes there. And then when they came to the other end of it, there’s a sixty – seventy foot drop and there’s the ravine. And there’s the other side over there, the same. So they had to put this bridge across, this “pack of cards” bridge it was called, because it fell down three times while it was being built.
I should give you an idea of it, also the administrator of the camp. He had about three thousand blokes there, two and a half to three thousand. He commanded Hintok, that was Weary Dunlop, he was on one side of Hell Fire Pass, and I was on the other side. The pack of cards bridge had to be built between the two camps to continue the flow of the railway line. Time was pressing because the rail laying gangs were pushing behind for the railway to be made, the bridge to be built. It was called the “pack of cards” bridge because it fell down three times whilst it was being built. It was sixty-five feet high, made from timber, green, hewn on the spot from the jungle. They brought elephants in to pull the logs in to the area. The prisoners of war pulled them up by rope, rotan rope, and put them in position, then they had no pile drivers as such, no mechanical pile drivers, all they did was bring a big steam engine along and put it across on the rails, and the steam engine’s weight drove the piles down. Then the prisoners had to pull the engine back again, whilst then they put big wooden shims. A shim is normally about an eighth or a quarter of an inch thick – you put under anything to lift it up – they were putting two and three feet thick shims underneath to build up the piers. So they built the bridge and the trains ran over it in due course, and the railway was opened on time. So improvise they’ll do anything. I’ll show you pictures of the railway afterwards
When you say the bridge fell down…
The bridge fell down three times because of this sort of thing – see what I mean?
It was made of local timber hewn on the spot, and propped up with these props.
Sleepers were from the railway line from Malaya, from Gemas to Kuala Lemas up in the north east of Malaya, and many had to be brought from Java. They were hardwood sleepers from Australia originally.
What about the tracks?
The tracks were all BHP steel, steel rails, branded. Well, they supplied the whole…..
(refers to the picture).. there’s the Hell Fire Pass, that’s – it came to the end, and then straight drops and the bridge had to be built right across.
Weary Dunlop was a fantastic doctor, he was a surgeon, but he gets all the credit for two other surgeons he had, who did the bulk of the work. There was a chap named Ewen Corlette and Arthur Moon. They were fantastic, they both got M’s BE, but they should have got a lot more.
Weary Dunlop was the figurehead, a very good administrator, very good surgeon. Anything difficult, he did do it. He did operations for the British and other camps adjoining, but he is the focal point today, has been since the war, for all P’s OW. Because of circumstances, he gets all the credit and from all that you hear and see and what have you, he was the only officer on the line, he was the only medical officer on the line, he was the only camp commander on the line. There were thirty-two camps in this line, he was only one.
He was the commander of an ordinary battalion…
He was an ordinary camp, commanding two battalions from Java, O & E battalions, that’s prison of war battalions. Good luck to him – he’s worth it!
Bertie Coates was the senior medical officer form the Burmese side at the hospital at the end of the line called Thanbyuzayat. After the line had finished, all people were evacuated back down into Thailand, all the Thai camps, not all, they still had to maintain the railway and they had camps all dotted on the way, maintenance camps, but the bulk of all P’s OW, the sick and all the rest of it, were brought down to a big hospital called Nakom Paton in Thailand and Non Pladuk – that was a ten thousand bed hospital, there were ten thousand in it, sick people. Bertie Coates was the senior medical officer. All the doctors were there. He was knighted after the war, Bertie Coates, a wonderful gentleman. Weary Dunlop after his effort, came back and he was just another one of the surgeons, just as competent.
Reg, when was the railway completed?
October 13th 1944.
What happened after the railway was completed? Did you then go back to Changi?
No, only one prisoner of war force went back to Changi.
Another thing here I’ll explain. All prisoners of war that left Changi area, or Singapore, right through until Freddie Force (F Force) belonged to the main Japanese organisation in Thailand or in Malaya. F Force prisoners of war that went to the Thai Burma railway belonged to Singapore administration. Consequently they were the only working force, or the remnants thereof, or those that survived, went back to Changi. The only force, Freddie Force, comprising all manner of units mixes up and all together. They got a shock when some of them, so few got back.
The second nineteenth – some of you went to Japan, didn’t you?
So then the next point that happened, was, after the line had finished, most of them were brought back to southern Thailand, those sick went to Nakom Paton Hospital and most of the fit went into two big camps at Tamuang and Tamarkan.
The Japs in their wisdom decided we’ll still have a workforce here, and we’ll need work forces in Japan, we’ll pick out the fittest, what they call the fittest, some were nowhere fit but anybody who could stand up straight was “fit”. So they picked out those who they thought might do the journey to Japan and were issued with one pair of underpants and a Japanese coat. That was all the clothing we had in the whole three and a half years issued by the Japs. Cotton shorts and an old cotton jacket with a ?????
Brigadier Varley took the first twenty-five hundred, and they tried to get him out through Saigon without success and they took them all down to Singapore, twenty-five hundred of them, put them onto ships there, two ships, sorry four ships, and sent them off to Japan in a convoy.
The American submarines were operating extensively, and they were torpedoed in the South China Sea. He was lost – Varley was lost – and of his twenty-five hundred, only two hundred were rescued from the water, the others went down.
The American submarines who torpedoed his convoy they came back into the area a few days later in case there were any more to be seen to, or to see if the ships had actually gone down. The squadron, one submarine was called the Hanbonito. When they came back into the area they found about sixty prisoners of war still floating on rafts, covered with oil, been in the water for six days and they picked them up, took them to Saipan and then they got back to Australia.
They arrived back in Australia in September 1944, and this was the first indication anybody had of the Thai-Burma railway. The Governor-General put on a big parade, or it was put on for the Governor-General to inspect them (it was the Duke of Gloucester at the time) and the photographs are in here. There were four 2/20th and six 2/19th Battalion picked up in the water and they got home early.
The second twenty-five hundred I had command, and they decided they would not try and get my troops out of Saigon with the American subs operating, and we went to Singapore and we took off from Singapore.
There were twenty-two ships in my convoy. I had my troops on two ships, and four got through to Japan, the other eighteen were sunk. The other one of my convoy was torpedoed, and they lost ninety-five percent of the blokes.
My ship, it was the oldest ship in the convoy, it had been bombed out in Batavia, towed up to Singapore, a new set – an old set of twin reciprocal engines put into it and they’d welded twenty-four feet long H-girders around the hull, gunwale to gunwale of the ship, the guts of the ship, to hold it together, they filled it up with tin and rubber, and they put the troops on (twelve hundred and fifty I had on this ship, a five thousand ton ship), jammed in, and we went on to Japan.
We watched all the other ships being sunk. After the war, I made a point of going to America, the States, to see if I could find the commander of the squadron of the submarines as to why he did not sink us. I saw him in a place called Welmington in North Carolina. He’d retired, and he laughed his head off, and they looked after us really nobly, he and his wife, and he said, frankly Newton, Reg, he said, it wasn’t worth a bloody fish (a torpedo)!
It was a terrible looking ship, it had no bridge, it was steered up aft, a big old Boxer Rebellion cannon up front up on the forecastle and one up aft, with the cannon balls. It’s a literal fact! That was the armour. It was just an old wreck of a ship that they put us on to get us to Japan, to carry some tin and rubber.
So we arrived in Japan safely.
At the time he didn’t realise there were prisoners of war on?
No – he sank the other ship. That was the luck of the draw.
Now this old ship, we hit a hell of a typhoon north of the Philippines. The seventh American Fleet were operating in the area, comprising about three hundred ships of all types. Sixteen of the American ships were sunk in that typhoon, but this old ship just ploughed on and we were down twenty feet below the gunwales, and when she’d go over that side you’d see the water on that side – when she went that way, you’d see the water that side. It was just like a piece of cork, but we got through, thanks to that skipper. He was a fantastically good captain, sea captain, and right in the middle of everything he went into the lee of an island group and the swell disappeared, I mean he just sat there for three days until it had subsided and saved his bacon.
Was he a Japanese skipper?
He was a Japanese skipper, a civilian, it was an old civilian ship and he was very, very good, but he did not miss – when he arrived in Taiwan, a place in northern Taiwan called Keelung, the port there, he did not muck about, the American sub waiting about outside, he went straight through the entrance, straight through, and when he arrived he took the municipal baths with him – straight to the baths and went aground – they had to tow him off, and then continue on to Japan.
We were seventy days on this ship, the normal run from Singapore to Moji, Japan, eastern side of Japan port, would be about four and a half days. We were seventy days on that ship.
What did you have to eat?
Very little – you had your two cups of rice, which we cooked ourselves, the big trouble we had was water. The nips had food on board, they’d put food on board, rice and vegetables, that’s all you had, and dried fish, protein was dried fish. And of course you could watch the box carry itself away for the maggots. It all went in the pot just the same, it was all protein, you learned to live with it!
The food was, right throughout the whole set-up, unless you fended for yourself and you were able to have the chance to buy food you got very little from the Japanese because they treated you just the same as they – less than they treated their own. They treated their own troops with disdain in many many cases – third class privates they copped the bashings from second class privates, and this is why they bashed us unmercifully.
The chaps used to take pride – we had nothing to read, nothing until we got to Japan, sorry we did have five books I took with me to Japan and I split the spine of the books and made a circulating library of five pages, so it went around the blokes.
The first book we had, we used to have beautiful coloured prints in it – plates – and I used to – we pasted those onto, pinned them onto, spliced them with bamboo twine onto big bamboo – you see, bamboo grew up to two feet wide, in diameter, and you split that and flattened it under heat, and you made a board of it like a book, and I used to put these big coloured plates up on the tent poles – the ridge poles on the trees nearby to where they were sleeping. The blokes would drool and drool and drool and look at these beautiful coloured plates. It was Mrs Beaton’s Cookery Book! It was worth its weight in gold, diamonds and everything. The blokes looked at that book, and I took it right through and it was pinched – when we got on board the ship to go to Japan the nips took it from me – took the plates from me so we had nothing after that. Reading matter in Japan, they had some more.
Books – Changi had probably the best library throughout the whole of the east and the far east, because they gathered in all the books from all of the European houses, libraries, shops, stores, you name it –
All languages, mostly English, and this was the library they had in Singapore, in Changi. They were not short of anything.
You had leading professors in the medical field, British, leading architects, mostly British, a couple of Australians, but all mostly British, lawyers, barristers, solicitors. All professions were there among the prisoners of war. You even had the number two polo player in the world – there was an eleven goal handicap back in Australia – all types were prisoner of war – he was in a British cavalry regiment.
Now with the result they were not short of anything, to more or less keep themselves mentally alert, and the medical field and the legal field accepted – they started courses. Three of my blokes and two of the second twentieth blokes did these courses, and after the war, nobody wanted to leave Changi because they did not want to interrupt their training for the professions, and if they were selected to go on a job anywhere, they did everything in their powers to stop it and stay back in Changi. Never kid yourself on that, and they did everything to stop back there to learn for their future after the prisoner of war days.
The medical profession and the law profession accepted all of their training for two years after they came home, and they went straight into third year, that’s how good they were, their training, it’s unbelievable. Johnny Brook second twentieth was one of them. Maurie Brennan had been a school teacher, now returned as a sergeant, became an officer, he was selected, he was accepted.
The training was good. You get every type of bloke possible in a prisoner of war camp.
What would have happened to Dad after the railway was finished?
He remained – I left him back in Thailand to look after the two hospitals. The hospital at Tashao was taken down to Chungkai, they were both amalgamated and he still looked after everybody right through to the end of the war, with the help of a second nineteenth bloke named Westbrook. He looked after the outside stuff, your father looked after all those who were in the hospitals. The question there, was to make sure the food from supply was kept up and on the upkeep, and whatever medical supplies he could get out of Boon Pong. The job continued right through to the end of the war, with great success, I might add.
What happened at the end of the war, how did you get home?
In the last three months of the war, sorry the last nine months of the war, you had your American planes coming over. As time progressed, more were coming over because the Yanks were coming closer to Japan. They were flying more and more missions, shorter distances into Japan. The camp in which I was placed, they were coming one every day in the last few weeks. They were dropping signals, dropping messages. On one occasion they dropped a signal to me – this is about the last fortnight – the Red Cross representative will be in your area and camp at such and such a date or thereabouts, be ready to receive him. Have your nominal rolls ready in four copies (it did not say where you were going to get any typewriters or handwriting – typical Yanks!).
Did that actually happen?
That happened, Liedermeyer was his name, he came in, a Swede, and he was very good, well received, the nips had to receive him nobly and well, and look after him. He brought his own food supply with him, he had six other blokes with him, and went over everything, and he said to me the Americans have told me they were going to come into the country and release you, but they have now decided not to come into the country and you will have to get yourself out. You can arrange your own rail transport, if and when you can arrange it with the Japanese government or Japanese locals. Food will be dropped to you (they had been dropping it before this in small lumps, not so much food though – the first thing the Yanks dropped was clothing. We did not want clothing. We’d had none for three and a half years, we wanted medical supplies and food, and I had to make up an Aldis lamp, which is a signalling lamp to aircraft. We made that up ourselves, and signalled to the flying ops, drop medical supplies, medical supplies, not clothing, not clothing. Then the other thing the Yanks did was drop everything in crates, and on hitting the ground everything burst. Then I had to signal “do not drop loose, do not drop loose, drop in ‘chutes, drop in ‘chutes”, which they then did. I wanted the ‘chutes anyway, we could sell them to the Japs – anything we could get , and this is what they did.
Well, they dropped plenty of food, the food supply was very, very good, everything we’d ever dreamt about. The blokes were smoking three or four cigarettes in their mouth at a time, and this sort of thing.
Transcript typed by Bob and Caroline Gaden, May 1995.