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Memorandum on the nature of privations suffered by A.I.F. personnel, who were members of "F" Force on the Burma/Thailand Railway work force of Ps.O.W. Japan from April to December 1943. (published in Makan No. 245, Jan/Feb 1979)

"In recent months, I have become increasingly concerned at the nature of official comments, general news items (Reveille) and public discussions on the subject of eligibility and non-eligibility of Ex-Ps.O.W. (Japan) to be accepted by Repatriation MOs and Repatriation Tribunals for pensions on medical grounds for medical conditions attributed to war service, especially in the areas of hypertension, cardiac troubles and lung conditions.

"I receive the strong impression (rightly or wrongly) that the absence of medical officers, who have had personal experience of the rigours, privations and bestial conditions, which the majority of Ex-Ps.O.W. (Japan) suffered for long periods in 1942 to 1945, is a major reason, why some of the medical conclusions are in the abstract and are lacking in realism and understanding.

"In the first place, it seems necessary to clarify the fact that the later 'personal story' of one ex-P.O.W. who marched into Changi P.O.W Camp, after the capitulation of Singapore, on 15/2/42, is not necessarily 'a story in common' with all the other Australians who were with him. Many hundreds remained in the Changi Camp until their eventual release in September, 1945. Several thousands moved away from Changi in May 1942 as members of A Force, going by sea to Burma and later working on the Railway job - moving towards the Thailand Junction point (Niki - Sept. 1943). Thereafter, these men stayed in the Thailand area under the Jap Administration of that area. Later, some thousands moved to Borneo (from Changi) in "B Force, where all the O/R's later lost their lives on the Sandakan/Ranau march. The degree of 'welfare', or lack of it, was not common to all working parties from Changi. Working Parties on Singapore Island (and including Changi Camp itself) did not suffer the degrees of starvation and deprivation in medical care and general conditions, that were common to the jungle camps (as on the Railway), and different conditions again (could be worse) would apply to those, who were moved to the wharves and coal mines in Japan.

"My purpose in this memorandum is to emphasise in particular the story of "F" Force, in which I was both a Train Commander (No 5 Train) and a Camp Commander (Shimo Songkri and Kami Songkri). I am older (73) than the majority of the surviving members of F Force and, it seems to me, appropriate, that I should make this submission to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which continues to face the problem of assessing 'what effects' the war experiences of F Force men would have, in a medical sense, on the development, even years after the end of the war, of physical and psychological conditions, which, I believe, are directly accountable for so many of my younger comrades dying of cardiac failure in particular.

"With over 600 men of all ranks provided by the 2/30 Bn A.I.F. for F Force, it is only natural that the Battalion history ('Galleghan's Greyhounds') provides a true historical record of the experiences of these men (under my command and elsewhere on the Railway.)

"It is recorded in that history that Train 5 comprised 22 Officers and 559 0/R's under my command and Train 6 had 6 Officers and 64 0/R's of the Battalion, with Major R. Anderson in command. Train 5 reached Ban Pong on 27th April 1943 after five days spent in steel rice trucks (30 to a truck), and that same night were put on the first stage of a march, which totalled 304 kilometres, all by night marches with only five overnight rest halts against 15 nights marching. After each night, even the sleep of exhaustion was difficult the following day in the tropical sun and without shelter and not always shade.

"Thus it was that the first medical entry on the theoretical medical histories of all F Force members should be 'severe exhaustion'.

"Nevertheless, no rest was afforded to the men and, on arrival at our destination camp, we found that the only prior preparations made for us were, that open trench latrines had been dug on the hillsides above the level of the huts, and the huts themselves were roofless, no attap having been delivered yet. Working parties had to be provided to commence clearing the jungle for the eventual railway, and, the completion of our huts with roofing etc. carried out by ourselves, as best we could, over the next few weeks, despite that the wet monsoon season had set in already and cholera had broken out already.

"Altogether, 151 deaths occurred at Shimo Songkri in the short period up to September 1943, when the 243 men then remaining - after transfer of men to Songkri and Kami Songkri Camps, and sick men totalling 2,000 from all "F" Force Camps had been moved across the border to what euphemistically was called a Hospital Camp at Tanbaya. (Of those 2000, only 700 survived to be evacuated to Kanburi the following December.)

"The period from 20th May to 24th September, which I spent in command at Shimo Songkri, was notable for almost continuous rain until late in August. The latrines above the hut sites had overflowed and emptied their contents over the open ground over which the men were walking and sleeping. Dysentery was suffered by all despite precautions made for provision of boiling water at all food serving points; the use of 'Dettol' sprinklers for washing hands at latrines; and the eventual digging of new latrine trenches on the lower side of the huts. So we should have a second medical entry for all F Force personnel - viz: Dysentery, either Amoebic or Bacterial.

"Two other medical entries, common to all in F Force, before we eventually moved back to Kanburi by train (5 days) in December 1943, were:

(a) Malaria - either B.T. or M.T.
(b) Beri Beri - either dry or wet.

"The following excerpts are taken from page 102 of the Pan Ballantine Illustrated History of World War 11 'Death Railway' by Major Clifford Kinvig (Serving Army Officer (Br) 1973, Lecturer in War Studies, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Graduate of Durham University and Kings College, London - M.A. in War Studies.)

(1) 'Among all the camps, in which the European prisoner lived, those of F Force, in the remote Nikki area, were worst hit by sickness and disease.'

(2) 'By August, two-thirds of F Force men were hospitalised and the Japanese, desperate for labourers, were forcing the stretcher cases to be carried out on to the railway, where they broke up stones as ballast for the track.'

"This second quotation has no relationship to my camp, either at Shimo Songkri or Kami Songkri, but it was a daily 'fight' with the Japanese Camp Commander (Lieut Fukuda) to avoid his sending his guards into our hospital huts to do that or something similar.

"I feel strongly that the men, who were fortunate enough to live through the frightful conditions, which no literary talent could adequately describe, should now have the frustrating task presented to them of 'proving' that such 'war service', as they experienced on 'F' Force, in some way contributed to their present serious conditions of health, especially the relevancy of beri-beri to a current cardiac problem.

"I left Changi P.O.W. Camp with No. 5 Train on 21st April, 1943 and arrived back on the last train from Kanburi on 21st December, 1943 - eight months later. Of the 28 Officers and 623 0/R's of 2/30 Battalion in F Force, a total of 192 O/R's (or nearly 1/3rd) had died of sickness, disease, starvation, etc., etc., etc., in eight months.

"Medical Officers, who were with me at the two camps, were:

Major Bruce Hunt ('N. Aust.) - since deceased (heart attack)
Major Roy Hunt (E.N.T. Melbourne) - Recent situation not known
Capt. Frank Cahill (Sydney) -   ditto
Capt. Lloyd Cahill (Sydney) - Practising Specialist, Sydney.
Capt. John Taylor (W. Aust) - since deceased.

"I am not a Medical Officer, but I would certify confidently to any authority, that any man, who experienced the rigours of F Force on the 'Burma Railway', has had his subsequent health seriously affected by at least four conditions common to all, viz:

Severe Exhaustion and Malnutrition
Malaria - M.T. or B.T.
Dysentery - Amoebic or Bacillary
Beri-Beri - (Cardiac weakness)

"The death list (nearly 200) included a large number of each of these four causes of death, but it was usually a combination of all that proved too much in the end.

"Additionally, we had specific cases of practically all known tropical diseases, viz: Cholera, typhus, Blackwater fever, smallpox and toxaemia (from tropical ulcers) - a rather common cause of death, due to the ulcers starting from punctures in the legs, and feet from bamboo thorns trodden on or brushed against, whilst working in the mud (the jungle was all bamboo).

"I might add one additional element of difference between F Force and the other working parties on the Railway Job. F Force was a Japanese temporary transfer of Ps.O.W. from Changi, and NOT a permanent move to Thailand. The Japanese administration of the F Force camps remained under Changi 'command', even during the period in Thailand. As a consequence our guards were treated by their own Japanese comrades in the Thailand area as 'strangers' and received no help in their administration problems. Our guards found themselves, moreover, responsible for the camps' (transport, .etc.) furthest from either their Burma or Thailand bases for food and other supplies. Transport breakdowns in the wet season (frequent) had to be compensated for by Ps.O.W forming carrying parties to transport rice rations, from depots up to 30 kilometres away. Undoubtedly, the plight of Ps.O.W in F Force was due in no small measure to this stupidity in Japanese control, as well as to many stupidities in the more local control of camps in the area.

"So I conclude this memorandum with a request that its contents be promulgated to the various Repatriation Tribunals with appropriate directions as to its relevancy in assessing entitlements in specific cases. If such a course is not favoured, might I strongly suggest to the Minister that a special enquiry be instituted to reach acceptable medical conclusions, which could thereafter give useful guidance to Tribunals, dealing with 'war contributory' problems affecting ex-F Force Ps.O.W. (Japan).'

N. McG. Johnston, Lieut-Colonel (Ret'd) ex 2/30 Battalion A.I.F.

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Last updated 30/08/2021