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These were brought by friends who gave up part of their rations to help those gravely in need. Whether trading personal belongings for food or tending to the ill, having close-knit bonds was essential. People who were sick in the hospital, all skin and bone. They had dysentery, everybody had dysentery, they lay in their own excreta. Unless they had a pal to look after them, they stood little chance of survival. But if they had a pal he would see that you were cleaned up, he would feed you.

Without that you would have died. Similarly, medical orderlies played a vital role in caring for the sick. Often volunteers, they selflessly tended to the infirm day after day, even though the risk of infection was high. Arthur Turbutt was a medical orderly with the RAF who recalls helping in one of the dysentery huts. Our main job seemed to be trying to lift these poor fellows off the bamboo and, as weak as we were, trying to carry them along to an old metal cabin trunk, the lid had been taken off and the cabin trunk was lying in the centre of the floor and those who needed had to get to the trunk and try and put their bottoms over the side and do what they had to do into the trunk.

Of course, he died. For some, help and recovery came from an unlikely source. With each camp required to produce a specific number of men to work on the railway construction, deciding whether men were fit enough to work became a difficult daily task for the medical officers. Hugh de Wardener was now at a makeshift hospital base in Chungkai.

They sometimes went out before daylight, and came back in the dark. Our job was to try and keep the most ill from going out on the railway, that was really our main therapeutic tool. If the number of sick increased, guards would often raid the tents and forcibly drag them to the work line. Hostility towards the sick was rampant. The Japanese regarded the infirm as shameful — they required nothing more than a labour force of utmost productivity. If your effort reduced, it was met with punishment.

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Their favourite occupation was ear bashing. Sometimes a convenient weapon, be it bamboo stick, shovel or crowbar, might be used. Beatings were followed by extended periods of standing to attention, for hours or days. One of the worst things about being a prisoner like that is humiliation. I got many beatings, because of my stupid attitude of not bowing and that sort of thing. I could stand beatings, but humiliation And it takes a lot not to hit him back. Prisoner Jeffrey English wrote in his diary that the Japanese attitude of punishing the sick had a strange, perverse logic to it.

If every sleeper laid on the railway cost another man his life, so what? Although prisoners moved location frequently, medical officers knew it was crucial to establish strict camp discipline in order to retain good sanitation and restrict the spread of disease. Disciplined hygiene routines were essential. All sorts of different methods were put in place, for instance latrines — the design and the creation of latrines almost became a science in itself.

Strict rotation of latrine sites, covering them over so they had designs for different types of bamboo covers, so like toilet seats they put down. These were just holes in the ground, all of which had to be dug in the tropical heat. Flies were a major cause of the transmission of diseases such as bacterial dysentery, so medical officers would encourage them to be killed en masse to reduce the threat of infection.


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There are examples of fly-swatting campaigns — men being rewarded by presenting the senior officer with flies a day or thousands of flies a day. There were men who were too sick to work who made fly swats. They made them out of woven bamboo, that was their job and it was essential. To ease the escalation in dysentery cases, one Japanese camp commander even tried to incentivise the practice.

Everybody had to kill flies before they could get their rice ration. Seeing friends ravaged by disease and illness was also motivation to protect oneself as best as possible. Fergus Anckorn recalls devising a novel precaution to fend off night-time mosquito bites. I found a blanket and I stitched it up into a sleeping bag, and I put buttonholes and buttons round the top, and at night I would get in there and close it all up, and in the morning there was a gallon of water in there of course from perspiration, but no malaria. Kept the mozzies away. Malaria was among the biggest killers faced by prisoners of war.

They fought it with a high-stakes gamble and a bamboo whisk. Prisoners who worked in little more than shorts or loincloths, and often without shoes, would frequently catch bamboo scratches and grazes. In the humid conditions and without clean dressings, these minor cuts would soon deteriorate into tropical ulcers, affecting muscle and deep tissue. And after several weeks, these cuts would develop into lesions of rotting flesh that would often expose bone underneath. The pain was excruciating. Because of their poor immune status, the infection would spread and spread and you would be left with a large ulcer, which could erode very deep, including down into bone.

They were very common in the railway camps, very painful, very debilitating and they were a major cause of amputation. I got a scratch on my leg, probably a bit of bamboo — quite sharp, bamboo can be. And it turned into an ulcer. With limited drug supplies, medical officers had to rely on the craft and guile of others within the camp: These skilled craftsmen all helped to create an assortment of DIY medical supplies, such as homemade salt solutions that would keep wounds clean. But sometimes the infected limb had to be amputated.

Amputees could be provided with prosthetic limbs to move around more ably. The post office engineer who fashioned medical instruments from tin cans and saved lives in a prison camp. You could put that in an odd piece of material and crudely sew it up. We made some of our needles with odd bits of metal, very often taken off army equipment and beaten out. The main thing was the hide itself, and they cut some of that into strips to make laces so that they could be sewn on to the front of the bucket, joined together and laced up tightly for comfort on the stump.

From spring , the Japanese were pushing for a swift completion to the railway. Sixteen-hour days were not uncommon. Fergus Anckorn was one of them. We made it out of teak trees — very heavy. At Wampo, the hillside fell sharply into the Kwai Noi river, so a triple-tiered viaduct, metres long, was ordered to be constructed. When it was done we had to creosote it.

So that involved climbing up to the top, with five gallons of creosote, and bamboo with a sack on the end of it. And of course if the creosote landed on you came up in a blister straight away. And a Japanese guard told me to climb up and creosoting underneath the rails. And as a result of the time that I was bombed out in that lorry, I had vertigo. And I climbed up there by lifting my foot up with a rope putting it on one bit, five gallons of creosote on here — very, very heavy. It took me ten minutes to inch my way to the top. And when I got there, there was no way I could do anything, I just shut my eyes and clung to the posts.

The whole world was going round. And there was the Jap from the ground shouting at me to get on with it, or words to that effect. And I said no. And he came up after me and threw the four gallons of creosote over me. I woke up with fellows washing me.

The Forgotten Army: A Burma Soldier's Story in Letters, Photographs and Sketches

And I looked so awful with these blisters that even the Japs decided to send me down country. We heard a noise in the sky and we looked up, and there — you should forgive me — were a dozen bloody great American bombers, flying low over us. By , visible signs that the Japanese were a retreating force became apparent. This was the first sign of our people we had seen since we were taken prisoner. And we went mad with hysteria, we shouted and we screamed.

It was the first attack on the bridge. For the camps in the remote jungle, news of the eventual Japanese surrender was overwhelming and often met with disbelief. We suddenly noticed in the camp that discipline dropped for a couple of days, and we wondered what had happened — here were no working parties. All men go home, happy, happy. The family were at Aberdeen station. But for those held captive for over three years, adjusting to the seemingly routine surroundings was the beginning of a very different struggle.

Stories of POW hardship during captivity had been largely hidden from the public. In a way I can understand why, I mean we were part of a defeated army, you know. Servicemen were ushered onto military trucks and escorted on trains heading north, east, south or west, where men were demobilised and sent home.

The Forgotten Army

For many, adapting to home life was an unusual and difficult period. The physical effects of the harsh regime had taken its toll. The dramatic shift to a high-calorie, starchy diet was problematic after living on tiny rations of unpolished rice. Urquhart was put on a diet of rice pudding to quell the stomach problems he faced.

But many of the problems faced by those who returned home were not physical. I was not able to communicate with people. When I landed at Liverpool, I knew everything round me was familiar but the thing that had changed most was me. There was no medical treatment, nothing. You were left on your own. Talking about the experiences of being a prisoner of war was completely frowned upon. Nobody wanted to know about you being a prisoner of war.

Even for those who could talk, those back home had little comprehension of what could have happened. It was as if nothing had happened; the men just had to get on with their lives. Feelings of guilt and shame clouded their experiences. If I ever went to the cinema it was always on an end seat. Harry did manage to get a job at an engineering firm in nearby Warrington. There he met Merle.

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She was always very, very nice to me. But she could never understand me. And then I had to tell her, I had to really tell her. In , the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was screening former POWs for a type of intestinal threadworm, called Strongyloides , to prevent infection. You do have two problems: Dr Dion Bell — the consultant studying the former Far East prisoners of war — referred the men to his colleague at the hospital, psychiatrist Kamal Khan.

For the first time they felt there was somebody who was prepared to listen and understand their problems, and that actually really broke the ice. After assessing 65, Khan had begun to see patterns emerging in the problems the men described. The conclusion was in fact that a sizeable number of these people — almost half of these people, actually — had significant psychiatric problems. Khan decided to run a larger study. Crucially, none of these men had been taken captive during the war.

The results showed that high numbers of former POWs had severe cases of anxiety and depression. The ability for the former POWs to speak about their experiences proved invaluable. Harry Hesp recalls talking to Dr Khan. He was a wonderful man, and he spoke to me for over an hour, he was wonderful.


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  5. The trouble is you have a lot of nightmares, have an awful lot — I still do. Vivid nightmares of harrowing scenes in the prison camps were a common problem. So they would actually make them cremate them.

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    And when the firewood was lit, quite literally what used to happen was that sometimes these bodies would curl up as though the prisoner was still alive and was sitting and trying to get away. That was another nightmare that quite a few of them mentioned to me. For the prisoners of World War II, the monsoon season brought with it one horrendous and feared disease.

    He termed it chronic intermittent depressive illness, believing that the experiences of imprisonment resurfaced in periodic episodes years later. Initially you will try your best to do something to get away from that. But when you realise that whatever you did, you are not really going to escape from that situation, you give up. Three-and-a-half years in captivity, there was nothing that they could do about it. That actually plays a large part in their psyche.

    David Arkush returned from the war and opened his own dental practice in north London. During the recording of his interview, his wife Shirley was present in the room. When we were first married David did have nightmares. And he would — like all the other POWs — would not talk about it. What was it like? It was only when they decided to return to Thailand that his nightmares diminished. We went to the camp about 20 years after we were married.

    And after that it just poured out of him.

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    And what about reconciliation? Are such atrocities ever forgivable? When we got there it was as if Tokyo had a half-day. There were Japanese in front, Japanese behind. I just kept my head straight on and Merle held my hand. Suddenly I felt a tap on the shoulder. I hate the war. Undeniably, the experience left indelible impressions. I became a lot more tolerant, I think, one of the effects of being a prisoner. This story has concentrated on just one area of British imprisonment. Thousands of men were dispersed across regions of Java, Korea, China, the Philippines and Japan itself, with around 37, British prisoners returning home following the end of the war.

    Just a tiny fraction of their stories and experiences have been captured in this piece. Many of those who survived look back at the medical officers and orderlies as unsung heroes who battled atrocious conditions to provide them with a level of treatment and care. The struggle to survive continued long into postwar lives. Call-up documents, medical certificate, service pay book, discharge papers, letter index, family tree, news cuttings, leaflets, and letters spanning military service in the army at home, India, Burma and Malaya.

    Copies of sketches, illustrations, photographs and paintings have been placed with original letters where reference is made. Sketches of the attack on Myitson, and copies of illustrations printed in the magazine Soldier, are the only drawings of wartime actions that have survived. Original portraits in watercolour, pictorial scenes and photographs, have been exhibited at various venues, a larger number have never been on show.

    In additions to the letters sent to his family, many more were written to his brother Harry serving with the Royal Corps of Signals. Strict censorship regulations on leaving England prohibited the disclosure of troop ships, military activities, locations and place names, or information that may be of value to an enemy. Hostile encounters with Japanese forces during the Burma campaign were not allowed to be repeated until the closing days of the war. The last of the author's experiences as a soldier serving in uniform is related to letters to his wife.

    This is a continuous account of military service during World War 2, from the very first day in the army, to the last.