‘A’ Force – Green Force No. 3 Battalion

‘A’ Force

A Force Camps Thai-Burma Railway

 

In May 1942, the Japanese announced they required a force of 3,000 men to be drawn from the 8th Division. Named ‘A’ Force, it was commanded by Brigadier A.L. Varley.  This was  the first  Group of Australian POWs to depart Singapore and comprised Headquarters, Engineering and Medical Detachments, Battalions One, Two and Three.

It was drawn from 22nd Australian Brigade (under Brigadier Varley) the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion (under Major C.E. Green) and 2/30th Battalion (under Lt.-Col Ramsay).  Included was a medical group drawn from 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (under Lt. Col T. Hamilton).

‘A’ Force was informed it would be sent to one destination. The Japs refused permission to take any tools, medical supplies and other equipment, assuring the POWs that all these facilities would be made available at their unknown destination.  Of course this was a lie.
The Force was landed at three different points, about 150 miles between each on the West Coast of Southern Burma.  Victoria Point, Tavoy and Mergui.  The Japanese would not permit communication between these groups.

Green Force No. 3 Battalion was commanded by 2/4th’s  Lt- Col. Charles Edward Green WX3435, who had become C.O. on the death of Lt.Col Anketell at Singapore.

60 men from 2/4th died –  including 32 who did not survive in the South China Sea after their ship Rakuyo Maru taking them to Japan, was torpedoed by American submarines and sank.

After repairing and constructing airfields, ‘A’ Force moved to Thanbyuzayat.

On 14 May 1942 ‘A’ Force under the command of Brigadier Varley, embarked at Singapore on 2 ships with Headquarters, No. 2 and No. 3 Battalions on ‘Yoyohashi Maru’ and No. 1 Battalion and the medical detachment on ‘Celebes Maru’.

Near Medan, on the north east coast of Sumatra two small ships and a sloop transporting British POWs joined the convoy. They would be known as British Sumatra Battalion. Captured by the Japanese at Pandang, Sumatra they were moved north to Belawan, the port of Medan on 9th May 1942.   Included amongst the ranks was Lt-Col Albert Coates A.A.M.C. – destined to become Senior Medical Officer on the Burma side of the rail link.

Green Force and 1,026 POWs disembarked at Victoria Point on 21st May.

 

On 23rd May, Lt-Col Ramsay’s No. 1 Battalion and the British Sumatra Battalion disembarked at Mergui.  As no prior arrangements had been made to accommodate Ramsay’s men, 1500 were housed in a school that could have comfortably provided room for 600/800 persons. (In Aug. 1942 Lt. Col
Ramsay and his men were moved to Tavoy.)

Lt. Col Ramsay, 2/30th Btn
 

 

The convoy’s remaining POWs,  No 2 Battalion under the command of Major D.R. Kerr of 2/10th Field Regiment  disembarked Tavoy on 25th May.  Lt- Col Varley also remained with No. 2 Battalion. 

On arrival at Tavoy Lt-Col Anderson became Commander of No. 2 Battalion and Major Kerr his Second in Command. 
From this point on the battalion was known as Anderson Force until its amalgamation with Williams Force on 3 January 1943.
The men were set to work on runway repairs, extensions and roads at the aerodromes at all three locations for several months before moving north to begin work on the Burma-Thailand railway.
Victoria Point

Green Force was broken down into two groups. The first group comprising 600 all ranks were to work at the airfield camp – about 7 miles from Victoria Point town site.

The remaining 416 men in the second group were based at Victoria Point, accommodated in houses along the waterfront. Their work consisted of unloading aviation fuel drums and rice from ships, rolling, stacking and loading fuel drums onto trucks for the airfield and roadwork.

The Airfield group were accommodated in huts on the western slopes of a range of hills located on the eastern side of the airfield – about 1,000 yards north of the Japanese Garrison.

Major Green pointed out housing inadequacies and overcrowding. To alleviate the problem the men pulled down some huts around the airfield and rebuilt them at their camp. Improvements continued as the men settled into their new surroundings.

Towards the end of May work commenced on the airfield. The Japanese had grand ideas about improvements, but without equipment to carry out these tasks it would be impossible.

Unexploded mines were found and daily searches discovered a total of 4. The British, before they left following defeat by Japan, had damaged the runway before departing; leaving it pitted with craters which required filling before the airfield was serviceable. The total of 40 craters on the runway consisted of 11 small craters about 2-½ ft. in diameter and 6-8 feet deep. The 29 larger craters were about 25 feet in diameter and varied between 10 – 30 feet deep.

Other work consisted of levelling and rolling the runway, loading sand onto trucks, unloading and ramming sand, carrying sand in bags, filling bags, wiring the camp and roadwork.

Story of Pte Robert Goulden NX20420

At 1000 hours on 8th July 1942 Pte Robert Goulden NX10420 was reported missing. He was as cook and had transferred across to 2/4th so that Claude Webber could join his brother George who was also a member of 2/9th Field Ambulance. Goulden had made good his escape, however became lost and decided to surrender to Burmese Police. They handed him back to the Japanese.

He was returned to Camp and at 10.30 hours on 12th July was interviewed by Major Green. He told the Major he had been worried about his wife who had been sick. Goulden did not know his wife had given birth to his son Howard on 6th March 1942. Major Green pleaded Goulden’s case, explaining his anguish.

The Japanese insisted Goulden knew the rules governing escape and was executed by firing squad at 1200 hours, 12th July 1942. Robert Goulden’s death was used as an example of what would happen to POWs caught trying to escape. The irony was the Japanese firing squad honoured Goulden by presenting arms to his lifeless body before marching off.

Padre F.X Corry, 2/4th MG Battalion conducted a funeral service at 1400 hours. Goulden was buried at Victoria Point cemetery, Lot No. 30, English Section.

From the end of July 1942, men from Victoria Point Camp started to arrive to help with working on the airfield.   This indicated another move was afoot. By 10th August the airfield was being cleared of refuse, rollers moved and tools stacked away.

 Tavoy-Ye-Lamaign-Moulmein

Green Force was now split into 2 detachments, the first under Major Green and the second under Major J. Stringer, 2/26th Battalion. From this point the 2 detachments leap frogged each other until they joined forces again at Kendau, the 4.8km camp; the first construction camp on the Burma side of the rail link. The first detachment left Victoria Point on 6th August and arrived at Tavoy, three days later. They embarked on 2 ships, one with only the identification No. 593, being a small coal ship and the other ship named ‘Tatu Maru’.

The 15th August saw the initial draft of the first detachment leave Tavoy by truck, arriving Ye the same day. This was followed on 17th August by the remainder of the force in the second draft arriving at Ye the same day. Work on the last and most northern of the three airfields was completed by mid September. All ranks, less the sick, marched out of Ye to Thanbyuzayat via Lamaign, over 25th and 26th September 1942, arriving at Thanbyuzayat on 28th September.

On 1st October all ranks of Major Green’s first detachment that had left Victoria Point on 6th August marched out to Kendau 4.8 km Camp. The end of October drew nearer as did the end of the southwest monsoon. The men in Green Force would soon be hard at work constructing the rail link from the Burma end. Work had already begun on the Thailand side by a British work force.

Stringer’s 2nd detachment had left Victoria Point on 13th August aboard the ship No. 593. After disembarking the 1st detachment from Green Force, this ship returned to Victoria Point to transport the 2nd and smaller draft. This group arrived Tavoy on 15th August and on 20th August boarded the Unkai Maru for passage to Moulmein for Thanbyuzayat. On 26th October Major Stringer’s detachment marched into Kendau 4.8 km Camp and Green Force was once again united.

 

Green Force to Kandaw 1942

 

4 km Camp, Burma

 

Green Force became No. 3 Battalion of the Burma Administration Group No. 3, under command of the Japanese 5th Railway Regiment. Each prisoner was issued a wooden plaque with his POW number inscribed into the wood.

In October 1942 survivors from the HMAS Perth were shipped to Singapore, and then to Burma. In October 1942, 385 Australians, commanded by Major L.J. Robertson, left Java on board the Moji Maru ; they joined up with A Force on 17 January 1943.

Between September 1942 and July 1944 the Japanese sent more than 4800 Australian POWs to southern Burma.   800 Australians died.

The railway line in Burma was remote and difficult to supply, especially during monsoon season when any existing roads became impassable. The roads were of poor condition and there was no river route to follow nor supply foods.  In engineering terms, Burma was not as challenging as as in Thailand. The work camps took their names from the number of kilometres distant from Thanbyuzayat such as 55-km camp.

Work consisted of felling trees, undergrowth clearing, excavating cuttings, building embankments and the construction of bridges across streams and gullies. At first when the railway route crossed reasonably easy territory the workloads were reasonable. By mid-1943 the construction pace increased, known as “Speedo” with some camps working shifts of 24 hours on and 24 hours off. The POWs were frequently subjected to violence from their guards, particularly the hated Koreans.

The Japanese administration in Burma was less efficient in Burma than Thailand.   Supply difficulties increased as the railway advanced with monsoon season.   By late 1942 the numbers of ill POWs increased because the lack of adequate food and medical supplies.   Their condition worsened during 1943. The effects of malnutrition resulted in cholera, beri beri, dysentery, malaria and smallpox and tropical illnesses unknown to the POWs.

Quite early in the war the Japanese were exposed to Allied bombing. The Japanese denied POW leaders requests for Thanbyuzayat Hospital be marked as a hospital and POW camp. On 12th and 15th June 1943 by Allied bombing killed 23 POWs including 18 Australians.   There were many more wounded.

WX9270 Thomas Joseph Fury died during an Allied air Raid on 15 June 1943.  Aged 35 years, he had a wife and 3 sons.

By October 1943 the railway was completed.   During the next few months the POWs were moved eastwards to Thailand. With evacuation of Thanbyuzayat many sick POWs walked to camps further up the line. Some had the dubious pleasure of travelling on the railway line they built. Some remained until 1944 cutting fuel for the locomotives.

Despite the hardships, the death rate in Burma was not as high as some of the worst camps in Thailand. It is suggested the strong leadership of Brigadier A.L. Varley and his relationship with the Japanese attributed to this.  Varley cannot be written about without the great strength of ‘A’ Force’s officers and medical staff.
Lt-Col Anderson who became Commander of No. 1 Battalion was said by many to be the driving force behind Varley.
Lt-Col Ramsay read further about Ramsay. 
Varley thought highly of Lt-Col Green.  Please read further.

Of course ‘A’ Force cannot be written history without including the strength, skills and dedication of the doctors and their medical staff. Claude Anderson of the 2/4th, Albert Coates, Bruce Hunt just to name a few.

In October 1942 survivors from the HMAS Perth were shipped to Singapore, and then to Burma. In October 1942, 385 Australians, commanded by Major L.J. Robertson, left Java on board the Moji Maru ; they joined up with A Force on 17 January 1943.

 

MEILO CAMP (75km Camp)

In Burma the forward camp at Meilo (75km Camp) was home to over 2,000 Australians – moving the combined Green, Ramsay and Black Forces further into the jungle.

“The ‘75’ was a bad camp: it was at the peak of the speedo, the work load beyond endurance, the food ration cut to near starvation point and the never ending harassment. Time had degenerated into just a blurred sequence of pain when there was no beginning and no end to the day. Anywhere must be better than this,” wrote Les Cody, ‘Ghosts in Khaki’.

 

105km Camp (Ankanan)

The ‘fit’ men left ’75km’ on the 40km march in two drafts, many having just finished a 15-hour shift. The hungry, footsore men struggled through mud and jungle constantly harassed and driven for 3 days by the Japanese guards.

The sick were to be transported by truck.

A week later the Japanese Camp Commander Lt. Hoshi ordered 200 of the sick to begin the march. Another week later, a further 100 sick men were ordered to begin the march. “It was a shocking experience,” wrote Les Cody with men trying to support one another.   The Japanese guards set a pace that resulted in the march degenerating into a shambles with men continually falling down and being forced to their feet with a boot or bayonet.

There was no drinking water and the POWs were forced to drink from the many streams they crossed. Cholera broke out. The death rate amongst these sick POWs accelerated rapidly during the next months.

They soon realized 105km was as bad as 75km. Fortunately the camp was located on a slope.   The camp was not in ankle or knee deep mud. However there were frequent falls and injuries as they worked in the rain and mud.

The rain devastated the condition of what roads existed. They became seas of mud and men were diverted from rail to road work

With no machinery the only available material was timber – trees had to be felled (with blunt axes) stripped and cut to length, carried a long distance and laid 5 or 6 side by side for every metre!

The men were reduced to total exhaustion with shoulders, arms and legs numb and/or aching. Rations were scarce. Weevily, dirty rice cooked with melon or radish or turmeric. There was the occasional yak and the men searched for signs of grease on top of the soup.

Work on the line continued, pushing to meet the September deadline.

The Japanese demanding more and more men work. The POWs daily quota increased. From moving 2 ½ metres per day per man to 3 metres and finally 4 cubic metres per man per day. Work continued into the night by the light of bamboo torches. As the works extended, the trek back to camp became longer at the end of the day.

The roads from base had stalled. Engineers began diverting ballast from the track to fill holes. Men were required to carry heavy loads from the quarry by bag and pole or basket, along narrow muddy jungle tracks to the road. At ten loads per day, two men had moved more than a ton of metals over 10 kms and covered twice that distance.

Without transport rice parties were sent back to camps 20-30km further down the track. The loads were heavy.

Quarry work smashing and carting stone for ballast for the roads and stockpiles for the line lasted from dawn to dusk.   The POWs were bootless and dressed only in ragged shorts or gee strings. Their unprotected bodies and limbs were covered in cuts and abrasions from flying chips of stone. The cuts and abrasions were then prone to tropical ulcers. The first sign of an infection would spark fear. Out of control 4th ulcer was capable of destroying a limb within weeks.

The only treatment for this scourge other than saline bathing was nightly scraping of the small ulcers with a sharpened spoon. The men would line up night after night at the ‘hospital’. There were no drugs and the pain excruciating and mates held the patient down whilst the Doctors scraped away the infected flesh.

Doctors and their helpers undertook the strain of inflicting such pain as above, the amputations, etc. without drugs as well as illnesses such as cholera. The 2/4th’s M.O. Claude ‘Doc’ Anderson and his chief orderly Bob Ritchie had nursed the men all the way from Northam. Other M.O.s who used their added skills, knowledge and dedication to keep the men alive included Coats, Hunt, Dunlop, Moon, Corlette, Fisher, Hobbs, Krantz, Chambers etc.

“Together with the volunteers and orderlies the M.O.s wrote entirely new chapters into the manuals of care and dedication,” wrote Les Cody.

The POWs first turned to the Camp M.O. for protection and help during the grim days working on the line. And it is the names of the Doctors that are always spoken of by the survivors.

With increasing work pressure and hours, the rate of sick men escalated. The major base hospital was Reptu (30km) and this raised the problem of either returning the sick to Reptu or alternatively sending up supplies to 105km for ‘the men who could not work’.

A ‘new’ hospital at 55km (Khon Khan) was to be no different from the other camps on the line. The same old decrepit bamboo huts, no facilities, no supplies and little food. The hordes of mosquitoes ensured malarial infection was rife.

Control of the camp was given to the senior Medical Officer, Lt. Col. Albert Coates who at that stage was seriously ill with scrub typhus at 75km camp. He arrived on a stretcher too week to walk and was carried around on it whilst doing his first rounds. The magnitude of the problem emerged when more than 2000 seriously ill men crowded into the sub-standard huts, which stood in the Camp mud and slush. With the concentration of sick at 55km, additional medical staff were brought up from base camps and transferred from working camps.

There were some 500 ulcer patients. The stench of the wounds and the continual sounds of pain penetrated all levels of the hut. Each patient dreading the verdict “it will have to be removed son”.

Coates carried out more than 120 major amputations between July and November. Of this number, 40 survived.

TAMARKAN CAMP – THAILAND.

Movement of men from Burma to base camps in Thailand began just prior to Christmas and continued for several months. The first to leave were the sick from Khon Khan, the 55km hospital to Nakom Pathon. Apart from maintenance gangs at 105km and small camps on the line back to Thanbyuzayat, all the POWs from Burma were cleared by March 1944, mostly to Tamarkan Camp, Thailand. Many of the sick died en route, their journeys often delayed and conditions harrowing.

Tamarkan was located at the southern end of the steel bridge over the Kwai Yai River. It was a dream camp in that there were vastly improved cookhouses and toilets. It had a canteen – most had little Japanese pay to spend (10 cents a day when on full work parades). Work parades were few, tasks were almost recreational servicing Japanese HQ, carting supplies of rice, wood and water for kitchens. The food was incredible! Thick and meaty stew loaded with vegetables and eggs and sufficient for seconds.

The physical transformation of the men began within a few weeks. The improvement extended to attitude.   The pellagra sores caused by vitamin deficiency and the swollen limbs from beri beri began to disappear.

But this was not a change of heart by the Japanese – they wanted workers for Japan and healthy workers too. Some POWS were released for use in other areas of S.E. Asia but the Japanese wanted 10,000 of the most ‘fit’ men for general war production industries in Japan.

This selection for the Japan Party was entirely taken over and run by the Japanese. Those hospitalized with amputations, serious ulcers, skin complaints, malaria patients or were too old were excluded, including those who had dark skin (even freckles). 900 names of POWs were placed on that first list.

There were mixed reactions to the news. The POWs wanted to get away from jungle conditions, but were aware of US submarine attacks and had some knowledge of the progress of war via secret radios.

64 members from ‘A’ Force were included in the first party to leave Tamarkan for Saigon on their journey to Japan. Other parties were being assembled in base camps at Tamuan, Chungkai, Non Pladuck and Kanburi.   Between April and June 1944, all Japan parties began leaving their camps for Saigon or Singapore.

From May 1944 onwards, the remaining POWs were sent back to Thailand’s jungle for various work parties.
 

Read Harry Pickett’s story of a POW on ‘Rakuyo Maru’ which was sunk in South China Sea and his rescue by USS ‘Pananito’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tragedy & the Triumph

 

Many personal accounts have been published concerning the POW experience

and the Burma-Thailand Railway. These reminiscences usually do not take the form of fun-filled scenic tours but are a record of brutality, enslavement, privation, humiliation, starvation, disease, filth, death and despair.

Understandably these are not topics an ex-POW would have ever discussed with his wife or children over the dinner table. It is likely he may have told of incidents which involved mateship, ockerism, larrikinism, bravery, heroism, leadership, pride, loyalty, dignity and humour.

His mind may well have flashed back to the time he watched on helplessly as his mate was beaten to a pulp by a Japanese, Formosan or Korean guard. He may have remembered the time he knelt beside that same beaten body now devoid of all strength as it drifted peacefully into an unbroken sleep. Did he remember the time when he himself was shivering with fever. This was the same mate who sold his wristwatch so he purchase a duck egg to aid him recover. He may have remembered seeing a fellow prisoner wipe the sweaty brow of his feverish mate in some squalid hospital camp on the line and observed almost a mother’s love in the eye of the carer as this man tried unsuccessfully to raise a smile from those withered parched lips. He may have remembered seeing the camp cemeteries fill with crosses, recall the smell in his nostrils as the corpses of the cholera victims were burnt on the funeral pyre (and perhaps smiled a little as he recalled the fear of the Japanese as they ran in fear as they witnessed the curling limbs on the burning bodies).

Then again, scenes and memories such as these may have been totally erased from his memory. But one thing is certain, he would have remembered seeing the Union Jack flap in the breeze for the first time in 3 ½ years, sparing a thought and perhaps tears for his mates who were not there to see it with him.

This is the story of the Burma-Thailand Railway, a story that is related not so much to shock or solicit pity for the men who endured its privations, but to raise awareness to a new and higher level of knowledge and understanding.

 

The Tragedy & the Triumph

 

Many personal accounts have been published concerning the POW experience

and the Burma-Thailand Railway. These reminiscences usually do not take the form of fun-filled scenic tours but are a record of brutality, enslavement, privation, humiliation, starvation, disease, filth, death and despair.

Understandably these are not topics an ex-POW would have ever discussed with his wife or children over the dinner table. It is likely he may have told of incidents which involved mateship, ockerism, larrikinism, bravery, heroism, leadership, pride, loyalty, dignity and humour.

His mind may well have flashed back to the time he watched on helplessly as his mate was beaten to a pulp by a Japanese, Formosan or Korean guard. He may have remembered the time he knelt beside that same beaten body now devoid of all strength as it drifted peacefully into an unbroken sleep. Did he remember the time when he himself was shivering with fever? This was the same mate who sold his wristwatch so he purchases a duck egg to aid him recover. He may have remembered seeing a fellow prisoner wipe the sweaty brow of his feverish mate in some squalid hospital camp on the line and observed almost a mother’s love in the eye of the carer as this man tried unsuccessfully to raise a smile from those withered parched lips. He may have remembered seeing the camp cemeteries fill with crosses, recall the smell in his nostrils as the corpses of the cholera victims were burnt on the funeral pyre (and perhaps smiled a little as he recalled the fear of the Japanese as they ran in fear as they witnessed the curling limbs on the burning bodies).

Then again, scenes and memories such as these may have been totally erased from his memory. But one thing is certain, he would have remembered seeing the Union Jack flap in the breeze for the first time in 3 ½ years, sparing a thought and perhaps tears for his mates who were not there to see it with him.

This is the story of the Burma-Thailand Railway, a story that is related not so much to shock or solicit pity for the men who endured its privations, but to raise awareness to a new and higher level of knowledge and understanding.