We acknowledge and thank Mr Terry Manttan, General Manager, Burma-Thai Railway Centre (T.B.R.C. Co Ltd) located opposite main Kanachanaburi War Cemetery – who has confirmed the location of Pratchai Camp is ‘approximate enough for our purposes’.
Terry Manttan has visited this area on many occasions to research and identify the location. He has also walked over a lot of mountainside area, finding bunkers and tunnels. (July 2020)
In the past, little has been known about this Camp.
The camp sat at the bottom of hilly country. It was near to an established Japanese military base which had 5,000 troops.
Although POWs called the place Pratchai, the Camp was actually named after a local temple -WAT PRA PHUTTA CHAI – known as and shortened to ‘Wat Pra Chai’.
“The location of Pratchai Camp has long been a mystery. Hours of research by Terry Manttan, General Manager, Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) records it being near the French-Indo China (Cambodia) border, seven kilometres west of Saraburi. Pratchai camp was named after the temple, Wat Pra Phutta Chai which is known as Wat Pra Chai for short.”
POWs arrived without any officers to build a camp which was then surrounded by a 15ft deep and 15ft wide ‘Bund’ with machine guns in each corner.
There were several men from 2/4th including Lloyd Moir, John Rabone from Tamarkan to Pratchai and Lin Powell who worked here. Moir was sent to the railway with ‘D’ Force, S Battalion.
POWs were employed to blast rock and use rudimentary tools to make underground storage spaces or bunkers for ammunition, fuel and store provisions for the Japanese to use to shelter during Allied aerial attacks. The storage spaces were about 20 ft deep, hacked out with the usual rudimentary Japanese tools by POWs and often zigzagged through the grey rock. There were larger caves. The already weakened POWs toiled long hours in the extreme heat of July and August. The men walked to the work and returned late, sick, starving and exhausted. Rations were scarce everywhere.
Near the camp was a high rounded hill at the base of which was a very large cave in which was built a pagoda and a monastery. In the cave was also a well always filled with fresh spring water.
It was at Pratchai the POWs felt most at risk. They knew they could be executed at any time. There were many Japanese soldiers about and tension was high.
Wat Pra Puttha Chai is today part of the hilly and densely forested National Park. It is at Red Mountain the POW Camp was located.
When the end of the war was announced, the Japanese Commander of Pratchai said to the stunned POWs
“Big Bomb. War over. We friends now.”
I don’ t believe there would have been one POW at Pratchai or any other Camps who would have nodded and agreed!
Every POW had endured the loss of mates, witnessed brutality beyond our wildest imagination, endured illnesses, injuries, depravation, starvation and beatings for the last several years.
Major Ewan Corlette, NX350 was transferred to Pratchai-Saraburi Camp as Senior POW Medical Officer.
You will find it most interesting to read the address given at the 14th Anniversary 2018 of POW Memorial, Ballarat by Andrew Corlette, son of Major Corlette.
Personal story – detailed and informative description of travel from Tamuang to Pratchai May 1945 – Information from ‘Bamboo Doctor’ by Stanley S. Pavillard published 1960.
Dr. Stanley Pavillard, better known as ‘Pav’ was sent to Pratchai, was attached to Malayan Volunteer Force POWs, known as ‘Vultures’ in a work party of British and Australian POWs,who departed Tamuang 12 May 1945 for Pratchai. Pratchai was 110 miles away on other side of Bangkok towards Indo-China border.
During Jan 1945 all senior officers had been sent to Kanchanaburi.
Paraded at the crack of dawn with their few possessions, the Japanese made a last determined effort to discover the secret radio which had been operating at Tamuang – the men were not allowed back to their huts or latrines. The Japanese even searched their own kits. One of the POWs acting as batman to Japanese Camp Commandant anticipated such an intensive search had taken the liberty of hiding the set in the Commandant’s kit.
POWs were marched to Tamuang railway station to await the wood- burning train from Burma. On arrival POWs firstly helped a large number of badly wounded Japanese soldiers out of the filthy cattle trucks. The wounded in a dreadful state, were very scared at the sight of Europeans. POWs gave them water and cigarettes and climbed into the uncovered trucks heading for Non Pladuk two hours away.
In the middle of a tropical downpour, POWs were offloaded and taken to very filthy, flea ridden empty bamboo huts. With nothing to eat they fell asleep.
The next morning POWs were served a minute amount of rice and locked into covered cattle trucks. Half an hour later they were ordered out of the trucks and to climb onto roofs to make room for several hundred Indian National Army soldiers who had turned up (captured in Singapore they had been persuaded to change sides by the Japanese). They now rode inside while POWs rode on top.
Hanging on was hard work. Many POWs nearly brushed off by overhanging trees and bamboos lost their possessions.
At 5 pm the train came to a halt at Nakon Chye. The bridge carrying the railway line had been completely destroyed by Allied bombers. POWs were delighted! While the Indian soldiers disappeared POWs spent the night out in the open beneath the cattle trucks (which Japanese had locked up the cattle trucks so they could not sleep inside) – but were very badly mauled by the mosquitos. For most the worst ever attack. In the morning covered in bites and swellings. they had to cross the river to take another train to Bangkok.
Within the next two weeks, the after affects of being bitten by mosquitos resulted with nearly all POWs enduring malarial attacks. Unfortunately POWs who had swum in the river and drank unboiled water against instructions now suffered with leptospiro-ictero-haemorrhagica (Weil’s disease) infection resulting in sudden fever, jaundice and subcutaneous haemorrhage (bleeding and swelling) caused by contact with rat urine contaminated river water entering their system through skin abrasions.
The following morning the POWs were barged across the muddy river where they waited four hours in the blazing sun without water or food. They filtered water through dirty pieces of clothing which they boiled, grateful for the minimal muddy water. At 1pm they were brought some rice and at 2pm the train arrived to take them to Bangkok.
Approaching the city they were amazed to see the damage achieved by Allied bombing raids – accurately destroying strategic targets whilst leaving the houses undamaged. They found the Railway station was practically demolished when they arrived at 6pm. The got off the train to find themselves surrounded by war materials – bombs, ammunition etc. In a nearby tumbledown shed were some tough-looking Japanese fighting troops waiting for a train to Burma.
Pav noted the commaraderie between the Japanese troops and POWs evolve – exchanging cigarettes and chattering amongst themselves. The troops recognised the POWs as soldiers.
He wrote “These fighting troops looked upon us as fighting soldiers, they were in every way preferable to the syphilitic runts who had been looking after us in camp, and who had in all probability never been near any kind of action”.
The POWs were pleased to leave the Station – nervous of threatened Allied bombing raids. At 10pm they were marched away and put onto barges already overloaded with fuel, ammunition, rice, etc. Throughout the night they chugged down the river pulled by a pom-pom. They had been given neither food or water. They resorted to drinking the dirty river water- ignoring cholera dangers.
They arrived Bangkok wharves at dawn. The existing buildings were modern and well-built but many had been bombed. A local told them this area had been attacked very severely and for that reason the Japanese only kept POW work parties about 3 days before moving them on. One party had left the previous day after being heavily bombed – the walls were covered in spattered blood.
WX7465 Norm HOLDMAN from 2/4th was killed in an Allied air raid at the wharf area on 27 Mar 1945.
The barges were unloaded by 9am and POWs were given 20 minutes to eat breakfast. A most enjoyable meat and vegetable stew with rice! They were fed well for the three days spent at the docks. They had plenty of meat to keep them happy in this dangerous location.
At the sick parade there were 70 men unfit for work. The Japanese would only accept 50 and so the POWs made do. Work included handling bombs, ammunition, building gun emplacements and all kinds of defence in the docks and Bangkok city. There was plenty of fresh water for washing, a cool breeze blew in from the river and with good food their short stay was pleasant except for the constant fear of attack.
They left for Pratchai 18 May 1945. They loaded the wagons with war material while the Engine was unhitched and hidden in a roofed and camouflaged siding (protection for the most valuable item). The men climbed in and seated themselves on the war material and waited for the engine to take them away.The engine eventually emerged, was coupled onto the train and almost immediately, the air-raid siren sounded. Immediately the Japanese guards jumped free of the cattle trucks, bolted the doors on the POWs and stood by ready to dive for shelter.
One of the POWs yelled he had spotted the bombers –they were seen coming in quickly and low across the river – they could see white puffs of gunfire around them. Suddenly the train engine huffed and panted and after being detached, quickly headed to its hiding place. The men could hear the bombs hitting their specific targets across the river – thankfully neglecting their train. As the raid ended the POWs looked terrible – terrified and licking their lips. There would have been no escape for them had the bombers targeted the train (which they often did).
Twenty minutes passed, the ‘all-clear’ was given; the Japanese guards climbed back onto the train, the engine came back and at last they began pulling away from this tense location – they thanked the heavens and angels.
At Bangkok their train hitched to another train similar in length with same cargo. Finally they headed out of the Bangkok area into the dark night illuminated by firelight and sparks from their wood-fired engine, toward Indo-China.
The POWs were thankful the truck doors remained open for the journey. This made the feel a little safer.
At 11am the next day they arrived at Saburi where the POWs set off on a 9 mile march to Pratchai. To their left they could see a giant Siamese temple and ahead was a curved mountain range which provided shade and relief. They arrived at the camp which had been built on a paddy field right in the middle of the horseshoe-curve of the mountains.
They were to build elaborate defensive works in this now peaceful and wonderful landscape. Gun emplacements connected by tunnels and a further series of complicated tunnels and caves for storage. There was a battalion of Japanese fighting troops undergoing intensive training. The POWS saw and heard noisy battle training all day – screaming, yelling and repeatedly plunging bayonets into stuffed dummies.
The surrounding farming country was a good source for eggs, meat and vegetables. The POWs were made to work very hard – it was evident the Japanese would not abandon lightly. To assist with their elaborate plans they built a miniature railway made entirely of wood – wheels, carriages, rails and all, which worked very well. The POWs found the situation ominous and depressing.
Fortunately the Japanese were worried too. They doubled the guards and watched the POWs closely day and night as well as the Korean troops who were becoming openly rebellious. A group of Koreans asked ‘Pav’ for poison – they were keen to do away with Captain Suzuki, the Japanese commanding officer, the plan included being killed. By this time the number of Japanese troops in the compound had doubled and there were a further 20,000 further up the mountainside. Without POW assistance and against their advice, the Koreans attacked Suzuki whilst he was sleeping – he drew his Samurai sword, wounding three of them. The Koreans were immediately disarmed, but they left and went underground away from the camp into hiding.
Some days later one of the Koreans, who had in the past communicated with the POWs, snuck back into the compound in the safety of darkness asking for medical help. His nose had been cleanly cut off his face by the Siamese – the Koreans were hated by the locals as they had been molesting their women. Medical staff dressed his wound and bundled him away as his presence endangered the POWs. Tensions were growing daily with each newscast confirming Allied advancement (via hidden radio) and the Japanese showing their anxiety.
Allied planes were now flying over every day and the Japanese remained on full alert and fully armed.
On evening of 15 Aug 1945 the POWs received orders 600 POWs would leave the following morning for a place 40 miles away over the hills. To the POWs this sounded ominous – believing this was the beginning of a Japanese plan to break up POWs into small groups to ‘do away’ with them. The POWs slept fitfully and the next morning could see beyond the barbed wire and camp perimeter ditch the Japanese behaving in a most unusual manner – they were burning bundles of paper, they disappeared and later reappeared in their best uniforms. The POWs were puzzled wondering if their plan was to commit hara-kiri. At 3.30pm in the afternoon the Japanese sounded their bugle for parade. Capt Suzuki addressed the men for about 20 minutes during which time the Japanese became more depressed until finally they shouted ‘Banzai’ three times, took their caps off and bowed in the direction of the rising sun.
One Korean guard who had not deserted signalled the POWs indicating Japan’s surrender – but many POWs thought it more likely they were about to be shot.
The Japanese Adjutant arrived and asked for senior POW officer Lt.- Col Harvey and W.O. Christopher to go across as Capt Suzuki wanted to speak with them. The POWs watched and waited in deathly silence.
Suddenly the silence was shattered by the POW bugle which had been confiscated earlier to prevent any signal for attack or revolt. While the POWs had been mesmerised by the proceedings they missed noticing their own bugler walk over to Suzuki’s house.
Sounding out ‘Fall in at the Double’ POWs came running, limping, crawling from all directions to the parade ground. Now standing on parade the men were addressed by Lt-Col Harvey, the most senior British Officer
“Men I have been instructed by Capt. Suzuki to tell you the war is over and you are free”.
There was jubilation and shouting which Lt-Col asked to quiet while he continued
“I have an urgent message for you, Suzuki requests that for your own protection you should hold over all demonstrations until all Japanese fighting troops have left the camp. These men are confused and it would only take a small incident to start a general massacre -and to keep to their side of the camp”.
Almost immediately troops began moving out, carrying their Japanese flag in quiet defiance.
The POWs remained quiet in their camps, some sleeping, most talking until dawn. The following morning POWs hoisted up a Union Jack Flag which had been smuggled away for the past 3 years.
The following days were difficult – while the Japanese fighting troops flatly refused to become POWS, the Allied POWs took over guarding their own now freed camp. The Japanese troops maintained guard over their large quantities of war material. The men remained very nervous confined to their camp, while locals filled the nights with music, rifle fire and some roamed the countryside looking for opportunities to break into supply dumps.
After a few days a British Paratrooper Officer arrived armed to his teeth accompanied by a sergeant and his radio transmitter – ready to notify their base if their was trouble. They met with Capt Suzuki after which the POWs crowded around pressing them for news and information. News of the end of war – atomic bomb! Winston Churchill was no longer Prime Minister.
RAAF planes continually flew overhead dropping medical supplies and clothing including the new-age penicillin.
Lady Mountbatten paid the camp a visit – the first white woman the men had seen in a very long time. The POWs scrubbed up as best they could for her presence.
The sick were evacuated first by convoy to Bangkok.
It was over! The war was over!