Bill Struthers Diary – UBON, Thailand
A Foreward to Ubon 1945
This account is inspired by a recent visit to Hollywood Hospital where on a ‘worm parade’ I met up with one of our members who had been on board a Jap ship on the way to Japan that was torpedoed by an American sub.
They were left floating in the sea and suffered from starvation and thirst before being picked up by an American ship.
There must be many stories that members could write about, and the experiences they had during that dark period of our lives.
I do not mention names of members in this account but those that were there will remember.
It is too easy to upset people if some are mentioned and others are not.
But those that were there were not at ‘Ubon” I hope will enjoy the experiences we had on that particular few months before the finish of the war.
With the continued push by the Allied Forces from India, Burma and almost daily raids by bombers over Thailand and in Bangkok in late 1944 and 1945 the Japanese were starting to move back eastward.
This decided them to move their POW to assist in the building of certain defence positions and a large number of us were entrained at Nonpladuk for a journey.
Nonpladuk was the actual railhead for the Burma Siam Railway as we called it in those days and on the railway, we were loaded onto vans for the trip, kept waiting we thought so that our bombers might come over and polish us off and make very good propaganda.
However, they didn’t and away we went on the way to Bangkok.
We only got about halfway as the bridge had been severely damaged by bombs, we got out and were marched towards the bridge that could be seen up ahead, a large number of POW were there from Nakhom Pathon unloading railway trucks and putting the contents on to a barge where it was taken across and again reloaded into railway trucks. Our Japs wanted to put us into barges but were refused. We had to walk across. The bridge, the structure was made of steel and was one span of a half circle design and away up was a path made of bamboo matting that stretched across the two broken posts.
The Japs in charge of us were not keen on taking us along it, but finally we set off. We were four abreast, there was not room for five abreast on this mat, we were about 120 feet above the river, with the jagged ends of the bomb shattered steel sticking out on each side of the mat, away below us we could see a barge moving across, if the mat parted we hoped we would be picked up providing we didn’t get torn by the metal of the bridge on the way down, our army training came to the fore, as we tried not to keep in step.
We crossed the first section with the bristles of our Jap hairdo sticking up like a hedgehog on defence, and felt quite relieved for a short distance, I think one or two of the blokes had something to say at this stage, but stretching way in front of us was a longer section, is we finally crossed and with no more to go everyone felt a lot happier.
Another train was waiting to pick us up but the Japs decided to “nestho” and the cooked rice arrived and we had something to eat.
We later moved off and passed through Bangkok late at night and unloaded at a long string of wharf buildings down river from the city. We were held there for a number of weeks and work parties went to various posts on the outskirts of Bangkok, and of course the bombers soon showed up, and with no trenches to get into we had to sit it out a raid in our wharf building while through the large open door we viewed the bombers, caught in the search lights coming in on their targets, with tracer gun ammunition pouring out of them, as well as their tracers fired at them from the ground as the Japanese anti-aircraft gunners went into action and on the top of it all this the bombs bursting and the Very lights dropped by the aircraft lighting up the whole area. It was a picture show, where we were not happy to view, as the bombers were starting to pass around us all of us had suffered the raids at Non Pladuk and we had left them behind only to get caught in some more. Suddenly a bomb dropped not far along and then out front a fire started and we thought someone would come through the roof as we filled the whole floor of the shed where, we sat huddled together on our meagre bedding and worldly goods.
They finally peeled off and left up, and in the morning the fire was still going. A wharf shed full of raw rubber was burning and the heat was so intense the cement of the building was crumbling away, but worst of all, guns the bombers were after were large coconut trees with earth works built around them, the trunks of the trees fixed to lean on incline to give the appearance of an anti-aircraft gun, a dirty one on the Thais as the buildings were theirs the Jap guns were located further away.
A demand by our officers, that we allowed trenches away from the wharf was granted and about half a mile distant they were dug out at 30 inches as below that the water level was tapped, and so at all hours night and day, for the duration of our stay we could be seen on our way whenever a warning was given.
The raids on Bangkok continued, and on one particular morning , vapour trails were visible in a noughts and crosses pattern and the plane making them was only sighted by the speedy extension of the track it was then making and for the first time I heard the word ‘mosquito mosquito’ from a Jap guard as he watched the vapour trails he sounded alarmed and evidently knew what was coming, and come it did, Bangkok Station and a factory turning out trucks tanks etc copped it some of our blokes on a work party said they came in so low that one said he saw the pilot in the plane, as it went over him. We suddenly woke up to the fact we were back in the war zone.
This was February 1945, and one day a long train of steel vans, shunted down our way for us to carry on the rest of the journey that had started at Non Pladuk.
They tried the same stunt they tried there and left us two days in the trucks, but no bombers showed up, we moved out in the in the dark and this time we were travelling eastwards. We soon found the reason for the delay in Bangkok for the first section we came to there were the locomotives blown to pieces and broken in half with other rolling stock such as carriages trucks etc.
Our steel vans were like sitting in a Bakers Oven so a short period sitting at the open door with legs dangling outside was instituted on a roster basis, for food, cooked rice was carried with us enough for three days the last lot turned sour and finished twenty four hours before we picked up some more, which proved to be very good consisting of rice and chicken potato vegetable stew, and not enough to satisfy our hunger.
We got to the Ubon Train terminus in due course and found we were a long way from the village that could be seen almost two miles away, we reckoned hey must have run out of money and couldn’t finish the railway, but we found out why in September.
We were marched towards the village and found we had a river to cross that was invisible until almost on it and there we were ferried across by small boats bout 20 per time and one Thai boatman, with one oar inn a rollick on the stern that he pushed and pulled taking us across the river, the water was calm and they never heard of the Plimsoll Mark as we loaded to such an extent that we were sitting below waters level and if you put your palm on the on the gunwale your fingertips would be in the water.
We were held on the bank until all were across, we had 9 kilometres to go. On the outskirts, we found that Ubon was a penal colony as we passed along side of a high wooden fence with plenty of barb wire and sentries at the top of the fence in their boxes.
The country outside the village turned out to be rice fields and broad flat open areas with patches of trees and timber here and there a complete change from the humid jungle atmosphere we had to put up with since going onto the railway in 1943.
We arrived at the camp to find it already full all down one side, with Dutch Indonesians some English units and a hut for our own lot, there were only a small number of 2/4th perhaps less than 100 with us and we didn’t fill one hut but it was the most healthy camp we had ever been in. The air smelt good and the water just below the surface was abundant.
A well dug house where the cookhouse was located was the most pure and abundant water you could wish for it rose to just below the surface of the ground and no matter how much it was drawn on it never got any lower.
We were soon put to work building an airfield and some of the senior members of the Japanese might be worth mentioning.
There was the old bloke in charge, a Major I think, commonly called ‘the Bastard”, he was in fact with the British Forces in the First World War and had charge of a POW camp at Singapore (it was said) and housed Germans from ships etc. He discovered he was referred to as ‘the Bastard’ and wanted to know the meaning of it and this old English officer replied that the men called him ‘old grandfather’ and that they were his grandchildren, he accepted the explanation whether he knew better or not and was delighted.
Next was ‘Prince Charlie’ because of his dapper appearance on parade. He was always smart, a proper clack instantly from all over the parade ground when bought to attention got a pass from him, otherwise it had to be done again. The clack was caused by our wooden slippers, held there by a piece of old tyre rubber across the toes.
Another Jap soldier was ‘Russian Joe’ who when on leave used to get as full of grog. He often had to be put in the sweat box to bring him back to normal. The boys had a lot of sympathy for he would pass the word a search was about to take place. We used to think a search was a waste of time, but we found that in due course it was necessary and so was a warning.
The Doctors had not so much to do at this camp and no deaths taking place, only one man died so far and he was shot by the Japs. He was a trader and was caught outside the bamboo fence, he was a lad from the Eastern States. The airfield we were building was runways through the timber area and rice fields the sol was sandy and our job was to lay the stones by Thai bullock carts and cover the with a layer of soil, Thai farmers had their homes scattered through the area and a Thai village not far away, also supplied a small labour force of men, women and girls. Our main met diet that went with the rice was ‘pig meat’ the farmers would bring them in with a string on a log above them, some of the pigs had large sores that wouldn’t pass the health inspector but was an argumentative point for the Jap stores buyer to reduce the price. Eggs came in in large open baskets holding at least 200 duck eggs known as, Kia Pet, and the ox carts brought in rice, just remember the ox carts.
It was a healthy and reasonable happy camp, the weekly concert came off with singing, dancing girls etc, the Japanese having the front seats, while we reserved our seat by putting a small portion of our personal property in position on the damp ground. Generally, you put your mates there as well. The concerts were much enjoyed by all including the Japs with Grandfather the old bastard with his chair right in the centre at the front. As far as the Japanese were concerned it must have been an ideal existence. The only bit of discord I had seen here happened to a monkey. A large basket of eggs had been delivered near the kitchen. I and some others were working there on a job carrying earth in a ‘tunka’, a rice bag with a couple of sticks stuck through it (somewhat like a stretcher). When the monkey got to the basket and started throwing the eggs out and the others tried to chase him away but it would dodge back again. Our Jap in charge made us get on with our work so the old monkey continued to throw eggs about, then jumped into the basket and bounced up and down smashing the eggs with glee. Finally, one of the guards was sent from the gate nearby and arrested the monkey who had a short chain around his neck. He was taken to the guard house given a hiding and a soldier was made to stand by to keep the monkey standing to attention. Every time the monkey looked like squatting it was brought to attention and in due course they would be sitting on their bench and any more they made the old monkey stood up if he was inclined to squat. He was in fact given the same treatment as we for a misdemeanour.
We had no bombing raids in this area, but time was marching on, something else was on the way we were getting secret messages from outside and on marching out on a work party one morning the usual line of ox carts with rice etc with their drivers standing by to let us pass a tall, well proportioned, man with the same dark tan as the others but not lean and wiry as most Thais, was looking on he saw me looking at him and as I passed him there was a tinge of fear in his eye.
I thought this was perhaps ‘The Messenger’. I did not tell anyone of my belief but kept watch and saw him twice more but did not stare or startle him.
And at work on the airstrip a light plane dived low on us once or twice and chased us off the runway, and in the cockpit the two occupants were clearly seen.
All these things were always reported and discussed in camp, and it seemed possible that we were also sending out messages.
Very little news was given us of the progress of the war as plane names are much the same in any language, and the Japs could pick up such plane names if the men were talking amongst themselves.
The Japs were by this time feeling the pressure of the Allied advance and were taken off the airstrip and moved to a timbered area six kilometres from our base.
There we were put to work on defence posts or machine gun positions, built above the ground level with the timbered uprights, reinforced with earth. They were built so that the ones to the rear covered those in front in a staggered in-depth pattern.
We were now back in a jungle type of camp, with poor rations and conditions, men were really getting sick, but the Japs kept us at it, there were also rumours that we were going to end up on the wrong end of a machine gun party. Until one day a Jap came up to our work party singing ‘senshow finish’ ‘senshow finish’ or words to that affect which meant ‘war finished’. This date 16th August 1945, he the Jap, offered his sword or bayonet to one of our blokes, who told him to ‘stick it’.
After a discussion among the Japs, we were told work finish, and marched back to camp, the place was soon seething with excitement, after we returned but nobody was convinced that the war had finished.
However, within two days we were on our way back to base, at the Base Camp, they were also doubtful that it was all over, but we were by now certain.
This was now the 18th August and that night the radio surfaced for the first time and Vera Lynn sent us a message and a song and we listened to the 9pm BBC news.
The radio by the way arrived in camp in a Jap officers bed roll carried by his POW batman. The next day the commandos arrived in camp armed to the teeth, carrying Sten guns and hand grenades strung around their middle. The officers leading them in, was one seen in the light aircraft that chased us off the strip and in the party was the driver of the Ox Cart.
That night there were shots heard in the Jap quarters, it could have been ‘hari kari’ but we weren’t interested.
The commandos had their contact with India, and soon aircraft were bringing in supplies. One arrived over our camp and dropped canisters on parachutes with all sorts of stuff. One bloke go so excited he rushed to a canister swinging down by chute and got his jaw broken for his trouble.
We were soon issued with a pay book, and issued with clothing and leave was granted.
I along with a party were given leave to the village of Ubon where we found a big day was in progress. Horse racing was on at the race track and crowds of locals were there. Plenty of cooked chicken sweetmeats etc being sold on the track or stalls where everyone was milling around.
The ponies were small, half the size of a race horse here, something like Welsh Pit Ponies.
They were brought onto the race track near the food stalls where the bookies operated and some 50 yards from the starters box which also was the judge’s box. The race ran anti-clockwise, the ponies were held by the strappers, handlers or owners, some with a bridle and most with a rope around the neck. A ring was over the ponies back, the stable colours on it, some of the ponies were quite active and excited. At some point the jockeys, young boys were mounted on top of the rug, no saddle, then a warning bell was rung, the rug was pulled from under the jockeys, at this they clasped their arms around the ponies neck, a further signal the bridle or rope was whipped off a yell from the jockeys and owners and they were off.
At the further side of the field they had slowed down, the jockeys sitting up straight on their mounts calling each other names, which caused the patrons to murmur to each other, as the ponies kept on going slowly. At the turn for the winning post, the boys got stuck into the nags, with fists and heels, yelling like mad and as they came hammering towards us so were the racegoers. They whipped past us in fine style, passed the judges box and on up the track where the handlers were waiting with their piece of rope to recapture the nags.
The bookies paid out on the winner and everyone relaxed at the stalls for refreshment until the next race.
We sailed off into the village to check on the liquid refreshment available and what else there was to offer. We settled on a brew called ‘Low’, a rice whisky at $5 Thai (20cents) a small bottle no bigger than a tomato sauce battle.
We carried our purchase off and got together to try it out, the look on the face of the first one to try it really got us interested. I found that a sip of about a soup spoon full hit your throat with a burning sensation, and as it went further down you were sure on fire. A further number of swigs and your knees would buckle.
I decided to put mine in my pack and take it back to camp to give the others a taste and went back to the races.
Sometime later a roaring singing mob could be heard, some of the Thais showed some concern but others just winked with amusement.
Finally, the time came for us to move back to Bangkok and we were trucked into Ubon Village enroute for home, and back we got to the rivers. There we discovered why the railway station didn’t reach the village.
The wet season was not quite finished in August and the rivers, a tributary of the ‘Mekong’ was unable to empty its waters had overflowed and flooded the country side reaching within a couple of hundred yards of the railway station. This flooding made the rice farmers happy and was the age-old method of growing rice.
This particular river the ‘Nam Mun’ travelled across Thailand for over 300miles on an Eastern course and emptied into the ‘Mekong’ that also was in flood at this time of year, some mounds of earth that could be seen throughout the area was it was said, the original top of the ground (a height of at least 15feet) the rest of the country having been washed into the river and the sea.
We got on board our train and made a triumphant journey to Bangkok, with the larger centres lining up the school children on the railway stations, singing us songs and bringing gifts.
At Ayutthaya a big junction a large train load of Jap prisoners was there when we pulled in. Somebody spotted a rogue named ‘Oillunger’ who was later picked up and executed. The Japs were bound for ‘Chiangma’ in Northern Thailand.
We had a happy spell in Bangkok, where we went to see a film or two, and a Thai singer sang ‘Until the Lights of London Shine Again’ which we clapped heartily. But Thai patrons didn’t, it is not their custom to clap, they show their appreciation by sitting without any show of expression.
We were soon on our way by air to Singapore. From there by ship to Fremantle. In a freezer boat of the Highland Line that loaded meat etc for the return journey.
It may be of interest to know that the ‘Ubon’ airstrip we worked on as POW’s became a RAAF Base in the Vietnam War. The hospital camp ‘Nathom Pathon’ became a large complex for American wounded. Bob Hope and Belinda Green, Miss Australia, visited both places in Bob Hope’s shows for American Forces.
Ubon, Siam 1945
By 1945 a complete change had taken place in the war against Japan, the Allied Forces were closing in on Germany in Europe and our friends the ‘Nip; were starting to feel the pressure. Our bombers had already made it known that the ‘Victorious Guns of Heaven’ meant very little to them, and were penetrating further into Nip territory.
WE at ‘NonPLaduk’ the actual railhead for the infamous’ railway’ had already been subjected to the hell of our own bombers. The first raid causing a large number of casualties, but this raid pointed out to us that Allied communication was definitely on the ball.
I myself was one of a party who had loaded a train of railway trucks with drums of petrol and we finished loading late in the afternoon. The spur which the railway used passed not far outside our camp and the pick-up point was about a mile from our base where the trains passed on their way to Burma etc via BanPong, Kanburi and just on midnight we heard the bombers coming and on the first run they hit the loaded train. On rushing out to have a look the incendiary bombs were bouncing back up from hitting the trucks etc but what made us happy was the whole area was ablaze. The bombers were circling around and coming in one at a time on the target while the glare lit up the sky.
And suddenly without warning the bombs were landing inside the camp. We didn’t have a trench to get into and we just had to lie where we were while the whole camp was done over as the bombers were coming in one at a time. They were using bombs that broke up in small pieces. The whole area of the camp was strewn with fragments. When seen at daylight there were over 300 casualties with 66 deaths. A party of 17 from ‘Tamarkan’ that day were completely wiped out. But what pleased us was the only shelters that were made for the Jap guards and it had a direct hit. Most of the guards had left for other parts and it was sometime before they returned. One, it was said got back two weeks later. We the POW went off our rice for a week it was reported, and though the fact that our communications were working our own bombers had become something to fear. We had two further raids while I was there with loss of life, but not on the same scale. The Jap Commander of the Camp handed out most of his medical supplies which was hardly enough even then, (his wife it was said was interned in Australia and she wrote him that she was well and had plenty to eat etc) which we presume made him easier to get on with. She may have been in Adelaide River Camp where they knew more about our future moves than we did.
We were now getting back into the War Zone but on the wrong side as yet. A single plane heard at this time caused the Japs some fear when the word mosquito was mentioned and we ourselves had some misgivings when we saw one leaving its vapour trail as it moved back and forth over an area at a great height, and many of us had first-hand knowledge of how the Pathfinder technique was practiced. But the Non-Pladuk Camp was smack in the middle of supply dumps and a railway marshalling yards. However, a party of us were due to leave soon and it was said a 10 day journey this was January or February 1945 and in due course we were loaded into a string of railway vans in the shunting yards just outside the camp.
We seemed to be there for hours, the Japs no doubt hoping for an air raid certainly the long line of vans would be a nice target but fortunately for us the planes only destroyed the engines which was quite an economical way to put the railway out of action.
We finally set of for Bangkok. The vans were hot and we were packed in like sardines. Some climbed up on the roof which relieved the pressure and even made the journey reasonably pleasant while hanging on to one’s small parcel of worldly goods.
The train rattled along through the country with plenty of paddy fields on either side until we came to a siding where men from the Hospital Camp, ‘Nakhom Pathon’ or as we used to say ‘Nakompaton’) were doing the shunting of trucks. They told us the bridge further on had been bombed, and supplies were ferried across the rivers and loaded onto the trucks that they were pushing about. Not very far from here was the great Buddhist Pagoda that the allied air force used as reference point for their bombing raids. We didn’t move very far from here when we were off loaded and formed up to march and I can tell you now that was the first time this was where the hair really stood on end.
We didn’t march very far, and there was a bridge alright and it was bombed. It had two great gaps in the middle. our jap guards stopped long enough to speak to some other guards there and seemed in some doubt about what had to be done. But in due course on we went. As I was in the lead, I could see that the track had been built across the bridge and when we got onto it, we could see it was made of a bamboo matting. If I remember it was 3 or 4 men abreast and it seemed to give as we stepped on to it. Somebody yelled ‘don’t keep in step for —– sake’ we were at least 100feet above the river and it looked like 300 with not one thing to hang onto. No sides on this thing, and how was it tied at the ends, all sorts of things were going through our heads and every now and again we all seemed to get into step. The strain on that bamboo must have been terrible. We reached a place where the bridge was intact and it felt good but before us stretched a longer span than ever. Away down one side was a barge with some men on it. I thought if it breaks some of us might get picked up. But all you could hear was our steady progress across this narrow path, nobody had anything to say during this crossing. We made it of course, and we were so relieved that we never took note as to how it was tied up at the end. None of us that crossed there will forget it. We had a well-earned rest after crossing before loading ourselves into some more vans for the run down to the river from Bangkok at a long line of Godowns which appeared to be a deep-water port, possibly ‘Paknam’. The sheds and wharf were quite new and because of the war and allied navy no overseas shipping could get in.
It wasn’t long before we were treated to an aerial and ground battle so we hadn’t got away from much after Nonpladuk. In the area near the wharf was a hide and bone yard (Siam was a supplier of hides onto world markets). So, this was obviously where they were loaded onto ships. At a distance was a beautiful blue palace with its many turned up gable ends, which we were told was the ‘Palace of the King of Siam’ which became that excellent picture, ‘The king and I’ played by Yule Bryner and Debra Kerr. Anna was an English governess the King had employed to teach his wives and the Royal children, the tree wives and their personalities clashed often. However, the story had been written at this time but the picture was yet to be made. Our camp was the end shed at the wharf, the next one was the guard’s quarters. As far as we knew we were in transit but for the next few days no move was made to move on. We hadn’t been there very long before the Mosquito was up to his tricks again and lines like a game of noughts and crosses were visible above the city of Bangkok and later one evening, they were overhead. We were confined to the wharf shed. There were again no trenches to get into and during the raid ewe were treated to a cinema like view of what was going on. Through the open shed doors there planes were being caught in the search lights while ant aircraft guns were firing up their red traces but not to be outdone the planes were firing their cannons back and dropping umbrella flares over the targets and bombs traces seemed to glide down on their targets some of the planes came overhead and we felt a bit apprehensive. When some near explosions shook us but we had no casualties after some argument permission was given a few days later to dig trenches about ½ a mile away, 2 feet deep was the depth as below that water tapped. From then on as soon as the sirens went, we were on our way day and night while we were in the area.
We were soon put to work, one of the jobs was trips up the river to Bangkok Railway Station that had had the treatment, very little damage had been done to the buildings but the railway yards had been put out of action. Some movement of trains was possible, and on one occasion we were drawn up on a ‘Tenko’, when a train was pulling out, and viewing us with some interest was a beautiful face of a young girl, she was full cheeked and would have been about 17 years old or less. This apparently wealthy young damsel was undismayed by the scantily clad prisoners in their rags. I stared at her and she just stared back as the train moved off, (this has a sequel) and after we were counted, we went back down the river by boat to our wharf keyed up for a bolt during the night to the trenches.
Just out of the Godowns on the land side was built up gun placements, but instead of guns it was fitted with Palm trunks that were made to resemble guns, but as our intelligence seemed to be good. The Air Force would have by this time spotted the fake, but we were soon to learn different.
Time was passing and week dragged on after week and we were joined by a party from Nakom Pathon the hospital camp. They were pale skinned after months out of the sun and in fact looked weak and sickly, but when the sirens went many were capable of a good turn of speed while others were hard put to make it and had to be assisted. Another arrival was a small party from Tamarkan, one being Lofty Holdman. The Tamarkan Party were not allowed to join us but were in a Godown further along which was also fenced off from us. These new parties had been with us for a few days when the sirens went about midday, as per usual we were off and sat in the trenches to watch the result. We hadn’t long to wait they were after the dummy guns, some of the real guns further were in action against them but the planes were concentrating on the dummies near the wharf. They hit one wharf shed and it caught fire sending thick smoke into the sky which we later discovered was full of raw rubber. The place where Lofty and his friends were had several bomb bursts resulting in casualties. We discovered after the raid that one was Lofty, one of HQ Coy drivers. One of the most unfortunate things about this, the dead were buried and later had to be taken out and reburied in another place as somebody had objected to having dead on their land.
Jap barges were coming down the river at this time and it looked as if they didn’t know where to go. We had to unload many barges and those aerial bombs, finally arrived this was the third time I’d had to handle them and the crates they were in were getting the worse for wear and were in some cases coming out of their crates must have travelled some. During those years the Japs in charge of the barges would shyly push a box of stuff over the side into the river. That suited us fine we shoved a few over too but we had to put the bombs ashore in spite of our pointing to them.
But we were soon to leave this camp with its Pariah dogs snarling and fighting over the remains of hides and bones in the area beside the river. The rumour was that we were due to finish the journey we had started on. It must have been April by this time, no check on dates or months one day was much like the next, food dominated everything and what was on for tea, was the most interesting, rice was a certainty, but would there be rissole?
Finally, the day came, a big line of steel vans shunted along the wharf on the river side of the buildings and we were loaded on sometime before midday. Some dixies of cooked rice were also put aboard and I think 20 men to a van. The train pulled away from the wharf and we were on our way, we thought. But we were just pulled at a safe distance from the sheds and there they seemed to abandon us until late afternoon, perhaps they were waiting for another air-raid, as the Non Pladuk do finished them with excellent propaganda. But perhaps it was just to get us through the city area after dark. Anyhow by morning we were well away. The cooked rice had to do for two days. By the second day the rice was gone and that day we slowly moved into Nakhom Ratchasima or at that Khorat a rail junction and there was evidence that had perhaps delayed our journey. Our bombers had been there and the engines had been broken in two or were tossed right off the rails. The engine sheds had been burnt by incendiary bombs as well as the passenger type locomotive. There was also the hill climbing Garrat type engine completely useless with holes in the boilers, Khorat is now an American Air Force Base handling the B52’s from Guam in the action against the V.C.
We soon passed the town and we were interested in food as there was nothing to eat on the train. We had by now developed a roster system so that everybody had a spell sitting at the open door. The humidity in the van was terrific. Our plumbing wasn’t good, all that could be described was two sitting at the door had to assist by hanging onto a number 3 who had faced inwards in a crouched position doing no 2. On one particular occasion a bloke in position to do no 2 was asked to hold it a minute as 3 Jap officers were spotted while the train was slowly passing through a siding and just when the van was due to pass one of the blokes said ‘let her go mate, let her go’. It was not known if he scored, but a small jap was seen running with the train as we sped up and cleared the siding.
Night came but still no food. We were still moving along until sometime during the night we pulled up at a Jap camp. Somewhere out in the dark and men were wanted to collect rations. The Jap guards marched them off into the night with the jangle of dixies. It seemed hours before they returned with one of the tastiest meals, we had had which consisted of chicken chopped into small pieces and boiled with small potatoes and millet. I was told that they were unable to bring all that was allotted to them, which was a sin and before we got to Ubon we knew it. We arrived at Ubon Railway Station after 5 days. Ubon Village lay some distance from the station, there was reason for this that we discovered later. We got off the train and onto motor trucks, some service this, no walking for the POW and after a short drive we reached River Bank and on the other side was the town of Ubon. We marched down to the water’s edge where small boats were waiting with two Thai boatmen to each. We were packed in until about 3” of freeboard was left and ferried across the calm water, nobody moved, of course, and we climbed out with our Thai boatmen grinning probably they were happy that the Devil had lost again.
Ubon is a civilian penal settlement and perhaps the reason for this end of the line town. As we marched off to our camp, we passed by one side of the penal enclosure with a high fence. You couldn’t see through, and with watch towers on the corners. We moved out onto a gravel road running through the paddy fields. Rice was the king in this area, and they said we had 9 kilometres to go but it seemed much further. When we got to the camp, we found the usual setup, the Dutch had settled in some time before us and our huts were already waiting for us. The Jap guards were at the gate and had their own fenced off area. The camp commandant was quite up in years and had been in charge of a British prisoner of war camp at Singapore in the 1914-18 war, German prisoners I expect.
There were some well named Jap characters in this camp, the old fellow being known as ‘Grandfather’ to his face but something else to his back, and ‘Napoleon’, ‘Prince Charles’, ‘Russian Joe’ being the main ones. ‘Napoleon’ always took the Tenko and his bearing on parade got him the name which he appreciated and lived up to. ‘Prince Charles’ was taller and had a moustache and was dapper in style while ‘Russian Joe’ was from that part of the world. Used to get full when on leave and always had to be put in the sweat box to sober up. He was a god soldier and let us know when a raid was due so that anything we had could be hidden in time. One of our blokes had the shiny icon of a car hub for his food dish, this was taken away for inspection, but was later returned after much pantomime explanation.
This was the healthiest place we had ever been in the air was clear and fresh, a well dug near the cookhouse was the purest water we had had. In Thailand while almost anywhere in the area water could be tapped underground with little effort.
A concert party operated once a week. The front rows always reserved for the Japs, while a chair was always there for the Grandfather. Us workers had to take a portion of our ‘worldly goods’ a bit of sacking or portion of worn rug and place it on a piece of ground as a reserved seat. Many of the well-known songs were sung and a sketch was acted.
The work in the early stages was the building of an Air Field and landing strips. Little did we know that this job we were doing in 1945 was to be an RAAF Base in the 1960’s.
The war seemed to be a long way from here but an incident while working on the landing strip proved it wasn’t so far away in fact it was steady building up. A light single engine plane dived on us at work and chased us off the strip we were to work on. We didn’t know until later that it was an English Colonel who had a guerrilla force not far away and also their own secret air field.
Later we got part of the contents of letters which were brought into camp and of course the strength of the Japs in the area was known to the guerrilla’s and elsewhere. They used to come in with rice carts to deliver rations and knew what was going on. I spotted a ‘Thai” while marching out to work one day, he was different and showed some fear when he spotted me looking at him. I just grinned at him and he relaxed. I never mentioned spotting some others as the story would get around the camp and the Indonesian Dutch were unreliable. We had no deaths by sickness there only a man shot, caught outside the fence, who had been on a trip to Ubon.
The work on the airfield progressed greatly ‘Thais’ also being employed, and a party of us were put together and moved to an area about 5 kilos away to a semi jungle type of country where we were put to building Pill Boxes in some sort of defence line. We were all European, no black Dutch, as we called them and conditions started to deteriorate. The food had lost its value and we were getting back to the days of 1943 on the railway. This was now near the end of July 1945 it was rumoured that the Japs were being pushed back and that we were to be moved off in 60 at a time for a firing squad, these were the rumours, as the Japs themselves were in danger from Guerrillas that were becoming more active.
We were in this low frame of mind with a continuous increase of sick staying in camp. When a Jap came along to say the war was finished, the date was as far as we can remember August 16th 1945. Nobody believed it but we had to pick up our tools and go back to camp. When we got there the place was seething with excitement but nobody was sure. Within two days we were on the way back to our base. Nobody believed it at the camp but our arrival proved it was so. That night the wireless set was out in the open for the first time and we were listening to the news of the world. Vera Lynne even sang a song for us in the Far East and even mentioned us POWs. There was no doubt now, the guerrillas arrived in due course and Sten Guns hung up in the guard house at the gate instead of Jap weapons. The local population flooded in to see. Our planes dropped medical supplies Drs and their assistants. The radio by the way came into camp in a Jap officer’s bed roll, he had an English soldier as a batman who was responsible for his gear etc and had to carry his bedding etc when moving to a new location.
Chicken was on the menu now and many other items of food we hadn’t had for so long. Small baskets of tobacco was a gift from the Red Cross. Clothing was parachuted into the camp with the latest magazines and papers. Leave was on with money to spend and my first draw on the paybook being 14-9-1945 $170.00 and the signature looks like ‘Edmund London SX11014 Capt.
So, we had put in quite a time fattening up, as it were, and now that we had some clothes, money etc we were due for leave. Some parties were already arranged and with the two motor trucks that were available permission was given for leave. Some had already gone AWOL.
At last our day finally dawned, we got decked out in our best, lined up, given our passes and we were off.
We were a bit more fortunate that some others as it was Race Day in Ubon. We had already had a sip of the potent rice wine known as ‘Lou’ and it certainly had a kick, but it had to be sampled so it was with a lot of excitement we arrived in Ubon.
First, we had to explore the town. It wasn’t very big; the streets were narrow and not particularly clean. Just being able to walk and explore for the first time was great. We eventually spotted a place selling the wine and we made our purchase. Apart from the Lou there were also better looking but more expensive brands but our dollars, which seemed a lot, wasn’t very much, as far as we were aware it was worth about 3d or thereabouts.
The Lou whisky was certainly potent it hit the legs and the knees became unable to carry the body. Jokers wanted to sit down, talk became loud and one or two tried singing but it didn’t as far as I can remember cause anyone to feel like a fight. The townspeople seemed to give the impression that we had been imposed on but the imbeciles told them they were no1, Siam no1, Nippon finish, Tojo finish, and over in what was the Dropping area the planes were sending down canisters on the end of parachutes, as the Q Store was coming into its own again.
A few of us decided to go to the races while a large number decided to go to town and buy more whisky. At the field where the races were, it was a colourful array and the stalls were doing great business. You could have a dish of rice with fish, meat chicken or the local type of vegetable, but the chicken skewered to a frame of bamboo looked the most appetising, they were in great quantity and browned to a turn and could be eaten without the hands getting greasy. There was also plenty of sweet foods available, everything was out in the pen and the vendor was always squatted alongside his or her goods. Calling out now and then to attract attention to the excellence of their wares.
The race track was just beyond the stalls and the racegoers and was quite primitive. It was just a cleared area and the track was circular with the fence unpainted on the inside with the starting line also being the finishing line. The judges box having a platform where he could see over the ponies as they hurtled past.
The racing stock were off to one end of the ground to the left of the stalls and racegoers, and were tied to a post by rope around the neck. They were a Welsh type of pony of about 10 to 12 hands high and were tough looking little animals. Some were quite temperamental and were putting on an act while others were bored with everything and didn’t look at all like being able to race.
However, some were being led towards the track with the offsiders carrying a piece of rice bag with a number on it, no saddle or bridles on the ponies just a rope around the neck. With the skittish ones having a half hitch of the same rope on the nose. When they reached the track the rice bag with the number on it was thrown on the ponies back and held there by the attendant to the best of his ability. In some cases, while the crowd viewed the Parade trying to decide which was a cert for the coming race. Just back from the starting point some lads in various colours were collected and were in fact the jockeys.
The bookies were operating as the horses paraded and it seemed quite fair sums were being wagered and quite a bit of temper was notable, why I don’t know, it could have been the odds offered.
Anyhow some gong was sounded and the jockeys were put up on their mounts sitting on the rice bag with the numbers showing. The boys just sat up with legs dangling and looked fiercely at each other while the ponies knowing what was on started playing up a bit more.
Another gong and the handlers led the horses to the starting line. The rice bag was whipped out from under the jockey the riders leaned forward and clasped his arms around the pony’s neck and when all was in line a further gong and away went the racers with the boys digging their bare heels into the flanks of their mounts. The handlers stood there for a little with the piece of rope in their hands. The boys were riding without bridles, reins or saddle but could be heard shouting, yelling at either the ponies or each other.
They were travelling at a surprising pace as they were viewed at the far side of the track. Some starting to get behind at the halfway mark. The boys now sitting straight up still using their heels and hands and yelling. The race goers were also yelling advice and showing the most excitement I had ever seen on the insertable Oriental face. I could feel the rice wine working n m and was no time to stall before the crowd more excited than ever. The horses, beg pardon, ponies thundered or was it flashed passed the line with the boys sitting straight up, the crowd subsided, the ponies were being roped again. The handlers had moved up the track some distance so that they were in a position to put the rope on their charges.
I seemed to get a bit hazy about this time as somebody had given me a swig again and I was urged to have a good one by one of our blokes which was very generous of him. It wasn’t until later that my small pack, which was dumped with the others was minus that bottle of ‘lou’ but so what I had had a good swig. I had another swig later which was probably someone that was being passed around.
I seemed to have gone a trip around the town again because I remember following two of our fellows supporting another bloke who kept dropping on his knees. They ended up by dragging him backwards with his heels dragging.
Bill Struther’s handwritten document has been interpreted and prepared in 2020 by Harry Tysoe, Historian, 2/4th MGB ex-Members Asoc. Written exactly as Bill wrote in about 1946.