CAPT. REG NEWTON, U BATTALION: having been entrained from Singapore to Bampong, then trucked to Kanchanaburi U Battalion found themselves without guards in Kanchanaburi for about week, the men able to wander around freely.
Newton had initially been imprisoned at Pudu Prison, Kuala Lumpur, Malaya before being transferred to Changi. On the work parties at Purdu Newton learnt from the number of British soldiers, now POWs who had resided in Malaya prewar, and had contact with known local business owners and traders and able to purchase urgently required medicines and food.
Newton made enquiries as to whether there were any traders/business owners who spoke English. Newton chanced upon Boon Poong who informed him he had just secured a contract with the Japanese providing food supplies to ‘rail or barge head’, adding he expected to gain the Japanese contract for barge supplies to be delivered directly to work camps along the River Kwai.
Known for thinking on his feet, Newton immediately made arrangements to purchase straight from Boon Poong, taking barge loads should he pass through their locations.
He also then purchased a small quantity of British Army medical supplies.
How to pay for these future supplies?
First Newton had received a share of ‘D’ Force funds paid at Changi to Lt Col McEarchen, 4th Anti Tank Regiment CO of ‘D’ Force Thailand which consisted of four battalions of 555 men (S, T, U and V).
At Changi Newton had carefully selected the officers for ‘U’ Battalion – those who had been sent out on work parties in Singapore – rougher, tougher and well able to handle the Japs and their troops. ‘I did not select anybody who had been in Changi throughout knowing they had no experience with the Japanese’. Newton had clashed with Lt. Col ‘Black Jack’ Galleghan’s dictum that command appointments came down only to one’s combat promotion standing. It is well known Galleghan disapproved of men such as Dunlop and Newton.
Newton was adamant not to include an abundance of officers – knowing they would be at the beck and call of the Japanese for having too many ‘drones’ (non workers) around the place; taking only one officer per hundred men.
‘U’ Battalion departed Singapore on 18th March 1943 under the command of Captain Reg Newton, 2/19th Battalion to travel for four days in crowded conditions by train to Thailand. ‘D’ Force consisted of O, P, Q, R, S, T, U and V battalions under the command of Lt-Col McEachern whose headquarters were incorporated into S Battalion. V Battalion was to be segregated from the other Australian formations and assigned to Thailand Administrative Group 6. S Battalion contained the largest number of 2/4th men followed by T Battalion. S and T Battalions amalgamated about May 1943.
The four-day train journey ended at Non Pladuk and U Battalion was marched 2 kilometres to Konma transit camp.
The following day on 23rd March the group were transported in open flat railway trucks to Kanchanaburi. S, T and V Battalions had already arrived at Kanchanaburi before U Battalion. It was here that Capt. Fred Harris reluctantly agreed to command a 225 strong POW work party which had been ordered by the Japanese be separated and remain behind to load ballast onto trains. When the group moved out of Kanchanaburi several men, Joe Starcevich and James Flanagan were too ill to continue, having consumed pork which was too rich, and remained behind.
Being the tail end of ‘Force, U Battalion tendered to gather in stragglers from other groups and they passed through from the lower camps of Thailand as they moved north of Kanchanaburi. Tom Cato from S Battalion joined U Battalion at Tarsau June 1943.
On 4th April the Japanese arrived to pick up U Battalion in a convoy of trucks to take then to their next destination, Tarsau. Many had thought they would be marching – so this was a pleasant surprise.
Tarsau Camp 4 April 1943 to 24 May 1943
Tarsau North Camp 24 May 1943 to 2 June 1943
Tonchan Camp 2 June 1943 to 28 June 1943
Kanu II Camp 30 June 1943 to 10 July 1943
Hintok River Camp 11 July 1943 to 16 July 1943
Around mid July Japanese issued orders for U Battalion to move back down river by barge to the British Camp at Tonchan Central.
Tonchan Central Camp 17 July 1943 to 21 September 1943
This crowded camp was located on flat ground between River Kwae Noi and the railway line which by this time had already been laid past this point. Newton’s U Battalion set to work on the main road north and ballasting of the the railway line and bridgework. Two work parties left this camp. One going to Tonchan Spring Camp and the other to a camp in the Kanu II area which the POWs referred to a ‘the fly camp’.
Both these splinter parties from U Battalion were engaged on repair and maintenance work.
On 21 September 1943 all the non sick at Tonchan Central Camp were barged to Rin Tin Camp. At this point Tom Cato separated from the main group of U Battalion.
Rin Tin Camp
Tonchan Central Camp. On 17 November 1943 Capt. Newton was ordered to return to Tonchan Central Camp where he was informed a new camp was to be set up. The new campsite was to be beside the old camp on flat level ground. Following completion and on 11 December 1943 U Battalion was ordered to prepare to move to Kanu IIIr – Tampie South the next day.
Kanu IIIr – Tampie South Camps
On 13 December the battalion began the steep trek up to Tampie Camp where there was a marshalling yard and siding 400 yards to the South. In June 1943 Bert Norton of 2/4th and about 20 POWs moved south from Kanu II to clear the jungle for this siding camp and marshalling yard.
U Battalion started cutting timber for the steam locomotives.
There were also permanent gangs here available 24 hours a day for the replenishment of water for steam locomotives. At this time there were already 500 British established at this camp which comprised B and C Battalions from ‘D’ Force.
Besides cutting timber for locomotives, men from U Battalion were engaged on track ballasting and repairs.
On 28 March 1944 orders were received to stand by for the long awaiting move south.
Delays encountered were due to Allied bombing attacks on the now completed Burma-Thai Railway.
5th April 1944 what remained of U Battalion was loaded onto a train and embarked on a rickety journey south to Tamuang, 12 kilometres south of Kanchanaburi.
It was from here the POWs considered ‘fit’ by Japanese – were selected to work in Japan.
AWM photograph of Reg Newton.
On 1 July 1944 Newton commanded the “Newton Force” of 2,250 Australian, British, Dutch and American POWs who were moved from Thailand to the Ohama camp in Japan.
“Roaring Reggie” Newton of 2/19th Btn, was a much loved leader of many POWs working on Burma-Thai Railway. Newton was often beaten himself by the Japanese when protecting his men and protesting about their appalling conditions.
Lt-n Col Galleghan, CO of Australians in Singapore did not approve of Newton’s style and they had a number of clashes. In March 1943 Galleghan appointed Captain Newton to head U Battalion, D Force.
Comprising 695 men mainly drawn from 22nd Brigade. .Newton’s appointment meant he had jumped over many senior officers. There was speculation it was Galleghan’s way of getting Newton out of Changi! (Galleghan hadn’t much liked Weary Dunlop either).
The POWs adored him and it is said often the Japanese guards were terrified of him! After the war was over – Newton emerged as one of the better leaders of POWs.
He devoted himself to improving the welfare of ex-POWs. In 1978 Newton became an officer in the Order of Australia for his work ‘ for service to welfare of ex-servicemen’.
Newton died in 1994 and more than 200 veterans and friends attended his funeral… among Mr. Tom Uren, a former Labor Cabinet Minister and fellow POW. “He was simply one of the greats of the camps, a marvellous leader,” Mr. Uren said. Soldiers from the Australian Army provided the pall bearers at his burial and a lone piper was present to ‘play his soldier home’.
It must be said that Reg Newton’s leadership resulted in the smallest loss of lives of ‘D’ Force battalions originating from Singapore.
14.2% S Battalion
21.2% T Battalion
5.2% U Battalion
50.00%. V Battalion