‘F Force consisted of 7,000 POWs of which 3,660 were Australians under the command of Lt-Col C.H. Kappe from HQ 8th Division Signals. The overall command was under British commanding officer Lt-Col S.W. Harris, 18th Division.
The above list has been compiled by Harold Cowie WX8641. Copy kindly provided by his wife Glad Cowie, 2017.
2/4th Men from F Force Who Returned to Australia
ANDERSON, James Lorimer B COY
BAXTER, Francis John C COY
COWIE, Harold John B COY Driver
DOCKING, Melville Roy A COY
EVANS, Benjamin D Coy
(aka Benjamin Tiley-Evans)
EWEN, Jack Clifford A COY
GORRINGE , John B COY
GREGORY, Ronald Keith A COY
GWYNNE, George Whittingdale D COY Wardmaster Tambaya
HAMBLEY, Ernst Edgar B Coy
HINDS, Francis B COY
HOLDING, Wally E COY
HOWE, Clifford Thomas AAOC Armourer
HOWSON, William Robert HQ
KENNEDY, Mervyn St John HQ Signaller
KYROS, Jack George HQ Signaller
MCGINTY, Joseph Michael HQ
MCKENZIE-MURRAY, Robert James A COY
MILLER, Edwin Ernest B COY HQ Driver
NELSON, Cecil Thomas HQ
PIERSON, Thomas William Btn HQ
PUMMELL, Ephraim Albert AAOC
SHIER, Arthur Roy A COY
STERRETT, Douglas Francis A COY Rangetaker
WAINWRIGHT, John William 88 LAD Fitter
WALLIN, Edward William E COY
WALLIS, Vincent A COY
WEBBER, Claude Vincent D COY HQ
WILLIAMS, George David HQ Driver
WILSON, John D COY
A total of 49 men from 2/4th were selected in Singapore to work on the Burma Thailand railway with ‘F’ Force.
30 MEN RETURNED and 18 DIED from 2/4th
The Australians were mostly concentrated at Shimo (Lower) Sonkurai and Kami (Upper) Sonkurai. In these remote and primitive camps where cholera ravaged the POWs they had little access to trade with the local Thais for food and medicine. The death rate was devastating.
One of the purposes of Sonkurai camp was because the POWs were building a very big bridge across the river. There was a large camp where the men were accommodated and a smaller ‘hospital’ camp further away for the very sick where the doctors and orderlies tried beyond their best to assist and provide care and comfort with little or no medical equipment or medicines.
The first of thirteen trains left Singapore 16 April 1943. Each train transporting approximately 600 men crowded into rice trucks, 28 men to each truck. The horror journey took 5 days to Banpong.
Above: ‘F’ Force on journey to Thailand. 1943.
The march north for ‘F’ Force took between 17 -25 days. There were many deaths during this time. Most other Forces working on the Burma-Thai Railway, were transported some distances between camps.
‘F’ Force was not deemed to be a working party. The Japanese had said food was running scarce in Singapore – they were being sent where there would be good conditions and abundant food. A large percentage of ‘F’ were already deemed sick, or recovering, many were from an older age group as well as those who were not trained as soldiers but entertainers, etc. and deemed not suitable for working parties.
The Japanese assured them the sick would be able to recuperate.
The POWs were informed transport would be provided and they could take with them whatever they wished. The men were allowed to take loads of equipment such as blankets, cooking utensils, gramophones and even a piano!
The ‘F’ Force officers believed the Japanese, (or perhaps they wanted to) in particular the British. In fact the Japanese wanted them out of Changi and away from Singapore no matter the consequences.
One who did not believe the Japanese was Dr. Bruce Hunt who had volunteered to go with ‘F’ Force. He addressed a group of ‘F’ Force men warning them that conditions and life ahead of them would be very hard and they should prepare themselves.
Worse still ‘F’ Force departed Changi without having their cholera inoculations – saying they would provide these on arrival at their destination.
On reaching Banpong the men were marched mostly at night, on very poor and sometimes non-existent tracks to various staging camps as far as 330 kilometres north. Conditions on the march were appalling. At night in the jungle the men were unable to see ahead, sometimes tripping, falling and injuring and fracturing limbs. The condition of their feet was such that many were unable to march. The march took between 17-20 days. The Japanese had made no provision for supplies of food, water and cooking facilities let alone accommodation at staging camps which were often occupied by Australians who tried to help ‘F’ Force men by providing what food they could spare.
It was during the terrible march that the men of ‘F’ Force became familiar with Dr Bruce Hunt who was a driving force, encouraging the men and taking care of them with his medical team.
Some staging posts had been used by coolies and left in appalling conditions. Probably the reason cholera broke out at Konkoita a few days after passing through one of these posts.
Arriving up country in early May, F force was ultimately spread across at least six camps progressing toward the Burma border:
of which 3 were Australian:
No. 1 (Lower or Shimo Sonkurai)
No. 3 (Upper or Kami Sonkurai)
No. 4 (Konkoita)
‘F’ Force HQ camp was Neikhe.
On night of 14/15 May, 1,000 AIF men from trains No. 3 and 4 under Major Tracey, marched out from Lower Neike to their permanent camp at Lower Sonkurai, a distance of 7.5 miles. In this group was MO Capt R.L. Cahill, 13th AGH.
On the morning of 16 May all fit men were sent to work. The following day the second group under Major Johnston marched into Lower Sonkurai. After surveying the camp, Major Johnson pressed for immediate supply of atap for roofing the huts in view of the approaching monsoonal season. He particularly stressed the necessity of keeping sufficient men in camp to construct new latrines, kitchens, water sterilising points, etc. and reinforcing the huts. The floors of two huts had already collapsed under the weight of the men and further huts also showed signs of collapsing.
On the second day at camp, 2 cases of cholera had developed and were promptly isolated. A general hospital was also erected over the creek and north of the camp, known as “Cholera Hill”. The hospital received 40 patients within first 24 hours.
Lt. Fukuda intimated that the 800 men who arrived with Major Johnston were to be medically examined. He linked their arrival with the outbreak of cholera, and despite strong protests from POW Camp doctors, he persisted for several days that only this party was affected. (The same officer was to display the same lack of common sense during the second outbreak of cholera).
‘Cholera hill, an isolation hospital for members of “F Force” suffering from the disease at Shimo Sonkurai No 1 Camp. To the right of the hospital tents is a make-shift operating table where amputations, treatment for tropical ulcers and autopsies were done.’
By the evening of 16 May there were 16 men suspected of having cholera.
Cahill was the only doctor when cholera broke out and became deluged with sick men and further cholera cases. A message was sent from Lower Neikhe Camp . It was eventually decided Major Bruce Hunt and Capt. John Taylor would proceed to Lower Sonkurai. They brought with them 15 orderlies and vaccine from the limited stocks they collected at Konkoita (brought originally from Changi).
Major Hunt and Captain Cahill inoculated 1400 men by 19 May, however this was extended to 20th May to include 163 men who arrived with Capt. Howells as they had not been inoculated in the lower camps.
There was complete apathy in the camp as POWs worked longer hours, sometimes to 2100 hours in incessant rain with cholera and sickness including malaria, numbers growing. The Japanese were hostile over falling numbers of men able to work. POWs were falling asleep at work.
Food supplies were poor and jobs around the camp, including sealing the latrines, had not been tended to because there were insufficient men to do so.
The POWs were to receive a second cholera injection.
By the end of May there had been 22 cholera deaths with another 55 men diagnosed. Camp discussions decided Bruce Hunt approach the Japanese for immediate changes.
By the end of June only 700 men from what was by now a workforce of 5,000 POWs were at work on a daily basis. Of the 700 men, only about half were sufficiently fit for heavy labouring work. Of the original 7,000 POWs who had left Singapore it is estimated 1,350 failed to complete the march to their appointed camps – having fallen sick, died or been ambushed by Thai bandits. Col Pond’s Battalion of 700 POWs was commandeered at Konkoita by Lt. Maruyama to work for Japanese Railway Engineers.
By this time the main road from Non Pladuk had been cut by monsoon rains. These rains began in earnest 17 May and lasted until 2 October 1943. The road was impassable and vehicles could not access the areas where the Australians of ‘F’ Force were concentrated.
The Kwae Noi River was used to by barges to bring merchandise as far as Nikhe Village – to supply Thai shopkeepers and for the Japanese to continue supplies destined for (the fighting in) Burma. ‘F’ Force medical supplies were still at Pladuk and supplies could not keep up with the demand. ‘F’ Force supplies were drastically reduced in June.
Their camps located in the centre of a known cholera belt the Australians lost 1,066 men not only from cholera but other tropical diseases during April to November 1943.
1700 sick ‘F’ Force were sent north to Tanbaya, Burma Hospital Camp a further 750 men died within a short time. Tanbaya had little or no medical supplies.
The linking of the railway line from north and south was completed in mid November 1943 after which the remaining ‘F’ Force moved to Kanchanaburi. From here most of the ‘F Force Australians were transported by train to Singapore in December 1943 with those who were sick returning later.
The Australians lost 1060 men – 29%, the British had 2037 men die – 61.3%. These figures are unforgivable! There are many reasons:
‘F’ Force had the highest rate of cholera deaths, (the men had not received their inoculations prior to leaving Singapore), the reasons:
Often their camps had no food, water or medical supplies – but plenty of work
The inhumane treatment perpetuated by their Japanese captors
and finally, and importantly
the poor leadership of POWs – too often the doctors and medical staff were the ones to step up, made decisions and were concerned for the welfare of the men. It is recognised some officers were well able to lead their men in battle, however they completely failed in captivity.
POW life was new to all ranks.
This new life required different leadership, common sense and most importantly, a very high regard for every man’s life. Leaders who failed to adapt lost the respect of their men. This resulted in deaths, despair and apathy. Each man looking after himself.
Nieke, Burma. c. October 1945. Group portrait of Japanese war crimes suspects, formerly guards at prisoner of war (POW) camps, interrogated by the War Graves Commission survey party. The main Nieke station was approximataely 133 kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat or 282 kilometres north of Non Pladuk. Photographed by the War Graves Commission survey party whose task was to locate POW cemeteries and grave sites along the Burma-Thailand railway. They also took the opportunity to recover equipment and documents which had been secretly buried, under instructions from senior POW officers in the graves of deceased POWs.
The following is from the written memories of Wally Holding
‘When we came back from Singapore in trucks to Selerang area our people used trucks stripped down, they just had the seat, steering wheel and foot brake. They were pulled by ropes – 8 or 10 blokes and a rope out in front and a crossbar, 2 blokes to each crossbar. They shifted everything around the camp throughout POW days this way.
I was loaded on top of the gear when we were shifted. I must have been a bit of a sight I had not had a wash for many days. At Selarang I opened my eyes and I saw a 2/4th Officer, colour patches, pips, polished shoes, long socks – just as if he might be on the parade ground in Northam.
I made a noise to attract his attention and he came over, I wanted to try and tell him who was not coming back. He headed across towards the truck, took one quick look at me and went off for his life out of the way.
I supposed he reckoned whatever I had would be contagious and he did not want to have anything to do with it. He was Captain Smith-Ryan of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, one of our own Officers. I never caught up with him again, not that I wanted to. He had died since we came home.
On the parade ground there was another bloke in the same condition as I was, they carried us into a new hut which had just been built, there was no flooring – they usually put bamboo flooring into the huts but this one had bare ground.
While they were counting the troops off Jack Gorringe brought the guard over to show there were two extra bodies that they had not counted. I was laying there, I knew what was going on but I could not move. The guard walked over and gave me a kick in the ribs to find out if I was still alive. It sticks in my mind and it always will, I felt I would like to get up and belt the bastard but I could not move. Once they finished the check parade in a matter of minutes I was on a stretcher and the boys from Roberts Barracks, which was the hospital, had me on the way to a hospital bed.
Checking the last lot of my medical records from DVA I found out I was admitted to Roberts Barracks Hospital on 23 December 1943, that was the day we got back to Singapore.’
You can read more of Wally’s writing
You can also read F Force history prepared by Lt Col Kappe and Captain (Later Sir) Adrian Curlewis (1940’s)
(The Victorian R.S.L. granted permission to 8th Division Signals to print story of “F” Force as appeared in “Mufti” in 1951 – 3.)
There is a more detailed description of ‘F’ Force:
The survivors of F’ Force returned to Changi in appalling condition, all were skeletal and many ill, some dying. A large number of very sick POWs were left behind in hospital camps in Burma and Thailand.
In contrast Lieutenant Colonel Gus Kappe returned to Changi well conditioned, in fact he was fat. Officers received much more pay than enlisted men, and did not work. Kappe initially showed interest in his men but this quickly waned. He preferred not to have his face slapped by the Japanese and rarely exited his tent. Some officers pooled their extra pay and shared with their men. Kappe took good care of himself with extra food from his officer’s allowance. Kappe had even turned over some of his own men to the Japanese for punishment.
The men knew it. They detested him. But they rarely spoke of it. (This information from Interviews by Tim Bowden for ABC)
Col Kappe is also discussed in ‘Leadership of POWs in WW2’ by Katie Lisa Meale, University of Wollongong Thesis Collection.
Those who lost their lives with ‘F’ Force include:
WX8250 HALBERT, Frank
Menzies born Frank died Cholera Shimo Sonkurai 4 June 1943 aged 35 years.
A former prospector, his family had mined in the Menzies area for decades, his grandparents recognised Pioneers of Menzies. He enlisted 16 Aug 1940, later joining 2/4th MGB’s ‘C’ Coy 10 Platoon under CO’s Lt Wilson and Lt Ambrose.
Also in the same Platoon was WX7256 Thomas (Keith) Sawyer, known as ‘Tom Sawyer’ to 2/4th who was also born in Menzies. Sawyer and Halbert would have grown up and possibly attended school together. Both families were extensively involved in gold mining. Sawyer worked on the Burma end of the Burma-Thai Railway with ‘A’ Force Burma, Green Force No. 3 Battalion. Sawyer survived to return home to WA.
WX8674 GREGORY, John Edgar James (known as Jack)
Jack died 1 June, 1943 Shimo Sonkurai of cholera aged 39 years. A former Goldfields boy and miner, Jack enlisted same time as his brother Ronald who later joined ‘A’ Coy. Jack joined ‘B’ Coy No. 7 Platoon under CO Lt. Dean.
The brothers left Singapore with ‘F’ Force.
Ronald was also working at Shimo Sonkurai at the same time. It would have been a huge tragedy to lose his brother to cholera.
Below: brothers Jack and Ron Gregory
WX9849 McINTOSH, Archibald James Livie
Born Scotland 1920 ‘Archie’ migrated to WA with his family, resided at Bassendean as did Wally Holding’s family.
He enlisted AIF 6 Dec 1940 later joining 2/4th MGB’s HQ Coy No. 1 Platoon as a signaller under CO Lt. Curnow.
Archie died of Ber beri and dysentery at Tanbaya Hospital Camp, Burma to where he had been evacuated from Shimo Sonkurai. He was 23 years old.
WX9131 GOODWIN, Rueben
Goodwin was b. Essex England came to Fairbridge Farm School, Pinjarra in 1928. He enlisted AIF 30 Oct 1940 later joining ‘B’ Coy No. 9 Platoon under CO Lt Lee others in this Platoon include Harold Cowie. Goodwin was evacuated sick to Tanbaya Hospital Camp in Burma where died on 6 Nov 1943 of beri beri and dysentery aged 27 years.
WX9073 PATERSON, William James (Billy) promoted to Corporal 11 Feb 1942.
Wounded in action North Lim Chu Kang Road at ‘D’ Company No. 13 Platoon position at 1130 hours on 8.2.1942. There was a direct hit which left Joe Pearce buried to his waist, No. 3 gunner Bobby Pratt (WX8705) killed and Paterson severely injured. Admitted to 2/13th Australian General Hospital with shrapnel wounds to his left & right forearms & face he also suffered bone damage to his right elbow. Admitted to 2/9th Field Ambulance & transferred to 2/10th Australian General Hospital on 6.3.1942. Transferred to No. 2 Convalescent Depot ex‐Australian General Hospital on 12.8.1942. Discharged to unit on 27.9.1942.
William who was a former axe champion was hos-pitalised for 8 months. His never attained full use of his right arm. Billy volunteered for ‘F’ Force – he could have remained in Singapore because of his injuries.
He died Shimo Sonkurai 25 Jul 1943 of cerebral malaria and colitis aged 27 years. He collapsed suddenly and was reported to have died peacefully. His body was cremated at Shimo Sonkurai and the casket returned to Sonkurai for burial.
Billy’s death left his young wife widowed with two children to care for.
WX11745 WILLIMOT, James Frederick (Jim)
Jim enlisted the same day 21 April 1941 as his brother George firstly as reinforcements then joining 88th Light Aid Detachment where George entered training to be Driver’s Mechanic and Jim a fitter.
Jim died at Kanchanaburi with dysentery aged 39 years. ‘F’ Force was then returning to Singapore via Kanachaburi. George had died about 6 months earlier at Thanbyuzayat, Burma of dysentery, he was 32 years old.
It has been written that when Kappe returned to Singapore, his physical description was ‘he was fat’ – probably not fat by today’s standards, but he was fat compared to his men in F Force.