- Contributed by
- Len (Snowie) Baynes
- People in story:
- Leslie Baynes
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 April 2004
Building The Embankment
We moved out of Chunkai along the mostly completed embankment, and presently arrived at the next camp, Wun Lung, where we were to spend the night; it had only been a few kilometers distant, which was just as well, as I was still weak from my ‘squitters’. There was a yell from a crowd of the ‘Wun Lungers’, and as we got closer I recognized them as the River Valley boys.
We had some rice and I then sat down for a chat with Len Dudley, Skin Barker and a few others. Skin had been Lionel’s assistant in the medical room. Lionel had been on the plump side; Skin was one of the lean kind. He was one of those chaps who could raise a laugh by an expressive glance alone.
He had the habit of talking out of the side of his Joe E. Brown mouth, and with his lop-sided grin he could make a joke of the most morbid subject. After hearing the latest ‘griff’, and telling all we knew of life and death, Jimmy and I went for a walk round the camp.
Wun Lung had no perimeter fence as had the other camps we knew. One side was bounded by the river, one by the railway, one by jungle, and the last by a clearing which was being created by two very hard-working Chinese men, who were trying to make a small farm.
We were told that they worked from dawn to dusk cutting the great trees down with primitive tools, burning the trunks, then digging round the root and burning that out with the branches. Their only tools were axes and chunkels. The ground they had already cleared was planted, partly with a kind of lettuce, the remainder with peanuts. (These look much like garden peas while they are growing.)
Next morning we moved off on the next stage of our journey, this time along ten miles of jungle paths to ‘Wun-tu-Kin’. I still had all my kit, though still weak from my sickness; it was therefore only with Jimmy’s help that I made the last stretch to the new camp. Fortunately the Japs allowed us to spend the first day in camp getting the cookhouse and latrines ready, and we were also able to clean the place up and do our washing.
Our first job on the railway was cutting down trees and de-barking them for use in building culverts to allow streams to pass under the embankment. We wondered how long these would withstand attacks from the ever-present termites.
The nights were very cold at this time of the year, and I could not even keep warm with my blanket and rice-sack. Many of us had to get up in the middle of the night and run round the camp to keep warm. Sometimes we built a fire between the huts and warmed up round that.
Wun-tu-Kin provided me with one of my few fond memories of a Japanese soldier. His name was Yoshio Suzuki, and he was an engineer. The Koreans had taken over the task of guarding us by now, the Japs were responsible only for the engineering and surveying work. These Koreans were vile to us, many times worse than the Japs had been, and we quickly learnt to loathe them.
When Suzuki saw the Koreans being beastly he would stride over and shout at them. I never heard him raise his voice at any other time. He could not speak any English but the first day out on the railway he made me understand that he regretted having to order us about, and that he would do his best to make things easy for us.
That evening he came over to our hut; this was most unusual, as the Japs seldom wandered far from their quarters after returning from work. Sitting beside me, he produced a large piece of cake and a handful of cigarettes. Shyly he handed them to me, and waved his hand round in a gesture for me to share what he had brought.
Practically every evening after that he would wander over to our hut with some tit-bit or other from his own rations. Sometimes a bit of ‘banjo fish’ as we called the lyre-shaped dried fish the Japs ate, sometimes a few sweets.
When I attempted to thank him, Suzuki cleverly attempted to change the subject by trying to teach me to say the Japanese word for ‘thank you’ properly, "Arrigato". I tried; "Ah-rding-gah-to-oo" he tried to get me to pronounce. I never learned to say it to his satisfacrion.
I would like to know if my friend survived the war, it would be good to write to him after all this time with some little token of affection and gratitude.
Our stretch of the railway was four miles from camp, so it took quite a long time to get to work. During our meal breaks I often explored in the jungle, and once or twice I got lost. Once out of sight of the embankment, and with the trees overhead hiding the sun, it was very easy to lose all sense of direction, without a compass.
Being lost could be quite frightening under those circumstances, with trees all round and no idea in which direction one’s comrades were to be found. Usually, by sitting quietly one would hear a chink of a tool or a voice, eventually, but on one occasion I waited for a long while without hearing a sound.
In the end, I wandered off through the trees, hoping I was going in the right direction, and after about twenty minutes came to a cleared area where obviously the railway was to run.
Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing whether I had circled to the right or to the left, so I sat down while trying to make up my mind which way to turn to find the working party. After a few minutes a Thai came along, and I asked him to tell me the way to Wun-tu-kin.
He looked quite blankly at me as I tried over and over to make him understand. Just as I was about to give up a gleam of understanding came into his eyes, and he sang (the Thai language has four tones)"Wun-tu-ki-en" and directed me with a forefinger.
I hurried back along the track, and within a few minutes came in sight of our gang. Not wanting our guards to see me coming I entered the jungle skirting the track and proceeded out of sight until I was close enough to approach from the trees.
Our guards spotted me before I could merge with the other men; that was the trouble with being so fair, I was easily missed. There was the usual roar of "Courra!"; I saw that I had been seen, so walked over to the guards, and looking as ill as I could, said "Speedo Benjo, taksan taksan", which in pigeon Japanese meant that I had ‘been taken short’, luckily they did not query this, and waved me back to work.
On another sortie, I followed a track into the jungle, and after a few minutes came to a Thai house or ‘Kampong’ in a small isolated clearing. Standing on six foot long legs to keep out beast and flood; (these were not houses in the Western sense, but bamboo and attap huts).
Floors were of split bamboo and the walls simply hanging mats which were rolled up during the day. Even the larger ones were usually not much more than about ten feet square, and many I saw were only about seven feet by four feet.
The larger ones were split into two rooms. There was also a small verandah on a level with the floor, and this was approached from the ground by a retrievable ladder. The householder and his wife would spend their leisure moments sitting on their verandah, usually chewing betel nut and smoking their pipes.
Many Thais kept a wad of black tobacco in the corner of their mouths when chewing the nut. As this left a thick deposit on the teeth, every now and then they would spit and take the wad from their lips and polish their teeth with it. Unfortunately only the high spots were whitened and when they smiled the thick black lines between their teeth looked singularly unattractive; Betel nut seemed to preserve their teeth, as even elderly Thais seemed to have gleaming full sets once they had cleaned the black off.
This Kampong appeared to be occupied only by one old man and his dog; moreover, he had hardly any possessions. Normally the Thais (who are a very hospitable race) would keep a ripe paw-paw hanging on the wall, and the visitor would be offered a slice. This old man was only able to offer me a piece of tamarind, together with a small lump of rock salt to suck with it.
Tamarinds grow on huge trees, and when unripe the fruit looks not unlike broad beans. As they ripen the skin hardens into a shell, and the inside shrinks round the hard seeds into a reddish sticky toffee. It is just about the sourest thing I have ever tasted, and I have a sweet tooth. I was unable to avoid the risk of upsetting the old chap, as in vain I tried to maintain a smile of appreciation with the stuff in my mouth. However he grinned at my wry face.
A sweet little girl of about five came hurrying down the ladder to greet me from one Kampong on another occasion. As she looked up at me with a smile, I saw the red stain of betel nut in her mouth. Brown skinned Thai children seem to be able to climb up the ladders almost as soon as they can crawl, and the young mothers nearly always had a new baby or were expecting one shortly. They were quite clearly devoted parents, even if they did give their children betel nut.
It was a week or so later that I found a path leading from our railroad to the river, during one of our midday breaks. Tethered to the river bank was a raft of bamboo on which was erected a hut so small that from a few yards away it might have been thought to be a dog kennel.
With legs dangling in the water, a young man sat on the edge as I approached, and he beckoned me to come nearer with a friendly smile. The hut walls were rolled up and I could see a young woman sitting inside on some bedding, which appeared to be all they possessed besides the cooking pots and charcoal fire bucket. As I sat down on the bank, the woman came out to sit beside her husband, and I saw that she was pregnant.
After some initial shyness, they allowed themselves to be drawn into a sign-language ‘chat’. (The Thais are very good at this, and by now I was fairly proficient also.) I asked if they had any other children, and the husband told me that there had been three but that all had died in childbirth. The telling made them both very sad, as they explained that they spent much time in prayer for the little one who was now on the way.
There were no doctors or nurses in that area, and I was told later that on average only one child in five reached maturity. We often saw men and women in remote Kampongs dying of terrible complaints without any medical attention; and yet the Thais, as I remember them, seemed to be a very contented race, with a happy smile on nearly every face.
We in the West, with all our possessions and medicines, seem a miserable lot by comparison. I asked this couple why they had built their house on a raft, and such a small one too. They explained that young couples with no money could not buy land, so they had to build on water; as for the size, it was big enough for their present needs. When their family arrived safe and sound, then they would build themselves a bigger home, After working for someone else for a few years they would be able to buy land and build a proper Kampong.
At one stage in the embankment’s progress, we passed an abandoned native vegetable garden, and we soon stripped it of everything edible. There were several sizes of chilies, which we gathered both red and green. The smaller the chilli, the hotter it is, and the green unripe ones have a different flavor from the red ones.
I used the chilies to make ‘sambals’ a Malay side dish to eat with rice. My favorite was ‘Sambal Katchang’ made by frying ground chilies and peanuts and then cooking them with a little water and the native toffee-like palm sugar called gula malacca.
There was also a vegetable with a hard bristly skin, a cross between a cucumber and a marrow. The fine bristles come off and stick in the flesh if not rubbed off first. There were also a few brinjaws (or egg-fruit} but these soon went.
The river at the camp was full of fish, but we never found a satisfactory way of catching them. Our quartermaster sergeant Cyril managed to get hold of a set of pig’s ‘innards’, and as he did not know what to do with them he offered to go fifty-fifty with me if I would prepare them. No sooner did I enter the river with them than I was surrounded by hundreds of fish, all sorts from six-pounders to tiddlers, and I lost nearly a quarter before I could retrieve them from the water.
These fish had very sharp teeth and would bite at any sores we had on our bodies. In one camp a prisoner had a very private part bitten off by a fish, some of which were as long as three feet.
Thais used to catch the lizards (Geckos)which were plentiful in the jungle, and were often seen running across the paths. They were about eighteen inches long from tip to tail, the latter being carried high in the air as they ran. They were skinned, dried in the sun, and sold in the shops in bundles of a dozen. They made a loud noise that sounded like 'cup-chai', the Thai word for 'thank you', so we called them cup-chai lizards.
The method of their capture was to follow one until it ran to its hole in the ground, and then insert a bamboo trap into the hole. The trapper would carry on until he had used all his traps up, and then go round collecting up the lizards which had been caught when they tried to emerge.
The traps were ingenious, made from a nine inch length of two inch diameter bamboo, one end of which was cut down to form a ring, the rest cut away,leaving a strip up the side to bend over and form a spring. A noose of string suspended through a hole drilled in the ring was released when a lizard put its head through, when the spring then straightened and the lizard was held tight pending the return of the trapper.
There were also wildfowl in the jungle, and we would often hear them crowing. They looked not unlike the Indian game cocks which are bred in this country. The Thais trapped these by staking out a tame cock by his leg, and surrounding him with wire snares. When he started to crow, the local birds would come in, heads down for the attack, and finished up with a snare round their neck. The tame birds were carried around head first in a wicker funnel.
It was now the fifth of February, and I would be twenty-four on the morrow. The embankment at this point was low, so we were spread out a long way to provide the same cubic capacity for our task. We had a decent young British officer with us named Gates, I was working at one end of our task, and he was keeping an eye on the other end for me.
Suddenly there was a cry from Mr. Gates’ end, and looking up I saw one of our two Korean guards beating Pte. McNab (who was too sick to have been working) over the head with a heavy stick.
Mr. Gates ran over protesting, but the other Korean started to beat him also. Snatching up my spade I rushed over, yelling at the top of my voice, taking care to include ‘Suzuki’ as I joined them. The Koreans were so taken aback that they stopped their beating and for a second just stared. I kept remonstrating including threats to tell ‘Nippon Number One’.
Recovering from their initial surprise, they rushed screaming at me. I think the Koreans must have the worst tempers in the world. However, I knew what to do, and stood my ground without batting an eyelid. They threw down their sticks, snatched up their rifles and swung their butts at my head. Over and over again they deliberately missed me, trying, I knew, to make me flinch or lower my eyes, as they got as close to my face as they dared; any sign of fear and I knew that I’d ‘had it’.
They soon calmed down and returned to the shade of the trees. Poor McNab was far from well, and although he’d done nothing wrong as far as I could gather, I suppose the guards picked on him because he was not working hard enough for them.
Yoshio Suzuki had by this time learnt a few words of English. We would sometimes only see him once or twice a day, as he knew that he could trust our gang to get on with the work; he was responsible for a long stretch of the embankment, with many gangs working under him. When next he came along I took him over to those guards and explained what had occurred, and showed him the bruises on our two victims.
It was only then that we saw for the first time that our friendly Jap had another facet to his character. He stood the Koreans to attention in the sun, and in front of us all, shouted at them for five minutes. They hid their faces from us the rest of that day, and we were never troubled again by that particular pair.
(One evening, about sixty years later, on answering the telephone, my wife said "There's some wanting to speak to you fron Scotland." I took over the phone, and a Scottish voice asked if I was the L L Baynes who wrote 'Kept-The Other Side of Tenko'.
He continued to explain that his name was McDuff, and that his father was now dead; but he had told him how a sergeant had saved him from the Koreans while he was working on the railway, but couldn't remember his name to thank him.
The son had happened to borrow the book 'Kept-The Other of Tenko' from his local library, and having just read the story,was glad to be have the chance of thanking me himself. He was ringing from a village twenty miles the other side of Banff.)
On the ninth day of February, nineteen forty three, I succumbed to another attack of malaria, and initially this was worse than before, but I received quinine and recovered quicker this time, and I was back on the railway within a week.
However, while lying in the sick hut I made a new friend. My diary entry on the twelfth reads, "I don’t think I shall be staying here much longer as I have seen Cpl. Rivven and joined his E.C... ". My new friend had formed an Escape Club, and they were concealing maps and weapons about the camp ready for a break-out.
Since we now knew that our aircraft had a base near enough to launch the attack all had heard, we thought there must be a possibility of reaching them. For the next few days I thought of little other than the glorious prospect of freedom.
I had to swear a solemn oath of secrecy, and undertook that I would be prepared to leave if asked at a few seconds notice, or to help someone else to do so. I could not even tell my ‘mucker’, Jimmy. I was unable ever to take advantage of the ‘E.C.’, however, as we moved further up country within a few days.
Before we left I developed my first tropical ulcer, luckily only a small one, on my ankle. There were whole huts full of ulcer cases in the camp, some of them a terrible sight, and the victims suffered agony as the infection ate through flesh, sinew, nerve and bone. By packing mine with crushed rock salt, mine was soon cured.
Thousands of limbs were amputated because of tropical ulcers, sometimes several times over as another ulcer formed on the stump. Some were so bad that the tibia and fibula were exposed, and in some cases daylight could be seen beneath the bones.
And yet the impossible occasionally occurred. Suddenly pink flesh would push through the corruption, and the ulcer would start to heal. The dead outer shell of the bone would come loose, and the flesh which had grown over the ends of it had to be cut to remove it.
Then our doctors would give a skin graft by laying pieces of skin the size of rice grains about a quarter inch apart all over the wound, and cover with saline soaked cloth. Salt was the only ulcer medication we had by then. George Buckle from my own village was such a case. The healed skin would look more like a nutmeg grater, but on his return home, George, for instance, lived into his seventies working as a gardener.
We paraded on the twenty-first of February, another stretch of embankment having been completed, ready to march further up country to our next task. First impressions of our new camp, Bancow, were far from favourable. There were no huts for us, and we were told to sleep on the ground. As I unrolled my bedding, to rest after the long march carrying all my kit, what I thought was a wag from among the older residents called out “Watch out for scorpions, they’re killers in this camp!”
Jimmy said that we’d better look, and rolling my bed up again, I saw a huge black scorpion advancing, stinging tail high in the air at the ‘ready’. Needless to say I had little sleep, especially as at about midnight I had the cold prickly feeling of an eight inch long centipede crawling over my forehead. I stayed still until it had crawled clear before I killed it. These hideous creatures scratch and sting if they are knocked or brushed off, and as they live on filth, the scratches produce the dreaded ulcers.
Next day the guards took us into the jungle to gather materials for hut-building. I found out for the first time where the ‘ties’ came from that we used to tie the bamboo poles together. An oblong strip of bark was cut from a particular kind of tree, and from the inner side it was possible to peel off fifty to a hundred of the tough stringy tape-like pieces. They had to be soaked in water for a few days before becoming flexible enough to use.
On our second day, the Japs told us that we were to be given a special treat that evening, and sure enough, when we returned from work there was a cinema van parked in a clearing. It was the only one I ever saw, and must have been brought up by boat, as there was no roadway to Bancow. About a hundred of our guards were sitting cross-legged on the ground waiting for the show to start, and we were told we could sit behind them.
It was a ‘talkie’, and the scene opened with a clash of cymbals and captions in Japanese. It was all about the Japanese war effort, and soon became exceedingly boring. There were long scenes depicting the factory floor.
A ‘conductor’ stood on a raised dais while hundreds of blacksmiths beat their hammers in unison on similar pieces of steel in an impossible way. That particular episode lasted for quite ten minutes, and during that time I saw no change in the shape of the steel, or any article finished. Every scene took place at breakneck speed, and had so obviously been speeded up that I could not see that it could have had much propaganda effect, as it was all too ridiculous.
Those of our men who became incurably ill on the railway were at intervals sent down to base camps. We who were left became tougher and more used to working on rice.
Until this time we had been allowed to excavate the soil for the embankment from wherever we chose, so we always looked around for soft spots. Our task was now made very much harder to perform, as the Japs made us dig symmetrical ditches extending along both sides of the track.
Each ditch had to be one meter deep, one and a half meters wide at the top and half a meter wide at the bottom. Any rocks, tree-stumps or termite hills in the way had to be removed, and now that the dry season was upon us, the ground was flint hard. The trench sides had to be geometrically sloped and the whole left neat and tidy.
We could no longer dig the earth with our spades, but had to use the inadequate picks with which we were issued. Yet we still had to move the same volume of earth on to the embankment, so were forced to work from dawn to dark in order to get our rest day and de-louse and wash our kit.
When digging the trenches, we sometimes found spherical holes a couple of feet down in the rock-hard earth. In the hole would be a frog, blown out with water and looking like a balloon, dimples showing where the legs were buried. If they were knocked they would pass all the water and resume their more usual frog shape. At the end of the wet season they had tunneled down into the mud, filled up with water, and then gone off to sleep to await the return of the rains.
The gigantic termite (or white ant) hills were also a source of wonder to me. As we cut through them; no two were alike inside, and they often contained other creatures beside termites; I once found a black scorpion eight inches long with a row of white babies clinging to its underside like baby pigs. I hadn’t the heart to kill it and hoped no-one would get stung as I let it run off.
The Queen termite consisted of a big soft bag of eggs with a little hard head-piece. There were also several kinds of specialized termites that went to make up a colony. The workers were small and white; they could sting, and their job was to forage for wood, chew little bits off and take them back to the nest. They were unable to withstand sunlight, so wherever they went they built clay tunnels in which to march; when they reached a piece of wood, they first covered it with clay and then nibbled the wood out from inside.
To protect the tunnels, large black fighter termites marched back and forth. They were armed with huge pincers on their heads and could endure being in the sun all day. If your foot came within reach they would bury their pincers in the nearest part, and the pain this caused was considerable. The only way to remove them was to pull the body off, split the head in two and extract one half of the pincers at a time. Unlike the workers which had two little black eyes, the soldiers appeared to be blind, and must have used smell and touch to sense danger.
I hated the centipedes most of all. Their bodies were about an inch thick, their legs spanned about two and a half inches, and were barbed. There seemed to be something obscene about them, and I think I would prefer to sleep with a poisonous snake.
On this stretch of the line, we built our first ‘station’, consisting solely of a platform built up with turf walls, and filled in with rammed earth. We were to see these washed away during the next wet season.
Soon after this first platform was built, a party of Japs worked their way past our camp laying sleepers and lines on the embankment we had recently completed. The lines had been brought up from Malaya, and were British made. They were not of the kind that is fixed in ‘chairs’ but they had a wide bottom flange which lay directly on the sleepers, and was held in place with steel dogs driven in.
Now that this stretch was completed, our next task was to return along that part of the line where no ditches had been dug, and to dig them. We spent most of the time travelling, so we were not surprised when they told us that we were to move out of Bancow on the ninth of March.
They gave us two days rest so I boiled up everything I had to kill the vermin and their eggs, and at eight forty-five we marched out. We were to go to Wun Lung, which was two camps down the line, nineteen kilometers distant. We arrived at six o’clock in the evening.
We were not found much work to do during those first days, and the river at Wun Lung had a very long boundary with the camp, as it was built in one of the river’s meanders; thus we spent many hours bathing. On our third day I was sitting by the river when I saw a hand waving out of the water as it floated off downstream. I was able to run down the bank and swim out to carry out the one and only rescue of my life. One of our lads, a non-swimmer, had stepped off the underwater shelf and lost his footing in the quick-flowing water.
I set up a barber’s shop in our hut, and by the time a few days had elapsed, I was shaving about thirty men a day. Our task here, we were told, was to maintain the track, and we started going out daily to hammer shingle under loose sleepers, and to replace the ones that had split. As they had been cut from the jungle and laid green, many of them had dropped in halves.
There was a little Kampong in one corner of the camp, and here the Thais sat cross-legged and sold their wares. We had not been in the camp many days when a bunch of us were caught red-handed buying food. We were lined up, smacked across the face and had our shins kicked.
A sudden storm arose on our eighth day in the camp, and when we returned from work we found that the entire cookhouse had blown away, and our hut roofs were full of big holes; however we were allowed to spend the next day in camp to carry out repairs.
Looking back, I suppose that the river here was about fifty yards wide; I figured that with practice I might be able to swim across under water, coming up once in the middle for air. With the curve in the river and the long length of bank, it was not easy for the guards to see it all at once. I started swimming a little further under water each day, ready for the time when I might decide to swim across to escape.
Now that the railway track was laid, the Japs began to make good use of the railway, running their dual-purpose vehicles past our camp. Before the war, Japanese goods had been thought of as shoddy imitations of European goods. However, we had already seen beautifully made Japanese rifles, machine-guns and other goods.
The brilliant engineering of their air-cooled diesel powered locomotive-cum-lorries, finally convinced us of their manufacturing proficiency. As lorries, they could travel over roads loaded with portable rail-trucks in the back.
When they came to the railway, the rubber-tyred wheels were taken off and the six brake-drums became locomotive wheels. The portable trucks were assembled on the line, and they had a train. One drawback was the apparent lack of adequate starting arrangements, and prisoners were called out at all hours to give a push start.
At this camp we had to unload sacks of rice from barges, and carry it across an open space to the rice store, from where it was loaded on to trains for up country. Those of us who still had boots were keeping them for when we escaped or were set free. Sandals would not keep on our feet when carrying the heavy rice, so we had to work bare-foot; the ground was so hot that we had to run half-way across, then drop our load and stand on it for a while to avoid our feet blistering.
One day, while standing on my rice-sack I heard a furious tooting from a passing train. Looking up I saw our old friend Suzuki waving frantically out of the cab to catch my attention. When I waved back, some of the men who did not know me made jibes about me being ‘Jap Happy’, a term used to denote anyone who collaborated in the Jap war effort. Some of the lazy ones also used this term to describe those who were prepared to do their best at anything while we were prisoners.
It was by the river at Wun Lung that I saw my first giant lizard; it measured five or six feet in length, and was running through the scrub at the water’s edge. I was naked at the time, but with visions of lizard joints, I chased it for twenty yards or so before it slid into the water; I was told later that these creatures had formidable teeth, so I was lucky in not having managed to corner it, and had our roles reversed.
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