Tuesday, January 20, 2009

10. Railroad

Australian POWs carrying railway sleepers
Photo Source: www.hellfirepass.com

Railroad: A word which most of us in later years will immediately associate with the dull ache of hunger, the stench of festering ulcers, the searing sun. Work gang: The soreness of extreme fatigue, the sting of the smack in the face, the pain of the kick on the shin, the rifle butt in the back. Railroad: the ultimate in hardship, the end of the fall. Whatever hope we had in the preceding years, in the Java and Singapore camps, has fled into nothingness. All the horror written about slavery in books of history and fiction has leaped out of the pages to engulf and consume us, in a never ending hell passing from one day to another. But as history shows, all the brutality in the world cannot halt the will to survive. The rags we wear, what meagre possessions we have tucked away in frayed rucksacks, our very lives, all of that is owned by the Japanese. But the rumours, improbable as they may sound, are ours. Ours to be passed on in whispers and listened to hungrily. Yes, the rumours are ours. And the unsquashable, incredible sense of humour, witty and often biting, that too is ours, that also the Japanese cannot take away. For the rumours and sense of humour are an essential part of the spirit to carry us through until victory is ours, or until death has stilled our lips.

Korean guards on the Burma Railway
Source: Japan Times

Our guards are mostly Koreans, a conquered, hence an inferior, race according to the simple standard of Japanese philosophy. Therefore Koreans, though wearing the Imperial Army's uniform, cannot attain promotion, a fact which infuriates them to no end. And on whom else can their wrath be better cooled off than on us, defenceless prisoners of another inferior race? We fear them more than the Japanese, impossible as it may seem.

Breakfast at six consists of a thirteen fluid ounce milk can quantity of cooked rice and horse radish stew. Meat in any form is absent. Our midday meal is exactly the same and meted out together with breakfast. It is wise to eat both portions at the same time, for in this climate cooked rice turns quickly sour. One may buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the sector where I work, a much needed addition to daily menu. Sometimes we receive payment in Thai tikals, which is also a great help. After breakfast and roll-call we are taken by truck about ten miles north to uproot bamboo trees. For tools we have our bare hands and rusty picks. A forester of the good old times would say this is impossible, explaining that bamboo grows in tight clusters,like grass poles. We would want ropes, axes and whatnot. Mister Forester has no idea how cunning hunger can make a man. Should the pockmarked rat of Korea find less bamboo cleared than he has expected us to, ear-bashings and kicks will follow. But worse, no payment and thus no fruit. How much bamboo should have been cleared we will never know. That depends entirely on his mood of the day, which is revealed soon after the midday break. If his his face is pulled in a hideous grimace of wrinkles and glinting eyeslits, that means he is satisfied and smiling, and we may loaf for the rest of the working time. But should he bend down for a sapling or a rock, we had better resume quick-smart pulling bamboo again. Occasionally an elephant detail is sent our way and when the friendly brutes take over, a day's task is done in a matter of hours and Pockface will order yasme, meaning no more work unless a Jap of higher rank than his arrives on the scene. Therefore, as Korean guards go, Pockface is not too bad. We unanimously agree that after the war he should be killed quickly, for he is a good Korean bastard. We always know when Pockface is about to arrive, for he himself will call out loudly, "Condition Led, Condition Led!" as soon as he comes within earshot. Perhaps he had picked up the cry at some time or other, thinking that it was "Attention" in English. None of us will correct him.

Bamboo Carriers
Drawing by G. Voorneman

Source: Geheugen van Nederland/Museon

Officially the railroad project is to open better trade and communications between Thailand and Burma. In reality it is, of course, to transport troops and equipment to Burma. For our hard labour, which may last from twelve to sixteen hours a day, we receive twenty-five tikal cents a day, approximately the same value in U.S. dollars, if and when the Jap is willing to pay. The officers among us receive one hundred and fifty to three hundred tikals a month, depending on their rank. This, we are told by the enemy, is in accordance with the Geneva Convention in treating POWs. But what about kicking men, wracked with disease, out of hospital and sending them to work, time and time again, by a ranting Sergeant Hiramatsu, who at all costs wishes to make up his workers quota for the day? Putting sick men on half rations and depriving them of pay? Trouncing the captured escapees before finally shooting them? Is that the Tokyo Convention?

On return from work we are free to go to any section of the camp or, if we wish, to the river for a bath. Stepping out of the water after a good scrub-down, you get that feeling of revival, of being human again, cleansed of grime and degradation. There is the usual supper of rice and horse radish stew, with the weevils trapped and cooked in the rice. But who'd be so squeamish as to object to some extra meat, little as it may be? Occasionally a pig's head and entrails, gratuitously donated by the Jap cookhouse, bring a nice, meaty flavor to the stew with fat globules floating on the top. For the worn-out and sick little else remains after supper than to sink down into heavy slumber. The fortunate ones, still relatively fit, use the time before lights out to seek a lost friend or relation among the new arrivals. Or, seated on bamboo slats, they will indulge in some chit-chat, a game of cards, read or listen to their neighbour's life-story or offer a point for discussion - such as the latest rumoured Japanese defeat at the hands of the Allies, the tending of indoor plants or the right approach to impotency. Anything under the sun, as long as it is delivered with enough gusto to hold the attention of the heterogeneous audience. Keep up the spirit, whatever the costs.

The day is done. Soon darkness will fall over the camp's square of parched grass and sand, on the attap roofs, the stinking latrines and the simple bamboo crosses a hundred yards further on. The movement in the sky at sunset is strikingly beautiful in Thailand, the land of the free, as its name says. The changing shades of the clouds in the fading sun rays, the darkening blue, the fiery red, the mauve and the soft-hued pink blend and flow out into a splendorous tumult of colors. It makes me still and pensive - the sharp, cruel contrast of that jubilant sky hovering over our wretched world of railroad slaves.

It is a mockery of our drab existence? Suddenly there is the sound of a guitar from somewhere down the aisle flanked by upward pointing feet on bamboo slats. Living in a state lower than beasts of burden, we still find time for talking, a few laughs and even music. Perhaps that is the answer for that glad firmament?

Night has fallen. The click and chirrup of insects, the drone of cicadas is heard in the dark forest pressing in on all sides. Our palm oil lamp can barely hold its own against the black night. A peddler of "coffee" made from toasted rice and raw sugar calls out his trademark "hot, sweet and filthy." Outside shapes are hopping from one spot to another in the flicker-light of the homemade lamps. Men on their way to the latrines hopping from one dry spot to another in the ankle-deep slush. It is quiet in our hut while we listen to the sound of the guitar. A few cigarettes glow in the darkness. Hear how the first, casual, lazy picking of chords changes into the introductory part of the theme. Then the air is filled with a stirring melody, a song I recognise with a twinge of pain:

When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender...

It brings back with hurting sharpness Surabaya. Stairs leading up to the platform. At the top of the stairs there is always that little gust of wind brushing your face. To the left is the big swimming pool, its water reflecting the string of overhanging lights. Right there is the wading pool...

It brings back a night of tropical splendour,
It brings back a memory ever green.

Lisa, my Lisa...

I'm with you once more,
Under the stars,

Her lips returning kiss for kiss.

And down by the shore an orchestra's playing,
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.

Her feet follow my steps with light, flowing ease. Our bodies, as one, sway in accord with the staccato of drums, the beat of the bass. Her blond eyelashes cast a thin shadow on her smooth, creamy skin.

To live again is past all endeavor
Except when that tune clutches my heart...

Stop it! No more hurting yourself. Damn that guitar!

This night I find myself in the grip of a very realistic dream, an intense subconscious reliving of the past. It won't do me any good, I know, but what else have I got left?

Leaning with the arm across the back of the front seat, turning my face to the two men on the rear seat, I am swapping jokes with the passengers while our car is driven through the Saturday afternoon traffic of hooting claxons and ringing tram bells. They are the two stevedore chiefs, Stocky and Auer. We'll be having an after-work drink at the Hellendoorn in a minute.

Then another scene flashes across my mind. Mother, standing on our porch, welcoming me. I hear her saying that there'll be something special for dinner, and did I not forget to book seats for that good movie tonight?

Then Lisa is sitting next to me while our car is passing that huge billboard: "Keep That Schoolgirl Complexion with Lux!" The shiny asphalt paving mirroring the glow of arc lights. Faces behind the windscreens of the other cars, all with the same smile frozen on their lips. The sound of an automobile's horn - one long, endless hoot.

"There, you're at it again, wet-pants." Would he still be alive?

The bite of a bedbug lands me, long before daybreak, smack-bang onto the bamboo slats. I can't sleep anymore, and go to the cookhouse for a mug of the brew which passes for tea. The fires under the large cooking pans crackle merrily, casting a shimmering shine on a man, seated on a log with his back towards me. I recognize his stoop and the stick he carries. Nico the Brain, as he is called, listed as unfit. No one has ever seen him do a stitch of work. Something or someone seems to protect him, for the Japs leave him alone.

"Tunis and Bizerte captured, three hundred-thousand prisoners taken. Curtains for Rommel!" is his morning greeting. I know this is true; he is not one for passing mere rumours. It is very good news indeed, but too far away to do us any good. Over the roof of the cookhouse a billow of smoke tries to rub off the twinkle of the Morning Star.

"Time and the ocean, and some fostering star, in high cabal, have made us as we are," says Nico, who has followed my glance upward. The early morning air is fresh, clean, with a smell of burning damp wood. I am hungry. In the orange glow of the fires his lips are white, bloodless. His face is lean and pinched. His eyes, with deep shadows under them, sparkle, looking straight at me. It is the arresting face of a highly intelligent mind. [1]

"Nico, do you still believe in God?"

Yesterday, when I put that question to him, he kept staring at the fire. Taking his pipe from his pocket without taking his eyes from the flames, he answers, "Why do you want to believe in Him?"

"Because I can't understand why the sky is so beautiful."

He looks at me sharply, his eyes intent with speculation, and then recognition mixed with interest.

"It is better to question His goodwill than not to believe in God. Come to my place this evening after supper. I shall be giving a talk on the Atlantis of the Western Mind. Everyone, of course, is welcome but I'm especially inviting you."

So tonight I have an appointment. Normally slaves do not have appointments. They get orders, or meet with sudden happenings, mostly unfortunate to them. But this evening I have an arrangement to meet somebody, who of course is another slave in another bug-ridden attap hut. Nevertheless, I shave myself carefully and put my khaki shirt and best shorts on. It is important to keep up appearances now and then, lest you become wholly degenerated.

We are sitting in a semicircle around Nico in the half-darkness of his hut, a single candle burning on an upturned tin beside his bed.

Image Source: dummidumbwit.wordpress.com

"It is Plato who tells us in one of his manuscripts of Atlantis, that legendary island west of Gibraltar, blessed with an incredibly beautiful nature. Its people, Plato wrote, were gifted with a sun of knowledge before which the stars of Western culture grew pale and insignificant. However, later this earthly paradise was swallowed up by the ocean as a punishment for the great wickedness of the people of Atlantis. This tale ignited the curiosity of the Western world and a research was made of the accuracy of Plato's words as to the whereabouts of the sunken island.

"But the Western world knows not only of a geographical Atlantis. For quite some time, it has suffered also from an Atlantis of the mind, the lost Atlantis of the Truth, the Answer to the why-this-living, the true meaning of Birth-Suffering-Death. Naturally, most of us do not care a hoot as to why we live, but are only interested in how to live well. Those who did care, the great Thinkers of the past and of our time, were irresistibly drawn to that great problem. And here again, research was made to find the solution. The seeking, probing minds are called to roam, to wander through the desert of the incomprehensible leading to the oasis of pure reasoning, in their quest to find that which is far and beautiful."

At first we are merely listening, but then we become absorbed in close attention to what Nico presents, in a highly interesting explanation of the birth of philosophical thinking, in a romantic form of narration.

"The symbol of the wandering knight in reality and imagination, he who roams and roves and does not know whence. He who seeks but does not know what. The man-made symbol of Percival, the Knight of the Holy Grail, the lustre of which he once beheld, which he endeavors to find again through the lonely, desolate mountains and plains leading to Monsalvat."

Concluding his talk with equal verve, Nico illustrates Plato's image of the Cave and its chained Inhabitants, to which we listen as raptly as before. Then, as he finally ends his lecture, a gentleman dozing in a nearby bay breaks wind with a loud report, as if to underline the futility of lecturing on such an incredible subject in our wretched condition, where the quest for food and liberation should overpower every other thought. The man meets our indignant glares with a vapid staring in the candle flame. It is very clear he is a hopeless case. Nico, shrugging his shoulders, suggests we continue his narration at another time, enemy, weather and wind permitting. Thanking him, we go bedwards, wondering what people would say if they knew how we, in our circumstances, would gather to listen to a philosophical discourse.

Before turning in, I go to the cookhouse for a last mug of char. A man joins me who I vaguely recognize as one of the listeners. He grins and says, "Very interesting, what?" I nod and he continues, "I say, what was it all about anyway?"

The following day, on return from the railroad, we are met with a great commotion. Cholera has broken out in another camp down the river! We are not to bathe until further notice, and mess-kits and spoons are to be dipped in boiling water before and after meals. In normal circumstances the report of a cholera epidemic would probably have thrown us into a panic. Now, though, it means only a newly added threat to our lives. The edge is off. We have seen too much of death to be terrified by the news. It will be very uncomfortable in this heat to have to go to bed without a dip, but don't they say, "Rather smell bad, than well, dead?" With all the compulsory annual inoculations back in Java, the Dutch among us should be saturated with anti-cholera serum and have nothing to fear. But then, grossly undernourished as we are, our bodies could have lost much of their resistance. Better not think about it. The Japanese have their huts immediately fenced off with high palisades, with quicklime sprinkled at the base and on top of the fences. Of course it is the water they drink that they should watch. Anyway, who cares? It is to be hoped that our camp will not be visited by the "black vomit," but if it has to come, pray let the Nips get their share of it, so they will stop this railroad nonsense and send us home.

A vacancy for food carrier for the sick has come up, and I have been selected. Lucky me! It is an easy job, with a chance for an extra snack from the cook and, naturally, no more railroad work!

It is my second day on the new job. Waiting for the buckets to be filled with porridge, I am standing with my back against the cookhouse wall. I suddenly notice the double crown sticking above the tree tops about two hundred yards away. Yes, of course, that is the dysentery compound over there. The two plumes move in the wind, recalling the events of that night. A nerve begins to throb in the pit of my stomach. Man, that really was a close shave. Seems a long time since I was saved by that tree. What ever made me do such a foolish thing?

Dishing out food offers an incredible experience. It is psychological, and I sense it right from the moment when I put the containers down and yell, "Come and get it!" Quite unnecessary, for the food queue is always there waiting for me. Right from the start I am aware of their eyes pin-pricking on the back of my lowered head and on my hand holding the dipper. Their fixed staring means on thing only. It is suspicion about my integrity, my ability and willingness to perform the task unbiased and with absolute fairness. Have I perhaps got friends or silent partners among those shuffling in the queue, for whom the dipper goes right to the bottom of the bucket to scoop whatever delicacy might be lying there? Will the others receive only the thinner portions of the stew? Thus my dipper goes every time conspicuously as deep into the food as before. But after a time, unavoidably, the stew will have become thinner, and it is then when their mistrust is expressed in loudly muttered abuse, so that I have to force myself not to hit them with the dipper.


[1] Nico quotes an English poem, Sir William Watson's Ode on the Coronation of King Edward VII.

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