Tuesday, January 20, 2009

11. Bridge on the Kwai

Tamarkan steel bridge under construction
Photo Source: mekongexpress.com

It is my last day in Kinsayok. A certain number of the sick, together with medical orderlies and food carriers, are to be put on transport for Tamarkan, a hospital and workers camp down the River Kwai. Tomorrow we start on the journey, lasting two days, with a stop-over at Tarsao. Taking my leave of the boys in the bamboo detail, I learn that things have become easier for them. Pockface, deadly afraid of the cholera, permits them to buy food at will so that his gang will become strong enough to withstand the dreaded disease and not contaminate Pockface.

The lorry's motor sputters to life, the backflap is closed behind us. The driver eases the clutch. Looking back over my shoulder, I scan the treetops. Yes, there it is, the double crown, afire in the first rays of the sun.

"Wot yer lookin' at?" grunts an inquisitive character.

"I? I'm looking at a Christmas tree."

On the way to Tarsao, a small wooden cross stands on a little mound of stones beside the road. It bears an illegible inscription.

After roll-call I find Hendrik with his inseparable pipe, sitting on his bed, gloomily staring at his mud-spattered boots. It seems ages ago since I saw him last, this wisecracking, cynical man nicknamed the "air-polluter" because of the foul smelling mixture which goes for tobacco, and of which he seems to have an inexhaustible stock.

"Hello there, how are you? What's up, Hendrik? You look like you're down to your last pipe! And that, of course, would be to good to be true. Say, whose grave is that on the road?"

It makes me sad to hear the story, because I remember Tim so well. Shock of sun-bleached hair, all freckles, generous mouth with always that touch of a smile at the corners. Always there to give a hand, no matter what. Liked by everybody in the street where he lived. Then that motorbike accident, and Tim on the brink of death. The operation lasted three hours but the team of surgeons were able to save him. As a tribute to their skill, the local paper carried an article explaining how his breastbone had been pushed against the right ventricle of his heart, making things complicated if not irreparable. However, science had carried him through, and Tim would show the scar, five inches across his chest, to anyone who cared. Then, three years later, Hendrik had to bury him.


"Tried to escape. The bloody natives caught him and brought him to the Nips."

"Good God! He was so young!"

"We laid him down in his blanket and groundsheet. What shook me most of all was that two bullets had penetrated him precisely through his scar, left there on the pale, hairless chest by those doctors who had worked so hard to save his life! Those two black holes in the pink stripe on his chest made me see, in all its intensity, the mad monstrosity of man-made war. The ultimate in evil. Three years ago skilled hands, specially trained for the task, had with utmost care and precision set his breastbone right, relieving his heart from pressure so that he might live - in conformity with the principle that man must at all costs endeavour to preserve life."

He stops, spits on the ground, and continues. "War has changed all that. War has, with a turn of the hand, made it lawful to take this boy outside and shoot hot lead into his heart, tearing and blasting away tissue and bone so that his blood may flow and his life be put to an end, and to hell with what had been so masterfully performed by the surgeons. In conformity with the principle that in war man must at all costs endeavor to kill the other fellow. Shoot, cut, stab him, anything, so long as you make certain that his heart stops beating, that he is forever lost to his people, girl, family."

Never have I seen that composed, cynical man so upset. Tim's death must have struck him deeply. What can I say? His pipe has gone out, and I offer him some tobacco.

"Thanks," he says. And then with a sigh, "I've heard mankind referred to as the crown of creation. To me it is more like a hat full of holes."

Air reconnaissance photo of Tamarkan POW camp

Enlargement of another recce photo, showing Tamarkan barracks and POWs
Photo Source: www.airrecce.co.uk

May 1943. Our group has now been four weeks in Tamarkan. In Siamese it is called Tambol Tha Makam, too long a name for ordinary POW use, so the men have dubbed it Tamarkan. It lies a few hundred yards from the bridge which spans the River Kwai. Soon after the completion of the bridge it will be made into a base rest-camp for the very ill. The fit men will be sent elsewhere, until they too are worn out and sent back to Tamarkan, where thousands of sick are attended to by POW personnel as best as possible in the prevailing conditions.

The camps in Thailand may be divided into bad and good camps. In the former, food is absolutely insufficient, the Nips worse than usual. The close of every day is marked with a beating or a hospitalisation. Tamarkan is one of the good camps, where a British colonel is in charge who constantly fights with the Japanese for better working conditions and rations. It is said that even the enemy holds him in high regard. The housing is the same as in all the other camps. Bamboo framework huts with palm thatch (attap) roof, divided in bays of bamboo slat sleeping platforms about two feet off the ground, at both sides along a central gangway. The huts and grounds are comparatively clean, the work not as back-breaking. Even the Nips are reasonably human, though one of them has to be especially watched. He is recognised as one of the attendants of the Tjioda department store, on Tunjungan in Surabaya, before the war. The blighter may understand Dutch. But best of all, the food is good! Incredible but true. You can stick a fork in the stew, which has plenty of meat and greens. Those on a special diet get boiled duck eggs and custard!

To us comes suddenly a sign of life from home! It is not much. All we get is one and the same postcard with one and the same printed line in Malay:

"I (we) are doing well and so (is) are the child(ren) and family. Love from..." Delete where required.

Efficient and simple, so typical of our friends from Nippon. There is one for me. I read the cold, impersonal line over and over again, for it was her hand which struck out the letters and wrote her name. A faint glimmer in the darkness to tell me that she is still there, alive and waiting. My head is in a turmoil of thankful joy. Our reply has to be in the same form, but in English. First we are called to the parade ground to listen to the peaked cap, high boots and samurai sword, outlining Japan's sudden willingness to follow the Geneva Convention, and the goodness of her soldiers in general.

POW reply postcard (sent by a British prisoner)
Source: www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk

I am called on the mat to face a charge of insubordination. An English speaking sergeant-major, insisting that he be addressed with "sir", which I had flatly refused, has put me there. At the colonel's office the sergeant-major barks, "Ten-SHUN!" and, smartly saluting, reports me to the British camp's head with:

"This is the bloke, Colonel, Sah!"

Piercing grey-blue eyes in a commanding face, but with a gentle light in them.

"You know the charge, sergeant. What have you got to say?"

"I cannot accept being referred to as 'bloke', Colonel. My rank is sergeant, as the sergeant-major knows. As to the charge, it is in our own Dutch army not customary to address non-coms, or even officers otherwise than with their rank. I therefore respectfully suggest that what is good enough for Dutch officers would be good enough for British sergeant-majors."

Lt. Colonel Philip Toosey, POW commanding officer at Tamarkan
Photo Source: cambridgeforecast.wordpress.com

With an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes, Colonel Toosey glances at the Dutch captain standing at his side, who nods. [1]

"Very well then, sergeant, you may go. Sergeant-major, please remain."

A world in turbulence, thousands of people dying in battle, and here I am, refusing to say "sir" to another slave. Childish, if not just that it would have been so important to us to be able to say "no" for once without being bashed or kicked for it.

It's my twenty-eighth birthday. We'll have plenty of "yeast" for this occasion. A concoction of fermented boiled rice, recommended by our medical staff as a resistant to beri-beri. Our kind of yeast, however, fortified with loving care from one stage to another for days and days, has developed such a high percentage of alcohol that it truly deserves its name "Thai Moonshine" or "Railroad Gut". Tonight we'll also have the twice monthly play performed on the camp's stage. All in all, my birthday will be properly marked. The British are experts in finding all sorts of diversion to break the monotony of waiting, slugging on in dust and bugs for an uncertain future in an endless war fought in a world elsewhere.

Tamarkan camp stage
Source: PIX Magazine / Han Samethini Collection

Among us are professional actors of an army welfare group captured in Singapore. As always, tonight's show will feature the "Incomparable Bobby", who wears his hair long and is positively feminine in posture and behaviour. On stage, the men say, he is superb in depicting whatever type of woman is required for the situation, moving about in a variety of dresses from a flimsy nightie to a plunging neckline evening gown. In most cases the script requires a young, frivolous wench caught in a web of naughty innuendo or straight out dirty jokes applauded by a roaring audience. Sometimes at the finish of the show he will convincingly figure in the sacred role of the soldier's wife, waving goodbye to her slowly backward stepping husband, departing for war, while the orchestra plays a heartrending When the Poppies Bloom Again. Afterwards we all silently retire, full of renewed solidarity and nostalgia.

We are seated on jute bags in front of the stage. The curtains are closed. The show is about to start. The band plays Stardust. I think of a Sunday afternoon dance at the swimming pool, the light on the water casting reflections on the ceiling above the swaying couples on the floor. Would she be thinking of me? It's my birthday. Memories are cruel. Gosh, that moonshine is strong. The curtain goes up. Bobby appears, swaying his hips amid catcalls.

That was all yesterday. Now we are listening to a lecture on philosophy. Nico embarks on the second part of the Atlantis of the Western Mind, and soon, as before, we are swept into the fascinating world of deep thinking, a world of Descartes and Kant. The grandiose conception of Space and Time as forms of mental observation. The Germany of Kant's time, when an attempt was made to conquer the universe by sheer reasoning, compared with the Germany of the Third Reich seeking to take the world by brute force.

Nico's deeply sunken eyes shine behind the horn-rimmed glasses. His bloodless lips beneath the clipped bristle pout and widen, draw back and round themselves, forming in quick but beautifully worded sentences the teaching of philosophical thinking. Not in dry scientific lecturing but in his own artful illustration, in the living colours of high adventure. It is amazing how he knows how to hold us in his spell.

There will always remain the memory of a rough, weather-lined face, a broad smile and very blue eyes. The keen eyes of a seafaring man, used to scan the horizon across the waters. He and I are climbing the bank of the river Kwai, walking through the grass in the afternoon sun with the bridge in the background. A simple but wise man he is, one of the very good friends I've made in wartime. Transferred to an administrative section, I've been tasked with listing working inmates of Tamarkan according to their physical fitness for "heavy duty" and "light duty" work. The hardest job, for which an age limit of twenty-one years can be set, is the so called "ack-ack" job. It means lugging water drums along a steep hill to an anti-aircraft gun post on the top, where the Jap crew has a habit of belting the water carrier each time he reaches the parapet. They don't do it always, just when they feel like it. Light duty is some manual work for the maintenance of the rail track. It is on an occasion when I am assigning work details to a newly arrived group that I meet him. His name is Joop, a former corporal paymaster on a Dutch minesweeper, sunk in the Roads of Surabaya.

"How long were you in the Navy?"

"Twelve'n a half, matey." A short pause, and then: "Why I'm still a corporal is none of yer business." With a stuck-out chin he points to my shoulder bars. "Anyways, takes longer to become a corp'l in the Navy than sarge in the mud-eaters' army."

Well over the age limit for heavy duty, of course, but he deserves some prodding for what he has said about the Army.

"You want some ack-ack maybe?"

"Don't ye send uncle Joop up there! Ye darn well know I'm too old for that. Tell ye what, no ack-ack for Joop, an' I'll show ye how to splice a rope so they'll make ye a general after the war. How's that?"

Joop is ten years my senior and knew Lisa's father. His English, limited to a few swearing words, is in his opinion enought to communicate with our Allies. And he gets away with that too, for one cannot help liking him. Everything is broad with this man, chest, smile and mind. Soon, as a matter of course, this sober thinking, often painfully outspoken man and I become sworn friends. And so, when later my clerical job is handed over to an invalided fellow prisoner, I ask to be put on the maintenance job with Joop, which is granted. My mate declares that a smart move. Landcrabs should stick with seamen if they know what's good for them.

When I get up the following morning, I find that he has drunk all my "yeast" the night before, and we get to grappling and rolling over the slates. He is heavier than I but his riper age is the handicap which makes us about even. A bruised lip for me and a cut eyebrow for him, but we are not mad anymore. He swears never to touch my hooch unless in an emergency, which is about every hour when he is not asleep.

Photo Source: www.mywisewife.com

The bridge across the river Kwai has twelve arches. The six in the middle span the water, the others on both sides have dried and cracked mud beneath them. During the monsoon season from June to October, says the old Thai man with much pointing and waving of his hands, the Kwai will be in flood, and there will be water under the bridge from one end to the other. His eyes shine with remarkable brightness in the ancient face, crisscrossed with many lines and furrows. His profession is catching fish. Sometimes he sells it to work details of our camp when the guard happens to be in a good mood. Time will reveal that he has a sideline paying him considerably more money. None of us is aware of it and, fortunately for him, neither is the enemy.

It is a good bridge, steel on reinforced concrete piles. The bridge, originally from the Dutch railways in Java, will have to carry trains with troops and equipment from Saigon and Bangkok through mostly jungle terrain to Burma. The quick conquest of Burma has encouraged the Japanese to set their eyes on India.

A railroad of about 250 miles, built with cheap POW labour, would be better than the long sea route around the Malay Peninsula, which would take up valuable time and shipping space. Not to speak of the threat from Allied submarines in the Bay of Bengal. Our work detail is engaged in looking after the track, cleaning it of weeds and creepers. A continuous job, for the jungle never ceases to reclaim that which is taken from it.

During the midday pause we buy a fish. Joop says it's a bass, from the old man, whose attap hut is about half a mile downstream from the bridge. From where we are, we see the structure cutting through the perspective of the brown water-ribbon flowing between thick grey-green belts of vegetation.

"What a target for air-bombing!"

"Whadya mean target?" Joop exclaims. "It's a hell of a job to find the bridge anyways. From high up there all them trees look like nothing but kale. I reck'n they've got to fly pretty low to spot it an' drop their bombs. An' ye know this place here is lousy with ack-ack."

We find a good spot to cook the fish. There isn't anything better than sitting in the open air, hungry and all, watching that fish being grilled over a wood fire, with the nice smell of roasting fish and burning cinders all blended together.

"Better than filles meenon or creep sooset," declares Joop, who had overheard a discussion on expert cooking between the cook and a former manager of a well-known restaurant. There is no need for further talk, watching our meal getting ready, in the shadow of the bridge on this fine afternoon in June. The uncertainty of our future is, for a short while, blurred away by a feeling of contentment. Later, nourished and in a lighthearted mood, we walk up the river bank to join the others.

A working party, returned from Kanchanaburi in the late evening, passes the word that the Americans have begun to attack in the Pacific. One of the Korean guards unwittingly confirms it more or less, "Americano boom-boom kah?" Could this be true that we are now at the beginning of the end?

The feared Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, are wont to turn up at unexpected times and places. Tamarkan happens to be this week's target for these experts in delayed death. Two of ours, caught on a nightly excursion to the nearby village, have been locked up in the guardhouse and are now to meet their fate. A couple of our officers are selected to witness what the Kempeitai calls "corrective treatment".

From a drawing by POW Leo Rawlings
Source: The Knights of Bushido

The officers return from the guardhouse with bloodless, terror-stricken faces. The "treatment" was what would have won the acclaim of Satan himself. The prisoners were trussed up like pigs and hung by the feet upside down. Through a waterhose, water was forced into their throats until their stomachs were filled to the bursting point, whereupon the poor men were lowered so that the monkeys could jump up and down on their swollen bellies!

"Joop, I can't eat. I'm not hungry. The poor men. How can God allow these animals to do what they did?"

"Don't ye get God into this, an' don't call them animals. That's too good for the mongrels. Animals are beautiful creatures who live by instinct an' kill when they're hungry or frightened. Now lemme take yer measure. Got me a nice piece of tarpaulin for working pants. Won't git bust in a hurry, ye can be sure of that. I'll make them for ye, ye'll only mess it up."

A month has passed when the news is circulated that western Sicily has fallen into Allied hands. It is passed from mouth to ear. We don't want the Japs to know that some among us have access to a source of news from the war front. However, they must have guessed something, for today everybody, sick or not, is suddenly ordered outside on the parade ground while out huts are honeycombed by scores of Nips, eager to find that radio. Nothing is found and we are allowed to return to our bays. It is heartening news which must be true, otherwise no search for a radio would have been made. Joop wears his sailor's cap, only put on for festive occasions. Otherwise it is the old army straw hat for him, "about the only good thing them mud-eaters have invented."

Shortly afterwards we are put to air attack drills. This means running for the trenches outside our huts while the enemy shouts and argues among themselves about who should be in charge of this or that sector. From the hilltop, now and then, a few blanks are fired into the air. All very impressive - and relaxing, for these air attack exercises may last from three to four hours, during which time there is no work.

At times, litters with sick are brought from upriver camps. We hear again of the heavy toll taken by cholera, which disappeared as suddenly as it came. For most of the featherweight bundles the hourglass is running out. Food and shelter have come too late. Among them are a few who could have been saved by the medicine they had hidden in their knapsacks! Anti-dysenteric, enough to cure dozens, hundreds of tikals worth. It is difficult to understand why they had waited so long to use the drug, or abstained from using it.

The order is given to catch flies, as many as we can. A bonus will be awarded to the best catcher. We are not to try the latrines; there kerosene will be applied. So we select the tropical ulcer huts for a hunting ground. It should be as good as the latrines, only you have to breath through the mouth, not through the nose, for the stench is unbearable.

Tropical ulcers on the legs of Burma Railway POWs
Photo Source: www.abc.net.au

The rays of the late sun gleam on his spectacles. The man in the hated uniform, yapping in that hated tongue. The interpreter takes over. We learn that the railroad will soon be completed, and another promise by Nippon will thus have been made true, a link between Thailand and Burma for the progress of their prosperity. Most important of all, Nippon will be pleased. On the day when the last sleeper is laid and the last nail hammered down, the occasion will be properly marked with a holiday for all. There will be sporting events in which the Japanese and Korean members of the camp force will gladly match their skill against anyone of ours. Furthermore, in gratitude to the many thousands who gave their lives for the construction of the railroad, a monument will be erected, bearing the appropriate emblems representing the countries where the dead came from. The privilege of materialising this noble thought has fallen on us. And so when the time has come to start building, the commander will be counting upon our willingness to work hard to finish the project in time for the unveiling.

Anyone among us who had thought he'd been hardened against any form of Japanese absurdity is rendered speechless. The example really surpasses all hypocrisy and outrageous national conceit hitherto encountered.

November is almost over. There are rumours of many Japanese aircraft downed over the Solomon Islands. If this is true the news will be at least four weeks old. The select few who have access to the hidden radio decided to let a month or so pass before spreading the news among the men. The enemy might then believe the natives responsible for it.

The tropical ulcer huts remind me of Kinsayok's dysentery compound. There is the familiar smell of death, that faint, lingering, sweet and stinking odour - like brown, water-soaked, rotting leaves and stems pulled out of a vase, or dragged out of the pond with a stick, back in the hills of Java long, long ago.

Wet beriberi
Photo Source: Australian War Memorial

I have volunteered to relieve a sick hospital orderly. I don't know why, but Nico says I am driven by a subconscious sense of guilt. Joop says it is because I am a crackpot, but with that wide grin on his face. In my job I meet another enemy, beriberi, a disease caused by malnutrition. In the first stage its forthcoming is revealed by the feet becoming puffed, inflated. A thumb pressed on the skin leaves a depression. The puffiness will spread from the feet up to all over the body. Slowly, relentlessly, it will crawl up until the cheeks turn into balloons and the eyes are hidden in slits. They say that it is water which causes the puffiness. When it reaches the heart, it is all over. Naturally, the patient is told that the swelling seems to be abating, until he himself knows better, the lie becoming too obvious. With the end a change takes place in the body lying there ready to be buried. The ugliness of the balloon face is softened by an air of peacefulness, as if the fleeting soul has left a message: do not grieve for me, I am happy now.

A similar transformation in appearance is noticeable with dysentery. When at last the body is drained of every shred of will to live, when the last breath is exhaled over the white lips, the drawn face muscles seem to settle back into a mask of calm sleep. A faint expression of tranquility breaks at the mouth corners, as if he is saying to me: Is this death? Why did I run away from it?

Sometimes death does not come; the patient recovers. Everybody is glad then, even he who lies next to him, knowing that he himself will never get up anymore. He finds the superhuman strength to rejoice with the lucky neighbour. Yes, I have known them, the giants among the dying.

The orderly is back on his job and I have returned to railroad maintenance work. Joop and I are cleaning the track about fifty yards from the bridge, when the air alarm is sounded. Good, that means no work for at least two hours or so. But ho! What's that? The enemy seem very agitated, running about with bayonets fixed on the rifles and yelling, "Speedo! Speedo!"

"What's the matter? They gone crazy or something?"

Joop doesn't answer, lying on his back, intently gazing at the sky and screening his eyes with cupped hands.

"Listen, Joop, ack-ack is not firing."

Pointing to the sky, he says, "This is one time when they're not in a hurry to show where they got them fireworks. Little speck up there - no, not there, THERE! Screen yer eyes like I do. Got to look real sharp now. She's mighty high above them clouds."

"Where, what? Yes, got it! Can hardly see, so tiny. Hey, you're sure it's a plane?"

"Movin', all right. Circlin', taking pictures of the bridge here, or I'll eat my hat. That's one of ours, no risk."

"One of those Mosquito bombers we've heard of, maybe. You know, powerful motor and one big bomb. Fast as hell."

"Mosquito or not, how come she's gone straight to this here spot and takin' them pictures? I wanna know. No flyin' up and down, no seekin', but smack-damn centre there, circlin' and takin' them shots." A moment's silence. "Ye wanna know why?"

"Somebody signalled the exact position?"

"You're not bad, " says Joop, half mocking. "Yeah, somebody must 'ave plotted her smack right over this target."

"What if the Nips get the same notion?"

"They'll raise all kinds of hell to find the bloke and his transmitter."

Silence, hopeful silence while we look at the bridge and upwards into the sky. The old fisherman is casting his net with careful, measured intervals upon the slowly flowing water, quite undisturbed, it seems.

We are kept outside the gate until long after the aircraft has gone, while inside the camp all men are assembled on the parade ground. Inside the huts our personal belongings are turned upside down. Every book and bible is opened, undoubtedly to see if a pocket transmitter is hidden in a cut-out section between the covers. Nothing is discovered, and late in the day we are permitted to return to our huts. There is much talking; the war is started and fought all over again. The rumour makers run riot. Joop wears his sailor's cap.


[1] The senior Dutch officer at Tamarkan was Capt. Hendrik Antoni Tillema, 1st Infantry Regiment, 11th Battalion, Royal Netherlands Indies Army. The Thailand-Burma Railway, 1942-1946: Documents and Selected Writings (Paul H. Kratoska, ed.)

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