Hunger became an accepted part of our life … food was just like sex, we tried not to think about it.
[Rowley Richards, A Doctor's War, Sydney, Harper Collins, 2005, 127.]
The lack of food caused much illness and death among prisoners of the Japanese. Food shortages stemmed from the unwillingness or inability of the Japanese to feed their workforce adequately and the logistical difficulties of supplying remote camps and work sites.
Conditions varied from camp to camp. Prisoners in permanent base camps like Changi ate relatively good food, with Japanese supplies being supplemented by vegetable gardens and food stolen by work groups unloading ships on the wharves of Singapore. In Japan, in contrast, the entire population was suffering food shortages towards the end of the war.
On the Burma-Thailand railway the supply of food was usually inadequate. The more remote the camp site the worse the food supply.
The main food supplied by the Japanese was white rice. Sometimes this was supplemented with small quantities of 'vegetables' (often more like grass) and even smaller amounts of fish and meat. A typical meal was a thin broth of rice and vegetables.
The prisoners were paid a small wage with which they supplemented this diet. Camps near villages could trade with the local Thai population for items such as duck eggs and fruit. Camps on the Kwae Noi also had access to supplies brought up by boat. But on the journey perishable food such as vegetables and meat would rot. Even rice was subject to spoilage from damp and insects.
Meat was rarely available in sufficient quantities. Cattle were brought up to some worksites to act as 'meat on the hoof' but they died quickly for lack of food and the harsh conditions. In any case, the Japanese usually took the best parts of the cattle for themselves. At Konyu River, Ray Parkin records, 45 kilograms of meat and bone were shared between 875 men (about 50 grams each)1
Food preparation was problematic in many camps. Food had to be cooked in cwalis (enormous metal bowls) over fires which the wet weather made difficult to keep alight. All water had to be boiled before consumption to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera.
Storage of food too was a problem, given the heat, flies and, depending on the season, dust or damp. As Denys Peek said:
the flies are so thick … Eating is an unpleasant business, the first spoonful is blotted from view before it reaches your mouth and has to be thrown away.
[Ian Denys Peek, One Fourteenth of an Elephant, Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 197.]
The nutritional value of the diet for men forced to do long hours of manual labour was completely inadequate. Prisoners soon fell ill with diseases of malnutrition or became wracked with dysentery.
Working all day, and sometimes through the night, prisoners had to take their food with them. Tins or bamboo containers were used to carry their cold and unappetising ration of rice.
The plight of the sick was particularly desperate as the Japanese cut their rations. Depending on a camp's organisation, some of the wages the prisoners received would be pooled to feed them.
Starving prisoners turned to scrounging and theft. Snakes, fish, clams, and rodents were caught and usually shared with an inner group of friends. Medical personnel would experiment with vegetation such as weeds as a potential source of vitamins.
Stealing from the Japanese was another source of food, though culprits, if detected, were punished severely. There was also the temptation for starving men to steal from each other—something that caused intense ill-will between prisoners.
In these circumstances every prisoner faced moral and personal dilemmas. The Australian surgeon, Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop was once torn between his longing for his ration of two duck eggs and the sight two emaciated British prisoners. His mess man Happy insisted he eat his eggs. As the doctor he needed to be well and he had attended the sick all day. Dunlop scraped together a few spare biscuits for the British and:
'Then' he said, 'I ate those awful eggs … that's the difference between an ordinary fellow … and a saint … I suppose'.
[Ray Parkin, Into the Smother, London, Hogarth, 1963, 148.]
- 1Ray Parkin, Into the Smother, London, Hogarth, 1963, 42