Staying sane

In order to cope … most men surrounded themselves in their own personal and protective armour. Mine … was work, an almost obsessive sense of duty; for others it was humour or religious faith; and for nearly all of us, it was the setting of a deadline: 'home by Christmas' … or some other date of personal significance.

[Rowley Richards, A Doctor's War, Sydney, Harper Collins, 2005, 157.]

Amid the chaos, illness and death of captivity staying sane was a constant battle. The mental attitude of prisoners affected their chances of survival. Many anecdotes tell of men who died because they lost the will to live.

Life on the Burma-Thailand railway was pared down to the essentials. The constant hunger put a stop even to the usual topics of conversation for young soldiers. As Ray Parkin recalled:

we have decided that sex is out and hunger is king.

[Ray Parkin, Into the Smother, London, Hogarth Press, 1963, 53.]

Almost all prisoners relied on their friends. They chatted together, told stories, swapped recipes and sometimes sang. The comfort, companionship and support of mates could mean the difference between life and death. Sick prisoners were helpless and needed their friends for physical and psychological support.

Humour—no matter how dire the circumstances—also helped to maintain morale. Dysentery patients at Konyu River camp would hold daily sweepstakes on the number of bowel motions for each man, the prize being a cigarette.

Some men found solace in religious faith. As Stan Arneil wrote in May 1943,

I pray to God that I will be spared to return home. It is the only thing keeping me going. I must live … Please God I am [spared].

[Stan Arneil, One Man's War, Sydney: Alternative Publishing, 1980, 96.]

Padres were therefore respected for the spiritual leadership they offered to prisoners.

Hatred and disparagement of the Japanese was also a spur to many prisoners.

I am filled by a stupefying frustrated rage at having to obey the orders of such an ignorant, insensitive, less-than-human, barbaric bunch of savages … Our only strengths are our personal pride, our sheer contempt for the Nips, and our unwavering certainty that our people will thrash the Nips and rescue us, so that we can all go home.

[Ian Denys Peek, One Fourteenth of an Elephant, Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 2004, 205.]

Others, such as Ray Parkin, focused on the beauty of the world around him:

It is no good hating at all. That could kill you. The sight of beauty, patience coming from it, and thoughts of loving friends at home—these, I am sure, matter more.

[Ray Parkin, Into the Smother, London, Hogarth Press, 1963, 31.]

Both in Thailand and Japan Parkin sketched his surroundings, the flora and fauna, and local life. So too did Jack Chalker, Murray Griffin and Ronald Serle whose drawings provide remarkable records of captivity.

Prisoners also kept diaries (many of which are now held in the Australian War Memorial), despite the dangers of doing so and the shortage of paper and pencils. Stan Arneil addressed many entries to his family back home, his lifeline to sanity:

As the years rolled over our heads and our numbers decreased all the time the journal became more and more important to me as a means of telling someone, sometime, of the facts which unfolded before us daily.

[Stan Arneil, One Man's War, Sydney, Alternative Publishing Co-Operative, 1980, 2.]

Whenever possible, prisoners did their best to distract themselves from their situation. In larger camps such as Chungkai, Tha Markam and Tha Sao, concerts, complete with playbills and costumes, were held regularly. However, as Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop said of a New Year's Eve party at Nakhon Pathom in 1944:

Somehow the nostalgic songs of the evening, the pathetic little drinks, the gathering darkness lit by flickering oil lamps left me with a profound melancholy: 'We are bats in an endless cage!'

[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 376.]

News from home was rare. Prisoners on the railway received very few letters and pre-printed postcards to send home were available only occasionally. For news of the war prisoners had to rely on secret radios. These, however, put prisoners at great risk if they were to be discovered.


Last updated: 16 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Staying sane, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/events/surviving/staying-sane
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