Camps of F Force
If ever I see home again … I want nothing more … than to forget these awful days—swollen bodies, bloated from beriberi, walking skeletons from dysentery, eyesight becoming universally bad, malaria rampant. Surely this cannot last?
[Stan Arneil, Diary, 1 June 1943, One Man's War, Sydney, Alternative Publishing, 1980, 99.]
The story of F Force is one of the most terrible of the Burma-Thailand railway. One of the last labour forces to leave Changi, Singapore, in mid-April 1943, F Force consisted of 3662 Australians and 3400 British. Many of these men, particularly the British, were unwell even before they left Singapore. When isolated in far up-country Thailand, remote from food and medical supplies, and drenched by monsoonal rains, 29 per cent (1060) of the Australians and 60 per cent (2036) of the British prisoners would die.
F Force's hardships began when they were sent to Thailand by train. Packed into suffocating metal railway trucks with little food and water, even the dysentery sufferers had few opportunities to relieve themselves. On reaching Ban Pong in Thailand, F Force was then forced to march over 300 kilometres to camps near the border with Burma (now Myanmar).
Arriving up country in early May, F force was ultimately spread across at least six camps progressing toward the Burma border:
- Konkoita (no. 4 camp)
- Shimo (Lower) Ni Thea (Nieke)
- Shimo (Lower) Songkurai (no. 1)
- Songkurai (no. 2)
- Kami (Upper) Songkurai (no. 3)
- Changaraya (no. 5)
During the months of May to October 1943, as the railway progressed, prisoners moved between these camps. Australians were mostly located at Shimo Ni Thea, Shimo Songkurai, Kami Songkurai, Konkoita and Tha Khanun.
Shimo Ni Thea was the headquarters of F Force from early May to mid-June 1943. Though close to the railway, it was a transit camp rather than a working one, with men going up country and returning to Kanchanaburi when the railway was completed late in 1943. At its peak 1075 prisoners were based there, of whom 450 were Australians.
Initially the camp consisted of two partially roofed huts and seven large unroofed huts which had previously been occupied by Asian labourers or rõmusha. A small natural stream, flowing through a depression, provided water. Not that water was in short supply. With almost incessant heavy rain from mid-May to September, the camp became a quagmire.
Despite widespread dysentery, malaria, beri beri and diarrhoea, the rates of sickness at Ni Thea were lower than at other camps in the region. However, its hospital progressively accumulated some 400 seriously ill from nearby camps.
Changaraya, like Songkurai, was at first a British camp. Some Australians would join the British here in August 1943.
Conditions at Changaraya, one kilometre from the border with Burma, were particularly deplorable. Prisoners and rǒmusha lived in close proximity, the grounds were waterlogged and sanitation was almost impossible to maintain in the monsoon conditions. Despite the incessant rain, water for drinking and cooking had to be carried a long distance, with almost no buckets or containers being provided by the Japanese.
Cholera broke out at Changaraya on 26 May with devastating results. Ultimately 159 men, or 23 per cent of the 700 British at this camp, died of this disease. Men who were convalescing from cholera were forced out to work by the Japanese, as were those prisoners who were desperately ill from dysentery and malaria.
Later in 1943, Changaraya served as a staging camp when the Japanese agreed that some of the most seriously ill of F Force should be transferred to Thanbaya, a hospital camp in Burma.
Seven hundred Australians were halted on 10 May on their march north, at Konkoita, a short distance before Shimo Ni Thea. Separated from the rest of F Force until December 1943, they were under the command of the Australian Lieutenant-Colonel S.A.F. Pond, who reported to Lieutenant Maruyama of the Imperial Japanese Army Engineers.
Conditions at Konkoita were appalling. Few huts were roofed and the area, previously occupied by ràµmusha, was filthy. The Australians were immediately employed on bridge and road construction, but within five days cholera broke out in the nearby rǒmusha camp. Konkoita would become the focal point of the cholera outbreak that spread throughout the F Force camps, carried by POWs passing through this camp on their way north.
Pond's battalion had a particularly difficult time. It was fragmented and moved across various camps, including Taimonta and Tha Khanun to the south, where it remained for two months. The medical officer, Roy Mills, wrote of Lower Taimonta:
' … no roofing. Insufficient tents, Burmese camped beside camp … water a problem—all had to be boiled—shortage of dixies—Rice and onion stew only.'
[Doctor's Diary and Memoirs: Pond's Party F Force, Thai–Burma Railway, New Lambton, NSW, R.M. Mills, 1994, 56.]
The move to Tha Khanun was particularly gruelling.
A shuttle system had to be employed whereby fit and nearly fit (who by now were very few) marched to the next camp, erected tents, dug latrines, prepared cookhouses etc. and then returned to the last camp to carry stretcher cases and sick men and their gear forward. ... the men repeatedly were ordered back to dig from the mud and then push up the hills the many ox-carts laden with Japanese stores which had become bogged.
[A.J. Sweeting, 'Prisoners of War' in Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust, vol. IV of Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957, 578.]
It was at Konkoita, in late October 1943, that the track-laying parties from the Thai and Burmese ends of the railway finally met. In an elaborate ceremony a Japanese general drove a gold spike into an ebony sleeper. A train, drawn by a locomotive shipped from Japan, then drove across the joining point to mark the completion of the line.
The camps today
The camps of F Force were strung out along what is now Highway 323 in the west of Thailand. Three of the northernmost camps, Shimo Songkurai, Songkurai and Kami Songkurai, can still be identified by the informed visitor. However, Changaraya is just across the border in Myanmar. Konkoita and Ni Thea have disappeared under the waters of the Vachiralongkorn dam, built during the 1980s. The position of Ni Thea is visible from a lookout near the Ranti Bridge, on the 323 about twenty kilometres before the town of Sangkhla Buri. Further south, beyond Tha Khanun, the Vachiralongkorn dam wall offers a spectacular view up and down the valley through which the railway travelled.