Kami Songkurai camp

We found [Kami Songkurai] to be a pigsty compared with the comparatively well-drained camp at Shimo Songkurei. The ground here was practically flat and received the seepage from the hill at the rear of the camp. It was ankle-deep in mud, and the first thought that struck all of us was how the [earlier] occupants could have lived in such a place without doing something about cleaning it up.

[James Boye, Railroad to Burma, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1990, 111.]

Located only short distance from Three Pagodas Pass and the border with Burma (now Myanmar), Kami (Upper) Songkurai (no. 3) was one of the most remote camps that Australians occupied on the Burma-Thailand railway.

About four hundred Australians of F Force arrived here on 25 May 1943, after completing a gruelling train journey from Singapore and an exhausting march of 300 kilometres from Ban Pong. Within a day of their arrival, working parties were sent out to work by the Japanese.

Like other camps in this region, Kami Songkurai had primitive facilities. The accommodation in the camp consisted of 'two long rows of huts placed close together at the foot of three steep hills which formed a rough semi-circle enclosing the camp in the rear. The area between the huts and the river which flowed parallel to and about 200 yards from the road at the foot of the other range of hills forming the valley was low-lying and swampy. During the wet season this swamp became a filthy quagmire of green mud'. ['Reports on the Activities of A.I.F. "F" Force', AWM 54, 554/7/4, 20.]

When the Australians arrived, some Asian labourers or rǒmusha occupied the camp. They were already suffering from cholera, which broke out in all the camps in this region of the railway in mid-May 1943. By 8 June 1943 over half the Australians were ill and seven had died, all from cholera.

Rations were grossly inadequate, there were almost no medical supplies and there was very little kitchen equipment or containers. At least the water supply, cookhouse and sleeping quarters were close to each other, in contrast to Songkurai where the cookhouse was 400 metres from the camp, 730 metres from the main hospital and more than a kilometre from the isolation (cholera) hospital.

With almost no medical supplies and constant monsoonal rains, the health of those who survived the cholera epidemic continued to deteriorate. The stream, the major source of water for bathing, became foul and the hospitals were poorly equipped. One of chaplains with F Force recalled:

It was often very trying to conduct a service in a hut with 300 men with the nauseous stench of the awful ulcer cases all around & having often four or six dysentery cases squatting on their bamboo pans around one through the prayers, scripture readings & so on.

[George Polain, 'Report on the Work of Chaplains with "F" Force', AWM 54, 554/7/4, Australian War Memorial.]

For all this, the situation at Kami Songkurai was not quite as desperate as in Shimo Songkurai where the relationship with the Japanese supervisor, Fukuda, was particularly bad. The guards here seemed easier on the men, for reasons known only to the Japanese. The officer in charge also had a good working relationship with the Imperial Japanese Army Engineers. Although he could do nothing to get medical supplies, he did not force sick men out to work. The food supply at Kami Songkurai was also better relative to other camps nearby. By the end of July the Australians had lost 23 men, 14 from cholera, a relatively low rate of death to this disease.

In late July and early August the Japanese increased the numbers at Kami Songkurai (to 1685) by bringing in prisoners from Ni Thea, Shimo Songkurai and Changaraya. Stan Arneil, who had been at Shimo Songkurai, was placed in the hospital, fourteen men to the bay 3 by 3.5 metres

Scabies are rife and lice are making sporadic appearances "¦ they burn the bed pans in the fire inside the huts, the smell being particularly vile. The latrines are on a slight rise about thirty yards from the wards and being open have filled so much with water that the seepage has burst from the ground and flows in the general direction of the English ward, next to this one.

[One Man's War, Sydney, Alternative Press, 1980, 119.]

Many of the new arrivals were already seriously ill and utterly exhausted by being forced to march to Kami Songkurai through thick mud, while carrying their remaining gear. Between 1 August and 28 November, when the camp was finally evacuated, there had occurred 490 deaths.

Kami Songkurai today

Little remains of the site of Kami Songkurai today. In 2014 its general location can be identified by a local agricultural research facility, located on a bend on the left of Highway 323 only a short distance before Three Pagodas Pass. The railway ran to the left of the road and its route now runs under some local houses. The wartime camp was to the right of the road, a little in the direction of Sangkhla Buri. With the help of local residents an overgrown cutting can be found beyond the agricultural station.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Kami Songkurai camp, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/camps-f-force/kami-songkurai-camp
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