Shimo Songkurai camp

This month of May 1943 has been the blackest so far since we have been Ps.O.W. It is interminable.

[Stan Arneil, One Man's War, Sydney: Alternative Press, 1980, 97.]

Shimo (Lower) Songkurai (no. 1) was the largest camp for Australians of F Force. Some two thousand men arrived at this remote camp between 15 and 20 May 1943, after completing a gruelling train journey from Singapore and an exhausting march of 300 kilometres from Ban Pong.

Conditions were dire from the start.

To call the place a camp was a complete misnomer, as it … merely consisted of two parallel series of huts … None of the huts were yet roofed with attap, although eight tents had been provided to cover the officers [sic] quarters. The ground sloped from a steep hill at the back of the camp and was covered with bamboo and other debris.

[Report of Move of No. 5 'F' Force from Changi to Thailand and on Subsequent Conditions at No 1 Camp Shimo Songkurai, AWM 54, 554/7/4, Australian War Memorial.]

The wretched state of the huts meant that the prisoners were crowded—ten men to a bay measuring 3 by 3.5 metres—and drenched by constant rain or flooding from below. Kitchen facilities were nil. Water was restricted to a very small stream, which the Japanese ultimately declared out of bonds for ablution purposes. Latrines consisted of two wide open trenches on the side of the hill which rose steeply above the camp site. The already exhausted and sick prisoners sank into a state of rather serious lassitude.

Then, on 17 May, cholera broke out. It had been brought with the prisoners from Ni Thea where the first case had been diagnosed on 16 May.

Since the Japanese were terrified of this deadly contagious disease, they provided serum for injections. The senior Australian medical officer, Major Bruce Hunt, also brought as much serum as could be obtained from Australian medical stores at Ni Thea headquarters. But although the men were inoculated and an isolation hospital was created quickly, the death toll soared. In one week in late May, there were 174 new cholera cases and 51 deaths. As Stan Arneil recalled in his diary:

I just saw a cove carried from one of the huts, grey of face and limp of body. The ground is becoming covered in slime where these have bogged or vomited … Two poor chaps were carted out on three poles and wrapped in a blanket or ground sheet were tossed on to a roaring fire five yards from the cemetery. It was a horrible sight and I pray I will not finish that way

[26 May, 1 June 1943, One Man's War, Sydney: Alternative Press, 1980, 96, 99.]

The rates of illness from dysentery, beri beri malaria and malnutrition were also high. Each day only a few hundred men were fit enough to join the working parties on road works or the railway, which ran in front of the camp. The working day lasted twelve to thirteen hours, without rest days.

Within the camp were an embarrassingly large number of Australian officers (eighty including three medical officers). One officer accompanied every fifty men on working parties outside the camp. However, the rest did not substitute for the men on working parties. Instead, officers were employed on camp duties and, in a scheme introduced by Hunt, as ward masters in the camp hospital. The officers themselves were often ill, but none died at Shimo Songkurai.

With cholera being such an arbitrary killer, two groups of eleven men chose to escape from the camp on the nights of 31 May and 3 June. It seems that they were captured and shot, or died in the jungle.

The desperate situation at Shimo Songkurai was mitigated by the fact that the senior Australian officers provided strong leadership. Colonel N. Johnston and Hunt had the courage to confront the mercurial Japanese camp supervisor, Lieutenant Fukuda, constantly demanding tools, food and the time off work to improve the camp facilities.

These sessions were stormy, with Fukada accusing the Australians of failing to contain the health crisis, and asserting that the sick were feigning illness. But he did agree to suspend outside work for several days, so that the Australians could dig storm-water drains and construct covered latrines within the camp. The Japanese also provided tents, attap and native labourers to help with roofing the huts, but very few tools were supplied.

Rations, however, were at starvation level, and when the roads collapsed during the monsoon, the ration carts had to be dragged by the prisoners themselves over seven kilometres through thick mud. By 19 July some 1350 men of a total camp population of 1850 were sick.

In late July and early August the Japanese ordered the prisoners at Shimo Songkurai to march north to Kami Songkurai and Songkurai. Johnston later described the departure of one group as 'one of the most poignant scenes possible in any man's life'.

In this party there were no more than 104 fit men and 94 'walking patients', the balance being made up of 16 stretcher cases. (three other stretcher cases had been returned to the Camp Hospital, of whom two died within a few hours).

[Report of Move of No. 5 'F' Force, AWM 54, 554/7/4, Australian War Memorial.]

Some five hundred of the sick remained in Shimo Songkurai until late September, when 277 were transported to a base hospital in Thanbaya, Burma.

When Shimo Songkurai was finally evacuated, the cemetery was left enclosed with a sapling fence. A 2.5-metre-high cross stood in the centre and a gateway was inscribed with the words, 'We Will Remember Them'.

Shimo Songkurai today

The site of Shimo Songkurai can be viewed today from Highway 323, as it descends the hill towards the junction of the roads to Sangkhla Buri and Three Pagodas Pass. At the left of the junction (in the direction towards Sangkhla Buri) a dirt road leads to the camp site, to be found beyond a stream and a wooden bridge, present during the war. To the right approaching the bridge is a bamboo clump marked, in 2014, by a cross left by pilgrims. It is assumed to be the site of a mass grave from 1943, since the cemetery is known to have been established about 90 metres from the northern end of the camp.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Shimo Songkurai camp, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 June 2024,
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