[Songkurai] was merely a clearing in the dense jungle, in which there were several long bamboo-framed huts, some with a semblance of an attap roof and others completely roofless … the camp was a sea of mud … the sanitation was indescribable.
[James Bradley, Towards the Setting Sun, London, Phillimore, 1982, 51-2.]
Songkurai (no. 2) camp was initially occupied by British prisoners of F Force, a mixed Australian–British labour force which left Changi, Singapore in April 1943. Sixteen hundred British prisoners arrived here on 20–21 May 1943 after completing a gruelling train journey from Singapore and an exhausting march of 300 kilometres from Ban Pong.
Australian prisoners were transferred to Songkurai from Shimo Songkurai in July–August 1943, when the Japanese consolidated prisoners across the F Force camps which were by then seriously depleted by illness and death.
Songkurai camp was situated on the banks of a swift flowing river, the Huai Ro Khi. Initially it consisted of three huts, the largest of which was 75 metres long. None of the huts had adequate roofing when the prisoners arrived.
The camp soon spread out in a way that made daily living even more difficult than it would otherwise have been. The cookhouse was located 400 metres from the main camp, 730 metres from the hospital and more than a kilometre from the isolation (cholera) hospital. The British had very few containers by now, and the Japanese provided none. Meals had therefore had to be ferried all day in the pouring rain, along slippery pathways, by officers and convalescing prisoners.
Work outside the camp began almost immediately. After only one day to clear the camp, six hundred men were set to work on the railway. A major task was the building of a three-span wooden trestle bridge across the river. This involved exhausting pile driving and the hauling of huge logs. Men would stand in the swift cold water up to their waist, or even to their arm pits, hauling on ropes with block and tackle.
When we were felling the teak for the bridge [James Bradley recalled] … the Japanese brought in elephants to help drag the timbers out of the jungle … the sight of these great beasts and the complete understanding that existed between them and their mahouts, was the only thing of beauty that I can recall for almost the rest of my captivity.
[Towards the Setting Sun, London, Phillimore, 1982, 54.]
The Japanese at first demanded that all medical personnel join the working parties at Songkurai but this was reversed after an appeal was made to the senior Japanese officer, Colonel Banno.
The cholera epidemic that swept across all camps of F Force hit Songkurai on 21 May. By the end of the month 67 men were dead. Many more men were ill with dysentery, malaria, beri beri and other diseases of malnutrition.
Rations were at starvation level. There were almost no medical supplies and the shortage of containers meant that none could be spared for boiling water for sterilisation of utensils. This ensured the further spread of disease. Stan Arneil, who passed through the camp on 8 August, as the Australians moved through to Kami Songkurai, formed the perhaps unwarranted impression that the British 'all seem to have thrown in the sponge and just lay down and die.' [One Man's War, Sydney, Alternative Press, 1980, 118].
Unusually for camps on the railway, the local Japanese commander, Lieutenant Wababyashi, showed some glimmerings of humanity and responsibility towards the prisoners in his charge. But the pressure from the Imperial Japanese Army Engineers to deliver the daily quota of working men was relentless. On 20 August Wababyashi passed on the order that unless the number of men on working parties was doubled, all prisoners, sick and well, would be turned into the jungle to fend for themselves. To his credit, Wababyashi seemed ashamed of this order and, after long negotiations with the colonel commanding the Engineers, the plan to evict the prisoners from the camp was dropped.
The situation at Songkurai improved when in late July the Japanese decided to transport some of the seriously ill patients of F Force to a hospital camp in Thanbaya, Burma (now Myanmar). Towards the end of their time at Songkurai, Australians were able to organise concerts, lectures by the officers and church services.
What accounts for the lower death rate for the Australians? Firstly, they were relatively fit, compared to the British who had had to include many sick in their contingent when F Force left Singapore. The Australians, too, were arguably a more heterogeneous force of volunteers, whereas the British were a mix of regular forces, territorials, militiamen, conscripts and local volunteers. It has also been suggested that the Australians were used to looking after themselves under bush or jungle conditions, but this claim, resonant though it is with the Anzac legend, is more difficult to substantiate.
The site of Songkurai can be readily identified today by a modern bridge crossing the only major river crossed by Highway 323 beyond the Sangkhla Buri junction. A school on the left of the road, heading towards Three Pagodas Pass, marks the camp site. Beneath the bridge can be seen the remains of the concrete footings of the wartime bridge. A little downstream, on the school bank, can be found further wartime remains: a cutting for a ferry across the river, a large concrete water tank and the remains of a temporary bridge used while the main railway bridge was being built.