Konyu River camp
Above and behind us to the north runs a high jungle-treed ridge in the greens, browns and reds of the Australian bush. Its sharp edge shows against the white cumulus which just crowns it … South, across the river in its deep channel, lies another mountain. … The river is called the Kwai Noi.
[Ray Parkin, Into the Smother: A Journal of the Burma–Siam Railway, London, Hogarth, 1963, 29.]
Konyu River (also known as Konyu/Kanyu or Kannyu 3, Lower Konyu/Kannyu) was the first camp at which Australians were based in the vicinity of Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting). For most prisoners their time at this camp would be short.
About 250 men of Dunlop Force, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop, arrived at Konyu River on 25 January 1943. After being trucked from Tha Sao to a road junction on the escarpment above, they struggled down a steep path, carrying as much equipment as they could manage. Some 2.5 kilometres later they reached their camp site on the banks of the Kwae Noi.
There was already a British camp here, established in late October 1942, where the POWs were in very poor health. But there was no accommodation or any other facilities ready for the Australians. Nor was there any for a party of Dutch prisoners who arrived only days later.
Over the next four weeks the Australians and Dutch, who were also under Dunlop's command, set about constructing a camp. They cleared the jungle, erected huts, dug latrines to the depth needed for disease control, and implemented anti-malaria measures. All this was done with few tools and no materials other than bamboo and ropes made from jungle fibre. For a while many POWs, including Dunlop, slept in the open, enduring very cold, if dry, nights.
Everything here is à la Swiss Family Robinson [Dunlop wrote]—there are practically no resources, not even the odd tin or petrol can or pieces of wire. Fish hooks have to be made from safety pins, bone etc., containers for food and water out of bamboo. Baskets are being prepared from bamboo and fibre.
Yet by late February a functioning camp had been created and discipline established by the Australian officers (to the annoyance of some Australian POWs).
By later standards conditions at Konyu River were relatively good. A number of the British died and were buried in a cemetery carefully created by the river. A growing number of Australians, now in captivity for over twelve months, also started to display symptoms of avitaminosis thanks to the poor Japanese rations (largely rice). Dysentery and malaria broke out despite the prisoners' efforts to control mosquitoes.
Yet, to offset this, there were many opportunities to trade with Thais bringing up supplies of food via the river. The eggs thus provided were, as Ray Parkin wrote in February:
… literally life-saving. At present the river is easy and the barges can come up but we wonder what will happen in the Wet Season. We can see evidence of the heights the floods reach here.
[Ray Parkin, Into the Smother: A Journal of the Burma–Siam Railway, London, Hogarth, 1963, 57.]
The Japanese also supplied occasional meat and vegetables after a road was built down from the main road (now Highway 323).
Most importantly, the prisoners were not yet forced to work on the railway that was beginning to inch its way along the escarpment high above. Jungle clearance and camp construction was heavy work but it did not demand long treks to the railway, as would be later required at camps such as Hintok Mountain camp. The prisoners at Konyu River also had regularly holidays (or yasumés) and time for concerts, swimming, fishing and diving in the river for clams.
The Japanese at Konyu River were also reasonable, given the lack of pressure on them to deliver large work parties to the engineers managing the railway construction. Dunlop and his fellow officers, Majors Arthur Moon and Ewan Corlette, managed to develop a working relationship with the local Japanese, impressing them with their medical expertise. After Dunlop operated at night on an Australian suffering from a perforated peptic ulcer, he was to become known to the Japanese as 'No. 1'!
However, in early March the prisoners were told that they would have to shift camps. Apparently the distance from Konyu River to the railway route was too great for them to be based there. Given the effort put into constructing Konyu River this was
… news as bloody as could be received.
[11 March 1943, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 185.]
But they had no choice and by 17 March 1943 Dunlop and most of the men under his command had moved to Hintok Mountain.
Although the POWs' time at Konyu River was short, the camp remained important to them because of its continuing function as a supply base to the Konyu region. Prisoners at Hintok Mountain and Konyu 3 would make regular trips in mid-1943 to purchase food brought up by river. Konyu River also served as a point from which the growing numbers of sick were evacuated to hospitals down river.