Malay Hamlet camp
The site of the camp was on a beautiful sloping hill with a stream running and gurgling some twenty yards away. It was surrounded by dense bamboo thickets while behind it towered sheer and majestic, huge rugged, jungle-clad limestone cliffs. A sight that even when things were at their worst always pleased me … The air when arrived was thick with the nauseating smell of burning bodies, the day's batch of cholera victims were being cremated.
[Stuart Lloyd, The Missing Years: A POW's Story from Changi to Hellfire Pass 1942–45, Dural, NSW, Rosenberg Publishing, 2009, 162.]
Malay Hamlet (often called Konyu 2 or Malayan Hamlet) was one of the POW camps closest to the site of Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting). Located on the road to northern Thailand (now Highway 323) it was only a few hundred metres from Konyu 3, where Australians from D Force were based.
Malay Hamlet was occupied from 21 May 1943 by the Australian and British POWs of H Force with the Australians under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes. Like many camps along the railway conditions were primitive. The POWs arrived exhausted after a long march to find no accommodation, latrines or cookhouses. There was at least a small stream but the water had to be boiled before drinking.
We had a heart breaking job building that camp, [Oakes recalled] but it was done at last and we found ourselves at the end of two days with 24 half rotten, leaking tents, set up in a small clearing amongst giant bamboos in the wilds of Siam … The accommodation worked out at 28 men to a tent, but once the work started that many were never in them at the one time, for there were no holidays and half of them formed each shift.
[R.F. Oakes, 'Work and be happy', AWM MSS 1037.]
Rations supplied by the Japanese were limited in the first two months to rice, a sprinkling of seaweed and something that resembled dried potato chips. Supplies of food could be bought from Thai traders coming up by barge to Konyu River camp but this camp was some kilometres away and carrying parties had to be drawn from the same men who were working on the railway.
Malay Hamlet also suffered from the fact that it was under the control of the remote Imperial Japanese Army Malay command rather than the Thailand administration which managed other camps in the Konyu–Hintok region.
Moreover, H Force also arrived just as the monsoon began making all access and communications exceptionally difficult:
Almost immediately the monsoon rains began, pouring down day after day, until the country became like a wet sponge. In our confined area, and on the track outside which carried the traffic, mud was often knee deep—filthy, oozing mud which stuck to everything like glue. We made a few poor bamboo tracks in the camp area, but it was difficult to provide labour to maintain them. I doubt if any of us or our belongings were dry during the first month in that camp.
[Oakes, 'Work and be happy'.]
Inevitably the number of sick at Malay Hamlet soared and within three weeks cholera had broken out. At the height of this crisis the camp was burying twelve men a day. The death toll within a ten-week period rose to 216.
To bury the dead a cemetery was created some two hundred metres up the road. It was guarded by a large wooden cross unveiled by the British commander, 'To Our Australian and English comrades. Here Laid to Rest–Amatos Eorum Deus Aspicat [May God protect the loved ones of these men]'.
By mid-July conditions at Malay Hamlet began to improve. The cholera outbreak was contained, thanks to the Japanese supplying vaccinations and the efforts of the medical personnel, including the Australian surgeon Major Kevin Fagan. The Japanese also began supplying pigs and buffalo in quantities that were too much for the POWs to eat. The prisoners themselves stole from Thais herding cattle to camps further up the line. As Stuart Lloyd put it:
I have never known the Australians fail to abduct at least one beast, when at the night the camp would be lit by millions of little fires over which men squatted frying steaks.
[The Missing Years: A POW's Story from Changi to Hellfire Pass 1942–45, Dural, NSW, Rosenberg Publishing, 2009, 174.]
With work on Hellfire Pass completed in mid-1943 Malay Hamlet became redundant. Around a hundred men of H Force moved north to other work sites and in September some of the sick were evacuated to hospitals in Kanchanaburi.