Building Burma's Death Railway: Moving Half the Mountain (2014) - full transcript

70 years ago in the jungles

of Thailand and Burma, a
railway was constructed

at the cost of thousands of human lives.

People used to say to me,

they used to say, oh you know,

fancy you buying a Japanese car

or buying a Japanese television
or something like that

and I always thought that
was a load of nonsense

because that didn't make any difference.

I had worst nightmare 10 days ago.

And that's 70 odd years after.

The year is 1941

and Japanese forces sweep
through southeast Asia

crushing all resistance.

Their ultimate goal, to
take the jewel in the crown

of the British Empire.


The Imperial Army's biggest problem

is moving supplies through
the treacherous terrain

of Thailand and Burma.

A train track will be their answer

to be built by prisoners of war.

It'll become known as the death railway.

My original group was 1,700 strong.

By the time that the railway was finished,

there were only 400 left.

The second World War has been raging

across Europe for several years now

and is not going the Allies way.

Setback follows setback.

In the Far East, Germany's ally Japan

attacks US forces at Pearl Harbor,

invades territories across the Pacific

and is now advancing towards Malaya

and the impregnable British
fortress of Singapore.

Thousands of British and Australian troops

are sent to defend the colony.

For many, this will be the
defining moment of their lives.

People ask me, how is it that
you reached the age of 100?

I said so many times I
have just missed death.

This has happened to me so often.

I said it's so much of
my life has been luck.

I don't feel old, I don't want to feel old

but I think of the
portraits when I suddenly

have a 93rd birthday, this is crazy.

It's just that life, it's
full and rich and interesting

and I love it.

I have never spoken about it.

A part, a bit was my
family, but never really.

There's a certain point where you don't

want to talk about it.

The Japanese, I supposed,
had to be about 100-K up.

The Malaya beach were from
Singapore when we got there.

So they're dropping bombs on the gulf

and kill a lot of people in
the ship when they came in

and the docks were full of
people trying to get away.

It was definitely tragic.

We were the last ship in the convoy.

It was about 11 o'clock in the morning

when we were going in there

a flight of bombers come over.

Peeled off one at a time, come in, bomb us.

We had got it several times.

It started to burn

and there was thick columns of black smoke

coming along the deck

and I said to my mate by radio

I'm going over the side.

So I leave him, now we're
crouched down by the cabins

and I get up on the rail,
stand up on the rail

and I said, "Come on, Pat, I'm going."

That's the last I seen of him.

In the same dark, steaming tropical jungle

men of both the British and Imperial forces

go through an intensive
up to training course

to fulfill the need for officers

of the Malayan defense force.

Using collapsible boats,

they protect themselves in
the methods of jungle warfare.

It was terribly bushy stuff, really.

Tremendously bushy

and for time when you
should have been training

we didn't, and so we went really into war

not well trained at all,

I mean hardly trained, it was crazy.

The jungle holds many a secrets

to counter any move
directed against Singapore

or Australia.

Absolutely no preparation
whatsoever had been done

even to clear a field so you
could see what you were doing

'cause we just faced mangroves forms.

The Japanese, they have tanks,

they have armored cars,
but they also had bicycles

and those bicycles won their war.

They came down Malaya like a wild.

36,000 Japanese soldiers
close in on Singapore.

Facing them are almost
85,000 Allied troops.

But the Japanese are
motivated, experienced,

and expert at jungle warfare.

The Allies find themselves
constantly outflanked

and outfought.

So we had this brief set of fighting

and it's just a matter

of very close contact
fighting which is horrific.

We were actually under mortar fire

and my colonel literally lost his head.

There's no question I
was always scared stiff

when I heard shells landing near one.

Despite some fierce and stubborn fighting,

the Japanese advance continues
to close in on Singapore.

Winston Churchill warns his generals

that surrender is out of the question.

We are dreading rumors that the Japanese

didn't take prisoners

and also we didn't know
what was gonna happen

but it was a terrible, terrible reflection

of the powers that be of ours

that were running that show out there.

It should never have happened.

February the 15th, 1942,

the unthinkable does happen

and the British Commander General Percival

surrenders Singapore to the Japanese.

The white flag went
up at about four o'clock

on the Sunday.

Churchill would later describe this

as the worst moment of the war.

The extraordinary thing is

that the Japs of course
were completely amazed

at having captured so many prisoners.

In all, 130,000 men are captured

during this short campaign.

To add to the humiliation of defeat,

they're forced to watch the
victorious Japanese generals

drive by.

The Allied prisoners are marched up

to the northern tip of Singapore,

to the military base Changi.

We learned that everyone was going out

to this Changi area and
they marched us 18 miles.

People say what's it like
being taken prisoner of war?

Chaos for Singapore and everywhere

and no law and everything.

When things began to break down,

which they did very quickly,

malaria started.

And then people got dysentery.

The Japs as part of this stay

literally brought out loads of barbed wire

which they then told us to put
up around a certain perimeter

and that was the first
time we were actually,

you could say we were in a prison camp.

You learn Japanese or pseudo Japanese

and I can still swear in Japanese

but I've forgotten all my Japanese.

They would put your shoes and say

meaning what is the name of
it until you would say shit

and so they would go around
pointing at other people's

good boots, pointing and say,

"You got you number one shit."

That means you have a
very good pair of boots

and it was hilarious
because we had a lot of fun

for about two weeks and then
they suddenly got the message

through the interpreter

and then we had to learn Japanese orders.

The Imperial Army has a very tight grip

on Japanese society.

They've been fighting a war in the Far East

since the mid 1930's

and are the driving force

behind Japan's territorial ambitions.

All young men are conscripted at 21

into a tough and brutal training program.

By June 1942, the Japanese advance

has continued across the Pacific

and up into Burma towards India.

With an urgent need to move supplies

the solution is to dust
off an old British plan,

to build a railway.

The railway itself was only
about 415 kilometers long,

that's not an enormous distance at all

to link it up with Rangoon.

So they could bring people to Saigon,

across to Bangkok and then
take them on the railway

right up to the Burmese front

so really the railroad was not
a long railway in that term

but it was the most hellish
conditions to make it.

The Japanese realize they have vast pool

of potential labor in
the prisoners at Changi.

Things always change in these camps

and about seven months later

I was called to the orderly office

and told I was put on a draft

to go to a holiday camp.

There was about 600
of us that were selected

and we were taken down to Singapore

and loaded on the trucks.

And then we had a train journey to Thailand

from Singapore.

There were 32 in my own particular truck

and that meant that only
a certain small percentage

could actually sit down at any one time.

The kit was stuck in the center.

There was no sanitary conditions at all,

like absolutely appalling.

This is where the real degradation starts

and that journey lasted five days.

We went up to the first
place we stopped in Thailand

was a place called Ban Pong.

That was an ex Japanese camp there,

the Japs had been stationed in there

but the camp was under
about a foot of water.

I had a large box of watercolors

and I had to shove the box away

because there were two of us

but I kept about six, eight or ten palates

and of all things I did paint lasted me

for as long as I wanted them.

And we were taken up the river.

We were going to start up the transit camps

and they dropped us off
then at 20 mile intervals

to go into the jungle and
start clearing the jungle

because there would be the main body of men

coming from Singapore and they would be

matching up the jungle track
that followed the River Khwae.

And then we were told all men march

150 kilometers.

The question of escaping was something

that on occasion you thought about

but very quickly dismissed because you had

at least 1,200 miles of sea

with lots of island in
between in the middle of it,

1,200 miles before you would get to safety

or 1,200 miles up country
onto the rail we found.

If you fell by the wayside,

couldn't go any farther
and nobody could help you

you were left to die or
they made sure you died.

And that's called the death march.

The POW's, already now weak and ill,

are going to build the
track for the Japanese

through the mountainous jungle terrain.

Then we had to climb up the topography

and it's during a monsoon, of course,

and you would take two
steps and went back two.

And the thick jungle there
and we started clearing jungle

where the railway was going to go through

so that was the first
introduction to the actual job.

It got worse from then on.

They had so much cheap
labor like apart from us,

they had the native
populations of these places

that they took over
like they had brought up

something right about a
couple of hundred thousand

natives from down in Malaya and that like

with promises of a great life

but lots of them died in the jungle there.

I forget how long, but two
or three months was monsoon.

For the first quite a
few weeks at this camp

that had no roofs,

we just ate, worked, slept under the rain.

It was really a problem of supply.

The only communication was the river

and being the time of the monsoon

the rivers tended to flood

and this rendered it almost impossible

for supplies to get up.

All we got was supposed
to be 250 grams of rice.

That usually came in the form of rice

full of weevils and such.

So we ate any vegetation that we could.

Snakes were very good
to eat if you'd get them.

The first one I killed was by accident

and I just banged.

It takes a lot to kill a snake

because they'll thrash a
tremendous amount of time

and I said we've got to
have something to eat.

He said, do you know what you just killed?

And I said no.

He said that's a king cobra

and I hadn't known but
it didn't matter really.

The lizards were quite nice,

they were quite big, they could be up to

about 18 inches long,
quite big like you know,

and you'd just kill them,
skin them and cook them.

Either grill them or put them in some water

and cook them in a pot.

The men are now starving

but still the Japanese refuse
to sign the Geneva Convention,

which protects the rights
of prisoners of war.

If our men misbehave,
if the Japanese said that,

misbehavior is nearly over stealing food

then we were all as officers lined up

and had what's called bin-tos,

that's a Japanese officer
come up and give you

a really hard bang on your face

in front of all the men
to try and teach them

that they shouldn't steal.

POW camp guard was trained
in Japanese military camp

full time for around five months

and they are hitting almost every day

accoriding to the Japanese training style.

There was nothing wrong with
the ordinary Japanese people,

no it was the Japanese
Army was the problem,

especially their Army, they
were taught to be brutal,

that was part of their life

and it was something
that you have a job to do

to understand but right from the top

of their headquarters right
the way down through their Army

they were totally, they were
even brutal to one another.

They have to encourage POW's to work hard

to perform their work.

But most of the hitting wad
one by the Korean guards

in the POW camp.

The Koreans themselves say that

Japanese soldiers and military pigeon

then comes at the bottom

Korean guards they say.

If somebody tried to
escape and they were caught,

they weren't pleased
with just shooting them.

No, no, they had to torture.

If you weren't working hard enough

one of the things they would make you do

was to stand with this, hold
a stone above your head,

well when you're weak anyway
if you put both arms up

you start to feel faint very quickly

and so you would drop the
stone so it would land,

you would drop the stone fairly quickly

and pick it up which was
better than collapsing

because once you collapse on the ground,

they knocked you around and
kicked you all over the place

so you probably would get more damaged

through fainting so you had
to play the game, really.

I was going back to the latrine one night

and one of these Korean
guards started to be

homosexual with me and I

without thinking I just
kicked him in the spot where

no man wants to be kicked

and he fell so the guards screamed.

I got beaten up for a night and a day

and the following night

until I no longer remember much

other than the pain

and then I was put in the black hole.

That really was probably the one time

when I felt this was the end.

A sweatbox as they used to
put them in, put people in,

they're made of bamboo,
stand about that high

off the ground and they were made

of small thin bamboos constructed,

they were made so they weren't long enough

for a man to stretch right out in

and they were so low that
you couldn't sit up properly

so if you were cooped up in there

and you could get perhaps
you'd be sentenced to

perhaps for certain things,

you'd get a four night punishment in there.

In mid-1943, the
Japanese are still fighting

in the north of Burma

but short of supplies and troops

the war is no longer going their way.

We saw Japanese going
up to the Burma front.

We watched the Japanese troops

and they were unbelievable
in what they put up with.

There were times when the treatment

and even the food they got

perhaps it was generally
better than ours, but not much.

It was such an urgent project

to get a line through so they could feed

their northern front with troops.

This is what the railroad was about.

So there was just urgency
about the whole thing,

it was called a spee-to movement

and got worse and worse and worse

and you had to work harder
and harder and so on.

As anxiety to get the railway finished

grows within the Japanese ranks,

the death rate amongst
POW's and native workers

increases dramatically.

If my sick parade got too
large a Japanese private,

was able to, everyone had
to work for the Japanese.

A Japanese private would come along,

a non-medical private, take my sick parade

and as long as a man, men
were fit enough to stand

then they were fit enough
to work and off we would go.

Actually, there was
orders to finish the railway

in a hurry so they had
to compel the sick man

to work hard.

One of the most difficult sections

of the construction is
an area called Hin-tock,

better known as Hellfire Pass.

When they were making big cuttings

which were done largely
with hammer and tap,

you would use a certain number
of charges to blow the rock

and one of the games or the occasions,

they would fire a charge
without telling anybody.

So some people got very badly injured

with flying sharp rock.

I mean why, what's the
sense of all this here?

We went out in the
morning with all the tools

that had been issued

and after work when we returned

there had to be a role call of everybody,

all the tools had to be handed in

and if one were short, there
were usually a few short,

we had to parade instantly
with practically every day

the odd one or two dead who died out there,

they had to be put down
at the end, at the side,

in order to prove the
same number had returned

as went out in the morning.

Every morning I psyched
myself up to survive that day.

That day only because
every day was never as good

as the last one, it was never good.

There was never any hope.

Never any hope.

Because of lack of control,

most of the people died was
because of the sickness,

not by the, being hitted,

cruel hits or death or, isn't so.

But if the people had good
control of themselves,

they didn't drink water from the river

or eat raw fish from, if
the people, POW behaves,

very well they didn't catch sickness.

And you catch I think

every disease imaginable was there

but the worst one with the
most lives lost was cholera

and the Japanese themselves were scared

and we had to bury these bodies.

That was I think perhaps the low point

of my experience up there.

I mean looking back now
I can hardly believe

I experienced all this.

The medical officers in my opinion

were absolute angels.

They had no drugs to work with,

not even an aspirin but

a hospital camp in Turk-eye
called Wavy-dun-lob

and did fantastic work.

Wavy-dun-lob, the most
wonderful Australian surgeon,

be a man I can't praise enough.

I had something on my forehead,
he was gonna take it off,

there wasn't any anesthesia for it

but I think it was melanoma or something

he was worried about and they
set us with another table

and there was an Australian,

really almost a skeleton kneeling down

with his bum in the air because

he talked about wanting
to use a prox-o-scope

which was made in the camps

and I remember him looking
into this bottom, you see,

and he said in this lovely Australian voice

and he said, "Oh yes," he said,

"I think I've seen you before."

And we fell off the table,

we were rolling about what a lovely way

to greet your friend.

At one camp alone,

over 120 legs are to be amputated.

Operations, mostly amputations,

as a result of these jungle ulcers

were done with a sword
borrowed from the Japanese

which they said they wanted back clean

after the operation or operations.

They did occasionally produce a bit of sake

so people could be put out to some extent.

I said to him I've got this ulcer,

what could I do?

He said, well I'm sorry,
I have nothing to give you

and I don't have any drugs

but if you go down to the latrine,

pick up maggots, count them,
put them on top of your ulcer

and let the maggots do their work.

I said, what will they do?

They'll eat all the rotten flesh.

And he says with a good chance
you'll get a clean wound.

I've been bad,

they kicked my nose in, I
had a bad fractured nose

and a hole between my eyes,

I couldn't see anything,

I was next to an Aussie
who had his leg cut off

and after that morning, a big Aussie,

I mean, routine stuff under
the most crude circumstances

then we were lying on bamboo.

Anyway, in the middle of the hot,

another man who was in,

and he had an ulcer that
was granulating quite well,

it was in far better
condition than hundreds

of the others around him

and he was kneeling up
and hugging his knees

and rocking like somebody.

The patient did it out
of sheer agony and pain

and he kept on saying I'm
gonna die, I'm gonna die,

I'm gonna die and this
Aussie said look mate,

he said if you're gonna die
hurry up and bloody do it,

I want some sleep in this
lovely, friendly voice

and we were falling about.

Within two hours he was dead

and I remember telling
Aussie in the morning,

and I said don't cry and he said

the last thing anybody ever said to him.

The railway is finally completed

in October 1943, on schedule,

but at the cost of over 120,000 lives.

The POW's and local workers that died

building the railway are
buried where they fall.

One life lost for every sleeper laid.

The jungle was full of British dead.

We buried a lot of them where they fell.

We left 12,000 dead up there,

quite a path from the
wreckage that survived.

But it's all been for no purpose.

Within months the war had
turned against the Japanese

and the Allies start to regain territories.

These converted Hel-i-cans

now called hurry-bombers
carried two 500 pound bombs

tucked beneath the wing.

Down there somewhere in
that tangled wilderness

lies their target or rather
that's where their target lay

after this heavy pounding,

there'll not be much hospitality left

for the Japanese invader.

I think some of the officers,

I think we had some
information from somewhere

that things were getting pretty sticky.

We had this huge camp with
a huge pitch around it

and a big banner on one side

and they put a machine gun into the wall

and which really told us quite a lot

about what they were intending to do anyway

but still, we didn't know.

And the of course within
about nine or 10 days,

they had Hiroshima and
Nagasaki and that finished it,

we were just saved by the bell, really.

The Japanese were, had ceased
to fight from that time on.

Well we knew then we were officially free.

Japan surrenders to the Allied forces

on September the 2nd, 1945.

The POW's are at last free men again.

The Allies had retaken Singapore

and a couple days after that

they were beginning to march the Japanese,

by then prisoners.

And one of our divisional
people, soldiers like people do,

soldier's just watching what was going on

and at one point he turned to his pal

and said look at those poor buggers

and I said to him, and that to me sums up

the attitude of the ordinary soldier.

We had a Sergeant Major,
a British Sergeant Major

that was in our camp but we didn't have

any officers with us and what he said

was he gave us a bit of good advice,

he said, he advised us
not to take any action

against the Japanese.

He said you've survived
three and a half years

of being prisoners, so he
said think of your families,

don't do anything stupid
that might get you killed.

Japanese guards were made to carry

the sick and wounded to they key site

where landing craft will take them to

the hospital ship in the bay.

Other prisoners who are able to walk

make their way to the landing craft

which will carry them on the
first stage of a happy journey.

From the far eastern shores,

many have already started a longer voyage,

taking them back to the land
they have served so bravely.

We, there was no one there to meet us.

There was no bands there to
meet us or anything like that.

But we were just taken off the boat

and taken to a transit
camp there in Southampton

and we were there for a couple of days

and then we were just stuck
on the train and sent home.

I used to go out in the morning

and I'd walk the streets of Aberdeen

for hours and hours

and looking, looking for somebody.

Was that you?

I was forgetting I'd been
away six and a half years.

When I got back, I decided
I'd forget everything,

I'm going to start a new life

and I didn't join any ex
prisoner of war outfit

or any prison or anything,

I didn't want to have anything
as far as I'm concerned

although I'm talking about it now,

I just wouldn't talk about
any of my ex prisoners of war

experiences or anything.

No, I'm going to start a new
life and something quite new.

And I would have nothing to
do with what's happened to me

that's just happened, it's finished.

It was a bit overwhelming with having

so many people coming to you

and wanting to know everything about you

and all that like, you know?

We had no understanding of what
horrors we had lived through

and how the comparison
between people's kindness

and the brutality that
we had been experiencing.

It's been very difficult with the family

because I never spoke about it.

My wife died without knowing.

Mind you, she must've seen or felt

the swinging of moods.

She wasn't dumb.

And one night when I had the nightmare,

I finished up with my hands on her throat.

So at that stage I went
into the spare bedroom

there was a chair, I'm used to sleeping up.

For weeks.

I couldn't sleep properly
for about 10 years,

that's a long time but I could
only just sleep on the sofas.

In the camp you just
slept under the surface,

you were ready to move on

but then I come in and
start beating people up

and turn everybody out for working party,

didn't know what was gonna
happen by day or night

very often and so you would sleep by there

and I knew exactly where
everything of mine was,

that I could put my hands on it.

I think she might've
drawn a few drawing things

and so you were always ready to move.

When I came home,

it was nice to just fold my clothes up

and I set them the way I do now

and I know just where they are.

Well, compensation and I
think I'm right in saying

that I got 30 pounds, we all did,

several years after the war.

We were certainly the
worst country of the lot

at doing anything at all to
get compensation from the Japs.

I blame it mostly on politicians

and above all the treasury

because we finally got,

I think the figure was 10,000 pounds,

about I'm guessing 15
years ago, not much more,

and there weren't many left

so the treasury obviously
saved a lot of money.

When they talked of
trying to get some financial

benefit out of it that might
have done a bit of good

to help to heal some of
the things for the blokes

but for me I have no ill feeling

against the Japanese at all.

I meet Japanese here now, no trouble.

I mean the Japanese

for all what they did

they have repented

and let the generation know what happened.

But in Japan they don't.

Japanese say, the Emperor say

they express deep remorse for the POW.

I think that was enough
for Japanese thought

that was enough for apology
but POW's didn't think so.

Let the Emperor come and apologize to me.

That might be the answer.

And I will decide whether
he was sincere or not.

Actually there are two reasons

why I don't hate the Japanese.

The one reason is it would do them no harm

but if I hate anyone it does me harm.

And I say that the other
reason, I'm a Christian

and Christians are taught
to love and not to hate.

I can't stand the way we all, I suppose,

I do it sometimes,

we generalize people, nations or groups

or bankers or industrialist or whatever

because there are some good,
bad and indifferent anywhere.

In all I think I've
just been terribly lucky.

I'm very happy doing what I'm doing

and I have no regrets,
really, it doesn't matter.

I have been there and I've done it.

All the things that I ever wanted to do.

And I have no regrets.

The fact that I was a prisoner of war

was just a blip in my life, you know.

I'm determined to

live and beat the Japanese

because I'll outlive them all I hope.

All those who were involved.

One of the most interesting parts is this,

was the sheer ingenuity,

you put a lot of people together,

they're tennsmith, they're
pharmacists, chemists,

so you put all these people together

and you can begin to start
moving half the mountain

and I think that really
saw the corporate magic

of the whole thing.

It was so important.

Thank you today.