The Japanese were masters of subterfuge. “H Force” was to go north to the hills; they were due a rest after their long siege in Singapore. “Take your sports gear and musical instruments along so that you may obtain the fullest enjoyment from the long days of relaxation,” they said.
“H Force” was not a happy one. Most of the physically fit had already gone north. Many sick men had been included in this work party, and it was a rather straggly and pitiful column that left the barracks and embarked on the trucks. These trucks then took off packed with living skeletons clutching desperately at the small bundles containing their worldly possessions.
Our drive through the streets of Singapore was pleasant enough. The natives appeared friendly, in a reserved way. They did not spit on us nor stone us as they had done in the early days. They obviously had had their fill of empty promises and co-prosperity. Ultimately we arrived at the railroad station and awaited our train. With the promises of the Nipponese ringing in our ears, and the flashing of gold teeth revealed by the smiles of the guards, we expected good transportation to our camp in the cool hills.
When a freight train noisily screeched to a stop at the platform where we stood, we thought little of it. But soon we realized that this was to be our means of transportation. Boxcars about one-third the size of American cars made up the train. Built of steel, each boxcar had to accommodate thirty-five men with their belongings. We were herded like cattle into those cars, assisted by a blow from the butt-end of a rifle if the progress seemed slow. After we had all been pushed in, the steel doors on both sides were closed and sealed, except for a two-inch opening to allow for air.
We stood for a minute or two in shocked silence in the semidarkness. This inhuman reception left us speechless. After the wide-open places at Changi, it seemed as if we would be crushed in the vice-like grip of this human hell. Soon we were jolted into reality. With the blowing of whistles, and the harsh shouts of the guards, our capsule of death lurked forward. The noise was deafening, the wheels seemed to be square, and as we slowly emerged into the brilliant sunshine the car began to heat up until it became a veritable furnace. Blinded by sweat and nauseated by the foul odors from the thirty-five unwashed bodies, we were totally exhausted physically, and crushed mentally. We sweated and grumbled, fought and argued. Nerves were a breaking point. Lack of food and water made it almost impossible to live. The almost complete absence of sanitation made disease and death a definite reality. During the day we were almost roasted alive and at night we almost froze to death. The journey seemed interminable. For seven endless days and nights, this clanging, jolting, capsule of death pushed relentlessly through the almost unbroken jungle into the dark unknown. Sour rice covered with bluebottle flies was our only food, greasy water, mostly from the engine’s rusty old boiler, was our drink. Many of the lads who left Changi full of hope never lived to see the end of this ghastly episode.
During those days of crisis I appreciated the faith implanted in my heart in earlier days. My faith seemed to have come alive. It was sustaining and vibrant. It was a living faith that could not be quenched in spite of prison, fire, or sword. In the black valley of the shadow of death I always found my precious Savior, His open arms were always ready to receive His trembling child. As those strong arms embraced me, I often whispered into my Savior’s open ear:
Hold Thou my hand, I am so weak and helpless
I dare not take one step without Thy aid;
Hold Thou my hand for then O loving Savior
No dread of ill shall make my soul afraid.
Upon arrival at Bangkok our exhausted and depleted force detrained. We were immediately herded into a transient camp, which consisted of a few grass huts seething with flies, and a degree of filth, which can only be attained by untrained Asiatics. We were fed the usual sloppy rice and were told to rest. Rest! It was impossible. The relentless heat of the sun, the stench of human excretion from previous occupants, and the presence of myriads of bugs of all decriptions made rest unthinkable.
With canteens full we marched into the Thailand night and what proved to be a fatal journey for many. For seventeen nights we dragged ourselves through the inhospitable jungle. The Japanese guards never slackened pace, they had to be on schedule. We carried our meager belongings. Tools and multifarious utensils ere secured on poles slung between two men. As the sick collapsed those who were nearest them supported them. Those who faltered and fell received liberal blows form the guards’ rifle butts. Some fell out completely and we never saw them again.
We stopped marching when the sun was high. We slept from sheer exhaustion and while we slept the native Thais stole our meager belongings. Disease carrying flies protested our invasion, or came and feasted on our filth. For seventeen consecutive nights we stumbled, fell, and struggled for dear life. We ducked the low hanging branches; we wallowed in the mud up to our knees; the vines tripped us; the poisonous bamboo spikes gashed our blistered feet. On top of all this, the screaming voices of the merciless guards kept shouting, “Speedo, all men speedo.”
During this entire ordeal, comradeship was never so real. The Nip guards shouted and bullied, the Thais laughed and stole, we hoped and prayed for better days and continued to march wearily in struggling columns to our unknown destination.
We stopped at an unmarked place on the map. Just dense jungle loaded with potential enemies and filled with deadly mosquitoes. Though we had marched all through the night, in a few minutes everyone was at work cutting down trees and bamboo. As the clearing became larger a few leaky tents were erected; in this way the notorious camp of Tonshon South was established. Now we knew our role in the future plans of the Japanese; we would help to build what would become the infamous “Railway of Death.”