CHAPTER 12 Cholera

Cholera -- the dread disease of all armies in the tropics -- finally hit our beleaguered group. Our bodies had been weakened by constant attacks of malaria and recurrent bouts of dysentery. Morale was at an all-time low, and when the horrible specter of cholera stalked through the compound, our spirits were crushed.

It all started in the Asiatic camp. A steady stream of stretcher bearers slowly made their way to a clearing in the jungle and dumped the victims of this horrible disease. We waited and wondered when our turn would come. It struck one night with devastating effects. Some of the men who reported sick that morning were dead when we returned from the “Railway.” The scourge had begun.

Volunteers were asked for, to nurse the sick men in the cholera camp. No one would be detailed to go. To volunteer for such duty was a hard decision to make and I weighed it carefully. It was with mixed emotions that I prayed for wisdom, or was it for faith and courage? Like everyone else I wanted to see my loved ones again, back in Bonnie Scotland.

With my best friend, Bob Pender, I went out into the hostile jungle in the darkness. We prayed; never had we prayed with such sincerity and expectation. I told the Lord of my human fears, weaknesses, and desires. I prostrated myself before Him under the starry dome of Heaven, surrounded by enemies, and a seething, broken mass of humanity.

Suddenly in the midst of my Gethsemane, I was conscious of an invisible Presence. It was almost like a voice that spoke. No one had joined me from this world, but the Savior had, bearing the message to volunteer for this dangerous mission. Stunned with the reality of this encounter with the Lord, I returned to the camp to volunteer. Along with Bob, I made my decision known to the Camp Commander, who very gravely pointed out the danger of such an action, adding that there was the imminent possibility of a horrible death. But the die had been cast; I must follow my Master’s instructions.

All night long we worked feverishly to finish preparations for establishing a cholera camp. In the morning we hastily said goodbye to our friends and well wishers, then we pulled out from the land of the living into the valley of the shadow of death. It was a pitiful group that marched off. Clutching their small bundles of earthly possessions, and carrying a few medical supplies was the picture of mere skeletons of men. Some walked with leaden steps -- I walked with my hand in the Savior’s hand.

A clearing in the jungle at Tonshon South, Thailand, housed a few old leaky Army tents. These tents were denuded of all furnishings. Just four tattered sides, a rotten roof and cold mother earth. In these inhospitable and bleak surroundings many a brave boy would fight his last battle and draw his last breath.

Our first contact with the dread disease came abruptly and painfully. Our unit’s champion cross-country runner, a very fine young man with flaxen hair, fair skin, and pink cheeks, was stricken with cholera. As he made his way slowly to the medical tent, he seemed like a man of ninety -- though he was scarcely twenty-four. In a matter of a few hours he died a painful death, the first victim of cholera in our camp.

The disease spread like the plague among the Asiatic and white prisoners alike. Isolation was the first step toward self-preservation. Anyone in the main camp suspected of having the disease was immediately dispatched to the cholera camp. It was like being sent to the death chamber. Bravely, these prematurely old men accepted their lot. Some even smiled weakly as they were carried by their buddies on the first stage of their last journey.

Very soon the cholera camp was filled to capacity, but room was never a problem; just as many were carried out dead, as were brought in alive. My experiences at this time were the most heartbreaking and frustrating of my young life. With our limited equipment we faced the impossible task of trying to retrieve from the very jaws of death, emaciated human bodies wracked with pain. On occasion I hastily retreated to the edge of the jungle, emptied my stomach, and poured out my heart to my dear Heavenly Father, asking Him to relieve my taut nerves and to have mercy on the victims dying in such revolting conditions.

As one watched these men die, one became acutely aware of the progressive stages of the disease. The body first of all became dehydrated because of diarrhea and vomiting; this dehydration showed itself first of all in the extremities such as the ears and the fingers, which became withered looking and blanched. As the disease spread, severe cramps would seize the muscles of the arms. Simultaneously, the process was repeated in the legs. First the toes, then the feet and calves, up to the thighs, all this accompanied by excruciating pain. Finally, the disease concentrated in the abdomen, bringing the victim within its ruthless grasp, ultimately crushing him in its vice-like grip and squeezing the last breath from the convulsing form.

We worked against tremendous odds. Medication in any form was almost unknown. We tried by all means to get liquid into the bodies of our patients. Our methods were primitive. We boiled river water, then dissolved rock salt in it to make saline. This was placed in a bottle from which ran a rubber tube. To regulate the flow we raised or lowered the bottle and pinched the tubing with our fingers as necessary. Finding the vein in the ankle region was a chore for us and an ordeal for the patient. We dug into the almost white flesh with an old scalpel or penknife. Upon fining the vein, which was like a piece of old cord, we inserted the blunt hypodermic needle and gave the transfusion. When this primitive operation was over, an old piece of boiled cloth was soaked in a weak solution of acroflavian (antiseptic), placed over the wound, then this was covered with a large leaf from one of the jungle trees, and tied together with some of the creepers that grew profusely all around.

Living in conditions like these was enough to turn a person’s mind. There were many who lost their sanity. Contact with the main camp was forbidden. We were treated like lepers; any provisions, etc., were left for us at a prearranged spot.

When time permitted I would take my precious Bible in the evening just before it got dark, make my way from tent to tent and read and pray with those broken warriors. The Word of God, and a voice lifted in humble supplication, were the last things that many of these men heard. I know that I will meet some of them in Heaven.

At some distance from our cholera compound there was another one. This was the dumping ground for all the Asiatic victims. They came under the command of the Japanese. The scenes in this enclosure were indescribable. The victims had no covering at all -- they lay out in the open. The screams and the groans from this compound tore at the very depths of my heart. I have heard animals howl in severe pain and been moved with compassion, but human beings to be abandoned and discarded, never! “O God,” I cried, “have mercy on these poor creatures, and avenge the brutal treatment of their merciless enemies.”

Every morning, at the first light of day, a group of natives would go to this compound and pick up the remains of those who had died during the night. These were carried to a huge communal grave, which had been dug the night before; the burial of the poor victims was heartless. No compassion or concern was evidenced for the lives that had been snuffed out. In their final death throes they had died in all sorts of positions, many with arms and legs sticking up in the air. Carelessly thrown into the graves, many times the arms and legs protruded above the surface of the ground. Japanese guards, walking around like kings, would break off the protruding limbs with their shovels.

On one occasion, in the middle of the dark night, I sat on a fallen tree at the edge of the cluster of little tents. A good going fire was burning to give light and to ward off animals. Suddenly I heard something crashing through the underbrush. Thinking that it was a wild animal, I grabbed a stick and waited. A Malayan native appeared. He had broken out of his compound in his agony. His soul-stirring cry was, ‘Water! Water! Water!” This precious liquid was at a premium, there was hardly enough for the stricken men in our own camp. What to do in such circumstances posed quite a problem. Eventually I decided to give the man a little water, he wanted more but there was none to give him despite his pleading. Adjacent to the fallen tree was a bucket of creosote which we kept for washing our hands. The native saw this, mistook it for water, and before he could be stopped he had his head in the bucket gulping the oily liquid. This only increased his agony. He crawled back into the jungle filling the air with his tormented cries. Slowly the cries subsided, an investigation in the morning found the grotesque form.