The work on the “Railway” was drawing to a close. The long, crude, serpentine steel lay like an ugly scar across the face of the verdant jungle. Maintenance crews worked feverishly day and night repairing the track and fighting off the encroaching jungle. In the furthermost North, depleted gangs of human skeletons forced themselves wearily through the mud in a last effort to complete this bizarre undertaking. To the incessant scream of “Speedo, speedo,” we pushed on reluctantly. By this time clothes were a thing of the past. We worked clad only in “G-strings.” Day after day men dragged their canvas-bandaged, ulcerated legs to the cuttings, embankments, and bridges. The backbreaking struggle seemed to increase daily as we raced to keep the impossible schedule. Amid scenes like these the “Railway” was finished. It ran from Bangkok to Rangoon, through unmapped territory for 400 miles, at the cost of one human life for every tie that was laid.
Soon the sick began to be shipped back south to Kamburi. Kamburi was a veritable steam bath; it was a cesspool for malaria. Dysentery ran amok, hundreds lay helplessly around in appalling conditions. Painful and gangrenous looking sores afflicted most of the lads. Our skin was the color of dirty parchment, shrunken and shriveled. Tropical ulcers, large and gaping, covered our legs. Our arms hung down like sticks joined to huge bony hands. Eyes were deeply sunk and had a deathly glaze. Beriberi patients, bloated and ugly, hobbled about or lay in their misery until they died. The death toll was very high at this point.
Into these horrible conditions trainloads of prisoners from the North were dumped. Our medical resilience was tested to the utmost. At this point no one was really well, everyone was sick to some degree. The medical people fought valiantly to alleviate the abounding suffering and misery.
Armed with my “wooden spoon,” a few old bandages which had been recycled many times, and a weak solution of antiseptic, I would enter my ward. A chorus of cries would go up for attention. Sitting down beside a man I would remove the sopping wet, stinking bandage, then with my “spoon” I would dig firmly into the mass of suppurating green pus, never stopping until I reached the tender flesh. This painful procedure was repeated every day, there was no respite, and very often after months of excruciating pain the process ended with amputation. Some of these wounds were horrible, stretching from the knee to the ankle. Sometimes the flesh was so eaten away, that my “spoon”
would pass easily between the shinbone and the wasted flesh behind.
It was at this point that I had a very severe attack of malaria. Oh, how I needed comfort and help -- I longed for the touch of my mother’s hand on my fevered brow. Instead of these physical comforts, I found spiritual strength as I realized the Lord’s everlasting arms enfolding me. I prayed:
When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord linger near.
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord,
Lead me home.
My precious Savior heard that prayer and gave me strength to recover and resume my endless task of ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the men around.
Our methods of cleaning wounds had changed with the conditions. In the jungle camps we used maggots, they ate and thrived on the foul mess. When the colony in a man’s wound became too big we took some of the maggots and introduced them into another man’s wound. This seems crude, but it was effective and the patient had only a little discomfort.
As the weeks rolled slowly into months a marked mental improvement became apparent among the prisoners. Although the men’s bodies were rotten with stinking ulcers, tormented by beriberi, and burned up by fever and dysentery, they were slowly recovering from the haunted memories of the past years.
We gradually found our singing voices again. In the evenings as the men gathered together, the conversation would center on home and loved ones. In a pensive moment a clear young voice would start singing, “There’s a long long trail a winding, Into the land of my dreams.” Soon the whole camp would join in. A moment of silence, then invariably we would sing:
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide;
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
In the eloquent silence that followed these outbursts, some prayed -- some thoughts winged their way over sea and continent to loved ones and home. Content with our present lot we closed our eyes to dream of that long winding trail. The worst in Thailand was over.