lived with poor medical care, constant beating,
By Phan Ming Yen
LIFE as a
prisoner-of-war meant living with captors who
regarded punishment and constant beatings as a sport,
and under poor medical conditions which let untreated
ulcers grow until limbs had to be amputated, and when
hundreds died from cholera.
And there was no use
escaping, because there would be capture ultimately
and then execution.
Mr Charles Simon
experienced and witnessed these and other horrors as
a former PoW on the Death Railway in Thailand and
later in Japan, where he was sent to work in a
factory and as a coolie during World War II.
He said that the PoWs
were all treated as criminals because the Japanese
thought that they should have committed hara-kiri
Japanese, that would have been the honourable thing
to do in defeat, and as we did not do that, we were
cowards," said Mr Simon, now in his 70s and the
past president of the Ex-Services Association, who
worked on the Death Railway for about two years from
June 1942 to June 9, 1944.
About 16,000 Allied
PoWs and some 90,000 Asians died building what was
then known as the Thailand-Burma railway.
Mr Simon, who was with
the 3rd Battalion Straits Settlements Volunteer
Force, was taken prisoner on Feb 15, 1942, and
imprisoned at Changi until June 26 when he was sent
to Thailand, then known as Siam.
He said of the train
journey to Thailand: "There were 34 of us who
were put into a cattle carriage. The door was closed
and there was no ventilation.
We had to do our
ablutions inside that carriage.
"We would get off
the train to relieve ourselves whenever it stopped,
but then there were some who were too weak to get
He added that at the
end of the five-day journey, two people in his
carriage had died.
In Thailand, the
prisoners were sent to places like Takanun, Chungkai
and Banpong where they were ordered to lay the lines
for the railway.
Mr Simon said that at
Banpong, they had to cut bamboo while clearing the
jungle and making their camp.
"That was a nasty
job because when you make contact with bamboo, the
bamboo can easily scratch you and you can easily
bleed. Moreover, the bamboo was poisonous."
He added that because
of that and their weak state and the lack of food,
almost all the prisoners had ulcers on their hands,
arms and legs.
the ulcers could grow until they bit into bones. I
knew some people had to have their hands, legs and
arms amputated because there was no treatment given
The lack of medical
facilities was shown up during an outbreak of cholera
in October 1943.
He said: "The
cholera was the most horrifying thing that happened
and neither Japanese nor Korean soldiers set foot on
the camp during that time.
They just did not do
anything." (The Japanese had recruited some
heavily-built Korean soldiers to work at the
He added: "A
person could die very fast of dehydration from
cholera and I saw many men die within a day of
contracting the disease when the epidemic
Mr Simon himself
suffered from dysentery, malaria and beri-beri.
another aspect of a PoW's life. Rations consisted
mainly of rice and dried vegetables and no meat.
"We were all
walking skeletons," said Mr Simon, who saw his
63-kg frame whittle down to 41 kg while working on
the railway. He added he had seen men who weighed
about 82 kg going down to about 41 kg.
beatings was an everyday occurrence.
He said: "It was
like a sport with them. They would just beat you for
no reason and for the slightest excuse."
The beatings continued
at the factory in Amagasaki, a suburb in Osaka,
Japan, where he was sent to work.
He said: "I had
quarrelled with a guard who wanted me to operate two
machines instead of one. I was given a severe warning
and then beaten on the face many, many times.
whenever I walked past or met a guard, I was always
called up and slapped on the spot for no
Mr Simon, who had also
worked in a grave-digging party after the completion
of the railway, was not untouched by the deaths which
he saw and the suffering he endured.
He said: "In
Siam, we grew to become callous like the enemy and
grew to accept that life was cheap. One cannot help
but feel this at a time when there was so much death
"There was a time
when I felt just like putting my hands around a
Japanese soldier and strangling him. I too had become
an animal like my captors."
When asked what kept
him going, he replied : "It was the thought that
we would be liberated at Christmas or the next, that
kept us going through those years.
"It was also a
will to live which I cannot explain. It's difficult
to imagine this 'will' unless one has lived life as a
In spite of his
experiences as a PoW, he said he seldom thought about
"No doubt those
years changed my life in ways that I find difficult
"But you see, I
like to see the bright side of things. It is best to
look back on it as a good lesson.
"You cannot live
life with hatred inside you all the time."
published in The Straits Times, 28 February 1992
||The guard said 'ichi'
and PoWs started scratching
Nura's start page
Copyright © 1998
Singapore Press Holdings. All Rights Reserved.