Monsters of the River Kwai: One British POW tells his horrifying story.
Alistair Urquhart was just 20 when he was called up in World War II. For 60 years, he has remained silent about the relentless brutality he endured at the hands of the Japanese army. Now, he reveals the full horror of his 750 days as a Far East prisoner-of-war. Here, in our first extract of his compelling autobiography, we learn of his capture and enforced labour on the notorious ‘Death Railway‘.
The construction of the Death Railway was one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century. It was said that one man died for every sleeper laid. Beatings on the railway were totally routine.
The threat of a rifle butt across your head loomed large. For no reason at all, wire whips would lash into our backs and draw blood. Some guards would creep up on you and strike the open tropical ulcers on your legs with a bamboo stick, causing intense agony.
No man was more sadistic than the Japanese camp commandant Lieutenant Usuki, whom I called the Black Prince.
He was a true bastard. Darker than the other Japanese soldiers, he strutted around like royalty, his beefy gut protruding from beneath a shabby uniform. He despised us totally. We were scum to him.
His right-hand man was Sergeant Seiichi Okada, known to us Brits simply as Dr Death. Short and squat, he took the roll-calls and carried out all of the camp commandant’s orders.
Ruthless in the extreme, he loved tormenting us. He especially revelled in a sickening brand of water torture.
He had guards pin down his hapless victim before pouring gallons of water down the prisoner’s throat using a bucket and hose. The man’s stomach would swell up from the huge volumes of water.
Okada would then gleefully jump up and down on him. Sometimes guards tied barbed wire around the poor soul’s stomach. Most died; only a few survived.
But no matter how hard these two terrible men pushed us, we could not progress more than 20 feet per day through the dense jungle.
After 60 straight days on the railway – with no days off – we had reached the dreaded slab of rock that barred our path for the next 500 to 600 yards.
The mere sight of that rock must have been enough for one prisoner, who made a bid for freedom.
I was unaware that anyone had escaped until one morning at tenko (camp), a sorry-looking chap was dragged before us. He had been beaten horrifically, his swollen and bloody features were virtually unrecognisable. The interpreter told us: ‘This man very bad. He try to escape. No gooda.’
Two guards threw him on the ground in front of us and made him kneel. He did not plead for mercy. He knew his fate and waited silently, resigned to it.
The Black Prince, who seemed to have dressed up especially for the occasion, strode forward and unsheathed his samurai sword. He prodded the prisoner in the back, forcing him to straighten up.
Then he raised his sword and there followed a moment of such horror that I could scarcely believe it was happening.
This was one of the many instances of barbarism on the railway that I would try to shut out of my mind. But I could not escape the chilling swoosh of the blade as it cut through the air or the sickening thwack as it struck our comrade’s neck, followed by the dull thump of his head landing on the ground.
I kept my eyes firmly shut but swayed on my feet and felt a collective gasp of impotent anger and revulsion.
I know that I am a lucky man. I am 90 now, one of the last remaining survivors of my battalion of the Gordon Highlanders.
Why did I – a 20-year-old, ambitious apprentice for an Aberdeen plumbers’ merchant when I was called up shortly after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 – survive the unbelievable horrors inflicted by the Japanese when so many others did not?
It’s a question I have often asked myself. But it is not one I have discussed with those of us who did survive because, like them, for more than 60 years I have kept my silence. So many of us Far East prisonersofwar did, and all for the same reasons. We did not wish to upset our wives and families – or ourselves.
The Gordons were Aberdeen’s local regiment. My father George, a teacher, had served with them during World War I.
Like so many others of his generation, he had known the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, during which 9,000 Gordons were killed. My father never talked of his experiences. Later, after my own hellish war, I would understand why.
I have never fully recovered from my time in captivity. In the early years, the nightmares became so bad that I had to sleep in a chair for fear of harming my wife Mary as I lashed out in my sleep.
And I have never been able to eat properly since those starvation days. As to why I survived, I speculated that it was due to a combination of determined spirit and physical fitness.
I had always been very sporty. As a grammar school boy, I played football, rugby and cricket as well as taking part in swimming and athletics. Little did I know then just how my sporting endeavours would save my life during the war.
Three months after being called up, I was posted to Singapore. It was widely regarded as a cushy number, a place where British colonials enjoyed a privileged, bungalowdwelling existence, with servants to prepare their Singapore Sling cocktails, grown men – known as ‘boys’ – to run their households and ayahs (native nannies) to look after their children.
As a member of the Armed Forces, I was among the thousands sent there to protect them. Not that anyone thought back then that Singapore was vulnerable. The diamondshaped island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula was Britain’s greatest fortress east of Suez, protected by huge 15in guns that pointed out to sea to deter naval assault.
But in February 1942, the Japanese soldiers landed on Singapore island.
We learnt the terrible news that the Japanese had committed a massacre at the Alexandra military hospital.
More than 300 patients, doctors and nurses were systematically murdered in the shadow of the Red Cross that was meant to protect them. The invaders actually bayoneted some of the patients on the operating table.
On February 15 the shelling stopped and a ceasefire was proclaimed. But with water cut off and no air cover, the situation was deemed impossible. During humiliating negotiations, General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (Malaya), was bluffed into surrendering to an overstretched and much smaller Japanese force.
Two days later, I came face-toface with Japanese soldiers for the first time. I was in my office at Fort Canning, where I worked as a Garrison Adjutant’s Clerk, when suddenly the door burst open and two men were standing before me – their eyes filled with fury and hate. Yammering and screaming in Japanese, they began jabbing their bayonets at our chests.
They punched, slapped and kicked me and the other servicemen in the office before ordering us outside, where an astonishing sight met our eyes: hundreds of men filing out of the underground bunker, their hands above their heads, fear writ large across their ashen faces.
They lined up alongside us while some of the Japanese privates went down the rows snatching watches off wrists, cigarette lighters, packets of cigarettes – anything of value. Officers had their faces slapped and their epaulettes ripped off, their caps thrown to the ground.
As we stood there in the blazing sun, reality broke over me in sickening, depressing waves. I was a captive. My liberty was gone, and there was no telling when I would have it back.
In October 1942, after almost eight months incarceration at the notorious Changi POW camp (where, in the early days, 50,000 men were crammed into accommodation designed for 4,000), I was selected to go up-country. Along with other Gordon Highlanders, I was marched to Singapore railway station where, inside the waiting train, we heard banging and frantic cries: ‘We can’t breathe! Open Up! Open Up!’
I was wedged into a container of around 18ft by 10ft with about 30 other men. Our captors screamed and lunged at us with bayonets. There was no room to sit down; to make matters worse the sides of the steel carriage were searingly hot. Dehydration set in quickly. It was like being buried alive.
As the train headed northwards, the smell inside the carriage became unbearably foul. Without toilets the men had to relieve themselves where they stood. Several were ill with malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea. People vomited and fainted. Dust swirled around the wagon stinging our eyes and adding to our unbearable thirst.
On and on we went. Day became night. No one spoke; it was just too much effort. I considered suicide and began to fantasise that the train would jump its tracks and that I would be killed swiftly, without any more suffering. I willed the RAF to drop bombs on us and end our misery.
Just before dusk on the fifth day we ground to a halt, the doors rolled back and the guards ordered us off. We were in Thailand. Our 900-mile train journey was over. Helping some of the sicker men off the train, I noticed a teenage soldier lying at the rear of the carriage. One of the lads jumped back up and tapped his foot. ‘Come on, son, we’re here.’
Lifeless eyes stared back. I turned my back and walked away. I did not want to see his face and carry that image with me; anything that sapped the will to live had to be avoided. The Japanese officer’s translator then told us that we had yet to reach our final destination. We had a 50-kilometre march ahead of us. Starting immediately. To be completed that night.
I swayed with shock, as if I had been punched in the face.
About 600 prisoners – diseased, vermin-infested and at their lowest ebb – began that trek into the jungle. Leaving behind our last glimpse of civilisation, we started what was to be in total a 160-kilometre death march. Anyone who collapsed or refused to go on was left to die. Theirs was either a lingering and lonely death or the swift and brutal thrust of a bayonet.
In the late afternoon of the sixth day, after we had been trudging for around 32 hours, we arrived at a small, sparse clearing in the middle of the jungle. It took some time for us to comprehend that this was ‘it’, the ultimate objective of our tortuous journey.
Through an interpreter, a guard told us: ‘This is your camp. You make home here. Build own huts. All men work on railway.’
A railway! Here in the middle of nowhere. It seemed mad. The following morning, we began work on the infamous Death Railway, the 415-kilometre Burma to Siam track through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.
If I had realised then that it was just the first of 750 days I would spend as a slave in the jungle, I would have broken down and cried like a baby.
Later, the Australians would dub the railway Hellfire Pass, and I could not have thought of a better name for it myself. Even Japanese engineers had estimated that it would take five years to complete. The Japanese Imperial Army would prove them wrong, however. It had a secret weapon: slave labour.
In just 16 months, a railway linking Bangkok with the Burmese rice bowl and its vital oil fields would be completed at a terrible human cost.
We all had various stages of beriberi, malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. A new illness had also started to ravage some unfortunate prisoners. Called tinea, it was nicknamed ‘rice balls’ because the hideous swelling had the tormenting tendency to attack, crack and inflame the scrotum.
We were beaten frequently but it never got any easier to withstand. Each time I took a beating it chipped away, not just at my waning muscles, but at my will to endure them.
The dilemma was whether to swallow your pride by going down at the first blow or to retain some of your dignity by taking several blows and standing up to them. If you refused to show that their blows were hurting you, they would fly into rages and the beating could be severe, even fatal.
Some men found the going easier by bonding with another prisoner. They would share food and water and even took beatings together. It was not the way for me. I watched the heartache of men losing their best pals. They soon followed their mates to the grave.
If a man driven mad by the incessant beatings turned on a guard, he would be tethered, spread-eagled, to the ground. Guards wrapped wet rattan – the same string-like bark used to lash our bamboo huts together – around his ankles and wrists, then tied him to stakes.
As the rattan dried, the ties would slowly gash into the skin, drawing blood and tearing into sinew and cartilage as they pulled limbs from their sockets.
It reduced even the toughest men to agonised screaming. It was a way of torturing all of us.
Often, when we returned from a day on the railway, the men would no longer be there. Nobody asked where they had vanished to. I certainly did not want to know. After such a horrific ordeal, death at the end of a Japanese bayonet would have been welcomed.
After a few weeks of steady progress on the railway, we had reached the River Kwai, across which the Japanese intended us to build two bridges. It was going to be a major engineering operation and I doubted that we would manage it in our state and with the pathetic tools we had to hand.
As the wood and bamboo structure of the first bridge went up, I made the most of my head for heights and tried to work aloft. Some men hated being up high, but for me it meant I was out of reach of the guards and their flailing sticks.
For those working in the river, sometimes up to their necks, life could be much more difficult. The filthy water infected cuts and sores. The additional danger of falling objects, including logs and struts, meant that mortality rates were extremely high.
The building of the bridge on the River Kwai took a terrible toll on us, and the depiction of our sufferings in the film of the same name was a very sanitised version of events.
Unlike the well-fed extras in the movie, we did not whistle the Colonel Bogey tune. Nor did we have any semblance of uniform. We were naked, barefoot slaves. And there were certainly no pretty and scantily clad local girls wandering through the jungle.
And, contrary to the film, our real-life commander, Colonel Philip Toosey, did not collaborate with the Japanese. Instead, we made constant attempts at sabotage.
Men whispered orders to impair the construction of the bridge wherever possible. Some, charged with making up concrete mixtures, deliberately added too much sand or not enough, which would later have disastrous effects.
We collected huge numbers of termites and white ants and deposited them into the grooves and joints of loadbearing trunks. Out of sight of the guards I furtively sawed half way through wooden bolts, hoping they would snap whenever any serious weight, like a train, was placed upon them.
One night in our POW camp I awoke with dysentery calling. Holding my aching stomach I raced to the latrines, but on the way back to my hut a Korean guard stopped me. He yammered in my face and at first I thought he was admonishing me for failing to salute him. Then he pointed at my midriff and to my horror I realised he was becoming frisky.
‘Jiggy, jiggy,’ he was saying, trying to grab me. ‘No!’ I shouted at him.
Without hesitating I kicked him as hard as I could, barefooted, square between his legs.
He collapsed, groaning in agony. I bolted, but his roaring had summoned hordes of other guards and, unfortunately, I ran slap bang into one of them. He seized me, and rifle butts and fists sent me to the ground.
I was dragged to the front of the Japanese officers’ hut. The interpreter was raised, along with the camp commandant, the dreaded Black Prince.
This was a moment of absolute terror. Throughout my 14 months of captivity I had tried at all times to stay out of range of the brutal Japanese guards, and now here I was receiving the personal attentions of the camp’s sadist-in-chief.
He asked the Korean for his side of the story. No doubt he left out the bit about making sexual advances towards me. When he was done the commandant asked why I had assaulted the guard. I told them the truth. The Black Prince started screaming at all and sundry and I knew I was in serious trouble.
They took the Korean guard away and marched me to the front of the guardhouse, where I was forced to stand to attention. Racked with pain and suffering from broken toes, I wobbled and wilted.
Any sign of slumping over brought a flurry of rifle butts to the kidneys to straighten me up again. Every minute of every hour throughout that night was pure torture. At sunrise my fellow prisoners assembled for breakfast and rollcall before going out to slave on the railway. The guards kept me behind.
The rising sun bore down on my defenceless body, and when I lost consciousness my personal minders threw buckets of water over me and kicked me to attention. It was relentless. Sunset came. The other POWs returned and averted their eyes – a sure sign that my predicament was serious. Nobody showed any signs of sympathy, to do so was to risk reprisals on themselves.
The rest of the chilly night passed in a blur of kicks and beatings. I hallucinated and felt as if I were going insane.
Come the second morning, the Black Prince instructed two guards to haul me off to the black hole.
My heart sank. I knew that most men kept in these higher forms of punishment – semi-subterranean cages made out of bamboo and proportioned so you could not stand, lay down or even kneel fully – did not come out alive. And if they did, they had been reduced to crippled wrecks who never fully recovered.
The guards threw me into one of the bamboo cages. Darkness and the filth of the previous occupants engulfed me. I sobbed, falling in and out of consciousness.
Days came and went. Malaria struck me down, causing uncontrollable shivers. Lice were crawling all over me. In the darkness, the sense of isolation was devastating and I became half out of my mind with pain and exhaustion. My degradation was complete. My only notion of time came from the arrival of a watery bowl of rice once a day. I had counted six or seven bowls by the time they allowed me out.
As I crawled out of the dark cell, I deemed myself lucky to have spent such a short period in the black hole. I had been in for a week. It could easily have been a month.
I reached my hut on all fours and Dr Mathieson, the British Army doctor in our camp, got to work on me. Slowly he and his orderlies brought me back to life with lime juice, water and scavenged food scraps, a little milk and some duck eggs. Within a week, even in my feeble condition, I was passed as fit and sent back to work.
This was just as well. For worse still was to come.