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What was it like?

Tom Uren and Richard Flanagan on the Burma-Thailand railway

Christopher Sheil

History is elusive. Often we can fix the dates of when things occurred, identify those involved, and draw on contemporaneous material, indirect sources and later memories to recover what really did or didn’t happen and why, and so on, but the results are always partial, and they rarely convey a felt sense of past reality. Fiction is much better at the latter, with its licence to imagine the lived experience, to go beyond the restraints of surviving evidence.

The case in point is the experience of the Burma-Thailand railway in the war with Japan, the setting at the centre of Richard Flanagan’s multi-prize-winning novel, The narrow road to the deep north, which can be read as an enlivening complement to Tom Uren’s recollections of his time on the railway from his memoir, Straight left

The line between history and fiction is not easily drawn, and certainly not in this case. Uren was writing 50 years after the event and — as with composing any memoir — had an eye to what he thought important in the context of more general assumptions about what was expected and permissible and of likely interest in publicly representing his experience, and so on. He was also well read on the episode, and had often recalled the experience with Weary Dunlop and his other comrades, processes that tend to reinforce but also shape and colour original memories.

Flanagan’s account is of course also conditioned in many ways. It is a conceit of non-fiction writers to imagine that novelists are free of discipline, not to mention the difficulty of any meaningful aesthetic rendering in a world denatured and infantilised by the televisual. But the more relevant point is that Flanagan’s work was inspired by stories his father had told him and the author was well read in the historical literature, which he acknowledged as merely a ‘few of the many beginnings of which one end is this work of invention’. Turning the line between history and fiction into a circle, Flanagan also acknowledged, among quite a few others, the assistance of Uren.

The upshot is that the two accounts can be read together for powerful effect. The plain spoken testimony of the real-life witness lends authenticity to the imagined experience; the genius of the novelist breathes real-life into the old memory. The following weaves a (large) selection from Uren’s account with a (small, spoiler-sensitive) selection from Flanagan’s in a few of the places where the two versions tend to relate or overlap in some way. Judge the result for yourself. ________________ Tom: When Australians got together in the army, you had a very versatile and diverse group of men. (page 25)

Richard: Dorrigo Evans is not typical of Australia and nor are they, volunteers from the fringes, slums and shadowlands of their vast country: drovers, trappers, wharfies, roo shooters, desk jockeys, dingo trappers and shearers. They are bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards blasted out of a depression that had them growing up in shanties and shacks without electricity, with their old men dead or crippled or maddened by the Great War and their old women making do on aspro and hope, on soldier settlements, in sustenance camps, slums and shanty towns, in a nineteenth century world that had staggered into the mid-twentieth century. (page 213)

Whenever a Korean guard passed … we had to stand to attention and bow to them. If we didn’t carry out the whole ritual they would start bashing us there and then. Their brutality was something out of this world. As a prisoner of war, I was bashed by both Japanese and Korean Guards with anything from an open hand to a closed fist, from wooden clogs to an iron bar about four centimetres thick and more than a metre long. They would just wallop you. (26)

The [Korean guard nicknamed] Goanna took his rifle off his shoulder, and with a long slow movement picked up Darky Gardiner’s blanket with the tip of his rifle barrel and dropped it onto the muddy ground. For a moment he looked down at the filthy blanket, and then he looked back up. He screamed, and with all his strength slammed the rifle butt into the side of Darky Gardiner’s head. (207-08)

Throughout my time in the prison camp, I continued to have a deep Christian faith. In Timor, I would kneel down in front of my comrades and pray. But I’ve always hated hypocrisy, and so I got a bit of a fright when I realised that I was saying prayers for myself, instead of for other people, so I stopped saying my prayers. Once I had seen the hypocrisy of praying only for myself, I don’t think I prayed again during my time in the prison camps. But I still tried to live by certain ethics and certain principles. I developed enormously as a collectivist during those tortuous three and a half years. The more time went on, the more my ethics meant to me. (26-27)

Fuck God, he had actually wanted to say. Fuck God for having made this world, fucked be His name, now and for fucking ever, fuck God for our lives, fuck God for not saving us, fuck God for not fucking being here and for not fucking saving the men burning on the fucking bamboo. (260)

If we were out working and there were two ends of a log, it didn’t matter whether I was just as buggered as everybody else, I would always pick up the heavy end as a matter of principle. If there were loads to take home, I would always make sure I got one of the heavy ones. I thought it was my responsibility to do that. (28)

Darky Gardiner did all he could to be a good gang leader, to get around the guards as much as it was possible, finding ways of cheating their quotas, of taking whatever opportunity presented itself to steal something of value, so long as the theft could not be traced, of keeping the bashings down, of helping the men of his gang survive another day. But today he was not himself. He had some bad fever — dengue, malaria, scrub, typhus, cerebral malaria — it was hard to know what it was, and it didn’t matter anyway, and he instead tried to focus on helping his men. He took a heavy coil of wet hemp rope off young Chum Farley, whose shin was an ulcerated mess. (233-34)

I also made sure that the other big blokes did their share. I’d just say, ‘Listen, come on, we’ve got to help so-and-so, he’s a bit crook’. I would try to protect the bloke who was a bit smaller or who wasn’t quite so well. We always knew who was genuinely crook, and would try to help as best we could. (28) You can’t expect others to cover for you, Darky Gardiner said. It won’t work. We did it last week, not a squeak out of the squint-eyed bastards. And we’re doing it again today. But you blokes are in my gang today, Darky Gardiner said. So? Rooster McNiece said. So how’s it fair on the other blokes? (265-6) To get to the railway from our camp we had to walk about six kilometres. (34)

With two Japanese guards upfront and several coming up behind, they fanned out into a single line. The least sick prisoners led the way, followed by the men with the seven stretchers carrying those too sick to walk but decreed by the Japanese fit enough to work, a position in the Line where they could be helped along but would not hold up everyone. Behind them followed men in various stages of decrepitude, with those on makeshift crutches bringing up the tail.

Fucking Christmas pageant, said someone behind Darky Gardiner. (232)

The ‘hammer and tap’ crews worked the rock cuttings. We were paid a small allowance according to the work we did per day, a sham to comply with the provisions of the Geneva Convention. (34)

Tiny’s job was to make holes in the rock by slowly pounding a steel bar into the face with his sledgehammer until the hole was the required depth. When there were enough holes, a Japanese engineer filled them with explosive and blew that section. Darky was Tiny’s offsider, holding the steel bar, giving it a quarter-turn after each blow to help it drill down. (189)

The Japanese started us off cutting eighty centimetres a day; when we had completed that we could go home. But they quickly increased that to one metre, then 1 metre 20, then 1 metre 50, then 2 metres, then from 2 to 2.5 metres, then up to three metres a day. Finally they would just make us work all day, but we produced less when we had to work all day than when we had to do three metres under contract. It was labourious work using eight-pound plumb hammers. I worked with Harry Baker, who was about twenty years older than I and had a couple of fingers missing from his cane-cutting days. He knew how to cope with hard work, and he taught me how to lift the plumb hammer and, with a kind of rhythm, to let the head of the hammer do the work. I was lucky to be working with Harry, as he knew the importance of pacing oneself. He would caution me, ‘Take your time meeting the darg [contract]. Don’t bust your guts. Don’t burn yourself out.’ (34)

Slowly, Darky grew to hate Tiny. Each new quota the Japanese demanded in the alien metric measurements — first a metre a day, then two metres, then three metres — Tiny met in less time  than the Japanese allowed, and then everyone else — the fevered, the starving, the dying — had to match that mad-man’s work load.  (191)

Harry was a great comrade, a wise counsellor on work psychology. The silly buggers who finished their dargs early only encouraged the Japs to increase the workload. There were a couple of showoffs, blokes with big heads, whom the Japanese would call ichi bun [number one]. But when the going got tough they fell by the wayside.  (34)

All the others tried to go slow, to do less, to save their diminished energies for the necessary task of survival. But not Tiny, his stomach rippling, his chest heaving, his brutish arms flexing. He treated it like the shearing sheds in which he had once worked, as if it were all some stupid competition, and come evening he’d be the gun ringer again. But his vanity was only benefiting the Japanese and killing the rest of them. (191)

Harry would hold the drill, and there was skill involved in even that. The hole would sometimes crumble, and the real skill was involved in making sure that the drill went through the part that crumbled. The holes had to be a metre deep, and if the hole crumbled and you couldn’t get any further, you had to start a new hole. The other hole would not be counted in your daily tally. I would swing the hammer for most of the day, with Harry occasionally giving me a break.  (34)

The Speedo came. Now, there was only the Japanese pushing them with ever more beatings and ever less food to work ever harder and ever longer during the day. As the POWS fell further behind the Japanese schedules, the pace grew more frantic. One night, just as the POWs were falling exhausted on their bamboo platforms, to sleep, the order came to return to the cutting. So the night shifts began. (191)

I had a lot of malaria — more than 100 attacks of it — and I would have to lie down for about four days every time. So from before my capture right through to twelve months after the war when I was training to be a fighter, I had to spend about 400 days on my back. I suffered from rigours, even though we were in the tropics and would feel I was freezing so my mates put every blanket we possessed on me. After the fever had broken, every bone and muscle in my body ached. The next day it would hit again. During my hours of lying helpless I cursed Hitler and all who had created the war. (27)

That night, for the first time, Tiny struggled. He was malarial, his body shuddering and his movement with the sledgehammer was not a beautiful rise and fall, but a painful effort of will. Several times Darky Gardiner had to jump out of the way when Tiny lost control of the hammer. After less than an hour — or maybe it was a few hours — after, Darky could not remember exactly how long— Tiny raised the hammer halfway and let it fall to the ground. Darky watched in astonishment as Tiny staggered round in a half-circle, a sort of jig back and forth, and fell to the ground.  (213)

During my bouts of illness I always had the comradeship of my mates; their opinion was important.  (28)

But he had to help Tiny. No one asked why he did; everybody knew. He was a mate. Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do everything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love— all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves. (195)

The wet season in Thailand is very difficult. Getting to and from the railway often meant wading through mud up to your knees. This was particularly difficult when walking downhill. We would slip and come down in a heavy fall, jarring every bone in the body. (35)

And again he tried to tell himself how this was a good day and how lucky he was in his strength, which helped preserve itself; for Darky Gardiner understood that weakness only created more weakness, that every misstep led to a thousand more, that every time he balanced on his toes on one craggy piece of limestone it mattered to concentrate on getting the next step to the next craggy rock or slimy log right, so that he would not fall and hurt himself, so that he might do the same again tomorrow and all the days after that. (234)

We tried strapping cloth around our feet, but often just went barefoot. Being in mud and water a great deal of the time meant we suffered from trench feet; the toes would be affected to the point where they were useless, tending to rot away in severe cases, and having to be amputated. (35)

Sometimes, within hours, an infection began that in days would turn septic and within a week became a tropical ulcer, the ulcers that were leading so many men to their deaths. Some men who had spent their lives in the bush didn’t seem to be too affected and survived well enough, some even preferring to go bare footed. But Darky Gardiner wasn’t a West Australian stockman like Bull Herbert, or a blackfella like Ronnie Owen. He was a Hobart wharfie and his feet were soft and vulnerable. (236)

I have been an optimist all my life, and I always thought I would get out of the prison camp, but the one thing that really frightened me, and put the question mark on whether I’d make it was cholera. When people get cholera they start to dehydrate, particularly those who get what is called Asian cholera. They discharge fluid continually – peeing it, shitting it and vomiting it. Their eyes and temples sink into their head and their skin turns a greyish-green colour. It was possible to leave a mate in the morning and when we returned home from work at night he would have aged forty to fifty years. On our way to work, we would have to walk over the bodies of men who had died the night before. The corpses would be lying there in the rain and the mud. (36)

To make sure there was no pulse here either, he reached down and picked up the wrinkled wrist of the next curled up skeleton, a still pile of bones and stinking sores, when a jolt ran through the skeleton and its cadaverous head turned. Strange, half-blind eyes, bulging glassily and only dimly seeing, seemed to fix themselves on Dorrigo Evans. The voice was slightly shrill, the voice of a boy lost somewhere in the body of a dying old man. (247)

The only thing that can be done to save a cholera victim is to try to get saline back into the person. Particularly bad cases can’t take saline through the mouth, so they had to be strapped down and have the drip inserted into a vein in their arm. A bottle held above the person continually flows the fluid back into the person’s body. (36)

He took the knife and mimicked a precise and definite cut, then repeated the movement deftly, slicing down into the flesh just above the knob of the bone, opening the vein. He quickly inserted the home-made catheter. The cholera flinched, but the speed and sureness meant it was over almost as soon as it began. (249)

Our doctors were quite remarkable fellows, combining medical ingenuity with leadership and comradeship. They often had to improvise because of the primitive conditions in which we lived; for example, they got medical supplies and drugs by trading on the black market with Thai and Chinese traders. But like all of us, they worked as part of a team. (36)

Contrived out of bamboo, empty food and kerosene tins, and bric-a-brac stolen from the Japanese — bottles, knives and tubes out of trucks — it was a triumph of magical thinking. There were candles set in reflectors made out of shaped tin cans, a steriliser made out of kerosene tins, a bamboo operating table, surgical instruments made out of honed steel stolen from engines and kept in a suitcase that sat on a table so the rats and mice and whatever else couldn’t crawl over them. (280)

That collective spirit was fundamental to our survival. (36) Mate? Sheephead Moreton said. Yeah, mate, Darky Gardiner said. Getting better, mate? Sure, mate. Gotta get better, mate. Yeah, Darky Gardiner said. (236)

I gave an example of [the collective spirit] in my maiden speech in Parliament on 26 July 1957:

In our camp the officers and medical orderlies paid the greater proportion of their allowance into a central fund. The men who worked did likewise. We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young looking after the old, the rich looking after the poor. A few months after we had arrived at Hintok Road camp, a part of a British ‘H’ force arrived. They were about 400 strong. As a temporary arrangement they had tents. The officers selected the best, the non-commissioned officers the next best and the men got the dregs. Soon after they arrived, the wet season set in, bringing with it cholera and dysentery. Six weeks later only fifty men marched out of that camp, and of that number only about twenty-five survived. Only a creek separated our two camps and on one side the law of the jungle prevailed and on the other the principles of socialism. (36-7)

Next they went foraging for timber and passed an English camp a mile away: it stank and was full of the sick, and officers doing little for their men and much for themselves. Their warrant officers patrolled the river to stop the men from fishing; some of the English officers still had their angling rods and didn’t want common soldiers poaching what they knew to be their fish. (43; see also 45-9, 249)

That experience, and the impressions it left upon me, are the reasons why I have always argued philosophically as a socialist – why I have been a collectivist all my life. (37) They worked together, passing up tools through a human chain, hauling up the weaker, somehow getting the stretchers up without mishap. The communal strength that this spoke of left Darky Gardiner feeling a little less weary and a little stronger when he reached the top of the cliff. (233)

I think the important things that come to the fore when people are placed in situations like prison camps are collectivism, teamwork, camaraderie and comradeship. It is a wonder that these sorts of attributes of humankind do not prevail more in society at large. If we lived by these principles we would have a far better country and a far better society. (37)

It had been a good day to die, not because it was a special day, but because it wasn’t, and every day was a day to die now, and the only question that pressed on them, as to who might be next, had been answered. And the feeling of gratitude that it had been someone else gnawed in their guts, along with the hunger and the fear and the loneliness, until the question returned, refreshed, renewed, undeniable. And the only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there would be no I or me, only we and us. (311) It is terrible to see someone dying of cholera, particularly a comrade. Cholera was responsible for so many of the deaths that occurred on the railway line. It was particularly bad in the latter part of 1943 when most of these men perished. (38)

Some moaned in agony with the cramps that were dissolving their bodies and eating up their lives, others begged for water in a low monotonous tone, some stared like stones out of a sunken and shadowed eye sockets. (250)

When our men first started to die with cholera, we would bury them, but we found subsequently that this was the wrong thing to do, so we burned the bodies for hygienic reasons. We had bushmen who were great axemen, and they would go out into the forests and cut down trees from which we would build large log fires and incinerate our dead. (38) As the bodies burnt they crackled and popped. One raised an arm as the nerves tautened in the heat.

One of the pyre makers waved back.

Have a good one, Jackie. You’re out of here now, mate. (261 We slept on bamboo slats that were crawling with bugs. One of our great delights in life was to start a fire, and holding one end of the bamboo bed with a mate on the other, run it over the fire. Bugs in their hundreds fell into the fire. (39-40)

One thing I’ll say for the Japs, an old man said on noticing his itching, they bugger you so completely you can even sleep through lice eating your balls for breakfast. Rooster realised it was Sheephead Morton talking. He looked a haggard seventy, but he couldn’t have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four. (200-01)

Although I was fortunate enough not to contract cholera, I did get dysentery. I found out from stool tests just before I left for Japan that I had contracted amoebic dysentery whilst on the railway, but compared with many I was quite fit. The weaker among the prisoners were still made to work, having to clear away the stone rubble after the holes we had drilled were filled with dynamite and blasted. These blokes took the rock from the blast site to where they were trying to build embankments. They had to work carrying baskets of rubble in either bare feet or sometimes with cloth wrapped around them to prevent the sharp stones from cutting their bruised and tortured feet. The Japanese would work these weaker men up to sixteen or twenty hours a day, if you took account that they had to walk six or seven kilometres to and from work. It was slavery. (39-41)

The man’s buttocks were little more than wretched cables, out of which an anus protruded like a turkshead of filthy rope. A stinking olive-coloured slime was oozing out over his string shanks. Amoebic dysentery. Dorrigo Evans shovelled the shitty mess of a man into his arms, stood back up and turned to Nakamura, the sick man hanging in his arms like a muddy bundle of broken sticks. (228-9)

Japanese military discipline was sadistic, because they administered instant or Japanese punishment. This was also carried out on their own troops, but when it was administered to prisoners it was particularly vicious and brutal, I was struck a good few terrible blows by Japanese guards. Also the guards on the railway line tended to pick on the tall prisoners. They must have enjoyed bashing and striking tall people, especially if we stood up for our rights. Anyone who tried to protect his fellow workers really took a bashing. (40)

Nakamura slapped him. And as Nakamura went on slapping him, Evans concentrated on not dropping the sick man. At six foot three, Dorrigo Evans was tall for an Australian. The difference in height at first helped him to absorb the blows, but they slowly took their toll. He focused on keeping his feet equally weighted, on the next blow, on keeping his balance, on not admitting any pain, as though it was some game. But it was not a game, it was anything but a game, and he knew that too. (228)

During my time on the railway, I didn’t pass a solid motion for over fifteen months. Each night I would have to make a dash for the latrine. In the wet season I could never make it, so I kept a four gallon kerosene drum full of water at the bottom of my bed. The rain was so heavy in the wet season that a few feet away from our hut we would sink down into the mud halfway up our shins. Most of the time during the wet season I couldn’t reach the latrine and the excreta would flow out of me wherever I was. I would crawl back into the hut, wash myself down with water from the drum and try to sleep. (39)

By now fully awake from the pain that gripped his abdomen, and panting with the intense effort of walking without shitting himself, Darky was still some way from the benjo when he slid off the greasy shoulder of the path and into its muddy centre, up to his ankles in filthy mud. He momentarily panicked. His sudden, frantic effort to get back onto former ground excited his bowels. He felt an abrupt loss of extreme tension, with a relieving rush, realised he was shitting himself in the middle of the camp’s main path. (198-99)

To my knowledge nobody was ever shot in our area, but the sadism and cruelty were almost beyond belief. Whilst I was in the Fukuoka camp I met a young Aboriginal who had no legs. He had been punished by being made to kneel on a piece of bamboo for several days. The bamboo cut into his knees and gangrene set in. In the end they had to amputate both his legs. (40)

Two extra guards held hurricane lamps to light the scene now it was night, the prisoner had somehow lost what rags he had and was naked, and the uniforms of the three guards administering the punishment were dark with rain, mud and blood. The prisoner no longer sought to resist or evade his beating but absorbed it as passively as a bag of chaff. When the guards weren’t hitting him with their sticks, they kicked him around like an old ball. But then he no longer looked like a man, but something wrong and unnatural. (308)

In my first two and a half years under the Japanese, I would have willingly exterminated the Japanese from the face of the earth. I thought they were a sadistic and totally brutal race. But as I have developed and matured, as I thought about these things and grew as a human being, I changed my attitude. (40-41)

They wanted to rush the guards, seize the Goanna and the two others, beat them senseless, smash their skulls in until watery grey matter dribbled out, tie them to a tree and run their bayonets in and out of their guts, drape their heads with necklaces of their blue and red intestines while they were still alive so the guards might know a measure of their hate. The prisoners thought that and then they thought they could not think that. (298) After the war people would ask me, ‘Do you hate the Japanese?’ I’d say, ‘No. I don’t hate the Japanese. I just hate fascism and militarism’. (41) 


Tom Uren was President of the Evatt Foundation from 1989 to 1997 and a Life Member. Straight left was published by Random House in 1994. Richard Flanagan, The narrow road to the deep north, was published by Vintage Books in 2013. Of 13000 Australians who laboured on the railway, 2800 died, or more than one in five. By August 1945, a total of 8000 Australians had died as prisoners of war of the Japanese in all camps, half the Australians who had died in the war against Japan.


Suggested citation

Sheil, Christopher, 'What was it like?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, December 2015.<>


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