In the latter half of 1943, some 400 medical orderlies from Malaya were transferred to construction zones along the so-called Thai-Burma Death Railroad – the 415km railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma – owing to a shortage of personnel.
The 19th Ambulance Corps, commonly known as the “Kudo Butai”, was tasked with the medical care and attention of civilian labourers. The unit had headquarters in Kanchanaburi, where hospitals had been established in addition to those in Wanyei, Kinsaiyok and Nieke on the Thai side, and Aperron and Anaquin on the Burma side.
Among the medical orderlies assigned to the Death Railroad were Pergas Singh, Kantar Singh, and other Sikhs from Malaya. Each group had five members, including a Japanese doctor who was given a Red Cross armband with the Japanese for “doctor” written on it.
For Pergas, there was no mental escape from the horrors of the war. The trauma of his experiences, in the form of nightmares and recurrences of malaria, would remain with him for 50 years until his death.
In 1942, Pergas, a hospital assistant from Parit Buntar in Perak and later in Ipoh, had been picked by the Japanese authorities to work as a medical aide at Labourer Hospital in Wampo. He left from Ipoh to Thailand with other medical personnel by train.
At Ban Pong, they were screened for cholera, inoculated and isolated, before being sent on to Kanchanaburi.
One day, while bathing in the river with his fellow hospital attendants, an RAF plane dropped a bomb in the water. The explosion resulted in the death of his friend and severe injuries for Pergas, who was thrown several metres away upon the riverbank.
Japanese officers and medical personnel came to his aid. Pergas was taken to the hospital and sedated, only to regain consciousness three to four days later. The explosion damaged his hearing, and fragments of shrapnel remained embedded in his legs as they were deemed too risky to remove.
Pergas was repatriated to Malaya in 1943, but would return to Thailand again in the middle of that year until May 1944, making him the longest-serving medic in Wampo.
His niece, Satbant Kaur, told of how her uncle had saved the life of a British prisoner of war who had escaped from the POW camp and hid in the jungle.
Pergas secretly provided food and medication to the prisoner, a British doctor. Had the Japanese found out about this, both of them would surely have been tortured and executed.
When the war ended, the British doctor shared his testimony: “If not because of Pergas Singh, I would not have been alive today. He has saved me from death at the hands of the Japanese.”
Pergas was awarded a medal of defence and letter of commendation for his service.
Another Sikh from Malaya, Kantar Singh, a hospital assistant from Penang, was also taken to the Death Railway to serve at the Laborers Hospital in Thailand. His father, Kesar Singh, had been with the Federated Malay States Railway Police.
The tropical climate was unforgiving. The heat and humidity of the wet season meant diseases such as cholera, malaria, painful skin conditions, secondary infections, and tropical ulcers were rampant, decimating the workforce. Even the Japanese doctors became ill.
Kantar was a hospital assistant who had experience with such skin-related illnesses. As a result, he treated many labourers, Japanese soldiers and officers, and POWs during his time on the Death Railway.
Kantar and his team used indigenous methods such as making “bandages” from the bark of banana trees, owing to a shortage of supplies. They tore at the bark of banana trees and dried the pieces, resulting in a texture similar to cloth bandages.
So who was Kantar? A student of Bukit Mertajam High School, he rose from a straggling youngster to become a star athlete who took part in state matches, playing rugby, hockey and cricket for Penang.
He did well in his Cambridge examinations and went on to study medicine. Later, he became the secretary of the Federation of Government Medical Services Union, as well as president of the National Union of Hospital Assistants.
Kantar was also the president of the Penang Medical Staff Union, and worked as a senior medical assistant at Hospital Balik Pulau on Penang island until 1975, when he retired. He died in the 1980s.
Another story was shared by Lieutenant James Bradley in his book “Towards The Setting Sun: An Escape From The Thailand Burma Railway”. Bradley, who died aged 91, was part of an escape from a Japanese POW camp in 1943.
Of the 10 men who broke out, five died on the run; Bradley and the remaining four were recaptured after eight weeks in the jungle.
After a train journey to Moulmein, the men were interrogated by the Japanese before being examined by Dr Sohan Singh, who was appalled by their state. Bradley by this point weighed less than 38kg, while his compatriot Ian Moffat had severe leg ulcers.
“There was a scarcity of bandages with the result that used bandages had to be reused, again and again, after washing. (Dr Sohan Singh) had no bandages, so he tore up his turban to bind the prisoner of war’s serious leg ulcers,” Bradley wrote.
Pergas, Kantar and Sohan are just three of the many officers and orderlies whose selfless work ethic had helped many live through the ordeal of the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Thanks to their sacrifices, they undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.
The writer wishes to acknowledge:
- Satbant Kaur, Ravi Singh, Dr Manmohan Singh, Jeet Kaur, Raghbir Singh, and Rajindar Singh Bedi for interviews;
- the International Committee of the Red Cross;
- the Second World War Experience Centre, West Yorkshire;
- Dr Paul H Kratoska; and the book “Malayan Labor on the Thailand-Burma Railway” by Nakahara Michiko.
Harchand Singh Bedi is a historian, researcher and writer from Ipoh.