Tag Archives: Kanchanaburi

Researching my Uncle John Purcell

By Hilary Purcell
John William Purcell (known to family as Jack). Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

My paternal uncle John William Purcell (known to family as Jack) served in the Royal Signals (service number 2589375) as a dispatch rider. He became a Japanese prisoner of war and sadly didn’t return home. I started to research my family history about 15 years ago.  All I had was a box of photos and letters.

One letter, dated 10/2/41, was from a family in Cape Town, South Africa, who entertained Jack and his pals en route to Singapore. They wrote ‘Jack is a fine fellow, very fit and enjoying the journey’.

John William Purcell seen front row, right. Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

In 2008 I had a holiday in Thailand meeting up with my daughter living in Australia. Having done only a minimal amount of research I realised we should take the opportunity to fly up to Bangkok for a few days and go up to the cemetery in Kanchanaburi. With information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission giving his grave location, we made a visit. I was very moved at the peacefulness, tranquillity and how beautiful it was kept. 

Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

Since then, working at Neston High School I was pleased to be involved in Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) project. Several departments including English, Art and Design and Technology contributed to Secret Art of Survival project, creating a wall hanging, artworks and a replica bamboo dentist chair, respectively. It was also a privilege to attend a thought-provoking yet beautiful service to commemorate FEPOW, on 17th November 2019 at Liverpool Parish Church of Our lady and St Nicholas.

During the FEPOW project I met Professor Gill and Meg Parkes. Meg was keen to see my treasured photos and letters including Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Through Meg I was put in touch with FEPOW researcher Keith Andrews who was able to give me further information and another contact, Terry Manttan, the manager of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Terry was able to translate the index card for me:

‘The front of the card shows us that he was captured in Singapore and would have been held initially in Changi POW Camp. In the Number box we see the characters for Malai POW Camp Roll 3, which I believe would have been River Valley Road. The Malai characters have been crossed through and replaced by the one for Thailand POW Camp 1. This means he was transferred to Work Group 1 (Allied terminology), or Camp 1 (Japanese terminology) on the Thai-Burma Railway’.

Uncle Jack’s original POW index card. Image courtesy of Hilary Purcell.

Not long after, I was delighted to receive an email from Terry, via Keith.

‘One of those strange and unexplainable things that keep happening… today I was reading a man’s memoirs while researching another fellow and came across a reference to Johnny Purcell. Of course this rang a bell, and on checking it turned out to be the man I just sent you the info about’.

THAILAND SLEEPER AND RAIL LAYERS

Extract from…………BURROWS, NORMAN WILLIAM, L/CPL 2589933

‘Then came the cholera. Johnny Purcell, another DR, was the cleanest man you could imagine, always kept himself smart, and his mess tin was always sparkling.  We went to bed that night and we were now …………under canvas. Twelve of us in the tent, and by the morning Johnny Purcell was dead, and three others were in agony with the cholera. You can imagine how we felt – the Japs were in a real panic’.

You can imagine what I felt when I read this little snippet of information.

Terry told me both men, Norman and John, were Signalmen:

‘It follows that John (Jack) Purcell would have most likely been with them from Singapore on the same train which left on 9th November 1942. This was one of the trains that got stopped in transit by the flooded railway in southern Thailand before going on to Ban Pong. As they got to repair the international train line on the way they ended up becoming the specialist group of “sleeper and rail layers’.

These men arrived at Kinsaiyok in July 1943. Cholera hit the camp and Jack was taken ill on 6th August 1943, died on 7th August and was cremated in Kinsaiyok camp. I believe his remains were reburied 6th April 1946 at Kanchanaburi CWGC cemetery in plot 8 H 48.

A very moving letter of condolence sent 3rd January 1946 from his sergeant, Thomas Woodhouse, was received by his mother Barbara Purcell.

‘It may ease you mind considerably if I told you that I knew your son practically from the capitulation until the time of his death and during that time he was in excellent health and spirits, fed well owing to his efforts in bartering with natives ‘.

I wonder how much of this is true.

My research has been an emotional journey, the more you learn the more you want to find out. I consider myself very lucky to have been to Kanchanaburi to pay my respects and I hope to return sometime to have a personalised pilgrimage led by TBRC returning to his known locations.

Sharing Research REALLY helps! Collaboration on the ‘Flying Kampong’

By Meg Parkes, in collaboration with Michiel Schwartzenberg and Keith Andrews

Fourteen years’ ago, I began recording interviews with Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) veterans for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Sixty-seven interviews later, during lockdown centenarian FEPOW Bert Warne accepted an invitation to be interviewed.

I spoke to Bert, who lives in Southampton, via Zoom In early November 2020. Interviewing anyone of such a great age is a privilege. However, when relying on technology, it’s not without its challenges. Bert’s voice is strong, and he speaks quickly with a broad Hampshire accent, which when coupled with a fractional time delay initially led to some confusion. Regrettably, worried that he could not hear me, I ended up shouting at him!

Like thirty-seven of the previous interviewees, Bert was captured in Singapore and later sent to Thailand. Every interviewee has a unique story to tell, Bert mentioned something about the railway that I’d not heard before:

Well then what happened was, when we went from that camp [Konkoita] we didn’t go back on the barge and what we done we used to travel, when we built that railway you could only go so far on what you call a steam locomotive. The thing is they’re heavy see, they’re a terrific the weight you see. So if you’d have gone up country and put a steam train on, it’d have fell through you see, ‘cos it was green see [referring to the wood used to build it]. So, what the Japs did do, which I thought was quite a good idea, their diesel trucks, their lorries, what they done they converted the wheels from the trucks to go on the railway, you see. So, what we used when we were on the railway, when you talk about people being transported on the railway, they weren’t transported with steam locomotives, they were transported by lorries.

Puzzled, I emailed members of the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) to see if anyone had heard about these truck trains. Without delay our Dutch research colleague Michiel Schwartzenberg, emailed:

“He is talking about the ‘Flying Kampong’ a diesel lorry adapted for railroad usage.

The diesel-powered lorries were very practical, and to the Westerners a novelty. The Japanese had to devise something that could move heavy goods along the railway, as there was no road or a dependable river…. There was another advantage as a lorry can move short distances. A steam train has to develop pressure, power and then can move long distances. Obviously, a train can move much heavier loads, but on the railway this was restricted to 10 boxcars”.

Michiel sent these photographs:

Archive photograph of a Flying Kampong at work in Thailand during captivity – Australia War Memorial Reference P000761.043
Archive photograph of a Flying Kampong at work in Thailand during captivity – Australia War Memorial Reference P000406.016

Keith Andrews also responded:

“They were certainly used in some sections of the Railway. Capable of pulling four of the specially built wagons they were excellent for transporting maintenance parties or Japanese troops. They had been used by track laying groups and were in use until the end of the war. I will see what else I can dig up”.

(NB Bert had mentioned that the trucks could only go about 40 miles before they needed diesel).

And he contacted Terry Manttan the manager of the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, who added:

“The converted lorries (truck-trains or “flying kampongs”) were mostly used for short to medium distance movements of working groups of PoWs as they were much more versatile and more readily available for such a function”.

If anyone has any further information about the Flying Kampongs do please share.

Into the jungle

By Louise Reynolds, Author

Good research requires several specialised skills but I never thought that the ability to decipher my father’s handwriting would be one of them.   When my mother died in 2011 we discovered files full of papers connected with my father’s time as a FEPOW in Changi and then up-country in Kanchanaburi.  My father, Eric Cordingly had brought home with him maps, artwork by fellow POWs, and even a complete typed diary of his first year in Changi, together with a Burial Records book, some  hand-written sermons and some scribbled notes on odd pieces of paper. It was an extraordinary and vivid collection from his three and a half years as a Padre and prisoner of war, during which he faithfully carried out his duties as a priest under the most desperate conditions.

I immediately decided to publish a book containing these unique papers and set about putting it all together.   The typed diary was a gift, it was just a matter of choosing sketches and paintings to illustrate the text.  And, fortunately, for his final year back in Changi,  he had written a report for the Assistant Chaplain General’s office in Rangoon.

But how could I cover the most critical time when, with F Force, he was based in Kanburi (as they called it) beside the River Kwai ?  I came across a thin and flimsy Thai child’s exercise book containing detailed pencilled notes and some airmail paper with more notes about the conditions in the hospitals where he was working and from where he buried over 600 young men who had been labouring on the Thai Burma Railway.  He instructed the doctors to let him know if anyone was close to the end and he would try to be at their bedside when they were dying.

The exercise book containing Eric Cordingly’s notes, image courtesy of Louise Reynolds

But his writing, never easy at the best of times, was scribbled in haste and sometimes words or sentences were crossed out and so I began to transcribe it with great care and a lot of anxiety. I gradually discovered that if I took a run at it, so to speak, it was much easier to read because often the clues were in the context. Turning these delicate pages which may not have been touched for 70 years was a tactile experience in itself, and reading his eye witness account of the horrors of daily life was breath-taking:

A page from the exercise book, , image courtesy of Louise Reynolds and partly transcribed below.

“It is too harrowing to picture vividly a ward of men whose sole kit consists of a tin and a spoon and a haversack and a piece of rag, lying on bare bamboo, or rice sacks with no covering until later,  blankets were issued.  The patients present a sorry picture, their exhaustion is so complete that no pain is suffered, they slip into a coma and the end is peaceful.  Each morning several bodies are lying still.”

The words I was transcribing told a sorry tale.  The strange thing was that after twenty minutes or so of this painstaking and absorbing work, I felt that I had plunged into the jungle with them, and, when I emerged, blinking, into daylight, I was astonished to find the normal world going on around me.  This happened to me several times. The cumulative experience of touching and transcribing the papers was very powerful.  I wonder if other RFHG researchers have encountered this phenomenon?


You can read more in Down to Bedrock  The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East prisoner of war Chaplain 1942-45,   by Eric Cordingly    Published in 2013

Contact details:  louisereynolds99@aol.com

Thailand: 25 August 1945

By Michiel Schwartzenberg

On 25 August 1945 RAF 681 Squadron flew a reconnaissance sortie in the Kanchanaburi area and over Bangkok. Subsequently the Photo Interpretation (PI) by 347 Squadron commented on the pictures: ‘Kanchanaburi and Wanhkhani area: large number of prisoners waving at aircraft. Union Jacks displayed in the camps and prisoners “showing great signs of excitement”. Actions of prisoners indicate no supervision or restraint by Japs. Dakotas could drop supplies. Pinpoints easy to find.’[1]

AWM SEA 0063 Alipore, Calcutta, India. 1944-12-28. Framed between two huge aerial cameras, Warrant Officer M. (Bluey) George, RAAF of Gunnedah, NSW (in cockpit), of No. 681 (Spitfire) Squadron RAF, talks to a member of his ground crew before taking off on a reconnaissance sortie. Half the pilots in No. 681 Squadron RAF, a Spitfire photographic reconnaissance squadron operating over Burma and Thailand are members of the RAF. They fly deep into enemy territory to bring back photographs which enable future targets to be selected and damage done by bomber attacks to be assessed.

Also on Saturday 25 August, Mr. P.F. Kuhn Regnier was in Tamuan and began his diary. At 2:30 in the afternoon a fighter was spotted and the PoW ran out and displayed a British flag outside the camp. ‘We’d been expecting some of our planes over for the past few days, as we’d heard wireless broadcasts that supplies would soon be dropped over PoW camps. Everyone raised a mighty cheer and waved frantically at the plane, which acknowledged our waves by a wobbling of its wings from side to side. At the next flypast the pilot opened the canopy and waved. Our feelings then were difficult to describe. He was the first free Allied man that we’d seen over 3,5 years. He then went away […] to do his stuff over the Kanburi Officers camp. Well, we now know that our friends know for certain just where we are, and that we can expect to see the bigger boys coming over during the next few days to drop us much needed and looked forward to supplies by parachute. Everyone in the camp feels 100% happier. It is slowly sinking in that we really are free, and that in a few weeks more we shall be as other men, and shall be out of this dreadful country and such terrible memories once and for all. On that happy day when we shall see old England again.’[2]

One may assume that Mr. Kuhn Regnier was one of the prisoners ‘showing great signs of excitement’; but his wish came true. The mission confirmed to South East Asia Command that the Japanese would abide by the Rangoon Agreement. Later that day “Goldfish”, the codeword for commencing of liberation of the PoW camps, was passed to all the MASTIFF-teams. From 28 august the MASTIFF teams entered the camps and from 1 September the camps were supplied by the RAF.


[1] WO 203/5194 (140) & HS 1/326 (3) Adv 347 SQ PI Section to SACSEA, 25 Aug 1945

[2] Lid Hart GB0099 KCLMA Kuhn-Regnier, Diary