THE UBON POW CAMP AND AIRSTRIP
© 2015 Ray Withnall
Just six months before the end of the War in the Far East, the Japanese ordered prisoners to construct an airstrip at Ubon to defend their positions in North East Thailand close to the border of Indo China (modern day Laos and Cambodia).
For the three thousand British, Dutch, Australian and American POWs, Ubon was their final camp before liberation from three and a half years of slavery and hell. It was at Ubon where their thoughts turned to freedom and home. No more would they answer to the Japanese.
In August 1945, the tables turned for the Japanese and Korean guards as they were detained in the Ubon camp for several months before returning to their own countries. The camp finally closed in early 1946.
The following narrative is ‘work in progress’. It contains abridged POW experiences, an abbreviated version of the role of the Special Operations Executive in liberating the camp and touches on the influence Colonel Toosey had on the troops under his command.
The comprehensive story will appear in the next few months. It chronicles the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as their objectives changed from preparing the Free Thai Movement to attack Japanese positions around Ubon to liberating and repatriating the POWs. It connects Ubon with the political shenanigans between the American, British and Thai governments as well as the internal spats and rivalries between ambitious civil servants and stubborn military personnel. It describes the camp and its occupants in the months following the end of the war.
Ubon’s full name is Ubon Ratchathani. It is located in North East Thailand 650 kilometres east of Bangkok and close to the borders with Laos and Cambodia. It is not particularly popular with tourists, but it is an important university city and is the centre of the area’s rice farming community. Ubon’s unremitting traffic chaos contrasts with the serene beauty of its Buddhist temples amongst peaceful and tranquil gardens. My wife and I have a house in the village of Thamuang, which is about 40 kilometres to the North East of Ubon1. The name of our village is very similar to ‘Tha Muang’ village near to Kanchanaburi, one of the Thai – Burma railway POW camps, but our village has no connection with the railway or POWs.
Although I am a regular visitor to Thamuang, I stumbled upon the existence of the POW camp and airstrip. There was little information available in the library or government offices, and local knowledge seemed almost non-existent.
Today the airstrip is less than half the size it once was but is still used by an amateur pilot and a Swiss ex-pat who enjoys flying his model aircraft. The site of the former POW camp is a field occupied by grazing cattle. Ironically, there is a Honda repair centre next to the field with superb facilities offering first class customer care and service in opulent surroundings.
The war in South East Asia was relentless but towards the end of 1944 and early 1945, the Japanese positions in northeastern Thailand became vulnerable. The Imperial Army added significant numbers to their existing defensive garrisons in the area and to support them they decided to construct an airstrip at Ubon using POW labour from camps on the Thai Burma Railway.
The Japanese Airfield Construction Units claimed land in the village of Ban Nong Phai about nine kilometres north of Ubon on the road leading to Mukdahan2. In January 1945, POWs were taken from holding camps such as Nakon Paton and Nong Pladuk to make the long rail journey to Ubon.
The POWs had already spent three years in captivity and endured unbelievable hardship and deprivation. The Japanese had subjected them to torture, starvation and beatings and over working but they could not destroy the POWs discipline, spirit and comradeship.
Thong Dee3 was a nine-year boy when the Japanese army entered his village and drilled red flags into the ground to indiscriminately claim land. He recalls the villagers being scared by the aggressive soldiers who took what they wanted and destroyed anything in their way.
In February 1945, the first group of POWs arrived in Ubon by train from Bangkok. The railway station is located in the south of the town on the opposite bank of the impressively wide river Mun, which flows quickly through the centre of the Ubon on its way to the Mekong. It was raining when they arrived and Fergus Anckorn of the 118th Field Artillery recalls spending the night on the station platform4. The next morning they crossed the river by ferryboat and marched onto Ban Nong Phai.
The jungles and mountains surrounding their previous camps on the railway gave way to vast flat and featureless land with endless fields in which local Thai farmers toiled to grow rice for their own survival. During February, the fields would be recovering from December’s harvest and the POWs would see parched grey, arid horizons under a hot sun instead of the vibrant colours of a moist humid jungle.
They arrived at an empty field and thought they would be directed to start building their camp, but the Japanese were impatient and ordered the POWs to work immediately on the airstrip. Their clothing was inadequate for sleeping in cold open fields with ever-present mosquitoes at night and a hot relentless sun during the day. Somehow, after working all day on the airstrip they found time and energy to build their camp using all the wood and bamboo they could find.
The experience and ingenuity gained in camps along the railway allowed them to construct a relatively pleasant and practical camp with bamboo water pumps, weather proofed huts, refined canteen facilities, hygienic latrines and improvised medical and surgical equipment.
Maurice Naylor of the 135th Field Regiment remembers that conditions in the Ubon camp were more bearable than the previous camps on the railway. Food was slightly better and, although the unpredictable Japanese maintained the same strict discipline and were quick to reprimand, they seemed slightly more lenient.5
By the end of May, almost 3,000 POWs occupied the Ubon camp. There were 1,460 British, 1,470 Dutch, 100 Australian and 4 Americans. Before arriving in Ubon, most of the British POWs were under the command of Colonel Philip Toosey in Nong Pladuk. Colonel Toosey was a strict disciplinarian, but he was fair and put himself between his men and the Japanese, especially if they were receiving punishment. Colonel Toosey was well liked and respected by all his men and they had faith in his judgement and command. He selected his finest officers to command the Ubon camp; Sergeant Major Sandy McTavish of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Major Slotboom of the Dutch army and gave them his full backing and confidence. His example was held high by the troops and unquestionably helped them through the difficulties of survival in a Japanese POW camp.
The airstrip was located close to the camp, which was a blessing after the dangerous paths in the jungles of the railway. Maurice Naylor remembers that working on the airstrip was not particularly arduous. Working parties dug ballast for the airstrip’s foundations, whilst others levelled and prepared the strip or carried the waste soil to separate tips. The length of the airstrip is believed to be 1,500 metres and the width estimated at 30 metres.
Major Cheda commanded the camp and because he was anxious that the work should be completed on time, he would not allow the POWs any free time for entertainment. Despite his worries, by the end of May, progress was good and to the delight of the POWs, he allowed the entertainers amongst them to produce several impromptu variety performances on the condition that there was no laughter. The Japanese were sensitive to being the subject of POW humour and banned laughter fearing jokes, satire and ridicule or repugnant comment they could not understand. The penalty was a severe beating and a suspension of performances. However, most of the time, the POWs repressed their sniggers and giggles and after a while, Major Cheda allowed the ‘Ubon Concert Party’ to build a stage for more ambitious performances.
The camp medical diary reveals many cases of malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea as well as ailments from carbuncles to tooth ache. However, thankfully there were few deaths and only one recorded case of cholera. Ironically, there was at least one case of constipation.
With the airstrip almost complete, an occasional Japanese plane flew in with supplies (for the Japanese) and the camp and the village fell into a regular routine. However, the monsoon rains were expected from June onwards and the villagers could be seen working in their fields from daybreak to nightfall as the annual cycle of growing rice began again.
The Beginning of the End
By mid 1944, Thailand’s relationship with Japan at all levels was worsening. Although Thailand’s relationship with the allies was not perfect (Thailand was theoretically at war with Great Britain), there was enough impetuous to negotiate an agreement allowing British and American secret service personnel to train and co-ordinate the guerrilla activities of the Free Thai Movement.
By December 1944, plans were agreed allowing British SOE and American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers into designated areas.
In May 1945, Major David Smiley and a small group of SOE trained soldiers of Force 136 parachuted into North East Thailand. They were warmly welcomed, and quickly started training various guerrilla groups in between making desperate attempts to arm them for an anticipated co-ordinated offensive on Japanese positions in September.
However, by the end of July 1945, on the wider front of the war in South East Asia, the Japanese government and military commanders realised that they could not sustain their stranglehold and were heading towards defeat. Their total resources were stretched and frontline supplies dwindling. Shipping and aircraft lost in battle could not be replaced at the same rate they were being destroyed.
Facing defeat, the Japanese ordered Ubon’s POWs to dig deep trenches across the airstrip, allegedly to prevent allied aircraft from landing. However, later evidence suggests that the Japanese High Command issued secret orders to Major Cheda instructing him to shoot all POWs and bury them in the trenches if allied forces invaded Thailand. Japanese and POW emotions were understandably tense and the mood in the camp changed. Suspicion and confusion between the POWs and their captors was not helped by rumour and counter rumour of events outside the camp. Some guards began to fear retribution and tried to befriend the POWs but this was met with misgivings and scepticism.
The End of the Nightmare
Following the A bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war with Japan ended on 15 August and strong speculation that the Japanese were defeated began to circulate throughout the Ubon camp. Since Ubon’s remoteness in the North East of Thailand meant that news from the outside world was slow to arrive, it was not until the 18 August that Major Cheda reluctantly announced to the assembled POWs that the war had ended. He could not bring himself to say that Japan was defeated.
The news they had been waiting and praying for had finally arrived, but they were stunned. Maurice Naylor felt the news was unreal and Fergus Anckorn recalls he stood in silence as the news sank in. The Dutch did not express any great outburst of joy but the Australians were reported to be more exuberant.
The end of the war meant that the allied plan to attack Japanese positions was abandoned and Major Smiley’s role changed. He received new orders to protect the POWs from Japanese and Korean reprisal, to liberate the Ubon camp, prepare for repatriation and arrest and disarm the defeated all Japanese soldiers North East Thailand.
Major Smiley travelled to Ubon and made contact with the camp’s British officers who were surprised and delighted to meet a liberating officer so quickly. They requested urgent medical supplies, clothing and food, which were ordered and delivered by air from Calcutta a few days later.
On the 26 August 1945, Colonel Toosey arrived in the camp to a rapturous reception. He was relieved to find the men in a clean camp in a relatively good state of health with discipline well maintained by Sergeant Major McTavish. Colonel Toosey’s standards of dignity, discipline and care were significant at Ubon and all of his men repaid him by restraining their frustration and anger against the Japanese and Korean guards.
The following day Colonel Toosey and Major Smiley met for the first time. Their first priority was to attend a parade of the POWs. The proud men lined up in an assortment of makeshift clothing; straw hats, ragged shorts or loincloths and only a few had footwear. They had survived three and a half years of pain and they stood to attention with bursting pride and their dignity intact. As the national flags of the United Kingdom, Holland, Australia and United States were raised and the Japanese flag lowered, Major Smiley, one of the hardest soldiers in the British army, had great difficulty holding back his tears. The POWs were free at last and for the first time they could say ‘no’ to the Japanese.
Major Smiley’s next priority was to repatriate the POWs to their homelands, but again this would take time and the men had to be patient. Meanwhile they could enjoy their freedom, but Colonel Toosey insisted his officers maintain discipline. Thong Dee recalls that he was allowed to go into the camp and, even though he could not speak English, he made friends with the ex-POWs. The local Thai people were keen to help the men and organised sports and parties whilst the logistics were arranged.
On the 25 September 1945, the last of the British ex-POWs travelled to Bangkok by train on the first leg of their journey home but this time there was enough room to sit down in comfort. Most of the Dutch ex-POWs wanted to be repatriated to the Dutch East Indies, but this territory was under civil war, which caused further delay. Eventually it was decided to arm them with ex-Japanese weapons and train them ready to fight when they eventually returned to their country.
The Royal Thai Army took over the responsibility of guarding the camp, which did not close when the last ex-POW departed. It transformed into the processing centre, effectively a detention camp, for an estimated 10, 000 Japanese and Korean soldiers from the North East Thailand area. Several of these soldiers, including Major Chida, were identified as criminals, arrested, and sent to Singapore to stand trial for war crimes.
The Forgotten Airstrip and POW camp
By January 1946, the camp was empty and the village of Ban Nong Phia returned to normality. The airstrip quickly fell into disuse and Thong Dee and his friends played in craters left by allied bombs. They occasionally found unexploded shells and sadly, one child was killed in an accident whilst mishandling a grenade. Today the airstrip is much shorter and narrower and the remaining section is resurfaced in concrete.
1. On road 2050 between Ubon and Trakan Phutpon.
2. Today this on road 212 travelling north from Ubon.
3. Thong Dee is a resident of Ban Nong Phai and was interviewed at his home September 2015.
4. Fergus Anckorn interview August 2015
5. Maurice Naylor interview August 2015
Thanks to the following:
1. The family of Colonel Philip Toosey
2. The family of Major David Smiley
3. Ex POWs Maurice Naylor and Fergus Anckorn
4. Mr Peter Fyans
5. Mr Sears Eldredge
6. Mr Thong Dee
7. Khamma Sroikham (my patient and understanding wife)
© Ray Withnall-2015
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