Severed heads and DIY anaesthetic – memoirs of a PoW of the Japanese

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ONE of the last surviving veterans who worked on the notorious Burma Death Railway after being taken prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War has broken his silence about the ordeal.

Gordon Smith, now 91, dropped out of his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was captured in 1942 during a jungle ambush in Malaya while defending the British colony.

But despite being beaten, forced to work relentlessly while on starvation rations, and suffering from malaria, the 21-year-old Scots lieutenant was eventually assigned the role of camp anaesthetist and used his medical training to save lives.

The 258-mile long stretch of railway between Thailand and Burma was vital for the Japanese military to support their forces in the Burma campaign. The project, which should have taken five years, was finished in 14 months, claiming the lives of around 13,000 allied troops and 100,000 civilian labourers.

Mr Smith, from Peebles, has self-published his book War Memories: A medical Student in Malaya and Thailand to mark the 70th anniversary of Britain surrendering Singapore to Japan in February 1942.

Speaking from his home in the Borders, Mr Smith said: “I’ve never spoken about it. I am talking about it finally because one has to teach others what one knows. It’s very important.”

In his book, Mr Smith describes the horror of arriving at the prison camp following his capture and being incarcerated along with another 100 prisoners in a cramped cell measuring around 20ft by 10ft.

“The first thing we saw outside the entrance were two long boards with lots of heads on them,” he said.

“These were Chinese prisoners who’d been beheaded. I can’t describe the horror of it. We were in there for almost a month. About 20 died.”

Mr Smith said his luck changed when the prison doctors recognised his medical experience and assigned him duties carrying out malaria tests and appointing him camp anaesthetist.

The young officer built a makeshift gas mask to sedate suffering patients during at least 20 amputations.

“We were mainly taking off legs,” he said. “I made a machine, a little mask to put on people’s faces with a cloth attached.

“I could pour the chloroform, which we managed to buy from locals, on to a cloth. That would leave me with one hand free to open his eyes to see what state he was in.

“It was a difficult life there and about 75 per cent died.”

But in August 1945, with the Allies tightening the net, Mr Smith, by now weighing just six stone, and his fellow prisoners were taken away on train for execution by firing squad.

However, mid-journey, the United States dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan that brought the war to an end. The journey ended abruptly in Bangkok when the train screeched to a halt, the doors opened and the men were told the war was over.

Mr Smith said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that if that train had reached its destination everyone on board would have been killed.

“I found out from villagers they had a large pit already dug for the officers’ bodies.”

Mr Smith returned to Scotland after four-and-a-half years away from home where he was reunited with his parents and married his childhood sweetheart Sheela.

War Memories: A medical Student in Malaya and Thailand is available at Whities bookshop, Peebles, or by email peterszak@btinternet.com