Skip to Content

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

Death on the railway

by August 20, 2016 General
Nightmares: POW railway survivor John Tarrant, 98 years, shows the list he compiled of his World War II tour of duty, including prison camps.

Nightmares: POW railway survivor John Tarrant, 98 years, shows the list he compiled of his World War II tour of duty, including prison camps.

GUNNER John Tarrant went overseas in World War II to fight for his country, but he got precious little in return.

SLAVES: Workers on the Burma-Thailand railway were fed little and conditions were life-threatening. Thousands died.

SLAVES: Workers on the Burma-Thailand railway were fed little and conditions were life-threatening. Thousands died.

In fact, his war service almost cost him his life, his sanity and ruined his health.

Even today, the widower is hyper vigilant, tending to sit with his back to the wall.

He is one of the unknown faces of war, one of the dwindling number of survivors from the infamous Thai-Burma railway, often best known these days as WWII’s ‘death railway’.

A battler all his life, the Hunter Valley man felt he was having more aches and rheumatic pains than usual last year and finally admitted with regret to a daughter; “you know, I think I’m getting old”. He was 97 years at the time.

Now a year older, frailer than before, with hollow cheeks, parchment-like skin and a weary smile, he knows he’s lucky to be around.

“Years ago (on the Thai-Burma railway) life got very hard. I was down to skin-and-bones at war’s end, down to only five stone in weight (31.7kgs). I’m nearly about that weight again now,” he said ruefully.

And last week, after a request from Raymond Terrace RSL sub branch to Weekender to learn more of his war experiences, John Tarrant broke his silence, at age 98, to talk publicly for the first time in 70 years.

“When us Aussie soldiers were repatriated home at war’s end, officers told us not to talk about our experiences. It was supposed to be all kept secret. Others later did talk, that’s how people know about it today,” he said. 

 A member of the 2/15th Field Regiment, Tarrant enlisted at Manly, in Sydney, in 1940 to become part of the Second Australian Imperial Force (2nd AIF), assigned to the 8th Division.

Tarrant’s Army field artillery regiment was then sent to Malaya and Singapore in late 1941 in the face of a looming Japanese invasion.

As part of the 2/15th’s 30th battery, Tarrant was attached to a forward observation post in the face of a bloody Japanese advance down the peninsula.

Tarrant later confessed to a doctor he then saw “enough corpses” to haunt his dreams. But worse was to follow.

With thinly stretched ranks, the 2/15th soldiers fought a brave rearguard action back down the peninsula to Singapore, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy.

Then on February 2, 1942, the Singapore garrison commander Lieutenant General Arthur Percival gave the order for all Allied forces to surrender.

The official war records show Tarrant and another 555 personnel from the 2/15th were captured to spend 3 ½ years in brutal captivity under the Japanese. Almost 300 men died.

The major Japanese push was to build the 415-kilometre Burma-Siam (Thailand) railway between Non Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar).

Built between October 1942 and October 1943, more than 12,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) died working on the jungle railway in appalling conditions. More than 2700 Aussies alone died.

Probably up to 75,000 Asian labourers also died. The emaciated Allied soldiers, starved of food and medicines and working with primitive tools, became living skeletons falling ill with malnutrition, dysentery, cholera, dengue fever and beri-beri

Tarrant said clothes and shoes rotted away in the jungle humidity. Men worked almost naked in tiny loincloths tied up with bits of string, their ribcages almost exposed.

“There was no escape. Two officers had a go, but were caught near the Indian border and shot. There was disease and no medicine and where would you go?”

Their Japanese and Korean guards regarded the Allied POWs with contempt, thinking them unworthy of respect because they had surrendered. They provided POWs with insufficient rations and medicines while cranking up the daily work quota. 

“We all had malaria and dysentery, but luckily I didn’t catch cholera. I was very careful with eating and drinking. I drank only boiled water,” Tarrant said.

“Everyone looked after their mates which was probably the reason anyone at all survived.”

Meagre, liquefied cupfuls of rice were all the Aussie POWs regularly got to eat. Sometimes maggots crawled around in them.

“We ate them, too. It was a bit of protein. If you did, you knew you might get out alive eventually. We ate anything we could get, like rats, dogs or snake –it tasted like fish,” Tarrant said.

“If a python was sighted, the work gang would all jump on it and then get the Jap guard to use his bayonet to cut its head off. He’d get a bit, too, as a way of thanks.

“One time we chased a goanna up a tree, so we had to cut the tree down to get it. If the Japanese used explosives in a river for the railway route, we’d get a feed of fish after.”

Tarrant said with scant medicines, tropical ulcers were common as his road gang broke up sharp rocks for road base to build train embankments.

All he could do with a festering ulcer was to use a sharpened spoon to cut it out, then clean it. 

Tarrant said their primitive work tools came from discarded rail metal, making improvised shovels and chunkels (hoes), then hauling away heavy rubble in two-handed bamboo baskets.

Finally, the war ended in 1945, but trouble for Gunner Tarrant, still thin and ill, wasn’t over. He became separated from his companions and wasn’t returned to the AIF in Singapore, but instead was sent by British aircraft to Rangoon, in Burma, then by ship to Calcutta in India, despite his protests.

“The confusion was over my name, Tarrant, I think. It’s English-sounding,” he said.

“All my pleadings fell on deaf ears and I never saw a doctor, although food was plentiful. The English soon left and I found myself alone and frightened. Then I heard the voice of this Australian lady, Pat Barrett, secretary of the Governor of Bengal, Lord Casey, who was touring the wards.

“My presence was unknown until then. She got me on two planes and back to Perth.”

Tarrant’s daughter Jenny Benn, said the war experience dramatically changed her father’s outlook on life. Post-war, Tarrant married and had two children and “lots of jobs”.

Being responsible for a family, however, meant he had to settle down in one spot, at Raymond Terrace. A decade later, his Hunter St home, went under in the mighty 1955 flood. He joined the local RSL, but now rarely goes there because of his age.

“Dad couldn’t go anywhere where there were crowds. As soon as people got to know him at jobs, he’d leave and he’s had to fight for anything he’s got,” daughter Jenny Benn said.

A loner, a non-drinker who suffers from hookworm, with increasing nightmares and significantly depressed, a doctor finally diagnosed him in 1998 as suffering chronic post traumatic stress.

The long-term psychological and physical scars of being a slave of the Japanese

Imperial Army for years, then later feeling abandoned in Calcutta, meant he retired early, at age 60, from his job as a baker in July 1978.

“My quality of life has been much reduced and the stress I still go through is sometimes too much to bear,” Tarrant once wrote to doctors.

“The trauma of my experiences has never left me and even now more than 50 years later I still suffer from nightmares over the matter.

“This very trying and distressful experience has been the cause of much of my mental problems and will never leave me in this life.”    

And he fully appreciates how later soldiers, Vietnam veterans, were spurned on their return to Australia from Asia in the 1970s.

“Things change, but one thing I’ll always remember, and it still hurts, is the first time I walked into an RSL club in Sydney after WWII,” Tarrant said.

“I was more or less ignored there. When I asked why, I was told it was because we soldiers had surrendered. The Pommies spread the lie Aussie soldiers were responsible for the fall of Malaya, but it was the English who’d told all the Aussies to surrender to the Japanese,” an outraged John Tarrant said.