Across The Three Pagodas Pass

Across The Three Pagodas Pass

by Yoshihiko Futamatsu, Peter N. Davies, Ewart Escritt

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The translator Ewart Escrit was a POW who worked on the Railway for several years. In the 1980s, through a series of coincidences, Peter N. Davies, a distinguished scholar at Liverpool University, wrote a biography of British POW Camp Commander Philip Toosey, under whom Escritt was to serve on different camp-sites. Colonel Toosey was the senior officer inaccurately


The translator Ewart Escrit was a POW who worked on the Railway for several years. In the 1980s, through a series of coincidences, Peter N. Davies, a distinguished scholar at Liverpool University, wrote a biography of British POW Camp Commander Philip Toosey, under whom Escritt was to serve on different camp-sites. Colonel Toosey was the senior officer inaccurately portrayed by Alec Guinness in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

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Across the Three Pagodas Pass

The Story of the Thai-Burma Railway

By Yoshihiko Futamatsu, Peter N. Davies, Ewart Escritt

Global Books Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Renaissance Books
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-898823-07-0



The policy of continuing the war between China and Japan was not approved by America and, with their anti-Japanese freezing of assets as well as of oil in the southern zone, our country was increasingly under coercion. Diplomatic relations between Japan and America becoming difficult, secret preparations were pushed ahead in case by any chance it came to war. So far as we knew at the time diplomatic negotiations between Japan and America were believed to be succeeding.

Gunzoku, civilian auxiliaries of Japanese nationality, were called up nation-wide, higher management, junior management and other employees according to the district where they were born. Special Railway Bridge Unit was formed of gunzoku, as an auxiliary of a railway regiment. In the battle-zone, a railway regiment's role was to work on the enemy's railway lines and to administer the rear organization. In the event of an outbreak of war in the southern war theatre (to which we suspected we were due to join, being equipped with light summer clothing) the whole force to which we were attached had a complement of about 2,000 men. I was attached to unit HQ and in addition to me there were thirteen gunzoku senior officials in the four working companies. There were about seventy junior officials of NCO rank and altogether about 500 gunzoku were attached to the HQ and working companies. The unit was due to be sent to the Malayan front as a part of the Expeditionary Force with the Imperial Guard Division, who were nick-named 'Miya'. Junior officials wore swords at the hip but ordinary employees had side-arms only and did not have rifles. Because we gunzoku for the most part had no experience of military training (the junior officials did not even know how to salute) we were all at sea and confused.

In the afternoon of 24 October our transport, the Hakuroku maru, slipped her moorings in the port of Osaka. She passed through the Straits of Shimonoseki, moving out to the open sea and that evening passed in the offing at the western tip of Kyushu through the chain of five islands and we saw from the ship the last trace of Japanese land like the shadow of a sea-borne bird. No-one would have believed that we were to live abroad for over five years. We had contracted at our enlistment for repatriation every two years.

We entered some part of the South China Sea, seas became rough, and the ship tossed about left and right as if she were tipsy. In heavy seas the convoy ships which formed our fleet went out of sight. We passed close to Taiwan and began to feel hot. Our ship was heading for the southern region.



On the anniversary of the Emperor Meiji's birthday, 3 November, we reached the waters off the southern coast islands and the following day entered the port of Haiphong, at that time a French possession in Indo-China (now North Vietnam). It was known as 'Indo' for short. Near the ship were cargo-handling lighters (sampans) and a crowd of peddlers' little boats. Their Annamese dress was new to me and when I heard them talking I realized I had indeed come to a foreign country and for the first time I set foot on foreign soil.

Even at night the heat did not abate. On the lovely lakeside of Granlac the chalkstone buildings were reflected in the quiet waters of the lake. One walked down tree-lined streets and in the French manner cafés lined the sidewalks. There were petits fours cakes which were sweet-tasting, and we enjoyed a helping.

In mid-November we were transferred from Haiphong to towns along the line of the transverse railway called The Phut & Embai Line. The train crossed a high steel bridge over the River Songkoi called Bon de mer. The bridge served two purposes, first as a bridge route: second, when there were no trains it isolated the railtrack which provided unusual facilities. At Embai there was military training every day.

My unit was the first to go to Saigon. On 25 November we entrained at Haiphong station. From the carriage window you could see the South China Sea. Somehow the atmosphere was tense, but one still sensed no indication that one was at war. The train arrived at Saigon on 28 November. Saigon was called the Paris of the Orient, a beautiful town which Frenchmen took to their hearts. On the main street under the rows of trees in Maronie there were cafés and at teatime a band performed a musical programme. The leaves in the line of trees shone through and through in the hot southern sun, trembling and whispering in the breeze. I remember my first taste of snails as the French cooked them. I bought clothes to combat the heat, short-sleeves, divided hakama (trousers), lightweight gear suitable for the southern region. Even so, the sword at one's hip was somewhat of a nuisance.

At the end of November, together with Matsudaira, the railway chief official at HQ, I went to Cambodia to survey their railways. When we essayed to go into Phnom Penh station, a section of track on the line over the frontier had been damaged and the Tsujima Battalion of 5 Railway Regiment was standing by charged with the duty of re-connecting it. The section of damaged track between the Cambodian line and the southern part of the Thai line was said to be on the Thai side of the frontier. Unit commander Major Tsujima was worried because our survey showed the frontier area was dangerous. Even up to this moment we could not forecast when war would start for Japan; we were hoping that there would be an agreed settlement in the negotiations with the Americans. Still, hour by hour, we lived in the shadow of war.

On 1 December our survey unit travelled from Phnom Penh on the Cambodian line, our object being to utilize an efficient transport capability for which we had to verify the viability of the railtrack. To safeguard our secret undercover movements, we were disguised as ships' passengers and tourists. By chance a Frenchman who was travelling on our train saw us and my chief, Matsudaira, told me to keep him under observation. I invited him to the dining-car, having recourse to my sole stock of French, bonjour and merci, gave him several cups of coffee, trying to make him feel at ease and not get wind of our survey. This was an unexpected tough job added to a difficult survey job.

The following day we arrived at the station on the frontier. From the station the frontier was two to three hundred metres to the North, and a bridge was being built over a small river.

The station-master treated us in a friendly manner but we didn't understand a word. We talked to yesterday's Frenchman and he ended up by being interpreter in buying some lovely silks. We asked the station-master to be our guide as we thought we would like to go and see the bridge at the frontier. He led us to the river -bank and we all got into a boat pointing downstream, but when we got close to the bridge we saw on both banks machine-gun emplacements sited menacingly. At the moment when he led us to the boat on the river-bank a couple of Japanese soldiers had come and asked to go with us. They were without badges of rank and weren't carrying swords. The boat was handled by the stationmaster, going downstream in mid-river, because that was thought to be the frontier-line. He was worried he might be shot at if he went over it. Apart from being in the narrow confines of a boat it was a small boat and he was crossing the bridge-route. It's odd, but our bridge survey was accompanied by bursts of laughter!

That evening at the shelter we were stopping at, these two infantry officers greeted us and courteously offered their help at the frontier station. It was surprising that they were travelling at the frontier as ordinary soldiers without side-arms. They were people from an advance party and it looked as if the moment to occupy Thailand had come as they were reconnoitring the frontier. From such circumstances one supposed it was inevitable that hostilities would break out, and I was not sure whether I felt belligerent or not – on arrival at Saigon my own bridge unit was also an advance party.

On 4 December a warning order came from 2 Railway HQ that, '4 Special Railway Unit must wait for their advance into Malaya until X and Y hours.' Chief Official Nishijima, who happened to be present, was looking for a pretext for advancing into Malaya, a British possession, but an essential pre-condition was lacking – he had been told that X, Y and Z days had to seem likely to happen. To me it was a quite intractable problem but indicators were appearing moment by moment that we were being dragged bodily into war.



On 8 December 1941 I was at the HQ's lines-of-communication hotel in a corner of Rue Catenar, Saigon. At the hotel entrance an Imperial Guard Division sentry stood on guard. In the garden red canna flowers basked in the morning sun, blooming in a blaze of colour. I went into the hotel lobby and listened to a radio broadcast in Japanese. It was nine o'clock in the morning. The broadcast was serious.

The source was an IJA GHQ communiqué. What we heard was that the Imperial Japanese Empire was involved at midnight in a state of war following the joint American-English proclamation of war on Japan, and in an instant our feelings became taut and tense. The successful surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was reported. As I stood there in the lobby, I heard the news repeated, that the American-British declaration marked the start of the war for Japan. When the negotiations with America were broken off, this had meant war. This news came as a shock. Since our departure from the homeland the unit had been reorganized and up to embarcation was under strict orders to keep secret that it was an undercover transport unit and so we made a showy departure for the front and each individual was furnished with a copy of a meaningful label: but we really knew it meant war. On the Cambodia frontier the circumstances made everyone tense. One began to unravel that mysterious order of a few days ago. One renews his decision to give selfless patriotic service and even if one became a victim there's nothing he can do about it but resign himself to the thought that in the end he returns as a hero to the Yasukuni Shrine. We had tended so far to lose our bearings, got needlessly worried. The unit commander addressed us and boosted our morale.

We soon became front-line troops at Phnom Penh. At the crossing-point on the Mekong river our trucks had to await their turn on the ferry. At Phnom Penh was the royal palace and the streets of this Cambodian capital were newly completed. At city centre there was a star-shaped market where they sold big spiny-lobsters and big crabs, an impressive sight, but we had no time for sightseeing. News came that in the offing at Kuantan on the Malayan Peninsula the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse of the British Far East Squadron had been attacked and sunk by Japanese naval aircraft. There came also a report that the Japanese Army was making a lightning conquest of Malaya. That Japan at the start of hostilities should win such victories delighted me, it was a heartening thing, but thereafter one did not expect anything quite so dramatic.

On 12 December I went from the unit to the Bangkok HQ in advance, having been given responsibility for liaison and for fixing up billets. More and more joining in warlike activities unilaterally, I became unexpectedly cool in what really was audacious activity. Because my duty lay in the rear echelon, where there was no fighting, I did not give a thought to the risk of being killed. For some days before leaving for the front I had been excessively busy. I had even begun to get acclimatized to the heat of the southern regions and, sleeping at night, I recalled winters at home. I waited for seventeen days and then left Phnom Penh HQ, riding in Lt -Colonel Mayama's car. We went North along the River Mekong, passed over the frontier and broke into Thailand. On the highway into Bangkok the traffic was congested with Japanese Army lorries. The rule of the road varied in Indo-China, Cambodia and Thailand and across the frontier traffic accidents occurred, even a head-on collision. But the highway on both sides was broad, with no ups-and-downs, and essentially ran straight ahead. Apart from low scrub and coconut palms, it was an unpopulated stretch. That evening we passed a hamlet called Don Muang, a resort in the northern suburbs, and in the distance could see pagodas in the sunset sky. This was Bangkok. I felt deep emotion as my war ensued from that point. I recall the triumphal entry into the streets of Bangkok, at the crossroads with the Anung Sawari Pagoda bathed in the setting sunlight. In Bangkok there were then several hundred Japanese expatriates – and what can such an event, the outbreak of war on 8 December, have meant for them! Originally in business in the commercial district and later with 9 Railway Regiment's Sakamoto Battalion, there was, I recall, Mr Chikawa Saburo – who was an experienced interpreter: he wrote:

We broke in and through the Japanese embassy opened negotiations with the Thai Government following what might be called a peaceful occupation. In other parts of Thailand occupation forces bided their time, fully prepared for a show of force if that became necessary. The planned outbreak of war on 8 December being imminent, Prime Minister Phibun of Thailand initially concealed his view that a weakness showed up in the Japanese Government's high-handed demands. Our ambassador tried to probe Phibun's real views. In fact, to the Japanese embassy the decisive issue came when a signal had been put out in the embassy garden for the reconnaissance aircraft sent over quite soon from Main Southern Army HQ. On 7 December the embassy had got ready, against a show of force, a vessel standing by at a Bangkok wharf into which our women and children were put on board. Civilians in the prime of life were concentrated in the embassy to resist their adversaries, the Thai Army, when the Japanese Army moved in. On the vessel light machine-guns and other weapons were put on board in secret, and at the embassy itself the entrance had barbed-wire entanglements set up as a barricade. All this was completed by midnight. So on 8 December our occupation force began their assault, the landing campaign was put into execution, there was spasmodic resistance from the Thai Army at its bases on the southern waterfront of Bangkok, at Chumphon in the South and elsewhere. Phibun called a conference, consented to a peaceful occupation, called off the Thai forces' resistance, the embassy and our compatriots were safe and the Japanese Army of Occupation welcomed.

Shortly after I entered Bangkok an attempt was made to find residences of British subjects within the City limits: they had all evacuated pell-mell, inside their houses no furniture, clothing, etc. was to be found, not even a single sheet of paper! At the residence of Ambassador Crosby was found his signed notice ordering them to evacuate with each individual's life and property his own personal responsibility. England, without any sort of previous notice, in an unexpected coup had declared war. Allowing for the time difference, the Japanese Army, with a previously announced declaration of war, made landings and surprise assaults on Singora and Kota Bharu in the northern part of the Malayan Peninsula. In fact, in an article in the Singapore special edition (October 1979) of the British magazine, After the Battle, Prime Minister Churchill, in the opening paragraph of his diplomatic document, transmitted to the Japanese Government what amounted to an ultimatum. The passage runs: 'To have opened hostilities without giving any previous notice is a matter of regret. Here, England declares a break-off of diplomatic relations with Japan.' Former prisoner-of-war, Mr Adams, in his recollections states: 'England was involved in an endless war.'


Excerpted from Across the Three Pagodas Pass by Yoshihiko Futamatsu, Peter N. Davies, Ewart Escritt. Copyright © 2013 Renaissance Books. Excerpted by permission of Global Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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