Phitsanulok and History
For many years time goes on and the past is forgotten or it is never known about. Sometimes you can live in a town all your life and not know the significance of some occasion. I have always taken a keen interest in History more so as I get older I think because the more you learn, the more everything seems to make sense and come together. As an example, as a kid I was brought up in a small city name Ballarat in the southern part of Victoria and in particular I lived in a suburb called Sebastopol. I always felt odd about the name because most of the local names are aboriginal or of old English origin. I found out later it was named in 1855 because of the blasting of rock to assess the gold bearing leads under the basalt. It was said to be like the guns at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean war in Russia, some idle information but now I know.
Taking an interest in history and also having an interest in Thailand I find it fascinating to combine the 2, particularly teaching aviation in Thailand. I find having this extra knowledge helps when you are teaching and also I find it unusual how much Thais don’t know about their past and if they do know it’s usually one sided. As an example and without going into detail “Victory monument” in Bangkok – most Thais don’t know the relevance of it. If they do they think it is some great victory they had won, so far from the truth.
To get to the subject of the matter I want to talk about the POWs in Thailand during the Second World War.
I’m not going to go into detail about the Burma Railway as most readers would know already and also most have been to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai to experience the somber past. I would like to bore the readers with some possible unknown facts regards the occasion after the Burma rail had been finished.
May 1945. The Burma Rail had been finished for some small period and now a small collection of motley thin men, 850 to be exact, Australians and English, are camped at Tamuang just east of Kanchanaburi and they are to be moved to another camp location, place unknown. They wait for the train from Kanchanaburi to take them east towards Bangkok. They just get short of Bangkok at a place called Nakhon Pladuk and they are told to disembark. There is an air raid happening and liberators are flying low towards them. They are no threat and they are told to embark and continue on their journey. They arrive at Nong Pladuk and then the township of Nakhon Pathom. That afternoon they reach a river and they find the bridge has been bombed and they are off-loaded at the river’s edge and told to camp for the night and in the morning the 850 are told to walk across some makeshift wooden planking to the other side. After crossing the Chao Phraya they catch a goods train into Bangkok where they get on barges and travel down to Thonburi where they have a meal, the first in days, and notice the area is bombed quite heavily especially along the wharves. They stay there for 3 days, and on the 4th day they move out by train again to the Bangkok marshalling yards where they find bomb damage everywhere. They stop for an air raid and then continue on east where they are told to disembark and start walking. They walk for 3 days to Nakhon Nayok and camp there for a couple of weeks constructing. They were told to build fortifications because the Japs were expecting an invasion from the allies from far down south (Malaysia). They noticed the Jap attitude was becoming more tolerant and friendly. It is announced that they are to evacuate Nakhon Nayok; they march and on the 3rd day arrive at Saraburi. They are to stay but told to move off because there has been a lot of air activity and the aircraft have been dropping leaflets. One side is in Thai and the other in English and Japanese, basically telling the Siamese to tell the Japs to move on because the war is nearly over. They march for 4 days and arrive at Lopburi and stay for 5 days waiting for more work but nobody wants them so they march on to Nakhon Sawan the Japs have some stores there and the men are put to work. The rainy season starts and they have to work and sleep in the rain, but at least they get regular food, something to keep them warm.
After a few day they are not wanted again so they move on up north, they arrive on the other side of Nakhon Sawan and are told that a bridge is being built upstream and are too wait in the rain. The bridge is not finished so a pontoon arrives and they have to make many crossings. Some men swim and the non swimmers use the pontoon. The bridge had been started 3 years ago and the foundations on both sided of the bank were completed but steel and cement had dried up and work had come to a stop. The Swiss engineers can’t leave so the Thai govt. pay them enough to live on and they are enjoying an idyllic life with the maidens in the local village.
The 850 men eventually reach Tak city. Now Tak city is home to a large Japanese Air force base – they had them spread all over Thailand. One early morning sometime 1942 they were holding some celebration, air pageant, showing off their might and had a large grandstand built with Thai dignitaries and their wives with the Japanese military and all the brass bands, pomp etc. They were about to enjoy themselves when out of the sun at tree top height 4 Curtiss P-40’s came in and shot up the celebrations and apparently people went diving for cover everywhere. They were P-40’s from the famous flying tigers run by General Chennault based in Burma. It caused quite a stir and made the Japanese look bad and a lot of aircraft were destroyed on the ground.
I’ve actually been there to have a look; it’s not much today just a rundown old sealed strip with dusty scrub on the perimeters. It’s hard to visualize it as a thriving military base in the past.
Anyway, getting back to the story, while they were camping in Tak a small length of bamboo was thrown in amongst them and inside was a rolled sheet of paper saying “do not try to escape, the war must end soon, the allies have dropped what they call an atomic bomb on Japan the causalities are enormous, we will give you more news later”. A few days later another short piece of bamboo lobs in with another message telling of a second atomic bomb that had been dropped. While in Tak they were shifted around from place to place. Apparently they were located in a temple complex and told to move out. It turns out the ones supplying the notes in the bamboo was the local Thai army that were based in Tak.
After moving north out of Tak they came to a sign post that says in Thai, Lampang to the North and Phitsanulok to the east. The Japanese decided on Phitsanulok and that afternoon they camped on the side of the road next to a paddy field. A small party of prisoners and Jap guards walk off to a small village close by to purchase some items and they come to a shop run by a Chinese man. He gave the Japs a bottle of local whiskey and goes out the back and returns wearing a coat, opening the front of the coat he displays a sheet of paper pinned to his shirt, “THE WAR IS OVER, THE JAPS ARE DEFEATED, AND HAVE SURRENDED”.
The next morning they confront the Jap guards and tell them the war is over. There are 850 of us and 12 of you. What are you going to do? They know the war is over and they have been ordered to go to Phitsanulok. Everything changes. The Jap attitude and the enthusiasm to continue on and they eventually reach Phitsanulok. On the west side of Phitsanulok a large Japanese camp which was now deserted. It has been calculated they have marched 800 kilometers, barefoot all the way.
The next day a Pommy major parachuted in and walked straight up to the Japanese guards with a pistol and took over. It is another month and rail transport is organized and they travel back to Bangkok and it is all over for them.
I have travelled Bangkok to Phitsanulok many times by modern car, bike or bus. Of course you don’t go anywhere near Tak and it is a 5-6 hour trip and it gets a bit boring after a while. I would hate to even contemplate to walk the distance, let alone in a rundown unhealthy condition in bare feet. I take my hat off to them and think it is a marvelous achievement.
I have asked at Phitsanulok at the tourist information for any information on this story and they knew nothing about the past. One time in the town centre I went in with my wife to an old store which sold craft and similar items which my wife was interested in. I was approached by an old Chinese lady who wanted to talk to me in English. he could speak very good English and I’m sure she didn’t want to miss the chance to practice on the only farang who walked into her store. It turned out that the store has been in the family for many generations and I asked her if she remembered the war years in Phitsanulok. Surprisingly she told me she was a young girl during the war and she remembers the Japanese being in Phitsanulok and remembers the Japanese bombing the Phitsanulok railway station. It was interesting talking to her, but she was wrong about the railway station bombing. It would have been the Americans who bombed the station.
There is a lot of history in Thailand, and Phitsanulok has history that goes back a 1000 years or more. As an example, Wat Yai goes back 700 years. It would be good if any other readers could give some history of their local province and let us share in your knowledge.
Interesting slice of history. I have only been to Phitsanulok once and that was 10 years ago. It's a town I enjoyed visiting and the people in that part of the country are real nice. I really should return for another look.