The following is a true story.
THE OUIJA BOARD
A SHORT STORY, EERIE BUT TRUE
Occasionally we hear about unexplained happenings in the past. Ships, Aeroplane's, and people disappearing without trace or reason, and no one seems to be able to supply an answer. As a former prisoner of the Japanese, after the fall of Singapore, I can recall a similar experience in which up to a point I was involved, and to which I would appreciate help from anyone in trying to find an answer.
It was in the early summer of 1945, when along with several other prisoners who had so far managed to survive the brutality of our taskmasters as well as the ravages of sickness and hunger, we were resting at Chungkai base camp, while waiting for our next labour detail.
We had already guessed that we would probably be moved to one of the deserted camps further up river, where we would be required to repair the bomb damage inflicted by the Allied planes on the Japanese Bangkok to Rangoon death railway. It was always possible though that we could be transported to one of the other states or even countries to continue whatever task our guards had been ordered that we should be set. Everything depended on the whim of our Gunso (Sergeant) who was a demoted cavalry officer with a grudge even against life itself.
The building of the infamous Bangkok to Rangoon railway had long been completed, and now it was necessary for our keepers and tormentors to select whatever menial and demeaning task they could find for us in order to continue their aggressive crusade against all western nationals. I for my sins, after having worked with the building gangs and rock blasting parties, had been assigned to work under the notorious Kiyoaki Tanaka the mad civilian engineer, who was noted for his detestation of anything resembling Christianity and also for his method of disposing of those prisoners who had not complied with his bidding.
Finally we were informed that our task would be to repair the bomb damaged railway line from our present position at Chungkai, up to the Thanbazayat death camp which was just inside the Burma border.
The Japanese had decided to rebuild the camp at Thambazayat After travelling for days through dense jungle where every known insect, snake or leech would be waiting to extract its quota of blood and nourishment from any unwary prisoner or even Japanese guard, we arrived at this most notorious and dreaded camp which had been built along the 370 kilo stretch of railway.
The Japanese had decided to rebuild the camp at Thambazayat to house their sick and wounded, and although the name means little silver rest house, to all those who had been unfortunate to have lived there during the building of the railway, it meant degradation, dehumanisation and death. Realising that we were about to enter a camp taken on a pro rata scale to Belsen, each man held a feeling of desperation and hopelessness.
The camp which had been built during the Japanese speedo period, and a time when everything had to be done at the double so that the railway would be completed by the given finishing time, despite the cost.
Of the five thousand Allied prisoners of war who had built and lived in the camp, three thousand remained buried there, the remainder went on to die elsewhere. So that by the end of the war just sixty Allied prisoners of war had remained alive to tell the tale, and of these just twenty one managed to return home.
Two kilometres below the camp there was a further cemetery, which held the remains of more than three thousand Tamils and other Asian workers, plus the ashes of a further two thousand Indian workers whose bodies were committed to fire in accordance with their religion. All of them had believed and had faith in the Japanese so called Asian Co-prosperity sphere.
Looking round at the jungle vegetation with its multitude of coloured plants and flowers, topped by hundreds of butterflies, each brightly coloured and in various designs, one would have been excused for imagining that they were entering paradise. However behind this cascade of colour there was a black damp area of degradation and squalor. Where men had openly cried out for their mother, a friend, or even to their particular God, for some form of relief from the torture which they were expected to endure in the name of the British Empire and freedom, and the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. There had been no one to answer their cries for help however, and here some men occasionally openly defied the Japanese guards, in the hope that they would be executed on the spot, in order to relieve them of their pain and indignity, and I felt humble as I walked the same paths which they had created.
All that now remained of the camp was a few lengths of bamboo protruding from the ground, where probably several prisoners had taken shelter after completing their quota of work. Our party of twenty, mainly men suffering from beri-beri, dysentery, pelagra, and general dibility, had been instructed to clear all the area in order that a place could be found on which to build accommodation for ourselves and our Japanese guards and taskmasters.
The immediate task was to eliminate any sign of whatever had taken place in this area. To collect the remains of those unfortunates who had not had the privilege of a proper burial let alone a funeral, along with any other material evidence of Japanese sadism and incinerate it all..
Wherever one looked the jungle appeared to be littered with signs of Japanese bestiality. To do the job in a proper manner it was going to be necessary to dig large pits and build large fires. Stretchers were built from bamboo on which to transport the remains of those who had been left to rot along with the pitiful pieces of what had once been their only personal possessions. and being one of the fitter men, I was placed in charge of the party. This dubious honour meant that I was the one who would be kicked and beaten should anything go wrong.
The jungle was damp, stinking and uninviting. the wet soil squelched beneath our feet, and as we walked thousands of crickets, grasshoppers, bullfrogs and other of natures creatures permeated the atmosphere with their screeching, which all but burst the ear drums with its intensity, as they showed defiance at our approach. Above them all could be heard the monkeys , squirrels and cockchaffer beetle beating a tattoo with its wings, in unison with the rest of the jungle orchestra.
The main camp had long since been demolished, leaving the jungle through nature, clawing relentlessly at the ground in an effort to recover that which it had lost. Here and there were shafts of what had once been humanity protruding from the soil, lending an eerie atmosphere to their damp silent protests, as if trying to remind each of us that Gods children once walked where we now stood.
At a point which had at one time been the furthermost extremity of the camp, was an area where the ground was covered in weeds and fungi, and ocasionally there protruded the soggy remains of a cross, probably placed there at the risk of losing his own life by a devoted comrade, the marker depicting the grave of yet another unfortunate who fate had selected to protect the cause of the British Empire and freedom. Or one of its allies, who had been drafted unprotesting to this corner of the South Pacific by some uncaring government individual.
It was possible in one or two cases to make out the names of the poor unfortunate who now lay beneath the cross. Other markers which had been made of less adequate material were suffering the onslaught of time, lice, woodworm, slugs and other vermin, which had eaten away the name thereon inscribed.
Just outside this particular area, my eye was attracted to a rectangular piece of wood, which had at one time been secured to the stave from which it now dangled at a forty five degree angle. Part of the wire which had once secured them together had been eaten away with rust . As I walked near I could just make out the name of one of the men buried beneath. Then moving closer I noted that there was more than one name on the board, also that the board was of a hardwood which someone had gone to a great deal of trouble in carving the names of each man. It read. “Here lie the remains of 3529270 Pte T Jackson Manch Reg. CQMS C Anderson FMSVF, A.S.H. Justine USS Houston. 33271— Pte Mar-- “here the letters had been eaten away At the bottom of the board were several more words which it was not possible to decipher but still discernable were the words Executed 1/11/ 43. On the reverse immaculately carved was the remains of what had once been an ouija board, one which I had seen so often in Chungkai base camp. At which time it had been highly polished and highly prized by the man who carved it.
I pulled the board away from the stave and looked long and hard at their names and tried hard to make out those which had been eaten away. My eyes misted over as I tried to clean up the board and my mind went back to when I had last seen it in all its glory, only then it had just been a highly polished ouija board.
It had been in Chungkai base camp more than two years ago. Con Anderson a CQMS with the Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces had procured a bed head board from some where, and using primitive tools he had designed and produced a highly polished board complete with all the markings of the zodiac, letters, dates, and other artistic figures.
There had never been any intention on his part to delve into spiritualism or any other occult. To him it had been something to do in his leisure time what little there had been, and it was something which he imagined would create an interest to take the men’s minds away from their day to day predicament.
I looked down again at the names, and their faces came flooding back into my memory There had been six names but now only three were discernable. In the back of my mind I knew the names of the other, and as I read each of their names, their faces seemed to appear, each one seemed to be asking the same question “Why?”.
I continued to stare down at the board hoping that my eyes would develop some form of laser quality that I might satisfy my curiosity. But the more I looked, the more my eyes misted over, until I stood unashamedly weeping. I don’t know if it was for their pitiful end, my present existence or maybe both. I felt that someone was watching my every move from the jungle, but it did nothing to stop my tears. I had known the six men as friends and at least two as comrades.
The last time I had known about the board had been in Chungkai camp two years earlier. It was in March1943, a time when the Japanese were screaming out for more speed . It was also the time when they demonstrated their civility and justice, by executing three of my friends for trying to escape, and it was also the time when ten thousand more prisoners were delivered to Chungkai to begin building the bridges and cuttings, using basic tools and their bare hands.
Chungkai camp was named after the village which the Japanese had taken over as a prisoner of war camp in August 1942. The tiny village then had a population of around two hundred, most of whom were co-opted into the Japanese work force. They also taught the prisoners how to build their own accommodation from natures ample provision of bamboo. Each hut being built to house about two hundred and fifty men. Fifteen huts had been occupied by so called fit men, and a further ten huts had been built for the sick.
All the huts were contaminated by bed bugs and lice within two weeks of completion. My duties at that time was that of night cook, daytime bugler at the cemetery, and assistant at the crematorium, which left me with just six hours for sleeping.
Through my work in the cookhouse and the cemetery, I came into contact with a number of the Japanese and Korean guards which enabled me to learn a little of their language and customs. One or two of them had actually boasted of being Christians.
The huts in which we slept were identified by letters and were called battalions. “A” hut became “A” battalion,”B” hut “B” battalion and so on. Erected close by the hospital cookhouse was the hut housing “G” battalion, and because of its close proximity I often walked over for a talk with anyone who happened to be around, while waiting for the rice to cook.
Once the workday was completed, there was very little that anyone could do by way of amusement, and day to day conversations invariably turned to either politics or religion. I believe that It was because of this that Con Anderson of the FMSVF and one or two others decided to break the monotony by introducing a spot of spiritualism and ouija dabbling. Con had in his possession part of an Oak bed head, which he had scrounged while in Singapore. A portion of it he had already used to provide a marker for the grave of a close friend, killed during the fighting. The portion still remaining measured about thirty by twenty four inches, and it was on this portion that he had carved the letters of the alphabet, the Zodiac signs and numerals plus other bits and pieces for decorative purposes.
The carving had all been done with just a piece of wire and a pen knife. Once completed he had used the remains of a tin of Cherry Blossom boot polish and the sap from the Tualang trees, which together brought out a very highly polished ouija board. In the centre of the board and turned upside down he placed an empty Bovril bottle on which were painted Biblical signs, and it was not very long before nearly everyone in the camp had been made aware of this masterpiece and its probable use.
On every occasion possible, the men would congregate around “G” hut, where they would watch and listen to the questions and answers passing between the operators of the board and the so called spirit guides, in the hope of learning the answers to such questions as “Who will win the war” “When will the war end” and similar questions which to anyone today would seem ridiculous, but to doomed men it gave hope and was a form of relief. These were men who just a short time later would be dead and the only straws to which they could cling was hope. These men had seen the Devil at his worst, so anything which give them that hope was worth the try.
Obviously the large gatherings in and outside the hut soon came to the attention of the guard commander, who sent two of his number to find out what the gatherings were about. They observed for themselves the magic bottle which moved so mysteriously to various figures, causing gasps of astonishment of astonishment from the crowd gathered round, then they hurried away to inform the Gunso(sergeant)
Two of the Korean guards who I knew quite well were Konimitzu who was a senior guard and known to the prisoners as YM, the first two initials for the YMCA where he had apparently been found abandoned by his mother in San Frisco, the other Korean guard was Ushigawa, a big muscular man with prominent mongolian features. Both guards had professed to be of the Christian faith. Ushigawa went a stage further in fact by stating that he was a devout Roman Catholic. I can remember however several instances where his deeds belied his assertions. I was accosted by both guards outside the cookhouse one evening and asked questions concerning the goings on inside “G” hut, and I suggested that if they were so interested, why not go into the hut during their rest period and watch for themselves,
The following evening both guards entered the hut .The silence which ensued was so heavy it could be cut with a knife. YM who had a better grasp of the English language asked “where the magic bottle”. Con Anderson who was afraid of no one, man or beast, took the ouija board from its hiding place in the attap roofing, and placed it on a rough bamboo table, then .from beneath his bed he produced the Bovril bottle and set it in the middle of the board. All the time his eyes never left those of Konimitzu, a big beaming smile came to YM’s face “Make it walk “he asked, and Con pointed to three of the prisoners indicating to them to join him at the table.
By now the news had flashed round the camp like a firefly, and within minutes “G” hut was overflowing with men jostling for position to be able to watch and hear what was being said. Con in his most benevolent manner asked for silence, after which he closed his eyes and called out for the spirit guide to make himself known. The spirits must obviously have been waiting and watching because by the time Con had finished his request the bottle began to swing around the board, spelling out the name “Boris” .
Once the spirit guide had made himself known there were cries and shouts from all around, requesting answers to a multitude of questions. Con shouted out one of the questions which he heard from the crowd, and the bottle began to swing back and forth across the highly polished board, spelling out an answer which would be satisfactory to those listening, as a moral booster it was fantastic.
On the morning following a seance or reading as the men called it. They would appear more cheerful, many seeming to lose their pessimistic attitude about life. All the time the proceedings were in progress the two Koreans had sat amazed. Not believing what they were seeing they sat in open mouthed astonishment. Finally YM intimated to Con that he would like to take a turn at putting his finger on the upturned bottle, implying at the same time that he was more then a little sceptics about the whole show.
Con readily agreed and asked one of the men to move and allow YM to take his place. Once seated YM asked the question to which everyone would like to know the answer “When will the war finish. The bottle shot from side to side and up and down the board spelling out the answer November 1943. Ushigawa was asked if he would like to participate and with his ape like grin he nodded and took his place opposite YM.
Now there were two prisoners and two guards, and most prisoners expected the whole charade to collapse ,but no such thing happened, as question after question was answered just as quickly as they had been with four prisoners operating the bottle, then as a final gesture, Ushigawa asked Con to ask the spirit guide if there was any news from his family in Tokyo. The spirit guide was indeed working overtime, when back came the answer “There is good news on the way which will make you very happy”, and the evening ended with both guards discussing the question of whether the whole episode was a hoax put on by the devious Brits or was it for real, only time would tell.
Once the two guards had left, Con and several others sat huddled together discussing how this kind of entertainment could be turned to their advantage. each of them taking it in turn to make a suggestion, until finally an idea began to take shape, an idea which would bring in financial reward as well as one or two days of freedom for those participating.
It is a well known fact that necessity is the mother of invention, and in the far eastern prisoner of war camps necessity was an every day need. Most of the inventions being provided by those brilliant young men who in peace time were employed as designers of jewellry, Chemists, metal workers and others. Some of these men had worked in jewellry workshops using Gold ,Platinum, silver and other expensive materials. They now continued their craft manufacturing the same design jewellry using brass and copper tubing with coloured glass in place of expensive stones. Also among the craftsmen were those who could turn a four gallon petrol can into a highly polished drinking mug, carving knives, forks, napkin rings, anything which required the positive look was finished off with Gold leaf stolen from the Buddhist temples which are in abundance in Thailand.
As each article of jewellry was completed, a genuine hall mark was applied. Occasionally real stones we’re used, these were mostly stolen from the Kanchanaburi gem mines which the prisoners passed on their way to load ballast for the railway track. Other artisans manufactured Quinine, Sulphonamide, Aspirin and various other tablets using chalk and curry powder, and it was to these people that Con turned for assistance in pulling off his glorious bluff.
After providing them with a list of his requirements, a meeting was called .at which Con emphasised that should any of the guards attend any future sessions it would be the work of one man to occasionally mention the word treasure, but only enough to wet the guards appetite
The monsoon rains had by now commenced which was the cause for men to have to work longer hours, which left very little time to even consider any further sessions. At the end of March, the Japanese camp command announced that all men including the sick, would be required to work for ten whole days, in return they would be paid ten cents equivalent to one cent per day followed by a full days rest period. (One hundred cents would probably be equivalent to ten pence today) The idea of an official rest day was like manna from heaven to Con and his friends.
.Just before our first rest day, I received a visit from YM, who asked if there were to be any more sessions with the magic board, as he and his friend wanted to attend. Apparently Ushigawa had some important news to announce. So after contacting Con and relaying this information, I was able to tell YM that there would be a session on the next Yasme (rest) day at six o'clock in the evening. .
Having passed on this information I watched as the lads from “G” battalion set about learning their set pieces. Finally the evening of Yasme day arrived. I would imagine that the whole population of camp who had by now learned of the Koreans interest were all in or around “G” battalion hut.
There was a deadly silence as the two Koreans walked into the hut. One of the men brought out the ouija board and set it down on the bamboo table, and Con invited the two guards to sit at the table, then Just as Con was about to open the proceedings, Ushigawa produced a carton of Red Bull cigarettes from inside his shirt and presented them to Con, telling him that the spirit guide had been right and that his sister in Japan had sent a letter saying that she had just been delivered of a baby boy. (In Ushigawa’s eyes there was gleaming pride )This was proof positive that they had contacted the spirits, the presento ceremony over, the session commenced, except that now there was a new spirit guide in the form of one Promoti Cachanil, a Siamese who during his earthly life had been a police man, then later a jeweller and money lender in Kanchanaburi province.
His demise had apparently been rather sudden, so much so that he had not had time to inform his family about his fortune and where he had hidden it. As the story painstakingly unfolded there were looks of surprise among not only the Koreans but also some of the watching prisoners who were not aware of any scam.
All eyes were on Con as he interpreted each message coming from the spirit world. and as the session continued with no further reference to the so called treasure the crowd began to get a little restless. Finally around eight o'clock the two guards made a move to leave and as they did so Ushigawa indicated to Con that he wanted to speak to him alone. The Koreans it seemed had taken the bait. But so as not to appear too eager the ouija sessions were suspended for a few days, allowing enough time for the Koreans to accept the bait or leave it alone.and time to prepare the treasure.
At the next session, there was no mention of buried treasure. Ushigawa was the first to mention it, when he visited me in the cookhouse one night and asked me my opinion about the validity of the spirit guide. I could not tell him that my mother was one of the leading mediums in the spiritualist church before she had died, and that she had never made any attempt to contact me, nor had any of the deceased members of the same spiritualist church which I was at one time a member. How could I tell him that I had no Kami(God) and that I did not believe in spiritualism in any form, even though I had been brought up a spiritualist. Maybe he wanted to be sure that there was actually treasure buried somewhere around and he wanted my confirmation.
Without trying to be patronising I suggested that he should look toward his own Kami for guidance and not to a heathen like me, and he left the cookhouse none the wiser. It took a further number of sessions in which the members of the audience brought along proof positive that the spirits had not lied, then two or three days later Con and three associates found themselves working under Ushigawa, collecting wood for the cookhouses.
Although we were living in a jungle, wood was at a premium, the only wood which we we’re allowed to use as fuel was bamboo. All other trees including hard wood, was the property of the Japanese railway regiments and no one was allowed to attempt to cut them down, to collect fuel therefore it was necessary to have to travel some distance into the jungle.
While the majority of the party collected fuel, Con along with two Korean guards would spend their time searching for the areas described by the spirit guide. Each day the party would leave camp as soon as the railway workers had gone off to work, and they would not come back until after the railway workers had returned late in the evening.
During the time the fuel party were out, they experienced greater freedom than anyone had ever anticipated, being allowed to purchase food from the local shops including cigarettes and Thai whisky, plus other valuable commodities. Eventually however the guards began to get restless, they wanted more than just a picnic in the jungle, so it was decided that the time was ripe for clues to the treasure be found.
One of the guards who was completely in the dark about the reason for these trips out for fuel was chosen to be the lucky one to find the treasure, and was being steered into position. Suddenly Konimitzu(YM) gave a loud yell, he had stumbled onto the treasure quite accidentally. (Thailand is noted for its many temples, so it had not been so difficult for one of the prisoners to be able to hide a small canvas satchel containing several items of jewellry, Gold rings, brooches, medallions and coins, among the ruins of an old temple.
The others in the fuel party quickly gathered round, but they were quickly ushered back to camp, where Ushigawa and Konimitzu followed Con into “G” battalion hut, with the guards screaming for all those inside the hut, to leave immediately, Finally when the hut was clear, the bag was emptied onto the table.
Ushigawa now took over as leader and suggesting that he take the jewellry to one of the traders he knew in Kanchanaburi, and that from the proceeds received, he would take seventy five per cent as his and Konimitsu’s share and the remaining twenty five per cent would be Cons share.
The contents of the canvas bag did actually look like the real thing.
Rings complete with the British Hallmark, Ronson lighters complete with the Ronson signature. Swan pens with gold nib and clasp, brooches complete with ruby and emerald stones. It took just a few days for Ishigawa to strike a bargain with one of the black marketeers in Kanchanaburi.
A couple of days later Con received his share which was 500 Baht (roughly about £20) a considerable sum to a group of starving prisoners. However over the next few days several of those involved began to get the jitters. ”What if they find out “asked one or two, The reply from Con was that no Thai national would go to the police and make charges against a Japanese or Korean national, and there is certainly no way that the Koreans are going to go and hand back the money to some Thai racketeer. For the Korean to hand back the money would be a total loss of face and in any case, the Koreans themselves would be for the high jump if the camp commandant found out that they had been fraternising with the enemy
All their anxieties were later pushed to one side when it was suddenly announced that “G” battalion had received orders to move up country. The Japanese speedo was well under way and every available man, sick or otherwise were required for work. “G” battalion would be going to San Krai.
I remember vividly wishing Con and the lads good luck and a safe journey. Con replying that he had received a message from his spirit guide telling him that he and his friends were about to start on a journey at the end of which they would find their true destiny.
I looked down again at the Ouija board, seeing once more the faces of the men I had known, men who had helped pull off the grand jewellry scam. Each had been smiling as he departed into the jungle, each in his mind hoping that the nearer they got to Burma the closer they got to freedom.
I jotted down one or two notes on my toilet paper list, making a promise to myself that I would visit the relatives of each man if I should be fortunate in making it back home. Then with assistance from the others I started to clean up the area in order that I could mend and replace the wooden stave which held the names.
As we were digging and removing the weeds and small shrub from the grave, one of the men pulled out a small canvas bag. I knew instantly by the tassels that I had seen this bag before, and as the lad opened it up, one or two bits of jewellry fell out. I knew that this was the same bag which the Koreans had taken to Kanchanaburi. I could not vouch for the imitations it held, but I am almost certain that they were part of those which Con had hidden.
I suggested that we make a small hole in the centre of the grave, then using a piece of my precious paper, I wrote down the names of the men I felt that I knew were buried there, then I placed the list inside the bag, which was then put back into the hole and covered with a piece of rock.
Afterwards we cleaned up the headboard and replaced it at the head of the grave. None of us knew any prayers and I thought to myself, what good are prayers, they are all dead now and no amount of praying was going to bring them back.
On my return to England after the war, I passed my list of names to the War graves commission. Later I made enquiries concerning the six men who I had once known as comrades. and found that all six had been executed some time in November 1943 for attempting to escape. I also learned that Ushigawa and YM had also been executed for assisting prisoners of war to escape.
At the time of the executions, cholera was at its height and men were dying at the rate of fifty a day. Yet according to the official records for the 1st November only six men were buried, they were the six who were executed. I remembered three of the names, the other three having been obliterated by woodworm.
I have returned to Thailand on numerous occasions in an effort to try to come to terms with what had really happened to six very brave men. I have talked to certain Thai nationals I have come to know in Kanchanaburi,and they have assured me that a wealthy business man did die suddenly leaving no will and no indication of where he had left his wealth . They told me that he had died on the first day that the prisoners had arrived to commence work on the bridge on the river Kwai, which was the first November 1942 and that local people talk of seeing his ghost roaming the jungle.
Today the cemetery in Thanbazayat is laid out in neat rows, and against all odds the graves of these six men are side by side Plot B6, Row S, graves 12 to 17.
Each time I return I ask myself, even though I had been there, was it all a sad dream.