Nostalgia: Lancaster officer's diary from Japanse prisoner of war camp

New book tells story of Lancaster officer's tune held in a notorious Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Saturday, 24th June 2017, 4:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:44 am
Interior of the hospital hut at Wampo on the Burma-Thailand Railway

During the Second World War Colonel Cary Owtram OBE was held in Chungkai Japanese Prisoner of War Camp, on the infamous river Kwai.

At the time he was 2nd in Command of the 137th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, based in Blackpool, where a small chapel is commemorated to the Regiment at St John’s Church to this day.

During his imprisonment he was Camp Commandant for two years with responsibility for keeping conditions for thousands of prisoners in the camp as bearable as possible and maintaining camp morale.

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Colonel Cary Owtram before going to the Far East

But he managed to write his diary during his time as a prisoner and hid it inside a bottle, within an oil can buried in a grave in the cemetery. He kept a reference of the grave in code on the back of a photo of his daughter and so was able to retrieve it when the war ended.

After the war he lived with his family at Newland Hall, near Dolphinholme, Lancaster, where six years after returning home he wrote up his memoirs. Unable to find a publisher at the time, for the first time they have been published by his daughters Pat Davies and Jean Argyles as 1,000 Days on the River Kwai. Here, published for the first time are some extracts,

Outward Bound

‘Passing slowly down the Mersey and over the bar, we anchored for the night while the rest of the convoy formed up. Next morning, we moved out into the Irish Sea, and as the coastline faded into the distance, the last bit of England we were to see for many a long day was the top of Blackpool Tower disappearing in the haze, a reminder of the early days of the war when many of us had spent the first six months there – the birthplace of the regiment.’

Pat Davies and Jean Argyles with 1,000 Days on the River Kwai pic: RDA Photography

Into Bondage

‘We had our Divisional HQ, still commanded by Major General ‘Billy’ Key – a great man to have around under adverse conditions, always cheerful and full of energy. Under his command, the whole camp some 3,000 strong became highly organized. We made gardens, played cricket, hockey, rugger and soccer on a big cricket ground in the area; arranged lectures, concerts and educational courses and even an infantry tactics Cadre class for officers of each unit to teach jungle warfare, in the event of us being able to become active soldiers again.’

Camp life

An extract from my diary written on July 5, 1942 gives a description of the day’s routine:

1000 Days On the River Kwai, by Colonel Cary Owtram OBE

We get up at 7.30 hours: 8.00 Roll Call out on the road which runs past the entrance to this cattle pen. After that we shave and wash in about 1½ pints of water and clean our teeth in chlorinated water from our water bottles. 09.00 hours breakfast – usually rice and vegetable stew. After that we kill time till 1.30 when rice and vegetable stew appears again. We then kill more time until 6.30pm (with a Dixie of tea without milk at when supper arrives consisting of – what do you think? – rice and vegetable stew! But it generally has a little, very little, meat in it this time. Roll call out on the road again at 9pm, and lights out at 10pm.

I remember so well making an entry in my diary at about this time on the subject of ‘lebensraum’ [living space]. My diary was written in the form of a letter to my wife. It read as follows:

You always said I could never be happy if I had to leave Newland and live in a cottage. Well, at the moment I am living in an area 7ft by 2ft 6ins and that contains my camp bed, and everything has to live on it or under it. I shall appreciate the spaciousness of Newland when I see it.

In Chungkai Camp we continued to receive vast numbers of emaciated men from the railway construction camps every few days. Often they had been four or five days on the journey, and the majority lay motionless, performing the functions of nature where they lay, many of them with acute dysentery, and all this in a tropical country. The state in which they arrived passes description, and only those of us who witnessed it as I did, not once but scores of times, could possibly visualize to what point the human body can suffer and still survive. I wrote the following paragraph at about this time in my diary:

Colonel Cary Owtram before going to the Far East

August 16, 1943. More and more fellows keep on arriving – many to die – and they all tell the same story of semi-starvation, of beating up, of the sick being ordered out of bed and being beaten if they didn’t work hard enough. These things must come out when we are liberated since they are not just one or two instances, but have happened countless times.

On September 8, 1943 I ‘celebrated’ my (44th) birthday. I wasn’t really expecting to celebrate it at all, but the camp saw to it that I did. As it shows so well the bond of friendship which grew up in Chungkai between all ranks, I quote from my diary of September 9:

Once again I have spent my birthday as a PoW in Thailand, and as far as such a thing is possible, I really enjoyed it, thanks to the kindly thoughts and deeds of my friends among all ranks. I didn’t realize I had so many before. All sorts of people wished me ‘happier times ahead’; all the ORs of HQ staff signed a home-made birthday card; one men’s cookhouse sent me a lovely pie, just like a home-made beefsteak pie; and the Dutch cookhouse made me a big birthday cake with an icing top and ‘Many Happy Return’ and the date on it. We had a ‘guest night’ in our little mess of seventeen and had three guests and a marvellous menu of five courses beautifully cooked. Our Messing Officer, Lieutenant Marsh, produced an amazingly good imitation of beer made from fermented rice, sugar and other ingredients. We played pontoon until ‘lights out’ and almost forgot we were PoWs.

This brought us to Xmas. Once more, our pious hopes of being free by next Xmas had come to nought! However, work on the railway being finished, we were able to have a much pleasanter time than the previous year. My diary, written on 26 December records:

I have been very much impressed with the great Xmas spirit which has been shown on all sides. Everyone seemed determined to do all he could for those less fortunate than himself. I am sure that it is in great measure due to the fine team spirit among all those who are concerned in the running of the camp. They are a grand lot and I could not ask for a more loyal crowd – both officers and men. I feel that they have set an example which the rest of the camp has instinctively followed.

‘Max produced an enormous bottle capable of holding about a gallon. Into this I inserted my diary and various incriminating letters and papers about Japanese orders and acts of brutality, and sealed the cork with wax collected from the tops of quinine bottles. The bottle was then put into a petrol tin and surreptitiously buried about two feet down in a grave while the patrolling Jap sentry was at the far end of his beat. I borrowed a compass from a friend and took cross bearings from behind some bushes, in addition to making a note of the number of the grave and the occupant’s name. These I wrote on the back of my eldest daughter’s photograph in such form as would not be recognizable as a compass bearing.’

Pat Davies and Jean Argyles with 1,000 Days on the River Kwai pic: RDA Photography

‘Armed with a spade and a compass, we crossed the Quaiyai river at Kanburi in a native canoe paddled by two small but skilful Thai children and walked along the riverside path which I had traversed many times before, but then accompanied by a Korean guard. We walked past the scattered Thai and Chinese huts with their vegetables gardens, passing the time of day cheerily with the inhabitants, most of whom knew me by sight and all of whom made it perfectly plain that they were delighted by the change in their situation and overjoyed at the downfall of Japan. After about a mile and a half we arrived at the cemetery, where we were pleased to find that although vegetation was springing up everywhere, it was quite easy to find the grave in which I had buried my papers. While I was digging, M Salzmann took a number of photos of the cemetery and a most unprepossessing one of me in the rather ghoulish task on which I was engaged, and these he sent to me after I returned home.’

1,000 Days on the River Kwai will be launched at Dolphinholme Methodist Church, Abbeystead Road, LA22 9AN at 2pm on June 22. It is available priced £19.99 from Pen and Sword.

Letter sent to Lancaster Guardian on January 15, 1993.

Dear Sir,

May I, as an ex-Japanese Prisoner of War, through the courtesy of your columns, pay tribute to the memory of a fine and gallant Englishman.

Colonel Cary Owtram of Newland Hall, Lancaster was the Senior British Officer in charge of No.2 Group of Japanese prisoners employed on the construction of the notorious Burma/Siam railway.

On many occasions I witnessed his receiving brutal beatings for his adamant and steadfast refusals to order sick men out to work on the railway. This occurred on so many occasions that eventually even the Japanese accepted the fact that if Cary Owtram said so, then those men were indeed too sick to work.

There are many ex-PoWs, including myself, who owe their survival to Colonel Owtram.

Of the many so called ‘camps’ that existed up and down the railway the name of ‘Chung-Kai’ of which Cary Owtram was in charge, will be forever remembered by the thousands of Japanese prisoners who passed through it. One of my own vivid personal memories was of one evening upon returning to Chung-Kai after an exhausting day on the railway, and joining hundreds of others enjoying a ‘impromptu’ concert, the ‘star item’ being Cary Owtram, with his beautiful tenor voice, dressed as the ‘Red Shadow’ singing excerpts from The Desert Song.

It is good to know that after those dark days of hunger, deprivation and brutality he survived to enjoy many happy years at his home at Newland and to die peacefully at the grand age of 93.

A B Miller.

1000 Days On the River Kwai, by Colonel Cary Owtram OBE