The best known story of World War II prisoners of war in Thailand relates to the infamous ‘Death Railway’, where many pilgrimages are made to the Bridge on the River Kwai and the memorials to those who lost their lives in horrific circumstances.
There are also other stories that have been told about the Japanese occupation of Thailand during this dark chapter in history, including the landing in Prachuap Khiri Khan where a short-lived resistance was made near to the Thai Airforce base.
However a recently published book is a previously untold story about a Japanese Prisoner of War camp at Ubon Ratchathani in northeast Thailand during the final six months of World War II.
The Royal Coast Review has been in contact with author Ray Withnall to understand more about this significant chapter in the history of World War II in Thailand.
Ray’s wife lives near Ubon and about six years ago he learnt that near the end of World War II, the Japanese had sent 3,000 Prisoners of War there to build an airstrip. The airstrip is still in existence and with his intensive local research he located the site on which the camp was built.
His personal interest in this untold story led to the examination of historical records about the camp and description of how the camp was liberated by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) with the surrender of some 9,000 Japanese soldiers.
Local Ubon people helped Ray to locate surviving elders who remember the Japanese, the camp and the prisoners. He was also able to interview ex-Prisoners who survived the camp and returned to England.
The story begins when Thailand became a Japanese ally, followed by the secret formation of the Seri Thai resistance movement by a prominent Thai politician to oppose Japanese domination.
As the Japanese were forced to retreat from Burma into Thailand and they realised the likelihood of the losing the war, they chose to build an airstrip at Ubon. From February 1945 a steady stream of Prisoners began to arrive there to carry out the work.
Ray’s extensive research has revealed the camp’s daily life, its unorthodox liberation and the exceptional generosity of Ubon’s citizens. That generosity is commemorated by a lasting memorial, the Monument of Merit that the Prisoners built to thank the people of Ubon for their kindness and hospitality.
A replica of the monument stands in Ubon’s Tung Si Muang recreation area where a service of remembrance is held every November. There is a special section in the book describing the help the Prisoners received from the people of Ubon.
Eventually, the British SOE, led by Major David Smiley, arrived in the Ubon area, initially to train the Seri Thai resistance, but the Japanese surrender abruptly changed their plan. The story describes disarming the Japanese, identifying war criminals, and suppressing remaining resistance, which sometimes ended tragically.
Although Japanese surrender to end the war took place on 15th August 1945, the Ubon camp commandant, Major Chida, did not announce the end of hostilities to the Prisoners until 18th August and could not bring himself to declare that the Japanese had lost.
The men had to wait six weeks before leaving the camp to travel to Bangkok by train and then onto Rangoon before leaving by ship for the British Isles. The people of Ubon provided food and entertainment for the men whilst they waited for their repatriation.
Ray’s story is about the faith held by the Prisoners of War, the Seri Thai, and the people of Thailand, that one day the Japanese occupation would end. Our thanks to Ray for telling the Royal Coast Review this untold story and for his pictures and personal insights; it’s a story well worth reading in full.
‘UBON: The Last Camp Before Freedom’; Author Ray Withnall.
Available on Amazon at tinyurl.com/y3dfl6uw