UBON POW CAMP AND AIRSTRIP
Why did the Japanese need an airstrip in Ubon
Although the Thai – Burma railway was complete, it operated below its expected capacity and failed to fully support Japanese front lines in Burma. Resources and assets became stretched; the army exhausted and depleted. In mid 1944, they were forced back along the railway into Thailand and started to contemplate retreating further east towards Laos and the South China Sea.
Although Thailand was supposed to be co-operating with the Japanese, most Thai people resented the Japanese in their country. With support from the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the Seri Thai (Free Thai Movement) developed into a credible resistance movement. They supplied reliable intelligence, which resulted in frequent and accurate Allied bombing raids on Japanese assets in Bangkok and on the railway.
Facing the prospect of defeat and growing Thai animosity, the Japanese demanded more finance from the Thai government. Refusal to pay would provide an excuse for the Japanese to seize total control of Thailand. Consequently, whether it was to defend their retreat through the east of Thailand or to take full control of the country, the Japanese decided to build their own strategic airstrips.
One location was Ubon in North East Thailand. Here the jungles and mountains of Western Thailand are replaced by vast flood plains supporting extensive rice farming close to the borders with Laos and Cambodia and already connected to Bangkok by rail.
Ubon had an existing airstrip, which was built in 1921 to receive medical supplies from Bangkok1.
The Japanese shared this airstrip with the Royal Thai Air Force, but a second airstrip would allow them to operate in more secrecy. They singled out POWs from the Nong Pladuk camp to build it.
Ubon Airstrip and Camp
The first POWs arrived by rail in February 1945. They marched 9 kilometres north to the village of Ban Nong Phai where they received orders to start work on the airstrip immediately. They were instructed to build their camp in former rice fields about one mile from the airstrip; whenever they were not working.
More POWs arrived in the following months until there was a total of 1,460 British, 1,477 Dutch, 102 Australian and 4 Americans2.
The camp had good underground water supplies, which reduced the incidence of the illnesses found in the railway camps. A resourceful canteen was established and a hospital was set up. Several POWs recorded that the camp was an improvement on the railway camps. Others stated that they felt safer at Ubon, away from the bombing raids in the west. The work was hard, but there was no ‘speedo’. Discipline was strict, but not harsh.
The camp commander allowed the POWs to construct a theatre and produce regular shows, which the Japanese enjoyed as much as the POWs. There was a chapel and a football pitch.
On occasions, the local villagers, at great risk of punishment from the Japanese guards, would pass food, clothing and medicine to the POWs them. The more enterprising of them set up food stalls but the Japanese extracted a large share of their profit.
Although there was an occasional supply of fresh food from markets, including meat. Although, overall the camp food was only marginally better than the food endured in the railway camps.
The British commanding officer in Nong Pladuk, Colonel Phillip Toosey, appointed Sergeant Major Sandy McTavish to run the camp. He was a ‘firm but fair’ disciplinarian who had to tolerate the weak and ineffective Japanese commanding officer, Major Chida. At least a couple of POWs attempted to escape but they were caught and executed.
The airstrip was reported to be about 1,500 metres long and approximately 50 metres wide. Once it was finished only a few Japanese planes ever landed there.
Prelude to Liberation
The ranks of the North-Eastern Thailand Seri Thai received a welcome boost in May 1945 by the arrival of British SOE officer Major Smiley and his team. They were there to train and prepare the resistance fighters as part of a planned SEAC operation to attack Japanese positions in September 1945. Major Smiley was informed that a POW camp existed at Ubon and it is likely that the Seri Thai infiltrated it to gather intelligence3.
Meanwhile, pressure of defeat was increasing and the Japanese ordered the POWs to dig trenches across the airstrip on the pretext to prevent Allied aircraft from landing. It later transpired that the Japanese were planning to massacre the POWs and bury them in the trenches.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs forced the Japanese into surrender on 15 August 1945. This brought a sudden end to the SEAC plans and created an urgent need to liberate all POWs and civilians and arrange their repatriation as soon as possible. Major Smiley was in India recovering from severe burns sustained in an accident when the bombs were dropped in Japan. But he returned to Thailand and immediately travelled to Ubon. He had to remain ‘undercover’, but managed to meet the British officers from the camp and arranged air-drops with his HQ in Calcutta.
Tension between the Japanese and the POWs within the camp grew. Although the Japanese were resigned to defeat and relaxed their guard, the POWs knew the Japanese would be humiliated. They prepared for retaliation, but it did not come.
On the 26 August, Colonel Toosey arrived by train from Bangkok to be re-united with the men. He was keen to ensure they were in good health and begin their repatriation. The ex-POWs gave him a great welcome. At last, after three and a half years, they were free from tyranny.
The following day Major Smiley inspected the parade and the flags of Great Britain, Holland, Australia and the United States replaced the Japanese flag of the rising sun.
Inevitably, the administration required to repatriate 3,000 ex-POWs to their homelands, took several weeks. Although the ex-POWs were impatient, they occupied their time with sports events, including athletics, football and horse racing. The local Thai villagers arranged parties and film shows. RAF Dakotas regularly dropped supplies of clothes, food and medicine.
After four weeks, the ex-POWs started to leave the camp and travelled by train to Bangkok, then by air to Rangoon and finally by ship to England or Australia. The Dutch were not so lucky. Many of them had homes in the Dutch East Indies, but because of the outbreak of civil war, it was deemed too dangerous for them to return. Many stayed in Ubon to re-train in the use of arms and explosives in preparation for their eventual repatriation.
Although North East Thailand was not a battle zone, the Royal Thai army detained some 10,000 Japanese soldiers and officers in the Ubon camp. Several were identified as perpetrators of war crimes and sent to Singapore to stand trial. There are no remaining records but anecdotal evidence suggests that some Japanese committed suicide rather than give themselves up.
The camp finally closed in early 1946. The fields were returned to the farmers and the airstrip left to nature. However, in 2010 it was re-opened for use by light aircraft.
- Today it is Ubon’s thriving commercial airport and a base for the Royal Thai Air Force.
- Mansell and WO-361-2004.
- Confirmation required.