The March

...As the night progressed a new torture became evident. The rains had made the jungle stink of rot, and steam or mist seemed to hang about low over the ground and between the trees and undergrowth. With this dampness had come clouds of midges or sand flies, so small that they could hardly be seen. They got in our eyes, ears, nose, hair and between tight closed lips into the mouth. Although we wrapped our heads with what available pieces of cloth we had, they got under it somehow and it then became worse as we couldn’t get our fingers there to scratch them away. When first we encountered them, they buzzed about our ears and it seemed as though we had suddenly developed a very irritating skin rash. Thousands of them were biting together. It was after an hour or so of this torture that one of our party went rather queer and I think he lost his reason. No doubt this awful experience had upset his mental balance. He threw his kit from him and tore at his hair. His eyes seemed bright and wild. He kept shouting "Take me home, let me go home" ending up by bursting into a fit of sobbing.

This addition to our troubles seemed the last straw and to have their arms free to battle with these midget flies men threw away their kit that hampered them. Arms and legs also became easy prey and everyone seemed to be smacking and scratching all night long, then when dawn was breaking and the midges eased off, it left the men very silent. There wasn’t the shouting and noise as there had been in earlier stages, and all that could be heard now was the weary steps we took, the jangle of the tins, the laboured breathing and occasionally a half-suppressed groan. Men were no suffering in silence, each with his own particular aches and pains. Each with his own thoughts and each so terribly exhausted. I only knew that my whole body seemed to be on fire. My head, like a drum, seemed to be rolling about uncontrollably. My eyes seemed raw and were kept open with the utmost difficulty. My shoulders were skinned raw from the chafing shoulder straps of my pack, which was worsened by the loss of flesh. Each day brought an increase in the protrusion of my bones, the knawing pain in my stomach, my knees ready to give way at every step and my feet like lumps of raw beef. This is no exaggeration, and I was in good condition compared to some. Any survivor will no doubt say that I haven’t told the half of it. This will be understood when I say that most of the men had skin diseases which gave hellish irritation immediately as the man perspired, or perhaps they had rashes or eruptions in the arm pits or crotch which became raw through continuous chafing, and in some cases turned septic with running sores, making every step more agonizing. Others had malaria, dengue, or some other form of mysterious jungle fever. All were emaciated and starving, no one could ever describe the real suffering of these men. Ask the survivors what kept them going and many will say they don’t know. Their steps became automatic and they moved forward blindly. Others will say that they willed themselves to get back home to their loved ones and so kept going with that one aim in mind.

I have compared notes with my pals who marched with me and it seems most peculiar that our notes are strangely alike. Our minds seemed to work and react similarly to the changing conditions. As we advanced stage by stage into the jungle and in the last marches, we were in the last stages of exhaustion, we had a feeling as though we were home among our families, near the ones we loved. I have heard that a drowning man lives again his past in a few seconds before oblivion. That is what made me pull myself together many times. My mind was wandering, and it seemed that I was half asleep yet I was dimly conscious of my aching body as something that was pulling me down, or holding me back, and in front was home and strangely enough I was in the home of my childhood days with my dear Mother and Father, or I was home with my wife and children. They were quite clear to sometimes, and then quite dim, and it was during the time that they were dim that the aches and pains seemed to be holding back the most. Then I would make an effort and everything would be clear again.

This must sound very phony to any sensible person. I would probably think so myself if someone else told me that it had happened to them. And when at the camp at Neiki I had rested and thought about, I decided that it was too clear to be fancy, so I thought my mental faculties were being affected by the strain. When, with great concern, I told one of my pals and explained my fears, he looked enormously relieved, and said that he too was worried because he had also had a similar experience. This gave me the idea of checking with the other later on and I was surprised by the number who felt as I did...

 

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