Corporal (Cpl.) Bert Jones (1917-1990) and his unit, 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, surrendered to the 16th Army of the Imperial Japanese Army on March 12, 1942 after intense fighting in Java (now Indonesia). Following the surrender, Cpl. Jones was shipped to Thailand, a perilous journey with the added risk that the ship he was traveling on could be torpedoed by an American submarine . Although he survived the voyage, the odds of surviving long-term as a prisoner of war (POW) were slim.
Cpl. Jones was eventually sent to the 80 Kilo Camp in Apalaine, Burma. There, he survived on a daily ration of rice, cucumber, and radish with meat flavoring. His job, along with the more than 60,000 POWs and 70,000 conscripted laborers, involved clearing the jungle and leveling the ground for the Siam-Burma railroad, an effort later portrayed in the book and film, The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
One Japanese soldier riding on the railroad, Watanabe Hideo, recalled: “We passed large numbers of prisoners of war in the jungle along the tracks. … They were all naked except for a fifty-centimeter wide loincloth. These were made from coarse jute bags for rice and wheat. The peachy skin of the Caucasians was soiled by streams of blood. They moved and writhed, chased by Japanese officers wielding whips” .
Almost all of the POWs suffered from health issues including malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, beriberi, and pellagra. If a POW sustained a scratch by a piece of bamboo or a scrape on a stone, he could develop a tropical ulcer, which, combined with nutritional disorders, continued labor, and minimal rest, penetrated into the muscle and tendon resulting in gangrene, and potentially, amputation.
Australian surgeon Albert Coates described the dilemma over whether to perform amputations on POWs working on the Siam-Burma railroad: “Joints, such as the ankle and mid-tarsal joints, became eroded, pain was excruciating, there was no morphine, and the patient yearned to be relieved of his dead or dying member. For the first six weeks, attempts were made by all available methods to save the limbs. Amputation had to be done, and I am sorry I did not undertake it sooner” .
While in Burma, Cpl. Jones’ left leg developed a tropical ulcer that indeed progressed to gangrene [4, 5].
Although it’s uncertain which surgeon performed the operation, Cpl. Jones’ leg was amputated below the knee sometime in late 1942 . While most patients in the camps survived amputations, many subsequently succumbed to pellagra, systemic infection, or dysentery . Following his operation, Cpl. Jones was transferred to the Nakom Pathon Sanitarium approximately 35 miles west of Bangkok, Thailand. The Japanese built the hospital in January 1944 as a model camp to demonstrate to the International Red Cross that prisoners were well cared for. The hospital contained 50 bamboo huts with wooden floors, each intended to hold 200 severely sick or wounded patients from the railroad.
Although considerably better than previous facilities, the Japanese provided no medical supplies or equipment . Cpl. Jones recalled sharing the hut with 300 injured prisoners in a filthy compound .
As someone with a lower-extremity amputation, Cpl. Jones could do very little. But a fellow POW, Carpenter’s Mate (CM) 2nd Class John Campbell (1918-1976), survivor of the sinking of the USS Houston, offered to make a prosthesis for him.
“I thought they were only trying to keep up my morale,” recalled Cpl. Jones .
CM Campbell made a hammer and a chisel and began carving a log . He modified the hinges from a chair purchased from a Dutch prisoner to make the knee joint. The chair’s leather seat became the stump socket . Private (Pvt.) William “Bill” Miles, an Australian soldier who enlisted despite a prewar below knee amputation and served as a truck driver when captured in Java, allowed his prosthesis to be used as a model . The prisoners were careful to ensure that the Japanese guards did not discover their project and confiscate their tools. An old shoe was used as the foot of the prosthesis. The limb was completed in 5 weeks . and, in August 1944, Cpl. Jones walked unaided for the first time in almost 2 years .
“Blimey, it fits you better than mine fits me” , Pvt. Miles whooped after seeing Cpl. Jones walk on his leg (Fig. 1).
The three POWs, Jones, Campbell, and Miles, created at least two more prostheses for fellow prisoners . Their camp was liberated on September 1, 1945, and all three went their separate ways, their families having no idea of their fate during their 3-year captivity.
Cpl. Jones proudly wore the leg when he visited his parents for the first time since he had departed in 1940 as a tribute to what he had endured and to his friends’ assistance in ensuring he could make it home.
He subsequently turned it in for a considerably lighter model issued by the Veteran’s Administration.
1. Anderson CR. East Indies. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History; 1995.
3. Coates AE. Clinical lessons from prisoner of war hospitals in the Far East (Burma and Siam). Med J Aus. 1946;1:753-760.
4. Corporal Bert Jones Lost Leg as Jap Prisoner …’, Wise County Messenger [Decatur, Texas]. Available at: https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/56130513/
. Accessed June 1, 2020.
5. Foreign Service. ‘He walked on a chair!’ March 1946. Accession record 156, 115. National Museum of Health and Medicine.