So great was the depletion of the coolie forces by sickness in general and cholera in particular, and so chaotic were the medical arrangements made for them, that the Japanese did finally decide to institute measures to redress the situation. In late June 1943, and again in August, the authorities in Singapore assembled medical units of prisoners which they sent up to Thailand to minister to the coolies. The first to go, designated ‘K’ Force, was a party of 30 medical officers and 200 orderlies drawn from the remaining British and Australian medical specialists at Changi, with a few Dutch included as well. ‘K’ Force left Singapore on June 25th 1943, being informed before departure that since they were going to well equipped hospitals in the north, it would not be necessary for them to take medical equipment with them. Only when arriving at Kanchanburi did they discover that they would be treating the coolie forces. The force was split up into parties of one medical officer and four other ranks and distributed among the various coolie camps along the railroad. The earlier misleading information meant they could do very little for their pitiful charges. One Australian MO with ‘K’ Force was later reported to be burying 30 Tamils a day. Another reported that the gravedigging was always done by the medical personnel and owing to the increased death rate and lack of staff there were at one time 500 coolies buried in one grave at Nikhe. Coolie hospitals were finally established at Kanchanaburi in the south, at Wanyai, Kinsaiyok, Konkoita and near the border at Nikhe where it is thought that as many as 1,750 coolie patients died.
Some ‘K’ Force personnel were not allocated to coolie camps at all. One party of two medical officers and a dental officer were dispatched to an anti-cholera unit at Wanyai where they had to dig swill pits and drains to carry water from the river to the camp as well as work in the laboratory.
The ‘K’ and ‘L’ Forces were in fact part of a Japanese medical organisation run by Major Kudo, known as the Kudo Butai which had already established a series of primitive coolie hospitals at ban Pong, Kanchanaburi, Wanyai, Tamajo and Nikhe in Thailand at at Tarden, Apalon, Mezali and Anakwin in Burma. The two hospitals at Kanchanaburi in Thailand and those at Apalon and Anakwin in Burma were larger base hospitals. ‘K’ Force personnel were already working in these hospitals and about 60% of the ‘L’ Force staff were now allocated to them, the remainder supplementing the doctors and orderlies in the POWs own hospitals. They were detailed into parties irrespective of which Force they had originally belonged to and were frequently moved about by rail, river and foot.
By August 1944, the ‘K’ and ‘L’ Forces had been replaced in their medical role by dressers recruited from the Malayan Medical Service who were trained on a two-week course by Japanese doctors at Kanchanaburi. Later some locally qualified doctors were also brought up to the coolie hospitals; altogether over 700 medical staff of one sort or another were brought up from Malaya for this work.
The Japanese camp staff were not universally poor but varied greatly in ability and conscientiousness, Major Kudo, who commanded the Kudo Butai which included the medical reinforcements of ‘K’ and ‘L’ Forces, was corrupt.
Information from River Kwai Railway by Clifford Kinvig