Artist on the Burma–Thailand Railway: the drawings of Jack Chalker

Jack Chalker, serving in the Royal Artillery, was captured at the fall of Singapore. In October 1942 he was in a party sent to Thailand to construct the Burma–Thailand Railway.

Chalker secretly made drawings of the various camps and conditions endured by the prisoners. He drew and painted on whatever materials he could find or steal from the Japanese, hiding his work in sections of bamboo buried in the ground, the attap roofs of huts, or the artificial legs worn by amputees in the hospital camps. His work provides a candid and moving record of the prisoners’ suffering.

Works by Chalker have been donated to the Memorial by the families of Albert Coates and Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop. In 2002, a further major collection of more than 70 drawings and documents was generously donated by Tattersall’s Holdings Pty Ltd.

The Japanese demanded “fit” prisoners to work each day. Despite their emaciated and sick condition, they deemed very few to be unfit. Those too ill to work had their meagre rations reduced and token pay denied.

This drawing has special significance for Chalker. A Korean guard caught Chalker hiding his sketches and forced him to tear them up. He was beaten for two days. Chalker later discovered that this drawing had survived undetected in a pile of rags.

AWM ART91811
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Two working men, Konyu River camp
pen and brush and ink on paper
drawn in Konyu, Thailand, in 1942
acquired in 2002
ART91811

AWM ART90855
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Konyu River camp dysentery latrines
pen and brush and ink on paper
drawn in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 1999
ART90855

AWm ART90845
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Cholera hospital, Hintok
watercolour with pen on paper
drawn in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 1999
ART90845

Konyu River was the first camp Chalker was sent to. He arrived in Thailand after a five-day trip by rail from Singapore. Chalker recalled that 32 men were crammed into each metal boxcar, in stifling heat and with little food or water. The prisoners were then forced to march to their campsites.

AWM ART91814
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Konyu River camp
pen and brush and ink on paper
drawn in Konyu, Thailand, in 1942
acquired in 2002
ART91814

AWM ART91816
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Cookhouse, Konyu River camp
pen and blue ink on paper
drawn in Konyu, Thailand, in 1942
acquired in 2002
ART91816

AWM ART91823
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Roman Catholic church, Chungkai
pencil on paper
drawn in Chungkai, Thailand, in 1943
acquired in 2002
ART91823

When Chalker became too ill to labour any further he was sent to Chungkai where a large hospital camp had been set up in an attempt to care for thousands of sick and dying men.

In early 1944 Lieutenant Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop arrived at Chungkai; recognising Chalker’s drawing talent, he asked him to start making secret records of the prisoners’ medical conditions.

AWM ART91822
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
View from the artist’s hut, Chungkai hospital camp

watercolour over pencil on paper
drawn in Chungkai, Thailand, in 1943
acquired in 2002
ART91822

Between April 1943 and January 1944, the Canadian surgeon Markowitz performed more than 120 leg amputations at Chungkai. On 19 January 1944, two days after Dunlop’s arrival, Markowitz was moved to another camp.

While the two doctors did not actually operate together at Chungkai, Chalker has depicted them doing so as a tribute to the tireless efforts made by both men to save as many of their comrades as possible.

AWM ART91848
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop and Captain Jacob Markowitz working on a thigh operation, Chungkai
oil on cardboard
painted in London in 1946
acquired in 2002
ART91848

By the end of 1944 Dunlop’s medical team had moved to the major hospital camp at Nakom Paton, and Chalker went with them. He continued his secret medical and surgical drawings for Dunlop, and also recorded the people, events and landscape.

AWM ART91836
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Nakom Paton base hospital
watercolour on paper
drawn in Nakom Paton, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 2002
ART91836

AWM ART91837
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Nakom Paton base hospital
pencil on paper
drawn in Nakom Paton, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 2002
ART91837

AWM ART90846
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Nakom Paton: alcohol distillery and vinegar plant
watercolour with pen and ink over pencil on paper
drawn in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 1999
ART90846

Even small cuts and scratches could turn into gaping and stinking tropical ulcers, caused by bacteria in the soil. Operating confronted doctors with a terrible choice: a bad ulcer could kill a man, but operating on weak men with inadequate or inappropriate drugs resulted in an appallingly high death rate.

AWM ART90854
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
Tropical ulcer; Gunner Harper
watercolour heightened with white over pencil on paper
drawn in Nakom Paton, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 1999
ART90854

AWM ART90839
Jack Chalker
Second World War served British Army
New arrivals: dressing ulcers, Chungkai
watercolour with pen and brush and ink heightened with white on paper
drawn in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1945
acquired in 1999
ART90839