Ubon Airstrip – making history

Whilst travelling I was privileged to get the chance to search – and find – a WWII Japense airstrip built by PoWs with a friends I was visitng in Ubon Ratchanathani, east Thailand!

As no-one had found or recognised this airstrip for what it was until Ray Withnall found it in 2015, I was part of history in the making too! Something I cannot explain the awa for me, the importance of being there!

It was also a weird and wonderful story.

Ray has now written and published his book this month June 2020, after five years in the writing and reearching of it, meeting many interesting and interested parties along the way who helped him with the story of his find.

Based around the PoW camp at Ubon Ratchathani & airstrip Ray found

I was staying with Ray and Khamma, his Thai wife, at their lovely home about an hour away and he asked if I would mind joining them with a search for an airstri he’d heard of. I love history, and new experiences, and exploring so of course said I’d love to go.

We drove out from the city and he produced a map to guide him but it was quite thick jungle growth, no paths or roads but we found the vicinity he said. He saw a school and decided to go in an ask about anything they might know, to which I was doubtful and said so.

To my utter surprise he came back shortly, excitedly telling us that someone in there at the time, a cleaning lady, new of this strip and PoW history from her father – and she was going to take us to meet him! A teacher he met said she might know and she did. The chances of that meeting were incredible!

She drove off and we followed, to meet her dad who was about to attend a friend’s funeral but, on hearing the story of the search, chose instead to help Ray find it. And we did! I stood in a field surrounded by dense jungle foliage, with a short airstrip made of red and sand coloured stone, a deep dip to the right which turned out to be a bomb hole.

I drove it as if taking off with Ray and Khamma and Thong Dee and his daughter, walked around and explored, chatted to light plane owner who had his hangar there but couldnt help more on who or why it was there.

However, Thong Dee then offered his time to come with us and show us around the area relating to the prisoners! Precious time and effort in his 95th year, being a small boy during the war, hanging around and even befriending some fothe PoWs in the nearby camp! Just wow!

He showed us the camp site and described it to Khamma who translated for Ray, where many horses died and were buried (as the war was ended and the prisoners released and repatriated), due to Japanese maltreatment and starvation, overwork so had to be shot by Colonel Smiley, in charge of the rescue and much more in that area with the helpf of the resistence group, the Seri Thai. We saw the racecourse that was a relaxation and treat as the prisoners were wating to leave for home, staying with local people often – sports, horse racing and even a few bets no doubt. He told us of parties and drinking, resting soldiers being fed properly and medical care they so desperately needed from the army.

The Japanese had retreated, escaped or became prisoners themselves but the Thai people had been taken advantage of by the invaders and most simple locals just wanted to get by, farming, working and bartering with prisoners for food and goods.

Now this book has put this and more into perspective, into context for me, for this adventure and named people and places Ray has been keeping me informed with updates when we meet up, along with my trip to Kanchanaburi and the Thai-Burma railway the prisoners worked and died on – which is still used today and I got to ride on too.

Heart-wrenching stories of bravery, abuse and loss for so many for so long, many years ago. A museum in Kanchanabi with prisoners personal items and stories. the graveyard where they were re-buried from all over the sites they worked and died on and the museum near a wat built like the huts they lived in, where huts used to be and a Japanese general of one who became a monk apparently many years after the war (but I could feel no sympathy there).

Ubon Park fountain near the memorial for fallen prisoners and Japanese events in the war

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