I started my research after reading a comment referring to the Ubon camp on one of the Far Eastern Prisoner of War Facebook groups. There was very little information immediately to hand, but in the weeks that followed I least found out that allied prisoners were sent there to construct an airstrip.
Back at home I used Google Earth to search the area for any likely looking airstrips. I didn’t really know where to look until I read Major David Smiley’s book ‘Irregular Regular’. He wrote that the airstrip was close to the camp which he estimated as nine kilometres north of Ubon. Much to my delight a more detailed look revealed the airstrip. I could go to the location on my next visit to Ubon.
I returned to Ubon and met my good friend Julie Crowley who was on a world backpacking tour. She stayed a few days at our house in Thamuang enjoying the rural delights of Issan culture and food.
I was keen to find the airstrip, as was Julie, and we took the car along route 212 to try to find it. We turned onto a side road just past a school, identified from Google Earth, but soon ran into a dead end. We backtracked to the school and Khamma asked one of the teachers if he could direct us. He called over a lady who I think was a teaching assistant, but crucially we stopped her as she was just leaving the school on her motorbike.
It was our very very lucky day. Two minutes later and we would have lost our opportunity. She asked us to follow her to meet her father, Thongdee Wongman. She assured us that he would be delighted to take us to the airstrip. We soon found out that Thongdee was a young boy of 12 years old when the prisoners and Japanese were in the camp. What a seminal moment!
Thongdee was actually attending his friend’s funeral in the village, but he was so pleased that we were interested in the airstrip he came straight out of the house, jumped in the car and took us directly to the airstrip. Not bad for a spritely 82 year old.
I remember the mounting excitement as we drove down the lane. I could feel the prisoners’ spirit as we walked along the strip. This was what my research was all about. I was a bit surprised that there was a long narrow concrete strip running down the obvious sandy dirt runway. Apparently the airstrip is still in use and home to a couple of light aircraft.
Thongdee pointed out three bomb craters, where 100 tons of Japanese explosives were destroyed after the camp closed and the Japanese surrendered. On subsequent visits, after obtaining necessary permission from the Royal Thai Air Force and the Royal Thai Army (Beware: that is important to avoid trouble!) I took my metal detector and dug up scores of bomb fragments along the whole length of the airstrip.
After a short walk (it was raining), we returned to the car and drove back to the main road. Thongdee took us across the road and into an area of grassland. This was where the Ubon camp was located. There is not much to see other than rice fields and a few trees, but again it felt like we were touching history.
The main point was that we had located the exact locations and could come back as many times as we want. Of course over the last five years I have been back countless times; but more of these visits another time.