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Death Railway

October 19/20 2018

Burma Railway - Kanchanaburi

Also called Burma-Siam Railway, was built during World War II connecting Bangkok and Burma (Myanmar).

The rail line was built along the Khwae Noi (Kwai) River valley to support the Japanese armed forces during the Burma Campaign. More than 12,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and tens of thousands of forced labourers perished during its construction.

Early Japanese conquests

In the opening months of the Pacific War, Japanese forces struck Allied bases throughout the western Pacific and Southeast Asia as part of the so-called Southern Operation. By late spring 1942, with the surrender of Allied strongholds in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies, an estimated 140,000 Allied prisoners of war had fallen into Japanese hands. In addition, approximately 130,000 civilians—including some 40,000 children—were captured by the Japanese. While civilians were generally treated better than military prisoners, conditions in Japanese captivity were almost universally deplorable. More than 11 percent of civilian internees and 27 percent of Allied POWs died or were killed while in Japanese custody; by contrast, the death rate for Allied POWs in German camps was around 4 percent.

The Japanese military forces quickly took advantage of their success at Pearl Harbor to expand their holdings throughout the Pacific and west toward India. This expansion continued relatively unchecked until mid-1942. Then, after losing the battle of Midway, Japan slowly went on the defensive and began losing island after island. This rapid turnaround was a surprise even to the American military forces.

Construction of the railway.

After the Japanese were defeated in the Battles of the Coral Sea (May 4–8, 1942) and Midway (June 3–6, 1942), the sea-lanes between the Japanese home islands and Burma were no longer secure. New options were needed to support the Japanese forces in the Burma Campaign, and an overland route offered the most direct alternative. With an enormous pool of captive labour at their disposal, the Japanese forced had approximately 200,000 Asian conscripts and over 60,000 Allied POWs to construct the Burma Railway. Among the Allied POWs were some 50,000 British, 22,000 Australians, 18,000 Dutch, and 700 Americans.

Between June 1942 and October 1943 the POWs and forced labourers laid some 415 km of track from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma . During this time, prisoners suffered from disease, malnutrition, and cruel forms

of punishment and torture inflicted by the Japanese.

The Japanese wanted the railway completed as quickly as possible, and working units were comprised of massive numbers of prisoners scattered over the entire length of the proposed route. Construction was extremely difficult, with the route crossing through thick, mosquito-infested jungle and uneven terrain while monsoon conditions prevailed. Rivers and canyons had to be bridged and sections of mountains had to be cut away to create a bed that was straight and level enough to accommodate the narrow-gauge track. The longest and deepest cuttings in the railway occurred at Konyu, some 72 km northwest of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The first cut at Konyu was approximately 450 metres long and 7 metres deep, and the second was approximately 75 metres long and 25 metres deep. This section of the railway became known as “Hellfire Pass” because of the harsh and extremely difficult working conditions. Much of the excavation was carried out with inadequate hand tools, and, because work on the railway had fallen behind schedule, the pace of work was increased. Prisoners were made to work around the clock, with individual shifts lasting as long as 18 hours. The cuttings at Hellfire Pass became known as the “Speedo” period, after a solecistic command shouted by Japanese guards and engineers to their English-speaking prisoners. When the Japanese were not satisfied with the pace of work, prisoners were forced to endure atrocious physical punishment, and some 700 Allied prisoners died or were killed at Hellfire Pass.


Life on the Death Railway

She scared me as much as I scared her. Just an old lady doing her shopping and taking a short cut home
Life and Death

Allied POWs experienced inhumane treatment and endured torture by Japanese forces. Not only were the long days of the POWs filled with harsh labour and punctuated by physical abuse, but also the prisoners were provided with grossly inadequate food. The daily food allotment typically included small portions of boiled rice and spoiled meat or fish; rations were routinely contaminated with rat droppings and infested with maggots. In addition, there was a lack of potable water. Consequently, the prisoners were malnourished, dehydrated, and predisposed to illness. These factors, compounded by the unsanitary conditions in the work camps and the tropical environment, meant that disease was rampant. Dysentery and diarrhea were responsible for more than one-third of all deaths on the railway. Other diseases included cholera, malaria, and tropical ulcers.

With limited and unsatisfactory medicine and equipment, treating the sick was difficult. In this environment, Australian Army surgeon Ernest “Weary” Dunlop became renowned for his tireless effort in treating and saving many wounded and ill prisoners. Dunlop was captured in March 1942 when the Japanese took control of Java, and in January 1943 he was sent to work as a medical officer on the Burma Railway. Dunlop risked his life by standing up to the Japanese on behalf of the men in his care; the compassion and bravery that he displayed in the face of danger were the epitome of the ANZAC spirit of “mateship.”

The horrendous experiences endured by the thousands of POWs has made the Burma Railway a place of pilgrimage and commemoration. This is particularly true on Anzac Day (April 25), when Australians pay tribute to those who served and lost their lives during war. Memorial sites along the route of the railway include the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where nearly 7,000 Allied dead are interred, and the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a museum and walking trail that draws an estimated 100,000 visitors annually.

Hellfire Pass
A tranquil place which must have been absolute Hell for those who toiled and died here. It has recently been reclaimed from the jungle and is being well preserved.
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (known locally as the Don-Rak War Cemetery) is the main prisoner of war (POW) cemetery for victims of Japanese imprisonment while building the Burma Railway. It is on the main road, Saeng Chuto Road, through the town of Kanchanaburi.

The cemetery was designed by Colin St Clair Oakes and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are 6,982 POWs buried there, mostly Australian, British, and Dutch. It contains the remains of prisoners buried beside the south section of the railway from Bangkok to Nieke, excepting those identified as Americans, whose remains were repatriated.

There are 1,896 Dutch war graves, the rest being from Britain and the Commonwealth. Two graves contain the ashes of 300 men who were cremated. The Kanchanaburi Memorial gives the names of 11 from India who are buried in Muslim cemeteries.

Nearby, across a side road, is the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre about the railway and the prisoners who built it.             (Wikipedia)

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