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Thread: Kanchanaburi : Death Railway

  1. #1

    Kanchanaburi : Death Railway

    The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass

    The [Thai–Burma] railway ... was the common and dominant experience of Australian POWs ... [it] distorted or ended the lives of over half of the Australian prisoners of the Japanese ...

    [Hank Nelson, ‘Measuring the railway’ in Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson (eds), The Burma–Thailand Railway, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 17, 19.]

    Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) today

    Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Thai–Burma railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia’s national memory of World War II.

    There are good reasons for this. Over 22 000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.

    This website focuses on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), the deepest and most dramatic of the many cuttings along the Thai–Burma railway. Not all Australian POWs worked here in 1943. Nor was the workforce in this region exclusively Australian. However, in recent years Hellfire Pass has come to represent the suffering of all Australian prisoners across the Asia–Pacific region. The experiences of prisoners elsewhere were, in fact, very diverse but this website can only hint at these.

    The Thai–Burma railway

    The Thai–Burma railway (known also as the Burma–Thailand or Burma–Siam railway) was built in 1942–43. Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes which had become vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

    Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use the more than 60 000 Allied prisoners who had fallen into their hands in early 1942. These included troops of the British Empire, Dutch and colonial personnel from the Netherlands East Indies and a small number of US troops sunk on the USS Houston during the Battle of Java Sea. About 13 000 of the prisoners who worked on the railway were Australian.

    When this workforce proved incapable of meeting the tight deadlines the Japanese had set for completing the railway, a further 200 000 Asian labourers or rōmusha (the precise number is not known) were enticed or coerced into working for the Japanese

    The 415-kilometre railway ran from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) to Non Pladuk in Thailand. It was constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end. This meant that the already difficult problems of supply became impossible during the monsoonal season of mid-1943.

    Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work impossibly long hours in remote unhealthy locations, over 12 000 POWs, including more than 2700 Australians, died. The number of rōmusha dead is not known but it was probably up to 90 000.

    Remembering the railway

    All memory is selective. Communities, like individuals, remember some stories of the past while forgetting others. For memories to survive at the collective or national level they need to be championed — not just once but over the decades.

    Many Australians have performed that role for prisoners of the Japanese. In the decades after World War II ex-prisoners published their memoirs and eye-witness accounts. Many of these proved to be immensely popular. Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island (1951), for example, sold well over a million copies and stayed in print for decades.

    There were also memorable fictional accounts of captivity, some of which were adapted for commercial films and television series. The most famous of these was The Bridge on the River Kwai which, though bearing little resemblance to events in 1942-43, generated a popular interest in the railway which continues to this day.

    In the 1980s Australian ex-POWs returned to Thailand and reclaimed Hellfire Pass from the jungle which had swallowed it when the Thai–Burma railway was demolished after World War II. The cutting soon became a site of memory for many Australians, particularly on Anzac Day. Its dramatic scale and its towering walls, scarred with drill incisions made by hand, spoke particularly vividly to the hardships endured by POWs along the railway.

    The building of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum by the Australian government in 1998 also made it a key site of memory, attracting tourists and ‘pilgrims’ of many nationalities.

    But ‘Hellfire Pass’ was more than just a cutting. In its vicinity a sequence of bridges and embankments were needed to keep the railway route along the escarpment level. There were also many camps housing the thousands of workers, including Australians. These have now disappeared into the exquisitely beautiful landscape but this website reclaims them as witnesses to the POW story.

    The Anzac legend and Australian memory

    Over the years this story of atrocity and suffering has become an affirmation of Australian courage and resilience. Although prisoners of war suffered the humiliation of being defeated and captured, they came to be portrayed as men who had triumphed over adversity.

    Displaying in captivity the qualities of humour, resourcefulness and mateship, they were able to integrate their experiences into the dominant national memory of war since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, the Anzac ‘legend’.

    The POW experience is also remembered for service of the medical personnel who, with little equipment or medicines, cared for desperately ill men in primitive hospitals. Most famous of these doctors is the POW surgeon Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. His statue now stands outside the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, not so far from another iconic image of compassion, Simpson and his donkey. Although Dunlop was only one of 106 Australian POW medical officers, in recent years he has come to represent them all ‒ and the values of courage and compassion that they and many Australians manifested in captivity.

  2. #2
    Death Railway Expedition

    walking the 300km route the F force where forced to march as POWS in WWII

    Singapore was the major British military base in South East Asia. In February 1942 the Empire of Japan invaded the stronghold of Singapore. Fighting lasted for 16 days and resulted in the fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. About 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops became Prisoners of War and remained in Singapore’s Changi Prison.

    The “F” Force was a working party of prisoners at Changi. It consisted of 7000 men – Australian and British soldiers. The first of thirteen trains left Singapore for Thailand on 18 April 1943. Each train had 600 men crammed into rice trucks, 28 men to each trunk. The last train left Singapore on April 26, 1943. The journey from Singapore to Ban Pong in Thailand took 5 days. Once the F Force parties arrived in Ban Pong they were forced to march 300km or more to various camps. The main camp for Australians was Shimo Sangkurai. These camps were located in the centre of the cholera belt which consequently resulted in 1060 Australian men dying from various diseases, mainly cholera.

    Prisoners of War were then forced to work on the construction of the Burma-Thai Railway. A huge project that the Japanese provided no heavy construction equipment. The prisoners built the railway by hand. They broke the ground with pickaxes and shovels. They moved earth with buckets and bamboo-and-burlap litters and yoyo poles. Stonecrushing for ballast was done with hammers. To bore holes in hard rock they used iron drills and sledgehammers. The POW’s also had no running water, no soap, no toothpaste or toilet paper. Because of the lack of hygiene, lack of food and overworked conditions POW’s suffered and died from dysentry, malaria, tinea, vitamen D deficiency, burning feet, bed bugs, cholera, dengue fever and many other tropical diseases. The treatment of the men whilst building the Burma-Thai Railway was the biggest sustained POW atrocity of the Pacific War.

    Most of the remaining members of “F” Force arrived back in Changi on 17th December, 1943.

    Prisoner Of War Facts

    * There were more than 140000 POWs during WWII

    * A roster of just their names and first initials would fill a book of 450 pages

    * Complete names would fill a book the size of Gone With the Wind

    * Name, rank, serial number and a single sentence about what happened to them, those who survived and all those who did not, would fill a book the size of war and peace four times over

    * The POWs who died at the hands of the Japanese have no single monument

    * The POWs names carved in stone would cover a mass of granite that could stand beside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and not be overshadowed

    * If the war had lasted another year there would not have been a POW left alive

    * Building of the Thai-Burma Railway was the biggest sustained POW atrocity of the Pacific War

    * Any white captive was a prisoner not only in a Japanese Camp but in Asia. His skin was a prison uniform he could never take off

    * Along the 250 mile stretch of railway track, the total number of POW labourers was more than 61000. About 30000were British, 18000 were Dutchmen or Indonesian Dutch, 13000 were Australian and about 650 American

    * About 45% of all prisoners of the Japanese worked on the railroad. It was the biggest single use of POWs

    * The POWs on the Burma-Thailand railway had to deal with no running water, no soap, no toothpaste, shaved heads, no toilet paper, dysentery, malaria, tinea, Vitamin D Deficiency, burning feet, bed bugs, cholera and so much more

    How to Stay Alive on the March

    1. Never fall back – from the first day men were hanging onto each others belts to keep going, the stronger ones towing the weak.

    2. Never get on the outside of the column – you could get whacked or worse

    3. Never lose your hat – the sun will kill you

    Geneva Convention 1929

    The Geneva Convention (1929) was signed at Geneva, July 27, 1929. Its official name is theConvention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Geneva July 27, 1929. It entered into force 19 June 1931. It is this version of the Geneva Conventions which covered the treatment of prisoners of war during Word War II.

    Unfortunately the Japanese never did ratify the Geneva Convention on POWs. In the 1930s the Japanese were cranking up their military machine. By the mid-30s the Japanese were saying that whenever and however the white mans way of doing things conflicted with the Japanese way, Japan would go ahead and do things its way. The way the Japanese read the 1929 Geneva convention, an enemy prisoner of war in their hands would be entitled to a softer time than a Japanese fighting man in the field with the emperor’s army, and to them that was absurd. As for a Japanese taken prisoner there was not going to be any such thing. No Japanese fighting man was ever going to be taken alive: Do not survive to suffer the dishonour of capture. So why should the Japanese bother about the Geneva convention? There was nothing in it for them.

    Courtesy of ‘Prisoners of the Japanese’ (Gavin Daws)

  3. #3
    documentary about the building of the railroad, including interviews with survivors. Unfortunately, you have to speak or read Thai to get the specifics.

  4. #4


    The history of the Thai–Burma railway is explored in of a number of museums in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, the town in which the famous ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ is located.

    A Thailand–Burma Railway Centre display is a bar-chart using dog spikes and railway sleepers found on the railway to depict the relative numbers of deaths of various national groups (prisoners and Asian rōmusha) working on the Thai–Burma railway.
    [Photo: Kim: McKenzie]

    Three museums are privately owned and managed by Thais. These include the JEATH museum (Japan–England–Australia–Thailand–Holland) situated on the river bank just below the junction of the Kwae Noi and Mae Khlong/Kwae Yai rivers. Managed by a Buddhist temple, Wat Chaichumpol, the museum was created in 1977 to provide information about the railway for early tourists. Taking the form of a POW hut, with bamboo platforms on either side of a long aisle, it houses POW accounts, paintings, newspaper cuttings and objects donated by the local community who during the war traded food for watches, forks and spoons.

    The World War II and JEATH Museum located fifty metres from the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ on Maenamkwai Road, was created by a local businessman Prythong Chansiri in memory of his father who died during the Allied bombing of 1944–45. Using the horrors of war to make a case for peace, this museum combines Thai history and art with an eclectic collection of war weapons and memorabilia.

    The third among the Thai museums is a small exhibit in the house of the Thai merchant and member of the Thai underground movement, Boonpong Sirivejjabhand.

    The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, above the famous Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), in contrast, was established by the Australian government in 1998 with the cooperation of the Thai government.

    Each of these museums serves a different purpose and offers a different experience for the visitor. The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, for instance, as its name suggests, is a place of reflection as well as an interpretive centre providing the historical context for visitors to the cutting below.

    The most comprehensive introduction to the building of the railway is offered by the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre, (TBRC) located across the road from the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Jaokunnen Road, Kanchanaburi.

    Rod Beattie (left) and the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre general manager, Terry Manttan, in the museum’s cafe, with the Kanchanaburi war cemetery in the background.
    [Photo: Kim McKenzie]

    The TBRC was established in 2003 as the result of several years of passionate research and exploration of the railway by an Australian ex-patriot, Rod Beattie. Beattie has lived in Thailand for over eighteen years and been employed for more than fourteen years by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as Manager of the Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries.

    A staff member at the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre, Andrew Snow, assists an enquirer. Rod Laidlaw, with his search on the database for information about prisoners of war.
    [Photo: Kim McKenzie]

    In these years he has acquired an unrivalled knowledge of the Thai–Burma railway: including its route, camp locations and original cemetery sites in Thailand. In the early 1990s Beattie also played a role in the development of Hellfire Pass and personally cleared the rail track that now forms the walking trail below Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum.

    The TBRC consists of a museum and research centre. The museum provides information on all aspects of the railway’s construction and the multinational workforce used by the Japanese. Its displays include artefacts excavated from POW camps, a three-dimensional representation of the full length railway (with camps sites identified by lights), a recreation of a deep railway cutting, a graphic POW hospital, and a statue of Australian POW Ray Parkin’s famous sketch of two malaria victims supporting a man dying of cholera.

    The Thailand–Burma Railway Centre viewed from the Kanchanaburi war cemetery.
    [Photo: Kim McKenzie]

    The Research Centre is dedicated to researching the history of the railway and individual prisoners of war. It provides information and personal tours for family members seeking answers about the experiences and deaths of their relatives. Its data base is progressively accumulating information on prisoners from the Thai–Burma railway but also from other regions of the Asia–Pacific during World War II. As of 2012, its records cover 105 000 individuals, including more than 25 000 Australians, 55 000 British and 22 000 Dutch, as well as Americans, Canadians, Indians and New Zealanders.

    Data includes personal information about the prisoner, his period of captivity, where he worked and with which workforce, and, if the POW died, the place, date of recovery of the remains and any known subsequent information. All information is provided to family members on request to the TBRC.

    The TBRC is progressively digitising its extensive records and historical documents to ensure long-term preservation.


  5. #5
    Had a run out there in a taxi one day while in bkk some years back.

    Always wanted to check it out as I knew a couple of guys who survived it, and having seen the classic film about it several times.

    The cemetery, museum, bridge, and opposite side of the river were really humbling sobering experiences, and well worth the effort.

    Felt honoured to be there, when there are so many people in the world with more connection to it than me, that can only talk about it.

    Think the middle sections of the bridge were not the original.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Mar 2015
    Somewhere out there, man.
    Quote Originally Posted by MrBlobby View Post
    Felt honoured to be there, when there are so many people in the world with more connection to it than me, that can only talk about it.
    I'm sure you mean well Mr Blobby but myself as someone who has visited Kanchanaburi on many
    occasions has never felt honoured to be there.
    How can there be honour in the abject misery and conditions these poor wretches of POWs had to suffer under the Japanese.
    It would be akin to someone who said that they felt honoured to be there after visiting Auschwitz or Belsen.
    These places only serve to be graphic reminders of man's inhumanity to man.

    Honouring these men who were reduced to poor scraps of humanity and died or were killed as a result of it on ''Remembrance day'' is our way of saying that we haven't forgotten them and honour their memory which is entirely different altogether.

  7. #7
    Australian in Thailand devotes life to 'Death Railway' POWs
    Aug 10

    In this June 18, 2015, photo, Rod Beattie uses a machete to clear a walking path along what was the Death Railway in Nam Tok, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand. As the 70th anniversary of World War II's end approaches and its veterans dwindle by the day, Beattie, an Australian, still slogs along the 415 kilometer (257 mile) length of Death Railway where more than 100,000 Allied prisoners and Asians were enslaved by Japan's Imperial Army to build the line. With his own money, he maps its vanishing course, uncovers POW relics and with his vast database helps brings closure to relatives of those who perished and survivors who went to their graves never having shared their traumas.
    (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

    NAM TOK, Thailand (AP) -- Wielding a machete, Rod Beattie slashes at tangled undergrowth and soaring bamboo to expose vistas from one of World War II's iconic sagas. Out of the jungle appear remnants of a railway that cost the lives of more than 100,000 Allied prisoners and Asians enslaved by Japan's Imperial Army.

    As the 70th anniversary of the war's end approaches and its veterans dwindle by the day, the aging Australian still slogs along the 415-kilometer (257-mile) length of "Death Railway." With his own money, he maps its vanishing course, uncovers POW relics and with his vast database helps brings closure to relatives of the dead - not only those who perished building the railway, but also those who went to their graves never having shared their traumas.

    Beattie acknowledges to being a man obsessed.

    "The life I have given isn't just for them but for their descendants," he says. "Their children are now at an age where they have retired. They've got time to ask questions - `Where was my father? What happened to him?'" And many, bringing along their own children and even grandchildren, are making what Beattie calls pilgrimages to the railway to seek answers, find peace and shed tears.

    One daughter he escorted was able to learn for the first time exactly where her father, Pvt. Jack McCarthy, died on July 21, 1943, of what diseases and where he was initially buried.

    Then Beattie took her to his final resting place, beneath a headstone brightened by a single poppy. Another daughter recently came fixated on whether wild bananas contained black seeds the POWs would suck for sustenance. It was something her father often recounted. When they found some, it seemed to authenticate and illuminate all that her father told her about his ordeal.

    "It made her very happy," Beattie said.

    Arguably the world's authority on this drama of inhumanity and courage in a green hell, this one-man band has also busted myths and plain inaccuracies that have accumulated around the railway. Some are drawn from a still-ongoing parade of memoirs, novels and films, from the classic 1957 movie classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai" to "The Railway Man" in 2013 and "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," a novel that won Britain's top literary prize last year.

    He's driven, he says, "for history's sake. To give people a true version of the story. After I leave or pass away, who would otherwise know where the railway was?"

    Beattie, 67, clambers down a steep slope where the track has been replaced by a rolling field of tapioca. Within 15 minutes, aided by a metal detector and pickax, he uncovered 11 relics under the reddish soil, including railway staples and bolts. He also gathered clues to the location of a labor camp, Tampii South, that he has yet to pinpoint.

    Tampii South was among a string of POW camps along the railway, which the Japanese regarded as a strategic supply line from Japanese-controlled Thailand to their forces in Myanmar as Allied warships made the sea route around the Malay Peninsula increasingly hazardous. Completed in 15 months, the railway was an incredible feat of engineering and human toil.

    More than 12,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners died along with an estimated 90,000 Asians, including Tamils from Malaysia, Burmese and Indonesians - some 250 corpses for every kilometer of track. Working with primitive tools and their bare hands, the prisoners succumbed to cholera, beriberi, starvation, executions and despair.

    A civil engineer in Australia, Beattie arrived in Thailand in 1990 to work as a consultant in the gems industry. He settled in the western Thailand town of Kanchanaburi, a key railway terminus and site of the infamous bridge on the River Kwai. His passion was kindled by the history around him and his own background: two of his uncles had been killed and his father twice wounded in World War II. Beattie himself served in the Australian military for six years.

    In the mid-1990s, with machetes and chain saws, he and his Vietnamese wife, Thuy, eight months pregnant, cleared 4.5 kilometers (2 miles) of rail bed at a rock cutting known as Hellfire Pass, paving the way for a memorial and museum there. In 2003, he opened the Thailand-Burma Railway Center in Kanchanaburi, both a research facility and a superb museum incorporating some of the thousands of artifacts he had uncovered.

    Although Japanese atrocities are graphically depicted, it is not a mere museum of horrors. Japanese soldiers also suffered hardships and savage commanders, and not all are portrayed as brutes. The exhibits include rare photographs provided by a Japanese engineer on the railway.

    Beattie has corrected misconceptions about the railway that had made it into a number of history books, including some that flatly state that Japanese guards killed 68 Australian POWs at Hellfire Pass. He proved that the guards killed no Australians there by going through a database of 105,000 records of nearly every prisoner in Southeast Asia.

    Beattie found that Allied POW records were so sketchy that some relatives even had false information about where their fathers died. He said the index cards that Japan's Imperial Army kept on every POW sometimes have proved more helpful than Australian officialdom. He also dug into archives around the world including hospital and burial records, cemetery maps, regimental documents and diaries to reconstruct the tortured odysseys of thousands. He offers them to any who want to know, and has received decorations from Australia, the Netherlands and Great Britain for his work.

    Beattie's ongoing work includes a detailed GPS mapping of the entire rail line that in Thailand is 60 percent completed. Earlier, logging more than 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) on foot, he plotted the Thai end and some of the Myanmar stretch on a 1:50,000 map.
    "Probably when I die," he says when asked when he'll halt his self-imposed mission.

    Beattie's labors seem a race against the clock: The railway is vanishing along with those who built it.

    Over the past two decades, he says, most sections disappeared, overtaken by the jungle or covered over by farms, roads and a large dam. In Australia, only some 200 ex-railway POWs are still alive; worldwide, the youngest one Beattie knows about is 89. Only two survivors attended commemorations this year in Kanchanaburi on ANZAC Day, April 25, the national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. In times past, there might be dozens.

    But earlier in the year, 34 Australians, mostly children of POWs, gathered at the main Allied cemetery in Kanchanaburi town for a simple, moving service among the 6,982 graves. Some wore the medals of fathers they never knew: They were conceived before their fathers left for war or were simply too young to remember them. They sought information from Beattie.

    It was the first trip to the River Kwai for Elizabeth Pietsch, whose father died in 2013 at the age of 95.

    "He never talked about it very much, but when he did, tears would well up in his eyes," she said. "He went on to be a chartered accountant, a very successful man, but it was always there, the elephant in the room... It was the defining time of his life."

  8. #8
    Medals theft ‘a pretty bloody low thing to do’
    Liam Croy
    October 23, 2015

    Thai-Burma railway survivor Milton ‘Snow’ Fairclough.
    Picture: Simon Santi

    Thai-Burma railway survivor Milton “Snow” Fairclough needs one short sentence to explain why he wants his World War II medals back.

    “They were bloody hard to get,” said the 95-year-old, who spent 31/2 years on the Death Railway before Japan surrendered.

    Even then, Mr Fairclough’s captors refused to release their prisoners for 13 days because they did not believe the war was over. He was finally set free on his 25th birthday.

    Mr Fairclough, who came from Moora, worked with surgeon Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop near the infamous Hellfire Pass on the 415km railway.

    He endured terrible sickness, hunger and beatings in forced labour that killed more than 2800 Australians. Before capture, Mr Fairclough was with the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion in the Middle East and Java.

    His service earned him nine medals, which he has worn with pride at dozens of commemorations in Australia and Thailand.

    They included the Africa Star, Pacific Star and the Dutch Commemorative War Cross.

    But the treasured medals that he wants to pass on to his four sons were stolen from his Victoria Park home last month.

    “We got one of them from Queen Wilhelmina for giving the Dutch a hand in Java,” Mr Fairclough said.

    “I can’t understand people taking them, I really can’t. It’s a pretty bloody low thing to do.”

    Mr Fairclough believes the medals were stolen before 3pm on Tuesday, September 29.

    “The guts were going around for a few days after I realised they’d gone missing, I can tell you,” Mr Fairclough said.

    “You go through a bit to get them.”

  9. #9
    Thailand Lifer Delayed's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2014
    Ocean Cruising
    Low life every place. They don't give a dam about anyone. Pity for the poor old boy, survived on of the worst hell on earth situations, deserves better.

  10. #10
    Thailand Lifer Texpat's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2014
    Where my hat is.
    Spare us the neverending hyperbole.
    Chinese suffered horrors many times worse than the allied prisoners.
    I don't see them reduced to waxing in faux outrage at the inconceivable inhumanity every time the subject is broached.
    Last edited by Texpat; 10-23-2015 at 10:55 AM.

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