In a special ANZAC Day report, historian and tour guide Andrew Mason details the construction of one of the bloodiest railways in human history.
The Thailand/Burma Railway, or Death Railway, was a wartime railway built by tens-of-thousands of Australian, English, Dutch, American prisoners of war, along with at least 180,000 forced-labourers from South-East Asia.
Following numerous, significant naval losses at Midway, the Coral Sea, and elsewhere, Japanese command decided an overland route was required to supply the ever-increasing Nippon occupation and expansion in Burma, known to them as the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.
Some 2,710 Australians were among the 12,600 prisoners of war (POWs) who died building the railway, many from diseases, including malaria, pellagra, dysentery, beriberi, dengue fever and cholera. Others died directly from beatings and mistreatment by Japanese and Korean officers, or from complications arising afterwards. Others perished from tropical ulcers gained from toiling on the railway. Malnutrition was a key factor in the burgeoning death rate.
Beginning in Thailand at Ban Pong Station (about 60km north of Bangkok), the finished railway traversed 415km of terrain, before reaching Thanbyuzayat, in Burma (now Myanmar). It negotiated flat ground to begin with, then followed along the banks of the Kwai Noi River, through the Thai jungles and mountains.
Bridge over the River Kwai
Along that river was built the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’; now a household name due to the Academy Award-winning film made many decades ago. Lieutenant-Colonel Phillip Toosey was the British officer in charge of the work force and was well regarded by his men. Two bridges were in fact built there: a wooden one came first, followed by a steel bridge ‘borrowed’ by the Japanese from Java, which was completed in April 1943.
On November 29, 1944, the Allies bombed the bridge and the adjacent anti-aircraft battery. Bombs carried over to the nearby Tamarkan POW camp, killing 19 POWs. Similar bombings also occurred at the Non Pladuk Rail Yards, killing dozens of prisoners in the process.
At the bridge today you can visit the USA and Japanese Memorials (with the latter dedicated to all nationalities), examples of period locomotives and the site of the wooden bridge. The rectangular spans in the centre were replaced post war and indicate the spot where B24 aircraft accurately bombed it.
This part of the river is in fact the River Mae Klong; Pierre Boulle, author of the book (1952) and screenwriter of the film (1957), disliked that name and therefore the River Kwai became part of the title. The section of river which includes the bridge was, in 1960, renamed as the Khwae Yai, as a result.
Some of the regions worst monsoons occurred during 1943, and as the railway became behind schedule the infamous ‘Speedo’ period of construction took place.
This period pushed the POWs and forced labourers harder than ever, with incredible labour quotas, and long days and nights.
Hammer and tap men worked around the clock in Hellfire Pass – the largest cutting on the railway – where it was estimated around 400 men perished working in the granite mountain, carving a trace to allow the one metre gauge railway line to run.
Evidence of the Speedo is shown through the numerous cemeteries of Kanchanaburi, Chungkai and Thanbyuzayat, which host the men who died between July and September, 1943.
Tales of horror, courage and mateship
Treatment of the POWs during the railway’s construction was among the worst experienced by POWs in modern human history. In one example, ex-POW Alistair Urquart in his book ‘The Forgotten Highlander’ (2013), described the frightful acts of Japanese Lieutenant Usuki:
“The Black Prince, also known as the Kanyu Kid,” Urquart wrote. “He was the psychopath who had me tortured and thrown in the black hole. He beheaded one of my comrades in front of us. [He was] executed by the British in 1946 for war crimes.”
In another incident, later adapted for the 2001 film To End All Wars, a counting of the tools was taking place at the end of a particular day’s work in a British camp, when the number came up short.
The Japanese guard in charge was said to have gone ballistic at the parade of men, threatening to bash and beat their front ranks, if an individual did not own up to the theft. When nobody claimed responsibility, Private Alistair McGillivray, a tough Argyll and Sutherland Highlander from the UK, was said to have come forward, to save his mates.
McGillivray was beaten by the guard until he fell to the ground, then more as he lay unconscious, until he was dead.
George Beard wrote in 2000: “Work on the railway continued, with demands by the Japs for labour so high that quite sick men were compelled to work 12 or 14 hours a day.
“We found the Korean guards employed by the Japs to be just as vicious, or even more so, than the Japs themselves.
“Hard long hours of heavy work, coupled with a starvation diet, saw countless fine young men die ugly, unnecessary deaths.
“Better food and basic drugs could have saved most. We forgot how to laugh, every day was an ordeal.
“We were all terribly frightened, and mates were all there to keep us sane and alive. At least one good mate was essential to survive.”
A significant construction
The train today travels from Bangkok all the way to Nam Tok Station; over the River Kwai Bridge, past paddy fields, crops and isolated Thai railway stations, to the Wampho Viaduct.
Typical clickety-clack sounds, rolling hills in the background, and old fashioned windows venting humid air-flow provide a suitable setting to reflect on a railway construction which claimed several-hundred thousand lives during the Second World War. As author Hugh Clarke said in 1986, “A life for every sleeper”.
There were six bridges built between the Hellfire Pass and Hintok areas (where D Force worked under the famous surgeon Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop). Local bamboo, teak, railway and dog spikes were used to construct the bridges, along with pulleys and locally-fashioned pile drivers powered by overworked and hungry POWs.
Three-tier Bridge at Hintok was infamous among many in the area. It was where the well-known ex-POW, the late Bill Haskell of D Force toiled, and later advised that ‘Billy the Bastard’ also preyed: a Japanese guard who allegedly took great delight in throwing tools from high vantage points onto workers below, and who didn’t mind pushing men off high bamboo scaffolding.
Haskell wrote: “In the last two months of 1943 the Japanese moved 17,000 tonnes over the railway. They moved an average of 11,700 tonnes a month for the first half of 1944, and 18,750 tonnes in the second half.
“The average dropped to 3,850 tonnes a month for the last eight months of the war. The grand total was 228,550 tonnes. After the war the British Army dismantled about 4kms of track on the Thai/Burma border.
“The remaining 310km in Thailand was sold to the Thai Railway Company for 1.25 million Sterling.
“Most was lifted but 140kms was re-laid as far as Nam Tok (Tarsau), which is now the terminus of the Death Railway.”
The Death Railway is still operational to Nam Tok; traveling over the famous steel bridge and across the Wampho Viaduct heading north as the originators intended.
Andrew Mason takes pilgrimages to the railway with his tour company. Read more at www.deathrailwaytours.com.au.