TRAGEDY OF THE THAI-BURMA RAILWAY
The Thai-Burma Railway was built between 1942 and 1945; its purpose was to carry supplies to Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing sea routes which had become vulnerable to Allied attacks. Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use the man-power of the 60,000 Allied prisoners of war who had fallen into their hands in early 1942. These included troops from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. More than 13,000 Australian were captured by the Japanese and forced to work on what became known as the Death Railway. Most of these soldiers died, accounting for some 20% of Australian deaths during World War II. Consequentially we all get taught about the Death Railway in school in Australia, and Kanchanaburi is something of a pilgrimage site for many Australians who lost family in this part of the world during the war. Neither of us have family buried in Kanchanaburi, but we still wanted to pay tribute to the men who lost their lives here and to understand more about the events that unfolded in the jungles of Thailand and Burma during those final years of World War II.
We started our day at THE bridge, the one made famous by the 1957 movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai”. Though the plot of movie is fictional, the bridge is very real and is still in use today. During World War II, Allied prisoners of war and conscripted South East Asian labourers known as romusha built the bridge as part of the Thai-Burma Railway project. Allied forces bombed the iron bridge in 1944, destroying the 3 central sections. These have since been rebuilt, but their square shape stands in contrast to the curved railings of the original bridge.
Due to the popularity of the bridge as a tourist destination, special walkways have been added either side of the railway track for people to walk across. From the height of the bridge the River Kwae Yai below looked so serene and peaceful that it was hard to imagine that it was once the site of such suffering.
We learnt more about the building of the Death Railway at the nearby Kanchanaburi War Museum. We learned how the conscripted labourers from Malaya, Singapore, and the then Dutch East Indies were recruited with promises of good wages, good working conditions, and housing for families. And how, in fact, working conditions for the romusha and Allied prisoners of war were deadly. Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work 18 hours per day in hot, humid, remote, and inhospitable locations, many of the men died. Some died at the hands of the Japanese guards, and many more from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion. After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese were tried for war crimes because of their brutalisation of prisoners of war during the construction of the railway. Japan has also since made formal apologies for the events, which doesn’t change what transpired, but does at least indicate that lessons have been learnt and (hopefully) means history will not be repeated.
More than 180,000 romusha and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway. At least 90,000 of the Asian civilian labourers* and 12,621 Allied prisoners of war died during the construction. It is estimated that one life was lost for each sleeper laid in the track. Many of those who sacrificed their lives to build the Thai-Burma Railway are buried at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, which stands beside the museum. Beautifully tended, the cemetery was a touching memorial and a sombre place to visit.
*The exact number of romusha that perished is not known as many of the dead were never found or identified.
Central to the story of the Thai-Burma Railway is the Konya Cutting, a railway cutting dug out of solid rock by Allied prisoners of war in 1942-1943 that came to be known as Hellfire Pass. Infamous for the especially harsh conditions and heavy loss of life suffered by its labourers during construction, Hellfire Pass is so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell.
The site is not far out of Kanchanaburi and can be visited for a first hand view of what those poor men built by hand. Surrounded today by beautiful rainforest, Hellfire Pass was deeply touching and really brought home to us the atrocious conditions those men worked under.
Our final war-related activity of the day was, thankfully, more joyous and scenic: we rode the train along the railway originally built all those years ago* and crossed the Bridge Over the River Kwai at sunset.
*The original sleepers and tracks have long since been replaced, but the route is the same as that laid out by Japanese engineers some 75 years ago.
The views along the way were stunning, with rural farmland stretching out for miles and richly forested hills lining the horizon.
We enjoyed the best views of all, however, when the tracks cut through a rocky hillside and carried us along the edge of a cliff, with the river glittering far below us.
To us it seems that the cliff-hugging tracks and the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys are the best monument that could be left for those men that lost their lives building the Death Railway. And whilst we honour and respect the men who lost their lives here, it is the enduring beauty of Kanchanaburi that we will always remember, not just its tragic past.