Kanchanaburi Part 2 – The Death Railway


In stark contrast to our culinary experience, we spent two days exploring the history of the so-called “Death Railway” built by POWs during WW2. The famous Bridge over the River Kwai stands as it was when built at one end of town, and when we drove through here with the Kerrs in 1974 it was the only evidence of the terrible history of its building. Since then, a group of Australian POWs returned in search of their wartime memories, found all overgrown and destroyed, and convinced the Australian government to contribute to the building of a memorial display at the infamous Hellfire Pass, and a museum in Kanchanaburi itself.

In their quest for a safe overland route for supplies, the Japanese decided to drive a rail line through Thailand to connect Burma to Singapore. They used British, Australian, and Dutch POW’s mostly from the fall of Singapore and Indonesia as slave labour, transporting them under horrible conditions to camps in the Kanchanaburi area. They also conscripted legions of Thais, Malays, and Indians who were treated equally brutally and died by the droves. Conditions in the camps were appalling, with little food, few medical supplies, no clothes or shoes for working in jungle conditions, and appalling brutality from the guards. The work was terrible as the railway passed through thick jungle in a mountainous area, and all work including cutting through solid rock and bridging deep gorges had to be done by hand with the most rudimentary of tools. When the monsoon struck the men were decimated by cholera and malaria, and as the conditions worsened the Japanese picked up the pace, determined to finish in an impossibly short time.

We took a bus to the Hellfire Pass memorial, which has a riveting collection of reminders of the soldiers’ travails, particularly wonderful paintings and drawings done clandestinely by Australian artists, and many personal artifacts contributed by the survivors’ families. They have films shot by the Japanese engineers which is shocking to view. The tune made famous by the movie is mentioned by one veteran, apparently they sang and whistled it constantly, and the Japanese urged them on, unaware that they had made up rude lyrics. Anything to boost the spirits. We then rode the railway back to Kanchanburi, crossing the trestles and bridges mentioned in the display that claimed so many lives. At one crossing, every man who worked on it failed to survive. The section past Nam Tok where we got on the train was destroyed after the war, so only the parts cleared as a memorial remain. We walked part of the old track in blazing heat. They estimate that one man died for every sleeper laid on the thousands of kilometres of track. Even more of the “romesha” or local labour died.

The museum in the town is equally fascinating and the beautifully maintained grave yards quite stunning. Immediately after the war ended, a Dutch officer who had been a railway engineer in his prewar life, realized that they must take command immediately, so they prevented the records from being destroyed as they were in other places. With the aid of some selfless POW volunteers, they were able to locate many of the remains, and have them exhumed and reinterred in the cemeteries in the town. Their quick work also prevented a mass massacre such as happened in Papua New Guinea where the Japanese murdered all the POW’s who had survived the war. Unbelievable. Doug was particularly riveted by a very graphic medical display with life size figures, showing doctors at work over wounded and infected soldiers -broken limbs and tropical ulcers were a huge issue and fatal to many as the wounds they constantly got from the work were immediately infected. They improvised all manner of medical implements from basically the garbage heap, using Japanese saki bottles to mix saline, and beer bottles to rig up drips, the thorns that gave the men so many of the injuries were used as makeshift IV needles. Many tributes to the bravery of the medical staff were penned by the survivors. Of course diseases like cholera, malaria and dysentery were huge killers, as were beriberi and other diseases of starvation.

Quite the sobering and touching couple of days, on one hand the courage of the men who survived is astonishing, on the other the gratuitous brutality of their treatment is horrifying. As with wars of today, it is hard to accept the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on others. On to Ayutthaya next, to delve into the far past, by trolling the ruins of Thailand’s previous royal seat.

Greetings to all, take care, D&C

Sent from my iPad


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