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The Burma Thailand Death Railway



The Burma - Siam Death Railway




In 1942-43, during World War 11, the imperial Japanese Army built a railway from Ban Pong, in Thailand, to Thanbyuzayat, in Burma. This railway, 415 kilometers long, and built through some of the most inhospitable disease ridden terrain in the world, it was to supply a large Japanese Army in Burma.


The railway was constructed using an absolute minimum of mechanical equipment and a maximum of human effort.


The project resulted in a huge loss of life of the Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) and Asian forced labourers that were used to construct it. An estimated 13,000 POWs and 80,000 Asian labourers died of disease, sickness, starvation and brutality at the hands of the Japanese Army.


It has been written that 'this railway was built at the cost of a life for every sleeper in its 415 Kilometer journey'. This page is only but a doorway to the survivors and nightmare of the infamous 'Death Railway' and the Bridge on The River Kwai.


Brief  Description Of Conditions At Hellfire Pass


Construction of the Hellfire Pass cuttings commenced with a workforce of 400 Australian prisoners on ANZAC Day, April 25, 1943. The section was behind schedule by June and in July 1943 the labour force was supplemented with additional Australian and British prisoners to bring the workforce to 1,000 men in an attempt to complete the section on schedule.


The excavation of soil and rock to a depth of 20 metres was carried out using a minimum of mechanical equipment. The prisoners were issued with 8-pound hammers, steel tap drills, explosives, bars, picks, shovels and chunkels (a wide blade hoe). Some assistance was given by the use of an air compressor and several jack hammers. To remove the huge volume of waste rock produced, ore skips running on light narrow gauge rail tracks were provided. However, the vast hulk of material had to be removed by hand using cane baskets and rice sacks slung between two poles.


The men laboured under intense pressure from the Japanese engineers and Korean guards at the height of the wettest monsoon season for many years. Such was the brutality that 69 men were beaten to death by their guards.


As the work schedule became more critical the prisoners were forced to work 12 to 18 hour shifts each day. In fact the work went on around the clock. This was achieved by the use of oil pot lamps and bamboo/wood fires kept burning all night. When viewed from above, these fires gave the impression of working in the "jaws of hell". Hence, the PoW’s applied the name "Hellfire Pass" to this cutting.


This frenetic pace, known as "Speedo", achieved its goal with the cutting being completed in August, albiet at the cost of many lives, estimated to be about 400. Proof of this can be seen today in the large number ofheadstone plaques in the main cemetery in Kanchanahuri, showing the deaths which occurred in June-August 1943.


Other significant structures and works in this section were "Compressor Cutting", the curved trestle bridges at Hintok and another large temporary trestle bridge which came to be known as "Pack of Cards" bridge because it collapsed three times during construction.


The reasons of why I have made a special inclusion of this topic here - on a Navy Website, is that when HMAS Perth and USS Houston were sunk in the Sunda Straits, off Indonesia, at the begiining of the Pacific War, all the Survivors, known as, what was at first a highly derogatory term, the 'Java Rabble' were sent to work in the labour camps of The Railway.  Many did not return.  Right: A Plaque to be found in the Allied War Cemetary at Kanchanaburi, Thailand.


Above: POWs at work in Hellfire Pass
(Konyu Cutting) Artists Impression



Above: POWs at a labour camp on the Railway



Above: The Allied War Cemetary at Kanchanaburi Thailand.  ANZAC Day Services are conducted here each year.


The Chart below is the total deaths of those who worked on the railway.


The Total number of Asian Labourers will never truly be known, but it was very high.



British 30,000 ± 1,384 3,568 1,588 6,540 6,540
Dutch 18,000± 313 1,896 622 2,830 2,830
Australian 13,000± - 1,362 1,348 2,710 2,710
Malayan NA 37 104 79 220 220
Indian NA 6 12 15 33 33
New Zealand NA   2 3 5 5
Canadian NA   1 1 2 2
Burmese NA   1 1 2 2
Unknown NA   35 114 149 149
American 700 + - - - remains repatriated 356
Other NA   1 1   2
SUBTOTAL 61,000 ± 1,740 6,982 3,771 12849 12,849+
200,000         80,000+


15,000         1,000
TOTAL 275 000 +         94,000 +





Following the investigation into possible memorial sites by Jim Appleby, an engineer with SMEC, in 1984, the area known now as "Hellfire Pass" was selected as the most suitable. This was because of ease of access from the main road along the Kwai Noi valley and being a significant feature in its own right.


The memorial site is located on land under the control of the Thai National Security Command and, as such, has remained virtually untouched since the railway was taken up shortly after the war.


Access to "Hellfire Pass" from Highway 323 is via the National Security Command Developmental Farm’s roads for a distance of 600 metres and thence via concrete pathways and steps for 200 metres to the original rail bed: walking northwards a distance of 300 metres will bring you to the memorial site in Konyu Cutting.


locations of cemetaries