A black and white image of the early stages of building the railway, where POWs and Southeast Asian laborers are working hard in the sun, supervised by Korean and Japanese soldiers.

The Death Railway: Its Connection to World War II and the Present

The Death Railway is a horrific mark of World War II (WWII) of the harsh realities the Prisoners of War (POWs) and forced laborers endured.

Many are unaware of the true story behind the railway and are more familiar with it as the famed tourist attraction: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Allied POWs in Siam, now Thailand, were a source of slave labor. To survive, the POWs and falsely promised laborers of Southeast Asia built a connection to aid Japan during WWII, with immense casualties on the path they laid.

There are also those that believe the present has forgotten all the POWs and laborers and what they endured with their bravery and perseverance.

Background on Siam

A black and white photograph of the King of Siam and his procession in the front of the palace and in the middle of his people, who are sitting on their legs with their back straight and their heads facing their king.
image source: bangkokpost.com

In Sanskrit, Syāma means ‘dark’ or ‘brown’.

Since the 18th century, Thailand was known as Siam and referred to as a place where people of a particular skin color reside.

In the 1780s, the Chakri Dynasty ruled Siam from their capital, Bangkok. The government closely resembled a western-styled democracy of a parliament.

The radical People’s Party was formed in 1927.

Luang Phibunsonkhram, or Phibun, led a coup against the Chakri King in 1932. The monarchy survives but Phibun took control as a dictator in 1938.

Phibun, a forceful nationalist and modernizer, changed the country’s name to “Thailand”. He was determined to bring his people into the modern world and emphasize their unique identity.

The county became Siam again from 1946 to 1948. In 1948, it became Thailand again and then the Kingdom of Thailand, which remains its official name.

Thailand Avoided Colonization

A black and white imag e of highly official boats making port or on the river as they make their way through a luxurious building built on the water.
image source: dailymail.co.uk

In the mid-19th century, Siam followed a unique and well-established political system known as the Mandala system.

Its underlying philosophy differed from the European notion and focused on spheres of influence. Weaker rulers paid tribute to more powerful rulers, with the Siamese King at the top.

Contributing Factors

Despite being occupied, Siam remained uncolonized due to several factors.

Firstly, Siam was in a geographic buffer zone. It’s between the British colonies of the Malay Peninsula and the French colony of Indochina.

Secondly, their Mandala political system was transformed into a more European version. Map making stood as an important aspect.

The Siamese King saw the European importance of topographical knowledge and used maps to define their ruled territory. Ill-defined borders meant an easy opportunity to claim the land.

Thirdly, the King saw that the Mandala system provided a diffusion of power.

Local rulers exerted as much power as they could. However, large portions of land remained out of reach of any rule.

Realistically, the king rules over the whole land. Legally, many areas remain in political limbo.

The Siamese King found the problem. So, he introduced a standing professional army for the first time in Siamese history. As a result, he obtained more power to control local rulers and unsupervised regions.

This led to the abolition of slavery, strengthened the freedom of religion, and introduced a postal service and the first railway. Local rulers were also stripped of their power and titles, and all power was transferred and centralized in Bangkok.

The transference of power proved to be a beneficial advantage against western colonization.

The Siamese language became the official language of the nation. With calculated maneuvers, Siam seemed westernized enough to avoid colonization and, therefore, the Europeans saw it as a legitimate state.

Although uncolonized, various foreign powers occupied the country.

Thailand’s Role in WWII

An opaque image of Siamese soldiers standing in line and in uniform in Siam.
image source: pinterest.com

In September 1939, war broke out in Europe.

The chief leaders of the Allied Forces were the United States, Great Britain, France (before the German occupation), the Soviet Union, and China. Chief leaders of the Axis Forces were Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Siam declared neutrality.

When Japan invaded Siam in December 1941, Siam cooperated rather than face a forced invasion. The Japanese passed through the country to invade Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) and Burma (now Myanmar), which were both British colonies.

The first real conflict with the Allies led France to fall to Germany and left it as a puppet state under the Vichy government.

Siam saw the opportunity for its borders in French Indochina. The Vichy government refused their accommodation. Thai troops crossed the border and battled the French troops. Japan joined Siam’s side as part of Germany’s political alliance.

Lang Pipul, the Siam Prime Minister, collaborated with the Japanese and embraced the Axis’ war goal, hoping to reap the benefits.

Soon after, Thailand declared war on the US and Great Britain.

In October 1942, Pipul became a dictator of Siam, a loyal puppet to Japan.

The Death Railway

A black and white image of the early stages of building the railway, where POWs and Southeast Asian laborers are working hard in the sun in Siam, supervised by Korean and Japanese soldiers.
image source: bbc.co.uk

In addition to full access to Siam’s infrastructure, Japan sought to create a transport route though Siam and into Burma.

The Japanese Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo looked back on an idea from the 19th century. Although declared difficult and abandoned, the idea consisted of building a railway through 260 miles (420 km) of the mountainous jungle.

The transportation route meant less reliance on sea transport and the Japanese would be able to advance into India.

Construction, for what became known as “The Death Railway”, started in Burma on September 15, 1942, and in Siam in November 1942. The goal was to connect Ban Pong, Siam, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma.

Japanese and Korean Soldiers

12,000 Japanese soldiers and 800 Korean soldiers worked on the railway. They received better working conditions as engineers, guards, and supervisors. However, 1000 Japanese soldiers died during construction.

Other laborers remember the Japanese and Korean soldiers as cruel and indifferent to their fate. The soldiers’ cruel treatment ranged from physical punishment, humiliation, and neglect to torture and extreme violence.

Southeast Asian Laborers

Around 180,000 laborers were Javanese, Malayan Tamils, Burmese, Chinese, and Siamese, to name a few.

In 1943, the Japanese advertised jobs in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). They were promised good wages, short contracts, and houses for families.

When they arrived in Siam, the Japanese Imperial Army forcibly drafted them to work on the railway.

93,000 of them died, but many of the deaths are unrecorded.

POWs on the Death Railway

The Japanese saw using too many of their workers resulted in disease-related deaths. It cost them greatly. They concluded that they needed a cheap source of labor. Therefore, they relocated POWs from other Axis POW camps to Siam.

Those POWs were from the United Kingdom, Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies, Australia, and the US.

Over 60,000 Allied soldiers worked on the railway, with a total of 12,621 dying during construction.

Living and Working Conditions

The horrific living and working conditions resulted from maltreatment, sickness and starvation. There was an average of four deaths per 330 ft. (100 meters) of track laid.

2000 soldiers were housed in each long barrack of 66 yards (60 meters).

The spread of disease increased due to the humid climate and monsoons. Additionally, food shortages and the absence of medical care were all too common.

To work on the railway, laborers used primitive equipment. The Japanese knew there wasn’t any hope of getting machinery into the jungle from the beginning. The railway needed to be built by hand.

Workers in isolated areas suffered a higher death rate.

The Japanese estimated that the railway would be completed within five years. It only took 16 months because they were ahead of schedule.

Upon its completion, POWs returned to the camps they came from, and the remaining laborers were taken to nearby camps.


Disobeying an order resulted in being smacked across the face or beaten. Officers delivered the punishments to discourage others from doing the same.

Other punishments included holding large boulders over their heads until their arms failed and sweat boxes, where a prisoner couldn’t lay down or sit properly.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

A black and white image of POWs carrying their equipment from their camp towards the railway, where they will continue their work in Siam. Some barely have their uniforms, just enough to cover below their waist, while covered in dirt and close to malnourished.
image source: fuse.education.vic.gov.au

Also known as Bridge 277 of The Death Railway, this bridge is the most important section of the railway in its history.

In February 1943, the bridge began as a temporary wooden structure. By 1943, the permanent structure was made from concrete and Indonesian-made metal slabs. Just like the rest of the bridge, POWs built the bridge over the Mae Klong River by hand. There were no cranes to lift the heavy metal slabs.

The infamy of The Death Railway’s Bridge 277 came from David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. According to views, the film downplayed the suffering of the POWs and omitted certain historic facts.

While the bridge is built on the Mae Klong River, this section of the river under the bridge was renamed “Khwae Yai River” in the 1960s, in reference to the film’s fictional “River Kwai”.

Conditions worsened as progress continued, such as outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and malnutrition. The 1943 monsoon season worsened these conditions.

The Death Railway vs. the Allied Forces

The strategic importance of the Bridge on the River Kwai was in favor of the Allies. It became the prime target of their bombing raids.

Between December 1944 and June 1945, Allied aircrafts bombed the bridge and another that was a fair distance down from it. The bombing killed and injured civilians and POWs.

On November 29, 1945, the raids caused 19 deaths and left 68 wounded.

It wasn’t until the raid on February 5, 1945, which left 15 injured, did the Japanese evacuate the prisoners downstream.

In 1944, the US Air Force and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) bombed the lines and bridge that broke Japanese supply lines. The raids occurred at least ten times more after.

Despite the Allied Powers goal, this only prolonged the suffering of the POWs, who had to repair the bridges and lines.

Hellfire Pass

A colour photograph of the memorial by Australians and New Zealanders for those they lost in the Hellfire Pass, with tokens of appreciation and their countries flags on the wall and on the small part of the railway that remained.
image source: wikipedia.com

The Konyu Cutting, also known as Hellfire Pass, ran along the length of the Death Railway. It symbolized the suffering of the POWs by the Japanese during WWII.

Its name came from the torchlights used to light the pass. POWs worked with a glowing red light from the flames. It visually represented Hell.

In a remote location, the forced labor of the POWs and Southeast Asians and a lack of tools built the largest rock cutting of the entire railway.

The original idea for the pass was a tunnel through the hills, but this required two teams working on either side of the hills. For the cutting, laborers worked simultaneously on both sides. It required more effort and resulted in more deaths of laborers, in addition to the Japanese forcing them to work for 18 hours a day until the pass’s completion.

Working through the harsh conditions, the laborers completed the pass in six weeks.

69 POWs died at the hands of the Japanese guards. More perished from illness, starvation, and exhaustion. Although there is no record, the Southeast Asian laborers suffered the same fate.

Hellfire Pass remains a memorial.

Anzac Day commemorates the Australian and New Zealand POWs that died in Hellfire Pass and the deaths of others.

Infamous Individuals

A black and white photograph of Seiichi Okada in Siam, standing in front of a forest in Thailand.
Sergeant Seiichi Okada – image source: coffeeordie.com

Sergeant Seiichi Okada, also known as “Doctor Death”, worked near Hellfire Pass as a medical officer. His infamy lies in sending POWs back to work, despite their failing health and closeness to death.

The Geneva Convention disallowed such treatment of prisoners, but Japan didn’t sign the treaty and, therefore, didn’t abide by their rules.

A Korean Guard, Arai Koei or “Mad Mongrel”, brutally beat POWs with shovels and bamboo shoots to exert his authority.

Notable Individuals

A black and white close up photograph of Sir Edward Dunlop, in uniform.
Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop – image source: rymanhealthcare.com.au

Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop

Edward Dunlop, an Australian medical officer, provided aid to over 1000 POWs.

His nickname “Weary” came from his “never wear out” resilience. Those he helped became the “Dunlop Force” or “Dunlop’s Thousand”.

In March 1943, he moved to the northernmost camp near Hellfire Pass. Using his expertise, he healed POWs and labourers suffering from beatings and the wilderness.

Japanese soldiers forced a POW, Billy Griffiths, to uncover a camouflaged and booby-trapped ammunition dump. A blast took his sight and hands. The Japanese left hm for dead, but Dunlop cared for him until the end of the war.

After a remarkable recovery and a journey home, Griffiths became “Mr. Disabled Sportsman of the Year”.


The Siamese locals were sympathetic to the POWs.

Boon Pong Sirivejjabhoundu, a Siamese merchant, used his contract with the Japanese Imperial Army to smuggle medicine and radio batteries to the sick and dying POWs. His arrangement with the Japanese allow him to enter the camps under little management.

The End of WWII

A black and white photograph of Australian POWs sipping cups of tea in Siam, talking with one another after discovering the war ended.
image source: rarehistoricphotos.com

In 1945, Allied forced liberated The Death Railway’s remaining prisoners.

111 Japanese military officials were tried for war crimes. Their charges focused on their brutality during the construction of the railways, which led to 32 death sentences.

The Southeast Asian laborers received no compensation or reparations.

As for the POWs, they returned to their respective countries after their rescue.

The railway was removed but bridge 277 remained.

JEATH War Museum

JEATH stands for Japan, England, Australia and America, Thailand and Holland.

A chief abbot of a local Thai temple established the museum in 1977. It’s a bamboo hut, like those the laborers forcibly lived in, that’s filled with war memorabilia.

The present-day museum isn’t the original since nothing lasts long in the jungle.

Former POWs visited the new site and judged as a fair replica.

The Japanese allowed prisoners and villagers to take photographs in the early stages. The workload was light and there weren’t any epidemics of sickness yet. They even allowed prisoners to buy food from village traders and shops.

When prisoners started dying, the Japanese forbade photographs. Trading became punishable by death. Laborers still wrote and drew sketches for a while and hid their pens and pencils by burying them.

Former POWs donated some photographs and illustrations taken in secret.

The Memory of War Disregarded?

A black and white photograph of the Bridge on the River Kwai in present day, with the river so clear there is a disitinct reflection of it.
image source: wanderjunction.com

Many feel that the memory behind the Death Railway has been disregarded and commodified. Many tourists visit the bridge but are unaware of its significance.

There are reports that memories of the war and locomotives go unnoticed. Instead, surrounding them are market stalls selling clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, mementoes, trivia and faded wartime photographs.

Tourists ride the “Ride on The Death Railway” or take a toy train for a short ride across the bridge.

Further proving that people may have forgotten history is the annual November events.

A sound and light show “commemorates” the bombing of the bridge, where the bridge “explodes” in fireworks. A steam train crosses the bridge and hoots into the night.

Additionally, many see the commodification degrades the landscape surrounding the bridge. New hotels and footpaths have been created throughout the area. The war monuments accommodate many tourists, some not as accurate as one would hope.

As a result, it brought damage to the bridge and the station’s integrity. The visual and symbolic connection between The Death Railway and WWII changed and had been destroyed.

The Significance of the Past

A black and white photograph of the POWs from different Allied countries, waving their country's flags and screaming for joy when hearing the news that the war is over.
image source: bbc.com

The symbolic meaning of “bridge” is to start a union or connection and is usually part of a positive connotation.

However, Bridge 277 isn’t just a literal connection, but a symbolic connection to one of the horrific events of WWII.

In remembering the past, we honor the bravery of those that fought the battles for freedom and their stories that will inspire generations.

The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.

– Edward Thomas, Early One Morning.

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