The Death Railway is a horrific mark of World War II (WWII), haunting Prisoners of War (POWs) and forced laborers in Siam. Many remain unaware of the railway. They are, however, familiar with its famed tourist attraction: The Bridge on the River Kwai.
WWII wreaked a travesty on the world. No one forgets the horrors seen and done.
Unfortunately, among the atrocities we do know, there are more. The Allied POWs in Siam (now Thailand), were a cheap source of slave labor for the Japanese. They faced appalling living and working conditions in the building of the Burma Railway. Another known name for this railway is the ‘Death Railway’. However, while many remain unaware of the railway, they are familiar with a familiar part of it: The Bridge on the River Kwai, a major tourist attraction.
To survive, the POWs and falsely promised laborers of Southeast Asia built a connection to aid Japan during WWII, with immense casualties haunting the very path they left.
Nonetheless, even with their bravery and perseverance, many believe the present has forgotten all they did to survive.
From ‘Siam’ to ‘Thailand’
In Skanskrit, ‘Syāma’ means dark or brown.
From the 18th century, the country we know as Thailand went by Siam, a derivative form of the Sanskrit word. It placed reference to the skin color of the people.
In the 1780s, the Chakri Dynasty ruled Siam from their capital, Bangkok.
In 1927, the radical People’s Party formed.
Luang Phibunsongkhram, or Phibun, led a coup against the Chakri King in 1932. The government set-up closely resembled a western-styled democracy of a parliament. The monarchy survived. However, Phibun took control as dictator in 1938.
As a forceful nationalist and modernizer, Phibun changed the country’s name to Thailand. His determination lied in bringing his people into the modern world and emphasizing their unique identity.
The country became Siam again from 1946 to 1948.
In 1948, it became Thailand again, leading to the Kingdom of Thailand remaining official till this day.
Thailand Avoided Colonization
In the mid-19th century, Siam followed a ‘Mandala’ system, a unique and well-established political system. As well, its underlying philosophy differed from the European notion. It focused on spheres of influence. Weaker rulers paid tribute to more powerful rulers, with the Siamese King at the top.
Despite being occupied, Siam remained uncolonized due to several factors.
Firstly, geographically, Siam was in a buffer zone. Their location was between the British colonies of the Malay Peninsula and the French colony of Indo-China.
Secondly, the Siamese King came to a realization about the Mandala system.
Their Mandala political system transformed into a more Europeanized version. Map making stood as an important aspect. The Siamese King realized the European importance of topographical knowledge. The British and French 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. Nevertheless, legally, many areas remain in political limbo.
The Siamese King saw the problem. Therefore, he introduced a standing professional army for the first time in Siamese history. As a result, the king obtained more power to control local rulers and unsupervised regions. Additionally, this led to the abolition of slavery, strengthened freedom of religion, and the introduction of a postal service and the first railway. As well, local rulers were stripped of their power and title. Thus, power transferred and centralized in Bangkok.
In short, the transference of power proved a beneficial advantage against western colonization.
The Siamese language became the official language of the nation. With the calculated maneuvers, Siam seemed westernized enough to avoid colonization. Therefore, the Europeans saw them as a legitimate state.
However, although uncolonized, various foreign powers occupied the country.
Thailand’s Role in WWII
In September 1939, war broke out in Europe.
The chief leaders of the Allied Forces were the United States (U.S.), Great Britain, France (before German occupation), the Soviet Union, and China. Chief leaders of the Axis forces were Germany, Italy, and Japan. Siam declared neutrality. The Allied colonies hoped for their support against the Axis powers.
Nevertheless, however neutral they declared themselves, 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), both British colonies.
The first real conflict with the Allies led France to fall to Germany, leaving it a puppet state under the Vichy government. Siam saw the opportunity to redraw its borders in the French Indo-China. However, 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 at the time, collaborated with the Japanese. He embraced the Axis war goal, wanting to reap in the benefits. Therefore, they declared war on the U.S. and England.
In October 1942, Pipul became a dictator of Siam, a puppet loyal to the Japanese.
The Death Railway
In addition to full access to Siam’s infrastructure, Japan sought to create a transport route through Siam and into Burma.
The Japanese Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo went back to an idea from the 19th century. Although declared difficult and abandoned, the idea consisted of building a railway through 260 miles (420km) of mountainous jungle.
The transportation route meant less reliance on sea transport, with the Japanese able to advance into India.
Therefore, the construction of the Death Railway commenced.
Construction began in Burma on September 15, 1942, and Siam in November 1942. The goal was to connect Ban Pong, Siam and Thanbyuzayat, Burma.
Japanese and Korean Soldiers on the Death Railway
12 000 Japanese soldiers and 800 Korean soldiers worked on the railway. As engineers, guards, and supervisors, they received better working conditions. Nonetheless, 1 000 Japanese soldiers died.
Despite their death toll, laborers remember them as cruel and indifferent to their fate. The soliders’ cruel treatment ranged from physical punishment, humiliation, and neglect to torture and extreme violence.
Southeast Asian Laborers on the Death Railway
Around 180 000 laborers were Javanese, Malayan Tamils, Burmese, Chinese, and Siamese to name a few.
In 1943, the Japanese advertised working in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). They promised workers good wages, short contracts, and houses for families.
When arriving in Siam, the Japanese Imperial Army forcibly drafted them to work on the railway.
93 000 died, with many deaths going unrecorded.
POWs on the Death Railway
The Japanese saw that using too many of their workers resulted in deaths from diseases. It cost them greatly. They concluded a cheap source of labour. Therefore, POW laborers relocated from other Axis POW camps to Siam.
They were from the U.K., India, Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies, Australia, and the U.S.
Over 60 000 Allied soldiers worked on the railway, with a total of 12 621 dying during construction.
Living and Working Conditions on the Death Railway
The horrific living and working conditions resulted from maltreatment, sickness, and starvation. The average came to four deaths per 330 feet (100 meters) of track laid.
In each long barrack of 66 yards (60 meters), soldiers housed 200 laborers.
Survivors continued to work in the horrid conditions. With the humid climate and monsoons, the spread of disease increased. Additionally, food shortages and the absence of medical care became all too common.
To work on the railway, laborers used primitive equipment. The Japanese knew there was no hope of getting machinery into the jungle from the beginning. Thus, the railway was built by hand.
Workers in isolated areas suffered a higher death rate.
The Japanese estimated that the railway would be completed within five years. Ahead of schedule, it took 16 months.
Upon its completion, POWs returned to the camps they came from, with the remaining laborers transported 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.
- Sweat boxes where a prisoner could not lay down or sit properly.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Also known as Bridge 277 of the Death Railway, this section is considered the most important in history.
In February 1943, the bridge began as a wooden structure, a temporary measure.
In June 1943, a version of concrete and Indonesian-made metal slabs served as the permanent structure. Just as the rest of the bridge, POWs built the Bridge over the Mae Klong River by hand, without the use of cranes to lift the heavy metal slabs.
The infamy of the Death Railway’s important section is from David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, according to views, the film downplayed the suffering of the POWs and omitted certain historic facts.
Although the bridge is built on the Mae Klong River, the particular section of the river under the bridge was renamed ‘Khwae Yai River’ in the 1960s. This associated it with the fictional ‘River Kwai’.
Conditions worsened as progress continued, a result 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 lied in favor of the Allies. It became the prime target of the Allied bombing raids.
Between December 1944 and June 1945, Allied aircrafts bombed the bridge, along with another a fair distance down from it. This killed and injured civilians, as well as POWs. On November 29, 1945, the raids caused 19 deaths and left 68 wounded.
It was not until the raid on February 5, 1945, which left 15 injured, did the Japanese evacuate the prisoners downstream.
In 1944, the U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force (RAF) bombed the lines and bridges, breaking Japanese supply lines. The raids occurred atleast ten times more after.
However, this only prolonged the suffering of the POWs, who had to repair the bridges and lines.
Hellfire Pass Along the Death Railway
Also known as the Konyu Cutting, it ran along the length of the Death Railway. Till this day, it symbolizes the suffering of the POWs from the maltreatment of the Japanese.
The name for the pass originates from the torchlights lit at night. POWs worked with a glowing red light from the flames. Visually, it represented Hell.
Remotely located, forced labor and a lack of tools built the largest rock cutting of the entire railway. POWs and Southeast Asian laborers continued, despite improper care.
The original idea for the pass was a tunnel through the hills. However, this required two teams working on either side. For the cutting, laborers worked on all sides simultaneously. As a result, it required more effort, leading to more deaths of laborers. Moreover, the Japanese forced 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 as the POWs.
Hellfire Pass remains a memorial.
Anzac Day is for the Australian and New Zealand POWs that died in Hellfire Pass. Although the day is for their own citizens, they also commemorate the deaths of others.
Infamous Individuals of the Death Railway
Sergeant Seiichi Okada, also known as ‘Doctor Death’, worked near Hellfire Pass as a medical officer. Despite their failing health, his infamy lies in sending POWs who were close to death back to work.
The Geneva Convention disallowed such treatment of prisoners. However, Japan did not sign the treaty. Therefore, they did not abide by its rules.
A Korean Guard, Arai Koei or ‘Mad Mongrel’, brutally beat POWs with shovels and bamboo to exert his authority.
Notable Individuals of the Death Railway
Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop
Edward Dunlop, an Australian medical officer, provided aid to over 1 000 POWs.
His nickname originated from his “never wear out” resilience. Those he helped became known as the ‘Dunlop Force’ or ‘Dunlop’s Thousand’.
In March 1943, he moved to the northern most camp near Hellfire Pass. Using his expertise, he healed POWs and laborers 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. While the Japanese left him for dead, 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’.
Locals in Siam were sympathetic to the POWs.
Boon Pong Sirivejjabhondu, a Siam merchant, used his contract with the Japanese Imperial Army to smuggle medicine and radio batteries to sick and dying POWs. The contract allowed him to enter the camps under little management.
The End of WWII and the Death Railway
In 1945, Allied forces liberated the Death Railway’s remaining prisoners. 111 Japanese military officials were tried for war crimes, a focus on their brutality during the construction of the Death Railway. This resulted in 32 death sentences.
The Southeast Asian laborers received no compensation or reparations.
As for the POWs, they returned to their respective countries after being rescued.
The railway was removed.
JEATH War Museum
JEATH stands for (J)apan, (E)ngland, (A)ustralia and (A)merica, (T)hailand, and (H)olland.
A chief abbot of the local temple established the museum in 1977. A bamboo hut, similar to those the laborers were forced to live in, is filled with war memorabilia. However, the present-day museum is not the original. Nothing lasts long in the jungle. Former POWs visited the site and judged it as a fair replica.
On the other hand, it came as a surprise to see the hut lined with photographs of healthy prisoners. It showed them working in the open and in the sun, without an injury.
The Japanese allowed prisoners and villagers to take photographs in the early stages. The workload was light and there were no epidemics of sickness yet. As well, they 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 but hid their pens and pencils by burying them.
Former POWs donated some photographs and illustrations taken in secret.
The Memory of War Disregarded?
Many feel that the memory behind the Death Railway has been disregarded, along with commodified. Many tourists visit the bridge, unaware of its significance to WWII.
There are reports that memories of the war and locomotives go unnoticed. Instead, surrounding them are market stalls selling clothing, jewellery, souvenirs, mementos, trivia, and faded wartime photographs. Tourists ride the ‘Ride on the Death Railway’ or take a toy train for a shorter ride across the bridge
Further proving the belief are the annual events in November. A sound and light show commemorates the bombing of the bridge, where the bridge “explodes” in fireworks. A steam train crosses the bridge, hooting into the night.
Additionally, many see that commodification degrades the landscape surrounding the bridge. Commodified for tourists at a high level, new hotels and footpaths are created throughout the areas. The war monuments accommodate the large number of 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 has changed and is destroyed.
The Significance of the Past
The symbolic meaning of ”bridge’ is to start a union or connection. Usually, there is always a positive connotation.
However, the Bridge on the River Kwai is not only a literal connection. It is a symbolic connection to one of the horrific events of WWII. Innocent men, fighting for survival and to support their families, forcibly worked for a side of the war they were against.
In remembering the past, remembering the battles, we honor the bravery of those that fought. We honor those that fought for freedom, hearing their stories that inspire generations. It brings forth a mark of bravery, courage, and dedication. These are aspects that help individuals grow as they are.
In remembering the past, people of the present and future learn without having to endure.
The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.
– Edward Thomas, Early One Morning.