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The Death Rail: The Siam-Burma Railway Route That Was Built By Japanese Prisoners in World War II

A special kind of hell was reserved for the dense, scorching, disease-infested jungles of Burma during World War II. A place of unimaginable misery and the location of one of the most astonishing engineering projects undertaken during the war. 

The Burma Railway was a 415 km (258 miles) line built by Allied prisoners of war and local civilian labourers between 1942 and 1943. Building a railway and the bridges that accompany it must be difficult in the best of circumstances – I know I’ve never done it – but building a railway through the hilly jungle terrain of Burma was a completely different proposition.

Combine that with the almost sadistic treatment from some of the Japanese guards, and you have one of the most nightmarish construction projects imaginable. Part of the story has been immortalised by first the book, then the film titled the Bridge over the River Kwai, in which the daring escapades of allied prisoners give the tale an almost jolly feel to it. The reality was very different. Over 100,000 people died building the Burma Railway – it’s therefore not entirely surprising that it is often referred to by its other, much more foreboding name, the Death Railway. 

War Looms

To give a clear idea about the Burma Railway we need to begin before the outbreak of war. The Japanese plans to expand their sphere of influence around Asia began as far back as the late 1920s and there is evidence that surveys and planning of a railway to link Burma and Thailand began in 1937. 

The world slowly began to sit up and take note, especially after the Japanese invasion of Chinese Manchuria in 1931, but it’s difficult to imagine that many would have guessed the full extent of what was to come next.  

Second Sino-Japanese War
Second Sino-Japanese War by Ai6z83xl3g is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Second Sino-Japanese War commenced in 1937 and despite assistance from the Soviet Union, the Chinese forces were unable to hold back the Japanese tide as they pressed further into China – culminating in the horrific massacre in Nanjing, which claimed anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 lives, depending on where you get your information. 

But this was just the start. The Japanese intended to bulldoze their way around South-East Asia before setting up a secure perimeter that could then be defended against the expected Allied counterattack. 

The First Operational Phase would target the Philippines, British Malaya, Borneo, Burma, Rabaul and the Dutch East Indies, while the Second Operational Phase called for further expansion by seizing New Guinea, New Britain, Fiji and Samoa. 

And the first phase went pretty much to plan. On 7th December 1941, a day that will live in infamy, as President Roosevelt famously said in his speech the following day, the Japanese launched simultaneous attacks on the United States and the British Empire.  

Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong were all either attacked by aircraft or invaded by ground troops. Within a matter of months, the Japanese had roared through their intended targets, as allied forces capitulated. 

Purpose of the Railway

If the Japanese had wanted to invent a hellish punishment for prisoners of war, building the Burma Railway would have been exactly that, but the purpose of the railway was clear to the Japanese. 

Their invasion of Burma in 1942 stretched their supply lines ever further. With their forces pushing deeper into the country towards the western coast of Burma, the Japanese had two options. They could continue to bring in men and supplies around the Malay peninsula and through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea, a dangerous 3,200 km (2,000-mile) trip considering the lurking Allied submarines. The alternative was to build a railway from the Thai capital, Bangkok, to the Burmese capital, Rangoon. This was a route that the British had briefly considered at the end of the 19th Century, but decided against because it was, well, ridiculous to even consider building a railway through the thick jungle.  

Considering its name, 304 km (189 miles) of the railway actually lies in Thailand, with the remaining 111km (69 miles) in Burma. The track would cross Three Pagodas Pass on the border of the two countries. 

Preparations

Shortly before summer in 1942, POWs held in Changi Prison in Singapore, along with others in smaller camps scattered around the region, began making their way north. The Japanese were in a hurry, the proud glimmers of the successful attack on Pearl Harbour and Singapore had been replaced by the searing embarrassment of the Battle of Midway, in which the Japanese lost four of their prized aircraft carriers and nearly 250 aircraft. 

As they limped away, they knew it was only a matter of time until the Americans would return in even greater numbers and likewise, the British were not likely to take the shame of losing their prized south-east Asian dominions without a mighty fight. There was also the small matter of the planned invasion of India, which would require a huge number of troops and steady supply lines.   

The vast army of workers on the railway would eventually number as many 300,000 with small prison camps constructed along the route as well as numerous airfields. The projected completion date for the entire route was December 1943.

Construction Begins 

Construction began in Burma on 15 September 1942 and in Thailand sometime in November. The railway was built at many points at the same time, with work camps usually built every 8 to 19 km (5 to 10 miles) which typically each housed at least 1,000 POWs or civilian labourers. The two groups were rarely housed together, with the POWs receiving significantly better treatment than the civilians.  

POWs were initially assigned to ‘parties’, each of which was under the administration of the highest-ranking POW officer. When they arrived on the railway the Japanese then divided them into ‘work groups’ and were then sent out to lay the railways, clear jungle, construct bridges or chip slowly through enormous rock walls.   

As you can probably imagine from the bleak image I’m trying to paint here, working conditions on the Burma Railway were nothing short of inhumane. And it wasn’t just their captors that they needed to worry about. Malaria, cholera, dysentery and tropical ulcers were just some of the awful diseases on offer in the jungles of Thailand and Burma.  

With the Japanese frantically trying to remain on schedule, they began importing more and more workers from around the occupied territories and the numbers working on the railway soon swelled.  

The Railways Line  

The finished line stretched from its southern terminal at Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. The two separate sections met at kilometer 263 (mile 163), just south of the Three Pagodas Pass on 17th October 1943, meaning construction was completed two months ahead of schedule – a quite unbelievable fact considering the environment in which the workers toiled daily. 

But this was much more than simply a railway line. The route incorporated over 600 separate bridges. The majority of these were simple timber truss bridges, with diagonal beams, centre posts and a bottom rail, which form a triangle and allow the heavy load of a train passing over it to be evenly distributed throughout the simple wooden structure.

The most famous bridge of all was one that spans the Mae Khlung River, although because of a particularly glaring literary inaccuracy, westerners know it as a bridge that crosses the Khwae Noi River, or River Kwai, in Kanchanaburi, a western province of Thailand. 

This was of course the centrepiece of the film, The Bridge over the River Kwai, in which Allied soldiers provide plenty of pluck and gusto in constructing this remarkable bridge only to blow it up at the end as one final act of courageous sabotage. 

Apart from the real-life bridge that was built, the film is almost entirely a work of fiction and as much as the POWs no doubt would have loved to blow up the bridge to spite their captors, it just didn’t happen that way. 

French novelist Pierre Boulle who penned the book never actually even visited the area and made the mistake of assuming the bridge crossed the River Kwai, when in fact it crossed the Mae Khlung River. When the film was released and tourists began flocking to the area, the Thai government hastily renamed it the River Kwai, so as not to cause further confusion and no doubt cash in on the booming tourism industry. 

The bridge itself remains and measures 346.4 metres (1,136 ft) from end to end, but what we see today is the second version of the River Kwai Bridge. The first, a relatively simple wooden structure, was completed in February 1943 but was soon superseded by the cement and metal structure that is still in use.  

One of the most notorious sections of the entire railways lies 80 km (50 miles) north of Kanchanaburi. The locals know it as the Konyu Cutting, but to the thousands of POWs and civilian labourers who laboured in the area for 12 weeks, it was Hellfire Pass. 

This is a path that has been cut through a remote rocky area. If something like this was done nowadays, a tunnel would mostly likely be dug through it instead of hacking through hundreds of tons of rock. Though a tunnel was most likely considered, the Japanese decided against it because a tunnel could only have two sections working at any one time (at either end of the tunnel), whereas if you have thousands of slave labourers, you can simply instruct them to attack the entire section simultaneously – and that was exactly what happened. 

This was a diabolical part of the line, and considering we call the entire railway, the Death Railway, that really says something. This was where workers were forced to smash through rock for up to 18 hours a day. The name, Hellfire Pass, comes from the hellish image many POWs had of the area with torches eliminating the human misery at night. 

While the whole line suffered an awful amount of deaths, Hellfire Pass was one of the grimmest. Sixty-nine POWs were killed by the Japanese in just six weeks, with many more succumbing to disease, exhaustion or malnutrition. And that’s just the POWs. Many more civilians died in the area, but the Japanese did not record their number. 

The Australian government has since paid for the restoration of 7km (4.3 miles) of the line in and around Hellfire Pass with a sombre memorial built to remember the horrors that took place there.       

Life on the Line

For most, we will never come anywhere near to experiencing what well over a quarter of a million people did on the construction of the Burma Railway. To call it hell is probably an understatement. The film, The Bridge of the River Kwai portrays life as difficult but manageable thanks to the charming pomp of the allied POWs. While it’s no doubt a great film, it was heavily criticised for its portrayal, with many veterans of the construction saying it was a far cry from the brutal reality.

While it would be wrong to apply any blanket terms for the Japanese guards involved, some were nothing short of sadistically evil. There were stories of punishments that sound almost medieval in their brutality. From horrendous acts of torture to abject humiliation, life on the railway was beyond anything most of us will ever know. That being said, it’s only fair to mention that there were also stories of true compassion from some of the Japanese guards – though not many.      

As I mentioned earlier, work camps were set up all along the railway, with workers transported to a certain section. Even before work on the line could start, the POWs and civilians had to build their own camp. As you can probably imagine, accommodation for the Japanese guards came first, with the infirmary for the sick the last to be built. It wasn’t uncommon for work on the railway to begin before accommodation for the prisoners had even been finished. 

Food was scarce and painfully inadequate, usually consisting of little more than rice and the occasional vegetables, which were almost always rotten by the time it reached the prisoners. 

Each section of POWs or civilians were required to present a certain percentage of “healthy” workers each day – whether these men could actually work or not. There are quite horrific stories of men being dragged out to the line already on the verge of death – most never returned. 

A series of base hospitals were established at different points on the line where the seriously ill could be evacuated, though I use the term hospital very loosely. These were manned by medical officers and orderlies, though their numbers were carefully controlled by the Japanese so as not to draw too many out from the field. Here, they did what they could for the pitiful souls brought in, but in reality, with such a limited medical supply on offer, the best they could do was often not a great deal. 

However, it is worth highlighting the courageous work of many, both in the hospitals and outside. Food was sometimes smuggled through to help those in real need, while medical innovations with such basic equipment and supplies were nothing short of heroic. They couldn’t save many thousands who died, but many more would have perished had it not been for the dedication of the medical POWs.     

In total, 12,621 POWs died along the Burma Railways, representing a death rate of around 20%. But that paled in comparison to the deaths of the civilian workers. These workers had either been duped into volunteering through the promise of steady work and good conditions or had press-ganged into forced labour. As many as 90,000 Asian civilians died on the railway, though their numbers were never recorded by the Japanese. With films like the Bridge of the River Kwai, it’s easy to focus simply on the POWs, but in truth, the treatment of the civilian workers by the Japanese and the rate that they perished was far worse.  

Completion

When the line was completed in October 1943, the Japanese immediately began transporting men and supplies along it, and an estimated 500,000 tons of freight would pass along the Burma Railway before it fell into the hands of the Allies. 

Thailand Burma Railway Bridge
Thailand Burma Railway Bridge by makilica is licensed under CC-BY

It was almost two years before the area was liberated and many of the POWs remained in the area to act as maintenance crews where needed, while others were sent to build the Kra Isthmus Railway from Chumphon to Kra Buri in southern Thailand, and the Sumatra Railway from Pekanbaru to Muaro in Indonesia. A large number of POWs were also transferred to the Japanese mainland where they helped build railways, bridges, roads as well as working in coal mines, shipyards and munitions factories.  

On 3rd February 1945, the RAF successfully damaged a section of what is today known as the River Kwai Bridge and the wooden bridge that had been replaced by the newer metal version was again put into action. On 3rd April, the U.S Air Force took their turn and a series of Liberator heavy bombers flew over the area. This time the wooden bridge was also damaged but the Japanese had them both swiftly repaired. It wasn’t until 24th June that RAF bombers finally severed the connection with another bombing raid. Three months later, after continuous, bloody fighting, Burma was finally liberated. 

In an odd twist of payback, British authorities used Japanese POWs to dig up a portion of the line in 1946. This was a relatively small part of the railway, only around 4 km (2.4 miles), and was seen as a way of protecting British interests further south, namely Singapore, by simply cutting the railway line. As the war crimes tribunal got underway, 111 Japanese military officials were tried for their roles in overseeing the construction of the railway. Thirty-two of them were sentenced to death. 

The Death Railway

Today the Burma Railway had been out of service for decades, although Thai trains still run along sections inside the country and it is possible to trundle over the famous bridge. The sections inside what is now Myanmar have long been left to rot. 

This is probably one of the most tragic megaprojects we’ve covered. It’s a painful story and it can be difficult to draw anything positive from it. But I will leave you with this. When the idea of the railway was first floated, it was generally thought it would take 5 to 6 years to complete – the fact that it was done in just 15 months was nothing short of extraordinary. The Death Railway was both a testament to the true horror of humanity and the astonishing capabilities of humans even under the most unimaginable circumstances.  

Burma Railway – Wikipedia

Inside Burma’s Death Railway museum – Telegraph

Burma-Thailand Railway and Hellfire Pass 1942-1943 – Anzac Portal (dva.gov.au)

BBC Four – Building Burma’s Death Railway: Moving Half the Mountain

Burma Siam Railway | COFEPOW

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