Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Day on the Thai-Burma Railway

Tania & I did a day trip out to the Thai-Burma railway. We started off with a visit to the JEATH War museum, before taking a boat ride up to the River Kwai Bridge, then a short ride on the train up the Thai-Bruma railway before finishing the day at the POW cemetery at Kanchanaburi.

A bit of a history lesson:

The Thai-Burma Railway (also known as the Death Railway) was a 415 km stretch of railway between Bangkok and Rangoon built during the Second World War.

A map detailnig the route of the railway

Forced labour was used to build the line with about 180,000 Asian labourers & 60,000 Allied POWs involved. Of these, some 90,000 Asian labourers & 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project. The dead POWs included 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.

Only a portion of the original railway is still in use (about 130 km) & that includes the “Bridge over the River Kwai”. The train now only goes as far as the town of Nam Tok (18km from the notorious “Hellfire Pass”). Large parts of the original track are now submerged as a result of the Vajiralongkorn Dam project.

Part of the route is now a walking trail (about 8km), including approximately a 4km section near “Hellfire Pass”.

Bridge over the River Kwai

There were actually two bridges built (one a wooden bridge & the second, a more permanent stone structure). Both were destroyed in air strikes towards the end of the Second World War. The stone structure was rebuilt & the rail line is still in use today.

Here’s something you might not know.....

In 1957, the movie “Bridge over the River Kwai” was released. This caused a large influx of tourists to Thailand to see the bridge.

There was a slight problem however.....the bridge was actually over the river “Mae Klong”. The name “Kwai” didn’t exist at that time. a brilliant marketing move in 1960, the Thai authorities changed the name of the river to “Khwae Yai” or “Kwai” in English. Now they could say there was a bridge over the River Kwai

On the river, heading up to the bridge

The Bridge over the River Kwai: the rounded spans are the original part of the original World War 2 structure while the rectangular spans are post-war repairs

Three trains a day run up the line & back

Train ride up the railway

It was quite a surreal experience being dropped off at a platform in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train to take us part of the way up the Thai-Burma railway. Every time I looked at the line, I couldn’t help but think that tens of thousands of men died making this line that we are now riding on.

On the train heading up the line

On the train heading up the line

Hellfire Pass

Looking at it & the surrounding region now, it’s hard to imagine the appalling conditions the POWs & Asian labourers worked under to cut the largest & tallest (about 25m) rock cutting on the railway. These conditions included: a lack of proper construction tools, a remote location, lack of proper medical supplies, disease (including cholera & dysentery), starvation, exhaustion and savage beatings by the Japanese & Korean guards.

Construction of the cutting (also known as the Konyu Cutting) commenced on 25 April 1943 (ANZAC Day). Alot of the excavation was done by hand; using hammers, steel tap drills, explosives, pinch bars, picks, shovels & a wide hoe (called chunkels). Air compressors and jack hammers were used at one point. The bulk of the waste material was removed by hand, using cane baskets and rice sacks slung on two poles.

In order to complete the cutting on schedule, for a period of six weeks leading up to its completion in mid August, prisoners were forced to work 12 to 18 hour shifts around the clock, without a rest day. This section of the Thai- Burma Railway cost the lives of at least 700 Allied POWs, including 69 beaten to death by Japanese engineers or Korean guards.

Hellfire Pass was so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell.

A wartime photo of the completed Hellfire Pass

It's hard to imagine such a beautiful place being a scene of such unimagineable horror

This was all cut out (mainly) by hand - can you imagine it ??

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

Our day trip finished with a visit to the main POW cemetery (immaculately maintained by the folks at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) in the city of Kanchanaburi. Here, 6,982 POWs are buried, mostly British, Australian, Dutch and Canadians. It was quite a moving experience walking amongst the headstones, looking at where these men came from & how old they were when they died: most seemed to have died in their early twenties.

We met the curator Rod Beattie, who was there tending to the graves. He is a very nice bloke who took the time to talk to us about the cemetery & efforts by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the region. He was heavily involved in the clearing of the jungle around & up from Hellfire Pass. Details of his efforts & those of other volunteers to set up memorials in the area can be found at this link:

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