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Burma Railway
[[Image:|200px]]
River Mae Klong bridge, Burma Railway.jpg
The Bridge over the Mae Klong River
Locale Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma
Dates of operation 1943–1947 (Section to Nam Tok reopened in 1957)
Track gauge 1m[1]
Length 415 kilometres (258 mi)

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Thailand–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415 kilometres (258 mi) railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), built by the Empire of Japan in 1943, to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later in 1957.[1]

Forced labour was used in its construction. About 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers (mainly romusha) and 12,399 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.[2]

History[edit | edit source]

Map of the Burma Railway

A railway route between Thailand and Burma had been surveyed by the British government of Burma at the beginning of the 20th century, but the proposed course of the line – through hilly jungle terrain divided by many rivers – was considered too difficult to complete.

In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand and seized the colony from British control. To maintain their forces in Burma, the Japanese were required to bring supplies and troops to Burma by sea, through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. This route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and a different means of transport was needed. The obvious alternative was a railway. The Japanese forces started the project in June 1942.

They intended to connect Ban Pong in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Burma, through the Three Pagodas Pass. Construction began at the Thai end on 22 June 1942, and in Burma at roughly the same date. Most of the construction materials, including tracks and sleepers, were brought from dismantled branches of the Federated Malay States Railway network and from the Netherlands East Indies.

On 17 October 1943, the two sections of the line met about 18 km (11 mi) south of the Three Pagodas Pass at Konkuita (Kaeng Khoi Tha, Sangkhla Buri district, Kanchanaburi Province). Most of the POWs were then transported to Japan. Those left to maintain the line still suffered from appalling living conditions as well as increasing Allied air raids.

The most famous portion of the railway is Bridge 277, 'the bridge over the River Kwai', which was built over a stretch of river which was then known as part of the Mae Klong. The association with the 'River Kwai' came from the fact that the greater part of the Thai part of the route followed the valley of the Khwae Noi, 'Khwae' being the Thai word for branch or tributary, although it is frequently mispronounced by non-Thai speakers as 'Kwai', the Thai word for Water Buffalo. In 1960, because of this discrepancy between fact and fiction, the part of the Mae Klong which passes under the famous bridge was renamed as the Khwae Yai (Thai แควใหญ่, English "big tributary").

This bridge was immortalised by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, there are many who point out that the movie is utterly unrealistic and does not show what the conditions and treatment of prisoners was actually like.[3] The first wooden bridge over the Khwae Yai was finished in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943. It was this bridge 277 that was meant to be attacked with the use of the first-ever example of a precision-guided munition in American service, the VB-1 Azon MCLOS-guided 1,000 lb ordnance on January 23, 1945.[4] but bad weather scrubbed the mission. According to Hellfire Tours in Thailand, "The two bridges were successfully bombed on 13 February 1945 by the Royal Air Force. Repairs were carried out by POW labour and by April the wooden trestle bridge was back in operation. On 3 April a second raid by Liberator bombers of the U.S. Army Air Forces damaged the wooden bridge once again. Repair work continued and both bridges were operational again by the end of May. A second raid by the R.A.F. on 24 June put the railway out of commission for the rest of the war. After the Japanese surrender, the British Army removed 3.9 kilometers of track on the Thai-Burma border. A survey of the track had shown that its poor construction would not support commercial traffic. The track was sold to Thai Railways and the 130 km Ban Pong–Namtok section relaid and is in use today."[5]

The new railway did not fully connect with the Burmese system, as no bridge crossed the river between Moulmein on the south bank with Martaban on the north bank. Thus ferries were needed. This bridge was only built around 2010.

Hellfire Pass[edit | edit source]

Hellfire Pass in the Tenasserim Hills was a particularly difficult section of the line to build due to it being the largest rock cutting on the railway, coupled with its general remoteness and the lack of proper construction tools during building. The Australian, British, Dutch, other allied prisoners of war, along with Chinese, Malays and Tamil labourers, were required by the Japanese to complete the cutting. 69 men were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the six weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion (Wigmore 568).[6]

Post-war[edit | edit source]

After the war the railway was in very poor condition and needed heavy reconstruction for use by the Royal Thai Railway system. On 24 June 1949, the portion from Kanchanaburi to Nong Pladuk (Thai หนองปลาดุก) was finished; on 1 April 1952, the next section up to Wang Pho (Wangpo) was done. Finally, on 1 July 1958 the rail line was completed to Nam Tok (Thai น้ำตก, English Sai Yok "waterfalls".) The portion in use today measures some 130 km (81 mi). The line was abandoned beyond Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi. The steel rails were salvaged for reuse in expanding the Bangsue railway yard, reinforcing the BKK-Banphachi double track, rehabilitating the track from Thung Song to Trang, and constructing both the Nong Pladuk-Suphanburi and Ban Thung Pho-Khirirat Nikhom branch lines. Parts of abandoned route have been converted into a walking trail.

Since the 1990s various proposals have been made to rebuild the complete railway, but these plans have not yet come to fruition. Since a large part of the original railway line is now submerged by the Vajiralongkorn Dam, and the surrounding terrain is mountainous, it would take extensive tunneling to reconnect Thailand with Burma by rail.

Workers[edit | edit source]

Conditions during construction[edit | edit source]

The living and working conditions on the Burma Railway were often described as "horrific". The estimated total number of civilian labourers and POWs who died during construction varies considerably, but the Australian Government figures suggest that of the 330,000 people that worked on the line (including 250,000 Asian labourers and 61,000 Allied POWs) about 90,000 of the labourers and about 16,000 Allied prisoners died.

Portrait of POW "Dusty" Rhodes. A three-minute sketch by Old painted in Thailand in 1944.

Life in the POW camps was recorded at great risk to themselves by artists such as Jack Bridger Chalker, Philip Meninsky, John Mennie, Ashley George Old and Ronald Searle. Human hair was often used for brushes, plant juices and blood for paint, and toilet paper as the 'canvas'. Some of their works were used as evidence in the trials of Japanese war criminals. Many are now held by the Australian War Memorial, State Library of Victoria and the Imperial War Museum in London.

In his book, "Last Man Out", H. Robert Charles, an American Marine survivor of the sinking of the USS Houston, writes in depth about a Dutch doctor, Dr. Henri Hekking, a fellow POW who probably saved the lives of many who worked on the "Death Railway". In the foreword to Mr. Charles's book, James D. Hornfischer summarizes: "Dr. Henri Hekking was a tower of psychological and emotional strength, almost shamanic in his power to find and improvise medicines from the wild prison of the jungle." Dr. Hekking died in 1994. Mr. Charles died in December, 2009.

But the horrors, starvation, sickness, and death that occurred during the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway are not the whole story. Except for the worst months of the construction period, known as the "Speedo" (mid-spring to mid-October 1943), one of the ways the Allied POWs kept their spirits going in the hellish conditions was to ask one of the musicians in their midst to play his guitar or accordion for them, or lead them in a group sing-along, or request their camp comedians to tell some rough jokes, or put on a skit.

After the railway was completed, the POWs still had almost two years to survive before their liberation. During this time, most of the POWs were moved to hospital and relocation camps where they could be available for maintenance crews or sent to Japan to alleviate the manpower shortage there. It was in these camps that entertainment flourished as an essential part of their rehabilitation. Theatres out of bamboo and atap (palm fronds) were built, set, lighting, costumes and makeup devised, and an array of entertainment produced that included music halls, variety shows, cabarets, plays, and musical comedies – even pantomimes. These activities engaged numerous POWs as actors, singers, musicians, designers, technicians, and female impersonators.

POWs and Asian workers were also used to build the Kra Isthmus Railway from Chumphon to Kra Buri, and the Sumatra or Palembang Railway from Pakanbaroe to Moeara.

The construction of the Burma Railway is counted as a war crime committed by Japan in Asia. Hiroshi Abe, the first lieutenant who supervised construction of the railway at Sonkrai where over 3,000 POWs died, was later sentenced to death as a B/C class war criminal. His sentence was later commuted to 15 years in prison.

Cemeteries and memorials[edit | edit source]

After the war, the remains of most of the war dead were moved from former POW camps, burial grounds and lone graves along the rail line to official war cemeteries. Three cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission contain the vast majority of Allied military personnel who died on the Burma Railway. Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, in the city of Kanchanaburi, contains the graves of 6,982 personnel comprising:

  • 3,585 members of British units;
  • 1,896 Dutch;
  • 1,362 Australians;
  • 12 members of the Indian Army
  • two New Zealanders, and;
  • one Canadian.[7]

Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, at Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, has the graves of 3,617 POWs (3,149 Commonwealth and 621 Dutch) who died on the Burmese portion of the line. Chungkai War Cemetery, near Kanchanaburi, has a further 1,750 war graves. A memorial at the Kanchanaburi cemetery also lists 11 members of the Indian Army, who are buried in nearby Muslim cemeteries.

In accordance with the traditions of the US military, the remains of its personnel were repatriated to the United States: 902 died while working on the railway. This includes 534 dead from the 131st Field Artillery Regiment (Texas Army National Guard) and 133 from USS Houston (out of 368 survivors of its sinking in 1942).

Several museums are dedicated to those who perished building the railway. The largest of these is at Hellfire Pass (north of the current terminus at Nam Tok), a cutting where the greatest number of lives were lost. An Australian memorial is at Hellfire Pass. Two other museums are in Kanchanaburi: the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, opened in March 2003, and the JEATH War Museum. There is a memorial plaque at the Kwai bridge itself and an historic wartime steam locomotive is on display.

A preserved section of line has been rebuilt at the National Memorial Arboretum in England.

Prominent people coerced into building the line[edit | edit source]

  • Idris James Barwick, author of In the Shadow of Death, died in 1974
  • Leo Britt, British theatrical producer in Chungkai, Kachu Mountain, and Nakhon Nai.
  • Sir John Carrick, Australian senator.
  • Norman Carter, Australian theatrical producer in Bicycle Camp, Java, in numerous camps on the Burma side of the construction, and later in Tamarkan, Thailand.
  • Anthony Chenevix-Trench (10 May 1919 – 21 June 1979), headmaster of Eton College, 1964–1970
  • Sir Albert Coates, chief Australian medical officer on the railway
  • Col. John Harold Henry Coombes, founder and the first Principal of Cadet College Petaro in Pakistan
  • Sir Ernest Edward "Weary" Dunlop, Australian renowned for his leadership of POWs on the railway
  • Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards, Australian soldier who survived crucifixion at the hands of Japanese soldiers while working on the line
  • Arch Flanagan, father of Richard Flanagan novelist and journalist, 1915-2013
  • Keith Flanagan, journalist and Weary Dunlop recognition campaigner, 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion, died 2008
  • Ernest Gordon, the former Presbyterian dean of the chapel at Princeton University
  • R.M. Hare, philosopher
  • Wim Kan, Dutch comedian and cabaret producer on the Burma side of the railway during the construction period and later in Nakhon Pathom Hospital Camp in Thailand.
  • Hamilton Lamb, Australian politician and member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, died of illness and malnutrition at railway camp 131 Kilo in Thailand
  • Eric Lomax, author of The Railway Man, an autobiography based on these events, which is being made into a film of the same name starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.
  • Jacob Markowitz, Romania-born Canadian physician (1901–1969), AKA as the "Jungle Surgeon" who enlisted with the RAMC after being refused into the Canadian military for his Jewish heritage.[citation needed]
  • Tan Sri Professor Sir Alexander Oppenheim, British mathematician, started a POW university for his fellow workers
  • Frank Pantridge, British physician
  • Dr Donald Purdie (d. May 27, 1943), professor of Chemistry and Department Head, Raffles College, Singapore. Died during construction of railway.
  • Dr Rowley Richards, Australian doctor who kept detailed notes of his time as a medical officer on the railway. He later wrote a book detailing his experiences.
  • Rohan Rivett, originally a member of the second AIF (released 1941) and then M.B.C. correspondent in Singapore. After managing to cover 700 km, predominantly by rowboat, escaping from Singapore, spent 3 years working on the Burma railway. Wrote a book chronicling the events.
  • Ronald Searle, British cartoonist and the creator of the St. Trinians characters.
  • Philip Toosey, senior Allied officer at the Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Ian Watt (9 March 1917 – 13 December 1999), literary critic, literary historian and professor of English at Stanford University

Along the Death Railway today, River Khwae on the left

  • Reg Twigg, author of the book Survivor on the River Kwai: Life on the Burma Railway, Private in the Leicester Regiment, born 1913
  • Tom Uren Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party; Minister for Urban and Regional Development in Whitlam government.
  • Alistair Urquhart, former Gordon Highlander, born in Aberdeen, Scotland. (1919–present), author of the book "The Forgotten Highlander" in which he recalls how he survived his three years on the railway.

Significant bridges along the line[edit | edit source]

  • 346.40-meter iron bridge across Kwae Yai river at Tha Makham km. 56 + 255.1
  • 90-meter Wooden Trestle across Songkalia river km. 294 + 418
  • 56-meter Wooden Trestle across Mekaza river km. 319 + 798
  • 75-meter Wooden Trestle across Zamithi river km. 329 + 678
  • 50-meter Concrete Bridge across Apalong river km. 333 + 258.20
  • 60-meter Wooden Trestle across Anakui river km. 369 + 839.5

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Book references[edit | edit source]

  • Blair, Clay, Jr.; Joan Blair (1979). Return from the River Kwai. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  • Boulle, Pierre (1954). Bridge on the River Kwai. London: Secker & Warburg. 
  • Bradden, Russell (1951, 2001). The Naked Island. Edinburgh: Birlinn. 
  • Bradley, James (1982). Towards The Setting Sun: An escape from the Thailand-Burma Railway, 1943. London and Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd.. ISBN 0 85033 467 5. 
  • Charles, H. Robert (2006). Last Man Out: Surviving the Burma-Thailand Death Railway: A Memoir. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press. ISBN 978-0760328200. 
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission (2000). The Burma-Siam Railway and its Cemeteries. England: Information sheet. 
  • Davies, Peter N. (1991). The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai. London: Athlone Press. 
  • Daws, Gavan (1994). Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific. New York: William Morrow & Co.. 
  • Dunlop, E. E. (1986). The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway. Ringwood, Victoria, Aus: Penguin Books. 
  • Eldredge, Sears (2010). Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand Burma Railway 1942–1945. Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA: Macalester College (see external link below). 
  • Flanagan, Martin; Arch Flanagan (2005). The Line: A Man's Experience of the Burma Railway; A Son's Quest to Understand. Melbourne: One Day Hill. ISBN 9780975770818. 
  • Gordon, Ernest (1962). Through the Valley of the Kwai: From Death-Camp Despair to Spiritual Triumph. New York: Harper & Bros.. 
  • Gordon, Ernest (2002). To End all Wars. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-711848-1. 
  • Hardie, Robert (1983). The Burma-Siam Railway: The Secret Diary of Dr. Robert Hardie, 1942–1945. London: Imperial War Museum. 
  • Henderson, W. (1991). From China Burma India to the Kwai. Waco, Texas, USA: Texian Press. 
  • Hornfischer, James D. (2006). Ship of Ghosts. New York: Bantam. ISBN 978-0-553-38450-5. 
  • Kandler, Richard (2010). The Prisoner List: A true story of defeat, captivity and salvation in the Far East 1941–45. London: Marsworth Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9564881-0-7. 
  • Kinvig, Clifford (1992). River Kwai Railway: The Story of the Burma-Siam Railway. London: Brassey’s. ISBN 0-08-037344-5. 
  • La Forte, Robert S. (1993). Building the Death Railway: The Ordeal of American POWs in Burma. Wilmington, Delaware, USA: SR Books. 
  • Latimer, Jon (2004). Burma: The Forgotten War. London: John Murray. 
  • Lomax, Eric (1995). The Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-03910-2. 
  • MacArthur, Brian (2005). Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, 1942–1945. New York: Random House. 
  • McLaggan, Douglas (1995). The Will to Survive, A Private's View as a POW. NSW, Australia: Kangaroo Press. 
  • Peek, Ian Denys (2003). One Fourteenth of an Elephant. Macmillan. ISBN 0-7329-1168-0. 
  • Rees, Laurence (2001). Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II. Boston: Da Capo Press. 
  • Reminick, Gerald (2002). Death's Railway: A Merchant Mariner on the River Kwai. Palo Alto, CA, USA: Glencannon Press. 
  • Reynolds, E. Bruce (2005). Thailand's Secret War: The Free Thai, OSS, and SOE During World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Richards, Rowley; Marcia McEwan (1989). The Survival Factor. Sydney: Kangaroo Press. ISBN 0-86417-246-X. 
  • Rivett, Rohan D. (1946). Behind Bamboo. Sydney: Angus & Roberston (later Penguin, 1992). ISBN 0-14-014925-2. 
  • Searle, Ronald (1986). To the Kwai and Back: War Drawings. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 
  • Teel, Horace G. (1978). Our Days Were Years: History of the "Lost Battalion," 2nd Battalion, 36th Division. Quanah, TX, USA: Nortex Press. 
  • Thompson, Kyle (1994). A Thousand Cups of Rice: Surviving the Death Railway. Austin, TX, USA: Eakin Press. 
  • Urquhart, Alistair (2010). The Forgotten Highlander – My incredible story of survival during the war in the Far East. London, UK: Little, Brown. 
  • Velmans, Loet (2003). Long Way Back to the River Kwai: Memories of World War II. New York: Arcade Publishing. 
  • Webster, Donovan (2003). The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. New York: Straus & Giroux. 
  • Wigmore, Lionel (1957). The Japanese Thrust – Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. 

External links[edit | edit source]

Coordinates: 14°02′27″N 99°30′11″E / 14.04083°N 99.50306°E / 14.04083; 99.50306

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