Do not speak to me of rules. This is war!

Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Sometimes it is good to prove engineers are wrong. Other times, not so good. Especially when 100,000 people die in the process.

In 1942 Japanese railway engineers were sent to survey the terrain of an area of the Siam-Burma jungle. That’s Thailand-Myanmar in today-speak. They desperately needed a rail link to support the occupation of their latest conquest, Burma. Thailand had managed to arrange some kind of entent cordiale with Japan so were mostly left to their own devices. The Japanese engineers returned to their commanders and said, no, it is not possible to build this in the timescales proposed. “Great” said the military chiefs. “Let’s get started!”

Previous British surveys had dismissed the route as too difficult for a railway. The Japanese engineers originally proposed it could be done in 5 years. They then cut, built and laid the 415km route through hilly jungle in just 12 months. The project actually came in below budget and a few months ahead of (the presumably revised) schedule.

How did they do this? It was easy; they took all their POW’s from Singapore and Indonesia and shipped them into the region. This gave them about 62,000 labourers. They then coerced 250,000 workers from Malaysia, Burma and Indonesia to help build a better Asia (without pay). They then submitted them to some of the worst living and working conditions imaginable and drove them until they perished.

It has been a long time since I saw ‘The Bridge On The River Kwai’, and I’m not sure I’ve read the book, which was a fictionalised account of construction of a bridge on this railway. Apparently the biggest problem with the story was the inference that the Japanese did not have the know-how to make such a bridge, requiring British technical help. Clearly this was bollocks. Just look at the advanced rail systems in Japan today compared to the scant remains in the UK! The other problem with the film was that it didn’t depict the terrible treatment of the people forced to construct the railway. I guess if it had, it might have made this long film even less watchable.

We stayed on (what is now called) the river khwae on a peaceful floating shack and took a day trip out to Hellfire Pass. Later that evening we crossed the famous bridge. The bridge is fairly unremarkable in that it is steel and concrete and trains still run across it. The concrete bridge pylons do still show shrapnel damage from when the central section was successfully destroyed by an AZON bomb in 1945 (a 450kg bomb that could only steer left and right, hence AZimuth ONly).

Hellfire Pass was something else altogether. This was 80km from the bridge deep in the hills towards Myanmar. Largely funded by the Australians and other war grave commissions, the memorial is a bleak look at the work required to build the railway and the lives of those who did. The Hellfire cutting itself was the deepest and most difficult railway section and was hand drilled and excavated, around the clock. The ghostly firelit shadows and metallic banging noises at night produced this unofficial title.

Eating only 500g of weevil-laden rice per day then working for up to 18 hours in jungle humidity and heat, these workers were in, what climbers would call, the death zone. Not enough calories, no clean water, no vitamins or minerals, no rest, no clothes. Death was basically inevitable. Imagine every disease you could have in a tropical place (see Just Another Statistic!) then triple it. A small scratch from a bush would become ulcerated to the bone. Blindness and rickets were commonplace. If the environment wasn’t bad enough, the Japanese (and their Korean underlings) ruthlessly beat and tortured the workers to bring them in line. Depending on origins, mortality rates ranged from 15-50%. Over 12,000 POW’s died together with about 90,000 romusha (locals).

At the museums you can see film footage of the POW’s being liberated, as they sit around or file past the camera. Skin and bone in loin cloths. Sunken eyes and distant stares. How could the survivors recover from such an ordeal?

Not really knowing what I was watching, I watched ‘The Railway Man’ (from a book by Eric Lomax) a while back on a plane. I might have just been tired and emotional, but it seemed like a really powerful film with a suitable message about overcoming these experiences. I wouldn’t recommend it for a Friday night pizza-party viewing though!

The railway was only active for about 4 years during the war and a short section has since been reopened for tourist use. Whilst we would never usually turn down an opportunity to travel by train, somehow we just didn’t have the heart to travel on this one.


  1. Wow. Heartbreaking and incredible. I knew nothing about this so thank you for sharing. I take it you do a walking trail to the Hellfire Memorial section?

  2. The horrors that we as a species are capable of. I watched that movie and sobbed.

  3. I can confirm The Railway Man is indeed a powerful film, well worth a watch. If anything, the book is even more harrowing…

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