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The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by British, Australian, Dutch
and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project inspired by the
need for improved communications to maintain the large Japanese Armv in
Burma. During its construction more than 16 ,000 prisoners of war died
- mainly of sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion - and were buried along
the railway. Imprest Burmese and Malay labourers too died in their thousands
- exactly how many will never be known. The Japanese kept no records and
it was impossible for anyone else to do so, nor were the graves marked,
but between 80,000 and 100,000 perished. The railway has been purchased
by the Thai Government from its starting point at Ban Pong to the Burmese
border, and it is now part of the Royal State railways. It is open to
general traffic from Ban Pong to Kanchanaburi, about 33 miles.
Japanese communications depended upon a long and exposed sea route to
Rangoon via Singapore and the Strait of Malacca, and a road (quite unfit
for prolonged heavy traffic) from Raheng through Kowkarelk to Moulmein.
The decision to complete the railway connecting Moulmein with Bangkok,
which had been commenced before the war but abandoned by the two countries
concerned, was taken in June 1942. More than 250 miles of railway, from
Thanbyuzayat in Burma to Ban Pong in Thailand, remained to be constructed,
much of it through mountainous country and dense jungle, in a region with
one of the worst climates in the world.
The Japanese aimed at completing the railway in 14 months, or at least
by the end of l943. They utilised a labour force composed of prisoners
of war taken in the campaigns in South-East Asia and the Pacific, and
coolies brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies or conscripted in
Siam and Burma. From June 1942 onwards large groups of prisoners were
transferred periodically to Thailand and Burma from Java, Sumatra and
Borneo. Two forces, one based in Thailand and one in Burma, worked from
opposite ends' of the line towards the centre.
When the first of the prisoners arrived their initial task was the construction
of camps at Kanchanaburi and Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in
Burma. Accommodation for the Japanese guards had to be built first, and
at all the staging camps built subsequently along the railway this rule
applied. The cook-house and huts for the working parties came next and
accommodation for the sick last of all. Frequently men were sent to work
on the line long before their accommodation was completed.
Railway Construction Camp - Kanya, Thailand
Throughout the building of the railway, food supplies were irregular
and totally inadequate. Brought up by barge on the Kwai Noi river, or
by lorry on a road which was merely a converted jungle track, a consistent
service could not be maintained by either method, and rations were nearly
always below even the Japanese official scales. Vegetables and other perishables
long in transit arrived rotten. The rice was of poor quality, frequently
maggoty or in other ways contaminated, and fish, meat, oil, salt and sugar
were on a minimum scale.
Although it was often possible to supplement this diet by purchases from
the local civilian population, men sometimes had to live for weeks on
little more than a small daily ration of rice flavoured with salt. Red
Cross parcels helped, but these were invariably held up by the Japanese.
Malaria, dysentery and pellagra (a vitamin deficiency disease) attacked
the prisoners, and the number of sick in the camps was always high.
The Japanese demanded from each camp a certain percentage of its strength
for working parties, irrespective of the number of sick, and to make up
the required quota the Japanese camp commandants insisted on men totally
unfit for work being driven out and sometimes carried out. Those who stayed
behind were accommodated in camp "hospitals" which were simply
one or more crude jungle huts. At main camps such as Chungkai, Tamarkan,
Non Pladuk and Thanbyuzayat were "base Hospitals" which were
also huts of bamboo and thatch, staffed by such medical officers and orderlies
as were allowed by the Japanese to care for the sick prisoners. To these
base hospitals desperately sick men - the weak supported by the less weak,
since no fit men were allowed to accompany them - were evacuated from
the camp hospitals, travelling by the haphazard means of hitch-hiking
on a passing lorry or river barge. At both camp and base hospitals, for
the greater part of the time, the doctors had only such drugs and equipment
as they had been able to carry with them. Neither drugs or surgical instruments
were supplied by the Japanese, and although later on certain medical supplies
were made available they were always inadequate. A great deal of equipment
was improvised by the medical officers and orderlies, and food and medicines
were clandestinely obtained. Only the devotion skill and enterprise of
the prisoner of war medical staffs saved the lives of thousands and gradually
evolved an organisation which could control disease and mortality.
Work on the railway started at Thanbyuzayat on 1st October 1942 and somewhat
later at Ban Pong. The two parties met at Nieke in November 1943, and
the line - 263 miles long - was completed by December. Thereafter work
on the railway consisted of maintenance, and repairs to damage caused
by Allied bombing. Repeated reconnaissance flights over the Burma end
of the railway started early in 1943, followed by bombings at intervals.
These became more and more frequent when, towards the end of October 1943,
trains full of Japanese troops and supplies began to go through from Thailand
to Burma. The Japanese would not allow the prisoners to construct a symbol
(a white triangle on a blue base) indicating the presence of a prisoner
of war camp, and these raids added their quota to the deaths on the line.
Most of the camps were right alongside the railway track and some were
near bridges and other vulnerable points. The only cover for the prisoners
was that afforded by the flimsy bamboo and thatch huts, where they were
made to shelter while the raids were in progress, and the inevitable casualties
were heavy. In one raid alone on the Non Pladuk area, where the camp was
located amongst sidings holding petrol, ammunition and store trains protected
by an anti-aircraft post, and prisoners were not allowed to leave the
95 were killed and 300 wounded.
In March 1944, when the bulk of the prisoners were in the main camps at
Chungkai, Tamarkan, Kanchanaburi, Tamuan, Non Pladuk and Nakom Paton,
conditions temporarily improved. The Japanese had been surprised by the
reaction of world opinion against their treatment of prisoners of war,
and there is evidence that they began to feel apprehensive about the heavy
casualties of 1943, and made efforts to counteract their reputation for
uncivilised treatment of prisoners. But this phase soon passed and from
May 1944 until the capitulation of Japan in August 1945 parties of prisoners
were sent from the various base camps to work on railway maintenance,
cut fuel for the locomotives, and handle stores at dumps along the line.
Other parties were employed on cutting and building roads, some through
virgin jungle, or in building defence positions.
The railway track from Kanchanaburi - photographed
As before, their food and accommodation were minor considerations. The
railway was overworked carrying troops and military supplies, and local
traders seldom visited the camps of the working parties, small compared
with those of 1943 and therefore not so profitable; so that supplementary
food supplies were scanty, and again sickness took its toll. The only
redeeming feature was the ease with which the sick could be evacuated
to base hospitals in trains returning empty from Burma.
The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of
the Burma-Siam railway (except Americans, who were repatriated) have been
transferred from the camp burial grounds and solitary sites along the
railway into three war cemeteries. At Chungkai War Cemetery and Kanchanaburi
War Cemetery in Thailand now rest those recovered from the southern part
of the line, from Ban Pong to Nieke - about half its length. In the War
Cemetery at Thanbyuzayat in Burma lie those from the northern half of
Those who have no known grave are commemorated by name on memorials elsewhere;
the land forces on either the Rangoon Memorial or the Singapore Memorial
and the naval casualties on memorials at the manning ports.
a map of the Burma Siam Railway please click here.
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