War Graves - Burma Siam Railway
Those who have visited the hugely impressive Kranji War Memorial, Singapore will know it contains the names of 24,000 men with no known grave. This is not to say many men making up this number are not properly buried, but they were buried without being identified and such graves bear the inscription "Known only to God" . Thousands of the names on the Kranji Memorial are those who died at sea in the sinking "Hellships" and their bodies never recovered
The graves of those who died during the construction and maintenance of the Thai/Burma railway have been transferred from the camp burial grounds and solitary sites along the railway to the three large war cemeteries that are known today. Kanchanaburi, the largest and Chungkai, the smallest contain the remains of those recovered from the southern section of Thailand from Ban Pong to Nieke, approximately half of the entire length of the railway. The third cemetery, Thanbyuzayat, situated in southern Burma, contains the remains of those who died in camps in the northern section and in camps in southern Burma
As early as September 1945, before many the P.o.w's were repatriated, work began to locate the camp cemeteries containing thousands of bodies along the length of the railway.
Representatives from the British, Australian and Dutch Graves Commission set out on a journey from Bangkok in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma to perform this unhappy task. They were assisted by small groups of POWs who, instead of going home, stayed behind to volunteer their help to trace these burial grounds. There are no Americans buried here, their bodies were flown back to the States.
It was known that officers in many camps had kept death records and details of where men were buried, rough sketches of locations and amateur maps all assisted the Grave Commission in their daunting assignment.
In the most part they were successful and later the recovered bodies were moved to the three main cemeteries mentioned above. But even as the repatriated men were arriving home, their numbers being counted, realisation came that thousands were still missing.
The following article is an account of how the authorities tried in vain to trace where many were still buried in isolated graves along the Thai/Burma railway.
Extracts from a report on a search carried out by an officer of the Army Graves Service, 6th to 22nd December 1948.
WAR Graves - Burma - Siam Railway
On 6th December 1948 an expedition consisting of an officer, one Siamese interpreter, two police guards, one cook and one general duties coolie, left Kanburi for Takanun by motor boat. At Takanun, as the low level of the river prohibited any further travel, it was decided to walk to Nieki - a distance of about one hundred kilometres. Two elephants were hired for carrying stores and an extra police guide obtained from the police captain of Takanun. On arrival at Nieki on 14th December, extra coolies were hired and on the following day the party proceeded to Soncurai. At Soncurai the total inhabitants are four policemen, a force which constitutes the Siamese frontier post. Between Soncurai and the Burma border there are no inhabitants or habitations.
The following day an attempt was made to reach the location of the old POW Camp at Changaraya. The whole task had to be undertaken in one day as, owing to the large number of tigers in the vicinity, it was considered unsafe for a small expedition to stay away from the police post at night. The jungle in this area was of an incredible density and the only way to make any progress was for everyone to ride on the elephants and let them break a path through the undergrowth. At first the chances of finding the cremation site at Changaraya seemed rather remote but then, quite by chance, a wooden cross about ten feet high was noticed in the undergrowth. The elephants cleared the ground in the vicinity of the cross and, on closer investigation, evidence of cremated human remains was found nearby. Some small bamboo tubes, which ashes of POWs in some cases were placed in, were also found. These were collected and brought back to Kanburi. Under the circumstances it was impossible to determine definitely if this was the site of the Changaraya cremation ground. Monsoons, fire and the prolific jungle growth have completely obliterated any traces of huts or encampments.
On return to the Soncurai police post an attempt was made to locate the cemeteries of Kani Sonkrai, Sonkrai and Shimo Sonkrai. This was unfortunately unsuccessful. No satisfactory plans were available and no kilometre posts could be located on the railway anywhere in this area.
The party then returned to Nieki and the officer was shown the location of five POW cemeteries in the vicinity of Nieki village. Coolies and elephants were employed in clearing the jungle but in four cases all remains appeared to have been removed. The fifth cemetery was located four kilometres from Nieki in the direction of Soncurai. The cemetery, surrounded by the remains of a bamboo fence was small, measuring twenty-five metres by twenty metres. Local inhabitants said that previously the cemetery contained wooden crosses. These are now non-existent though one cross, uninscribed, was found just outside the fence. The cemetery was thoroughly cleared of jungle but no traces of graves removed or unremoved could be found though a considerable number of excavations were made. At about ten metres from the back fence of the cemetery, the officer was shown five large cremation mounds. These were examined and a considerable number of British-type army buttons, belt buckles and other metal pieces of equipment were found. From the amount of ash and particles of bone, it seemed apparent that between fifty to one hundred persons were cremated on this site. The mounds appeared to have been previously undisturbed. As far as could be gathered from conversations with local people, all dead British POWs who were brought to the cemetery were cremated, after which presumably a cross of remembrance was erected in the cemetery. A quantity of the ash was collected and brought back to Kanburi.
After completing the search of the Nieki area, the party then proceeded to Takanun which was reached on 20th December. As will be seen from a map of the railway between Nieki and Takanun the following cemeteries are located in the area, Konquoita, Krian Krai, Tamaran Pat and Nam Chon Yai. During the present season it is virtually impossible to reach these cemeteries. Firstly, boats are unable to proceed past Takanun and, secondly, the elephant path from Nieki to Takanun is on the opposite side of the river to the railway and at a considerable distance from the river. The jungle is very thick in this area and cutting through the jungle for long distances is not feasible.
At Takanun two cemeteries were visited but as far as could be observed, all graves had been removed. The party left Takanun on 22nd December and proceeded down river to Kanburi. An attempt was made to visit all cemeteries between Takanun and Kanburi where unlocated remains have been reported.
The following is a report on the various localities.
An inhabitant of the district showed the officer a small cemetery containing four graves situated about one kilometre from the station. The informant stated that they were British casualties from a nearby railway workshop. The cemetery was neatly fenced and the graves, which were outlined with stones, were marked by small pegs. The guide stated that a large wooden cross on the outside of the cemetery had previously been removed. The bodies were exhumed and brought to Kanburi. The guide also showed the officer another grave on the river bank which he said British Graves personnel made an unsuccessful attempt to locate in 1946. This grave was exhumed and brought to Kanburi.
Two cemeteries were seen here. One of the local inhabitants had been conscripted by a Graves Registration Unit in 1946 to exhume bodies and he stated that all were removed.
It was not possible to locate the cemetery at this place.
There are no inhabitants in this area and as no plans of the cemetery were available, the cemetery could not be located.
Two cemeteries were visited. Local inhabitants who had worked on the removal of bodies stated that all were removed. Exhaustive enquiries were made but no trace of any further burial places could be found.
The cemetery has been previously visited by the officer in August. However, another check was made and confirmed that all graves had been removed.
No maps were available of these cemeteries and though an intensive search was made in thick forest, no burial places were located.
The cemeteries in this area could not be located.
What was believed to have been a small cemetery was located but all remains were removed.
The main cemetery was visited but all graves had been removed. Local inhabitants confirmed this. Attempts were made to find Tonchan Spring Camp cemetery but in the absence of plans were ineffectual.
Though a good sketch map was available of the cemeteries in this area, they could not be found. Jungle growth has completely altered the landscape and all huts and other constructions have disappeared. The Graves Search Party arrived at Kanburi on 27th December.
(1) From Wampo to the Burma border the railway is entirely covered with jungle growth. All POW camps have rotted away and Japanese constructed roads are now disused. Consequently the location of cemeteries is extremely difficult.
(2) The general impression gained was that the removal of remains from various cemeteries, with the exception of Changaraya and Nieki has been pretty well covered.
(Published in an 18th Division Report September 1949).