After the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942, tens of thousands of soldiers were transported to Burma to build a railway through the harsh Khwae Noi (Kwai River) valley. More than 13,000 Allied prisoners of war and around 100,000 forced laborers of Asian decent perished during its construction. The British had thought about building a railway that would run all the way from Thailand into Burma. It would complete the line running from China to India. However, it is hundreds of miles to Burma through mountains and jungle. The British decided that to build such a railway would be, not a feat of engineering, but an act of extreme barbarity. Conditions would be such that those who did not die, may well wish that they had. To build such a railway would require more than just poor immigrants. They would need an army of slaves. The Japanese had just acquired such an army and intended to use it to support their military aims. The British had proposed to build it in five years. The Japanese built it in one and a half years, driving the POWs so hard that tens of thousands died and were buried where they fell. One dead for every sleeper lain.
By late spring 1942, with the surrender of Allied strongholds in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, an estimated 140,000 Allied POWs had fallen into Japanese hands. In addition, approximately 130,000 civilians, including some 40,000 children, were captured by the Japanese. The overwhelming majority of Allied POWs were from Commonwealth countries; they included Australian, British, New Zealand, and Indian troops. There were also many Americans. The bulk of these forces were captured with the fall of Singapore, an event widely characterized as the worst military defeat in British history, in the same way the fall of Bataan was the worst military defeat in American history. 35,000 Japanese troops faced over 85,000 Allied troops, yet the enemy was trained and experienced in jungle warfare whereas the Allies were unprepared. The prisoners were sent to various destinations throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia to provide forced labor for the Japanese army, journeys that carried with them a taste of the nightmare to come. Tens of thousands of POWs were packed onto vessels that came to be known as “Hell ships.” One in five prisoners did not survive the cramped, disease-ridden, oxygen and water deprived journeys.
After the Japanese were defeated in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the sealanes between the Japanese home islands and Burma were no longer secure. The most direct alternative was an overland route the could support the Japanese forces in the Burma campaign. It is important to understand that to use POWs for any labor pertaining to the war was strictly against the Geneva Convention (which contained many other rules for the fair treatment of POWs), yet the Japanese did not abide by the rules. With an enormous pool of captive labour at their disposal, the Japanese forced approximately 200,000 Asian conscripts and over 60,000 Allied POWs to construct the Burma Railway. Between June 1942 and October 1943, the POWs and forced laborers laid some 258 miles of track. During this time, prisoners suffered from disease, malnutrition, and cruel forms of punishment and torture inflicted by the Japanese.
Construction was extremely difficult, with the route crossing through thick, mosquito-infested jungle to uneven terrain during monsoon season. Rivers and canyons had to be bridged and sections of mountains had to be cut away to create straight and level ground to accommodate the narrow gauge track. One of the more difficult sections of mountain to cut away became known as “Hellfire Pass.” It was 250 feet long and 80 feet deep. Much of the excavation was carried out with inadequate hand tools, and, because work on the railway had fallen behind schedule, the pace of the work was increased. Prisoners were made to work around the clock, with individual shifts lasting as long as 18 hours. When the Japanese were not satisfied with the pace of work, prisoners were forced to endure atrocious physical punishment, and some 700 Allied prisoners died or were killed at Hellfire Pass.
Not only were the long days of the POWs filled with harsh labor and punctuated by physical abuse, but the prisoners were also provided with grossly inadequate food. The daily food allotment typically consisted of small portions of boiled rice and spoiled meat or fish; rations were routinely contaminated with rat droppings and infested with maggots. In addition, there was a lack of potable water. Consequently, the prisoners were malnourished, dehydrated, and predisposed to illness. These factors, compounded by the unsanitary conditions in the work camps and the tropical environment, meant that disease ran rampant. Dysentery and diarrhea were responsible for more than one-third of all deaths on the railway. Other diseases included cholera, malaria, beriberi, and tropical ulcers. Men died at a rate of 20 per day.
Yet Burma and much of the Pacific Theatre became a “forgotten war,” eclipsed by the heroics in Europe and the gruesome discovery of the gas chambers and concentration camps. Fortunately, in the many years since the war, more stories have been coming to light that display, not only the horrendous conditions of soldiers and POWs alike, but also the incredible heroics of the Greatest Generation.
The horrendous experiences endured by the thousands of POWs has made the Burma Railway a place of pilgrimage and commemoration. Memorial sites along the route of the railway include the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where nearly 7,000 Allied dead are interred, and the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a museum and walking trail that draws an estimated 100,000 visitors annually.
If you are interested in reading more about individual experiences on the Burma-Siam Railway, I recommend reading The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, a British POW. There is also an excellent movie based on his book by the same title. It recounts his experience on the railway and the emotional scars that it left. I also recommend a documentary that recently came out called Moving Half the Mountain. For the first time in over 70 years, survivors and their Japanese captors recounted memories of what really happened.
Ray, Michael. Burma Railway. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2017.