Feeling Alive on the Death Railway

When researching places to go in Thailand I came across something called the Death Railway near Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I had never heard of it so I did some quick research, and with my fascination with war history, decided it was definitely somewhere I needed to go.

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While my parents generation (and I think a good portion of my readers) grew up around the release of the 1958 Best Picture Winner Bridge on the River Kwai, from talking to friends and other travelers, what came to be known as the Death Railway is not something a lot of people know about. Southeast Asia’s WWII history is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten war” having been overshadowed by what was going on in Europe at the time. But after learning about the Death Railway through stories and pictures, the treatment of Asian laborers and Allied POWs wasn’t so different from what was happening in many concentration camps across Europe. So since it’s been a while since I had a good history post, here we go!

  • The Death Railway, more officially named the Burma Railway or Burma-Siam Railway, refers to the railroad that stretched from Ban Pong, Thailand (near Bangkok) to Thanbyuzayat, Burma (in the south near the Thai border), which would join two existing tracks on either side, thereby completing the railway from Yangon, Myanmar (then Rangoon, Burma) to Bangkok, Thailand. I struggled to find a good readable map with the route but the below picture at least gives a sense of location and length of the railway.

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  • The building of the railroad was supervised by the Empire of Japan from late 1942 until the end of 1943. In 1942 Japan gained control of Burma (then a British colony) and had plans to continue into India. Supplying its forces in Burma by sea was dangerous due to Allied submarines, so Japan decided to build a railway to connect Bangkok to Rangoon as an alternative route.
  • The railroad was built by Southeast Asian civilian laborers (between 180,000 and 250,000) and Allied POWs (about 61,000), mainly British and Australian as well as some American and Dutch soldiers. By the time the railway was finished, roughly 100,000 civilian laborers and 12,000 Allied POWs had died.
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Cemetery in Kanchanaburi for POWs who died constructing the Death Railway. All American POWs were sent back to the US for burial.

Various memorials, official and unofficial, along Hellfire Pass:

  • Ignoring the horrendous living and working conditions, completion of the railway in such a short amount of time (just over one year), was astonishing. The railway spanned 258 miles, required the building of over 600 bridges (some of them multiple times due to poor construction or Allied bombing), and many parts of the route went straight through solid rock mountain terrain, all done by hand (there was no major equipment).
  • Then add the other elements: extreme heat and humidity, an especially rough monsoon season, rampant disease and no medication (cholera was very common, along with dengue fever, tropical ulcers, and beriberi), malnutrition, many had no shoes or clothing aside from a make-shift loin cloth, extreme working hours (during the push at the end, many worked up to 18 hour days), plus regular beatings from the Japanese generals. The fact that the railway was successfully completed is extraordinary.
  • One stretch of the Death Railway was particularly cumbersome, and it became known as Hellfire Pass. This stretch went straight through the jungle on the side of a mountain range bordering Thailand and Myanmar, the workers using pickaxes and dynamite to carve their way through huge stretches of the mountain.
  • After the war, 111 Japanese military officials were tried for war crimes and 32 were sentenced to death. The Southeast Asian workers never received compensation or reparations.

I watched two movies on the Death Railway before I arrived in Kanchanaburi. One was of course Bridge on the River Kwai. The other was The Railway Man, a much more recently released film from 2013 starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

I watched The Railway Man first. It’s incredibly depressing, following the true story of British POW Eric Lomax, who was brutally tortured while working on the Death Railway. After seeing real pictures and drawings at the Hellfire Pass Museum, I really felt this movie accurately portrayed how terrible the conditions were for the POWs. Alternatively, Bridge on the River Kwai took a very different approach. Perhaps it’s because it was filmed just 15 years after the railway was built, in my opinion it came off as a bit too comical, with the theme song being whistling soldiers as they went about their work.

One storyline this movie did touch on, though with a bit of humor, was how doctors among the POWs would have to decide which sick/injured POWs were the “least sick/injured” and able to survive another day working on the railway. Especially near the end, as Japan sensed it was losing the war and trying to race to finish the railway, Japanese generals would have a quota for the number of workers needed each day and would meet this quota by forcing doctors to choose POWs from among the sick and injured.

The terrible historical background aside, there is no denying the stretch of the Death Railway left (much of it was removed shortly after the war ended) is beautiful, as is Hellfire Pass. At Hellfire Pass you get a free audio guide which included interviews with former POWs who worked on this particular stretch. One of them described how he used to daydream about the day he could come back to this exact same place and just enjoy the view. He did eventually come back, but said the area had become unrecognizable and he was unable to enjoy it.

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Looking west from Hellfire Pass. Just over the mountain range is Myanmar.

At one of the stops you can also get off and walk on part of the railway that runs alongside the river. There are now a few resorts built along this stretch but it was still one of the most beautiful sections of the ride.

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While we triple checked the train schedule before beginning our walk across the bridge, about halfway across we heard a distant train whistle and my mind immediately flashed to that scene from Stand By Me. I think it was just our train continuing on ahead, and the next train didn’t arrive for another 3 hours as scheduled, but boy did I feel alive in that moment!

Here are a few more pictures from the railway:

And some from the Bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge itself was a bit of a let down to be honest. It’s since been rebuilt, it’s very touristy, and it’s no where near as beautiful as the bridge in the movie (maybe because it was filmed in Sri Lanka…)

2 thoughts on “Feeling Alive on the Death Railway

  1. auntlinda5

    Another great Asian WWII film is Paradise Road, a true story of female POWs. Stellar cast— google it. Another amazing post Em. I think Maybe Bridge over the River Kwai had so much comic relief because in the 50s they tried to sugar coat things — Hollywood was less realistic than we’re used to now. Beautiful video!

  2. auntcorie

    Astonishing what humans are capable of, both good and bad.
    With all the impressions, information,sights, tastes, and smells that you are absorbing, there is no way that you will come home unchanged.
    Imagine seeing it all first hand!

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