Sketch by Jack Chalker

Death Railway

The History of the Death Railway

Taken from a booklet by Sirichai Press

Railway at Chong Kai

To see map of Death Railway click here

In June, 1942, the Japanese General Headquarters directed its army to build a single-line meter gauge railway 250 miles long from Thailand to Burma. The railway was to carry 3,000 tons per day from Ban Pong in Thailand via the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai-Burmese border to the Burma Railway at Thabyuzayat between Moulmein and Ye. The work was to be completed within 14 months, or by the end of 1943 at the latest.

Work started in October, 1942, to meet the August, 1943, deadline. The deadline was later extended to November “43”. The more than 250 miles of railway, much of it through jungle terrain, was finally completed at the end of October, 1943. More then 16,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 impressed labourers, including Chinese, Tamils, Malays, Burmese, Javanese and Indishe Jongens (of mixed Dutch-Indonesian blood), died building the railway. Most of the deaths were from sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion.

The Burma - Siam Railway was to be an alternative to the sea route to Rangoon via Singapore and the Straits of Malacca, since the sea route was being closed in by Allied submarines and aircraft. The only land road from Thailand to southern Burma, which ran from Raheng through Kowkareik to Moulmein, was insufficient. Before the war. Thailand and Burma had begun work on a Bangok - Moulmeir Railway, but it was never completed.

With the Japanese headquarter's decision to complete the railroad, more than 61,000 prisoners taken during campaigns in Southeast Asia and the Pacific were brought to Thailand and Burma. 30,000 British; 18,000 Dutch; 13,000 Australian, and 700 American prisoners were brought into Thailand and Burma from Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Singapore and Hong Kong between 1942 and 1945. Coolies were brought from Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Others were conscripted in Thailand and Burma. The men were divided into two groups, one in Burma, one in Thailand, to work from opposite ends of the railway toward the center.

The initial job of the first prisoners was to construct the camps at Kanchanaburi and Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. The general rule all along the line was that housing for the Japanese guards was built first, followed by the cookhouse and huts for the workers. Housing for the sick was built last of all. Men were often sent to work before the housing was completed.

At one point on the line two British majors were given a group of men and half a dozen tools and told to build a hospital. The Japanese guards seeing the major's dark armbands, had assumed that they   were doctors and so expected them to build the hospital.


Chong Kai, now the site of the war cemetery across from the town of Kanchanaburi, was one of the major camps. Most of the new arrivals and many of the sick prisoners spent time at this camp.

In the early days before the harsh "speedo" policy began, life was not unpleasant for the workers. Thai vendors were numerous and the food was inexpensive. Thai families gave the prisoners bananas, papaya and watermelon. At night prisoners would sneak out of the camp to get food. They would leave dressed in black pants and Thai peasant clothes. Although the guard system was sometimes lax, few prisoners tried to escape farther than a temporary visit to town since it was impossible to survive in the jungle.

Throughout the war, Thais aided the prisoners. Boonpong Sirivejapandh, now a successful businessman in Bangkok, is especially remembered with affection by former prisoners.

Boonpong, who was mayor of the Kanchanaburi municipality before and after the war. had the canteen concession for the prisoners canteen. Along with tobacco, medicine and food, he managed to   smuggle in money contributed by British firms in Bangkok and other members of the Bangkok  business community. Cash was packaged in the boxes for native Thai tobacco. The packages were then sealed with the official government stamp and deposited in the canteen. Like many Thais. Boonpong gave the prisoners clothes and medicine and provided them with money to buy food at Christmas time.

Throughout the war, the prisoners received news over wireless sets fabricated by a Scottish prisoner. He constructed eight wireless sets for various camps, con cealing them in containers which included a water bottle, a cylindrical cigarette can and a biscuit tin. One set was concealed in a hollow bamboo cross - stick used by the prisoners to carry two water pails. The last set was smuggled into a new camp packed as "spare parts" inside the Japanese commander's own radio.

At first the prisoners managed to visit the wats where they were welcomed by the monks who gave them fruit and ice cold water. But once operation "speedo" began and the men moved farther upcountry condition^ worsened.

Food supplies were irregular and inadequate, even at the main camps. Officers were paid thirty dollars a month in cash, of which seven dollars went to supplement the men's food and another five went to supplement their own food. The men were paid four pence a day. When conditions worsened, the pay was totally inadequate canned milk or eggs to keep sick men alive or to pay for medicine. The prisoners pawned their rings, silverware, nickel and stainless steel knives and jewelery which included a gold chain studded with garnets, treasured by one of the prisoners.

Food Queue

A typical mess kit would include a loin  cloth, a rectangle of cloth with a string at one end, worn by both the prisoners and the Japanese;  an old hat;  boots with leaky soles; sometimes apair of shorts to be worn as a "smart  garment; a water bottle a mess tin and  spoon; a ground sheet; two sacks or a blanket; a pack, and maybe a mosquito net. Author John Coast, a former prisoner of war and member of the British Information Service, remembers many prisoners as having far less.

Desperate men began stealing. Valuables were taken from dead bodies; jewelry and quinine were also stolen from fellow prisoners to sell to local agents. Other, benevolent racketeers stole from the Japanese guards. Among the prisoners who became affluent were those who risked their lives to go to go  into town for Mekhong the local whiskey, which they sold back at camp at a mark-up of 100 per cent or more.

Away from the large camps men sometimes lived for weeks on only the daily ration of rice with a little salt. Rations were usually below even the official Japanese scales since it was impossible to maintain consistent service. Supplies were brought up the Kwai Noi River by barge or by truck along jungle road. Rice was often maggoty; fish, meat, oil, salt and sugar were usually insufficient, vegetables and other perishables were usually rotten.

Red Cross parcels were held up by the Japanese. A prisoner might receive only one parcel during three years of captivity, although he knew his family was paying enough for him to receive a parcel every month.

The food was sufficient to maintain life until a prisoner became ill. Malaria, dysentery and the vitamin deficiency disease pellagra attacked the prisoners. As much as 80 per cent of a camp might be sick although only a small percentage were permitted to remain in the hospital.

Since a certain percentage of all the men in a camp had to work, irrespective of the number sick, men were sometimes carried out on stretchers to work. All of the officers had to work as laborers and as pressure from imperial headquaters increased to meet the deadline, the Japanese and Korea guards also worked on the railroad.

Sick  prisoners were brought to the "hospitals" at the main camps, Chong Kai, Thamakham. Nong Pladuk and Thanbyuzayat. Once the railway was completed, men could be evacuated to hospitals with relative ease, but most of the time sick men would have to rely on a passing truck or bridge.

At first the hospital doctors had only the equipment and drugs that they'd brought with them. The skill and absolute devotion of the doctors and their staff were responsible for saving the lives of thousands of prisoners.

The periodic epidemics were difficult to curb because of primitive sanitation and the fact cholera and plague innoculations were not kept up to date. Although the bodies of prisoners who died of cholera were carefully cremated, the doctors were not permitted to extend any medical aid to the impressed workers or to supervise their methods of burial.

Many   men   stricken   with   diphtheria  owed   their survival to a cure   evolved by one of  doctors.  The cure involved receiving serum from a recovered patient. The patients then lay on their backs for two to three weeks to avoid any strain on the heart.

After the 263 mile railway was completed, 32,000 prisoners maintained the railroad, repairing it after Allied bombings. Allied reconnaisance flights over Burma began in 1943, followed by periodic bombings.

The bombings increased   when the  Japanese began sending trains full of troops and supplies from   Thailand to Burma in October.   1943.

Since many of the prisoner of war camps were next to the railroad tracks and near bridges or other strategic points, the bombings caused the deaths of many prisoners. As the prisoners were not allowed to dig trenches in some camps, their only shelter was their bamboo huts. They were not permitted to construct the white triangle on a blue base which was the symbol of a prisoner of war camp.

This model camp had been built next to the Japanese airfield to protect the Japanese planes from Allied bombings.

Camp at Tha Makham

Close to Japanese Airfield and Bridges

The Japanese also had the prisoners climb tall trees to watch for Allied aircraft. Toward the end of the war. Allied parachutists landed 23 Kilometers from the Kanchauabuiri camps, although the prisoners were unaware of the landing.


Conditions temorarily improved in March, 1944, when the Japanese made efforts to appease world opinion which condemned them for their treatment of their prisoners. Most of the  prisoners were in the main camps of Chung Kai, Thamakham, Kanchanaburi, Tamuang, Nong Pladuk and Nakorn Pathom. Chong Kai, always remembered by the   prisoners as one of the most comfortable camps, now included a barber shop, football field, and a 5,000 seat theater where seats could be reserved for the Friday and Saturday nighi  shows.  But even at Chong Kai, where entertainment ranged from ballet to variety shows and Shaw's "Major Barbara," 80 percent of the "Well camp" suffered from malaria.

From May, 1944 until the Japanese surrender in August, 1945 prisoners again suffered deprivations, especially those who were sent to the small jungle camps to work on railway maintenance, and to cut fuel for the trains and to handle stores at  supply dumps. Others built roads through the jungle. Since the camps were small and difficult to reach, local traders rarely visited them. Although the prisoners could be easily evacuated to base camp hospitals in trains returning from Burma, sickness took the lives of many men.



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