Sketch by Jack Chalker

The Thai Railway

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The Thai Railway

The Thai–Burma railway, also known as the Death Railway, was built in 1942–43 stretching 258 miles between Bangkok in Thailand to Rangoon in Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma by avoiding the sea routes which had become vulnerable as the Japanese Navy was reduced by Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. Once the railway was finished the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and the roads and airfields used by the Allies to supply China.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use the Allied prisoners who had fallen into their hands in early 1942. Forced labour of about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War worked on the railway. Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work impossibly long hours in remote unhealthy locations, over 12,000 POWs died.

The railway was never built to a level that it was going to last and it was frequently bombed by the RAF in the Burma Campaign. After the war the line was closed in 1947, but a section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later in 1957.

We arrived at the Thai border, Nong Pla Duk, just after the monsoon season and there was no camp here yet so we had to make the best of things. The job was to rebuild a railway embankment that have been washed away during the wet season. This had to be filled by hand carrying soil from where is that it was available. It was 10 to 12 feet high and the rails were swinging in the air. We had no mechanical help, just bare hands and bamboo buckets passed up and down the line. This was shift work, day and night until it was completed and took a total of about two weeks.

We had a starvation diet of boiled rice. This was the time that the Thai people were interested in buying anything, providing of course the Japanese didn't see it. I got $20 Thai dollars for an Army issue pocket watch that no longer worked !

Once the repairs were complete we moved on into Thailand and our first task here was building an embankment approximately 4 foot high. Some tools were found, mainly shovels, which were issued by the Japanese and useless as they were made from oil drums. It was pretty easy going here though, not too harsh, however the grub was no better.

We moved further up-country in April 1943 to an established camp set up by previous POW’s Wang Po (Wampo) Camp. This camp was by the Kwai Noi River so at least we were able to keep our bodies and clothes clean.

Wampo Viaduct - 1943 - 5atb

Wang Po (Wampo) Viaduct

At Wang Po village the river takes the path of the railway so it was necessary to build a viaduct about half a mile long. Work here was very different drilling into the rock face with a hammer and chisel then these holes were filled with dynamite and blown up after each shift. Wampo viaduct was constructed of a series of trestle bridges following the curve of a sheer limestone cliff rising from the Kwae Noi River below. Having been extensively repaired the viaduct is still used today and maintained by the State Railway of Thailand.

There was a variety of jobs here in the jungle, clearing undergrowth, embankment building with tools that were useless making it very hard work and now came the order of the day “Speedo, Speedo” (faster-faster).

Then came the big job. Already POW’s had been way in front of us making embankment covers and bridges with timber cut straight out of the jungle. The next task was the actual laying of the tracks. To do this meant laying or dropping sleepers, a real problem in monsoon weather. This job consisted of a three man team, one man with a 6 foot iron crowbar and two men with 7 pound long shaft hammers. The rails had to be spiked into the sleeper. The crowbar man held the sleeper while the two hammer men hammered the spikes into the sleepers. There were one or two damaged shins with spikes bouncing off the sleepers. The rails and sleepers came up at regular intervals thus there was no shortage of work.

At times it meant leapfrogging over one or sometimes two camps (such as they were) this was due to work being held up for different reasons, mainly natural obstacles. One in particular was what became known as ‘Hellfire Pass’. Hellfire Pass is so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell. This was where the rail track had come up against solid rock; this in the first instance was just wide enough to get the trucks through causing numerous problems.

Konyu Cutting, the Hellfire Pass, a notorious cutting on the Railway. The pass is known for the harsh conditions and heavy loss of life suffered by its labourers during construction. It was a particularly difficult section having to cut through the largest rock on the railway, coupled with its remoteness and the lack of proper tools during building. A tunnel would have been possible, but a cutting could be constructed at all points simultaneously British, Australian, Dutch and other allied Prisoners of War were used in the construction and were worked by the Japanese for 18 hours a day to complete the cutting. The cutting was made by drilling small holes in the rock; one man holding a metal drill or ‘tap’, and another hitting its head with a 10lb hammer. These drill holes would then be filled with explosive and detonated.

Another time was when we came up to a makeshift bridge made mostly of bamboo and raw timber. For some reason this structure had taken a tilt and the Japanese, full of big ideas, bought up two or three elephants to bring it back upright, then dozens of Indian labourers were set to work to fill in where possible with some sort of ballast. Within two days the trucks were running over it and now it was time for “Speedo, Speedo” again. We worked again through the nights with a sort of native flare.

It was at this time that disease was rife Malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected mosquito causes symptoms that include fever and headache, in severe cases coma or death, Beriberi which is caused by a deficit in Vitamin B and Dengue an infectious tropical disease. All were beginning to take its toll and then the killer came, Cholera fever. Cholera is an infection transmitted primarily by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated. Colonel Flowers ordered that all the utensils be sterilised in boiling water before and after eating. It seemed to be effective as we lost very few lads. Though it was never a pleasant task having to bury the ones we did loose, leaving just a bare wooden cross to mark the plot.

The next killer was the Monsoon rains. Continually night and day and no end for weeks. Still the work had had to go on and go on it did. One shift in particular was on a fine day and a senior Japanese Officer appeared on the scene, for the first time, and commenced telling our Officer that our shift was too lay three kilometres of track, which seemed an impossible task, we tried to highlight the problems in the task but to no avail. The sleepers and rails kept coming and coming like never before and the task was completed before that shift could return back to the billet, 38 hours non-stop!

Working during the monsoon season had some terrible consequences, but one good one was that cattle was driven up country to help feed the remote camps. One day one strayed off the temporary embankment and sunk into the mud, it was unable to get out by itself. The Japanese driver was desperate to get going and left the beast. Our lads found the ways and means to successfully retrieve it. Transported to the cookhouse, this was more than a godsend, now we had meat, gravy and rice instead of watery mush.

Sometime later we came across a deserted village and they had left behind a water buffalo which also went into the pot after sharing with another camp.

I had a bit of a fright one day when taken short! I strayed off the track and what should come along but an elephant which was almost as surprised as I was. It made its way down to the river never to be seen again, though many times we saw herds of elephant coming down the river on the other side. They never seem to mind us sharing the river.

Another event I remember, when starting on the track early one morning was the sight of a Black Panther. Fortunately the noise made by the rest of the lads arriving made it just amble away. Another occupational hazard was dozens of Wild Boar charging through the working party down the embankment to swim across the river (who said pigs can't swim?)

The Jungle is a fascinating place more sounds at night than during the day. Groups of monkeys would join us but they soon scattered when the troops came up and the sound of the rails being dropped and hammered into place commenced.

The death rate increased with Cholera being the main cause followed by Beriberi fever. Burying the lads that passed was never a very pleasant task.

Now the railway was joined up with the Burma end things became a little easier and we were detailed mostly maintenance work, felling trees and chopping wood now that the steam Locos were up and running. Also digging trenches for the Japanese who were getting a bit edgy about Air Raids but we were never involved in any.

Despite being repeatedly bombed by the Allies, the Thai–Burma railway operated as a fully functioning railway between November 1943 and March 1944 over 50,000 tonnes of food and ammunition were carried to Burma as well as two complete divisions of troops for the Japanese offensive into India. This attack, one of their last and was defeated by British and Indian forces. Prisoners of war and Rōmusha, Asian laborers, continued to work on maintenance and repair tasks until the end of the War.

We were moved down country to the base camp “Chungkai”. Chungkai camp was approximately one mile north on Kanchanaburi, on the bank of the River Kwai Noi. I was put in charge of a group of about 60 men and we joined up with our Second in Command Officer Capt. Sanderson. After a while in camp the remainder of our Company joined us and we all had to have our hair cut off, what a sight, we certainly looked like prisoners now!

Our work here was collecting Bamboo from the river to build more huts. I got my first bash for not carrying enough bamboo at one time.


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