The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass
The [Thai–Burma] railway ... was the common and dominant experience of Australian POWs ... [it] distorted or ended the lives of over half of the Australian prisoners of the Japanese ...
[Hank Nelson, ‘Measuring the railway’ in Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson (eds), The Burma–Thailand Railway, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 17, 19.]
Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Thai–Burma railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia’s national memory of World War II.
There are good reasons for this. Over 22 000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.
This website focuses on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), the deepest and most dramatic of the many cuttings along the Thai–Burma railway. Not all Australian POWs worked here in 1943. Nor was the workforce in this region exclusively Australian. However, in recent years Hellfire Pass has come to represent the suffering of all Australian prisoners across the Asia–Pacific region. The experiences of prisoners elsewhere were, in fact, very diverse but this website can only hint at these.
The Thai–Burma railway
The Thai–Burma railway (known also as the Burma–Thailand or Burma–Siam railway) was built in 1942–43. Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes which had become vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.
Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use the more than 60 000 Allied prisoners who had fallen into their hands in early 1942. These included troops of the British Empire, Dutch and colonial personnel from the Netherlands East Indies and a small number of US troops sunk on the USS Houston during the Battle of Java Sea. About 13 000 of the prisoners who worked on the railway were Australian.
When this workforce proved incapable of meeting the tight deadlines the Japanese had set for completing the railway, a further 200 000 Asian labourers or rōmusha (the precise number is not known) were enticed or coerced into working for the Japanese
The 415-kilometre railway ran from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) to Non Pladuk in Thailand. It was constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end. This meant that the already difficult problems of supply became impossible during the monsoonal season of mid-1943.
Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work impossibly long hours in remote unhealthy locations, over 12 000 POWs, including more than 2700 Australians, died. The number of rōmusha dead is not known but it was probably up to 90 000.
Remembering the railway
All memory is selective. Communities, like individuals, remember some stories of the past while forgetting others. For memories to survive at the collective or national level they need to be championed — not just once but over the decades.
Many Australians have performed that role for prisoners of the Japanese. In the decades after World War II ex-prisoners published their memoirs and eye-witness accounts. Many of these proved to be immensely popular. Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island (1951), for example, sold well over a million copies and stayed in print for decades.
There were also memorable fictional accounts of captivity, some of which were adapted for commercial films and television series. The most famous of these was The Bridge on the River Kwai which, though bearing little resemblance to events in 1942-43, generated a popular interest in the railway which continues to this day.
In the 1980s Australian ex-POWs returned to Thailand and reclaimed Hellfire Pass from the jungle which had swallowed it when the Thai–Burma railway was demolished after World War II. The cutting soon became a site of memory for many Australians, particularly on Anzac Day. Its dramatic scale and its towering walls, scarred with drill incisions made by hand, spoke particularly vividly to the hardships endured by POWs along the railway.
The building of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum by the Australian government in 1998 also made it a key site of memory, attracting tourists and ‘pilgrims’ of many nationalities.
But ‘Hellfire Pass’ was more than just a cutting. In its vicinity a sequence of bridges and embankments were needed to keep the railway route along the escarpment level. There were also many camps housing the thousands of workers, including Australians. These have now disappeared into the exquisitely beautiful landscape but this website reclaims them as witnesses to the POW story.
The Anzac legend and Australian memory
Over the years this story of atrocity and suffering has become an affirmation of Australian courage and resilience. Although prisoners of war suffered the humiliation of being defeated and captured, they came to be portrayed as men who had triumphed over adversity. Displaying in captivity the qualities of humour, resourcefulness and mateship, they were able to integrate their experiences into the dominant national memory of war since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, the Anzac ‘legend’.
The POW experience is also remembered for service of the medical personnel who, with little equipment or medicines, cared for desperately ill men in primitive hospitals. Most famous of these doctors is the POW surgeon Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. His statue now stands outside the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, not so far from another iconic image of compassion, Simpson and his donkey. Although Dunlop was only one of 106 Australian POW medical officers, in recent years he has come to represent them all ‒ and the values of courage and compassion that they and many Australians manifested in captivity.