The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass

Australian Prisoners of War on the Thai-Burma Railway 1942-1945

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The Workers


The Dutch had two different enemies during World War II: the Germans who occupied the Netherlands; and the Japanese who occupied the Netherlands East Indies. Even today, remembrance of both enemies has the power to summon up strong emotions.

[Eveline Buchheim, ‘Hide and Seek’, in Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack (eds), Forgotten Captives in Japanese Occupied Asia, London, Routledge, 2008, 264.]

Painting depicting flag and mast rising from top of a thatched roof of hut
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The Dutch formed the second largest contingent of Allied prisoners of war on the Thai–Burma railway, after the British. Estimates vary but the number who worked on the railway was possibly as high as 18 000. They were some of 42 000 Dutch military and naval personnel and 100 000 Dutch civilians who were captured when the Japanese conquered the Netherlands East Indies in early 1942.

Emaciated figure naked except for loin cloth lies on a bunk

One of the Dutch POWs shipped with Australians of Gull Force from Ambon to Bakli Bay, Hainan Island, in late 1942. Lieutenant J. Hut of the Royal Dutch Naval Reserve weighed only 38 kilograms at the time of this photograph in August 1945. [AWM 030361/05] ... Enlarge photo of Lieutenant Hut

Since the Netherlands East Indies had been under Dutch control for centuries, the ‘Dutch’ POWs included not only Europeans but Eurasians, who had acquired full civil rights, and indigenous soldiers, including Sundanese, Javanese, Menadonese, Ambonese and Timorese. They were personnel of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL), the Royal Dutch Navy and the auxiliary forces of the KNIL.

After their capture some of the indigenous soldiers — perhaps most of the Javanese and Sundanese — were freed by the Japanese and encouraged to join pro-Japanese militias.

The POWs were interned at first near the places where they were captured: including Java, Ambon and Timor. From late 1942 however, like other POWs, many of them were distributed around the Asia-Pacific region to work on Japanese projects. In October 1942, the Dutch formed half of the contingent sent from Ambon to Hainan, while over a hundred men were sent from Java to Burma. They were followed in December and January 1943 by a further three groups, shipped around the same time that Australia’s Dunlop Force went to Singapore and Thailand. The final group of Dutch arrived in Burma as part of Group 5 in April 1943, bringing the total of Dutch in Burma to around 4600.

In 1943 Dutch prisoners were sent to Thailand where they suffered the same hardships as other Allied POWs. They were treated brutally by the Japanese, and struggled with tropical diseases and the effects of malnutrition. However, the Dutch suffered a significantly lower death rate (15 percent) to the Australians and British (21 and 22 percent respectively). Possibly this was because they had previously lived in the tropics and had more experience in treating tropical illnesses. In addition, no Dutch POWs worked in F Force, which suffered the highest death rates on the railway.

Group of menu with wooden boxes at their feet

Dutch officers and men at the prisoner of war at Bakli Bay POW camp, Hainan Island, at the time of their liberation in late August 1945. They are pictured with the improvised wooden rat traps which they used to supplement their poor rations. [AWM 030366/03] ... Enlarge Dutch POWs

The Dutch experience was also different in that their ethnicity made it possible for some POWs to escape successfully. Whereas Westerners could not to blend into the local population, some Eurasian and indigenous Dutch POWs were able to hide as monks, farmers and even a gardener at the headquarters of the Japanese secret police in Bangkok!

Around 8000 Dutch POWs who survived working on the Thai-Burma railway were later sent to Japan. However, around 3600 died during the voyage. In a single instance in 1944 over 1300 Dutch POWs died when a British submarine sank the transport ship Junyo Maru.

Dutch and Australian POWs were often interned in the same camps or near each other. Their relationship seems by many accounts to have been strained. Perhaps differences in language and culture exacerbated the inevitable tensions between men in captivity. In addition, the Dutch POWs had considerably more resources than Australians, since many of them were captured near their homes. This gave them, initially at least, the capacity to buy more food and other supplies from sources outside the prison camps.

The diaries of the Australian surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop’ are sprinkled with complaints about the Dutch in the prison camp at Bandung.

Began the move from new quarters from which D have already seized many of the comforts and furniture. Crowning annoyance reached when Maj. Morris in my company took back a box from their area which was previously ours. Dutch officer rudely seized this from him ... I gave him the full blast of my wrath, comparing his officers to carrion birds and refused to speak to him any more in the presence of other ranks ...

[The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 29.]

Bronze headstone with Dutch lion insignia

A Dutch headstone in Chungkai cemetery, Thailand. It was Dutch practice that headstones do not include personal epitaphs. [Photo: Joan Beaumont] ... Enlarge Dutch headstone

Whatever tensions there may have been during captivity, the Dutch, British and Australians who died on the Thai–Burma railway were buried together after the war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, holds 621 Dutch graves; Chungkai, Thailand, 314 Dutch burials; and Kanchanaburi war cemetery, 1,896. The Dutch headstones do not carry personal family messages, as the British Commonwealth ones do.

It was a Dutch officer and former civil servant Colonel K. A. Warmenhoven, who took over command of the Thai–Burma railway immediately after the war. Warmenhoven played an important role in keeping the railway operational, which allowed the safe return of thousands of POWs, rǒmusha and Japanese soldiers.

The return home of the Dutch POWs in 1945 was conducted by the Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees organisation (RAPWI). However their repatriation was complicated by the outbreak of the Indonesian independence struggle in the Netherlands East Indies. More than 10 000 Dutch survivors had to wait in Thailand and were even joined by 4000 women and children escaping the violence in Java. They were repatriated from April to November 1946.

Dutch POW memorial church, Kanchanaburi

This small church which sits across the road from the Kanchanaburi war cemetery is a memorial to Dutch prisoners of war. Funded by a Dutch ambassador to Burma (now Myanmar), the Beata Mundi Regina (Beautiful Queen of the World) church was opened in 1955-6 (and renovated in 2006). Describing itself as a ‘war monument’, it aims to provide a place where ‘all denominations and tourists [can] visit and pray for the deceased’. [Photo: Joan Beaumont] ... Enlarge photo of church

Many Dutch soldiers, having survived prison camps, were then conscripted back into the army to serve in the Netherlands East Indies. The same was true for former Indonesian KNIL personnel, as they were attacked in the general turmoil after the Japanese surrender. Joining KNIL again was kind of a strategy for survival.

Dutch POWs received compensation as part of the terms of the 1951 peace treaty with Japan. In 1955 the more than 100 000 Dutch civilians interned by the Japanese also received a small payment as part of a settlement between the Netherlands and the Japanese governments.

In the Netherlands the experience of Dutch prisoners and internees of the Japanese is well remembered. This is in part due to the historic importance of the Netherlands East Indies as a colony, but also to the large numbers of internees who migrated to the Netherlands during and after Indonesian independence. They brought with them memories of the war in the Asia-Pacific which complemented other national narratives of resistance and occupation by the Nazis.