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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Burma-Thailand Railway

page 11

The Burma-Thailand Railway

The major work project carried out by prisoners of war for the Japanese was the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. The line, about 260 miles long, was built in about a year, between October 1943 and October 1944, by approximately 60,000 prisoners of war and an unnumbered host (probably 100,000) of Asiatic coolies. It is estimated that a quarter of the Europeans died; the proportion of deaths among the Tamil, Javanese, Malay, and Chinese labourers, recruited voluntarily with fair promises of pay, was much larger, for if the Japanese treated their European prisoners badly they treated their fellow-Asiatics atrociously.

The construction was of a much lower standard than European engineers would have tolerated. Some important bridges had concrete foundations and above that earth filling and precarious structures of timber. The enemy used very little mechanical equipment, and the formation and laying of the track cut through heavy jungle was carried out by coolies—white, yellow, or brown. The method of work was for sticks to be placed horizontally to show the level to which the track had to be raised; gangs of prisoners under the supervision of a guard then grubbed out earth beside the track with crude hoe-like implements, filled up sacking stretchers, and emptied them on the slowly rising mound.

Men were brought up from Malaya by train and from Java by sea to work in Thailand and Burma. The packed journeys in closed carriages or metal trucks or crammed into the holds of archaic ships (650 prisoners in a space 48 feet by 75 feet) were the worst part of most men’s experience in Japanese hands. From the railhead they had to march carrying all baggage, perhaps for five or six days, to reach their allotted camp. These camps were strung out at 15-mile intervals along the track. The prisoners’ first task was to erect camp buildings with wood from the jungle: first guardhouses and living quarters for the Japanese, then huts for working prisoners, cooking shelters, and the inevitable hospital. The huts had long, thatched roofs and often no walls. Inside, on either side of a narrow central gangway, were raised bamboo sleeping platforms; each man was allowed between two and three feet of room laterally.

At first officers were required only to head working parties. This gave them the duty of intervening between the guards and the prisoners during the many misunderstandings that arose from ignorance of Japanese or the capriciousness of individual guards; nearly always these misunderstandings resulted in the officer being included in the private soldier’s beating. Soon officers as a body were made to work on the railway. If they did not, they were told, then more of the sick would have to turn out. The drive to finish the railway against a prearranged timetable was intense and the guards pushed the prisoners to the last gasp.

In the populated districts nearer the coast in Thailand it was possible to get extra food by trading with the Thais, who showed themselves generally friendly. In the inland jungle camps opportunities to get extra rations were more limited. In one camp prisoners were issued with wooden tabs inscribed in Japanese and were allowed out into the jungle to forage for themselves. But while the railway was being built the hours of labour—from dawn to dusk with one yasume (rest) every fortnight—left the men with little superfluous strength. The rations which the Japanese issued were a shade more ample than in Malaya or Java, though they dwindled after the completion of the line.

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In 1944 the only work to be done was maintenance and the fittest prisoners were drafted away to Japan. Incidentally, it was from 150 survivors of a torpedoed Japanese ship picked up by Allied vessels early in 1944 that the outside world first heard of the conditions on the railway. With 1000 miles to travel to reach friendly territory, either through jungle or across the sea, no one had escaped. The others were drafted in increasing numbers from the jungle towards the coast into what were virtually hospital camps. Here some men had the spirit and the energy to act plays, hold concerts, and carry on a more developed social life.

The Japanese guards on the railway seem to have been among the most savage and badly conducted of any, perhaps because of the remoteness from supervision. An ironic story is told of a Japanese officer in Burma jumping down from a passing train when he saw a guard ‘bashing’ a prisoner and apologising to the prisoner for the ignorant brutality of ‘this coolie’, whom he then beat up himself before returning to his train. Such interventions were infrequent; indeed, some of the worst atrocities in Thailand were committed by Japanese officers, particularly by the engineers. It was revealed after Japan’s capitulation that the Japanese had planned to massacre their prisoners at the end of August 1945, a plan known, through Thai sympathisers, to the Allies, who had dropped specially trained paratroops to forestall it. These paratroops armed and organised Thais to help in overwhelming the Japanese guards. Similar action had already been taken by the United States forces at internment camps in the Philippines and by the Australians in Borneo.

The only support for the prisoners’ morale was their sense of solidarity. New Zealanders and Australians, it was generally agreed, came through the ordeal well. In Thailand, as elsewhere, the guards were distinguished by suitable nicknames: the Mad Mongol, Donald Duck, Harold Lloyd, the Black Prince, Blind Boil, Puss-in-Boots, and others which cannot be set down here. This attitude helped morale but was dangerous: one prisoner records that he received a beating for ‘silent contempt too plainly shown’.

The railway had been, like nearly all the other work to which the Japanese set prisoners of war, a military project. Naturally it became a military objective, and prisoners still living in camps close to the line were killed when Allied bombers began their attacks in late 1944. The Japanese ran locomotives alongside prison camps when the bombers appeared; anti-aircraft guns were also sited equally close to the camps.

The experiences of prisoners working on the Thailand railway throw strange sidelights on the Japanese mentality. The major fact is that the atrocious treatment of the sick (and of the well so that they rapidly became sick) was against the interests of the Japanese. As one ex-prisoner has put it, ‘reason met its last frustration in asking why the enemy should want to destroy the labour force they needed so urgently.’ Late in 1944 the Japanese forbade the prisoners’ canteens to buy from the Thais any further meat, sugar, or salt, because the Geneva Convention said that these commodities should be supplied by the detaining power. ‘If you have to buy them, it means we are not giving you enough. If we stop you from buying them, therefore, it means you are getting enough.’* Logic of Nippon!

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Black and white apintaing of army officers

Lieutenant-General A. E. Percival signs the surrender at Singapore. The Japanese leader is Lieutenant-General T. Yamashita

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Black and white photograph of group of soldiers

Working party at Palembang, Sumatra

Black and white photograph of soldier writing and soldiers in the kitchen

(Above) Signing the pledge not to escape—after order under duress
(Below) The cookhouse—both these photographs were taken at Selerang Barracks, Singapore

Black and white photograph building holding soldiers

Changi Jail, used by the Japanese to confine civilian internees and, later, prisoners of war

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Black and white photograph army area

A panorama of Selerang Barracks showing some of the 17,000 Allied troops under ‘persuasion’ to sign a pledge not to escape

Black and white painting

This painting of the Sime Road civilian internment camp was described by the artist, Gladys Tompkins, as ‘Our men pushing our rice tubs up to the Hospital Area.’

Black and white sketch of prison

Another painting by Gladys Tompkins. A courtyard in the women’s section of Changi Jail

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The Burma-Thailand Railway


Black and white sketch of people working

PRISONERS OF WAR BUILDING A RAILWAY BRIDGE. The artist, Murray Griffin, hid this sepia drawing between sheets of tin stopping the leaks in the attap roof of his hut

Black and white photograph of wooden bridge

THE HINTOKU-TAMPI RAILWAY BRIDGE. Rough scrub timber has been used in the construction of this bridge, whose height was 100 feet. Note the small diesel-driven trolly. The Photograph was taken in October 1945

page 17
Black and white photograph of tents


Black and white photograph of rail lines

THE RAILWAY TRACK FROM KANACHANA BURI, also photographed in October 1945

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Black and white sketch of hospital in a tent

OPERATING THEATRE, Chungkai Two Paintings

Black and white sketch of tents


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Black and white sketch of building

This painting by Basil Were was made during the fortnight’s wait for evacuation following the Japanese surrender. It shows wooden barracks with tiled roof on the right and, on the left, an air-raid shelter built by prisoners

Black and white photograph of view from top

AERIAL VIEW OF CAMP 4B, Nigata, after the surrender but before the release. Shortage of paint made it hard to get enough for the letters PW on hut roofs

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Black and white photograph of group of people

Civilian internees liberated at the Sime Road camp

Black and white photograph of soldier in beds

Allied soldiers freed from Formosa rest, eat and sleep on the hanger deck. Most of these men are in bad physical condition

* Rohan D. Rivett, Behind Bamboo (Angus and Robertson), p. 329.