As promised a while ago, here is the first of Paul Hannah’s accounts of his trip to Europe to follow in the footsteps of an ordinary allied soldier in the second world war.

Bangkok was as Bangkok always is, only more so. Hot, loud, and in your face politeness, from the Dutch girl who checked me in to the old cabbie who took me to the airport, there were no surprises, just more of the same wonderful chaos that surrounds every aspect of life in the city. Little else symbolises the city more than its wiring. There are lights and illuminated signs everywhere, hotels reliably provide power to their guests and homes up and down the city cook, clean and illuminate their lives with electricity. It clearly works and yet this is an integral part of that network:

Those are live wires. Any child can reach out and grab one. Any street vendor can use them to hang their goods on for display. Some hang down for pedestrians to weave through. This is by no means abnormal.

Wrapping live wires around metal handrails is what a Thai electrician does on a regular basis. Of course this has a cost. Electrical fires are common and great chunks of poor areas burn down with depressing regularity. But still it seems to work.

A visit to the bridge made famous by the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a day trip from Bangkok. However the journey for thousands of Allied POWs and local slaves during WWII, could not have been more different. I sat in an air conditioned coach sipping Coke and all the water I wanted whereas they were packed into a railcar like this one, with no ventilation no water and sometimes no food for as much as forty hours.

For many, the journey alone was too much, the tropical heat, the lack of air and water, that some died on the journey was inevitable. There is no doubt that some of those that survived envied them. The survivors of that train ride were going to work on the infamous Burma Railway.

In 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army held the view that India was vulnerable due to the political unrest and the anti-British revolutionary climate prevailing at the time. But to get to India the Japanese had to either go around by sea or cross through the tropical jungles of Thailand and Burma, a job so difficult that even the British who had cut railways across India and Africa, had deemed too difficult to take on. Crossing by sea exposed transports to Allied submarines and surface vessels. Little did the Japanese know, but at the time American submarines were armed with faulty torpedoes that around 70% failed to explode on their target. However, Allied warships and aircraft were able to sink ships bound for Burma with near impunity. In the eyes of the Japanese, an overland railway became a strategic necessity. Bangkok, Thailand and Thanbyuzayat, Burma had to be linked by rail but to do it, they had to cut through 320km (200 miles) of tropical jungle, crossing rivers and cutting through rock along the way. When I say ‘they’, no Japanese did any of this work, they sat back and watched their slaves do it for them.

The source the labour for this monumental task was twofold, men from Thailand and surrounding countries were deceived into signing on for work, or simply kidnapped at gunpoint and impressed into service. The actual number of men enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army is unknown, but even the low estimates start at 180,000 men. This figure does not include the ‘Comfort Women’ who were enslaved and forced into brothels for the Japanese troops. The other source was of course, some 61,000 Allied servicemen from the armed forces of Australia, Great Britain, USA and The Netherlands. To describe the conditions these men were subjected to, stretches the English language to its limits and beyond. They were routinely, starved, beaten, tortured and worked to death. Their injuries were ignored, diseases like malaria, beri beri, typhus and cholera untreated, some were even crucified. An action that would pass unnoticed one day, would attract being beaten to death the next. In one section, appropriately named Hellfire Pass, these men were forced to work eighteen hours a day. Sixty nine men were beaten to death over the six weeks it took to cut through the rock.

Allied soldiers enslaved by the Japanese managed to sabotage the construction of the railway in a number of ways, ‘mistakes’ were made, poor quality wood was selected and termite nests relocated so that the wood crumbled to dust in a matter of weeks. But they could do little else but suffer their treatment.

In defence of the guards it is occasionally put forward that no army assigns its best troops to watch prisoners, but this ignores the fact that no Japanese, Italian or German POW was beaten to death, none were tortured and relatively few were murdered by Allied soldiers. Certainly Allied soldiers did not always behave honourably, but even the German SS were not as bad as these swine. This systemic, institutionalised, barbaric cruelty was the province of the Japanese Imperial Army alone. Further attempts to pass responsibility rely upon the employment of Korean guards. However these guards were supervised by Japanese soldiers, who were overseen by Japanese officers, it is the Imperial Japanese Army who should bear the blame and they who should carry the shame.

Very little of the original construction part of the railways remains, a couple of bridges like this one pictured is still in use, but the path through the jungle is largely the same.

The surrounding countryside is much altered these days, the railway meant that farming became viable and small villages now exist where before there was only jungle.
Many of those that survived went home with scars, both physical and mental and those that remain lie in three beautifully kept cemeteries along the line and still more in unmarked graves, known to no one but just as sadly missed.

Like other railways around the world the tracks are laid upon sleepers and no doubt accountants and managers assess the cost of each one, but the cost of these mournful logs is a lot higher than most. For every few sleepers laid on this 320km track a man was murdered.  

For the 102,000 (minimum) killed on the railway a total of 111 Japanese and Korean soldiers were tried. Of these 32 were condemned to death. The reason why these numbers are so imprecise is that to circumvent justice being carried out on those higher up in the chain of command, all Japanese records relating to this and other atrocities were ordered destroyed.

Now we tourists pay the tourist price and sit in the comfy seats as we travel along the same path these men cut. 

We get into our coach and make our way back to the city, a quieter more reflective journey along the same neat highways to our comfortable hotel.  

 The next day I took a cab to the airport, trying desperately to photograph the signs which forbid getting a tattoo featuring Buddha. Cathay Pacific gave me a little bag full of toiletries that I’d never use so I gave them to the cabbie for his wife and gave him all my  remaining Thai currency asking him to use it to take his grandchildren to the football. On to London! 

2 Responses

  1. Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, which won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, takes a look at what happened to Allied prisoners and their Japanese and Korean guards during the building of the railway.

  2. This introductory piece informs us about the terrible suffering inflicted on our Australian soldiers by members of the Imperial Japanese military. It was a dark chapter in this war, now long passed. May it never happen again.

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