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Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and Walking Trail

The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum is dedicated to those Australians and other Allied Prisoners of War and Asian labourers who suffered and died at Hellfire Pass and elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region during the Second World War.

During the Second World War, thousands of forced local labourers and Allied Prisoners of War suffered and died constructing and maintaining the Burma-Thailand railway. The Australian Government constructed the interpretative memorial in cooperation with the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand. The memorial, dedicated in 1998, was designed and constructed by Hewitt Pender Associates Pty Ltd, Australia and Woods Baggot Limited, Thailand.

The museum explains to visitors the story of why and how the railway was built and attempts to convey the hardships and suffering endured by so many who were forced to work in extremely harsh conditions. The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum symbolises the importance of this site to the Australian people. After visiting the memorial museum and contemplation deck, visitors are encouraged to proceed to the walking trail.

The Office of Australian War Graves continues to improve visitors' experience when visiting the site. The audio guide tour introduced several years ago continues to be well received and many visitors and tour groups use the guide as they walk through the museum and along the paths to the memorial. The audio guide, available in English, Dutch, Japanese and Thai, provides a history of Hellfire Pass and first hand comments from ex-prisoners of war.

In 2008, the new access to the Cutting was completed and the carefully designed pathway and stairs now winds down below the contemplation deck providing safe, easy access.

Maintaining the site with approximately 100,000 visitors per annum continues to be challenging for the Manager and staff.

Tom Morris

The preservation and development of this historic site has resulted from the inspiration of Australian former Prisoner of War, Mr J G “Tom” Morris.

Mr Morris was among the thousands of Prisoners of War and Asian labourers who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway during the Second World War. After enlisting aged 17 in 1941 Mr Morris served as a Corporal with 22 Brigade Headquarters before being captured in the fall of Singapore in 1942. Sent to Burma as part of ‘A’ Force, Mr Morris worked on the Burma-Thailand railway from the Thanbyuzayat end. In 1983, forty years after working on the railway, Mr Morris made a decision to return to Thailand in an attempt to locate the site of Konyu Cutting (Hellfire Pass). Mr Morris was not only successful in his endeavour to locate Hellfire Pass, by then almost consumed by the surrounding jungle, he was also inspired with the idea of preserving this significant site in memory of all those who suffered and died while constructing the Burma-Thailand railway. Mr Morris then approached the Australian Government regarding the possibility of having Hellfire Pass dedicated as an historic site.

In 1985, following Mr Morris’ proposal, the Australian Government allocated funding for improved access to Hellfire Pass and the construction of a memorial. The memorial was formally dedicated in 1987. Further funding was allocated in 1994 for the construction of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and walking trail. The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum was officially opened on 25 April 1998.

Walking trail

The walking trail follows the alignment of the original Burma-Thailand railway from Hellfire Pass through to the Hintok Cutting. Small shelters and interpretative panels have been provided at various locations and toilets are available at the end of the walking trail.

If you are planning on walking the walk, be sure to wear strong shoes or boots and protective clothing and take drinking water. Only the fit and well-prepared should attempt this walk, please allow ample time to complete the walk before dark.

Visitor information

Museum open 9am - 4pm daily.

  • Detailed information on significance of Hellfire Pass
  • Interactive displays
  • English & Thai text & signs
  • Self-guided audio tours in multiple languages
  • Contemplation deck.

The Museum and walking trail are closed on the following dates:

Brochures

Please also visit the Smart Traveller website.

See also:

Burma-Thailand Railway

A railway to Burma

In December 1941 the Pacific War began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and the invasion of Malaya. By mid-1942 Japanese forces were fighting the British in Burma, their ultimate aim being an offensive against India. To maintain their armies in Burma the Japanese needed a more secure supply route than the vulnerable sea-lanes between Singapore and Rangoon. They decided to construct a railway, 415 km long, through the jungle and mountain from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma.

Building the railway

To build the railway the Japanese assembled a multinational workforce of approximately 250,000 Asian labourers and over 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American Prisoners of War (POWs). Work on the line began in southern Burma in October 1942 while at the same time construction also started in Thailand. On 16 October 1943, the two ends of the Burma-Thailand railway were joined at Konikoita in Thailand.

Little modern equipment was made available for railway work. Earth and rock were broken by shovels, picks and chunkels (hoes), and carried away in baskets or sacks. Embankments of stone and earth were heaped up by human endeavour. Cuttings were driven through rock by hand; metal taps and sledgehammers being used to drill holes for explosives. Most of the bridges along the railway were timber trestle bridges made from timber cut in the surrounding jungle.

From April 1943, the work pace increased greatly as the Japanese strove to meet a proposed August deadline for completion. This was the notorious 'speedo' period. POWs and Asian labourers worked punishing hours well into the night. At Konyu Cutting the flickering bonfire light on the emaciated workers gave the place its name - Hellfire Pass. The 'speedo', coinciding with the wet season and outbreaks of cholera, claimed thousands of lives.

Between December 1943 and August 1945 some 220,000 tons of military supplies were carried over the railway. Allied air raids hindered the railway's operation yet the Japanese continued to move supplies along the route. Today, 130 km of the line remains in use, from Non Pladuk to Namtok.

Cost

Of the 60,000 Aliied POWs who worked on the railway, 12,399 (20%) died. Between 70,000 and 90,000 civilian labourers are also believed to have died. The reasons for this appalling death toll were lack of proper food, totally inadequate medical facilities and, at times, the brutal treatment from guards and railway supervisors.

Rice, with a little dried vegetable and dried fish, was the POWs' basic food. This meagre diet provided by the Japanese was supplemented to some extent through trade with local people. Starvation led to a range of diseases, including beriberi and pellagra. Weakened POWs living in appalling conditions commonly fell ill to malaria, dysentery, cholera and tropical ulcers.

POWs lived in attap (woven palm thatch) and bamboo huts. Huts were overcrowded and the cooking and sanitary arrangements at camps were primitive. Lack of clothing and footwear increased the risk of illness.

Physical punishment was a feature of Japanese military discipline and POWs were often given severe beatings as well as other forms of punishment. This was at its worst during the 'speedo'.

If anything the Asian labourers, or 'rumusha' as they were known, fared even worse. Unlike the POWs, they had no army doctors to give them basic medical treatment.

'V' Organisation

Thailand was a reluctant ally of Japan, and Allied interned citizens were well treated by the Thais. Internees became aware of the POWs' plight. An internee group known as the 'V' Organisation, aided by neutral businessmen and sympathetic Thais, smuggled food and medicines to POWs.

Peace and after

After the completion of the railway the POWs were either kept in Thailand or sent back to Singapore. When the war ended the POW survivors were repatriated and with proper food and medical treatment many quickly recovered. However, most carried the mental scars of their experience with them for the rest of their lives.

The POWs who died along the railway were reinterred at Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries at Thanbyuzayat, Kanchanaburi and Chung Kai. American dead were returned to the USA.

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