Burma–Thailand Railway

In December 1941, the Pacific War began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and the invasion of Malaya. By mid-1942, having conquered most of South-East Asia, Japanese forces were fighting the British in Burma, their aim being an offensive against India.  To maintain their armies in Burma, the Japanese needed a more secure supply route than the sea-lanes used between Singapore and Rangoon.  They decided to construct a railway, 420km long, through jungles and mountains from Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma.

31 January 2020

Building the railway

The Japanese assembled a multi-national workforce of an estimated 270,000 Asian labourers and some 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners of war (POWs). Work on the line began in October 1942, and the railway was constructed from both the Thai and Burmese ends.

Basic equipment was made available for railway work. Earth and rock were broken by shovels, picks and chunkles (hoes) and carried away in baskets or sacks. Cuttings were driven through rock by hand and metal taps and sledgehammers were used to drill holes for explosives. Most of the bridges along the railway were made from timber cut in the surrounding jungle.

After the completion of the railway, the POWs who survived were either kept in Thailand or sent back to Singapore.

Hellfire Pass

One of the more well-known sections of the railway where Australian POWs worked was Hellfire Pass at Konyu, 130km north-west of the starting point at Ban Pong.

Construction began in April 1943. Prisoners worked for up to 18 hours a day to complete the cutting using hand tools and jackhammers to remove solid limestone and quartz rock. The work consisted of two cuttings, the first 460m in length and 7.6m deep and the second, 73m by 24m.

Hellfire Pass was named for the eerie light thrown over the site by bamboo fires as skeletal figures laboured by night. Completed in August 1943, Hellfire Pass cost the lives of some 700 Allied prisoners.

Because of its significance, Anzac Day services are held annually at the memorial within Hellfire Pass.

Poor conditions

POWs suffered greatly while working on the Burma-Thailand Railway. Cramped sea and rail journeys followed by long marches meant that prisoners were exhausted before they reached their camps. Meagre rations caused starvation and prisoners were regularly beaten. A lack of basic medical equipment meant that men fell prey to all manner of tropical illness as well as cholera.

Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, accompanying walking trails and information displays were officially opened on 25 April 1998. The memorial now receives almost 100,000 visitors each year.

FAST FACTS

Australians who served

•           Over 555,000 Australians served overseas in the Second World War, more than half of these fought in the war against Japan.

•           Some 22,000 Australians became prisoners of the Japanese.

•           More than 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American POWs worked on the railway.

•           An estimated 270,000 Asian civilians worked on the railway.

Casualties

•           More than 12,500 POWs died on the railway, including some 2,800 Australians.

•           An estimated 75,000 South-East Asian civilian labourers also died.

Specific medals

•           12 Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross during the war against Japan.

Cemeteries

•           Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries are located at Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Kanchanaburi and Chungkai in Thailand.

More information

•           Office of Australian War Graves

•           Hellfire Pass audio tour

 

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