Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre Audio Guide

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The Guide and Downloads

Map of the audio guide

Each number on the guide map corresponds to one of the Stops on the audio guide.

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Audio Guide

Stop 1. Introduction Audio

Running time: 2 min 55 sec

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Stop 2. The Beginning Audio

Running time: 2 min 22 sec

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Stop 3. Bamboo Audio

Running time: 2 min 48 sec

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Stop 4. The Rail Bed Audio

Running time: 2 min 49 sec

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Stop 5. Konyu Cutting Audio

Running time: 1 min 38 sec

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Stop 6. Hellfire Pass Audio

Running time: 5 min 27 sec

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Stop 7. Broken Drill Bit Audio

Running time: 1 min 41 sec

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Stop 8. Medical Audio

Running time: 5 min 23 sec

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Cholera Audio

Running time: 3 min 2 sec

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Stop 9. In Memory Audio

Running time: 1 min 58 sec

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Stop 10. Hunger Audio

Running time: 4 min 0 sec

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Stop 11. Excavation Audio

Running time: 4 min 58 sec

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Stop 12 & Stop 24. Completion Audio

Running time: 4 min 23 sec

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Mateship Poem Audio

Running time: 1 min 45 sec

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Stop 13 & Stop 25. After the War Audio

Running time: 5 min 23 sec

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Stop 14 & Stop 26. Coming Home Audio

Running time: 5 min 2 sec

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Stop 15 & Stop 27. War Crimes Audio

Running time: 3 min 1 sec

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Stop 16 & Stop 28. Farewell Audio

Running time: 1 min 25 sec

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Stop 17. Track to Kwai Noi Audio

Running time: 3 min 10 sec

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Stop 18. Kwae Noi Valley Lookout Audio

Running time: 4 min 2 sec

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Stop 19. Hammer & Tap Cutting Audio

Running time: 3 min 55 sec

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Stop 20. Artists Audio

Running time: 5 min 8 sec

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Stop 21. Seven Metre Embankment Audio

Running time: 1 min 50 sec

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Stop 22. Three Tier Bridge Audio

Running time: 2 min 33 sec

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Stop 23. Hintok — Cutting to Camp Audio

Running time: 5 min 59 sec

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This audio guide is copyrighted to the Commonwealth of Australia.

© Commonwealth of Australia 2010

Audio recordings available from this, and the relevant linked pages, are protected by copyright. Permission should be obtained from the copyright owner prior to use. Requests for permission in the first instance should be addressed to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Use for a commercial purpose of a portion or segment of an audio recording that incorporates the talent (such as narration or music) of an individual may infringe a right of publicity and/or moral rights. Accordingly, relevant permission should be sought from the individual.

The Commonwealth of Australia shall not be responsible for the results of any actions arising out of the use of any information in this audio recording nor for any errors or omissions contained therein. The Commonwealth, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission expressly disclaim all liability to any person in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by any person in reliance, whether whole or partial, upon the whole or any part of the contents of this audio recording.

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Audio Guide Transcript — Part One — Walk to the Memorial

Stop 1. Introduction

The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial walkway honours the Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners of war and thousands of Asian labours who were forced to labour for the Japanese on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway.

The voices you hear are those of men who survived captivity on what became known as The Death Railway.

Lloyd Cahill

They decided that instead of sending troops around when they were going to take India it would be much quicker to get them across the railway line instead of going around by ship.

This audio guide contains stories and information about places on the walk and about what happened in this place to thousands of prisoners like Milton “Bluey” Butterworth.

Now when I first lobbed down that railway the mob had been there clearing all the bamboo etcetera and when you looked along you think, "Oh they'll never build this. They'll never do this," but they did

The walk to the Hellfire Pass Memorial is down stairs and a pathway and along the rail bed. Those who wish to can walk a further two kilometres toward the location of a camp where some the men who built this section of the railway would have lived — Hintok Camp.

Bill Haskell

we went up over what is now known as Hellfire Pass. It hadn't been started in those days. We went along about 3 or 4 miles to a place called Hin Tok and that's where we established our camp.

Stop 2. The Beginning

Work on the railway began in Thanbyuzayat in Burma, now Myanmar, on the 1st of October 1942.

Construction began almost simultaneously on the Thailand end of the line at Banpong, some 150 kilometres south-east of Hellfire Pass. The men were brought north packed onto goods trains.

Robert Christie

It took us five days into … from Singapore to get to a place called Banpong. On the way … we were given rice cake, some rice patties and something else in rice … and of course it all went sour because the heat in these trucks was pretty hot ... but thirty two to a truck was pretty solid

The line would run for about 415 kilometres, spanning rivers and crossing mountainous terrain that first needed to be cleared. Japanese engineers estimated that the railway involved constructing four million cubic metres of earthworks, shifting three million cubic metres of rock, and constructing fourteen kilometres of bridges.

Arthur Bancroft

the Japanese had targets and you had to finish … At times we had to light the bamboo around it to give you enough light to work by … And towards the end of it, before the line was just being finished sometimes you went out for a whole 24 hours without coming back to camp. So it got very very difficult.

A job that the British had once estimated would take years took months, with the workforce laying an average of 890 metres of track every day.

Make your way down the stairs into the area that the men who worked here knew as Konyu Cutting. Part of the way down you will find Audio Guide Stop 3.

Stop 3. Bamboo

As you walk into the pass you see around you the only resource that was readily available — bamboo, which was used for almost everything.

Doctor Charles “Rowley" Richards

bamboo of course is used from everything from eating to making buckets or tubing, building with it you know all the rest of it but you could carry water by getting long stretches of bamboo say 6 or 9 inch diameter cutting it in half and you'd get a trough and you could run water down like that

Difficult to cut, but pliable and soft to work, prisoners of war constructed an intricate system of bamboo plumbing. They used bamboo containers to hold clean water. There were bamboo beds, and bamboo bedpans. Bamboo stretchers, bamboo splints, and bamboo stands to hold saline drips. They built bamboo bridges using bamboo scaffolding. They leaned on bamboo walking sticks, and hung what remained of their clothing on bamboo washing lines. They slept in bamboo huts with bamboo floors. They used bamboo poles to carry rock, and often ate off bamboo plates. There were bamboo fires for cooking, heating, lighting and for funeral pyres. The ashes of every man cremated were kept in a separate bamboo container, cut straight from the bamboo.

Bamboo had a dangerous side that made the men wary. Clearing thickets of bamboo was one of the toughest jobs, the bamboo spikes could slice through flesh often resulting in painful and even deadly tropical ulcers.

Arthur Bancroft

Well … leg ulcers particularly, they were deadly … I had a bad one starting on my leg which had gone right down through to the bone and the Doctor said “Sorry I haven't got much I can give you but try maggots”

The clumps were full of wasps’ nests and every other kind of biting insect. And no one escaped a beating from a guard’s bamboo rod.

Roy Cornford

if you were a second late you'd get a belt with the bamboo stick

At the bottom of the stairs you will be standing on the rail bed of the Burma Thailand Railway — Stop 4 on this tour.

Stop 4. The Rail Bed

You are standing on the rail bed that was built by prisoners of war and Asian labourers. This section of the guide can be listened to as you walk to the cutting and the memorial area beyond.

The prisoners of war, mainly captured as a result of the fall of Malaya and Singapore, were told that they were being moved to a better place, with better food — they were being sent to work on a railway.

Robert Christie

they said, ‘We're going to send a lot of prisoners up north to rest camps in Thailand, there's plenty of food, there's everything there

Before leaving Singapore the prisoners were formed into 'forces', named after a letter of the alphabet or the name of their commanding officer. Dunlop Force, D Force, F Force and H Force worked in Thailand, while A Force and others worked in Burma.

Norman Anderton

The area in the middle between the forces working north and those coming south, very little work had been accomplished, so we got stuck right in the middle, right up near the Thailand Burma border

Most forces were multinational though they were broken-up into battalions, which were usually organised and led along national lines. Once on location the forces were divided and the men allocated to work groups as required by the railway's construction schedule.

Fred Skeels

you were divided up into what the Japs called ‘kumis’, we call them platoons in the army … and you went out as a kumi working party … and you were given this plot of land and you had to dig it down.

As you walk on you pass through what was a hill, forming the cutting meant shifting the rock, which was laborious, tedious and slow. The tools used to build the railway were picks and shovels, eight to ten-pound hammers and sticks of gelignite.

Frank Tyler

I was on the pick and shovel gangs, and when it was blown, we used to pull all the stuff that was blown out, we used to have to take it and shove it over … you'd have somebody shovelling, filling it, he's got to take it and tip it over the edge

The entire pass was drilled, blasted and cleared by hand. At Stop 5 you will be standing in Konyu Cutting.

Stop 5. Konyu Cutting

There were numerous cuttings along the railway. They could range from small incisions in the hill, forming a 'bench' levelling out a particular stretch of track, to deep chasms in the rock such as this one. This is Konyu Cutting.

The task of carving cuttings through mountainous terrain deep and wide enough for a railway was colossal, particularly as most of the excavation had to be done without power tools.

Gordon Nelson

the soil that was dug out, had to be put somewhere, and the somewhere was the end of the cutting. And the end of the cutting … got further away the further you dug

The first step in excavating a cutting was to clear the area of vegetation. Then loose soil could be cleared relatively quickly using hand tools. However, where the ground was semi-marbleised limestone, as it is at Hellfire Pass, the clearing work was more time consuming and difficult.

Frank Tyler

Well ... you cut bamboos and you made fires to create lights so that they could see to work ... That's how it got the name of Hellfire Pass

Look ahead of you now — you are walking further into Hellfire Pass and Stop 6.

Stop 6. Hellfire Pass

What is now known as Hellfire Pass is 75 metres long and 25 metres deep at its highest point.

Bill Haskell

If you go up to Hellfire Pass and the museum there … and it starts just by there and goes through to what they call the compressor cutting. It gives you a panorama of all the difficulties really that were encountered in building that railway because over that 5K section everything was there … There were two huge embankments. One was called the 7 Metre Bank and it was about 400 metres long and it was about 24 feet high. Every bit of sand had to be garnered and carried in baskets from the surrounding area. There was a bridge which was about the same length. It was a three-tier trestle bridge cut out of timber from the jungle

This section of the railway was one of the most deadly along the entire line. Work was divided into groups.

Frank Tyler

we started work on Hellfire Pass on Anzac Day 1943, and we worked right through until it was finished … it was all solid rock, we had to blow it out with dynamite and then what was there we used to push it over the bank … we'd gone through the wet season, the rainy season, and one good thing about it working on the rock, it wasn't muddy, it was only muddy to and from the camp

The first group exposed the rock; the hammer and tap men came next.

Henry Nesbitt

Konyu Cutting, that's my group, it was solid rock and the railway line had to be cut through it … with what we called hammer and tap … One held the drill and the other hit it with the sledgehammer …dill a hole, then later on a Nip would come along put a stick of dynamite in and blow.

As the explosives were detonated, everyone took cover so as not to be hit by the flying debris.

Colin Hamley

The quarry work was responsible for so many ulcers that developed on the legs through cuts received in the quarry which became infected and developed into tropical ulcers.

Once the ground settled, the third group, the rock rollers, moved in on bare feet to carry away the sharp-edged rubble.

Ray Parkin

Boots, I was about a hundred and fifty days without boots, just getting round in bare feet

It was such slow work that Hellfire Pass became a bottleneck. As a result the Japanese engineers applied maximum pressure, forcing teams of prisoners to work around the clock.

Norman Anderton

The Japanese didn't know the word for hurry up or anything they just know speedo which means go faster and it was speedo, speedo, speedo and they worked themselves into quite a frenzy over that and they worked 24 hours a day on Hellfire Pass.

But the prisoners never lost their sense of humour — and they proved it in a very Australian way, with nicknames.

John Woods

we've got all sorts of nicknames for them, especially for the Koreans and one of the Korean guards was not a Korean. He was a great big Mongolian and anyway we nicknamed him Boofhead

Colin Hamley

We used to have names for all the Japs of course, you know. We had the Boy Bastard and Louvre Lips and Macken, he was a real bad one. The Duck Shooter, he used to walk around always with his gun under his rifle under his arm like a duck shooter … Dillinger, named after Johnny Dillinger the American criminal

Fred Skeels

But there were other blokes called Boofhead … a bloke called Stalin … there was the BBC, the Boy Bastard's Cobber, all these sort of nicknames

On the night shift, bamboo torches and smoky fires provided light. There is unexpected evidence of the work these men did — if you look closely.

Stop 7 is a broken drill bit, trapped in the rock since it snapped off, in 1943.

Stop 7. Broken Drill Bit

The marks on the rock wall show how the rock was cut, the vertical and horizontal markings are drill marks. If you look closely you can see a broken drill bit, still embedded in the rock.

Towards the end of this massive excavation the Imperial Japanese Army, increasingly desperate to complete the railway, sent in some power tools, but they soon broke.

Roy Cornford

We used to have to carry a drum of water on the railway line. When you were drilling the holes in the sleepers, you had to pour water because it was an electric drill at first, until they all wore out then we had to do them by hand. You had to pour water so the drill wouldn't get too hot

There were many dangers for those who built the railway, not the least was the exposure of exhausted and injured men to tropical illness and health issues that arose from lack of available hygiene facilities. Caring for those who became ill and trying to Stop the spread of disease was everybody’s business. Bill Dunn is also part of that story.

It was here that Weary Dunlop operated on me and saved my life. Weary didn’t expect me to make it.

The next Stop, Stop 8 Explores the remarkable work of doctors like Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, and the men who assisted them.

Stop 8. Medical

This plaque commemorates one of the doctors, men who contributed in so many ways to the survival of those in their care. This Stop remembers Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop.

Every day Japanese engineers would demand a quota of men required to work, and every day doctors like Weary were forced to decide if one man’s malaria was more serious than another’s foot ulcer.

Doctor Peter Hendry

The worst job I had was the Japanese would demand 20 fellas. There'd only be about 10 that were fit. So if you didn't give him the other ten he'd go and pick them out himself. So you had to pick out the least sick … The least sick were the ones that went. Not the well ones. The least sick.

Doctors regularly took a beating for their stubbornness on behalf of prisoners they believed too sick to work.

One inspection indignity, in times of cholera, was designed to assess the amount of blood in a man’s stools.

Max Venables

When the cholera was very bad we used to get a glass rod or a bamboo rod. It all depended on how lucky we were. The glass rod was better because it was smoother … the Japanese would come along … and put us all in a line and they'd have bamboo rods and glass rods and they'd stick it up your rectum, wipe it on a piece of grass

Robert Christie

they found I was cholera carrier, so I was bunged straightaway into the cholera camp

There were Australian, British, Dutch and also American doctors on the railway who were forced to perform major medical procedures with the most rudimentary medical equipment, and virtually no medicine.

Doctor Lloyd Cahill

You couldn't do much, you see, for dysentery, and so that's the ordinary dysentery up there in the jungle, the best you could do is get charcoal. We used to get bits of wood and burn that and then crunch it up and they used to take that ... Up on the line there was nothing much you could do except this charcoal … and the banana leaves, yes. Anything at all you could use ... at least that kept the flies off too, the banana leaves. I had to do a few abdominal operations up there in the jungle right up at the top near Burma ... I had a scalpel, yes. I had that in the tin box and a few blades so that was all right

Every single man that spent time on the railway experienced frequent diarrhoea and bouts of malaria, as well as other diseases.

Douglas Whalley

I think everybody got pellagra … It's a skin disease. And you … we'll just say you get it all over you … You come out in a red rash, and It's as itchy as blazes

Arthur Bancroft

you couldn't Stop malaria, everybody ended up with malaria but you had guys getting other jungle diseases. I ended up with beri beri which is when all your body swells up through fluids, and if it got to your heart, got up to your heart it killed you

Colin Hamley

Cholera was a different thing. I didn't have to suffer long with cholera

The heroic efforts of the doctors were supplemented by the equally compassionate care of untrained orderlies.

Henry Nesbitt

Some of the men that worked as orderlies for the doctors, they did a fantastic job too. They risked getting infected all the time with all the diseases that were going on. They worked, worked and worked.

Lloyd Cahill

These were men who we called for volunteers to look after them. They weren't trained. They weren't trained nurses. They were amazing chaps

The doctors on the Death Railway sacrificed, suffered, and stitched together the body and soul of their troops as best they could; the disease that everyone feared was cholera.

Tom Uren

nothing they did to me ever intimidated me … The only thing I ever feared in ever getting out of prison camp, the only thing was the germ called Cholera


In May 1943 cholera swept through the railway.

Frank Nankervis

When cholera struck, of course it just went bang!', like that? a man would be alive tonight and dead in the morning. It was as quick as that. And that once again, that highlighted yet another example of the Australian spirit, that our doctor who was indefatigable, he really was … he was so dedicated that he contracted TB [tuberculosis] on the line and yet he still worked ... he still worked and nursed and nurtured these fellows. He established a cholera camp, and knowing the penalty imposed on anyone in contact with cholera patients, when he called for volunteers to nurse in the cholera camp which was just on a hill above a camp any number of fellows volunteered

Of all the groups working on the railway, the Australians managed best at containing outbreaks of cholera.

Doctor Peter Hendry

Australians were all given cholera injections before they left home. Occasional one would have dodged it because they didn't like their injections. They would be the people who died.

The Australians also benefited from instituting the strictest hygiene possible in the circumstances. No man ate until he had dipped his dixie in boiling water. Other nationalities took up these methods but the disease was still rampant and doctors were forced to come up with ways to hydrate cholera victims.

Frank Nankervis

I have personally assisted in administering salt water to a patient with cholera ... Cut his ankle there and expose a vein ... patent a needle made out of bamboo … had a funnel made out of bamboo … open the vein and shove this bamboo needle in and pour salt water into the funnel. People say it's not right, but I saw a man nearly dead … and he sat up in my presence … I saw it.

Despite the best efforts of everyone, the death toll was horrific.

Stop 9. In Memory

This is Australia’s official Memorial, dedicated to those who worked on the Burma Thailand railway, for the families of the men and women who worked on the railway, it is a place of solemn commemoration and pilgrimage.

Every year on the 25th of April, Anzac Day, Australia’s national day for remembering those who served, a Dawn Service is held here.

People come for the service and to remember their loved ones, to learn of the experiences of those who were here and to acknowledge their service and terrible sacrifices.

Bill Haskell was here as a prisoner and has returned to Hellfire Pass for the Dawn Service:

At dawn you go along there on Anzac Day and they’ve got it candlelit where you go along this very deep cutting. And you go to the end and it is all bedecked with huge bamboos … and as the dawn comes they have a piper plays the lament and they sound the Last Post and reveille and what have you. It is an experience you just can’t imagine. They are there, there is no question about that. The spirits of these men are there

This is a good place to consider the thing that most preoccupied the men who were here — food. Stop 10 tells the story of their constant hunger.

Stop 10. Hunger

The prisoners had grown up during the Great Depression. Many had been used to the feeling of an empty stomach.

But hunger on the railway was different, and it was permanent.

Cyril Gilbert

We didn't think of women; women were the furthest from our thoughts. If you said, “Do you want Betty Grable?” she was the pin up girl in those days “Or a bowl of rice?” “I'll have the bowl of rice, thanks” You wouldn't worry about a woman, the jokes you told weren't about women … It was about food, everything was food

The arrival of the Monsoon coincided with the Speedo period. The Japanese, anxious because they were falling behind schedule, increased the workload. The men were forced to work longer and harder on diminishing rations. The impassable roads and flooding rivers slowed transportation so when the food finally arrived it was rotten, more maggots than meat.

Tom Uren

you can always see where the store-room was because from the storeroom to the cook house was this trail of maggots, particularly in the wet season.

Allan Herd

the rice we had was rotten rice … it was years old and it was full of weevils and rice grub and if you picked the weevils and the grub out you had no rice.

Rations were three small dollops of rice, often served as a porridge-like substance called pap, occasionally supplemented with a broth made from a scrawny old water buffalo. One carcass shared amongst 800 men.

Bluey Butterworth remembered the effects of hunger.

we were starting to be starved ... hardly any food and we were all smokers. We used to smoke and no cigarettes. Tempers got frayed. You'd be waiting for the breeze to get the leaves off the trees and roll to smoke leaves and you were smoking banana leaf, any old thing, and some bloke in the queue waiting to get the maccan, get your food and some bloke'd stand outta line and one of his good mates, "Hey you bastard, get back in line"

This deficient diet and lack of clean water inevitably led to disease, yet amidst all this the men found ways to laugh at their predicament.

Arthur Bancroft

we had concerts up in the jungle too. On the odd occasion when we had a holiday it used to be every 8th day then it got to 10th day. We had some very smart artists in the camp and they would put on a concert, say Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, amazing what they could do. They'd make up costumes out of rice bags painted a different colour, oh marvellous what they did.

Stop 11. Excavation

The rail-laying team was advancing quicker than the pass was being cut then, in February 1943 as pressure on their forces in Burma was increasing, the Japanese brought the scheduled completion date forward. The work on the railway entered its driven and difficult period: Speedo.

Bill Dunn

they introduced a ‘speedo’ period and that was a total scream, all day and all night. ‘Speedo, speedo, speedo!’

As the cutting got deeper, the engineers brought in iron wagons to dispose of the blasted rock. One of the wagons can be seen above the cutting. Reaching it is a very steep climb.

Prisoners were ordered to fill these skips to overflowing. The load would gather speed as it was pushed along short stretches of track to be dumped over the hill.

Walter Williams

you'd virtually start from the top … You might go down forty or fifty feet … we got to start from the top with a good width, and then as you dig you would come right down to where the track was … and the finish of the track would be wide enough for the train … and all the earth would go to the end of the cutting … and they would be tipped into the valley

All along the railway engineers pushed the men harder and longer. They were now working day and night.

Tom Uren

… we had to walk six kilometres at least six kilometres to and from that place every day and of course in the wet season you would slip … your feet would go completely from underneath, you just dragged your body down completely … but I was one of the lucky ones. Because, I was on the hammer and tap crew, but the ones that had to clear the rubbles away, and carry them, some of those would work to and from 20 hours a day. The time they would take to get to and from work and then the work itself — it was just slavery.

James Ling

There was a chap … decided he had enough and I can remember him saying, ‘I haven't got anyone to worry about at home. I haven't got a wife or children.’ … he was a real playboy but a fine soldier and a fine bloke you know and my God, he was dead in the morning.

Most of the men stuck at it.

John Varley

We decided early in the peace that we were going, to survive we had to develop the mentality of a cow and just chew your cud and sort of let the let things go over your head.

The doctors like Weary Dunlop tried to protect those who were least able to work.

Lloyd Cahill

They just insisted they want a certain number of men per day, well then the great fight would start. They would come, I used to start seeing them in the mornings at about 4 o'clock or something like that and go through them to see who was fit enough … they had to go 5 miles often without any boots through this mud and slush and then they were supposed to work like mad all day long until about whatever time, if they had a job to do that day they had to wait till they finished it. So they might work till 8, 9, 10 at night poor devils. Some of them died out there. So you'd have a fight every morning, a great fight would come on over who can go and who can't go.

Rowley Richards

the Jap would come along and he'd say what's the matter with him and I'd say, ‘He's got malaria. Four days no duty.’ ‘No, two days.’ ‘Alright, three days.’ ‘Right.’ And so we'd come to the next one and so it would go on.

Stop 12 & Stop 24. Completion

On the 16th of October 1943, 15 months after work first begun, both ends of the Burma-Thailand Railway were joined at Kointaka — not far from the Three Pagodas Pass.

Robert Christie

they took photos of us … they had packets of food, all sorts of things, clothing, and they marched the POWs through then they gave Joe Blow a packet of rice and they gave somebody else a pair of shorts and … as they went around the back they took them off them, cause they photographed this for propaganda purposes in Japan.

The men who survived hoped that a train would carry them out alive.

Rowley Richards

Well you knew bloody well you weren't going to be home by Christmas, yet you'd say I'll be home by next Christmas when you realised, when you knew in your own heart there was no way in the world that that was going to happen. But you'd still live in the hope and the belief that maybe you would be

By mid-1943 the Japanese were allowing the very sick to be taken to base hospitals, although some were even too ill even for that journey. By December prisoners of war were being shipped back to Singapore and almost to a man those who lived put their survival down to having a good mate.

Peter Hendry

The great thing about the Australian army was mateship. Everybody had a mate or had mates … That's what saved the Australians on this terrible railway line. They had a mate to look after them.

Bill Haskell

You are just buoyed up by your mates around you and you just keep going. It is as simple as that. You keep helping one another and just keep doing the job you can. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't work.

Frank Nankervis

I saw hundreds of men die, but I never saw an Australian die unattended … I have seen them comforted, cuddled and nurtured, but I have never never seen an Australian die on his own.

Henry Nesbitt

You didn't say much, you just held his hand and sat there with him because nine times out of ten he was beyond understanding, and he was too far gone to really know that you were there with him.

Even prior to completion of the Railway, the Allies began bombing raids.

Fred Skeels

I don't think they got much use out of the Burma Railway Line for that reason … instead as soon as it was completed the allies started to bomb it

The men who survived the Burma-Thailand Railway forged a bond that is perhaps a unique connection.

Bill Haskell

It was something that was unique working on that railway. I mean you ... if ever you run across anyone who worked on the railway … you’re immediately home with them you never wanting for anything to talk about. I mean … it is just a hallmark of the mateship I would say if you run across anyone that worked up there…I'm talking about during this period on the railway.

Keith Shearim

I'm painting a true picture of what went on, that's why I don't tell anyone, because they won't believe you.

Duncan Butler, an ex-prisoner of war, wrote a poem about this bond and the spirit of mateship.

Mateship Poem

I’ve travelled down some lonely roads
Both crooked tracks and straight
An’ I’ve learned life’s noblest creed
Summed up in one word, “Mate”

I’m thinking back across the years,
(A thing I do of late)
An’ this word sticks between my ears
You’ve got to have a mate.

Someone who’ll take you as you are
Regardless of your state
An’ Stand as firm as Ayers Rock
Because ‘e is your mate.

Me mind goes back to 43,
To slavery and ‘hate,
When man’s one chance to stay alive
Depended on his mate.

With bamboo for a billie-can
An’ bamboo for a plate,
A bamboo paradise for bugs,
Was bed for me and me mate.

You’d slip and slither through the mud
An’ curse your rotten fate
But then you’d hear a quiet word:
“Don’t drop your bundle mate.”

An’ though it’s all so long ago
This truth I ‘ave to state:
A man don’t know what lonely means,
Til ‘e has lost his mate.

And so to all who ask us why
We keep these special dates
Like Anzac Day, I answer: “Why?”
“We’re thinking of our mates.”

An’ when I’ve left the driver’s seat
An handed in my plates,
I’ll tell old Peter at the door:
“I’ve come to join me mates.”

Stop 13 & Stop 25. After the War

In 1944–45 the railway was in use supplying Japanese forces in Burma, at the end of the war it served to move the prisoners of war from various sites along the railway in Burma to Thailand and Malaya.

The railway was also used by the Allied War Graves Commission survey party, charged with the harrowing task of finding and recovering the remains of those who had died as prisoners.

The party, comprising amongst others British, Australian and Dutch officers, volunteers and a translator, had to locate the sites of graves all the way along the railway. To do so they consulted Japanese records and surrendered personnel, and spoke to many prisoners of war prior to their repatriation.

Remarkably the POWs had, during their captivity and where they could, kept meticulous records. The Japanese respect for the dead and their fear of disease had allowed for the burial of diaries and other documents detailing atrocities and containing information on burial locations to remain undetected.

Roy Whitecross remembers how the prisoners of war marked the locations of graves.

they planned or plotted where the grave was by using compass bearings and along the railway line there were kilo pegs. So they would in, what became the cemeteries, they would take a sighting on that kilo peg and a sighting on one down there so that after the war ... by using the accurate measurements which the engineers had made, they could exhume the bodies.

The Allied War Graves team hoped to find 10,601 graves. They left Ban Pong Thailand on 22 September 1945 for Thanbyuzayat in Burma from where, over the course of two weeks, they made their way back to Thailand. In 144 cemeteries they located and marked 10,549 graves, only 52 graves remained undiscovered.

The allied authorities resolved to reinter their war dead in three cemeteries. Thanbyuzayat Cemetery in Myanmar formally Burma is the final resting place for allied personnel who died between Moulmein and Ni Thea. Chung Kai Cemetery on the Kwae Noi River in Kanchanaburi was the site of a war time hospital cemetery and the majority of the burials within it are those who died while hospitalised. Kanchanaburi Cemetery, the largest of the three, commemorates Commonwealth War dead recovered from the southern section of the railway between Bangkok and Nieke. The cemetery also includes Dutch war graves.

The missing, whose remains were never found, are commemorated with headstones inscribed 'A Soldier of the 1939–1945 War: Known Unto God'. Those whose remains were cremated — usually victims of cholera who died up-country — and whose ashes could be recovered, were interred in a mass grave.

The American dead were repatriated to the United States.

Cyril Gilbert returned to Thailand a number of times in the decades after the war to visit the cemetery at Kanchanaburi.

I go up to Thailand now up to the cemetery there and walk along and see the gravestones there, all my mates, tears stream down my face all the time.

Today, the Kanchanburi War Cemetery is one of the most visited of all Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries.

Stop 14 & Stop 26. Coming Home

Given their many different locations around the Pacific and their poor state of health, the process of repatriating the newly liberated prisoners of war was a complex one.

The Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees Organisation set up reception depots where prisoners were given medical attention, received letters and had their details recorded. In September and October of 1945 around 14,000 liberated prisoners of war were repatriated, usually by boat.

Athol “Tom” Pledger

It was the first time I had ever seen any nursing sisters cry. And when they took us up that gangplank tears were running down … bones were sticking out everywhere … I was lucky because I still had some beri beri so I filled out a bit. Have you ever tried to talk to a woman if you haven’t seen one or spoken to one for nearly four years? It is hellishing hard, to find, “Hello,” to find something to talk about … If you have been a prisoner and amongst men for nearly four years … it was so hard

For years prisoners of war had longed for freedom but their welcome home was often difficult.

Fred Skeels

People looked at you differently, they did, that’s honest, even in my own family, my parents, they didn’t’t know whether I might be mad, or going mad, or I’d suffered something like this, it was funny, you could feel it that they didn’t’t know how to make you out…I know the first night I got home, I went upstairs in the house where my parents were living at the that time…I went up and had a shower, and while I was under the shower my Dad came in and looked me up and down, and never said anything…He just looked me up and down and never said anything.

Thomas Smith

I went into this nice soft bed, I couldn’t’t sleep in it. I had to pull the blankets onto the floor to sleep. I was used to the hard bed. On the soft bed, I just felt like I was floating and that was no good. So I pulled it onto the floor. The first meal, my mum dished up a nice hot roast dinner, roast potatoes, carrots, all the sides, saddles, everything, you know, lovely. And I cut up a bit of meat and so forth, and I went to put it in my mouth … and I Stopped, couldn’t eat it. Couldn’t get it past my lips.

Returning ex-POWs had to adjust to civilian life amongst families and communities who had no idea of the brutality to which they had been subjected, the conditions they had been forced to live in, or of their exposure to multiple diseases.

Allan Herd

the trauma that we suffered it actually and in them days they knew nothing about it they reckon the doctors. God? Nothing. To this day that's why I've been a prisoner all my life.

Many of those who came home had chronic health issues and in the immediate post-war period mortality rates among former prisoners were higher than among other veterans.

Tom Uren

We represented 4% of all Australians that saw active service in the Second World War. But we represented 30% of those that died on active service in the Second World War.

For many the war did not end with their liberation or their home coming. The physical and psychological effects of their experience would be with them for years afterwards; for some, the war never ended. At Stop 15/27 you will hear the story of the action that the Allies took to bring to justice those who had committed offences which were recognised and named for the first time: War Crimes.

Stop 15 & Stop 27. War Crimes

Even before the war ended Allied authorities had started collecting evidence of war crimes committed by the Japanese in the territories they had occupied.

This evidence was presented in a series of war crimes trials held in a number of locations between 1945 and 1951. There were three classes of trials; Australia's, conducted by military courts under the 1945 War Crimes Act, were concentrated on classes B and C: violations of the laws and customs of war and crimes against humanity. This included crimes against prisoners of war and the execution of Allied airmen.

This meant, for some ex-prisoners of war like Tom Pledger, one last task.

I got a telegram from the army to see if I would be prepared to go to Hong Kong to give evidence on the war trials. And I said, “No.” Well at the time I said no because … I knew Jess had those two little kiddies nine months old trying to look after twins on her own and I thought it was too much. Anyhow we talked for about a week about it and Jess said, “Look go” she said “if you don’t you will regret it all of your life.”

Australia conducted nearly three hundred trials, in which 924 Japanese servicemen were accused of war crimes. Of these, 644 were convicted and 148 were sentenced to death, 11 had their sentences commuted, the others were executed by firing squad or by hanging.

Tom Pledger

I wanted to see the death penalty. At the time yes. Because I had no qualms about it in those days. I have now, but even now I am not sure about it. If anybody takes a life knowingly and for no reason whatsoever I think they haven’t got a right to live. Well that’s what they did to us, they took our lives.

Carrying out the death sentence on Japanese convicted of war crimes is the only time that the Australian military has conducted executions. That story concludes this audio tour of Hellfire Pass.

Stop 16 & Stop 28. Farewell

Thank you for taking the tour today. Hellfire Pass is now preserved as a site to honour all who suffered here, those who survived and those who died. It is a memorial to their suffering and a testament to courage, resilience and mateship.

Bill Haskell

There were so many fellows and everyone chipped in and made it a winner. It was something that was unique working on that railway. If ever you run across anyone who worked on the railway you are immediately at home with them ** It is just a hallmark of mateship.

The Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre is managed by Australia’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Donations to assist with the ongoing maintenance of the Centre are always welcome.

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Audio Guide Transcript — Part Two — Walk to Hintok Road

Stop 17. Track to Kwai Noi

You are now walking along what was the railway track, as you walk you can listen to this guide.

A trestle bridge close to 200 metres long was once located here. A little further along to the right are big holes drilled into rock, these held the bridge’s support struts.

Arthur Bancroft

All your pylons for your bridges were hand driven … they just carved out of the jungle, they were strong enough to hold up railway, you know trains. They would be about 18 inches to 2 feet wide in diameter. And in some camps they used to get elephants in to drag these logs in, then the men we had to lift them and get them into position.

The walk towards the Kwae Noi Lookout, with stones underfoot, was taken by the prisoners, most of them barefoot, day after day and night after night in tropical heat and monsoonal rain.

Arthur Bancroft again.

I think the hardest part was laying the blue metal, you know the blue metal that you see on the line. We had to lay all that and then pound it in under the sleepers and under the line. And that was an arduous job, especially when you're working in bare feet.

Most boots had rotted or worn out and men trod this path barefooted.

Whatever clothing the men arrived in soon wore to shreds or rotted. Eventually the Japanese issued cotton lap-laps — a type of G-string, which the men referred to as “Jap-happies” and in which they worked.

John Woods

you didn't wear shorts or trousers out on the railway line when you're working because there was no more where they came from.

By the light of day, or the dark of night they walked through here going to work, returning from work or carrying rocks, stones or heavy teak sleepers.

John Woods again.

all the sleepers were pre-bored where the dog spikes were to go and used to be gangs of three, one chappie with a crow bar, one with a block of wood, and the other with the hammer and they were using ordinary sledge hammers to drive the dogs in.

Stop 18. Kwae Noi Valley Lookout

Looking into the far distance it is possible to make out the shape of a white water tower — the location where the Japanese kept their supplies. A further forty-seven kilometres away, beyond the mountain ranges, is Myanmar.

There is a still kind of beauty about the place and it was even more impressive, with great stands of teak, when the railway was being built. For all their hardship, many prisoners found comfort in the natural beauty.

Ray Parkin

one of these storms was coming over and … you can't hear yourself shout … it's just bedlam. So, we had to take shelter and … there was a bit of a branch above me with a number of leaves and I looked up … and underneath one of them was a mosquito, a single mosquito. Probably one of the frailest things in the jungle and here it was riding it out as if nothing was happening outside its orbit and … A thought struck me … and I thought well I knew it was a rat race outside and I thought well when I get out there, I am going to find myself a leaf, just like this mosquito and weather it out

Tom Uren

We had a concert. There would've been about 800 people present…And there was a Queensland major by the name of Major Woods. And…he recited ‘The Man From Snowy River’ ... You know, you just imagine, that — you know, the silence, the beauty … By God, he was so powerful.

“And where around the Overflow the reed-beds sweep

and sway.To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,

The Man from Snowy River is a household word today,

And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.”

Tom Uren vowed to return to this beauty.

I was up on the top where the blacksmith used to have their forge and they cut down 44 gallon drums. Cut in half where they tempered those drills. The water was lovely and warm and hot. I got up and I sat on the edge there, put my feet in this trough … But as I did I looked out over the winding river going through this magnificent teak forests of Thailand. And you know I must have had very sensitive environmental mind in those days. You know that’s beautiful. A man should come back when he’s free but when I went back in 88, 87 you know there wasn’t one teak forest left. They all’ve been raped. Nothing left.

Ray Parkin was captivated by the jungle flowers. He painted hooded lilies and clumps of orchids and butterflies.

Well I drew a lot of insects, butterflies, all sorts of things like that flowers anything and I'll have all the blokes around me were collecting butterflies and insects, “Have you got this, have you got that?”

Stop 19. Hammer & Tap Cutting

No machines were used in creating this cutting, which is why it carries the name of the technique that made it: hammer and tap.

Bill Haskell

The whole thing to put these cuttings in was done with what they called ‘hammer and tap'. It was hand drilled. One fellow would be hanging on to a steel drill and another chap would be hitting it with a sledgehammer.

Norman Anderton

Of course, quite a number of times the hammer slipped off the edge of the bit and smashed onto somebody's hands

All of the resources of the jungle were exploited. Heavy teak and other hardwood trees were felled to make railway sleepers and bridge pylons. They had to be cut and transported. Elephants would sometimes be used for lifting

Frank Nankervis

If the elephant … didn't think he could manage it nothing could persuade him to try he'd just turn his back and walk away

Tom Uren

It was that time that I lost my affection for elephants because the elephants had the best trade union in the world. They worked two hours and rested the rest of the day. But we old Aussies had to work all day

Mostly the logs and sleepers were carried by the prisoners.

Cyril Gilbert

this Nip, jumped up and down at me because we were carrying them out six men to a log, when he told us four men to a log. And I said, “We can't lift ‘em.” So that's when ... he made me put my arms on a log … and he raised his sword … I thought there goes my hands, you know … I didn’t know what to think ... just waiting, waiting, waiting, and it didn't come down. But we still had to carry six men to a log

Gangs carried the sleepers, gangs worked the hammer and tap, gangs were placing the sleepers and gangs were laying the tracks.

Roy Cornford

We’d go to work and lay so many lengths of railway line every day. Well, when we first started it was pretty easy … But then the wet season came and the further we got away from the base camp, it took them longer to get the railway lines up to us. So we might go to work today at daylight and you wouldn't get home until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning … Of course you were getting plenty of bashings in-between if you weren't measuring the exact distance of the line apart, driving the spikes in quick enough

Doctor Lloyd Cahill found a novel use for newly laid track.

I found that by crawling up on the railway line, you can put your hip on between two, lie down and easily get good rest, and one night I came up by a train and all these little girls jumped out of these rice trucks. They dressed like nurses. All the lads had tickets like you get at Luna Park.

The women, who arrived on that late-night train were known as comfort women and they too were prisoners.

Thomas Smith

And I pitied those girls … It was bad enough for us, but I reckoned it was worse for them.

Among the prisoners were some whose skills would create an imperishable record of what was endured on the Burma-Thailand Railway. The next Stop 20, Talks to how the prisoners kept themselves entertained and the art they produced.

Stop 20. Artists

Some men kept diaries. Some men drew pictures. Some organised concerts

Thomas Smith

Oh, there was all sorts of songs that really brought home to us … 'There's No Place Like Home,' you know 'Home Sweet Home' … They're old songs. But all those had a meaning. We used to sing them marching off to work ‘It's A Long Way To Tipperary’, and “Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye” … we used to sing going to work. And this is why a lot of the other nationalities wanted to get with us, because we could turn misery into a little bit of sanity

Gordon Nelson

we had a Christmas concert there … And the moving thing that occurred there, one of the last items they sang, this concert party sort of choir that they had got up was “Look For The Silver Lining”. It was like singing in hell, really, because that was a dreadful camp. Four times a day, the bugle sounded for a funeral

Some clung to books as their most precious possessions.

Frank Tyler

it didn't matter what happened, I always carried a book…I had two that I carried all through the line, one was a mystery … edited by Dorothy L Sayers … the other one was called … The Dead Are Calling, and it was another mystery … and you'd lend a book to somebody in return he'd lend you his, sort of business

Murray Griffin, Jack Chalker, Ray Parkin, and George Aspinall are among those who scrounged and improvised and drew what they saw on scraps of paper and old cloth.

Ray Parkin

… butterflies and insects, “Have you got this, have you got that?” Course I didn’t’t have time to paint it all but still with the butterflies, course there were millions of them up there, beautiful, in flocks and I couldn’t’t paint them but all the blokes were still bringing them back … with all the suffering and the belting that was going on, we still had this, you know, among ourselves … we had other interests and we found interest and we can talk about it. We didn’t’t just go on hating while we didn’t like the Japs much, but we didn’t waste our guts on, you know, particularly screaming there were other things still to be observed as well.

The artists risked their lives recording the ravages of disease and depictions of torture which formed part of the evidence when war crimes were prosecuted.

Frederic Fitch

they tied my hands together … with a very thick rope … and I hung with the rope on the outside there … I was tall enough to still have a bit of pressure on the ground … So I was there from about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, overnight, next day. I was starting to disappear into oblivion ... I went numb all over. And the next day they cut me down … And I walked away from it ... That was the one time that I didn't think I was gonna make it.

Douglas Whalley

The Japs'd come down … I don't know what happened, but he drew his bayonet and shoved in one of our blokes' guts. I don't know what he done. Don’t know but just one of those things. You just imagine a bayonet going through you ... I seen the bloke collapsed … you know, laying on his back with his bayonet in him. Couldn't do anything about it.

Stop 21. Seven Metre Embankment

This is Seven Metre Embankment, Bill Haskell worked in this area.

There were two huge embankments. One was called the 7 Metre Bank and it was about 400 metres long and it was about 24 feet high. Every bit of sand had to be garnered and carried in baskets to the surrounding area ... The embankment ran off on to this bridge and then you'd come straight off the bridge through a cutting which was about 300 yards long. It all had to be drilled so even in that tiny little section there was a huge amount of work to be done. An incredible amount of work and it was all done in the monsoon season ... It rained for over 100 days. And the place was awash

Adjoining the Seven Metre Bank was the Three Tier Bridge;

It was a three-tier trestle bridge cut out of timber from the jungle. And it was probably about 80 feet high and maybe a bit more.

The bridge is believed to have collapsed three times, killing some prisoners of war. Ray Parkin compared it to a house of cards so it became known as the Pack of Cards Bridge. Stop 22 marks the depression that was spanned by the Three Tier Bridge.

Stop 22. Three Tier Bridge

The Three Tier Bridge — Pack of Cards Bridge — that once spanned this depression was one of 688 bridges constructed along the length of the Burma-Thailand Railway, bridges that totalled about fourteen kilometres of the line’s overall length. Only eight of the bridges were constructed from steel, one of those being the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ which crosses the Kwae Yai River at Kanchanaburi.

Local wood was the building material for the majority of bridges. Which was tempting for Australians who understood the bush, and the appetites of the termites they called “white ants”.

Tom Uren

We'd no sooner put these bridges up, and of course, even though some of them had to be painted with creosote, the … Tassie Bushmen would go out and get the white ants out of the bushes and come back and put it into the trestle of the bridges

Walter Williams

We never took any pride in the work. I mean, everybody was trying to sabotage the bloody thing as much as you could ... you know, bridge building was all wood … Blokes used to put white ants in the bloody thing … some of the dog spikes might have been left out of the line and all this … of course when the line finished and we had to travel over it, we weren't too happy because we knew what we did.

Henry Nesbitt

we knew what was going to happen when the train went over the bridge … and we were the first to use it on the way back, and luckily it held up.

Three Tier Bridge was bombed by Allied air forces during the war and removed in the years after World War II.

James Ling

they were starting to get trains through, certainly they were getting bombed by the allied planes from India but they got quite a bit of stuff through

Stop 23. Hintok — Cutting to Camp

You are now in Hintok Cutting. The Hintok Camp is located just 5 kilometres north of here and was one of the many camps along the railway.

Conditions in the camps were always terrible and the closer the camp was to the middle of the railway the more shocking the conditions.

Bill Haskell

We went along about 3–4 miles … to a place called Hin Tok and that's where we established our camp. It was at the base of a mountain and there was a stream coming out of the mountain and that is why the place was chosen as a camp site.

Camps were usually set-up in jungle clearings and were roughly twenty kilometres apart.

Rowley Richards

we were in attap huts with attap walls, attap roof, bamboo deck two or three feet above the ground or the mud and we'd sleep on these decks. Initially we had sort of two metres by one metre … but subsequent to that they put three or four times the number into one hut and the only way we could cope with that was to build bunks.

Tom Uren

the bugs were frightful and very cruel

In the early days Australian prisoners of war were renowned for their inventive bamboo plumbing systems. They built showers, elaborate urinals and toilet pits covered with bamboo seats. But by the time the monsoon rains came and Speedo work principles were in operation, the stench of any camp was apparent from a distance.

Colin Hamley

The toilets were just a big hole dug in the ground … about 10 feet deep. And in the wet season … of course, the hole would fill up with water … And, of course, the maggots would breed like mad and you would go down there at night time and the bamboo would be covered with maggots and you just had to stand there with bare feet while the maggots crawled all over you. And it wasn't that unusual … for some poor cow to slip off the slats on the top … and finish up in the pit and be dragged out in the middle of the night.

Flies swarmed thickly around latrines and there were constant problems with fresh water and personal hygiene.

James Kerr

toilets consisted of a long trench with logs across … and you squatted on the logs. And below, of course, might be 10, 15, 20 feet deep. It would just be one seething mess of maggots, so it wasn't a very pleasant smell, but you had to go, you had to go.

Men with amoebic dysentery and chronic diarrhoea could not find their way in the dark, rain flooded toilets to overflowing, raw sewage swirled around the boggy mud

Hintok Mountain Camp was an Australian camp where Weary Dunlop’s leadership skills were strongly felt.

Tom Uren

Weary's leadership wasn't pronounced or boasted about or loud mouthed in any way. He was a very kind, quietly spoken human being … On one side, the law of the jungle prevailed and on the other side was this collective spirit under Weary.

The Australians working out of Hintok Camp faced a harrowing trip to and from their section of the railway each day. Hintok was also a Stop for Japanese troops marching north to join the battle in Burma.

Fred Skeels

I've seen Japanese soldiers in the wet season … marched across Burma to go to India, and they used to be dragging all their guns and all their equipment and everything with them, and … a Japanese officer would be with them … belting them across the back, with the flat of his sword

Frank Nankervis

the warrant officer would give the call, ‘Ushta,’ and they would all respond, ‘Ushta ush, ushta ush.’ You could hear them coming up the track, ‘Ushta, ush, ushta ush’ … I clearly remember the Japs thrashing them as they staggered through the mud with the flat of their swords and I remember … one night one of these little Jap kids … he fell into the mud and the Jap pounced on him and bashed him…and a couple of our fellows jumped down and … put him on his feet

The Australians operating out of Hintok Camp did some of the most backbreaking work on the railway forging deep cuttings out of hard sandstone and building steep stone embankments.

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