Escape to Kanchanaburi

Flying back to Bangkok from Kathmandu we decided to go to Kanchanaburi, close to Burma which is where the bridge is over the River Kwai. It’s 3 hours from Bangkok on a train, we hadn’t been before and we got an amazingly cheap deal in a very good hotel for 3 nights, only £25.

We walked along the railway line that spans the River Kwai, took some photos and then spent the morning in the local ‘Death Railway Museum’.

I have never been brought to tears as often in a museum. The accounts of some of the survivors on film was heart wrenching. The brutality by the Japanese and Korean guards was unspeakable. They made the men march with all their equipment for sometimes 300k. If they fell or couldn’t carry on they were whipped and left to die.

It didn’t get better when they got to Thailand. The Japanese needed to get supplies to troops fighting the English in Burma. Most of the men were British, Australian and Dutch captured soldiers.

Indians, Malaysians, Burmese and Indonesians (called the Romusha) who enlisted to work on the railway were treated even worse as they didn’t even have the support networks provided through the military hierarchy.

If you were unlucky enough, after the fall of Singapore in 1942, to be shipped to the Thai/Burmese border by railway, often 28 men in a small metal carriage, no room to sit amongst the Japanese supplies and stopping once a day if lucky. The heat was sweltering in the day and freezing at night. They were given tiny rations of maggot infested food and little water, lots of men died before reaching their destination to build what was considered an impossible railway.

There were fewer deaths in the first eight months of construction until July 1942 when the rains started.

In the wet season as the men used the latrines which was 2 bamboo poles over a stinking pit, maggots and leeches crawled up their legs. Their bamboo beds full of lice, there were no comforts not even sleep. The boots rotted off their feet as well as their uniforms and they were reduced to loincloths and bare feet. With little food it was impossible to not get sick.

Many of the men got cholera, malaria and ulcers from injuries and beatings. There was only a small unit of medics and volunteers desperately trying to care for them with little or no equipment and no medication. Often only given 1 maybe 2 days off work even if very sick. Disease thrived in these conditions, tropical and wet.

They only had basic tools, hammers, shovels and picks sometimes working 18 hours a day, beaten if they couldn’t continue. It was horrifying listening to the accounts. They were expected to move 3 cubic metres of rocks each a day after making holes in the hard rock face and then blasting the rock out. No wheelbarrows just bamboo poles and brute strength.

The ingenuity of these soldiers never ceases to amaze me. They made radios out of bits of scrap they found to try to listen out for news. They engraved their billy cans with records of events with sharpened bamboo. The medics made cannulas from bamboo and reused bottles for drips. Amazing creativity.

The next day we went to an Australian funded museum 2 hours away, Hellfire Pass. A lot of Australian POW were shipped from Changi in Singapore to Thailand, first by sea and then by road many stationed in camps near HellFire Pass. They were told conditions would be much better…

The museum was cleverly thought out, in a very modern building with good screens and films, all interactive.

Roll call of the dead

Walking around the site with audio guides, survivors telling their stories, made it come to life.

It was harrowing but so pleased we went. After the Japanese surrendered the worst perpetrators of the brutality were executed, some imprisoned for life and rightly so.

The Japanese guards although incredibly cruel in life were respectful to the dead and allowed full burials. Because the Japanese, respectfully, wouldn’t interfere with the graves, the soldiers left full reports, names, dates and lots of information which was very useful for the allied governments in Asia and the Pacific investigating the war crimes. They wouldn’t have known as much as they did without that ingenious plan. The Japanese had tried to destroy all the information and records on surrender.

The exact number of deaths isn’t known, but historians from the ANZAC Portal estimate at least 90,000 labourers and more than 12,000 POWs were killed. The grim statistics – which equate to one man dying for every sleeper that was laid on the track – led to the line being dubbed the ‘Death Railway’.

This horror lasted until 1945 when Japan surrendered. 415k of railway line was built and 600 bridges in 15 months. When the men that survived eventually came home they were emaciated bags of bones, but alive at least to tell the tale..

Hellfire pass was an incredible feat of engineering, you would have to see it to realise the immense effort it had taken. Cutting a path through rock and thick jungle with basic tools and building a working railway line. There was not one road in this impassable area.

The Australians and all the soldiers said they wouldn’t have survived this appalling time without their feelings of comradeship and ‘mates’ it was a really important aspect of their survival.

We both felt emotionally drained and unsettled at man’s inhumanity. I have seen ‘The bridge over the River Kwai ‘ film a couple of times many years ago but am definitely going to watch it again now I know more about the history. It won’t be as accurate as the reality, that would be just far too grim.

3 thoughts on “Escape to Kanchanaburi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s