The Death Railway – By Paul Raftery

camp drawing

Death railway

In February 1943 a railway line from Thailand to Burma was completed by the Japanese army. It was built to make easy transport of supplies for the war effort. Most people know some of the story as the “Bridge on the river Kwai” but few know the real story of what really happened.

(An early draft (2012) – excerpt from my book “A Learning Curve“)

The original bridge is no longer there, having been destroyed by the Allies in the second world war. It was one of many built over several rivers for the Thailand-Burma Railway line. Built by the Japanese from June 1942 to October 1943.

The bridge, made famous in the 1957 Movie ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ staring Alec Guinness, was no more significant in comparison to any of the other bridges on the railway line. But due too its Hollywood notoriety is the most well known. The film itself is grossly incorrect when portraying the conditions that the men had to deal with, but it is a 1957 movie so what can people really expect?

However other parts of the movie are also incorrect. For instance the men never whistled the famous ‘Colonel Bogey’ tune and most of the men were also practically naked, again something that would not be depicted in a 50’s Flick.

In real life the British did not collaborate with the Japanese to build the bridge. On the contrary they did the best they could in their clandestine attempts to sabotage the bridge wherever possible. Making concrete mixes to thick or too thin. Cutting bolts half way through to weaken them or by depositing termites in the nooks and crannies to further weaken the structure. Most of the men were taking their time. To work fast would have been suicide anyway, especially with the lack of nutritious food.

The bridge that stands there today a couple of miles up river from the original was completed June 1943. It doesn’t even cross the River Kwai but a small tributary just off the main river. Tourists can walk on the bridge. I stood on it as a train went past and at that moment I had no idea of the significance of the area I was standing in, and the history that haunted this now jolly tourist attraction.

At its peak in 1943 the Japanese Empire stretched over a land area covering 7,400,000 square kilometers, occupying territory in most of the countries between Australia and India including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

The Japanese wanted to be the rulers of the whole of Asia and tried to expand their Empire into mainland China. The Japanese were at war with the Chinese a whole 2 years before Germany had invaded Poland. But Japans aspirations to conquer Asia and make it free from British Rule, began as far back as 1931.

Singapore, among others was under the British Empire at the time and was known as the “Gibraltar of the East”. It’s main exports were rubber and tin, which were highly sort after in times of war. The conflict between Japan and China broke out after what is known in the west as “The Marco Polo Bridge incident”. A story that had pricked my ears as I had such interest in the great traveller.

By 1937 all the areas north, east and west of Beijing were controlled by the Japanese Imperial Army. They had several deployments of troops along the borders of Beijing near the Marco Polo Bridge in accordance with the Boxer protocol of 1901.

In 1937 the Japanese however flaunted the protocol and had several times the amount of troops stationed in China that were allowed in the agreement. On July 7th the Japanese had many men situated near the Marco Polo bridge performing night maneuvers.

A Japanese soldier was reported to be missing, and was assumed to have been kidnapped by the Chinese. The Chinese refused to allow a search for the missing man.

Within the feud, a firefight broke out and a battle ensued. As time went on more and more reinforcements were deployed on each side, which then led to a full scale war between Japan and China. It is believed by some that there never was a missing soldier and it was just a ruse to start the war, giving Japan a reason for invading China.

I ate my buffet breakfast sat out on the small pier by the waters edge on the river Kwai. It was peaceful with the heat of the day just starting to create beads of sweat of my forehead. The water was calm apart from a few small boats ferrying up and down the river. I could see the bridge a mile or so in the distance. After enjoying some eggs and bacon whilst reading the previous days copy of the Bangkok Post, I was ready for the day.

A little way into town I found the Don Rak War Museum, in commemoration of the poor souls that had lost their lives in the construction of the Thailand to Burma Railway line during the second world war. I had never heard of it before and took a look inside. Being a Brit, I knew mostly of the conflict in Europe – but war was also raging in the Far East with Japans ambition to become the dominant power in Asia.


Singapore was the main Allied stronghold and was home to Britain’s major military base in Southeast Asia. It was invaded by the Japanese on the 8th February 1942 where 80,000 British, Australian and Indian troops became prisoners of war, where they joined another 50,000 POW’s from Japans ‘Malayan Campaign’. It was Britain’s largest ever mass surrender in it’s History.

It was a small museum with many mannequins made up into mock situations, often accompanied by audio, depicting what life was like for the Allied POW’s such as sleeping and working conditions. It was difficult to believe the things that the prisoners had to endure after capture by the Japanese. Many thousands of American, Australian, English and Dutch lost their lives in the construction of the railway.

In 1942 The taking of Burma was crucial to the success of defeating the Chinese. Originally Japans sights were set only on the capture of the Burmese capital, Rangoon, which contained the countries main seaport, thus closing the overland supply line to China. The Japanese succeeded in the taking of Rangoon, where they then continued on towards the Indian frontier.

Getting supplies to their troops proved a dangerous task by water, as the Andaman sea and the strait of Malacca were heavily occupied by Allied submarines. Another way had to be made available and land was the obvious option.

In the early 20th century, British engineers had already looked into making a railway line through the very uneven jungle terrain from Thailand to Burma but abandoned the idea due to the many hazards of attempting such a task in such inhospitable conditions.

In June 1942 the Japanese however decided to build the 415km railway line that has now become known in history as the ‘Death Railway’, and is one of the greatest war crimes the world has seen in the last century. It is believed that one man died for every wooden sleeper that was laid down during construction. A shocking realisation as I stood on the track at the Hell-fire pass.

Death-Railway map

The railway itself would run between Ban Pong in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, bringing the much needed supplies and reinforcements to help with Japans ongoing “Burma Campaign”. It was completed on the 17th October 1943 at the expense of 90,000 peasant labourers, mainly Chinese, Malays, Tamils and Burmese. 16,000 Allied POW’s also lost their lives.

The men were slaves to the Japanese and the conditions met by them were horrendous. Starvation, exhaustion and sickness were the main culprits with Malaria, Cholera and Dysentery taking its toll on many.

There were several settlements along the railway called ‘Kanyu’ meaning camp. It meant that several of the men were living in close quarters in basic A-Frame huts, made from bamboo and other jungle material. They would work on the railway for some time before being moved further up the line to make way for more Pow’s as construction progressed.

The prisoners suffered days of relentless torture at the hands of the Japanese. Beatings were dished out regularly, using bamboo sticks or the butt of their rifles. Tropical ulcers left the men in excruciating pain, but still had to work on or suffer at the hands of the Japanese. With so many tropical deceases, the men would sometimes have to relieve themselves quickly without being seen by the Japanese guards, if they were caught, severe punishments were inflicted. The toilets or ‘Benjos’ in the Kanyu’s were even worse.

“They were revolting, vast open pits, later covered in after weakened prisoners began to collapse into them and drown. As you approached the Benjos you had to wade through mud layered with the excrement of those dysentery sufferers who had never quite made it. Flies and maggots swarmed and wriggled over this fowl mush.

It got so bad that we had a bucket of water at the entrance to our hut to wash our feet in. It all added to the misery” From the book called ‘The forgotten Highlander’

The Japanese had never signed the Geneva convention, meaning that no mercy would be bestowed. The men were living in camps buried deep in the Jungle where no-one even knew they were there. Red cross inspectors could not have packages parachuted in, though these would probably be seized by the Japanese anyway.

After months of working on the railway, their clothes and boots inevitably rotted away leaving these near skeletal men naked. The men managed to make their own loin clothes called ‘Jap happies’ to cover up their remaining dignity.

Pakan-Baru-jap happies

I remember seeing in one of the museum displays, a military mess tin showing only a small cup of rice. Hardly even a mouthful was given to the prisoners 2-3 times a day, equating to only a thousand calories. This was known as starvation rations. It looked like something that had been swept out of the bottom of a rabbits hutch.

It was full of rat droppings and maggots, but the men were grateful for every drop. It became increasingly difficult for the men to eat the plain rice and some literally having to force the food down. After the war, having lived on nothing but rice for years, Some ex-POW’s couldn’t eat anything else. Some men actually craving it! But thankfully not just plain rice, they could enjoy it with chicken and sauces or rice pudding etc.

To this day some of the POW’s still have to eat rice two to three times a week, otherwise they can suffer stomach problems and loss of appetite. However during their incarceration dreaming of more toothsome delights such as eggs and bacon would have been a self torture that most men would try to relinquish from their minds.

Having to work with little food, intense heat and disease meant many perished. The Kanyu’s had burial parties consisting of the same 6 prisoners. It meant being spared the torture of the railway construction but was filled with it’s own horrors. Having a full time job sowing the earth with ones own comrades – grave digging was by no means light duties.

I took a walk into the Jungle to get to the other side of the Hell-fire Pass. The heat was incredible, the sweat dripping from my face. I was just a tourist with a belly full of buffet breakfast and a bottle of water in my hand and it was unbearable. To think these poor souls surviving on so little, fatigued and suffering with sometimes multiple deceases, was hard to contemplate.

Walking through the Hell-fire pass
Walking through the Hell-fire pass

Beriberi was another disease caused by vitamin deficiency and caused blurriness or even blindness, it was known as ‘camp eye’. Also Pellagra and Dengue Fever struck in the camps. A new illness also reared it’s ugly head in the camps called Tinea, it was later dubbed ‘Rice Balls’ which attacked the scrotum by swelling, cracking and inflaming leaving sufferers in great pain.

Today, the Hell-fire Pass is a tourist attraction with a small museum – again with mannequins, depicting the terrible conditions during construction. Being one of the toughest of sections to complete. It was a section of the railway, two and a half miles long, and was solid rock. Heavy loss of life was sustained at this particular section. The men were given a quoter of 20ft per day and if this was not met then they were made to work into the night until it was completed.

There were only elementary tools available. Mostly pick axes, shovels and two baskets balancing on a bamboo rod spread across ones shoulders, causing massive exhaustion. Their were several squads. Some would be pick and shovel, others felling and clearing trees or digging to the required depth for the sleepers to be placed down. Others had the worst job of removing the broken debris in their twin baskets, sometimes having to walk them down steep hills, which proved fatal in the monsoon months.

At night lanterns would be lit. Many Australians lost their lives during this time at the Hell-fire pass. It was the Australians who gave it its name. Working by candle light at night, it was said to resemble a torturous scene from hell.

hellfire pass

Eventually everyone developed depression and mental problems. Most of the men would talk to themselves. Many committed suicide by slicing their own throats or just walking into the jungle to die. Others just simply went mad and were put into isolation never to return.

In total around 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 allied troops worked on the construction of the Death Railway. Some of the camps were more relaxed with some POW’s having days off and some even receiving pay! Others were clearly not so lucky. Some of the camp leaders were brutal in the way in which they run things.

Lieutenant Usuki, known by some of the men as the Black Prince was one of the worst. He was a slightly darker man than the other Japanese soldiers and seemed to parade around like a member of the royal family. He was a well fed man but due to war conditions had a shabby appearance. He hated the POW’s with a passion. They were scum to him. His power and brutality meant that many feared his presence.

Many forms of torture were carried out just for fun by the sadistic Japanese masters. A favourite was to poor water down the throat of a prisoner until his stomach swelled up like a balloon. A Japanese soldier would then jump up and down causing excruciating pain. Sometimes they would also tie barbed wire around the mans stomach, often resulting in death.

The POW engineers would be taken up ahead to blow out sections of the rock with explosives. Some of the shattered men, drained of energy could not get clear of the explosion in time and were caught in the blast, much to the delight of their Japanese masters. One day a man was caught trying to escape:

“He had been beaten horrifically, his swollen and bloody features virtually unrecognisable. The interpreter told us, ‘This man very bad. He try to escape. No gooda.’ Two guards threw down on the floor in front of us the battered wreck of a human frame and made him kneel. He did not plead for mercy or beg for assistance. He knew his fate and waited silently, resigned to it. The Black Prince, who seemed to have dressed up especially for the occasion, strode forward and unsheathed his long samurai sword. He prodded the prisoner in the back, forcing him to straighten up. Then the Black Prince raised his sword, its stainless steel glinted in the sunshine. It was a moment of such horror that I could scarcely believe it was really happening. I closed my eyes tightly. This was one of the many instances of barbarism on the railway that I would try to shut out of my mind. But I could not escape the chilling swoosh of the blade as it cut through the damp tropical air or the sickening thwack of the sword coming down on our comrades neck, followed by the dull thump of his head landing on the ground. I kept my eyes firmly shut but swayed on my feet and felt a collective gasp of impotent anger and revulsion. It was a scene from another age.

I thought of the French Revolution when the crowds went mad for the guillotine. But I thought it so macabre, so chilling, that I failed to see how anybody could find that an enjoyable experience, no matter how much you hated someone.” From the book called ‘The forgotten Highlander’


After the war The Black Prince was hanged for his crimes on the Death Railway but the cruel tortures that he had inflicted still haunt the dreams of those men who struggled so heroically for our freedom 7 decades on.

After the Japanese surrendered in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It took weeks for the men to be liberated. I saw a genuine copy of a leaflet that had been dropped onto the camps warning the men to “eat little and often” as their starved body would suffer otherwise.

Food was still scarce and it was only once the troops had arrived that the POW’s were liberated by the Allied Armies. The men could now eat properly again. Some of the POW’s took no notice of the advice given in the leaflets and gorged themselves causing great pain and even a reported case of death. To go through all that and survive, only to die doing something you have been dreaming about for years – such a waste.

I left the place with a feeling of repugnance towards the Japanese, but these were the actions of men 70 years ago and hatred cannot be aimed at the Kin of these savage bastards. Germany’s sons and daughters of today are fully aware of the atrocities that were performed by their immediate ancestors.

In Japan these brutal tails were covered up and it is only now that the younger generation have been learning about what really happened. But still today a vast number of the populous remains ignorant. I remember thinking that this was a popular tourist attraction. The Japanese however were not among them!

Opposite the Don Rak Museum was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where 6,982 prisoners are buried. Their remains were brought from their original burial place. Which in most cases were shallow graves either by the side or even under the tracks of the line. I found it to be a very moving place. I saw two graves that contained the cremated remains of 300 prisoners who died from Cholera in an outbreak in 1943 at the ‘Nieke Kanyu’. I read the plaque:


Today the Cemetery along with several others is supported and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In my ignorance as a young man I always had my minutes silence on remembrance day but never really had anything to remember. I don’t think many of us do, and it doesn’t matter as long as you recognise what so many gave up for the freedoms we enjoy today.

For the rest of my life I shall always have something to remember in my minutes silence, and in doing so I just spare a thought for the so many souls that didn’t make it home to their loved ones.

01 A Learning Curve 72dpi-1500x2000

A Learning Curve is out now!


1 thought on “The Death Railway – By Paul Raftery

  1. Pingback: Japan expects apology for Hiroshima | Wingin' it

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