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Railway of Death
Japanese Imperial Army's Push through to Burma

The Bridge

One of the prime reasons for the construction of the railway by the Japanese was to overcome the total reliance on sea transport as the only means of supplying Burma once the country was under their control by June 1942. Shipping on the long sea voyage around Singapore was prone to submarine attack once the allies were fully operational out of India.

Engineers had surveyed the 415 km route but expressed doubts about the economics of the project. However with a vast source of labour at their disposal in the form of Allied Prisoners of War it was planned to begin construction from both ends at once using metre gauge single track.

The first prisoners arriving at Ban Pong to begin construction on 23 June 1942

The first bridge across the river Mae Khlaung was a wooden trestle bridge 220 meters long completed in February 1943 and a second eleven span concrete and steel construction using semi-eliptic spans brought from Java and completed in July 1943.

The two lines met at Konkuita on 17 October 1943. The Burma teams having built 152 km of track while those from Thailand a total of 263 Km.

Once the bridges were completed they became prime targets and a number of raids were carried out that unfortunately killed a number of prisoners.

The two bridges were successfully bombed on 13 February 1945 by the Royal Air Force. Repairs were carried out by POW labour and by April the wooden trestle bridge was back in operation. On 3 April a second raid by Liberator bombers of the U.S. Air Force damaged the wooden bridge once again. Repair work continued and both bridges were operational again by the end of May. A second raid by the R.A.F. on 24 June put the railway out of commission for the rest of the war. After the Japanese surrender the British Army removed 3.9 Kilometers of track on the Thai Burma border. A survey of the track had shown that its poor construction would not support commercial traffic. The track was sold to Thai Railways and the 130 Km Ban Pong – Namtok section relaid and is in use today.

The wooden bridge was dismantled and removed as it was completely blocking the river, while the steel bridge was repaired by the Japanese using two box girder sections to replace the three damaged semi-eliptic spans. This widened the navigable passage from 22 to 33 meters. The first section of track reopened was Nong Pladuk to Kanchanaburi on 24 June 1949. The next section to Wampo on 1 April 1952 and the last section to Nam Tok on 1 July 1957.

The Japanese

Japan put itself under pressure as it widened its hold on the Far East, as its forces had to be supplied. Burma had a natural supply line for its troops, the Irrawaddy River which runs the full length of Burma and boats could therefore supply the Japanese forces pushing towards India, but this was slow. The Burmese railway also ran the full length of Burma, the only problem being there was no line between Malaya and Burma, this had to be bridged quickly. If this was joined to Malaya the Japanese forces could be supplied quickly and could carry on with the invasion of India.The route ran on the east bank of the Mae Khlong River from Bangkok until it reached the Khwae Noi River, the track was then to cross the Mae Khlong and hug the east bank of the Khwae Noi until it reached the mountains in the north and cross the mountains at Three Pagodas Pass. It would then snake out of the mountains towards Thanbyuzayat. With this plan the river was a great advantage as it could help supply materials and the labour force needed to build the railway.

"As a result, few Japanese were taken prisoner. At the end of the war there were only 6,400 Japanese prisoners compared to nearly 200,000 Allied POWs. The point is, the Japanese did not expect to capture 140,000 men at the collapse of Singapore, at a time when they had scarcely enough food and supplies to support their own advancing armies.

In peace time, plans to build a railway from Bangkok to Burma had been shelved because of the cost involved. Now, with over 100,000 prisoners taken in its advance, Japan had a workforce, to do with as it pleased.

A railway could now be built to help supply its forces on the Burma front and its advance into India for little cost to themselves, this was to prove a huge deficit in prisoners lives. On 8 August 1942, the Prime Minister signed an agreement with the Japanese representative General Sheji Poriya to build the railway. The Japanese hoped that the single meter gauge railway would be able to transport 3000 tons of supplies and strategic materials a day.

The Death Railway branched off from the existing southern railway and headed towards Kanchanaburi. The first fifty-five km from Nong Pladuk to Kanchanaburi were easy to construct because of the flat terrain. The rest of the way was hell though and that is how it earned its nickname.

When the first survey on the railway was completed it was estimated that it would take five years to build. The principal engineer was S.O. No. Construction began in October of 1942 and it was finished in August of 1943. The railway was put into use on 25 October 1943. The two tracks, one starting from Thanbyuzayat in Burma and the other from Nong Pladuk met at Nieke just south of Three Pagodas Pass.

When the first survey on the railway was completed it was estimated that it would take five years to build. The principal engineer was S.O. No. Construction began in October of 1942 and it was finished in August of 1943. The railway was put into use on 25 October 1943. The two tracks, one starting from Thanbyuzayat in Burma and the other from Nong Pladuk met at Nieke just south of Three Pagodas Pass.

Prisoners

Nowadays, as you wander around the finely kept grounds of the cemeteries holding the prisoners remains you can't help but notice how young some of the prisoners were when they died. Many were in their late teens and early twenties and it was probably their first time away from home. What a tragic way for so many young men to die. The Japanese were so concerned with getting the railway built quickly that they gave little or no concern to the welfare of their prisoners. They thought it was a fabulous piece of engineering that the railway was completed so fast.

The POW who never went above the bridge at Tamarkan could count themselves fortunate indeed, for the Japanese in the base areas never displayed the same cruelty and callousness as did those further up-country in the jungle camps. Conditions there, especially during the 1943 monsoon, were unimaginable by those who did not suffer them."By early 1943 disease, starvation and overwork had so depleted the prisoner's work force that the Japanese were forced to hire 200,000 Asian coolies to help finish the railway. Many of these impressed laborers, who were predominately Chinese, Malay, Tamil and Burmese met with fates worse than the prisoners. It is thought that at least 80,000 of these laborers met unfortunate and untimely deaths but the number could even be as high as 150,000 as no records of them were kept.The remains of about 12,000 prisoners lie in three cemeteries at Kanchanaburi, Chungkai (which is across the river and about two km down the road from Kanchanaburi) and Thanbyuzayat in Burma .Visiting Kanchanaburi today, it is hard to imagine the suffering the prisoners went through in order to build the Death Railway. 61,700 prisoners were brought in to build the railroad. They came mostly from camps in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and they had been captured in earlier battles with the Japanese.The railway was built with a few pulleys, derricks, cement mixers, a lot of hard labor and a tremendous amount of ingenuity. It took a tremendous toll on its builders . Approximately one in five prisoners died during the construction of the railway.

It is estimated that every railway sleeping car cost the life of one prisoner."Not only Allied prisoners were beaten - but Japanese soldiers as well, including officers. Torture was an accepted part of the order. One junior Japanese officer who had failed to obey an order was sentenced by his commanding officer to a month in prison and bodily tortured. Some soldiers were driven even harder than the prisoners themselves. Prisoners sometimes felt obliged to give food and water to wounded Japanese soldiers who were ignored by their compatriots. The Japanese tended to regard sickness in general as shameful."

From day one most folks had malaria,They (the Japanese) didn't give a damn if you lived or died because there were plenty to replace you.

Japanese commander told prisoners they had to complete the section of the railway within six months or he would commit suicide and they would die.

The Bridge

Located in Kanchanaburi, it's 120 km west and about two hours drive from Bangkok. The town was foundedby King Rama I against a possible invasion by Burmese soldiers through Three Pagodas Pass. During World War II, the Japanese used this train for the transportation of ammunition to expand the fight into Burma and India The Death Railway stretched for 415 km from Thanbyuzayat in Burma to Nong Pladuk in Bangpong District in Ratchaburi province in Thailand. 304 km of the railway was located in Thailand and the remaining 111 km in Burma.The bridge you see standing today is in fact not the bridge the POW's built. You can, however, see a section of the old wooden bridge. As mentioned, it's located in the World War II Museum, which is right beside the modern bridge.

 
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