to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

1.3 Telling the TBR story

In the 2000s, a controversy of sorts arose concerning the telling of the story of the TBR. The question had arisen in the social sciences literature as to who has the ‘right’ and perhaps then the responsibility to keep the story alive for future generations. Indeed, the saga of the TBR holds a unique position in history. For the Thais it is not particularly accepted as a part of Thai history. It was after all perpetrated by one group (Japanese) on other groups (Allied POWs and laborers from other nations). The Thais had only a brief and relatively minor direct involvement spanning SEP-NOV 42.

As we rapidly approach the 100 year anniversary of these events, the question arises as to whom should preserve the story for future generations. The events occurred in Thailand (and Burma) but is it truly part of Thai history? These events were perpetrated by the Japanese but would they want to re-open the wounds of that era? The victims were citizens of many nations. Is any one of them responsible for keeping the story alive?

Over the ensuing years, the original story tends to get more and more ‘sanitized’ as it is retold. The three museums that depict events and display artifacts of the era do so in a manner more acceptable to the 20th century sensibilities of the tourists visiting them. Even so, there is a fourth ersatz museum near the bridge that has the audacity to display human remains in a for-profit enterprise!

The three war graves cemeteries that hold the remains of the Allied victims of this period of history (some 12,000 in all) are administered by the London-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission. But they have a world-wide and multi-conflict responsibility. They could hardly be expected to contribute more than a basic description of what their few acres of land contribute to the story. Aside from a small memorial museum located at the cemetery in Burma that few are physically able to visit, there is very little background given to the graves that they maintain so meticulously.

At the site of the famous iron bridge, there are two small memorials that are all that directly link the bridge to events of the era. One is a depiction of the route of the TBR located to the left of the bridge. The other is the 1997 memorial to the US POWs placed by the US Veterans of Foreign Wars organization. Other than these, there is little to historically link the surviving bridge to events of the past.

So we return to the question of precisely who should have the right and the responsibility to relate the background story of this surviving artifact of an almost century-old story. Who precisely does this story belong to? As noted, it is not truly a piece of Thai national history. They had only a supporting role in the events overall. Other than continuing to promote tourism, they have no true responsibility to relate to larger background story of the popular bridge. One must also ask the question about the true level of interest of the current day-trippers in knowing why this is such a popular place to visit. Do they really want to know the history behind the bridge and the rails that cross it? Seemingly they are quite content to take selfies and buy refreshments and souvenirs before returning to work or school on Monday morning; as ignorant of the history as before they arrived.

The largest number of graves in the war cemeteries belong to British POWs followed by Dutch and Australian. The remains of the US POWs were all repatriated by 1948. Nearly a century on, the other category of visitors to this area are descendants of those who lived, worked and died here. Soon none of the POWs themselves will be alive to even contemplate a visit. So it is for their descendants – now more likely grandchildren – to make the pilgrimage to visit the site of their loved one’s ordeal and perhaps his grave. But such a group would seemingly have made an effort to educate themselves as to events of the era. They can seek specific information related to their loved one from any number of sources. Their quest for information would be somewhat more targeted to that person’s experience rather than to the wider story of the TBR in general.  

There are still a large number of TBR-related organizations many of whom maintain websites as a means to perpetuate the memory of their specific members involved in this tiny episode of world history. But almost by definition, their focus is limited to one military unit or in some cases a specific individual. Each such place of remembrance is what I envision as a tiny piece in a large jig-saw puzzle. The larger, fuller, deeper story of the TBR can only be appreciated when all the pieces are assembled into a more comprehensive picture.

The same is true of the host of books published by POW survivors. Necessarily, they present a tunnel-vision perspective. Woven together they, too, add clarity to the larger story. But as time progresses more and more are falling out of print for lack of interest. They will soon be doing little more than gathering dust in libraries around the world unread by the users of that facility more likely seeking internet access than a history lesson.

There are seemingly few individuals like the founder of the TBRC in Kanchanaburi, Rod Beattie, who are willing and able to dedicate a lifetime and personal fortune to preserving the memory of this period of history. But in recent years, he too has distanced himself from the organization he founded and has returned to Australia. He more than anyone is responsible for launching me on this quest to preserve the story of the US POWs that has now expanded exponentially to encompass the larger story.

So a subsidiary question as to who has the right and responsibility to preserve this story is who would be the potential audience. Descendants are more likely to be interested in the person-specific data provided by the TBRC staff upon request. Their focus is on serving that niche. In support, they have complied a huge dataset of details of individual journeys. They are very good at what they do, but other than the static displays at their Centre they do not seem to be analyzing their data with a view to relating or expanding the larger story.    

Scholars and students of history would be a potential audience for this larger story of the TBR. But in what medium? I present an electron-based story accessible by any who wish to search for it. The eminent history professor David Boggett did amazingly unique and detailed work particularly on the segment of this story pertaining to the romusha. His work was published in the journal of a rather obscure university in Japan and I dare say is not widely accessible or read. I obtained access only by a targeted request to the university staff. When history books even deign to acknowledge that this event occurred, it is usually presnted in a few sentences if even a paragraph. In many ways, despite the tens of thousands of lives taken and lives affected by this Railway, it is a mere blip on the timeline of even the war itself.  

Although it was not intended as such at its outset, my quest (now in its sixth year) to relate the story of the 1% of the TBR victims who were US veterans has expanded to set their story into the context of the world events at the time and the TBR specifically. Their story as they took own unique journey across Burma and Thailand can only be appreciated fully when placed into the context of the POWs of other nations that labored beside them. And even the full story of the TBR must be placed in its proper place in the context of what was happening at the time to drive the need for such a monumental effort.

In summary, there seems to be no nation or group that ‘owns’ this story to the extent that they would be assigned responsibility for compiling and preserving the overall story for future generations. It would seem to fall to more focused organizations to attempt to preserve various aspects of this large and complex story. Hence in 2022 there is a new memorial dedicated to the crewmen of the H.M.A.S PERTH about to open in that name-sake city.

Here is an example of the TBR saga as presented by one of the largest and most active organizations that calls itself FEPOW (Far East Prisoners of War). Today almost exclusively composed of the descendants of those POWs (termed COFEPOW or children of the FEPOW; now expanded to include other family particularly grandchildren) :

https://www.cofepow.org.uk/armed-forces-stories-list/burma-siam-railway

It is rather typical of such groups to commemorate (appropriately so) all the men of a particular military unit who perished regardless of where that death occurred. In short, such rosters do not add to (nor detract from) the larger TBR story. They tend to be rather superficial in their treatment of any one aspect of the story because they are mandated to cover the entire Asia-Pacific Theater.

In some way I feel fortunate that I stand among a small group of individuals who have dedicated the time and effort to attempt to relate a more comprehensive saga of the wider TBR experience as it played out from June 1942 and into the post-war months in 1945. It is possible that my efforts to compile and analyze information building from by-name rosters of the men who lived and died in this saga to an effort to relate the story supported by available data as to how the TBR was built is a stand-alone work of historic significance.

I do not in any way claim ‘ownership’ of this story and the ‘responsibility’ to relate the story is certainly not mine. None the less, I believe that this work stands alone and hopefully can stand the weight of time as we hit the century mark of this event.