I have renamed this section; replacing the word monument or memorial with SHRINE. I believe that this better reflects the under-lying Japanese – religious connections and basis for this important place as part of the POW / romusha saga.
JAN 2022 Update: I have come to the realization that I have spelling the name of this shrine / monument incorrectly. In Thai it is ไทย อนุสรณ์ literally meaning Thai Memorial (Thai Anusorn). So I have been adding an extra ‘Y’ which is actually the ‘ย’ in the word Thai (ไทย). Why something so obvious is just now coming to light I attribute to my blind acceptance of someone else’s faulty transliteration of these words. I shall attempt to replace the word Thaiyanusorn with Thai-anusorn wherever it occurs in this text.
OCT 2021 update
Recent developments have shed light on two of the mysteries of this shrine. These are: 1) were the Allied POWs included in this memorial? 2) What was on the two corner plaques that were replaced due to bomb damage?
Translation of the inscription on the obverse of the obelisk clearly contains the characters for POW! So despite the expressed opinions of many, it seems that the deceased POWs were, indeed, included in this memorial.
The rest of the translation goes “during construction of the Thai-Burma link railroad people from Southern countries and POWs unfortunately died from illness, and this memorial was built to console (comfort?) their spirits. February, Showa 19 (1944),
Japanese Army Railway Corps.”
I find the phrase “unfortunately died from illness” particularly interesting in this context. First, it seems to downplay the ‘involvement’ of the IJA as culprits. Secondly, there were more than a few POWs who are documented as having died by other means. One US POW was KIA in an Allied bombing raid. Other POWs (tho no US) died as a result of construction accidents (i.e. falls, injuries from explosives). Some died as direct results of beating or torture (see Section 9.5). Lastly, some were directly executed for perceived severe infractions of the ‘rules’ (see Section 3d). It makes one wonder IF it was the intention of Capt. Naguchi to include their souls in this remembrance.
Here is just one man’s opinion. A passage from US POW Benjamin Dunn’s Book The Bamboo Express:
Every POW hated that monument and what it was meant to stand for. We would all have volunteered to attend and to stand in the sun for days if it would have brought back just one of our friends left in the jungle.
All during the ceremonies at the monument, the men back in camp were sullen and poured out their hate of the Japanese and their monument—always hoping American bombers would destroy it. We hadn’t worked willingly in the building of the railroad; we weren’t proud of the finished work; and we definitely were not proud o f the monument. It meant nothing to us but a mockery of our dead.
Second, there is a passage in the biography of LtCol. Toosey written by his granddaughter that states that he observed that there were corner plaques in English and Dutch. Since there are currently no plaques in Dutch and only the icon in English – not an inscription like the other 6 – we must assume that these are the damaged / replaced plaques. But solving that ‘mystery’ generates two more: 1) what did those original plaques say?; 2) why weren’t they simply replaced as they were as opposed to leaving 1 of 8 corners blank? A plaque in English would lend credence credence to the argument that the POWs were, indeed, included in this dedication. Most of the Allied POW spoke English but none of the romusha had that as a native language.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I have chosen to leave the original text of this ever-lengthening essay intact rather than do a major re-write as new information is found. I hope that this conveys the journey of discovery that this small section of the website was been. ]
PREFACE: the information below for this initial section comes mainly from two sources available to me: The Burma-Thailand Railway by Australian historian Gavan McCormack and Across the Three Pagodas Pass: The Story of the Thai-Burma Railway by Japanese Engineer Yoshihiko Futamatsu as translated by Ewart Eckert. These men offer us the Japanese perspective on this massive engineering event. It is often quite different from the story as told by the Allied POWs.
This obelisk or cenotaph monument just a few hundred meters from the existing bridge has two important functions. First is marks the path of the rails that crossed the river on the wooden bridge. Detailed bomb damage aerial photos clearly show the monument’s alignment with the bridge. With modern development, it is getting more difficult to precisely place the original bridge.
Secondly, the existence of this monument gives us an interesting insight into the working of the Oriental mind and the Japanese Bushido warrior mindset.
The Thai-anusorn Memorial, as it is formally known, is a central obelisk set off with four corner tablets. It was the brainchild of the Kanchanaburi Camp Commander, Capt. Naguchi
Collectively, they were known as ‘romusha’ which is simply the Japanese word for laborer or coolie, but during the widespread Japanese occupation of the South Pacific it took on a somewhat different meaning. When they decided to build the Thai-Burma Railway, the Japanese occupiers made offers of work across their conquered lands; in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula particularly. Tens of thousands of these ‘volunteers’ were sent north to Burma and Thailand. Some also went to Sumatra to work on the lesser known Railway that connected the coal mines to the coast at Pakan Baroe.
This group included many Malayan Tamils of Indian origin, Burmese, Chinese, Thai, and other Southeast Asian peoples. Initially, they served as the advance parties. They would be sent to an area where the Allied POWs would eventually work. They would first make a clearing in the jungle and then build the huts that would house the Allied POWs. That is why there always seemed to be a basic infra-structure — no matter how primitive – when the POWs arrived at the numerous jungle locations. Once the string of camps was complete, the romusha were simply added to the workforce laying the foundations and rails for the TBR. Tamil laborers are credited with building the ‘Pack of Cards Bridge’ just past Hellfire Pass. The bridge or trestle is so named because it collapsed several times during construction. It is also of historical note that it no longer exists having collapsed or been dismantled after the war and that no photos of it are known to exist. Many of the romusha worked alongside the Australians who made the Hellfire Pass cutting as well. (see Section 20 for a more complete history of this population of ‘economic soldiers’)
British doctor Robert Hardie wrote:
“The conditions in the coolie camps down river are terrible. They are kept isolated from the Japanese and British camps. They have no latrines. Special British prisoner parties at Kinsaiyok bury about 20 coolies a day. These coolies have been brought from Malaya under false pretenses – ‘easy work, good pay, good houses!’ Some have even brought wives and children. Now they find themselves dumped in these charnel houses, driven and brutally knocked about by the Jap and Korean guards, unable to buy extra food, bewildered, sick, frightened.”
Their numbers are debatable and largely undocumented. Compared to the rather meticulous records that the Japanese kept of their Allied detainees, their romusha records are non-existent having been destroyed by the IJA immediately post-war. It is thought that as many as 90,000 Burmese and 150,000 Malayans (largely Tamils) worked the TBR. Other uncounted nationalities were Karen, Mon, Javanese, and Singaporean Chinese. Some documents suggest that more than 100,000 Malayan Tamils were brought into the project and around 60,000 perished. No one kept records of their lives or their deaths. Often they were isolated in the jungle; sometimes they were housed near – but never with – the Allied POWs. Despite their own dire situation the western POWs took pity on the Asians and assisted them whenever they could, but they had little enough themselves to share very much. No one can determine the death toll among these disparate groups, but it was excessively high; at least 50-60%. Often they were simply left in the jungle where they died, unburied and undocumented. Even when they were consolidated to the huge Kanchanaburi camp, they were kept separate and treated to few of the comforts that camp afforded the others. When at the end of the war, the Allied ex-POWs had a plethora of assistance arrive almost immediately, the plight of the romusha continued as no one cared about getting them ‘home’.
It was to this group of laborers that the Japanese dedicated the Thai-anusorn memorial. Per Andrew Snow, a researcher at the prestigious Thai-Burma Railway Centre in downtown KAN, Noguchi’s thought process went something like this: These people had been ‘invited’ to work by the Emperor. They toiled to complete a task that he ordered and therefore they were working on his behalf. The fact that they died performing that task was a sacrifice made to the Emperor himself. Therefore, their deaths warranted recognition. So Capt. Noguchi commissioned a memorial in honor of those who had died in service to the Emperor. Seemingly no consideration was given to the fact that the plight of those who had survived the building of the TBR was by no means over once the TBR was finished.
Noguchi recruited POWs who had stone work experience to assist in building it according to his plans. Apparently they worked willingly at their tasks. At least one of those was USS HOUSTON crewman Leo Bird who had been a stone mason. He is credited for having a hand in building the four corner markers. Those corners hold plaques in six different languages of the romusha peoples. But there are eight such positions.
The only hint that it included the Allied POWs is the one that says: “MEMORY OF DECEASED PRISONERS OF WAR”. Per the Japanese way of thinking, the Asian romusha were very different. Per Noguchi, they sacrificed their lives for the Emperor and thus deserved respect and remembrance. Not so for the Westerners!
The memorial was dedicated on FEB 1944. Many people look at this date and think it is in error but indeed it was placed months before the end of the war. Many of the Allied POWs were ‘made to attend’. It stands today in a quiet park-like setting just a short distance from the famous Bridge, but perhaps less than one percent of the bridge tourists ever even look for it.
There are two anecdotes about this monument that seem to get repeated in the literature. One always needs to step back and ask
”Are they true?”; “Where did they originate?”
The first concerns to holes that is seen today in the Tamil and Malay language plaques. I’ve read three explanations of their origin that tie in with the other major anecdote below. One is that these were damaged after the POW liberation when some angry POWs attacked the monument with sticks and stones. The other explanation is that these are the result of bomb fragments. Will the REAL story please identify yourself? In part X (aka #28) Prof Boggett devotes considerable space to this topic of post-war attacks on this memorial. The last bit of speculation (without documentation) is that pot-war tourists damaged the two plaques. But those exhibiting damage are the Malay and Tamil language plaques. Why would those be singled out for attacked as opposed to the Japanese/Chinese plaques? Given the alignment of this corner with the corner that was replace post-war, I’m inclined towards the bomb damage explanation.
The second anecdote is similar and seeks to explain the ‘missing corner’. The SE corner marker contains the English language inscription “Memory of Deceased Prisoners of War”. But the second section of the corner has NO inscription; just a blank wall. It is told that this corner was indeed damaged by 1945 Allied bombing of the Bridge and that this is a replacement plaque. It might also go a long way to explaining the possibility that the inclusion of the Allied POWs and not simply the romusha who ‘died for the Emperor’ and the reason for a blank space.
It would certainly seem that if you had only 8 spaces to write about your monument, you would not leave one of them blank! As of yet, I have found no firm documentation to explain any of these stories.
The explanatory plaque that is at the entrance today (seemingly) incorrectly cites the memorial as dedicated to the “memory of the Allied Forces together with other people, who died during the construction”. I believe that this is simple revisionist history. It is my understanding that the memorial grounds are maintained by a Japanese group that holds an annual ceremony there – although this is unverified by me.
In his book The Burma- Thailand Railway, Gavan McCormack offers the view that the Thai-anusorn Memorial was indeed meant to include the Allied POWs who died. He offers as ‘proof’ that the corner stones of the memorial contain dedications in 7 languages: Japanese, English, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Sumatran(?)/Malay and Tamil. He has no explanation why there is no Dutch or Burmese inscription [see below]. I, personally, prefer TBRC’s Andrew Snow’s take on this matter. The one simple plaque in English is not enough to convince me that the POWs were included in the memorial.
[see the translations of the rear panel inscription on the obelisk added to the end of this section for an update]
It would certainly seem that if you had only 8 spaces to write about your monument, you would not leave one of them blank! As of yet, I have found no firm documentation to explain any of these stories. Professor David Boggett (Bg20pg152) speculates that this section contained a Burmese language inscription. This corner structure was seemingly destroyed in one of the many bombing runs of the two bridge. The monument was literally only meters from the wooden bridge. Logically it would have had two different language plaques. He does not speculate as to what languages we are now missing. Since the rebuilt corner contains the English language plaque, we might assume that the eighth language would have been English — but this is contrary to the underlying meaning of the memorial. The concept that the Allied POWs were included in this ‘remembrance’ is most likely revisionist history as reflected by the wording in the rebuilt corner inscription as well as the plaque at the entrance to the plaza. In the bio of Col. Toosey written by his granddaughter, it is stated that there were corner plaques in English and Dutch (no text is mentioned). Since there is no Dutch language plaque today, it could be assumed that those are the missing / replaced plaques.
The contrast between this corner and the other three could not be more striking. The blank portion speaks volumes that upon reconstruction, something was left out. What could that have been? What ethnic group was no longer deemed ‘worthy’ of remembrance? Surely, (as Prof Boggett speculates) a Burmese language plaque should have been included in the original design. Or would it? If indeed this monument was the brain-child of the Kanchanaburi Camp Commandant — which seems to be well documented — then as a member of the 9th Railway Command responsible for the Thai portion of the TBR, he may not have included the Burmese since they almost exclusively worked under the 5th Railway Command. So once again, we are left with questions if not an enigma as to what that original corner structure contained. There is only indirect evidence that Javanese even actually worked the TBR. We know that like the Allied POWs captured on Java, many Javanese civilians were exported to a large number of places across SEA. But how many and where any worked the TBR is another fact lost to current knowledge. So it begs the question as to why there are currently no Burmese or Javanese (Dutch?) language plaques as part of this monument.
In one of his articles (Bg28pg81), Prof Boggett addresses some of the nuances of these inscriptions. He provides translations gleaned from a number of contemporary sources. Even they provide some insight into the political maneuvering at the time. For example, he notes that one language plaque is written in the Sumatran variant as opposed to the Javanese dialect. In the post-war years, as Indonesia gained independence from the Dutch, the Sumatra dialect was adopted as the national language. No one could have anticipated this in 1944! Why then was that dialect selected over the Javanese variant? As far as is known, only native Javanese (no Sumatran) romusha were imported to the TBR. He provides the translation as “Paying our respects to the souls of Moslems [sic] who worked here. Allah rewards you.”
On page 84, he provides a quote from Sir Edward Dunlop that attests to the fact that upon the dedication (12 MAR 44) there was an English language plaque reading: “May they rest in peace“. The ‘they’ in that wording is ill-defined. Furthermore, Dunlop mentions only 5 languages when there should have been 7-8. He denoted Thai, Nipponese [sic], Malay and Hindu in addition to the English. Most importantly his 1944 account differs from the current (post-war) English plaque attesting to the act that it was one of the 2 corner items damaged and replaced with a new construct. Boggett further speculates that the ‘missing’ (not rebuilt) plaque was in the Burmese language [see above].
Dunlop’s failure to record the existence of the Chinese or Vietnamese plaques much less the one paired to the original English can only be attributed to a fallible memory when his War Diaries were published in 1990!
Boggett goes on (in a page 96 footnote) to state that the Vietnamese plaque reads: “A memorial to the spirits of those Vietnamese labourers who died constructing the Thai-Burma Railway.” Finally, he notes that one face of the obelisk contains an inscription (not directly translated) that refers to the IJA soldiers who perished on the TBR.
Boggett also quotes extensively from what has to be the most contemporary account of the dedication ceremony as it was published in 1946! He quotes (British POW?) Rohan Rivett as describing that in addition to many IJA ans Thai Military representatives, “a selected number of officers and men” were ‘invited’ to attend and BG Varley was one of the presenters. The ‘invited’ guests (remembering that they were all still prisoners) included “representatives of various races and sects.” This can only be a reference to various members of the romusha community to whose deceased comrades this memorial is dedicated.
Modern Day Oversight
Post-war the oversight and upkeep of this shrine passed to a group known as the Japanese Association of Thailand. In a somewhat bizarre series of moves, this organization eventually purchased title to the land upon which this memorial sits. Boggett describes this a prompted in some way by the construction of the second JEATH War Museum immediately adjacent to the shrine. Apparently, there was some conflict and fear that the Thai owners of museum would attempt an ‘encroachment’ if not a take-over of the site.
Perhaps even more interesting is the codified linkage between this shrine and Japanese interests back on the homeland. Sir Dunlop’s diary entry describes that a Nipponese [sic] priest “did much of the ceremony which was complicated and impressive”. Boggett then proves a highly pertinent history lesson linking a century old (1893) Japanese burial site (Ossuary at Wat Liab) in Bangkok to this shrine. Since 1935, a Japanese priest had been in residence (rotating individuals overtime) to oversee these burials. Per Boggett, one such priest actually served as a Chaplain for the IJA during the occupation and TBR construction. Via the Japanese Association of Thailand, these assigned priests assumed oversight for and perform an annual ceremony at the shrine. As part of their dualistic duty, each of them becomes secondarily ordained as a monk in the Thai Theravada Buddhist tradition as opposed to the Japanese/Chinese Mahayana Buddhism (aka Zen). One of the first to serve in this capacity was a priest named Sasaki Kyogo, who went on to a long career at Otani University in Kyoto (the same city where Prof Boggett taught at Kyoto-Seika Univ).
Most bizarre linkage of all
Although completely unrelated to the Thai-anusorn Shrine itself, Wat Liap Ossuary has an almost unfathomable link to Thai history. Whether in myth or fact, a former IJA Colonel named Tsuji Masamobu has been linked to the 1946 death of Thailand’s King Rama VIII. Much of this tidbit of history is steeped in mystery and intrigue but Tsuji is rumored to m]have used the Ossuary as a hiding place in efforts to evade arrest as a war criminal and then for possible involvement in this palace death.
It is impossible for even the best fiction writer imagine a more complicated and interlocking series of events!
Translations: A valued friend provided this translation of the Thai language plaque:
Thai-anusorn (Thai Memorial)
Any what they did for community would be honored and praised.
With respect to their body and soul (life) that was deceased, their merit could not be extinguished (remains in our memorial).
One translation of the Vietnamese plaque has been suggested as:
In remembrance of the people who lost their lives building the Thai-Burma Railway.
Translations of the Tamil and Malay language plaques.
More language speculation:
My mind naturally seeks logic and symmetry in all things. I tend to collect and classify things and place them into buckets or niches to be compared and contrasted later. And so it is with this Shrine.
Let’s first simply examine the 4 corners of this shrine. Each is built as a right-angle section; each of the 8 portions containing a plaque. As one enters the gate from the road, to one’s left is what I will call corner #1 (C1). It contains two plaques; one in Thai and the other Vietnamese (see more about this below). C2 is at the rear left (closer to the river). This is the section of the Shrine that was reportedly damaged in 1945 bombing raids on the nearby Bridge. What we see today is the replacement section the provenance of which is severely lacking. To date, I have yet to find a description of what the original C2 looked like. What languages were its plaques written in? The modern-day C2 is completely different from the other 3 corners. It contains not an inscription but an icon or symbol with an English language phrase.
The rear-most portion of this corner (I’ll call it panel #4) is a blank panel! One cannot not help but speculate on why, when there are only 8 possible places to say something of significance, 1 of 8 is completely blank! Much less that it is paired with an English icon that seems utterly out of place.
Continuing our t journey around the perimeter, C3 is something of a mirror of C1. Its plaques (cells #5-6) are in Tamil and Malay languages. Finally, on C4 (to one’s right upon entry) there are plaques written in a script that I am told is actually mainly Chinese characters but one that the ordinary IJA soldier could read and understand. Many describe these two plaques as Japanese and Chinese, but I have been informed that there is no actual Japanese script used here. Frankly, I am personally baffled by this inter-changeability between these two languages, but I’ll not belabor this; just accept it as fact and move on.
Trusted translations (see above) of each of these plaques reveal (not unexpectedly) a similar theme of dedication to departed souls of each ethnic group. But let’s examine these 4 corners for what they tell us about the meaning of the Shrine itself. Here we have to decide between two opposing interpretations of the precise meaning and breadth of this Shrine. Was it dedicated only to members of the romusha workers who sacrificed their lives on the TBR? OR does it extend its coverage to the Allied POWs who similarly died here?
I, personally, chose the former. I firmly believe that any ‘extension of coverage’ to the Allied POWs is Japanese revisionist history. Hence, I believe that the addition of an English phrase (not a dedication to lost souls) in panel #3 is pure propaganda and can be discounted in its entirety. What then do we make of the blank companion panel (panel #4)? Here, too, I am at a loss to offer even the simplest of explanations.
The IJA claimed one quarter of the panels (2 of 8 possible) as their own. It was after all their shrine! Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and Tamil plaques remain from 1944. Then there was added a simple English phrase overlain on an icon; completely different in style and appearance from the other 6 corner panels.
Let’s examine some possibilities as to what the original C2 may have contained. It is well documented that the majority of the romusha were impressed and imported from Malaya. Confusion reigns as to the exact geographical origin of these various groups. Statistics (based only on fragmentary records) usually state that ethnic Chinese comprise up to a third of all the romusha. But these could have originated from either Malaya or Singapore, since both had high percentages of ethnic Chinese populations. There were also both native Malays and Tamil-Indian ethnic workers. For a period, early in the construction effort, Thais were hired (not so much enslaved as were the others) but this ended with the BanPong Incident in DEC 1942. [see Section 20f]
History records that very few Thais perished while working on the NongPlaDuk to Kanchanaburi portion of the TBR. The accepted translation of the Thai does mentioned deceased, but we do not know the context nor who was the author of this inscription (nor any of the inscriptions). We have two givens: 1) the TBR was largely on Thai soil; 2) some Thais participated in the build. But we also know that the overall experience of the Thais was nothing like that of the romusha! But yet we have a Thai language inscription in panel #1.
The companion plague (panel #2) also raises similar questions. The role of any Vietnamese contingent in the TBR is hardly documented. There is passing mention of their presence, but in small (perhaps even insignificant) numbers compared to any of the other ethnic groups. So one must ask why they have a plaque at panel #2.
Panel #3 (on C2) is the English icon; #4 the blank panel. Panel #5 is Malay and #6 Tamil. Panels 7 & 8 are the Chinese/Japanese inscriptions.
Malay and Tamil workers comprised a large portion of the romusha. But there were others: exported from Singapore who were ethnic Chinese and there were many thousands of Burmese who worked the western end of the TBR as the Thais did the easternmost section. Yet there is no Burmese language plaque (at least not remaining). There is, perhaps, one easy and plausible explanation for this. If we accept that this shrine was, indeed, the brainchild of the Kanchanaburi Camp Commander, Capt. Naguchi then the lack of any acknowledgement of the Burmese is possibly explained by the fact that Naguchi was part of the 9th Railway Command that built the eastern sector of the TBR. Any and all Burmese would have worked under the auspices of the companion 5th Railway Command on the western end of the TBR. The lack of any acknowledgement might be due to such a command authority split. This leads to speculation as to how the Vietnamese were included but the Burmese not. Seemingly few Vietnamese ever worked the TBR. Their presence at other projects in eastern Thailand (Issan; closer to Vietnam/Laos) is better documented than any TBR connection. It is, however, possible that those projects were overseen by 9th Railway personnel and hence included by Naguchi. But that is pure speculation.
We get a unique perspective again from Professor Boggett (Bg28pg96) in which he points out that the Malay language and that of the Dutch East Indies (DEI; later Indonesia) in this era were largely indistinguishable; particularly the Sumatran dialect that differed only slightly from that spoken on Java. Therefore, in his estimation, the plaque at panel #5 may ‘cover’ both the Malaya and DEI romusha.
That still leaves us with the dilemma of why there is nothing in the Dutch language, if indeed, there was any intention of including the Allied POWs in this memorial. In the same vein, I am forced to speculate as to why the post-war reconstruction of C2 left one of the panels completely blank.
For such a rather simple looking shrine upon first impressions, This memorial seems to harbor a myriad of unanswered questions.
The obelisk itself contains a somewhat arcane script which is proving difficult to translate. Many of the characters are seemingly no longer in common use. This also hearkens back to the overlap between the use of Chinese and Japanese characters in many of these inscriptions.
The panel on the rear apparently refers to both Asian laborers (‘romusha’) and POWs (‘horyo’) and roughly translated says :
“during construction of the Thai-Burma link railroad people from Southern countries and POWs unfortunately died from illness, and this memorial was built to console (comfort?) their spirits.
February, Showa 19 ,
Japanese Army Railway Corps.”
If this translation holds up to further scrutiny, then we seem to have confirmation that there was an intention to include the Allied POWs among those memorialized in by this monument. This is in contravention to the memories of some of the survivors who express the opinion that only the Romusha were being commemorated.
Labelled as a 1945 photo with bridge in the background and corner section seemingly repaired. In the right background it can clearly be seen that the iron bridge is still collapsed from the Allied bombing. This would otherwise accurately date the photo. But the corner section in the left foreground is the one that would have been destroyed and then rebuilt. Here it appears to be intact. So this raises the question as to exactly when and how the damage occurred and when was it repaired/replaced.