to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

14.3 Thai-anusorn Shrine

I am re-editing this section because it has become just too confusing. Hopefully, I
can rewrite it in a way that makes sense. I will, however, leave the original
text below to show how this story developed over time.

This shrine is significant in a number of ways:

1)    Dedicated in 1944, it was the first such shrine to those who died on the TBR;

2)    It denotes the various groups that made up the romusha;

3)    It marks the path of the tracks to the wooden bridge that passed just beside it;

4)    It is steeped in controversy and wrapped in an enigma as to precisely what the original structure looked like.

Various sources attribute the concept to either the local Kanchanaburi camp commander or to the overall CDR of IJA Forces working the TBR. Since no official records have yet to surface, we can only rely on contemporary accounts of POWs for their memories of its construction. Such accounts tell us that after the POWs had been consolidated to the camp in the immediate area where the tracks approached the two bridges, the camp Commander, Capt. Naguchi called for ‘volunteers’ from among the Allied POWs to help to build it. One US POWs[1] had been a stone mason and claims to have contributed to the building of the 4 corner section containing the inscriptions. Per the report of LtCol Toosey (who was in command of the British and Australian POWs who built the two bridges), the shrine was dedicated in Mar 1944 with many Japanese and Thai dignitaries in attendance. Many of the POWs were ‘herded’ to the area as well.

He goes on to relate that the men were generally disgusted by the concept but had no
choice but to assist in its construction and attend the dedication[2]. Such remarks, echoed by other survivors, developed into one of the controversies over the ensuing years.

But first we must describe the shrine and its content to discern its meaning. The central
obelisk has two inscriptions. The front contains but two Chinese characters[3] that could be translated as “memorial to comfort of the spirits”. But it is the obverse panel that tells the fuller story. This inscription clearing contains the characters for both the POWs and the Asian Forces Laborers (aka romusha).

 

Over the ensuing years, there arose a controversy as to whether or not this shrine actually was intended to ‘honor’ the Allied POWs or was it only meant for the romusha. The plaque speaks for itself in including both. Yet even 80 yrs later, there are those who call the inclusion of the POWs revisionist history. That allegation appears patently false. The plaque that currently graces the entrance of the structure does indeed correctly include the POWs[4] among those being honored.

I have taken to referring to this structure as a shrine rather than simply a memorial since
at the dedication a large part of the ceremony was conducted by a Shinto priest who reportedly was also ordained as a Buddhist monk in the local tradition. To my mind that makes it somewhat different from a simple memorial. Both the central (obverse)  inscription and those on the corner markers have a distinctly religious undertone.

These corner sections are both enlightening and controversial in their own right. In them
there are 8 panels meant to contain inscriptions in the various languages of those being honored here. Yet one pair is distinctly different from the 3 other sets.

First let’s describe those 3 as they exist today. To the left of the entrance gate is what I will call corner section #1. It contains inscriptions in Thai and Vietnamese. The latter is quite important in that it is the singular indication that there were some romusha from French Indo-China involved in the TBR. Their numbers and role have been lost to history.  Translations of those panels will be addressed below.

Diagonally across is what I will call corner section #3 (I’m skipping corner section #2
for the moment). This contains two inscription panels in Malay and Tamil languages. There is also some confusion and consternation over the former. Some contend that it could also be written in the Sumatran dialect of the Dutch East Indian natives. We know that there were thousands of Javanese natives who worked the TBR not as romusha but as POWs having been captured as KNIL soldiers when the Island of Java capitulated in MAR 1942. The KNIL officers were mainly European Dutch or of mixed blood, but the common soldiers were primarily Javanese native conscripts. So when reference is made to Dutch POWs most were actually native Javanese. There is nothing to suggest that any romusha or KNIL soldiers were brought over from Sumatra to work the TBR. They had their own railway project at Pakan Baroe.

The fourth corner has 2 panels in Chinese characters. One panel had a ‘dedication’ to
those who died. The other, however, is much more obscure. I am told that it is
written using arcane characters that today are difficult to translate. More
work will be required to evoke its full meaning.

This brings us back to the second pair of panels in what is the SE corner of the structure.
This is beyond doubt the most problematic. As it sits today it has a circular icon with an English phrase. The second panel is blank! One is forced to ask that if the builders had only 8 panels in which to express their thoughts, why would these two be essentially expressionless? Well, it does not seem as though they were in their original configuration.  We return to LtCol Toosey’s memory of the dedication ceremony. He is reported to have recorded in his diary that one of the pairs of panels contained inscriptions in English and Dutch.  That would have made sense if the POWs were
intended to be included in this remembrance in that the vast majority of the
POWs spoke English and many of them Dutch. But no such panels exist today.

The explanation for this involves both the second and third corner sections. It seems that in the spring of 1945 when the Allies were making air strikes against the bridges, some bombs fell short and struck this shrine. That SE corner section (#2) was destroyed and the adjacent section (#3) was damaged by shrapnel[5]. At some point, post-war the Thais rebuilt the destroyed section. But since no records of what the original panels contained, the icon was substituted and the companion panel left blank. To date, LtCol Toosey’s account is the only documentation uncovered that speaks to English and Dutch language panels.

The other person who explored this Shrine in depth was Professor David Boggett. In one of his essays (Bg20pg152), he speculates that the blank section contained a Burmese language inscription. But there does not seem to be any support for this theory. Speaking against it is the simple fact that two different IJA Railway Regiments (the 5th and the 9th) were tasked with building the TBR. Capt Naguchi’s area of responsibility with the 9th Regiment would not have extended into Burma, so he would not likely have
overseen any Burma native workers and probably would not have had ready access
to anyone to provide a Burmese language inscription. I would adhere to the
English-Dutch pairing as the most plausible.

Professor Boggett’s analysis of this shrine also seems to fail the test of time and logic. In another of his articles (Bg28pg81), he addresses some of the nuances of these inscriptions. He provides
translations gleaned from a number of contemporary sources. 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 and KNIL soldiers 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.”

He also provides a quote from Sir Edward Dunlop that attests to the fact that upon the dedication (13 MAR 44) there was an English language plaque reading: “May they rest in peace This oddly echoes the current (re-constructed) inscription. Furthermore, Dunlop mentions only 5 languages when there should have been 7-8. He denoted Thai, Nipponese [sic], Malay (actually Indonesian) and Hindu [actually Tamil) in addition to the English. Boggett further speculates that the ‘missing’ plaque was in the Burmese language [see above]. All of this analysis from the early 2000s just seems to add to the confusion as to what was actually present in the mid-1940s. 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 footnote) to state that the Vietnamese plaque reads: “A memorial to the spirits of those Vietnamese labourers who died constructing the Thai-Burma Railway.”

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 and Thai Military representatives, “a selected number of officers and men” were ‘invited’ to attend and BG Varley was one of the presenters. (LtCol Toosey recorded that about 100 Allied POWs were in attendance) 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 organi-zation 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 this new museum would attempt an ‘encroachment’ if not a take-over of the adjacent 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 provides 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 the burials of Japanese citizens in Thailand. 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[6].

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 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!

14.3.1 Modern Day Translations

Translations: A valued friend provided this translation of the Thai
language plaque:

Original Thai

ไทยานุสรน์

งานไดซึ่งก่อเกิดผลเปนส่วนรวม
ผู้ที่ทำงานนั้นย่อมได้รับการยกย่องสันเสิน

ก้มกรเหล่านี้ร่างกายและชีวิตของเขาดับไปแล้วก็จิง
แต่ความดีที่เขาได้ช่วยกันส้างไว้หารู้จักดับสูนย์ไม่

Translated to English

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 Indo language plaques.

Prof Boggett 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 and the KNIL POWs. Finally, he notes [seemingly incorrectly] that one face of the obelisk contains an inscription (not directly translated) that refers to the IJA soldiers who perished on the TBR.

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. 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 (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 journey around the perimeter, C3 is something of a mirror of C1. Its plaques  (panels #5-6) are in Indonesian and Tamil 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. As described above, Prof Boggett states that one of these panels is a poem written in an arcane script.

Trusted translations 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? In as much as the obverse of the central obelisk states that the shrine if dedicated to both romusha and POWs, we can only speculate as to what English and perhaps Dutch inscriptions might have been included in the original corner — destroyed and then replaced post-war. Why is there no proper English much less Dutch inscription to be found?

The IJA claimed one quarter of the panels (2 of 8 possible) as their own. It was after all their shrine! Thai, Vietnamese, Indo 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 plus one completely blank panel!

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. Some speculate that the Tamils comprised the majority of all the imported romusha 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 20.3]

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 Indo and #6 Tamil. Panels 7 & 8 are the Chinese/Japanese inscriptions/poem.

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 Regiment that built the eastern sector of the TBR. Any and all Burmese would have worked under the auspices of the companion 5th Railway Regiment on the western end of the TBR. The lack of any acknowledge-ment 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.

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 their spirits.
February, Showa 19 [1944],
Japanese Army Railway Corps.”

 

Original content from prior to MAR 2022 is here below:

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). I had 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 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 6.4). Lastly, some were directly executed for perceived severe infractions of the ‘rules’ (see Section 3.6.9). 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 (former POW) 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. It was conceived during the war and dedicated (per LtCol Toosey) on 13 March 1944; a ceremony attended by over 100 POWs and many local dignitaries.

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. It is dedicated to the POWs and the Asian workers who died during its construction.

Collectively, these Asian workers 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 ancestry, 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.

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!

[NOTE: the above opinion is somewhat debunked in that the POWs were clearly noted to have been included]

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 memorial was dedicated in MAR 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.

Post-war changes

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 two holes that is seen today in the Tamil and Indonesian 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) of his essays, 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 Indonesian/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 icon with “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 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. Again, per LtCol Toosey, there were English and Dutch corner panels although he does not mention the content of those inscriptions.

Revisionist or True History?

The explanatory plaque that is at the entrance today (seemingly correctly) cites the memorial as dedicated to the “memory of the Allied Forces together with other people, who died during the construction”. 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, Indonesian and Tamil. He has no explanation why there is no Dutch or Burmese inscription [see below].

[see the translations of the rear panel inscription on the obelisk added to the end of this section for an update]

see translation below
A memorial to the souls of the Vietnamese who died working on the Thai-Burmese railway.
TRANSLATION:
Ah, these poor people,
The glory of East Asia,
Working together on this great project,
They arrived at this special area,
To begin building the railway,
And they toiled and suffered so very much.
My Chinese lang expert says that this plaque is in a rather arcane form of Japanese/Chinese characters that are almost impossible to translate.
Indo / Tamil language plaques
said to have been damaged by Allied bomb

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 bridges. 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 icon (rather than a true inscription) we might assume that the damaged panels were written in English and Dutch.

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. The inclusion of a Javanese/Sumatran language panel 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 Dutch language plaques as part of this monument. Of all the nationalities known to have worked the TBR, the Dutch are the largest group who receive no recognition in this shrine.

a colorized wartime photo that clearly shows the Thai-anusorn monument
in the upper left next to the rails leading to the wooden bridge.

Translations: A valued friend provided this translation of the Thai language plaque:

Original

ไทยานุสรน์

งานไดซึ่งก่อเกิดผลเปนส่วนรวม ผู้ที่ทำงานนั้นย่อมได้รับการยกย่องสันเสิน

ก้มกรเหล่านี้ร่างกายและชีวิตของเขาดับไปแล้วก็จิง แต่ความดีที่เขาได้ช่วยกันส้างไว้หารู้จักดับสูนย์ไม่

Current Thai

ไทยานุสรน์ (ไทย-อนุสรณ์)

งานใดซึ่งก่อเกิดผลเป็นส่วนรวม ผู้ที่ทำงานนั้นย่อมได้รับการยกย่องสรรเสริญ

ก้มกรเหล่านี้ร่างกายและชีวิตของเขาดับไปแล้วก็จริง แต่ความดีที่เขาได้ช่วยกันสร้างไว้หารู้จักดับสูญไม่

English

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 Indo language plaques.

Prof Boggett 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.

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 journey around the perimeter, C3 is something of a mirror of C1. Its plaques  (panels #5-6) are in Tamil and Indonesian 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. As described above, Prof Boggett states that one of these panels is a poem written in an arcane script.

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? In as much as the obverse of the central obelisk states that the shrine if dedicated to both romusha and POWs, we can only speculate as to what English and perhaps Dutch inscriptions might have been included in the original corner — destroyed and then replace pot-war. Why is there no proper English much less Dutch inscription to be found?

The IJA claimed one quarter of the panels (2 of 8 possible) as their own. It was after all their shrine! Thai, Vietnamese, Indo 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 plus one completely panel!

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. Some speculate that the Tamils comprised the majority of all the imported romusha 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 20.3]

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 Indo and #6 Tamil. Panels 7 & 8 are the Chinese/Japanese inscriptions/poem.

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.

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 their spirits.
February, Showa 19 [1944],
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 the 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.

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