to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

20.2 the people

We will never know their names. We will never know how many nor exactly where they came from. We can, however, try to tell their story so that they are not forgotten.

The story of the romusha is almost an impossible one to tell in full. Much like a large jig-saw puzzle, we can attempt to add small pieces of the story as they become available. But, unlike such a puzzle, we do not have a full picture to guide us as to where to place any given fragment of the saga. The two basic questions are: Who and How many were there? About the only thing we know for sure is that we will never know the full story of these doomed workers.

20.2.1 How Many?

Gavan McCormack attempted to account for the numbers of romusha by nationality. But any actual statistics are fragmentary at best. Japanese researcher Yoshikawa Toshiharu found that the Thais had completed a census of romusha that were in the large POW camp at Kanchanaburi (KAN). Of 70K romusha, they listed as 23K Chinese (32%); 40K Malay (57%); 7K Burmese and Mon (10%). But there is much lacking in that set of figures. It is well accepted (per Japanese records) that the island of Java alone provided 2.5M workers both male and female. As many as half of those may have been shipped off the island to any number of destinations. It is likely that a large number went to work on the Sumatra Railway, but a significant — if unknown number – worked the TBR. In his PhD thesis, Kurasawa Aiko studied the Javanese who were sent to the TBR. He places that figure at 15,000. He also offers an explanation as to why none were tallied in KAN as that they were kept in the jungle to cut wood for the trains. So their labors did not cease when the TBR was completed. How many others such a task applies to is an unknown figure? Other sources place the Javanese TBR worker population closer to 100,000. Like their Vietnamese counterparts no records have yet to surface regarding their involvement.

It is also accepted as fact that many Thais were also pressed into service. How many is only a guess at 12,000 [1]. The simple fact that the Kanchanaburi census tallied no Thais suggests that they simply melted back into the countryside once the TBR was completed. Another Japanese researcher, Hiroake Toshio, found that of 200K romusha who worked the TBR on the Thai side, 53% were Tamil/Indian; 37% Javanese; 8% Thai/Burmese and 2% Vietnamese. Ota Tsunezo places the number of Burmese conscripted as romusha at 70K with perhaps another 20K Mon hilltribesmen. In Burma, any Burmese or Mon would also likely have fled back to their homeland so the 7,000 Burmese / Mon that the Thais counted likely were sent to KAN from the Thai end of the TBR only.

As to deaths in this diverse group, Hiroake Toshio’s estimate is the lowest at 16% on the Thai side of the TBR. Hugh Clarks sets the percentage at 26% overall on the TBR. Other estimates run as high as 40%! A newspaper report states that in 1990, 700 sets of remains were unearthed in a sugar cane field in Kanchanaburi. Such a place that remained unknown and undocumented for 45 years after the event suggests a massive number of deaths among the 200-270,000 romusha that are thought to have worked somewhere in Thailand. 

Almost as an aside to this side story, the 1943 post-TBR census by the Thais also accounted for 25,000 Japanese and 33,000 POWs at the KAN camp area. That first number seems high and the latter quite low. We know from the US POW accounts that it wasn’t until early in 1944 (FEB-MAR) that many of them finally were consolidated at KAN. So, many of the Allied POWs may simply have not yet reached KAN when the count was made. There is no explanation as to the source of the Japanese nationals, although they must have been almost exclusively military. So one has to wonder about the romusha data from that head count. We also know that many of the POWs were trans-shipped to Saigon and Japan thereby lowering the number of TBR workers encamped at KAN.

[1] One Japanese source cites the number employed on the first 50 kilometer section of the TBR as 5000 with more ‘recruited’ to work in and around Kanchanaburi City and possibly to improve the road to the Tadan Bridge.

20.2.2 Who were they?

Another somewhat surprising aspect is that among the thousands of romusha there was a fair number of women. They are hardly ever mentioned in any of the accounts of the TBR. The archives of the Australian War Memorial in Melbourne contain photographs of some of these women unloading large metal 44-gal drums from rail cars. This indicates that the women were also pressed into service as laborers and were not just families of the romusha men.

The following website also addresses the plight of the romusha:

While McCormack concentrates his efforts on the numbers, it behooves us to try to grasp the human side of what transpired with these people from 1942-47. In more ways than one their lives were turned up-side down. Initially, many of them thought of the Japanese as liberators, fellow Asians who were going to cast off the oppression of European colonization. What we know today as Indonesian was then the Dutch East Indies. India, Malay, Singapore and Burma were British Colonies and although this technically afforded the inhabitants the protection of being British subjects many felt that they were being subjugated by the British.

The first act by the Japanese after conquering a country militarily was to loot it of any and all usable commodities. The natives soon realized that they, too, were little more than a commodity; to be used and disposed of as the war machine demanded. The Bushido code would not allow full assimilation of these ‘other Asians’. With minor exceptions, they were never incorporated into the IJA or Japanese industries; they were simply expendable ‘coolies’. Collectively the Japanese called them romusha.

As noted elsewhere, the initial TBR plan called for the entire project to be worked by these ‘hired’ workers. Large locally-organized recruiting centers were set up particularly across Malaya to hire workers using elaborate lies of wages and working conditions ‘to the north’. Many boarded trains with their meager belongings and families in tow, bound for an ill-defined destination. By and large, they were pushed off the trains at place called BanPong. They crossed the tracks and entered a transit camp on the grounds of an ancient temple turned house of horrors. From there, they were generally marched 100+ Kms along the path of the rail line to the place where they would now ‘work’.

It is known that the first 50 Kms of the TBR were built mainly by paid Thai labor [1]. Although the IJA marker at NongPlaDuk sets 16 SEP 42 as the official start of the TBR, the first of the British POWs had arrived from Singapore in mid-June. Precisely how they were employed for those first three months is ill-defined although it is thought that few were actually involved in construction. The NongPlaDuk camp was mainly dedicated to maintenance and supply activities. LtCol Toosey’s force of 1500 Artillerymen did not arrive at the future bridge site until November. Supposedly the TBR was completed largely by Thai laborers as far as ThaMaKam and perhaps even almost to ChungKai. That is the point where British POWs began their efforts while Toosey was building the bridges.

It is a story for another installment (see Section 20.3), but the use of Thai workers largely ceased in DEC 42 when what has become known as the BanPong Incident occurred. This created a major rift between the Railway HQ personnel, the local Thais and even the gov’t officials in Bangkok.

The larger group of US POWs didn’t arrive at their camps in Burma until JAN 43 and there were already romusha in the area. Precisely which nationalities were involved is not clear. It is thought, however, that the majority of the Asians in the area nearest Thanbyuzayat were Burmese and Mon. In addition to physically laying track, one of the primary duties of the various romusha groups was to clear the jungle and build the make-shift camps for those to follow.

One of the aspects of accounting for the numbers and the plight of these groups is that by and large upon completion of the TBR, the local Burmese and Thais simply melted back into the country-side. They rarely were consolidated to the post-construction camp at ThaMaKam.

Kyoto-Seika’s Prof Boggett relates that in the weeks between 15 AUG and official surrender on 2 SEP, the Japanese Railway HQ oversaw the destruction of most of the records at their various HQs. He goes on to say that the IJA kept their extensive POW records out of mutual military respect and some fulfillment of the Geneva Convention rules. But there were no such rules that applied to civilians so most everything was destroyed. Hence whatever account there was of their numbers or outcomes, was sent up in smoke.

The estimates of the numbers of romusha vary widely. The chart published by the TBRC as shown in section 17i (177K) is among the lowest and includes no Thais. The upper limit is 500,000 and most seem to come in around 300,000. The fate of these people is also a guess with death tolls ranging from 35-50%. But with no firm documents, all of these are ‘best guesses’.

Despite the ‘hired worker’ status that these people supposedly had, once they arrived at BanPong they were herded and treated more like cattle than humans. They had no infrastructure, no support, no supplies and no hope! Allied survivor accounts do not shed much light on their encounters with the romusha groups that were often nearby but rarely intermingled. It is reported that the small contingent of US POWs worked alongside Tamils in the area west of Hellfire Pass.

There were a few post-war studies of ‘returning’ workers that attempted to document their fate. But most of these were from a limited perspective and few offer any true documentation; mostly speculation. For example, one study attempts to document the Javanese who were ‘exported’. It mentions, but does not enumerate, that some went to Thailand. Did they indeed work the TBR; we cannot know for sure. In his diary, Sir E.E. Dunlop notes encountering some Javanese who were trekking to their assigned workplace past Hintok. He says little about them but since he was captured on Java, he provides a highly reliable witness to their presence.


Clifford Kinvig’s book, RIVER KWAI RAILWAY, provides some insight into the Burmese workers. The puppet government of Dr. Ba Maw responded the call for laborourers and delivered the first 50,000 by June 1942. This number would triple over time. Like their Thai counterparts, they were to construct the first 50 or so kilometers of the TBR starting at Thanbyuzayat. But the work went much slower. Because of a lack of equipment all they could do was move dirt. These workers who became known as the “Sweat Army” (Let Yon Tat) were able to prepare the railway trace, but there were no rails to lay. IJA teams in Malaya were busy dismantling parts of the railway there with the intention of sending that iron north, but transportation was slow in coming. The laying of rails would have to await the arrival of the POWs in OCT-NOV. Apparently, once they experienced the horror conditions in the TBR camps, thousands of them simply melted back into the countryside and found their way home.

Kinvig also introduces us to a new POW group. A group of British (about 500) and Dutch (1200 KNIL soldiers) and 2 Australians who had been captured on Sumatra arrived in Burma. They are referred to as the British Sumatra Battalion. Once there they was divided into two groups. One joined the A Force and the other went south to Mergui. (see Section 8.22)

20.2.3 Their Plight

Which brings us to the status and plight of these workers at the time of liberation of the POWs. There is no reason to suspect that what happened at the many POW camps did not also play out the same way for the remaining romusha. By and large, the IJA cadre and Korean guards simply melted away, leaving a vacuum of responsibility. It is reasonably well documented that while the POWs were first consolidated at Kanchanaburi, then dispersed to many different destinations, many if not most of the romusha stayed in jungle camps where they cut wood for fuel and performed routine maintenance on the rail line. In AUG 1945, they were simply left ‘high and dry’ by their ‘bosses’. Assuming that they made it out the jungle to some semblance of civilization in due course – of which many undoubtedly did not – they were still mostly strangers in a strange land and still far from home, wherever that was.

Once again. Prof Boggett seems to have taken an interest in their plight. He notes, with much dismay, that neither the British nor the Dutch governments seemed the slightest bit interested in their ‘subjects’. While massive efforts were underway to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of POWs of all nationalities; hardly a finger was lifted to assist any of the stranded romusha. He calls it a national disgrace.

From the above website:

“Some Rǒmusha were employed to keep the Burma-Thailand railway operating while captured Japanese personnel, prisoners of war and other Rǒmusha were being transported from locations further up the line.

In other Japanese-occupied territories Rǒmusha were given supplies of food and medical attention by American troops arriving from August–September 1945 on. However, Allied authorities in Thailand and Burma prioritised their own military personnel leaving Rǒmusha perhaps last in line for supplies.

The repatriation of Rǒmusha was managed by a number of different authorities. The British Military Administration in Malaya sent missions to Thailand in November 1945 to aid the repatriation of Malayan Rǒmusha. Dutch authorities in Java did the same for their colonial subjects, although this process was made more difficult by the Indonesian independence uprising. The Allied Bureau of Refugees and Displaced Persons and the Red Cross were also involved in the repatriation of Rǒmusha.

The return of Rǒmusha to their homes was a slow process given the worldwide scarcity of shipping and the priority accorded the repatriation of POWs by Allied authorities. While most Australian prisoners had returned home by the end of 1945, the last ship carrying Javanese from Thailand to Java did not leave until July 1947, nearly two years after the war’s end. Given these difficulties many Rǒmusha remained in Thailand or started new lives elsewhere in the Pacific.

Once back in their home town or region, Rǒmusha were often left to fend for themselves. In Malaya, some received some clothing and a small amount of money, but many received nothing.”

Seemingly, in the immediate post-war period, the throng of romusha were swelled by the former KNIL native Javanese soldiers. Political unrest and rebellion against the Dutch colonial forces was on the rise across the Dutch East Indies. It was proving difficult to arrange for the repatriation of these men. Reportedly, they and many of the romusha were still in the Kanchanaburi area well into 1947. Little is documented about their return journey.

As part of his seminal work on this group, Professor David Boggett sat for some interviews to discuss their plight:

In the above videos, Prof. Boggett touches on the history of how and why there were Indians of Tamil ancestry in Malaya in 1942 as the IJA overran the country.

Cambridge Univ article about the methods of recruitment.

20.2.4 Conclusions

Japanese historians such as Kurasawa Aiko, Gotō Kenichi, and Satō Shigeru are pioneers of research on rōmusha. Nevertheless, they have focused largely if not exclusively on Indonesia and in particular on Java, because Java was Japan’s main source of forced labourers in South East Asia. Javanese rōmusha were shipped from Java, mostly via Sumatra, to neighbouring regions, or used on the spot, including, notoriously, as forced labourers on the Burma-Siam Railway. The majority of the labourers on the “Death Railway” were not, in fact, the Allied POWs, but people from Burma or Malaya. It should also not be forgotten that the rōmusha of the Burma-Siam Railway project were themselves not the only forced labourers in the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Forced labour was used in various sectors, but not all of it was manual labour. Besides, the conditions of forced labourers could differ considerably, even on the Burma-Siam Railway.

Indeed, the prospect of recruitment for the construction work on the Burma-Siam Railway was without doubt greatly feared by all of Malaya’s local populations, their fear prompted chiefly by the reports of returnees about the appalling working conditions on the “Death Railway”. Ironically, many of those returnees had volunteered to work on the railway, but fled when they realized the truth of the situation in Siam.

At the same time as the Japanese increasingly used force to recruit labour, the local population found ways to develop avoidance strategies. For example, to escape rōmusha, some locals took to specializing in the production of certain goods necessary for the Japanese troops in the region. Others collaborated with the occupying force in other ways, such as the young men who were confronted with the choice of being frogmarched into a batch of rōmusha or volunteering to join paramilitary outfits like the heiho. Some locals did construction work other than that on the Burma-Siam Railway, perhaps working on other railway projects, or building airfields and other kinds of construction works. They were, in turn, guarded and overseen by other locals who had joined a collaborating paramilitary unit, an aspect of rōmusha that is only one “irony of the history” of the Japanese occupation of South East Asia. Further, it illustrates an unintended consequence of the actions of the occupying power, whose aim had been to recruit labour for the Burma-Siam Railway, by coercion, if necessary. Yet, the ultimate effect was that members of the labour force chose less coercive labour relations, and even if their agency led them into collaboration rather than open resistance, the imposition of particular labour relations could sometimes be eluded.

It appears as though the Tamils were shifted from Southern Indian to Malaya over many decades and were used mainly as manual laborers. One might speculate that even in Malaya they were on the lowest rung of whatever caste system existed; working as ‘coolies’ and hardly more than slaves. It is of little wonder that when the Japanese made offers of ’employment in the north’ and pro-offered the exorbitant sum of $US1 equivalent per day, thousands of these illiterate families literally jumped on the northbound trains!

Of course, the IJA had no intention what so ever of honoring any type of ‘contract’. Having been offered 90-day labor contracts, they were enslaved for 2-3 years. As they were pushed off the trains at Wat Don Toom in BanPong, they had only a glimpse of the horrors that would befall them and their accompanying families. In addition to the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway, it is estimated that an additional 60-100,000 romusha from Malaya were sent to work the much lesser known rail link termed the Kra Isthmus Railway.

Because, as Boggett explains in his writing and the above videos, the IJA destroyed every shred of paper work concerning the romusha, we will never know the true numbers nor the distribution of where the romusha worked the TBR. For the most part, when Allied POW survivor accounts even mention having contact with romusha, they fail to identify the ethnicity of those workers. It is generally believed that the the tens of thousands of Burmese (to include Mon and perhaps even some Karen) worked exclusively on the TBR within the confines of the own country. The same is true of the ‘hired’ Thai workers who laid most of the track from NongPlaDuk to Kanchanaburi and possibly on to ChungKai before British POWs began work towards the Khao Poon cuttings.

It is reported that dark-skinned workers (most likely Tamils) were employed in and around the Railway HQ at KAN, loading railway components (iron rails, wooden ties and ballast) on to barges and later trains to ferry those necessary items farther along the TBR.

The above video depicts many who appear to be romusha. One has to wonder exactly who made this film and for what purpose. No narration to reveal maker.

It is estimated that over 100,000 Javanese were also exported to the the TBR. But precisely where they worked is unclear (undocumented). An unknown number of Vietnamese (aka French Indo-Chinese) were imported into Thailand during the war, but if they worked the TBR directly is also not documented. They may have been employed in other tasks farther to the east of Thailand.

In the third video above, Prof Boggett mentions that the ONLY two memorials that he is aware of are the Thai-anusorn obelisk built by the IJA Camp Commandant in 1944 and the War Memorial in Ipoh that, when it was renovated in the 1950s, added “the Death Railway” to the list of memorialized events.

There is also the little known memorial (with an inscription date of 1957) at the Wat Yuan cemetery that contains the remains of as many as 10,000 romusha discovered in the decade or so post-war as road improvements and building took place in mid-town Kanchanaburi. This is mentioned in passing by Boggett. Finally, in 1990, as many as 400 sets of remains (thought to be largely Tamils) were unearthed from a sugar cane field in downtown KAN.

[see the other sections of this website where these memorials are discussed in more detail.]

20.2.5 Asian perspectives and background history of the Tamils:

During the WWII Japanese army used more than 250,000 Tamils in the construction of 415 KM railway between Siam and Burma to transport army supplies. During this project, it was initially believed that half of them (around 60,000) perished. However, recent research revealed that about 150,000+ Tamil Indians were killed during the duration of the Siam railway project. They fell victim to snake bites and insect bites, diseases like cholera, malaria & beriberi, massacre, torture, rape, committed suicide, etc. as they were unable to bear the burden.

In order to wipe out cholera, Japanese forces launched huge massacres against the Indians, killing massive numbers of the Tamil Indians daily. Tamil Indians also died weekly from overwork as they were worked to death like slaves.

20.2.6 Romusha lament

As the Japanese Imperial Forces (IJA) swept across SouthEast Asia, they brought along the “Greater East AsiaCoProsperity Sphere“. Indeed many of the inhabitants of those conquered countries first welcomed the IJA as liberators. They soon learned otherwise. To the Japanese, dating back decades to their conquest of Korea, these new ‘subjects’ of the Emperor were viewed as little more than slaves. They coined the word romusha which translates somewhere between slave and coolie to collectively describe them. They had always had plans to exploit them.

Then by mid-March 1942, the IJA found itself unexpectedly in possession of over 200,000 Allied POWs. Out of these, a special kind of hell would fall to about 61,000 who were sent to build a rail link between Bangkok and Rangoon. From Java, thousands of Australians, Dutch and US POWs were sent through Singapore to Burma. Thousands more, mainly British, were sent by train to Thailand. In Burma, perhaps 100,000 native Burmese and local Hilltribesmen were forced into service. In addition, ethnic Chinese from both Singapore and Malaya were sent north. Over time, added to these were small numbers of Aminese (Vietnamese) from French IndoChina and Javanese. Whether these latter were civilians or soldiers in the Dutch-led Army is not clear. Early on – between Sep and Dec ’42 – between 5 and 12 thousand Thais built the first 50 kilometers of the Thai-Burma Railway (TBR) from NongPlaDuk to Kanchanaburi. But their involvement came to an abrupt end in something called the BanPong Incident.

But by far the largest group of these Asian Force Laborers (AFL) were Indian-Tamils from Malaya. At first they arrived as ‘hired workers’ complete with their families in tow. Later, young men were simply dragged off the streets and onto trains to work the Death Railway. In 1945, as the war was turning against the Japanese, even more (likely as many as 150,000) were sent to build two other projects: the Kra Isthmus Railway and the Mergui Road.

The first Allied POWs arrived in Burma and Thailand in June 1942. Work began at both ends of the link working towards the middle. Romusha likely began to arrive at BanPong by train soon thereafter. But the first documentation that we have of them working alongside the POWs is at HellFire Pass about the 150 kilometer point in the Thai Sector. Between there and the Thai-Burma border at Three Pagodas Pass, tens of thousands of AFLs were employed. As if the severe working conditions, the malnutrition, the injuries and tropical diseases were not enough, in April-May ‘43, there was an outbreak of cholera. The camps just inside the Thai Border and down to the Hintok area were the worst affected. But it also spread somewhat into the border area of Burma.

Of course, the romusha were blamed from importing the bacteria into these camps. The AFL and the POWs may have worked side-by-side in some areas but they were always housed separately. Cholera is documented to have claimed the life of just over 1000 POWs. But in the romusha camps, thousands died!

The Allied POWs had a few advantages over the AFL. Most of them had received a crude cholera vaccine as part of their deployment to Asia. They had medical teams that understood cholera and quickly quarantined those suspected of being infected. In addition, there was the benefit of military organization and discipline. They drank only boiled water. These and other measures reduced the death toll. The romusha had none of these. Entire camps were wiped out. POWs tell of being sent to nearby romusha camps to find the entire area strewn with bodies that they were ordered to cremate. It is even said that all were not yet dead! 

Following the completion of the TBR, many of the romusha were kept in the jungles cutting wood for fuel as the POWs were moved to large camps near Kanchanaburi City. It would be many months before the AFL would join them. There are known to have been two large romusha camps. One near the current War Graves Cemetery and one somewhat farther east (close to where the large traffic circle is now on Sang Chuto Road). The latter likely contained the Kra Isthmus and Mergui workers.

Even the end of the war did not spell a respite for the AFL. Within weeks, all of the Allied POWs had departed Kanchanaburi and most were in their home country by the end of 1945. The Dutch were the exception. Political turmoil prevented their return for many months.  

Even though the majority of the romusha were technically British subjects (if not fully British citizens) the government did nothing to assist their return home. Many were still in these camps well into 1947.

And we stand here, today, at their gravesite!

This memorial was built in 1957 over a vault that is said to contain uncounted sets of remains! The Chinese language inscription translates as “Grave of 10,000 Souls”. But the character used is not a number so much as one meaning “many, many”.

Oral histories tell us that in the field across from the CWGC cemetery there was a hospital that first served Allied POWs then the remaining romusha. Witnesses relate that every day the hospital staff would dig a hole and throughout the day they would add the bodies of those who died; three, five, seven; day after day; for two years. In the evening they’d close that grave and begin anew the next morning. In the late 1940s and on into the ‘50s, as the roadway was widened and building begun in the area of the previous camp, these graves were exposed. Since the land in which they reposed had formerly been owned by the nearby temple, the abbot took responsibility for them. Over the years, three separate burial ceremonies were held. By the mid-50s, no more remains were being found. The vault – now said to be a 10 meter cube – was sealed and this memorial built. But even then, no one was sure and no one made the effort to note exactly who was buried there! The romusha story was all but lost to history.

Then decades later, along came a British history professor teaching in Japan. Dr. David Boggett became interested in and documented much of the romusha story told herein. By following his leads and linking them to other stories, it was surmised that this grave can contain nothing other than AFL. They are not POWs. The Thais do not bury their dead; they cremate them. Time, location and numbers tell us – however indirectly – that these are romusha and mostly then Tamil-Indians.

So it was through the hard work and dedication of Professor Boggett that a group of Malaysians, many of whom had relatives among the AFL, sought the permission of the temple abbot to refurbish and re-dedicate this memorial to the Asian Forced Laborers of that era.

We will never know their names.

We will never know how many nor exactly where they came from.

We can, however, try to tell their story so that they will never be forgotten.

20.2.7 Who and when

It is amazing that the story of 500,000 people can simply disappear from history. How could they disappear without a trace?  Most of what we think we know about the romusha is inferred from the contact they had with Allied POWs. Immediately post-war, the IJA destroyed all records that they had amassed on this group; while simultaneously preserving the records of the POWs.

The most solid (pun intended) evidence we have are the three engraved marble slabs at the Thai-anusorn shrine. The Aminese (Vietnamese), Indonesian (Sumatran) and Tamil language inscriptions attest to their presence on the TBR. Interestingly enough the second largest group — the Burmese – are not mentioned therein[1]. When the Allied POWs encountered these Asians along the railway they had little or no experiences to allow them to specifically identify any of the various ethnic groups. Apparently, they could easily distinguish them from the local Thai natives but they went no farther. There are frequent notations of encounters with ‘dark-skinned natives’ who we would assume were the Tamil-Indians. The POWs would not have had any familiarity with any of the other Asian languages as an identifying factor.

We know almost nothing about their arrival dates or assigned places of work except as mentioned by POWs who note nearby romusha camps. The first location that we have photographic documentation of them working side-by-side with the POWs is at HellFire Pass. We have POW accounts from NongPlaDuk, ChungKai and WangPo that make no mention of romusha. So we have no documentation of their presence in the first 150 kilometers of the Thai Sector. I extract the Thais who built the first 50 Kms to Kanchanaburi as not precisely belonging to the romusha work force in that the conditions under which they worked were vastly different (and better) than those imported from the south.

There are fleeting references to suggest that romusha were responsible for maintenance of the NongPlaDuk to Kanchanaburi section. There were small IJA garrisons and transit camps along that section where they might have been housed. This intervening area had no permanent Allied POW presence.

Undoubtedly the vast majority of the romusha in the Thai Sector worked in the highlands; HellFire, Hintok and beyond. This is where the Apr-May cholera outbreak claimed tens of thousands of their lives. Allied POWs were sent to their camps to cremate the remains since there were too few of them alive to perform that task. In a futile effort to lend assistance to their plight, medical personnel were sent from Singapore designated as K and I Force. These were sent to the romusha camps but it was too little too late.

Culturally, most of these groups would have used cremation as their primary means of disposal of remains. The exception may be the Tamils. This may explain why so few bones are found in the jungles. One might expect that if there were thousands of burials in the jungles, such remains would be unearthed periodically. Even today, metal artifacts are rather easily found even without metal detectors. Bones less so. Of course, one can understand why a farmer who may encounter such while working his fields would not be inclined to make a report. The ensuing publicity would likely disrupt his livelihood. I have personally heard the story of a Thai farmer finding the remains of Japanese soldiers, identified by the accompanying clothing and insignias, which he quietly reburied on his land so as not to incur any publicity. I would suspect, however, that the vast majority of the romusha were not buried by their compatriots but rather cremated leaving no trace.

We have no documentation of the Australian graves searchers recovering any romusha remains. Granted, that was not their mandate and they may not have made any attempt to recover them had they been found, but we have no reports of such sites being discovered.

I have also yet to find any suggestion that any of the romusha survivors documented their experiences in writing. There are a few existing books in Tamil language that are about the TBR but them seem to be written by secondary authors relating events as were told to them by the survivors. Or they were simply Tamil language translations of English language texts published from local consumption. In other words, there seem to be no unique stories written by any survivors. Of course, the romusha themselves were likely to have been largely illiterate!

It must also be noted that even today the Burmese Sector of the TBR is still a remote, undeveloped area and is politically inaccessible. There are no modern roads beyond Thanbyuzayat. Seemingly no Burmese or Western scientists had ever explored this area. There is a group of young Thais who regularly trek the Thai Highlands documenting the TBR trace and recovering artifacts. One has to wonder if they have a Burmese counterpart. It is also worthy of note that even the London-based CWGC has limited access to the cemetery that they maintain in Burma. Few people have had the opportunity to visit that site. Having an acute interest in the US POW story, it bears repeating that the majority of the 131 US POW deaths occurred in Burma and had the US not repatriated those remains, they would also be inaccessible to relatives and interested parties.

There is another anecdote worth relating concerning the presence of Javanese on the TBR. It seems to be the consensus that one inscription at the Thai-anusorn shrine is written in the Sumatran dialect. However we also know that that dialect was spoken in Malaya at that time! There were Sumatran emigrants, possibly escaping the Dutch colonial regime, living in Malaya. So which ethnic group was being commemorated in 1944? It is thought that there were indeed some Javanese imported to the TBR. We have one rather reliable collaborating story. LtCol E.E. Dunlop notes in his war diary that he encountered a group of Javanese who passed through his camp at Hintok en route to their assigned work place. Dunlop was eminently qualified to identify them as Javanese in that he was captured on Java in Mar 42. He does not identify this group as civilian or KNIL soldiers[2], simply as Javanese men. We know that Javanese natives were exported by the IJA to other countries but little else is documented about their presence on the TBR. Why then would the inscription be in a different dialect? Who precisely was it commemorating? Just another layer to the enigma of this shrine!

Various reports say that the majority of the romusha were Tamil-Indians. There were also the Aminese, Indonesians (Javanese?) and ethnic Chinese from both Singapore and Malaya who worked the TBR. In the Burmese Sector the conscripted workers were all native Burmese or local hill tribesmen. These were likely the second largest group. A few thousand Thais also were ‘hired’ early in the effort.

But the story of the romusha is almost completely lost to history!

[1] This might be explained in that this shrine was built by a member of the Ninth Railway Regiment whereas the Burmese Sector was overseen by the Fifth Regiment.

[2] The POWs identified as Dutch were almost exclusively of European stock. There were native Javanese conscripted into the KNIL but these would have been separated from their fellow European soldiers. Researchers who address the export of Javanese do not distinguish KNIL POWs from local civilians.

20.2.8 Burmese romusha remembered

transcribed from the DEATH RAILWAY MUSEUM, Burma FACEBOOK PAGE:

Letter to the Japan Times by a “Burman” datelined Osaka, 1st. November, 1976.

“In building the Thai-Burma Railroad, your paper says, 30,000 (Burmese) natives died.

Among them were many of my compatriots, Burmese nationals. I still vividly remember mothers, wives, children and other loved ones were left behind weeping silently while men were dragged away by the dreaded Taimen Tetsudo Kensetsu Hoshitai from their homes in many villages and towns in our part of the country.

Some of these men escaped, some came back, after months of forced labor, emaciated and afflicted with one kind of disease or another, but many did not return home at all.

They were not POWs. They were just ordinary citizens. So, at that fearful time, we used to mumble sadly an ancient Burmese proverb that we were like “the grass between two fighting buffaloes.” Now…, I feel strongly that these poor victimized men, dead and living alike, should also be given a place – a grateful recognition. Merely because they were “natives”…, they should not be forgotten, ignored and neglected.

Many of them may still be living in Burma and in Thailand. Of course, they do not belong to great nations and big developed countries.”

“The Sweat Army, one of the biggest rackets of the Japanese interlude in Burma is an equivalent of the slave labour of Nazi Germany. It all began this way.

The Japanese needed a land route from China to Malaya and Burma, and Burma as a member or a future member of the Co-prosperity Sphere was required to contribute her share in the construction of the Burma-Thailand (Rail) Road…. The greatest publicity was given to the labour recruitment campaign. The rosiest of wage terms and tempting pictures of commodities coming in by way of Thailand filled the newspapers. Special medical treatment for workers and rewards for those remaining at home were publicised. Advance wages to provide for the wife and children attracted enterprising labourers from all over the country…. To cut the story short, these terms were never fulfilled…. The local Japanese methods of recruitment was conscription of the most brutal type. The Burmese officers could do nothing about it without risking violence…. There were cases where professional sweat army men could not be obtained. In such cases men were forcibly dragged away from their homes. When they reached the labour camps and had started working, thousands saw neither the much promised clothing and cash, nor the food and medical aid…. These men were taken into malarial jungles without sufficient clothes, food and shelter, and made to clear the wonderful road that was to make Burma (into) a Paradise (as) the terminus of a gigantic Co-prosperity Sphere railway from China.”

– U Hla Pe in his “Narrative of the Japanese Occupation of Burma “(Cornell University, 1961).

In Hindi language(?) but a powerful depiction.

Sikhs on the TBR!

Many of the comfort women came from the same ethnic groups as the romusha:

Romusha camp conditions and medical treatment:

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