David John Boggett is a Professor Emeritus of Kyoto Seika University, where he taught Japanese and Asian history for more than 30 years. He received his B.A. and M.A. in History from Cambridge University. He was a member of the Faculty of Humanities after it was opened in 1989. Today, K-SU is known for its concentration in the areas of art/design/manga, but has always had a wider “liberal arts” focus as well.
He now resides in ChiangRai, North Thailand.
He apparently became interested in the Thai-Burma Railway story as part of teaching WW2 history to Japanese and some foreign students. Over decades he traveled extensively in SEA, photographing and conducting interviews of TBR-era individuals. He wrote and lectured extensively as well. A series of articles were published in The Journal of Kyoto Seika University (a biannual publication) from 2000 (Part 1) through 2005 (Part 10)* that detailed the TBR story particularly as it involved the Romusha = the Asian = workers of many nationalities and ethnic lineage that were lured to ’employment’ by lavish promises. Without this series, a huge part of the TBR / Romusha story would be lost.
Kyoto Journal is an all-volunteer-produced English-language quarterly, not directly connected with Kyoto-Seika Univ.
[I have gleaned tidbits of the professor’s work to support content in many places throughout this website. It have tagged them with a code like Bg##pg** where the ## is the part (19-28) of his publications and ** is the page number within that essay.]
The more I read of Prof Boggett’s seminal works on the romusha, the more depressing their saga becomes. What started out as a ‘hired workers’ (aka “economic soldiers”) program soon deteriorated into impress gangs herding thousands of young males to their death not unlike cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.
Many of the Tamils from Malaya were indeed offered 90-day contracts at the exorbitant rate of $US1 (equivalent) per day. In addition, they were promised comfortable working conditions, medical care, and recreational opportunities. So great was the draw to abandon their lowest caste coolie status in their adopted home in Malaya, that they eagerly boarded the trains with wives and children in tow, lugging what meager possessions they had acquired. Their arrival days later at Wat Dom Toom was a vision of hell not the paradise they were promised.
Various local organizations across Malaya were ‘enlisted’ by the IJA authorities to recruit their various ethnic groups into such a program. For the most part, these efforts fell far short of expectations. When targets were not met, the IJA resorted to more dubious methods – some rather ingenious. Free movies were advertised and the men who showed up were herded off most never to be seen again.
Within Thailand itself, measures were far less extreme. The early contingent who built much of the first 50 Kms of the TBR were indeed paid locals who were subjected to none of the horrors of the later stages of the TBR. The Dec 1942 BanPong Incident (see Section 20f) put an end to Thai-Japanese ‘cooperation’ and the IJA sought new manpower elsewhere.
As recounted in Section 20b, the true numbers of the romusha will never be known. The most accurate account of who (not how many) worked the TBR comes from the Japanese themselves in the form of the Thaiyanusorn Obelisk near the Bridge. And yet as discussed in Section 10c above, there are questions, indeed even mysteries about this memorial. Suffice it to say for our purposes here, that the most valuable contribution of this monument as it sits today is the inclusion of a Vietnamese language inscription. This provides a clear historical record that Indo-Chinese workers were imported to work the TBR. This is perhaps the least well documented group to do so. Were it not for this inscription, there contribution many have been lost to history. It is, however, somewhat better documented that many of them were brought only as far as Isaan where they worked other construction projects unrelated to the TBR.
Since the IJA seemingly tried to erase all records of the romusha in the weeks following the end of hostilities, we have to reply on the second-hand accounts of Allied POWs to account for the existence and the hardships of this segment of the TBR history. Unfortunately, for accuracy’s sake, the POWs rarely documented the true ethnic origins of the romusha that they encountered. The unfortunate adage that ‘all Asians look alike’ certainly applies here. The darker-skinned nature of the Tamils made them somewhat easier to separate as an entity. But there was little that an Allied POW could utilize to distinguish the various other Asian groups from one another.
These accounts allow us to place some of the various groups in specific places along the TBR and at specific times. But for the most part who worked where and when is largely undocumented. Given the fact that most of the KNIL POWs were actually Euro-Asian Javanese, they could have the ability to communicate with their Javanese civilian counterparts, but few records of such encounters are recorded in the English language literature. Perhaps there are Dutch-language accounts buried deep in libraries somewhere.
As we move towards a fitting memorial for these nearly forgotten Asian “economic soldiers”, it behooves us to attempt to document their story to the greatest extent possible.