to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.02 TBR build

Part 2 of this series: Building the TBR

Any story is best told from a perspective, the first part of this essay will relate the building of the Burma Sector of the TBR as experienced by the US POWs who labored there.

Just under 700 American POWs were sent to work in Burma beginning in NOV 1942. They were joined by thousands of Dutch and Australians who had also been taken as POWs when the Japanese invaded the DEI Island of Java.


From Mar – Oct 1942, life as a POW was actually quite tolerable. The various groups of POWs had been consolidated to the former home base of a KNIL unit that served as a police force in and around Batavia. They rode bicycles, hence their barracks was known as the Bicycle Camp. The buildings were large and reasonably modern so there adequate space. It was a standard IJA policy to house their prisoners by nationality but allow a general freedom of movement within the camp. Demands on the POWs were few. The combat troops that were guarding them were happy as long as the prisoners caused no trouble and they rarely ventured inside the camp. POW life was rather boring to the point where men volunteered for the occasional work parties for a change of venue and a chance to trade with the natives. There was adequate water for sanitation and cooking. Food was abundant if unfamiliar, unappetizing and repetitive. Rice was the main staple. The Australians had to teach the American how to cook it! Designated officers were allowed to go into town to buy extra food at the markets with funds available to them. To relieve the boredom, sports competitions and a ‘university’ of sorts were established. Life was more or less the same for the US, Australian, Dutch and British.

Things changed at about JUL 42 when the combat troops were replaced by POW guard units consisting of IJA cadre and Korean guards.


In OCT, the men at the Bicycle Camp were sorted into groups and were told to prepare to move. For the US POWs, there were three different groups. The first to depart included about 60 Americans under the command of Army CPT Zeigler. These had been identified as having ’technical skills’. They were headed to Japan. Another group of about 200 commanded by CPT Fitzsimmons boarded a Hellship for Singapore. After only a few days there, they were shipped to Burma where they joined the growing TBR workforce.

The next to depart was the largest US contingent of about 500 commanded by LTC Tharp. They too were destine for Burma via Singapore.  

We must diverge here and explain just who these men were. The US troops captured on Java came from two different sources. The first set of prisoners were about 400 survivors of the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS HOUSTON off the coast of Java on 1 March. The HOUSTON was accompanied by the HMAS PERTH. About 400 Australian sailors survived to be taken as POWs. Over the next few weeks, these along with thousands of Dutch POWs were consolidated to a camp in Batavia.


In Jan 42, about 550 members of the Texas Nat’l Guard unit the 2nd Bn 131st Field Artillery Regiment had arrived on Java. They had been en route to the Philippines in DEC 41 and were re-routed to Australia then ordered to Java to support the KNIL in the defense of the island. In the first week of the invasion, the 2/131 expended most of its ammunition in support of Australian infantry units guarding a bridge over the Tjianten River just south of Batavia. The advancing IJA units managed to cross the river downstream and outflank the Australians forcing them to withdraw. The artillerymen followed. While they were awaiting new ordered, they learned that the Dutch authorities (on 8 March 42) had capitulated. Soon, all were taken as POWs and eventually were moved to the Bicycle Camp. It was here that they met their Navy and Marine counterparts. By that time almost all of the Navy officers had been shipped to other locations – many ended up in Manchuria! Again, due to the Japanese policy of segregating the various nationalities, their Branch of Service was all but ignored. Each of the work groups was a blend of Army, Navy and Marines with even a few Army Air Force personnel mixed in. Later they would be joined by some Merchant Mariners.

There were another 117 members from E Battery of the 2/131 who had been left to defend Surabaja in Eastern Java. They arrived at Batavia a few days after the others had departed. Finally, for a variety of reasons, there were 57 men who were  left at the Bicycle Camp.

The E Battery group met up with the Tharp group in Singapore but were never re-unite with them. Soon they were on their way to Japan. Likely due to a lack of available transportation, the Tharp group languished in Singapore until Jan 1943.

Highlands vs. Lowlands

While not an absolute distinction in altitude, the terrain in each Sector of the TBR can be conveniently divided into Lowlands and Highlands. The latter being the area in each country closest to the border. The quality of life for the POWs was highly dependent on which region they were assigned to. Not only were the Highlands more remote and rugged, they were farthest from the supply base camps. Camp life there was much worse and their death toll much higher than for those who worked exclusively in the Lowlands. For the US personnel in Burma this was especially true. The early arriving Fitzsimmons group spent most of their TBR time near Thanbyuzayat at camps designated 18-40 for the number of Kilos from that base camp. They did some construction and track laying but spent the majority of time working as stevedores shifting and sorting supplies.

Upon their arrival, the Tharp group was sent directly to the 80 Kilo camp. There they leveled ground to provide a stable roadbed and spent a considerable amount of time building bridges. They suffered the most and experienced the majority of the 131 deaths among the US POWs.

Due to the slow rate at which rails were laid in Burma, that Sector was only 140 kilometers long versus 275 in Thailand. The Highlands Section on the Thai side was much longer as well; over 150 kilometers.

Progress in the Thai Sector

Construction could not wait for the bridge at KAN to be built. New workers were constantly arriving. They were ferried up the Kwai Noi River by barge to a series of camps. Each camp was responsible for about 10 km of track. Once work was completed in one place those men would usually be leap-frogged farther along to a new camp.

The first true work camp on the west bank of the Mae Klong was at ChungKai near the point where the Kwae Noi joins it at KAN City. This turned out to be a microcosm of the work along the TBR. The POWs likely laid the tracks from the bridges to that camp. On the far side, they had to move dirt to make a 10m high ‘fill’ to level the ground at the river’s edge. Next came the first of many ‘cuttings’ that were required to breech limestone outcroppings that blocked the chosen route. Last, they built a moderate sized wooden bridge over a ravine. Meanwhile, work was progressing over the next 50 kms. At KM 115 progress was halted by a massive mountain that reached all the way to the river’s edge. It was impossible to cut through or go around. The only solution was to hang 400m of track off the sheer cliff face as WangPo viaduct. Today, the operating train still crosses this (refurbished) viaduct as it carries tourists to the NamTok (aka Tarsao at Km 125) Station.

Once again, construction could not wait for this section to be completed. Newly arriving POWs were now supplemented by thousands of Tamil-Indians from Malaya[1]. These were known collectively as the romusha. These were all routed around the limestone mountain. To get there they would trek past Kanchanaburi City and cross the Mae Klong River at a place named Tadan which had the only bridge in the area. They would then make their way SW back to the railway trace.

At WangPo, the trace took a turn to the right away from the river. After about 40 Kms, there was another large outcropping that required a cutting. This was at Kanyu. It was to be the longest and deepest of all the TBR’s cuttings. It would become known as HellFire Pass for the torches and fires that were needed as the POWs and romusha worked round the clock to chop through 75m by 25m of stone.

The POWs who worked here were largely Australians, but this is also the first site where large numbers of romusha were documented to be working alongside the prisoners. Over 200 POWs and an uncounted number of romusha died in the 10 weeks it took to build. Nearly 100 are said to have been beaten or worked to death.

Next came a transition area called Hintok where the tracks took a long horse-shoe bend o the north that required two viaducts and a number of cuttings and bridges over ravines. This was some of the more arduous work. Australians organized as D & H Forces worked here along with thousands of romusha. About 3 dozen Americans, including 7 Merchant Mariners, were included in H Force. Beyond Hintok as the tracks moved away from the river and into the Highlands, there lay another 150 Kms of the most remote, rugged, virgin jungle. Living conditions in the camps beyond WangPo deteriorated rapidly due to the difficultly of delivering even the most basic supplies. Work conditions worsened as the monsoon season began in May.

Early in 1943, despite about 50,000 POWs and perhaps 150,000 romusha at work on the Railway, the IJA Engineers began to worry that they could not met their December deadline for completion. They put in a call to Singapore for 10,000 more POWs and as many romusha as could be ‘recruited’. Recruitment in Malaya consisted of gang pressing young men off the streets and tossing them on trains to BanPong. In Burma, there was a constant need to replenish the native work force as they would simply melt back into the jungles to go home.  

April and May were a busy time. Trains regularly arrived at BanPong each carrying 5-600 men. Having spent over a year in Singapore prison camps, there were no longer 10,000 fit men left to send north. A large percentage of the men sent as F & H Forces were suffering from malaria, dysentery or both. The early effects of malnutrition were also evident. They would then begin their 2-300 kilometer trek to their assigned work place. Many never arrived.

For the workers already present, this became known as the Speedo period as the engineers and guards demanded more output over longer hours. Any slowdown was met with a strike from a bamboo pole or worse. The monsoon rains were in full effect as well. Dirt became mud. Sanitary conditions in the camps worsened rapidly. And then came cholera! 

F Force had skipped over the Hintok area where H Force would later work. No sooner had this 7000-man work force reached their assigned camps near the border than there was an outbreak of cholera. Many POWs fell ill and about 1000 died in a few weeks. Work ground to a halt! The romusha died by the thousands.

Cholera isolation tents

The soldiers generally had had some injections of the crude vaccine that was available in that era. Not so for the romusha! They were blamed for introducing the bacteria. They had no immunity and no understanding of measures of prevention. Infected soldiers were quickly isolated. The doctors insisted that only boiled water be drunk. Not so for the romusha! They died by the thousands! Entire camps were wiped out. The Japanese had an extreme fear of this disease. POWs were sent in to build huge funeral pyres. It is said that some who the Japanese insisted be burned were not quite yet dead.

Despite all this, in a super-human — and many would say inhuman effort — the two sections of the TBR met at Konkoita (Kilo 263 from NPD) on 17 OCT 43; two months ahead of schedule. It had cost the lives of 12,000 POWs and untold numbers of romusha. Estimates are that their death toll was close to 40% compared to an overall toll of 20-25% among the POWs. For comparison, the accepted death toll among Allied POWs held by the Nazis (excluding Russians) was less than 5%!

After the construction phase was complete, the workers were slowly moved to ‘rest camps’ near the bridges at KAN. Despite the lack of labor demands and the improved diet, the dying continued. As for the American POWs, the smaller Fitzsimmons group had been moved into Thailand after the cholera had subsided. They were quickly shifted to the KAN camp and many were then sent on to Japan or Vietnam (then still French Indo-China). The Tharp group remained in the jungle assigned to cut wood for train fuel. They were among the last of the POWs to finally arrive in KAN in May 44.

[1] Tamils comprised the vast majority of the romusha in Thailand. Other ethnic groups such as Javanese, Chinese and even Vietnamese were present in much smaller numbers.