to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.08 Australians

To commemorate the role of the Australian POWs, the Australian government has laid claim to HellFire Pass.

Early on, most of the AUS POWs who worked the TBR did so in Burma. Like the Americans, they had been captured during the fall of the island of Java. But one group is of interest and adds an element of confusion to the AUS saga. In Jan 43, a work group designated as JAVA 8 arrived in Thailand from Singapore. It consisted of 1200 Australians and almost 9000 Dutch. The most famous man among them was LtCol E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop. He became so well-known and was the embodiment of the AUS force that this group is sometimes referred to as the Dunlop Force. They were assigned to work from a series of camps in the Hintok area.

A bit of confusion was introduced in that the next trains from Singapore carried more AUS (about 2200) as well as 2800 British as part of D Force that seemingly had been captured in the fall of Singapore. On 25 Apr 43 – the anniversary of the WW 1 invasion at Gallipoli – D Force began work on HellFire Pass. Hence Dunlop and D Force are entirely different, but since they worked the same area there is a tendency to confuse them as one and the same.

The 100 kilometer portion of the Railway from ChungKai to Kunyo (HellFire) was constructed mainly by British POWs. HellFire and Hintok were the first documented appearance of Australian troops in the Thai Sector. It is also well documented that there were thousands of romusha working alongside these POWs.

For all of these reasons in the late 1990s, the Australians built an Interpretive Center (museum), refurbished the cutting itself and reclaimed a walking trail from the jungle. Since this site is approx-imately an hour’s drive past the Bridge, it is less well attended by the common day-trippers. In addition to the center/museum, there is an annual observance held there on ANZAC Day (25 April). This takes the form of a dawn service and until lately included the return of AUS POWs. Today, any who survive 80 years after the war are too old to make the trip.

Following soon after D Force was H Force (in May 43) that included only about 700 AUS among its 3300. They too began work in the area known as Hintok. Work parties from H soon were called upon to augment the D Force men at HellFire.

The largest contingent of Australian POWs was included in F Force accounting for 3600 of the 7000. Because F Force was an amalgamation of men left in Singapore, it is hard to know if these AUS POWs originated at Singapore or Java. F Force trekked past Hintok into the Thai Highlands.

Mainly due to F Force, there were actually more AUS POWs working the Thai Sector (8000) than in Burma (5000). But it must be remembered that the total Burma POW work force was only one-quarter that of the Thai Sector (11000 vs 46000).  

I also find it of passing interest that at the ChungKai[1] and Thanbyuzayat cemeteries the graves are arranged by nationality. But at the largest cemetery in Kanchanaburi City, the Australian graves are not separated from the British. The Dutch graves occupy a separate portion in the rear of the site while the larger section is referred to as the Commonwealth area, with UK and AUS graves comingled. It is not obvious what system was used to determine the order in which these men were finally laid to rest. There is a suggestion that men who died in the same place are buried together, but this is not always consistent. There are almost equal numbers of AUS graves (1300) at the two1 cemeteries.

Australians played a critical role in the immediate post-war period as well. They were the ones who took control of the effort to gather the remains of the POWs who died during the TBR construction. In fact, most of the photographs that we have of the TBR were taken post-war. The Japanese had crews document portions of the TBR effort, but not many of these photos or film clips are in the public domain. Whether there is still a cache of such in existence is a matter of speculation. Any photos by the Japanese would have been made for propaganda / publicity purposes and therefore would have concentrated on showing IJA soldiers at work. Most images of the POWs are from that immediate post-war period. Hence they tend to show well-clothed and fed men.

[1] There are no Australian graves at ChungKai.