to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.11 some history


Along the 415 km course of the TBR, there are any number of points were the terrain and geography dictated the path that needed to be followed and the type of work demanded. Therefore, the geography greatly influenced the history of the construction. I like to divide geography from history in addressing the basic questions. Geography addresses the Where, How and Why; while history tells of the Who, When and What.

In the EXPLORE TBR series of YOUTUBE videos, Kevin Roberts does an extraordinary job of addressing the geography and engineering of the TBR but largely excludes the history portion. I’d suggest that the two are inexorably linked and could and should be told together. His series is directed to those intrepid enough to want to seek out and trek the parts of the TBR that can be found today (2023). As the infrastructure of the Province continues to improve, sometimes access is made easier, i.e. paved roads vs dirt trails. But at the same time the traces of the Railway are harder to find as the jungle or development / farming claim more of the land. Recycling and looting as well as age have claimed most of the wood and iron leaving some residual concrete and an occasional embedded tie (sleeper). Beyond HellFire Pass, the TBR is little more than a scar in the landscape that can only be recognized if one knows where to look. Of course, due to both political and terrain restrictions, the Burmese Sector of the TBR is completely inaccessible.

Geographically, some of the POW camp sites are well documented and a few are relatively easy to locate by known landmarks. Many of the camps, however, existed for a very short time and left little trace. Many of those between ChungKai and WangPo have simply disappeared; assisted by development. But in this 50 km stretch, there would not have been much to mark their presence even after they were newly abandoned as construction was completed in the immediate area and the workers leap-frogged to farther camps. As to the Who, When and What: up to WangPo the vast majority of the POWs were British from Singapore. Much of this section was complete by March 43. Once the rails were laid over this relatively flat unobstructed terrain, the camps were abandoned and the POW moved. I believe that this is how ChungKai was turned into a ‘hospital’ camp. As the POWs were being moved farther along, a certain percentage would be too ill to proceed. They were loaded onto the returning supply barges and ferried to ChungKai where they were expected to die! Many of the original ChungKai POWs had already been sent forward so there was a conveniently located camp near the HQ in Kanchanaburi City to warehouse the ‘nearly dead’.

The first place that geography and terrain set the course of the TBR was in finding a place to build the bridge(s) across the Mae Klong River. The easiest and most direct route would have been to cross just east of the walled city. Core samples, however, revealed the river bed too silted to support the structure; the bed rock too deep. Plus the Kwae Noi River was notorious for annual flooding, so a bridge downstream would be subjected to enormous water pressure. The first place found suitable was the site of the existing iron bridge 3 Kms NW of the city.  

But this then led to the next terrain issue. Engineers like straight lines: the shortest distance between two points. But a straight line drawn westward from the bridges runs into a huge escarpment. It was deemed impossible to lay track over that mountain. So the rail line had to be run along the west bank of the river essentially doubling back until it reached the Kwae Noi River. Even so, they then had to slice through two limestone outcroppings that reached all the way to the river bank.  This is where the first true work camp was established at ChungKai. From here the line would run west roughly parallel to the river.

I suggest that the ChungKai work area was a microcosm of the entire TBR. The workers (many of them British officers) first had to build a 10m berm to level the land. They then made the first two of many cuttings through limestone obtacles. Then came a moderately large wooden bridge; still today referred to as the “Officer’s Bridge”. I have yet to find a record as to who laid the tracks from the river crossing to ChungKai. It might have been the bridge builders, but my bet would be on the ChungKai crew.

There were then another 50 Kms of ‘easy work’ before the next major terrain feature. Chief Engineer Futamatsu describes it in his trip up the river. From the boat, he spotted the sheer cliff face at WangPo. He says he was awestruck but immediately began sketching a design of the viaduct that would be needed to past it. Again, a team of mainly British POWs built the 400m of trestle in just a few weeks; finishing it by mid-April. But there was still a problem. Even after the viaduct was complete, it allowed only for the passage of trains. There was no pedestrian access.

In order to move newly arriving workers past WangPo, they had to continue their trek west from Kanchanaburi to a place called Tadan (almost to LatYa). Here was the only existing bridge over the Mae Klong. Once on the south bank, they would have to continue overland to the SW until they intersected the Railway trace near Tarsao. They could then continue their long march more or less following the Railway path until they reached their assigned place of work.

Immediately beyond WangPo, the terrain dictated that the line swing to the right (north) away from the river; thus making supply more difficult. More workers, greater distances, monsoon rains all conspired to create the horrendous conditions that we associate with these camps. Completing the work in the 100 Km up to WangPo was relatively benign compared to the next 200 Km to the border!

Next on the terrain obstruction list is the outcropping at Kunyo which would become known as HellFire Pass. It is the longest (400m) and deepest (25m) of any of the cuttings. A large part of that story is also the WHO. It was worked mainly by Australian POWs and it is the first place were large numbers of romusha were documented to be working alongside the POWs.

Then, in the Hintok area, the last place were geography seriously impacted the route of Railway, there was a large Horse-shoe-curved segment that required the Three-tiered and Pack-of-Cards bridges as well as a series of cutting and some serious bridging over ravines in this increasingly rugged terrain. Once beyond Hintok and KinSaiYok (Km 160), there was nearly 150 kms of exceedingly remote and rather rugged terrain up to the Thai-Burma border at Three Pagodas Pass. Except for the wolfram mine near the small town at Tha Kanun, there was no other habitation in the area. This was rugged, virgin jungle.

The story of the last 40 Kms beyond Konkoita (Km 263) becomes more a tale of WHO rather than WHERE (geography)! The WHEN is March 1943. The IJA Engineers were beginning to worry that they may not make their December deadline for completion. They put in a call to Singapore to send more workers. For the POWs already present, this was known as the Speedo period where they worked from ‘dark to dark’ and beatings increased for any perceived slow work!

Arriving by train soon thereafter were the 7000-man F Force and 3000-man H Force as well as tens of thousands more romusha. Having spent a year already in Singapore, these 10,000 POWs who arrived at BanPong were not in the best of shape. Then they had to trek the 250+ Kms to their assigned workplaces in the last camps in Thailand. Many never arrived! These were intended to be the replacement workers to finish the Railway.

Almost immediately upon their arrival in the border area, cholera struck. It was blamed on the romusha who outnumbered the POWs by far. It swept through the camps (Changaraya, the 3 SongKurai camps and Nike). The POWs by and large had had prior cholera vaccine injections. These were at least partially effective. Hundreds of POWs died, many more were infected and incapacitated but survived. By comparison, the romusha encamped nearby died by the thousands. POWs were sent to their camps to build huge funeral pyres. All who were cremated were not necessarily as yet dead! The bacteria spread (possibly via the Kwae Noi River) back as far as Hintok, but the infection and death rates there were much lower. Fortunately, the outbreak was relatively brief, peaking in late May and early June and subsiding quickly thereafter. But work had come nearly to a complete halt. As the outbreak subsided, work crews were brought over from Burma and in conjunction with the F Force and romusha survivors, the two segments of the Railway met at Konkoita on 17 October 1943; two months ahead of schedule.

The Burma Sector

Geography and terrain played a much smaller role in Burma. Dutch (5500), Australian (5000) and US (700) POWs were sent there from Java via Singapore. They were augmented by perhaps 100,000 native Burmese. The vast majority of the 48,000 POWs who worked in Thailand had been captured at Singapore. A few Australians, Dutch and US from Java found themselves in Thailand but the majority of those captured on Java went to Burma.

Only 100 Km of the 415 that comprised the TBR were in Burma. The work there was overseen by the 5th Railway Regiment with the 9th heading up the Thai Sector.

The first 80 or so kilometers were over generally flat unobstructed terrain. There were no limestone outcroppings requiring cuttings. Preparatory work proceeded apace. The major impediment to completion of the system was a lack of iron rails. While the POWs and Burmese toiled moving soil, IJA Engineers in Malaya were tearing up tracks and looting rolling stock to be sent to Burma.

In the 20 Kms nearest the border, the Tenassarine Mountains run north and south across the path of the Railway path. The workers there spent much of their time building bridges across the rivers that crossed that path. The famous Bridge at ThaMaKam was the longest, but the next 4 were in Burma. Three of those were also made of iron.

With no river and no roads to facilitate the movement of supplies, conditions in the Burma camps were every bit as bad as the worst in Thailand. Fortunately, because there was little direct contact across the border, these workers were spared the worst of the cholera outbreak. There were some cases, but the death toll and overall effect were minimal compared to Thailand.

Soon after the outbreak subsided, POWs from Burma were moved into Thailand to assist in completing the Railway. It is not thought that many (if any) Burmese natives were moved across the border.  

Perhaps because the work was ‘less eventful’ we know considerably fewer specifics about the work in Burma. But what we do know about conditions and the treatment of the workers generally parallels the state of affairs in Thailand. The vast majority of deaths that occurred in Burma occurred in those camps closest to the border and during the Speedo period of accelerated work pace. Also, unlike the various national and ethnic groups who composed the romusha in Thailand, the Burmese natives were generally closer to home and it is said that the desertion rate was such that there were never 100,000 workers present for duty at any given time. They had to be continuously replaced.

The term DEATH RAILWAY became associated with the TBR when someone calculated that one person died for every railroad tie (sleeper) laid over the 415 Kms.

It is our hope and intention that the story and memory of those who lived, worked and died on the TB — both POWs and romusha — can be kept alive in this series of essays.