to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.21 Media

The story of the Thai-Burma Railway and the 61,000 POWs and 500,000 Asian Forced Laborers who worked it is but a blink of an eye even within just the context of WW2. And yet, it is a complex story that is not easily told. Perhaps that is the reason why it is so hard find any attempts on social media to relate it.

A simple search of YOUTUBE reveals dozens of videos on the subject. Most are useless if the objective is to learn history. The majority are posted by people touring the area and are either silent movies (un-narrated) or the tourist fakes his way through the tour spouting false information in the form of history. There is a very well-done series on the EXPLORE TBR channel that does a good job as far as it goes, but it is a geography and engineering lesson not history. In his introductory clip, the author states that the history has been ‘done elsewhere’. I beg to differ. It really is not! Other videos take us on a tour of the jungle that has reclaimed most of the TBR path, but again these are geography tours without a shred of history.

A GOOGLE search does reveal a few very informative sites. But these are usually focused on a particular interest group like a specific military unit and are limited to that portion of the story that involved them. Often well done, but not comprehensive. There are a few sites that even concentrate on the journey of individuals. Noteworthy but not comprehensive.

If we turn to the print media, we find a similar problem. Any one survivor can only describe the story as he experienced it or was told about the experiences of others he knew. No one account can be complete and comprehensive. Many are well-written and researched as to dates and places; most are not. Many are ‘ghost written’ following the death of the POW. Rarely do those authors fact check the story.

To my mind, before telling the detailed story of the Railway, the saga must be placed in the context of 1941-42 conquests of the Japanese military and the outcome and consequences of that military expansion. Once understanding the WHY, we could move to the WHERE and WHO. Each of these has binary stories. WHERE is Thailand and Burma with side-stories from Java and Singapore. The WHO are tens of thousands of Allied POWs and hundreds of thousands of Asians. There were four major POW groups: British, Australian, Dutch and American; each with their own story and back-story. Their journeys overlap and intertwine but in many ways are quite separate. Then, of course, there is the most forgotten group of all = the Asian workers.

Then we arrive at the WHEN. There are important parts of the story leading up to and following the actual construction period that need to be told to have a full understanding of the saga. Multiplied together we have a saga with a minimum of a dozen parts.

I like to envision it as a set of puzzle pieces that must be fitted together in order to see the whole picture. Leave out a piece and you miss part of the story. Over the past few years, I have constructed a web site that I believe to be the single most comprehensive depiction of the full story. I have had a lot of collaborators. I have tried to take the best of what is available on-line as well as incorporating dozens of survivor accounts. My quest started small; concentrating on the US contingent. Their journey was complex enough, but was only made in concert with the other pertinent groups. One can hardly tell the story of the USS HOUSTON without touching on the parallel story of the HMAS PERTH. Every segment of American story has corresponding (interlocking) ‘puzzle pieces’ belonging to another group.   

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of these events, this entire segment of history is in danger of being reduced to old books sitting on dusty library shelves unread by anyone. Let’s try to keep this story alive!