to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.26 IJA cadre

Perhaps rightfully so, despite the huge cost in human lives, the IJA Engineers were extremely proud of their achievement, in a purely technical sense. In later years — after it was retired by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) that took over the operation of the remnants of the TBR – locomotive #5630 was purchased by a group of IJA veterans and moved to the Yasukuni Veteran’s Shrine in Chiyoda near Tokyo. It was restored and remains on display there to the present day.

The Engineers seemed to be able to distance themselves from the IJA soldiers that were ‘responsible’ for the POWs and romusha. To their mind, they had a job to do and were given tools (humans not machines) to accomplish that task. With a few notable exceptions, the Engineers had little direct contact with the workers. They would set the task for the day: so many meters of rail bed to be constructed or so many meters of a cutting to be chopped away. They would then ‘order up’ the number of workers that they thought would be needed for that task. Those in direct contact with the workers on a daily basis were either IJA cadre or Korean guards.

In some ways this latter group were victims in their own right. Early in the 20th century, Korea had been annexed as a colony of Japan, who set out to erase Korean culture and absorb the populace. The people were forced to adopt Japanese names and speak their language. School lessons were taught in Japanese. Their young men were conscripted into the Imperial Army. Except that the Japanese would never trust them to fight.

They was assigned support roles; mainly as POW guards. There was even a particular name applied to such a non-Japanese group: the gun zuku. This would have been a collective term not unlike romusha for all “civilian specialists” or “coolies”. As such, although they worked under the supervision of the IJA camp staff, they were never afforded the status of true soldiers. Every gun zuku guard occupied a status lower than every IJA soldier. As such, they were regularly subjected to harassment and physical punishment by a true soldier of any rank; often these beatings were conducted in full view of the POWs who the guards were then supposed to oversee.

These guards interacted most closely with the POWs. Between them and the Engineers were IJA cadre. But these men were far from the superb soldiers that the combat troops were. Many were sent to these rear echelon units as punishment or due to physical (wounds or alcoholism) or psychological (sadistic or psychosis) problems. Although the Koreans actually inflicted most of the beatings and torture on the POWs, it was often at the behest of the cadre. Because of their lowly status, the Koreans regularly suffered beatings at the hands of their superiors. Their wrath was directly at the only other group available: the POWs.

In the subsequent war crimes trials, the Koreans bore the brunt of the punishments. Only a few Engineers were even accused of inhumane acts. For the most part, they remained aloof and apart from the workers as well as the camp cadre. Their role was planning and supervisory.

The Koreans guards were tasked to see that their orders of the day were carried out. The guards would march the POWs to and from the work site of the day – which could be as much as 12 Km from the camp, but was usually close by. At first, the labor continued only until the task of the day was accomplished then the POWs were returned to camp. It seemed to the POWs that efficient accomplishment would earn them more downtime. Apparently, it was the Australian POWs who encouraged the others to slow down; not work too quickly to accomplish the tasks. Some POWs describe instances where stakes were placed to demarcate the area to be excavated. The POWs would distract the guards and move the stakes, allowing them to more quickly complete the assigned task and return to camp. Apparently, the Engineers were rarely present during the heat of the day or in the rain. They would appear later to verify that the assignment was complete and release the POWs to be returned to camp. For obvious reasons, the Engineers seemed to be on-site during the building of bridges and trestles more so than for excavation and berm building.

Unlike the fictitious script of the famous novel and movie, the IJA Engineers needed no technical assistance from the POWs. They were quite good at their job. It is to be noted, however, that they used a US Army Engineering Manual (aka Merriman’s Manual) for the design of most of the bridges and trestles! Unlike MAJ Nicholson in the story, LTCol Toosey who led the work group was an artilleryman. And with apologies to William Holden, no Americans were involved in building these bridges!

For their part, the POW work groups were organized into groups of 50 or so men. Usually there was an officer assigned to oversee these ‘kumis’. His job was to intercede with the guards to protect the POWs. Sometimes this would take the form of simply distracting the guard by various means. This was designed to allow the POWs to rest somewhat and to avoid beatings that came with perceived inactivity. The demeanor of these guards ran the gamut from friendly to passive to sadistic.

For the most part, the POWs seemed to have little direct contact with the Engineers. There are a few notable incidents where confrontations of various severity occurred, but these were quite rare. This seems to have been borne out in the post-war trials for war crimes in which it was the IJA camp staff and Korean guards who stood trial, but few of the Engineers. Those same Engineers, though, seemed totally oblivious to the plight and health of their ‘tools’. For that is precisely what the POWs and romusha were to them. It would seem that the enlisted men of the Engineer units benefited most from their presence in that they themselves did far less – if any – manual labor. 

But it was the IJA cadre that were responsible for the ‘care and feeding’ of the workers. By and large, they did a horrible job. It is true that they themselves were somewhat at the mercy of the logistics support staff to send food and supplies to the camps, but they always got the lion’s share of what did arrive! In addition, in the few instances where Red Cross packages were delivered, the cadre looted them before issuing one per 6-7 POWs as opposed to the one per man that was intended.

British historian David Boggett and survivor memoires relate multiple tales of atrocities perpetrated by these men. Many were accused of inhumane mistreatment of the romusha and especially of the women and children that they had brought with them. The Japanese were especially fearful of cholera. Frequently, work parties of POWs were taken to the nearby romusha camps that had been wiped out by it. They were forced to build funeral pyres to burn the bodies – not all of whom were quite yet dead!

At war’s end, the IJA cadre often simply disappeared from many of the camps. “Called back to Bangkok” was the order of the day. This left behind the Engineers, whose housing was always separate but nearby, hiding in fear that the POWs who greatly outnumbered them would seek retribution. The Koreans, although they remained armed, tried hard to avoid any confrontations with the POWs likely in fear of the same. They were left with orders to ‘guard’ the camps but in those hey-days immediately after the surrender, the (former) POWs came and went as they pleased.

Although some men harbored such thoughts, the military officers were able to control and restrain their charges such that no widespread reprisals were carried out. Some even expressed an understanding, if not actually sympathy for, the plight of the Korean guards.  

Thai-Anusorn Shrine

Soon after the consolidation of the POWs to ThaMaKam was begun, the idea of a memorial was conceived. It is variously attributed to the local camp commander (CPT Naguchi) or to the Commanding General Ekuma himself. Volunteers were solicited from the Allied POWs. One was an American who had been a stone mason. He describes how he worked on the four corner structures that contain inscriptions in various languages to memorialize those POWs and romusha who “died in the service of the Emperor” while laboring on this project. The POWs were given cement left over from the construction of the pillars of the iron bridge to build the central obelisk. Marble tabletops were repurposed for the eight corner inscriptions. In subsequent years, a controversy of sorts arose as to whether or not the Allied POWs were included in this remembrance. The tablet affixed to the rear of the obelisk clearly states that both the romusha and POWs while the front simply translates as “memorial to comfort of the spirits”.

It was dedicated in March 1944 with a ceremony led by a Shinto priest and attended by a large number of Japanese and local dignitaries as well as POWs who were somewhat coerced into attending.

Over the ensuing years a number of events and new revelations have added layer upon layer of mystery to this Shrine. A deeper examination of this Shrine — which stands today not far from the famous Bridge –will have to await a future essay.