to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.29 memorials

Today, there are only three local memorials that mark the occurrences of this era.

The oldest memorial is contemporary with the event. One issue preventing it from becoming more of a tourist attraction is the simple fact of its origin and purpose. It is said to have arisen out of the desire by the Japanese to recognize those who died “in the service of the Emperor” while building this Railway and is attributed to the camp commandant. Soon after the completion of the Railway in OCT 43, he chose a site beside the original wooden bridge to have it erected. It was constructed in a few weeks by the POWs themselves. It is thought that few if any of the romusha had arrived in the area at that time. It consists of a central obelisk and four corner structures, each containing two marble slabs. The front contains but two Chinese characters that could be translated as “memorial to comfort of the spirits”. But it is the obverse panel that tells the fuller story. This inscription clearly contains the characters for both the POWs and the Asian Forces Laborers (aka romusha). But even then the actual inscription downplays the circumstances of this ‘service’. It reads in full:

“During construction of the Thai-Burma link railroad people from Southern countries and POWs unfortunately died from illness, and this memorial was built to console their spirits” .

For the rare visitor, there is no translation of this inscription available. Few, if any, are ‘consoled’ by it.

I have taken to referring to this structure as a shrine rather than simply a memorial since at the dedication a large part of the ceremony was conducted by a Shinto priest. To my mind that makes it somewhat different from a simple memorial. Both the central (obverse) inscription and those on the corner markers have a distinctly religious undertone.

It took another 50 years before the second memorial appeared. It was a simple bronze plaque erected in 1997 to commemorate the 700 US POWs who worked the Railway. The American expat members of the US Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) organization were concerned that since the remains of the US POWs had been repatriated rather than buried in the war graves cemeteries, their participation and sacrifice was in danger of being lost to history. It is doubtful that those men knew just how close that memorial stands to the place where those POWs were housed following the completion of the project.

The POWs, of course, have the three CWGC war graves cemeteries as literally their epitaph.  A permanent and silent reminder of their ordeal even if there is only a taste of the actual history told therein. It will be most fitting – should it come to pass – to have a similar recognition of the romusha whose total deaths were perhaps ten times those of the POWs.

We are now 80 years after the event and are on the cusp of having a new memorial dedicated to the Asian Forced Laborers (aka romusha) who worked and died alongside the POWs. This, too, is an obelisk-like structure that was erected in 1957 but in anonymity. It stands over a vault containing the remains of more than 10,000 sets of remains of TBR workers. Unfortunately, a series of setbacks (including COVID) have delayed progress in that area.

Other than the two museums (discussed above in essay 34.25) there few places for an interested party to turn to learn the true story of the TBR. Simple internet or YOUTUBE searches turn up a myriad of poor quality and generally useless hits. Correct, respectful, authoritative information is sparse, if a bit dry. Hence the need for this series.