to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.30 a Triumph

The TRUE STORY of the Thai-Burma Railway is generally seen as one of humiliation, brutality and death. But it is also one of triumph and success.

For the IJA Engineers who steered the project, it was the successful completion of an almost impossible project earlier than their scheduled date. Of course, this came at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Yet tens of thousands more triumphed just by surviving that ordeal. But even that survival was tempered by long-lasting effects. Malaria and dysentery could be cured but many endured amputations, others had chronic effects from the malnutrition, dental problems abounded. A number of those men had Beri-beri heart disease listed as their cause of death decades later. Cancer, blamed on the time they spent in mines in Japan following the TBR, claimed others.

It was these same Engineers who treated the Allied POWs and Asian Laborers simply as tools to be discarded when broken. And they broke so many that the project almost came to a full stop. Fearing that they were falling behind schedule, they called for 10,000 more POWs to be sent from Singapore. But there weren’t 10,000 healthy men left there. The 7000 men of F Force and then the 3000 of H Force were what was left; many recently discharged from the hospital and all suffering some level of disability. The 150 to 300 Km trek from Bam Pong to their assigned work camp took its toll as well. By the time F Force arrived in the camps near the border, they were all but useless. These 10,000 raised the number of POWs in Thailand to over 40,000. The logistics system collapsed under the demand. F Force suffered at least a 40% death toll; many caused by cholera. 

But through a super-human and many would sat in-humane effort, the Railway Sectors met on 17 Oct 43. A week later, a grand ceremony was held for all the dignitaries involved. A final brass (not gold) spike was driven and locomotive #5631 crossed he divide.

But the Allies had the last triumph. Hiding a 415 Km rail line even in the jungle is not easy. Allied reconnaissance aircraft had been monitoring the build. Of course the bridges were the easiest to locate and destroying them became a major priority. Soon squadrons of B-17 and B-24 bombers of the USAAF and RAF were making frequent attacks. After bombing an assigned target they’d fly the trace looking for trains to strafe. Soon traffic was reduced to moving only at night. The decisive blow came in June 1945 when both bridges over the Mae Klong at ThaMaKan were destroyed. After a 15-month build, the line had operated for 20 months. It had never been able to live up to expectations. 

Humanity prevailed again in  in August 1945. There was very little in the way of retaliation meted out by the POWs upon their captors. They just wanted to start the journey home. Amazingly, not only did the vast majority of the survivors find it relatively easy to return home, marry and go on to relatively normal jobs and lives, but many lived to ripe old ages. There are a surprising number of centenarians among them. This is truly a saga of the triumph of the human spirit over depravity.

Some solace can be had in the outcome of the war crimes trials in which those whose behavior exceeded human norms were eventually punished. But these were the IJA cadre and Korean guards. With a few exceptions, the Engineers were not seen as culprits in the worst of the offenses. A group of them went to the expense and effort to salvage the locomotive # 5631 that was present at the joining ceremony and some claim was the first to traverse the Railway. They had it shipped back to Japan and installed in the ancestral Yasukuni Shinto Shrine to fallen warriors.

There is not a lot of physical evidence of the TBR remaining. The Bridge and WangPo viaduct, HellFire Pass, and the CWGC war graves cemeteries are the main ones. But only the latter two relate any of the True Story of the Thai-Burma Railway. For those who are aware of that story, they stand as a testament to the conquest of humanity over brutality; silent witnesses to the horrors that transpired here.