Comprising the northern portion of the ‘trunk of the elephant’ on a map of Thailand, the Kra Isthmus is the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula providing the shortest distance between the Gulf Of Siam and the country of Burma. It played three different roles in the 1941-1945 history of Thailand.
Nearly simultaneous with the Pearl Harbor attack, the IJA landed forces in Thailand with the expectation of 1) occupying Thailand itself; 2) moving thru Malaya en route to Singapore; 3) invading Burma to drive out the British. In a brief — and rather ineffective — series of engagements, Thai military and police forces made a stand against the invaders, but were quickly overrun. Most of those engagements were far to the south (immediately north of the Malay border), but one well remembered involved a group of military cadets at Chumphon (see the above map).
Partway through the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, the IJA Railway Engineers began a 90 km road link that spanned the isthmus from Chumphon to KraBuri from which supplies could be ferried into Burma via the Kra River. Apparently no attempt was made to bridge that river. Instead the rail line turned south and followed the river all the way to Fachi. This small port town was just a short way upstream from Victoria Point — the southernmost point of Burma. Construction was completed by NOV 43.
As with the TBR, this link was rather ineffective and was used for only a few months before Allied bombing disrupted the line and much of the material was re-cycled into completing or maintaining the TBR itself.
It is estimated that over 100,000 Malay/Tamil romusha were impressed to lay these rails. There were seemingly a few hundred Allied POWs working here having been moved from Kanchanaburi after they completed the TBR. Conditions for the romusha in the jungles were at least as bad as those on the TBR and the death-toll (albeit unrecorded) is estimated to have been even worse than the TBR.
Seemingly in anticipation of a need to evacuate its troops from the Burma Theater, the IJA transferred Allied POWs to Prachuap Khiri Khan. These came mainly from the large hospital complex in Nakorn Pathom. There are also reports that some came from the ChungKai camp. About 1000 in all were ‘recruited’ of whom only 700-750 returned but even many of those perished prior to liberation due to the harsh conditions. Apparently, the majority were British POWs but a few others (Dutch & Australian) were seemingly mixed in.
Their assigned task was to build a road (not a rail line) from Prachuap Khiri Khan westward to Mergui, Burma a distance of some 200 Kms. This roadway was essentially the same as the TBR, but without rails. I’d assume that the engineers who oversaw the construction belonged to the 9th Railway Command and essentially knew only one way to build a ‘road’.
As per the POW remembrance below, the conditions of this project were at least as bad as any along the TBR. Since the impressed POWs had already experienced the horrors of the TBR, they were placed in double jeopardy. Despite having to cross the lower end of the Tenasserim Mountain range forming the border between Thailand and Burma, the major portion of the work was completed by July — despite some setbacks caused by the monsoon rains — and most of the POWs were returned to Nakorn Pathom although others were reported to have been held in the area until the AUG 45 liberation date as a maintenance party.
(AUGUST 02, 2021) FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS — Japanese prisoner of war veteran Len Gibson who survived Burma Railway dies aged 101. Len slaved on the infamous Burma-Siam “Death“ Railway and the Mergui Road, built in Burma by POWs and Asian labor which the Japanese army used as a means of retreat in 1945 as British and American forces advanced.
He suffered nearly 30 separate bouts of malaria, dysentery, typhus, beriberi, tropical ulcers, and abscesses. A scant “diet” of poor rice, tea, and a “stew” which was little more than flavored water, plus beatings and intense labor in stifling heat, caused Len to drop to six stones in weight. After recovering in hospital upon his return to Sunderland, Len forged a new path as a teacher before meeting his future wife Ruby, who was a nurse. The pair spent 70 happy years together.
Len was born in Sunderland on January 2, 1920. In early 1939 he was taking night classes at Sunderland Technical College and working during the day at the town’s Binns factory. Len volunteered for a TA artillery regiment and after the outbreak of hostilities, Len, accompanied by his banjo and his regiment, set sail landing at Bombay in India. They set off again on the slow and ageing ship Empress of India. Built in 1912, she had difficulty in keeping up with the convoy. Eight miles from Singapore, she was sunk by Japanese aircraft. “I had never been in the deep end of Sunderland swimming baths,” said Len. “But a piece of cork around my chest kept me afloat.” He was later picked up – minus banjo- by a boat and taken to Singapore – where he and his comrades and their truck-towed gun joined in the fighting to repel the Japanese invasion.Len added: “Word came that we were capitulating. It was to be an unconditional surrender. We could not believe it.”
Len and his comrades were herded into metal cattle trucks in the punishing heat for a six-day journey into Thailand and their first labor camp. The journey saw the group divide into three and they took two-hour turns to stand, sit and lie down. Their first task was to clear jungle ground for the rail track in conditions Len described in his memoirs as like “being in an oven”. “There were often beatings when the guards weren’t satisfied with progress,” he said. “It was terrible to have to witness a comrade being beaten.” After 40 of their comrades died in a cholera outbreak, the prisoners had to bury them.
After the Japanese surrender, the POWs were flown to Rangoon in Burma and taken to a dining room. When they eventually returned home, he said no one could possibly describe the feeling of seeing their families after more than four years. Lying in his own bed at last, Len remembered: “I gazed at the ceiling. How had I survived? Why had I been spared?“ Every day for more than three years I had seen men die, because of inhumanity, starved of food and denied basic medicines.”
Of course it almost goes without stating that the pre-war rail link from Singapore to Bangkok traversed this entire lower peninsula of Thailand (the elephant’s trunk) and was the route traveled by tens of thousands of Allied POWs and ‘economic soldiers’ alike (see the map above).