to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

8.21 Causes of Death

Part 1: A word about limited data

In the data that I was able to download from the War Graves Commission website there are nearly 12100 [1] POW war graves listed at the three cemeteries. From the rosters I was able to locate providing information on causes of death there are 688 from Chung Kai (of 1688 graves), 2396 from Thanbyuzayat (of 3608 graves) and 3665 from Don Rak (of 6804 graves); 41%, 67% and 54% respectively. But these are heavily weighted to the UK members and include almost none of the Dutch. Of the 6690 available CODs, nearly 70% are of UK POWs, 27% of the AUS but only 5% on the Dutch.

The total POW burials by nationality are:

One of the rosters listed causes of death specifically for men in H and F Forces. Given what we know about the overall situation that F Force found itself in [see Part 3 below] , it accounted for a total of 2200 of the known CODs. It is thought that F Force had a total of 7000 for a listed death toll of about 31%. This is double the generally accepted death toll by nationality. But F Force was also known to have been nearly equally divided as UK (3334) and AUS (3666) POWS with a few Dutch and US as well. But the CODs listed on these rosters are for 2000 UK. This would tally to a 60% death toll in the UK portion of F Force! For whatever reason, the AUS deaths were by and large not added to these rosters.

 Cemetery
nationalityChgKaiDon RakThanTotal
AUS0135413372691
Dutch31118956182824
New Zealand235
U K1377353616386543
 Total16886787359612071

Before we try to wring more information out of these data sets, let’s look just at the 6690 listed causes of death. There were over 80 different conditions listed as CODs. I always find it helpful in such cases to categorize such large lists into smaller sets of like items. For example, infectious diseases resulted in the most deaths by far. All the various common causes of diarrheal disease caused 2441 deaths (37%). I separated out cholera into its own category not included in the above. It alone accounted for 16% (1065) the POW deaths!

Malaria was the most common of the other infections with 15%, while other causes (pneumonia, TB, diphtheria, typhus and even smallpox) contributed less than 5% to the death toll. I had not formerly appreciated the impact that cholera had on these men. Survivor accounts tend to play down the effect of cholera. But a look at this data tell a somewhat different story. It shows 1065 actual diagnoses of death due to this single organism; nearly 17% of all deaths recorded. I must also note here that there are an additional 62 graves that are noted in the CWGC archive as ‘presumptive‘ of cholera in that these men are interred in two common graves having been cremated at the time of their death. This side-story gets a bit more complicated when we consider that the actual COD as listed for a moderate number of these POWs is not cholera! For example at Don Rak, there are 209 men shown in the common grave, yet we have non-cholera CODs for 102 of them.

237%2441GI
20%1141dietary
16%1065cholera
14%918malaria
5%317INJ/TU
4%256INF
3%192war

As can be seen above, gastro-intestinal diseases (less cholera) by far caused the most deaths [2]. All the issues that stemmed from their poor diet (both in quantity and quality) were next at 20% of all deaths recorded. For purposes of this discussion I have tallied Tropical Ulcers[3] in with the injury deaths. These accounted for 270 of the 317 injury-related deaths.

I was somewhat surprised at the category I have termed ‘war’ deaths. These were mainly the result of what today we would call “friendly fire” in that 175 were killed by Allied bombings. The other 17 were noted to have been executed; mainly for escape attempts. It must be noted that these are the ones whose remains were recovered and re-buried. According to survivor accounts, they were not allowed to attempt to recover many that they knew to have been executed.

There are also scattered notes in these war records saying that some remains were unrecoverable. Apparently, a team of men working to repair a bridge in Burma were drowned and swept away by the raging waters. We must always stop to remember that we are dealing with those POWs whose remains reside in these three cemeteries and not all deaths that occurred for all reasons. We have listed CODs for 6690 (55%) of the 12,067 POW graves.

It is also unexplainable at this time as to why there are names and causes that appear on these rosters that do not have a corresponding grave. In my survey of these records, I was simply matching CODs to known graves. Only a small percent (surely <3%) of the names on these rosters did not match the graves list. I would assume that some of these remains must have been repatriated upon request of their families. For whatever reasons, others did not seem to find their way into these war graves. I can also accept that the downloaded lists are not 100% complete. Perhaps not every grave was loaded onto the CWGC site or I was not able download every entry. It is not even know for certain how many of the existing graves are POWs versus others who found their way into these cemeteries in a variety of ways.

There is one remaining category which I did not list in the table above, I categorized as ‘natural causes’. These are conditions that perhaps pre-existed their POW status (e.g. epilepsy) or were conditions that would not seem to be due directly to their POW status (heart, kidney, liver disease). These accounted for barely 2% of the deaths.


[1] These are POW war graves only. Of which 30 due to dates, places and circumstances may not have been actual TBR POWs. Throughout this section, the precise numbers might not agree in that I was doing updates and discovered that there were indeed a number of non-POWs included in the earlier data set. I deleted those; reducing the total to 12071. But even this figure is subject to change as the data is refined. Since there was no additional data (COD) on any of these men, the figures in the analysis — which are mostly based on sub-sets — will not change.

[2] I must reiterate that these are the recorded causes of DEATH among these men. Almost all suffered multiple bouts of diarrheal disease as well as malaria. Many, if not most, had multiple conditions overlapping. But only one condition is recorded as the ultimate cause of death. A POW with dysentery and beri-beri who died of malaria is recorded only as a malaria death. As some POWs appear on different lists with different stated COD, it is obvious that on occasion it is hard to pick the precise COD.

[3] Tropical Ulcer is a condition unique to this era. It resulted from a mixed organism infection of a wound that literally consumed the flesh. While it IS an infection, its origins are due to injuries (often very minor). So for purposes of this discussion I have tallied those cases as INJURY. In addition, TU often necessitated amputation to save the man’s life. I would speculate that there are some post-surgery infections among the 50 deaths due to sepsis that were recorded.

Part 2: Causes of Death

I was able to download 12068 records of the POWs buried in the three CWGC cemeteries. By nationality, they break down as 6547 UK, 2825 Dutch, 2694 Australian and 36 others. I then embarked on a quest to find causes of death (CODs) of these men. Due to the vagaries of both accurate record keeping and survival of those records I was able to find data sets that provided over 6300 registered causes of death. Unfortunately (?), the vast majority of these (68%) are for the UK POWs. It seems that most of the available records were compiled by the UK officers and only incidentally included AUS (27 %) and Dutch (4%) POWs who were collocated with them.

All that follows then is primarily based on the 4500 UK CODs with a few others added. It would seem, however, that having data on just over 50% of the POWs would provide a reasonable reflection of the reality of the situation. As such, gastrointestinal diseases (less cholera) were the largest group of causes accounting for 36% of all deaths. This was followed by dietary issues with 20%. Taken separately, cholera caused 16% of the deaths [largely in F Force; see below]. Malaria alone caused 14% and other infections added 3.6%. Seventeen different types of injuries were responsible for 5% with Tropical Ulcers alone causing the vast majority (270/317) of those. The remaining 2.3% I have characterized as ‘natural causes’ that could easily have pre-dated the captivity of these men. Here in we find heart failure to have caused 25 (of 142) deaths but diseases like epilepsy, diabetes, and stroke are in this group of 38 different conditions. Surely, the circumstances in which the POWs lived must have exacerbated these conditions but they cannot be solely connected to the POW situation.  Among the other infectious diseases are Diphtheria (46), TB (26), Typhus (21), Smallpox (6), Leptospirosis (3) and 83 cases of pneumonia.

Once again, it must be pointed out that only available and surviving records were identified. Of those, 52% (3483/6750) were from the members of the H & F Forces who were late arrivals on the TBR [see their story below]. There is no question that the experience of these 10,000 men was different in many ways from the other 50,000 who worked the TBR. For the most part, cholera impacted F Force more than any other. It accounted for nearly 25% of their deaths in these two groups. Cholera spilled over into the other groups as well but not in nearly as great a percentage of casualties. 80% of all the cholera deaths (878) occurred in just these two groups. So in this respect it is over-represented as a COD with regard to the other TBR groups. There is another complicating factor is that until F Force arrived in Thailand with about 3600 Australians, the vast majority of the POWs from that nation had been working in the Burmese sector. Yet we have very little data on AUS deaths for those Burma-side workers. Yet the generally accepted numbers say that 3666 of the 7000 F Force members were Australian. The existing COD data is on 2000 of the 3300 UK members of that work force. It must also be noted that there is incredibly little information about CODs within the Dutch contingent. We have data on only about 5% of the 2800 Dutch burials in these cemeteries and most of that involved their deaths during Allied bombing raids that inadvertently killed POWs.

Part 3: the saga of H & F

One cannot recount the story of the TBR without special reference to H and F Forces. These were rather late arrivals (Apr-May 43) in that they were essentially replacement workers. The conditions in the Thai Sector were so bad that there were not enough workers able to perform the remaining construction. These groups added another 10,000 to that work-force. But these were hardly ‘able-bodied’ men. They were literally swept up from those that remained in Singapore where conditions had been deteriorating for some time. Many of these men were already afflicted by the diseases and disabilities. Another factor is noted but it is difficult to judge just how much of an effect it had on their experience and outcomes: these men were never actually transferred to the Thai HQ but remained under the authority of Singapore. Following completion of the railway, the survivors were returned to Singapore. Since we are counting deaths, surly many deaths occurred after their return to Singapore that would be difficult to link to their TBR experience.

There are other unique aspects of these to Forces. H Force included some Australian POWs who had been captured on Java and had been transferred to Singapore but never continued the journey to Burma like the other Java-based units. Until this point, all the Java POWs had been sent to the Burma Sector. Of the 3200 men in H Force, only about 700 were AUS POWs. These include LtCol E Dunlop’s medical unit, nearly 600 Dutch and just under 2000 were British who were originally captured in Singapore.

As most of the prior groups were selected and shipped to the TBR, military units were generally kept together. But inevitably some men in any unit were not fit for travel when their comrades departed. So both H and F Forces were made up largely of individuals or at best small groups of men from the same unit. For example, F Force included 7 US POWs who had been separated from their units as they passed through Singapore. For reasons that are not clear and are discussed elsewhere, these men were eventually returned to control of LTC Tharp when their groups overlapped in the Thai highlands and therefore did not return to Singapore.

All of these factors weighed heavily, particularly on F Force. Most of H Force was assigned to work in the area known as Hintok, just beyond HellFire Pass; at about 155 Kilos into the Thai Sector. While the overall conditions there were far from good, they were very well off compared to F Force who had to trek many more kilometers to reach the point where they were needed to complete the railway. They all worked in Thailand but they were spread over many camps that overlapped into the Burma Sector. The first few camps near the border at Three Pagodas Pass were the worst hit especially by cholera.

Highlands location of most of F Force; the numbers shown are distance from Thanbyuzayat

By the time F Force arrived, conditions in the Thai highlands were already dire. The monsoon rains had disrupted the already meager amount of supplies reaching that far into the jungle. Add to this that cholera was devastating the romusha camps in that area and the conditions were ripe for disaster as these men came on the scene.

I was able to locate rosters of the men of these two groups that contained information on their causes and places of death. The diseases and illnesses that caused their demise do not seem too different from those that almost universally afflicted (and killed) POWs in the other TBR work parties. What does stand out are the vast number of deaths due to CHOLERA.

Within weeks, the 7000-man F force was largely out of action. Those at Changaraya, SongKuRai and Kami SongKuRai were all but wiped out as an effective work force. At first, the sickest were evacuated to the Tarso hospital camp, but this soon became untenable, both due to weather conditions and the numbers involved. Then things became even more complicated. For the first time, the engineers agreed to move these men by rail. But they could only go west, into Burma. So the IJA overseers created a new hospital camp at Thambaya (Kilo 50 [1]). Nearly a quarter of all the F Force deaths were recorded as occurring there. But not an insignificant number died en route. The following chart shows the place and number of F Force deaths.

campdeathscholera% cholera
SongKuRai60421736%
Thambaya hosp57051%
Kami SongKuRai3264213%
Changaraya20914268%
Kan F & H hosp15321%
Tarso hospital12676%
Kanyu1013939%
Toncha744966%
Shimo SongKR523567%

and for H Force:

locationdeaths%cholera%
Hintok30937.8%14246.0%
Kan F & H20024.5% 21.0%
Malay Hamlet12515.3% 7862.4%
Tarso hospital465.6% 12.2%
other camps607.3% 1626.7%
Toncha293.5% 1344.8%
Kanyu263.2% 519.2%
CngKai hospital151.8% 00.0%
SaiYok131.6% 969.2%
total817266

For obvious reasons, the cholera cases were not transported to the available hospitals. They were isolated and died at their assigned camps. Remember, too, that although many ill men were moved retro-grade these men had trekked across nearly 200 kilometers of Thailand. So they had passed through these lower camps en route and some men were lost there before they even began their TBR work. The chart above tallies deaths that occurred in 1943 only. Most of the H & F survivors were then returned to Singapore. This is borne out by the relative lack of post-construction deaths registered as occurring in Thailand in these two groups. There are a total of about 50 deaths occurring as late as Aug 45 among supposed F Force members who for whatever reasons were not returned to Singapore. Among these is what I refer to as an ‘outlier’. It is a cholera death at the Changaraya camp that is dated in the CWGC records as June 1945. I suspect that this is an error in the death year[2]. In fact, there are nearly 50 late-1944-into-1945 deaths recorded as belonging to F Force members. Could these late dates be attributed to the phenomenon see elsewhere where the ‘official’ date of death as recorded in military records pertains to a ‘declared dead’ (versus MIA) date that is later than the actual date of death of the individual? Most of these 50 burials have a place and cause of death that would strongly suggest that they occurred during the Speedo period when F Force was being decimated by disease. Nine of these are buried in Burma. This would indicate to me that their deaths were more likely 1943 that 1945! I did find one individual whose year of death is recorded as both 43 and 45 with the same day/month. Given the situation, 1943 seems more likely. About a dozen of these ‘late’ deaths are recorded as occurring at what I refer to as ‘follow-on’ camps (here mainly PrachuapKiriKan) indicating that these men were transferred from Kanchanaburi to other locations in 1945. So for those dates, the causes (mainly malaria) would coincide with known movements.

[1] A particularly good description of the origins and function of this facility is provided at:

https://www.2-26bn.org/tambaya.html

[2] I have since been able to return to the original records were I recorded this data and his DOD is indeed shown in the original roster as 1943. So 1945 is most likely a transcription error. The data set has been updated to reflect this and one other mis-dated 1945 entry.

I have located additional rosters for these two groups. Some confirm the presence of the POWs in the assigned group but without noting the COD. I can now record deaths for 2311 UK, 58 AUS and 26 Dutch in F Force and 616 UK, 165 AUS and 33 Dutch in H Force. It still seems that the AUS and Dutch data is under reported, however. For example, we know that there was a hospital at the base camp in Thanbyuzayat, but so far the only deaths registered there are those KIA when Allied planes bombed the supply depot. That raid killed the one US POW who died at that hospital but there must have been other AUS and Dutch deaths that occurred there. We can also document that a US Marine, 1Sgt DUPLER died there of dysentery in May 43. So undoubtedly records of those hospital deaths did not survive.

The following Table shows the registered COD categories for these two groups. They are not dissimilar except that H Force had more cholera deaths as a percentage and F Force had more deaths by injury/TU.

COD codedietarycholeraGIINFINJMALnat caudeaths
1632432341215499725
H Force22.5%33.5%32.3%1.7%2.1%6.8%1.2%
4755308215414014418
F Force21.0%24.4%37.5%2.5%6.7%7.1%0.8%2445

It must also be remembered that after the construction was completed, the survivors of H & F were returned to Singapore. There, many undoubtedly died of conditions related to their time in Thailand. Since I am dealing only with TBR-related burials, the true depth of the horrible F Force experience remains to be told.


Part 4: the Three Cemeteries

It is important to understand how these three cemeteries came into being. Of them, only ChungKai was an actual wartime cemetery. It was thought that many of those currently buried there actually died at the hospital that operated at that location after construction work in that area was completed. It was a convenient place for a hospital. It was reasonably separated from the nearby city and IJA HQ at Kanchanaburi but yet accessible. Survivor accounts tell us that barges returning to the city after a supply delivery would often ferry the sickest of the POWs from the up-country camps. ChungKai is on the direct route back to the city. But a substantial number of those buried there are recorded as dying in other places. So the story of hospital deaths is not exactly true. It must also be noted that of the 311 Dutch burials there we have no recorded CODs nor location of death. Obviously, the vast majority (82%) of all POW deaths occurred during the construction in 1943. One interesting item is that almost all of the 1944-45 burials at ChungKai were Dutch. There are also no Australian graves here. This, too, would tend to discredit the died-there, buried-there theory.

YearChgKaiDon RakThan Total
1942 37 108 115 260
19431326533633139975
1944 281 824 1181223
1945 44 509 50 603
1946 27 12 39
1947 1 1
Total16886804360912101
1943 deaths1326533633139977
78.6%78.5%91.8%82.4%

[See the footnote for an explanation of these late burials]

The graves at Thanbyuzayat are those of POWs who died in the Burmese Sector of the Railway[1]. This is complicated, however, by the large number of deaths among F Force members who were evacuated to a special camp established at Kilo 50 (Thambaya). The majority of the POWs who worked in Burma were Dutch and Australian as well as the over 600 US personnel. IOW, there were very few British. This stems from the fact that the Burmese Sector workers were captured on Java which included relatively few British personnel. The small group of British who worked this sector arrived from Sumatra.

In the latter stages of the construction, there seems to have been a mingling of groups of workers just inside the Thai border. This was technically still the under the control of the 5th Railway Regiment. Most of the work force from Burma had made its way into Thailand by Sep-Oct 1943 as construction was about to be completed. At this same time, parts of F Force were arriving in that area. As conditions among F Force deteriorated to the point of an emergency, many (including thousands of British) were evacuated to the Kilo 50 hospital camp; of whom 500 were known to have died there. Many more died in the camps near the Thai-Burma border. Eventually, those remains were gathered at Thanbyuzayat. This then accounts for the larger than expected number of UK graves at Thanbyuzayat. F Force was reportedly about 50% Australian, but since we have few COD records for them we do not know if they were present in these same camps that suffered such a heavy death toll.  Perhaps they had been allocated to other camps as the march proceeded.

Something of the opposite circumstances resulted in many of those who had worked in Burma being buried at Don Rak. After completion of the Railway, all the POWs were consolidated to the camps in and around the city of Kanchanaburi. Men continued to die of conditions contracted earlier well into 1945. With the exception of malaria which was encountered everywhere, almost none died of conditions contracted after the completion date of OCT 43.

Here are the generally accepted figures for where the various POWs worked by nationality as well as the distribution of graves:

UKAUSDutchUS
Burma 507 5033 550265711699
Thailand28965 7969 9383 2646343
Railway29472130021488568358042
Burials
ChgKai1377 0 311 01688
Don Rak355113601895(51)6806
Than16511337 618(80)3606

I have included my estimation of where the 131 US personnel would have been interred based on what we know about when and where they died.

Looking at the registered CWGC graves by the location we have nearly 6800 at Don Rak, 1700 at ChungKai, and 3600 in Burma. But, respectively, the number of CODs aligned to those are 2700, 700 and 1400. Those figures calculate out to near 40% for each site.

Of course, the Don Rak cemetery contains the most remains of those that were collected after the war using the rosters and records that were the source of the COD information being discussed here. Remember, too, that by Apr-May 1944, just about all of the POWs had been consolidated to the camps in and around Kanchanaburi. No matter where they had worked or to which of the many work groups they were assigned, many men continued to die of the effects of their work; all would have been consigned to Don Rak. Thousands were eventually hospitalized and some died at the huge new hospital created in Apr 1944 in Nakorn Pathom, but only 55 deaths are registered as occurring there. Presumably, all of these post-construction deaths would have eventually been interred at Don Rak or possibly ChungKai. As opposed to the late (1945-47) burials at the other cemeteries, the 500 1945 burials at Don Rak make sense in that most of the POWs where consolidated into the KAN area camps and Nakorn Pathom hospital. Many of the recorded locations are ‘follow-on’ camps like Tha Maung and PrachuapKiriKan. Once again, H & F Forces muddle the data. A special hospital had to be created for them in Kanchanaburi. As such, 57% (350/612) of the deaths noted to have occurred in Kanchanaburi seem to have occurred at that facility.


[1] The 1946-47 burials at Thanbyuzayat are mostly of Indian troops who may likely have not been TBR POWs. Most of the 27 1946 burials at Don Rak are Dutch. These could very well have been TBR POWs who had not yet left Thailand due to the political situation in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies). So, too, the 1945 burials in Burma. But as to why they would have been re-buried there so late is not clear.

Part 5: Random Observations

As I was compiling this data, certain terms seem to be oddly placed. One set of rosters apparently came into the possession of Australian authorities via the Japanese and required translation. The term “indigestion” was not uncommonly listed as a COD. Since this is not particularly likely, I assumed that this was a substitute / mistranslation / euphemism for diarrhea / dysentery and recorded it as such. I also did not differentiate between simple diarrhea, dysentery (bacterial) and amoebic. All were coded as dysentery. I have, however, seen another opinion that this should be coded as malnutrition. Too late for me to change my coding!

Another commonly seen term was “colitis”. In modern medical parlance this is not generally an acute infection as would be gastritis (2) or enteritis (125). It is more often used for chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. But in this context I suspect that it might be a euphemism or a substitute term for a cholera infection. I did record 98 instances in which colitis is the registered COD. [see below]

Other uniquely appearing CODs were exhaustion (1) and debility (70) which I coded as diet-related conditions alongside malnutrition, Beri-beri and Pellagra.  

Among the many different infectious diseases were 47 cases of Diphtheria, 10 of Typhus and 3 Leptospirosis as well as 1 unlucky fellow who reportedly died of Scabies. Survivor accounts speak to the horrors that men with Diphtheria experienced. There were 6 deaths attributed to Smallpox which given the living conditions seems like very few. I would have expected it to have penetrated deeper into the community as did cholera. Perhaps the vaccinations of that era were reasonably effective.

Among the listed injuries, 3 men drowned and one was struck by lightning. Only 2 were registered as having committed suicide. Six men are registered as dying of fractures. By date of death we can place all six at the KlianKari (K250) camp where they were killed in a rock fall.

Among those I coded as “natural causes” was a case of tonsillitis, 1 attributed to a hernia (post-surgery perhaps?) but only 1 each due to Diabetes, Epilepsy, Asthma and even Arthritis. Acute appendicitis claimed another nine. There were also 9 instances where the records indicate “ulcer” as the COD. Since this was written in the singular I took these to be cases of gastric ulcerative disease and not Tropical Ulcers. It would certainly seem logical that the stress could induce gastric ulcers.

Finally, at Don Rak and Thanbyuzayat cemeteries there are three special graves that contain 211, 62 and 41 sets of remains respectively. Reportedly, all of these were cremains that were buried separately (in one case in a basket) who were thought to have died of cholera. Except that for a fair number of these names the registered COD is other than cholera. So all we really know is that there were co-mingled cremains from at least three different mass cremations. While it is true that for those for whom we have COD and location information, the vast majority of those in Don Rak seem to have died at the Changaraya camp of cholera, a significant number died of other causes (including 1 of smallpox). The 41 at Thanbyuzayat are not in a common grave but are designated as Special Memorial graves clearly separate from the thousands of others for some reason. Among them are 5 noted as malaria, 4 each as Tropical Ulcer and colitis but only 3 are known to have died of cholera. No COD is listed for the remainder.

It was because of those 4 listed as colitis and another 7 in the Don Rak mass grave that I was prompted to think that colitis was being used in a way associated with cholera.   

I stand corrected! I was wrong about the overall composition of the Dutch POW contingent!

In reading the survivor descriptions of the KNIL forces, I came away with the impression that the vast majority were Javanese conscripts. Then I discovered a website that listed the dates and places of birth and death of these men. Unfortunately, there were no causes of death included. It does seem as if the majority were indeed European-born. Even those whose birth place is in the DEI could easily be of European Dutch stock with their family living in the DEI for decades. I had attempted early on to see if there was a means to distinguish Javanese from true Dutch from the data. There is no clear designation by Service Number. One would think that once drafted, any natives would be given a distinct ID number; if only because they might have been paid on a different scale. The Dutch tend to have very complicated names; multiple first and last names. A few names stood out in appearing ‘less Dutch’. Some men had very simple names like George Smit. My guess would have been that these were the natives. I was wrong! There seems no possible way to definitively state that any POW is not of European Dutch heritage. This also may play into the plaque at the Thai-anusorn Shrine that is written in the Sumatran dialect. If there were truly relatively few (none ?) native Javanese in the KNIL POW group, then this would make more sense. Another fact revealed by this data is that the Dutchmen tended to be 10-15 years older that the other POWs. Whereas Americans were born about 1920, these men had birthdates closer to 1910. Nothing seems easy within this saga!

Part 6: Causes by period of death

If I may be permitted one final complicated Table, this presents the known causes of death by the period in which they occurred:

 period of death
 CODearly42early43speedopostlateafter Total
abcess1214
anemia224
aneurysm11
appendix2142110
arthritis11
asthma11
beri-beri826620283161954
bronchitis11215
cancer1168
carditis11
cellulitis11
cerb embolism11
cerb hemo112
cerb thrombosis11
cholera310411511060
cholera4 (presumed)2222
cholera9 (presumed)133117
choleraB (presumed)19423
cirrhosis112
colitis2924199
crush inj134
debility2521973
diabetes11
diphtheria10629146
drowned1113
dysentery647815744092722154
edema112
empyema11
encephalitis224
endocarditis11
enteritis45100162127
epilepsy11
executed83516
exhaustion11
exposure22
fever11
fx hip11
fx neck11
fx skull24118
fx sternum22
gangrene224
gastric dis11
gastritis22
Heat Exhaustion112
hemorrhage11
hepatitis112
hernia11
hrt dis112
hrt dis nl213
hrt failure53115226
influenza213
injury nl91212
intestinal dis1214
intestinal obs11
jaundice448
leptospirosis33
lighting11
liver dis123
lung dis213
malaria163142917523421906
malnutrition13126634206
meningitis1124
myocarditis12811
nephritis1116615
paralysis11
pellagra3440478
pericarditis112
peritonitis42219
pleurisy12216
pneumonia583626681
pulm edema11
pulm embolism11
renal dis11
scabies11
sepsis128837
septicemia21519
skin dis88
smallpox426
suicide112
supp of larynx11
TB4185826
thrombosis11
tonsillitis11
toxemia112
TU180653248
typhus3213220
ulcer51129
uremia11
variola11
wounds72163172
Total14420745221181535266615
early42early43speedopostlateafter

Naturally, the workforce built up over time. Also quite obvious is that it was at its maximum during the Speedo period. The period labelled ‘post’ [1] is the consolidation period with much of the workforce still in the jungles slowly being moved to Kanchanaburi. The ‘late’ period is the longest from mid-1944 through the end of the war in AUG 1945. The ‘after’ category is the short period in 1945 of transition to repatriation. It goes against standard practice of data analysis that these periods are not of equal length [1], but I thought that they better depict the intensity of the construction effort. The Speedo period was six months long (MAY-OCT 43). Two-thirds of all deaths occurred during this period, with nearly 20% in the immediate post-construction period. I divided the ‘early’ arrivals into 1942 and 1943 in so far as it seems that those who arrived earliest in either Sector had a far better overall POW experience than those who came later. Other than the CAMP LISTS shown in Section 8.20, we do not have good denominators to define their experience in terms of the numbers present.

The conditions that I have categorized as ‘natural causes’ = not necessarily directly related to the POW experience, do seem to be somewhat front-loaded as to when they caused deaths.

By mid-1944, the majority of the POWs were consolidated to Kanchanaburi. It was a period of recuperation; the ‘late’ period. Food improved, there was little heavy work to be done, fewer demands in general. With the opening of the huge hospital in Nakorn Pathom (APR 44), medical care improved greatly as well. In short, few new problems were contracted by them, yet they continued to die of conditions encountered in the jungle.

The one item that seems to stand out is that of the 26 deaths that occurred following the cessation of hostilities, 21 were from malaria. Since malaria was endemic everywhere in Thailand in that era, it is quite likely that these were indeed new infections no matter where the POW was housed at that time. Most of those 21 are registered at the Prachuap camp. This is what I call a ‘follow-on’ camp like Nakorn Nayok and Petchburi, it is a place where POWs were transferred to from Kanchanaburi. Given that these arbitrary time periods are not of equal length [1], the malaria deaths seem more evenly distributed across every period. This would tend to make sense in that being bitten by a mosquito was not related to intensity of work nor truly to one’s location. Beri-beri, dysentery, pneumonia and even enteritis seem to be rather evenly distributed across the time span as well.

Half of the post-war deaths occurred among the Dutch POWs who stayed in Thailand much longer due to the unstable political situation on the DEI. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were no ‘early’ deaths due to tropical ulcers. Oddly, the first registered TU death did not occur until JUL 43. Even among the US contingent in Burma, the first TU death was not recorded until that same month. Perhaps it was simply the slow progression of this condition that placed these deaths so late into the construction period.

[1] early42 = May-Dec 42; early43 = Jan-Apr 43; Speedo = May-Oct 43; post construction = Nov 43-May 44; late = Jun 44-Aug 45; after = Sep-Dec 45; post-war =1946-47 [not shown on this Table]

Part 7: Places of death

The available rosters provide differing pieces of information. One set tells us which POWs were in a particular place, but these are often not dated so can present some confusion. There are those that tell us only what their causes of death were. Still others identify the men who were assigned to a particular work party or group. There are rare sets that provide more than one of these pieces of information. Only by painstakingly recording each tidbit of this information can we piece together a clearer picture. I liken it to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. 

Once again it must be noted that the records that have survived were largely kept by the UK officers and data for any other nationality is purely serendipitous.

I must say, however, that in completing my initial task of telling the story of the US POWs, the records they kept tell us the most complete story of any of the many groups. The surviving UK records are weighted heavily to the members of H & F Forces. These comprised about one-third of the 35,000 UK and AUS POWs who worked in the Thai Sector. Except for the US contingent which comprised only 1% of the total POWs, we have very little information about those who worked the Burma Sector. It is possible to intuit some information in that those who went to Burma from Java (via Singapore) arrived there early in the construction period and they tended to be sent as military units. We also know that very few UK POWs worked in Burma. Thus we can assign men to work groups based on dates of death (early in 42 & 43) and the military unit they were in. Yet for the Burma workers we have very little COD data.

The situation becomes somewhat more complicated in that these Burma Sector POWs tended to leap-frog each other moving closer to the Thai border then finally crossing into Thailand as construction was nearing its end. These groups then overlapped into the camp areas that F Force moved to starting about May 43.

I have made inquiries but to date I have found no rosters that identify the military units – if not the actual individual POWs – who were assigned to the various work groups. We know that LtCol Toosey was the commander of the 135 (The Hertfordshire Yeomanry) artillery regiment and that they were initially sent to NongPlaDuk as part of Grp 1 before many if not all were transferred to build the two bridges. Compiling available records, we have place and cause of death on about 60% of these men. We have data showing that a few (<10) men from this unit found their way into H or F Forces and a few into Group IV. Given the sparse COD and place death information we have (only on 32) we could come to the conclusion that they died while building the bridges. This would be incorrect. The most quoted numbers suggest that LtCol Toosey’s efforts to protect his men were quite successful and that less than a dozen died during those month of bridge building. This is borne out in the available data in that 21 are recorded as having died at follow-on camps during the post-construction period. I related this rather complicated and somewhat unsatisfying sub-saga only to suggest that the paths that these men took is varied enough that it is easy to be led astray if we try to infer too much from the available data. All we can truly say about the members of the 135 (The Hertfordshire Yeomanry) artillery regiment is that 103 are buried in Thailand and that about one-third of those from whom there is a recorded COD died of malaria. That is another way of saying that we cannot confirm the figure of a dozen or fewer deaths during bridge construction; nor can we identify the exact POWs who died during that period. Although sifting down into data I would suggest that a dozen is just about the figure I’d arrive at given the sparse data available on these artillerymen. It makes me wonder if there wasn’t a more complete roster kept by Toosey’s staff that would better address their places and causes of death much in the same way that LTC Tharp’s staff kept records for the US POWs. Sadly, no such roster seems to have survived.

Lastly, I have no records of any deaths occurring at the camps closest to HellFire Pass; Kanyu and Malay Hamlet. There D Force largely made up of Australian POWs likely from Java worked in horrendous conditions and many died. Yet, we have no such records. D Force is said to have arrived in MAR 43. But all of the unassigned AUS POW deaths date after that. And except for many deaths at Tarso and Kanyu, there are none that seem directly attributable to Hellfire Pass. Work there commenced in late APR and continued into SEP 43. There is simply no large group of unexplained deaths during that period! There are at most just over 100 AUS POWs whose data is unknown that would fit that time slot! Common tales relate 700 died there and that 69 were beaten to death! I shall continue to try to uncover the names of these men. Apparently, D Force who are generally credited with working the Pass were later augmented by AUS POWs from H Force who were housed at the Malay Hamlet camp. But here, too, there seem to be too few to account for a total of 700 deaths. If we sort the known graves by period (Speedo) and place Kanyu and Malay Hamlet, there are barely 250 graves that could be attributed to deaths at HellFire. Plus there were some extensive records kept as to COD of H Force members. None of them are listed as dying of any injuries that could be construed as ‘beatings’. 700 and 69 are impossible to account for.

Unfortunately, I can find no easy way to summarize the data as to who died where of what. The Table is just too enormous to display or even to understand easily. It is possible to make some generalized statements. For example, of the 1688 POW burials at ChungKai cemetery about 1000 are recorded as having died there. But there is only data on COD for 685 of those. But since we know that ChungKai was a major place of consolidation of sick POWs, knowing that they died there adds little to their individual story as far as what work groups they belonged to. Another 127 who are buried in Don Rak are said to have died at ChungKai.

For completeness, I include the following TABLE in which I present the locations of recorded deaths by their Kilo number beginning at NongPlaDuk. I have also labelled the more significant locations to the right.

causesofdeathlocation
place of deathdietarycholeraGIINFINJMALnat cauwarTotals
K0113118591
K0393151164232
K05024061972235100915624Kanchanaburi
K0602811522431236014648ChungKai
K1138211517
K125109223812542117203719Tarso hospital
K14020129672120101250Thoncha
K14811316
K151176615061299278Kanyu
K15310783225127Malay Hamlet
K155361421144184309Hintok
K1711233661162130
K186220224
K2136262
K22232218
K237111113
K250635486436
K2581231135
K26311
K282112139414291
K284161724
K288536511856
K294752192482224471636SongKuRai
K29911142121824201327Kami SonKuRai
K301914347335210Changaraya
K3071113
K310124367121485Aungg -K105
K315325121216
K3379123498660Apalaine-K80
K3461214
K35855
K3605311962111453240Khonkhan-K55
K3651955222139645576Thambaya hosp-K50
K3741014116
K38511613122
K39688
K4122169Thanbyuzayat
other-Bu4217 
other-F88118133uncertain locations
other-H148186147uncertain locations
other-TH8191839512155follow-on camps
oth-TH1112023uncertain locations
unk-Bu27479311133341229uncertain locations
unk-TH59151392714903915398uncertain locations
Total1341106524412563179181601926690
dietarycholeraGIINFINJMALnat cauwar
20.0%15.9%36.5%3.8%4.7%13.7%2.4%2.9%

The war-related deaths noted above demand special explanation. All but 17 who were executed are due to errant bombs that struck the POW housing areas. In a few instances, men were simply recorded as KIA/MIA with no identifiable remains found. Those recorded as dying at K213 were as a result of an DEC 44 bomb and strafing attack of a train moving mostly Dutch POWs to do repair work on the TBR. Most of the US deaths are recorded as having occurred at the K80 hospital camp at Apalaine as well as the camps at K100 and 105 in Burma. I have highlighted those cells where >100 deaths occurred simply for emphasis.

What is also significant in the lack of reports from the close-in Thai camps (< Kilo100). The conditions in these camps where construction was taking place early were much better than those later and deeper in the the build area. Likely, most sick men were evacuated to either ChungKai or Kanchanaburi hospitals and did not die at the camp per se. The locations with numbers 263 and larger were under the authority of the 5th Railway Regiment in Burma.

Aside from ChungKai, another place that was obviously used as a hospital camp by is rarely mentioned in any accounts is Toncha (aka Tonchan at Kilo140; between Tampi and Tarso). There are deaths recorded as occurring there as early as Nov 42 among members assigned to Work Groups 1 and 4. Later it became a point of hospitalization for both H & F Forces as the IJA struggled to deal with the massive numbers of sick men in these two groups. It is said to have been one of the first camps that early arriving members of H Force were assigned to. Registered CODs suggest that a fair number of members of Groups 1 and 4 died here of cholera. These groups were among the early arrivals in 1942. They obviously moved farther along the TBR after completing work at their first assigned camps at the lower end of the TBR. It is not clear where they were assigned to work during the May-June 43 period when cholera was raging in F Force. We can only assume that they too were in the Thai Highlands and were exposed to this rapid killer. Of the 250 deaths listed as occurring there, 125 have cholera as the COD. This is spread across a number of work groups other than H & F.

If we collate the known places of death with the burial place, there are only a few ‘outliers’. These are men whose data do not align properly. For example, one man is recorded as dying at Kanchanaburi but was buried in Burma. He was a member of the 2/29th Regiment AIF for whom other data tells us worked in the Burma Sector and most likely in Work Grp A. How he would have found his way to Kanchanaburi in AUG 43 to die there of malaria is a mystery. Unless his place of death was simply recorded in error. One has to accept that in a data set of over 12,000 names and multiple data points for each one, there will necessarily be a small percentage of errors. There are other similar ‘outliers’ who date, place and cause of death simple do not seem plausible.

Fortunately, there only seem to be a few of these outliers who various data points do not seem to align properly. Given the other limitations of this data set overall, a few simple errors are not fatal to the analysis.

One final comment about the WHEN of these deaths. Sorting the dataset by date of death reveals that 30-31 May and into early June, were particularly bad days fro the POWs. Across many locations and from many causes — especially cholera — dozens of men died on these dates.

Part 8: The Dutch POWs

I came upon a website that lists the place of birth and death of the Dutch POWs. It was, indeed, a revelation that the KNIL were indeed mainly Dutchmen of European stock, though many were born in the DEI. I had long held the mistaken impression that the main body of that force consisted of local Javanese conscripts. Apparently, this was not so.

There were other new insights revealed as well. There were a group of about 40 Dutch whose date of death (DOD) was earlier than work on the TBR would have provided for. All were buried in the Thanbyuzayat Cemetery. It turns out that they were indeed ‘early’ deaths in places like Tavoy or Moulmein prior to their assigned group arriving to work the TBR. I was also able to identify 3 Australians and 10 Dutch who were KIA when their Hellship was bombed in Jan 43 en route to Burma from Singapore. Two of them were HMAS PERTH crewmen. This was the same ship carrying the main Tharp group of US POWs.The TBRC data shows more Dutch in Thailand than Burma; 9300 vs 5500. Almost all of the Dutch in Thailand arrived with Java Group 8; 8700 of 9300 the rest were mostly in H Force. It was a group of about 1000 of the Dutch in the Java 8 Group that were sent to assist in the building of the iron bridge at ThaMarKam. Oddly, the two earliest Dutch deaths in Thailand are recorded as SEP 1942. Multiple sources confirm those dates. Naturally, both are buried at Don Rak. When they arrived in Thailand is unclear. The next death isn’t until JAN 43 said to have died at Kui Yea camp (K186) which is quite far along on the TBR, just beyond Sai Yok. This early arrival of Dutch troops from Java breaks the ‘policy’ of sending the Java POWs to Burma. Why was this done? Why would they have gone by train to NongPlaDuk rather than Hellship to Burma? The Java 8 work group is also said to have had over 1200 Australian POWs but here too we have difficulty identifying them as a group.

One could speculate as to why a group of POWs from Java would have been diverted to Thailand. Seemingly, in accordance with the original plan, they would have been destine for Burma. Perhaps, with the arrival of the Grp 5A which included the larger Tharp group of US POWs in JAN 43, the workforce in Burma was thought to be sufficient. Or at least that the 10,000 men in Java 8 were more needed in Thailand than in Burma. This group included 8700 Dutch which was the largest contingent to be delivered there. They are the reason why there were more Dutch reported to have worked in Thailand than Burma. We still have the question of why no Dutch were counted as having been sent there prior to FEB 43.

We have a place of death recorded for nearly 2800 of the Dutch POWs. I have no reason to doubt the dates and places as recorded yet it is clear that the original CWGC records for DOD are sometimes incorrect. From the Dutch website, the stated dates fit the scenario better than the dates listed by CWGC. The CWGC dates are generally later and are wrong by the year only (same day/month). I have used the former dates as much more likely. One complicating factor pervasive throughout the CWGC data is that they do not place the individual Dutch POWs into specific military units. They are generally listed only as KNIL. This impedes any attempts to sort the POWs into any sub-groups like we can for the British and Australians. Although many of the AUS POWs do not have an identified specific military unit.  

The vast majority of Dutch deaths in Thailand do not occur until after FEB 43. By that time, H and F Forces were arriving, but there were not a large number of Dutch in H Force and none attributed to F. Most of these POWs seem to have worked the area just beyond Hintok and up into the Thai highlands. Lin Tin (K182) has been specifically identified by others as a camp worked by the Dutch as evidenced by a fair number of deaths recorded as occurring there in FEB-MAR 43. Interspersed during this same time frame were Dutch deaths occurring back at Kilo #1 Nong PlaDuk (Java 8 ?) as well as at Thanbyuzayat. At that time the Burma work groups were making their way into the Burmese highlands where the majority of Speedo deaths would occur at the Kilo 80 and 105 camps area. These are also where the majority of the US deaths occurred. Also during this period, the Dutch deaths recorded at Kanchanaburi and ChungKai increase, undoubtedly due to the hospitals that were located there rather than POWs assigned to work there. Some of these are likely H Force deaths but it is difficult to assign these POWs to that group since the available records do not reflex their status.   

As construction neared its end, the Dutch moved farther into the Thai highlands to camps near Tha KaNun (K225). As would be expected, we also begin to see deaths near the Thai-Burma border at the Chanagaraya camp (K301) where the Burma-side work force seems to have met and overlapped with elements of F Force. But the deaths among the Burma-side workers seem to occur immediately post-completion reflecting perhaps their later arrival in that area. In that immediate post-completion time (NOV-DEC 43), the number of deaths at both Kanchanaburi and ChungKai also increase greatly as POWs are consolidated there. There is also an increase in Dutch deaths at NongPlaDuk in early 1944. Given the overall conditions there, I’d assume that these were POWs who were ‘recycled’ from the jungle camps rather than men originally assigned there. There would be little else to explain these post-completion deaths. The errant bombs that killed many fell on SEP 44. By MAY 44, POWs are also being re-distributed to the camp at Tha Muang. I believe that this was purely a ‘follow-on’ camp populated if not established post-construction. No deaths in any groups were registered there during the construction phase. A few deaths continued to be listed as occurring in Burma as late as MAR 44.

Interestingly, like Changaraya above, the Dutch deaths that are recorded to have occurred at SongKuRai, where so many F Force POWs died, do not occur until JUL-AUG 45. Why would they have been there so late in the war? Perhaps as a wood cutting or repair crew? Only about 550 of the total of 2800 Dutch deaths are listed as occurring in Burma, but many of those who worked there likely died following the consolidation of the Burmese work groups to Thailand; including a few dozen who were sent south to work the Kra Isthmus railway.

In DEC 44, a large number of Dutch POWs were KIA when their repair party was riding a train at Kilo 213 when it was bombed and strafed by Allied planes. They were from the Kui Yea camp (K186) that continued to house a large number of Dutch POWs. Then in JAN 45, a wood cutting camp was established at Linson (K203) where a few more POWs who has survived the TBR construction effort died.

There are even 20 former-POWs whose deaths did not occur until 1946. These are listed as occurring in Bangkok. Quite obviously, these were men who had as yet been unable to return to the DEI due to the political situation there. One has to wonder if the European-born Dutchmen chose to return to the DEI or if any were repatriated to the Netherlands.

Although we can place these Dutch POWs in time and space, we know little about their causes of death. We have a recorded COD for only about 5% of the 2800 Dutch POWs. Although there is no reason to believe that (less cholera) they would not have experienced death due to the same causes and in roughly the same proportions as the POWs for whom this data is known.