Postcards from Thailand #8: The Death Railway of World War II

thai-deathrail-140412-0011.jpg: The Death Railway built by the Japanese during World War II: The wooden bridge here is an original as built by the Japanese at Wampo along the River Kwae Noi
The Death Railway built by the Japanese during World War II: The wooden bridge here is an original as built by the Japanese at Wampo along the River Kwae Noi

The infamous 415 kms (259 miles) long Death Railway is a reminder of one of the worst tragedies of World War II. It was partially played out on the silver screen in David Lean’s 1957 classic, ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’

The railway was built by the Japanese to keep the supply lines going for their troops in Myanmar (earlier Burma) during the war. They needed a more secure supply route than the vulnerable sea lines between Singapore and Myanmar. Work started simultaneously in southern Burma and Thailand in October 1942. The two ends met in Konkoita in Thailand on October 16, 1943.

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The line was used to transport over 220,000 tons of military supplies between October 1943 and August 1945 before being bombed by the Allied forces. Of course, the Japanese surrendered soon after that. About 130 kms (81 miles) of the line is still in use between Non Pladuk and Namtok.

Locals and Allied Prisoners of War (PoWs) were used as labour; they were all made to work for up to 18 hours a day, with only enough food served to keep them alive. The hard work, extended hours, meager nutrition, brutal treatment, inadequate medical facilities and unhealthy conditions only meant few could survive the ordeal. Meals comprised small portions of rice, dried vegetable and dried fish. Workers got food only on days they worked. Starvation and weakened bodies led to spread of diseases like beriberi, pellagra, malaria, dysentery, cholera and tropical ulcers. Workers stayed in overcrowded huts, with primitive cooking and sanitary conditions. Close proximity and lack of clothing and footwear further caused spread of diseases.

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Conditions became even more severe after April 1942 when the Japanese stepped up the pace of the work to meet their August deadline in the same year; this period was known as ‘Speedo’ and the worst for workers. This was also the wet time of the year when diseases spread more easily. ‘Disciplinary’ beatings were a norm all through. Of the 60,000 PoWs working on the railway, about 12,399 are estimated to have died; between 70,000 to 90,000 of the 270,000 civilian labourers also perished. It is said that each sleeper on the tracks cost one human life.

Little modern equipment was used for the construction making it even more punishing for the workers. Earth and rock were broken by shovels, picks and hoes and carried away in baskets and sacks. Embankments of earth and stone were created by human labour. Cuttings through rock were driven by hand. Most of the bridges along the line were timber trestle bridges made from timber cut from surrounding forests.

If you allow yourself to think about the events of past, you cannot but feel overwhelmed in the heart and the mind. One can only pray such ghastly events do not recur in the future.

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