Hellfire Pass and the Death Railway


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The cutting of Hellfire Pass began on 25 April 1943.   Further North from Kanchanaburi, Konyu Pass was named Hellfire Pass by the men who suffered and survived being prisoners of war (POWs) on the Thai-Burma Railway.

This 415-kilometre railway was to supply Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing sea routes that became vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in 1942 following the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in 1942.

The railway was primarily built by 200,000 (forced) Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied POW’s.  The first group of POW’s were D force, mainly Australians,  New Zealanders and Brits from Singapore.

Hellfire Pass is situated some 260 kilometers north west of Bangkok, we’ve taken the 0750 train from Thonburi station in Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, the closest major town.

When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Thailand and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!

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The train costs 100 Thai Baht (GBP 2.00, US$3.03) takes us around four and a half hours to get to Kanchanaburi – it stops everywhere and also in between.  The jungle here is ferocious, and before long the branches that whip into the open windows are shredded and covering us like ashes.

This meter gauge railway was built primarily through slave labor. POWs arrived here after the fall of Singapore with yet more added to the labor pool as the war continued in the Far East. Augmented by nearly 200,000 Asian workers, conscripted from Malaya, China, Singapore and Thailand it’s estimated that one in three workers died during the building of the railway.

The Japanese planned to complete the railway quickly by building many sections at once and linking them.  The original plan was to complete the line in June 1943.   An inspection in June 1943 pushed back the completion date by two months.  The line was completed on 16 October 1943.  In the end the staggering 415 km of track was completed in just 20 months.  At the cost of more than 100,000 lives.

The train no longer comes here to Hellfire Pass. Most of the track was ripped up. What is left stops 18 km away at Namtok, so from Kanchanaburi we’d taken an open backed pick up truck, a Song Taow,  this morning,  to take us to Hellfire Pass, wait for us and then drop  us at the Namtok train station, so we could take the death railway back to Kanchanaburi.

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A small but absolutely superb museum was opened here, at Hellfire Pass  in the late 1990’s , the brain child of Australian Major Tom Morris. There’s a fantastic free audio tour, that guides you through the museum and then along a cleared 2.5km of the railway, including through Hellfire Pass itself.

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The museum is open from 9-4 and is free, but please do give a donation, in order that they may continue their work.  There are also toilets there, you’ll need to pay, as the museum has to pay for the water used in their operation.   In the 1980’s a group of Australian ex POW’s returned and cleared part of the line here, so there’s not just a museum, but also the opportunity to walk part of an incredible historic journey.

We’re dropped at the end of the walking trail (it used to run for 7km, but now is closed at this 2.5km rest stop) by our driver and set off back towards the museum.

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It’s hot, humid and the mosquitoes are vicious. We carry a walkie talkie from the museum, in case we get into trouble.

It’s rough under foot. This is no flip flop clad stroll in the park.

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The rough coarse stones are similar to those you see on railways everywhere between the sleepers.

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This 2.5km that takes us nearly two hours to walk as we go slow, take photographs and take in the audio tour in its entirety is a fraction of what the POW’s used to walk each way from their camp to their work.

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We carry water, hand wipes, mosquito spray, sunglasses, a hat and wear walking shoes. They wore a “Jap Happy” g string type affair and were barefoot.

We walk over Seven Meter Embankment, through Hammer and Tap pass, Hintok Cutting and Three Meter Bridge and arrive at the view of Kwae Noi.

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The railway here was horseshoe shaped, it was possible for POW’s to see other groups working on the line.  The view of the valley is sublime.

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We walk much of this in silence, listening to the gravel crunch under our feet. Stopping to drink water, swat mosquitoes and press the next button on the audio.

The Australian Government and War Commission has made many recollections available on the web – you can download, read and listen here: 

Those who were in camps furthest away from supplies were hardest hit, like the one at Three Pagoda Pass.  This is where F Force were based.  F Force comprised 7,000 men, Australians and British who left Singapore in 1943.  At least 1060 Australians and 2036 British died here on the line.  A death rate of 45%.

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And then we’re here. Hellfire Pass. This is Konyu Cutting. 600 metres long, 25 metres deep at the tallest part of the hill.

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Cut out almost entirely by hand.

Hammer, tap, hammer, tap, explosive,clear.

There’s a memorial to the men who suffered and died or survived here, but the stark walls of the cutting, and the silence of the jungle around serve as a far better headstone to the men of the Death Railway.

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It was mainly Australians and Kiwis who lived here, died here, suffered here. No one more famous than Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, a doctor, a surgeon and their leader.  Weary Dunlop’s ashes were scattered here on 25th April 1994, ANZAC day.

 

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The 2014 Booker Prize winner, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan is loosely based on Dunlop.   I recommend it highly, whether you’re planning on visiting Hellfire Pass or not.

It left me with a deep sense of despair at the torment that men wage on men and such vivid descriptions that I felt nauseous eating for days afterwards.

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All the while, as we’ve been walking,  I can hear the whispered, whistled tune of Colonel Bogey – made famous by the 1957 movie, Bridge on the River Kwai – which although not historically accurate, did (and continues to) raise awareness.

Conditions were brutal here, with starvation rations for men who were expected to work all day and then sleep on bamboo racks in bamboo huts.  It only got worse when the monsoon came. That coincided with food deliveries that didn’t arrive and the introduction by the Japanese of an accelerated timetable for the completion of the railway that resulted in 15-18 hours days for the POWs.  It meant little rest.

It meant an 8-9 kilometer walk to the work site.  And back.  It meant those who were in the hospital, deemed too sick to work had to go out on the line to work.

This time was called Speedo.

Death rates soared.

They slaved through the night to the light of petrol lamps, that illuminated the cutting making it look like hell itself, hence the name.

In these two hours that it take us to slowly navigate our way back to the museum we see just four other people.

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We’ve walked back to the museum here at Hellfire Pass, where also mentioned is engine C5631 the first train to pass on the line.

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C5631 restored in Tokyo

 

The engine is on display in the nauseating Japanese War Museum in Tokyo, where no mention is made of any of what we’ve seen.

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Display from the Japanese War Museum, Tokyo

 

It was in the building of this line that more than 90,000 Asian workers and 12,800 Allied POWs died in horrific conditions.

 

“When you go home, tell them of us and say we gave our tomorrow for your today.”

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We leave Hellfire Pass and arrive at Namtok station in silence, getting seats on the right hand side of the train for the more spectacular views on our journey back to what’s more commonly known now as the Bridge on the River Kwai.

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The windows are open, the train rattles slowly south. We’re joined by a large tour group, who are on the train for perhaps three stops, just long enough to ride the train over the Wampo viaduct and then it’s quiet.

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It seems like us and a few locals.

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The river didn’t used to be called Kwai, it was renamed by the enterprising Thai locals after the success of the movie, which was filmed in Sri Lanka, where they’re planning to rebuild the bridge that they built and blew up for the movie, as a tourist attraction.



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Here’s the train as it rattles slowly over the bridge.

The bridge here is original, in the main.

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(The first bridge that was built was wooden, shortly afterwards replaced by this concrete and steel one) It was blown up in part during the war, the center curved spans were replaced soon afterwards.  Bullet holes can be seen on the concrete struts.

In my mind, I was expecting this bridge to be just like the movie. On the edge of the jungle. Not surrounded by bass heavy noise from brightly lit restaurants.

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We’d watched the sunset last night from the nearby War museum next to the bridge – worth it only for the view of the bridge, everything else in there – from a bizarre picture collection to the bones of more than 100 Asian railway workers is eclectic and surreal.

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Far better, and well worth the time is the Death Railway Museum – close to the railway station and overlooking the Allied War cemetery.

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No photos are allowed in this museum, but it provides context, memorabilia and moving stories from survivors.

We also spent an hour paying our respects at the Chung Kai cemetery.

2014-11-20 14.47.55A perfectly maintained resting place for Allied POWs who died on the line.

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It’s a few kilometers out of Kanchanaburi (we hired scooters for the day) and despite being by the side of a reasonably busy road, it’s an oasis of calm reflection.

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There seems no more fitting way to leave our time here and to pay our respects by remembering those who spent their war years here, than to share with you the words of Duncan Butler, an Australian POW. Close your eyes and listen and never, never forget.

Here are the words:  MATES

I’ve travelled down some lonely roads
Both crooked tracks and straight
An’ I’ve learned life’s noblest creed
Summed up in one word, “Mate”

I’m thinking back across the years,
(A thing I do of late)
An’ this word sticks between my ears
You’ve got to have a mate.

Someone who’ll take you as you are
Regardless of your state
An’ Stand as firm as Ayers Rock
Because ‘e is your mate.

Me mind goes back to 43,
To slavery and ‘ate,
When man’s one chance to stay alive
Depended on ‘is mate.

With bamboo for a billie-can
An’ bamboo for a plate,
A bamboo paradise for bugs,
Was bed for me and me mate.

You’d slip and slither through the mud
An’ curse your rotten fate
But then you’d hear a quiet word:
“Don’t drop your bundle mate.”

An’ though it’s all so long ago
This truth I ‘ave to state:
A man don’t know what lonely means,
Til ‘e has lost his mate.

And so to all who ask us why
We keep these special dates
Like Anzac Day, I answer: “Why?”
“We’re thinking of our mates.”

An’ when I’ve left the drivers seat
An handed in my plates,
I’ll tell old Peter at the door:
“I’ve come to join me MATES.”

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8 thoughts on “Hellfire Pass and the Death Railway

  • Marilyn

    That is such a moving piece Sarah – thanks for that moving description of your trip. I’m now trying to explain to people why I’m sitting at my desk all teary-eyed (I never cry!)

    • ASocialNomad Post author

      Thanks Marilyn. This was a Bucket List place for me to visit for completely different reasons than, say, the Great Wall. I am so very glad that I had the opportunity to pay my respects here.

  • Patrick Shepherd

    The first 400 men assigned to Hellfire Pass Cutting were Australians of D Force but when the schedule wasn’t as quick as was wanted then they assigned four hundred British from H Force to work on the pass as well, in addition to these men there were small parties broken out of other groups and taken as needed and of course there were many Malay and Tamil civilians too. I found my walk through Hellfire Pass to e somewhat disturbing in a psychological sense

    • ASocialNomad Post author

      I agree Patrick, it is the most moving place I’ve travelled to. Have you visited the Myanmar side of the railway at all? Or the area of the Sandakan Death Marches? We’re planning both shortly, any advice would be greatly appreciated.

      • Patrick Shepherd

        Sorry no, I spent my time on a pilgrimage of the sites where my uncle could have been as Royal Engineer with D Force, and around Kanchanaburi and a day at an elephant sanctuary. I’m just finding out now from my research that there may have been another battalion of D Force , mostly Brits, working on preparing Hellfire pass in early April of 1943, that’s still under research though.

  • Richard

    Thank you for such a wonderful and personal write up. My own mate (and Aussie) Pete visited the Death Railway a year or so back, and was inspired to include it as part of the Window Seater audio guide. If your readers are heading out from Bangkok to visit the Hellfire pass, they might like to know that the guide dovetails with the Hellfire Pass audio guide – Window Seater covers the route out from Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong Station, up to the start of the Death Railway, and provides wider context and backstory to this sorry line and Thailand’s past.

    It’s available as a phone app and info & links to the app are here: http://www.windowseater.com/travel/thailand/the-death-railway

    Thanks again for the moving read.