Home' Defence Magazine : Issue 8 2010 Contents HISTORY
The local Thai people say the area is haunted; they
warned me so before I set out on my journey.
They believe that there are many lost souls living
in the jungle. Perhaps they are right because as I
walked down the steep and narrow track toward
Hellfire Pass the atmosphere was eerie. There was
also an abnormal silence; no insects or birds to be
seen or heard. It was as if they sensed something
strange and avoided the place.
The only other time I experienced this
inexplicable conflict between past and present
was when I visited Mauthausen-Gusen
Concentration Camp in Austria. It was also
shrouded in a ghostly ambience.
I was following my local Thai guide ‘Tik’ as
we descended the same bamboo path trod by
thousands of prisoners of war who had been
enslaved by their Japanese captors to build a
415km rail line from Ban Pong in Thailand to
Thanbyuzayat in Burma.
The construction of what became known as the
Death Railway took place between 1 October
1942 and 16 October 1943 and claimed tens of
thousands of lives. Tik assured me that if I kept
The Hellfire Pass
Memorial site and
Museum is under Australian
management of the Office of Australian
War Graves. The museum is open daily.
Admission is free although donations
are welcome with a box placed in
cemetery is 129kms north-west
of Bangkok and 80kms south of
Hellfire Pass. The large cemetery is
situated in the north-western part of
the town along Saeng Chuto Road, the
The Allied War Cemetery is only
a short distance from the site of
the former ‘Kanburi’ Prisoner-of-War
Base Camp, through which most of
the prisoners passed on their way
to other camps, and is the largest
of the three war cemeteries on the
Thai-Burma Railway. All the graves
in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery are
marked by bronze plaques mounted
on concrete pedestals.
How to get there: There are
a number of orgainsed tours from
Bangkok to the Hellfire Pass Memorial
Site and Museum via Kanchanaburi.
Many are listed in travel guides. Most
tours include visits to the Bridge on the
River Kwai and a hotel pick up and drop
off. All tours include a local guide.
Intrepid traveller Darryl Johnston recounts his trek along
Thailand’s Hellfire Pass – an area with special significance
and also synonymous to Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop
and the so-called Death Railway.
an eye to the ground I may find a small relic from
the past, a button or a badge that once belonged
to a POW, but he said, “the rule is to look but
Once at the bottom of Konyu Cutting, the air was
cooler. A large grey marble monument with gold
inscription marked the site of one of the darkest
chapters of WWII and honours those who worked
and died there.
The cutting is about 500 metres long and 26
metres deep. The rock was dug out by POWs using
no more than picks, hammer and tap and dynamite
(used by Japanese engineers) together with their
Tik pointed out a stark reminder of their labour on
the cutting walls. Scars from metal taps driven into
the rock by sledgehammers can be seen clearly
in the rock. The combination was used to drill
thousands of holes that were filled with explosives
to break through the mountain.
On one wall, a broken metal tap is still embedded
in the rock. Apparently it was not unusual for a
prisoner to be killed if he broke a tap.
From April 1943 the POWs and Asian labourers
were forced to work long and punishing hours as
the Japanese raced to meet an August deadline
for completion of the Death Railway. This became
known as the ‘Speedo’ period.
During this time POWs were forced to work well
into the night and this is when Hellfire Pass got
Men working at the top of the Pass said that it
was like “looking into the fires of hell” when they
glanced down and saw the flickering lamp and
bonfire light reflected on the rock walls and the
emaciated bodies of their mates.
As I walked further into the cutting, the emotion
of the moment and the significance of the place
became obvious. Tik saw that the experience had
profoundly shaken me. In a reassuring gesture he
put his arm next to mine and pointing to them said,
“the only difference between the men that were
here was the colour of their skin”.
At the far end of Hellfire Pass lays a section of the
rail line. It is said that every sleeper laid on the
notorious Death Railway represented a life. That
may not be far from the truth when you calculate
the human cost and consider that many victims
were buried along the route of the railway line.
Between 70,000 and 90,000 Asian labourers died
working on the railway, while of the 60,000 allied
POWs, more than 12,300 died.
Death would have been considered escape and
freedom for many who worked under the cruel and
harsh conditions. They were beaten and starved
and if they were not killed by their captors, they
fell victim to diseases such as beriberi, pellagra,
cholera, dysentery, malaria and stinking tropical
ulcers that ate flesh to the bone.
The saviour for many was Edward ‘Weary’
Dunlop. He was a medical surgeon who became
a Japanese prisoner of war in 1942 when he was
captured in Java.
In January 1943, Dunlop commanded the first
Australians sent to work on the Thai segment of
the Death Railway. His dedication and heroism
and that of his team of medics became legendary
All accounts and records of that period
describe Dunlop as “a courageous leader and
compassionate doctor who restored the morale of
POWs in the prison camps and jungle hospitals.
Dunlop defied his captors, gave hope to the sick
and eased the anguish of the dying”. He became,
in the words of one of his men, “a lighthouse of
sanity in a universe of madness and suffering”.
Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop passed away in
1993 and on Anzac Day 1994 his ashes were
scattered on the railway tracks at Hellfire Pass.
His mates who died along the Death Railway are
immortalised in a well manicured garden cemetery.
It is the showpiece of the city of Kanchanaburi,
a credit to local Thai community and the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Further along the route of the original railway,
the jungle clears and gives way to spectacular
views across to Burma. It is hard to imagine that a
beautiful part of Thailand holds such a dark history.
We eventually made our way to a set of stairs
leading to a modern museum that was added to
the Hellfire Pass Memorial site. It was built by the
Office of Australian War Graves in a joint venture
between the Australian Government and the Royal
Thai Armed Forces Development Command. It was
officially opened on 24 April 1998 by former Prime
Minister John Howard.
The museum includes a large exhibition gallery and
a theatre. Museum staff also provide visitors with
an MP3 player that offers a recorded tour though
the personal accounts of survivors of the Death
Railway. The museum also features many historical
objects, photos and models.
It is managed by Bill Slape who you can meet
at the museum or can be found inspecting the
memorial site, the Pass and man walking tracks.
A visit to Hellfire Pass is an emotional pilgrimage
for many. The raw and, in historical terms, recent
events easily overwhelm those who make the
journey, none more than those who survived the
Death Railway or those who had relatives enslaved
to work on it.
I could not claim any links to those who worked
there. The only association I had was that I was
another Australian who wanted to pay his quiet
respects to the men who lived and died on the
Death Railway and in the bowels of Hellfire Pass.
LefT: The Hellfire Pass cutting. cenTRe: The
monument at the bottom of Hellfire Pass that honours
those who worked and died on the Thai-Burma Railway.
RIgHT: A broken compressor drill embedded in the
rock wall of hellfire pass. These were used by POWs to
cut through the rock. BeLOW LefT: The Kanachanburi
War Cemetery on the way to Hellfire Pass. Many of the
allied POWs who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway
are buried here.
defence magazine ›
aBOVe: The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum at honours those
who worked on the so-called Death Railway in Thailand and Burma.
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