In Thailand during the Second World War, a sweating prisoner of war looked round at the skeletal figures of his comrades slaving at night under the watch of the brutal Japanese armed guards grotesquely illuminated by the blazing light from bamboo fires and said "we must be working in the jaws of hell." In fact they were working on the infamous Siam-Burma railway at a place called Hell Fire Pass, an enormous rock cutting on the railway. The pass lay many kilometres north of the Nam-Tok rail terminus, formerly known as Tarsoe, a grim Japanese prisoner of war camp on the banks of the River Kwai.
In a short space of time 700 POWs died building just 5 kilometres of the 415 kilometres of the total length of the railway and this huge rock cutting , one of the deepest on the whole railway, became known to everyone as Hell Fire Pass.
Today the Pass stands in mute testimony to the appalling waste of human life, sacrificed in the relentless pursuit of Japans ambition to supply their large army fighting the gallant British 14th Army in Burma during the Second World War. But a magnificent effort of sheer sweat and toil is being made by an Australian, Rod Beatty, and many others to clear some 5 kilometres of the old rail route from Hell Fire Pass northwards to the area known as Compressor Cutting, in order to create a permanent memorial complex. When completed, this memorial will remain forever as a lasting memory of the 16,000 prisoners of war (mainly British, Australian and Dutch ) plus an estimated 110,000 native Asian labourers who died from starvation, disease, brutally evil inhumane treatment, torture and executions by the sword and the firing squads.
The two official war cemeteries in Thailand situated at Kanchanaburi and Chungkai and the third beyond Three Pagoda Pass into Burma called Thanbuzayat, were beautifully created after the war and remain a sad and moving tribute to all who died as prisoners of war. For those relatives from far distant lands who can occasionally visit the graves there are so many heartaches, so many tears shed as they gaze in sadness at the names, dates and ages of their loved ones, most of them in their early twenties.
Often as I reflect the past I wonder about the lost ones, officially called "graves of the unknown" or "known only to God". I have been informed that most bodies were located and re-buried in these beautiful places of rest. As one who was there I cannot see how this was possible. Up and beyond Hell Fire Pass where the death camps and railway often existed along the banks of the River Kwai, twisting and snaking it's way North into Burma, there were so many graves that at times it became almost impossible to make or retain records. To make matters even more difficult , in 1943 came one of the worst monsoon seasons ever bringing with it the dreaded water borne disease Cholera!
Far upcountry the Japanese had segregated the officers from the other ranks (squaddies!) leaving only one medical officer with little or no medical supplies and a Padre. (In my last POW camp the Padre had died leaving the only officer being the medical officer.) Therefore, we had the situation where nobody was in command and we made our own life or death decisions. We did whatever we could in the grim circumstances, helping one another to survive, as close as brothers. We seem to become a special breed of man.
So many died so fast and the situation became increasingly desperate that we survivors had no choice but to build bamboo bonfires to incinerate the pitiful matchstick bodies of comrades. As the bonfires blazed in the tropical darkness, their bodies twisted and contorted in grotesque shapes as the roaring flames consumed them. The memories haunt me still to this day. Who was able to record their deaths? Who really knows the actual numbers and names of those who perished? In my opinion they will remain lost forever.
The rapid growth of the jungles
have long since taken over the distant cemeteries and the years between have
seen major developments on behalf of the Thai governments. Two such developments
are the National Security Command developmental farms project and the projects
carried out by the Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation of Australia to
create dams and flood certain areas where once existed grim isolated POW camps.
After much planning, initially helped by the staff of the Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation and partially funded by the Australian Government, the Australian-Thai chamber of commerce opened the Hell Fire Pass Memorial in April 1987, dedicated to all who worked on the railway.
In 1995 the Australian Government decided that it would provide substantial funding to develop a more significant memorial and a complex at Hell Fire Pass therefore building on the work already carried out by the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce. By 1996 the clearing of 5 kilometres of the original rail had been completed. Now it is possible to walk to the site of major features such as the three tier wooden bridge at Hintok (known as the "Deck of Cards") and imagine what it must have been like for the prisoners of war to build this infamous railway working in the tropical heat and under armed guard.
It is also planned to have a memorial information centre, museum and complex together with all modern facilities, substantially completed by the end of 1997. The access will be from Kanchanaburi via Highway 323 following the signs to Hell Fire Pass.
Time has obviously transformed large areas alongside the River Kwai and the original route of the Siam-Burma railway. At the time of writing I have never been able to return to Thailand but ex Far Eastern POWs and many good friends have been back. These kind folk have recently brought back coloured photographs and video films for which I am deeply appreciative. I understand that if some of us disabled survivors were able to return, we would hardly recognize many of the places of the past.
In particular and on behalf of all FEPOWs, I would like to express our sincere thanks to my dear friends John Patoux and his wife Jackie for all their kind help and interest taken in remembrance of past comrades and their great efforts on behalf of the survivors.
As I sit here alone in my wheelchair disabled from the injuries inflicted upon me whilst in the jungle death camps, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have survived thus far so many of life's strange twists of fate. Never a day passes when I do not recall the past, remembering so vividly those brave comrades we had to leave behind in the green jungles of Thailand thousands of miles from their loved ones and homelands.
We called ourselves "comrades in arms," they were far more than that, they were my brothers in grim captivity! Their brave young faces full of hope and defiance of the enemy will remain with me, never to be forgotten.
The inevitable march of time continues relentlessly and as I write this, some 53 years have passed. Quite often I am reminded by well meaning folk who say "Well that was all a long time ago now, surely the time has come to forget maybe to forgive." Clearly they do not understand just how indelibly the events of the past are so imprinted on my mind ! Never can anyone who survived Japans death camps, wherever they were situated in the Far East, forget. It will haunt us all for as long as we live. As for myself, I will never forgive the Japanese and Koreans of my generation for their appalling cruelty and inhumanity to man.
On reflection, we neither sought nor received any recognition for our efforts in such cruel jungle captivity. Successive governments seem embarrassed and want to sweep the whole grim episode of the Far Eastern prisoners of war under the carpet. We survivors still wonder why?
There is so much more that I could add from my memories of the horrors of the past but it seems appropriate to conclude my thoughts with these words often spoken at Far Eastern POW memorial services.......
And we that are left to grow
old with the years
Remembering the heartache the pain and the tears
Hoping and praying that never again
Will man sink to such sorrow
The price that was paid we will always remember
Every day, every month, not just November.
WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER THEM WITH HONOUR AND PRIDE