The route for the line had been surveyed about 1902 or 1903. With tunnelling and the difficult terrain, the estimate for construction had been 6 ½ years. The Japanese decided to do it in 18 months. Then at a tremendous cost in misery, suffering and death they did it in 12 months.
The railway was the biggest engineering feat of World War II. It was 421 km or 263 miles long. It involved the building of 4,000,000 cubic metres of earth embankments, shifting 3,000,000 cubic metres of rock and building 688 bridges (680 timber and 8 concrete & steel). In total there was 14 km of bridgework.
Then there was the laying of the line itself. There were practically no machines. There were a few elephants. The work force was about 330,000; 61,000 POWs and 270,000 Asians and practically everything was done by hand. The deaths in 12 months have variously been estimated at 100,000 to 130,000. Add the sick and crippled to this and I doubt if anyone came through unscathed. Physical hurts could be seen but the mental strain and stress was ever present, in some cases driving men to suicide.
As a reasonable example of what happened on this infamous railway I will deal mainly with the experiences of our section of “H” Force at Kanyu No. 2 Camp, later known as Malayan Hamlet. “H” Force, 3,270 men, left Singapore early in May 1943. Our section numbered 750; there were 500 Australians and 250 British. In this Kanyu No. 2 Camp our losses were 43% dead in six months.
Both “F” and “H” Forces had the double misfortune to have been “loaned” by Japanese Malayan Command to Thailand Command instead of being transferred as was the usual practice. The jealousy between Japanese Commands resulted in our being neglected in every way, especially regarding food and medical supplies. Those workers on the line under Thai Command had more and better food than we had and some medicines. Our other misfortune was that “F” and “H” were in the central or primeval jungle sections of the line.
Our party arrived at Bam Pong on 12th May. It was filthy and fouled by the prior transit of many large groups and tropical storms (monsoons). The men were besieged by local Thais eager to sell food. On the journey from Singapore we were given only five meagre meals during the four days and nights. The ravenous men traded clothes, hats and even boots for food. It was to cost them dearly.
We arrived at Kanyu No. 2 Camp early in the afternoon of May 21st. It was not really a Camp. It was a small area of felled bamboo with the stumps sticking up everywhere. We were given one day to establish our Camp. Then it was straight out to work on the railway .
When work was commenced on the cutting, I was allocated to the night shift and remained on it until the Cutting was completed on August 24th. The only break to my continuous night shift was for about ten days on the day shift at the end. The work was relentless. In one of the wettest seasons ever, the rain never ceased. Our rations were meagre, I think about 20½ ozs per day, later reduced to 15½ , mainly rice and sea-weed. More and more men fell ill from dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, pellagra, tropical ulcers, pneumonia and practically every skin affliction known. The Japanese went into the sick mens’ tents and ordered seriously ill men to go out to work. These men had to be helped to walk, then could only sit down and hold the chisel while another man belted it with a sledge hammer.
There were some shocking cases of cruelty. 33 men were beaten to death in the Cutting. Three of them were in my party. One man fainted and the Jap thought he was malingering so he thrust his wire knout (about 20 or 30 lengths of wire bound at one end used to clean the drill holes before the explosives were put in) into the fire. When the ends were red hot he thrust them onto the man’s feet. The smell of burning flesh was awful. The faint was genuine, the man’s body only twitched violently. He died shortly after.
Another man who hadn’t been able to keep up battled to get down into the cutting. The Jap guard drew us up strictly to attention and waited – perhaps ten minutes in an awful silence. Then with a roar he pounced on the weak, emaciated man and punched him unmercifully, then kicked him and finally seized the man’s bamboo staff and beat him so brutally that he died a few days later.
One incident I have often recalled is that of a small weak man deliberately going up to one of our most brutal guards and hitting him. Suicidal? In three or four minutes seven Japs were on to him, hitting and kicking. They beat him to a pulp and he died shortly after. I have often wondered why he did it. I have a feeling that he had decided to give up but go down fighting the enemy. Whatever his motive, I think of him as a brave little man – a hero.
As more men became too sick to work the Japs drove those on the job harder and longer and the shifts went from twelve to fourteen, then sixteen and finally eighteen hours. Then cholera hit our Camp.
The men had been warned repeatedly to drink only water that had been boiled and was readily available from the cook-house. Many ignored this and filled their water bottles from the clear creek near the Camp.
One evening before we went out on the night shift, everyone who was able was called on to parade. The Adjutant called us to attention, then addressed us. “I want you all to listen to that man screaming. He is in agony. He has cholera. Before he got into his present state he informed us that he had been drinking water from the creek. Also, that many of you have been doing so. It is my awful duty to tell you that within a month many of you will be dead. May God help you.” This sounds callous, but I think it was the most severe warning he could give to stop the practice of drinking unboiled water.
We on the night shift had a bad time. There was no labour in Camp. Everyone was working in the Cutting so in the afternoons we were called out to carry back bags of rice and other items from the barge landing or cremate the bodies of the cholera victims. Cholera dehydrates the body which burns up. Some were so light they could be picked up with one hand. After a week or so the Japs objected to the smell and ordered that we bury the bodies. One afternoon we buried eighteen.
One Sunday I was ordered to take a party to an Asian camp to dispose of bodies. At the entrance to the Camp was a man standing on a stump. He had defecated between the tents, no doubt driven to do so by dysentery. The Japs had beaten him, rubbed his head and face in his discharge, tied his hands and stood him on the stump. The flies covered his face and head like a black balaclava. Inhuman.
We collected bodies around the camp. Four of us to a mat and we took eight each time, ordered by the Japs to throw them away like garbage. These were human beings who had suffered along side us, experiencing the same brutalities, same starvation, same illnesses, same over-work, lack of sleep and awful stress. The expression so often quoted “man’s inhumanity to man” was never more evident.
The Cutting was finished on August 24. Then the Japs ordered 100 men to be sent further north to continue working on the railway. Only 83 could be mustered, the fittest of the unfit. We went by rail to the Konkoita area to work on bridge building. I alone was sent to an all officers camp at South Konkoita. I entered that camp a stranger and do not know the fate of the other 82 of my original group.
My new Camp was an all-Officers working one and we hauled teak logs together with elephants. The huge logs were cut high up on the mountain, trimmed, then sent thundering down to bury themselves in the river bank. They were hauled out by 100 or 200 men on ropes plus two or three elephants.
To conclude, I would like to say how grateful we were to our Doctors who all did a wonderful job. Our Doctor, Major Kevin Fagan was so dedicated that he nearly died from his efforts to help the sick and wounded. Also, the great spirit of friendship where we helped each other to endure the hardships.
There were a few despicable incidents.
We can all thank with pride and reverence the brave men who suffered so much and gave their lives for our freedom. We should also remember in our prayers the thousands of Asian workers who suffered and died as slaves of a cruel and implacable enemy.
In the 20th century we were all reduced to total slavery by the Japanese, where a 2nd or 3rd class Private could beat a man to death with impunity.
History will record to Japan’s eternal shame, and never to be erased, the awful atrocities committed on the Railway of Death.
Address by Don Lee (WX 9387 Lieutenant 2/4 Machine Gun Battallion – Singapore-“H” Force - Konyu to Konkoita) at Remembrance Day Service Hellfire Pass Thailand November 2004