Remembering a terrible human sacrifice
By Pachara Aungsusuknarumol
DEDICATED to the Allied prisoners of war (POW) and Asian labourers, the Hellfire Pass Museum in Kanchanaburi was officially opened in 1996 to commemorate the suffering and sacrifices on the Burma-Thailand railway during WW II. The memorial museum provides important educational information and is a moving tribute to those POW and Asians who suffered and died during the construction of the railway from 1942-1943.
On 7th December 1941, the Pacific War began with the Japanese air strike on Pearl Harbor with no warning. In the devastating strike, hundreds of American aircraft were destroyed, 18 ships sunk and more than 2,400 Americans killed. In addition to Hawaii, the first wave of Japanese attacks included Malaya, Hong Kong and the Philippines. By mid-1942, Japanese forces were combating the British forces in Burma with the ultimate goal of reaching India.
In order to transfer resources and supplies to Burma, the Japanese decided to build a 415 km-long railway through the jungle and mountains instead of shipping through the vulnerable sea-lanes. The railway construction started in Thailand at Ban Pong in Ratchaburi Province and was to reach Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar.
With the aim to complete the railway in 14 months, the Japanese used forced labour, gathering more than 250,000 Asians and over 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American POW to work on the line. Prisoners and the workforce were transferred from Singapore, Java and Sumatra to Burma and Thailand in extreme conditions. The railway construction began in October 1942 from both ends and the two sides were finally linked in Konkoita, in Sangkhla Buri district of Kanchanaburi on 16th October 1943.
Throughout the building of the railway, food supplies were totally inadequate and thousands died from malnutrition and starvation. Workers and prisoners also suffered from the disease, particularly malaria, while drug and medical supplies were scarce. For the construction, little modern equipment was available. Workers and prisoners used shovels to break soil and rock. Cutting through the rocks was achieved through drills and in some cases, the workers had to resort to bare hands. The bridges along the railway were built using timber from the surrounding jungle.
The most difficult part of the railway was the Konyu Cutting, which the workers called “Hellfire Pass”. At this spot, the workforce had to cut through the middle of a mountain to construct a path for the railway. Hellfire Pass alone was to claim thousands of lives among the workers and POW. The entire construction of the railway took a terrible toll with approximately 16,000 Allied soldiers dying and an estimated 85,000 Asian civilians.
Today, the stories of the death railway and the sacrifices of workers and the POW are displayed at the Hellfire Pass Museum in Kanchanaburi on the Sai Yok-Thong Pha Phum Road. The historic cutting through the mountain stands as a symbol of the death railway and is something future generations can learn from concerning the horrors of war. The museum is open daily from 9am-4pm with no admission fees. The well-designed museum provides an audio tour in English, Japanese, Dutch and Thai. It creates an excellent understanding and feeling for the place, both inside the museum and along the walkway down to the Hellfire Pass.
The museum, which is under Australian management, was built by the Office of Australian War Graves in a joint venture by the Australian government and the Royal Thai Armed Forces.
Thanks to the dedicated work of the Australian government, Hellfire Pass Museum has been maintained in excellent condition for nearly two decades, providing information in a visitor-friendly style. The museum is ranked as the fifth best museum in Asia and was named first in Thailand by TripAdvisor.