Visitors bring flags to hang in Hellfire Pass in remembrance of the soldiers who lost their lives in the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Plenty of Australian and British flags hang in the pass but there aren't any New Zealand flags to be found.
The stunning beauty of the valley of the Khwae Noi River in the Tenasserim Hills area of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province masks a murderous history. More than 100,000 people were sacrificed in what was, ultimately, a futile bid to build a rail link between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) to aid the war effort of the Japanese Empire.
The infamous Thai-Burma railway, aka the Death Railway, running 415 km from Ban Pong, Thailand, to Thanbyuzayat, Burma, was built to allow the Japanese army safer access to Burma during World War II. At the time, the other option to get troops and supplies into Burma was via the hazardous sea route around the Malay peninsula and Andaman Sea, which was full of Allied warships and submarines.
Construction, using forced labour, began on the railway in 1942. More than 180,000 Romusha (South East Asian civilian labourers) and 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) worked on the railway, which ran through hilly jungle terrain with plenty of rivers. The British had considered building a railway in the area back in 1885 but decided it was too difficult, given the landscape. Labourers were subject to terrible conditions and disease. There was little food and medication, they only had basic tools like spades and hammers and the jungle was hot and humid.
A total of 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction, including 6,904 British, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans. An estimated 90,000 Romusha also died. The railway included over 600 bridges and was completed in 1943 but closed in 1947 after the war.
While New Zealand was not officially part of the war in SEA – all our soldiers were in the Middle East and Europe – some were caught up in the Japanese advance and ended up as POWs working on the Death Railway. Thirteen of them are among the nearly 7,000 buried in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. There were also Kiwis in the RAF Liberator bomber crews that eventually put the rail link out of business.
Despite its bloody history, it is a beautiful part of the world. A sunrise over the famous River Kwai is a never to be forgotten experience.
Just one thing - anyone planning to make the trip, a pilgrimage really, should pack a small New Zealand flag to take with them. All the other nations have flags along Hellfire Pass, brought by visitors from home. There are plenty of Australian and British flags in the pass but there aren’t many Kiwi flags to be found. Our flags should be hanging there too, as although our contribution was small, we were still there and our soldiers deserve to be remembered.
Lest we forget.
By Trevor Hawkins
Trevor Hawkins is Senior Counsel at communications consultancy Ruder Finn Asia, based in Singapore, and a proud Kiwi.