Sunday, 11 August 2013

To Hellfire Pass and back

It was the shadows created by the emaciated bodies of the POWs building "Hellfire Pass" on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway" that led to the cutting's distinctive nickname.

These tall, thin and dark figures dancing on the rock walls in the flickering light of bamboo torches and bonfires must have surely looked like a scene from hell itself.

Entrance to the narrow Hellfire Pass

"Hellfire Pass", also known as Konyu Cutting, is a 73m long, 25m deep railway cutting - the deepest on the 415km Thai-Burma Railway built by POWs and Asian labourers under the direction of the Japanese during World War II.

It has since come to represent the suffering of Australian (and other) prisoners of war during the war in the Pacific.

A tree now grows in the narrow and deep cutting
About 13,000 Australians worked on the railway, with about 2,700 dying because of disease, limited rations and medicine, poor working conditions, and beatings.

In total, about 3330,000 people (including 250,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied POWs) are believed to have worked on the railway.   Of these, about 90,000 labourers and about 16,000 Allied prisoners died.

Torches threw hell-like scenes on the cutting's walls
From April 1943, the work pace on the railway was increased as the Japanese strove to meet their revised completion deadline.  The guards shouted "speedo" while POWs and labourers were made to work up to 18 hours a day.

With basic equipment, earth and rock were broken by shovels, picks and hoes, and carried away in baskets and sacks.   The Hellfire Pass cutting was essentially created by hand in about six weeks with metal taps and sledgehammers used to drill holes for explosives.

Hellfire Pass
Walking along a fraction of the disused railway amid wet season downpours and attacked by mosquitoes, I'm equally amazed by the physical feat and appalled at the conditions the workers endured.
Small memorials in Hellfire Pass
Australian, British and Dutch tourists regularly come to Hellfire Pass
Makeshift memorials by visiting Australians
Plaque remembering "Weary" Dunlop in Hellfire Pass

As an Australian, I also find it quite an emotional place.  It's one thing to visit concentration camps, war cemeteries and memorials in Europe, but this feels very close to home.

A small but excellent museum above Hellfire Pass

Peace Vessel, created by former POW Peter Rushford, at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

I had certainly heard of the Thai-Burma Railway before visiting Hellfire Pass, but was unaware of the real story and magnitude of the project.  It also made me realise how the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai is a complete work of fiction with only token nods to the actual wartime events.

Nearby, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery holds the remains of many Australians who did not make it back home.   Originally, many of these POWs were buried in makeshift graves beside the railway before being recovered and properly laid to rest after the war.

The graves of POWs who worked on the railway

The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery

One of the many poignant graves

Far from home, but not forgotten
While much of the Thai-Burma Railway was completed, sections were bombed by Allied forces.  After the war, the poor condition of the railway meant most of it was left to the jungle with the original steel rails salvaged for other projects.

Remnants of the railway remain

On my last day in the area, I travelled on part of the 130km section of the railway that is still used today in Thailand.

Weaving through dense jungle, across wooden bridges and alongside the River Kwai, I can't help but think about the sheer scale and brutality of the railway's construction, made all the more difficult by the beautiful, but impenetrable jungle and mountains.

View from the train on the operational part of the railway

I travelled as a guest of River Kwai Jungle Rafts (; Scoot Airlines (; The Pullman Bangkok King Power (; The Tourism Authority of Thailand (; and the Ibis Bencoolen Singapore (

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