Hellfire

Today we took a scooter up to Hellfire Pass. For once the scooter was new, fast and a joy to ride. Going faster is a mixed blessing. Yes, you get to your destination faster but anything flying above the road poses a hazard. Hitting a butterfly at 60 mph was painful but I guess it came off worse

An Australian museum at Hellfire Pass pays fitting tribute to the POWs of all nations that worked on the Death Railway that ran from Thailand to Burma

Having successfully invaded Burma, Malay, Thailand and Indochina, the Japanese were keen to secure a more effective supply route to Burma than the sea route through the Malacca Straits which was heavily protected by the Allied Forces. Their answer was to resurrect a route for a railway line initially proposed and subsequently rejected by the British several years earlier

Work began in June 1942. Labour was provided by 60,000 Allied POWs transported from occupied territories in Malaysia and Singapore supplemented by 180,000 indigenous workers from across Asia. The conditions under which the work was carried out were some of the most arduous ever suffered and became worse still as the deadline for completion was brought forward. During the period of construction around 16,000 Allied Servicemen died alongside 90,000 workers from Asia

The tools available for construction were virtually non-existent and almost all of the work had to be carried out by hand. Hellfire Pass became notorious as the most difficult stretch of railway to be built as it involved carving a cutting 73m long and 25m deep through the most inhospitable jungle

The Japanese were unforgiving taskmasters, providing the workers little if anything by way of shelter and food and insisted on labour quotas being met even though many of the workers were suffering from dysentery, cholera and malaria (In many cases leave of absence was only granted if one's stool contained 80% blood; 50% was deemed healthy enough to work)

As the railway neared completion, work took place around the clock. The fires that were lit and the shadows they cast of the workers and their brutal Japanese masters gave the cutting its infamous title

Further south at Kanchanaburi lies the River Kwai Bridge, immortalised in the David Lean film (although the bridge used in the film was actually in Kitulgala in Sri Lanka!)

 

The railway was operational for two years before three successive allied bombing raids put it out of commission. In his book 'The Railway Man' Eric Lomax gives a harrowing but excellent account of his experiences during the construction of the railway. The book is being made into a film and filming in Kanchanaburi has already started with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Sadly they'd packed their bags and left before we had chance to volunteer our services as extras!

 

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