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Published: February 3rd 2012
Wars bring out the best and worst in humanity. They are full of tales of bravery and barbarity. Silent memorials pay witness to those men and women sacrificed for the opiate of power and wealth. Konyu Cutting in Thailand is one of those places were such tales whisper to you from the rocks and decaying wooden sleepers. Better known as Hellfire Pass (partly due to its appearance when lit by braziers at night), this cutting was the site of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway during World War Two, even though British surveyors had dismissed the idea of any rail connection between the two countries due to the rough terrain, dense vegetation, monsoonal rainfall, and problems of maintaining the railway for much the same reasons. Despite this, the Imperial Japanese government wished a passage to India, thus this folly of desperation, born from the insecurity of sea routes, commenced simultaneously at Tanbuziet in Myanmar and Ban Pong in Thailand on 1 October 1942.
Konyu Cutting is an approximately 70 minute drive from Kanchanaburi and so I organised a vehicle from a local car rental office. Arriving at the appointed time the following morning, I was informed that no car was available as
all current renters had extended their hires. Questioning the proprietor for recommendations of other agencies, she paused and thought before exclaiming “One moment,” and scurried to a nearby shop. She returned a minute later and excitedly blurted, “My friend who works there, you can use her car!” An added bonus would be the 20%!c(MISSING)heaper “rental” price. One must love places such as Thailand where they are not so bound by regulations or culture as to stifle such an offer as this. The seats of the small car were tidied of items, and a piece of tape placed over the button of an electric window that could open, but would never close. Finally, the drive to Konyu Cutting was underway, which was mostly spent listening to the excellent Hellfire Pass Audio Guide
that provides a comprehensive background to the site.
It appeared to be a busy day at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, and I parked the humble vehicle is the last vacant parking bay. The tastefully designed and informative Museum building provided a brief overview of the area’s wartime history, though not as detailed as the audio guide. Photographs showed lines of emaciated prisoners smiling at the time of their release
– reminiscent of images from Nazi Concentration Camps during the same war.
Leaving the Museum building, I proceeded to the actual railway site. The working environment was comprised of steep inclines, dense vegetation, huge boulders and rocky earth. Terrain needed to be levelled with metres of bedrock so trains could undertake their journey, plus there were 688 steel and timber bridges that needed to be constructed to ensure the line was complete. Added to this were the diseases born of a tropical environment such as cholera, maggots and tropical ulcers. Meagre rations, mistreatment and 12 hour shifts that forced 890 metres of railway line to be built daily exacerbated a deadly scenario.
Memories of this time were everywhere, rusty nails lay collected on a rock, massive boulders pierced by circular drill-holes, and decaying sleepers whose wood could be sighted beneath pale stones and brown leaves. Proving the prediction of the British surveyors, huge trees grew from where the railway once lay, as if life had returned to a place shrouded in death. It took some effort to walk along parts of the railway, and I was there at the coolest time of the year traversing a relatively smooth
passage. I did not have to negotiate steep inclines or dense vegetation nor did I suffer from the malnutrition, tropical ulcers, debilitating diseases, mistreatment and beatings that occurred in the 1940s. One could not conceive the overwhelming difficulties faced by these prisoners and labourers in those dark days.
It was here that Australian medical staff such as Edward “Weary” Dunlop, Lloyd Cahill, Bruce Hunt and Rowley Richards risked their own lives in tending to and protecting the ill and injured. Their behaviour was indicative of the way Australian prisoners were willing to risk themselves to assist an ailing prisoner. That bond of “mateship” (looking after one’s mates/friends) is oft quoted in Australia, but is rarely tested as much as it was on the railway. A soldier always had a mate to look out for them, and no Australian soldier ever died alone – he always had a mate at his side in those final hours.
The 415 kilometres of railway, which the British surveyors estimated would take six years to build, was completed in only 15 months by the 60,000 allied prisoners of war (from Australia, Great Britain, India, Netherlands and the USA) and 200,000 Asian labourers. But
this came at a terrible cost, with 12,800 allied prisoners of war and approximately 90,000 Asian labourers dying due to malnutrition, disease and mistreatment. Hence, there is truth to the oft quoted phrase, “A life for every sleeper”.
Why individuals treat other human beings in such a deplorable manner has been the subject of much discussion and research. In the audio guide, a former Burma-Thailand Railway prisoner and later politician, Australian Sir John Carrick, provides some sage reasoning on this question: ”It’s not people that create the savagery, but the systems of government. And it had taken us a long while, it took me quite a while, to come to the realization that those people, those private soldiers, are doing what they’re doing, because they too are being brutalized...Human nature is pretty constant, but it depends entirely on the nature of the environment, of the political and social environment in which it finds itself. It can either flourish and be free, or it can be totalitarian, as were those Japanese on the railway line.”
Returning to Kanchanaburi saw a brief visit to the War Cemetery, which though as sobering as these places usually are, did not have
the visceral impact of Konyu Cutting. That night, I was fortunate to patronise the River Kwai Bridge Festival which is held for only two weeks each year. Every evening during this time, a sound and light show on the wartime history of the region is re-enacted, and for the grand price of 100 Baht per ticket (approximately three dollars) I was able to secure a vantage point from the roof of a temple complex located adjacent to the river and bridge.
I normally attend such events with a degree of ambivalence, as they tend towards the kitsch, but this was easily the best production of this type I have witnessed. The bridge was lit in a variety of strong colours whilst a train rumbled along its length, lanterns flowed along the river and others floated into the dark sky. Specially constructed buildings were illuminated on the opposite riverbank whilst performers in military and civilian dress re-enacted tales from almost seven decades prior. The fireworks were not only for their visual effect, but they also recreated a bombing raid. The noise from some were incredible as the air shuddered with each explosion and the sound waves reverberated through my body
as sirens blared and a mock destruction of the bridge, complete with fire, was realised in front of thousands of expectant eyes. Flags of many nations were waved on the bridge and generous applause echoed across the river as the show concluded. This was an unexpectedly spectacular ending to a sombre and reflective journey to a place where hope confronted horror, and where deeds of sacrifice and valour will be told and retold for generations to come. After writing this blog, I became aware that my father's cousin was a prisoner on the Burma-Thailand Railway, but based in Burma. I remember he was a prisoner of war, but did not know of his location. Thankfully, he survived and is one of the last remaining Railway prisoners still living. This blog is dedicated to Kenneth Dumbrell, a Lieutenant with the Australian 4th Anti-Tank Regiment.outside of former Japanese Headquarters at Nakom Paton, Thailand, after war on 19 September 1945. Lt Dumbrell is second from right.' alt='Taken outside of former Japanese Headquarters at Nakom Paton, Thailand, after war on 19 September 1945. Lt Dumbrell is second from right.' class='photo-protector' style='width:100%!;(MISSING)height:227px;left:0;top:0;position:absolute;'>
Taken outside of former Japanese Headquarters at Nakom Paton, Thailand, after war on 19 September 1945. Lt Dumbrell is second from right.