In the spring of 1942, it seemed like the Japanese are close to winning the war in Southeast Asia. Exploiting the advantage that they gained at Pearl Harbor, they conquered vast territories in China and occupied the Philippines, Singapore, and Dutch East Indies. They continued their expansion into Burma, which was to be a stepping stone for their invasion of India, but then they faced some logistical difficulties.

Japanese used sea routes to supply their military forces in Burma as any useful land infrastructure was not existent amid Thailand and the Burmese jungle. So, the Japanese decided to build Burma Railway. They also wanted to control the land infrastructure that will allow them to avoid Allied submarine attacks at sea that were causing severe loss to their supply chain.

Supplied: Australian War Memorial/P00406.026

The idea of the Burma Railway was born. A 415 km railway that will connect Thailand and Burma through the inhospitable jungle terrain and make possible for Japanese expansion further West. The construction lasted from September 1942 to October 1943, and all work was done by approximately 60,000 Allied POWs and more than 200,000 laborers from Asia who were forced into labor or tricked with promises of reasonable wages and working conditions.

The Allies didn’t hide their amazement with the ambitious scope of this endeavor, and the fact that is was accomplished under extreme working conditions, with limited supplies and working equipment. More than 600 bridges were constructed, mountains were cut through, and the jungle was conquered so the railway connection could be established. And also more than 100.000 people perished during the construction.

An image of POWs from the exhibition

Allied POWs and Asian workers were treated like slaves and were not provided with proper nutrition, medical care, or sanitation. To Japanese officers, they were expendable and just used as a tool to finish the project on time. The conditions were so adverse that even out of 12,000 Japanese soldiers, officers, and engineers who were involved in the construction, more than 1,000 died from an illness, mostly malaria or dysentery.

Two landmarks remained in the memory of survivors as a testament to their inhumane treatment. Today, they are tourist sites, but in the spring of 1943, Hellfire Pass and the River Kwai bridge were places where thousands were starved and worked to death. At Hellfire Pass, prisoners were forced to drill the mountain fifteen to eighteen hours a day, while beaten and molested by Japanese guards who were pushing them to their physical and mental limits.

At River Kwai bridge, starved prisoners and workers had to carry giant and massive logs for hours while standing in water waist-deep. They were usually fed with a light portion of boiled rice, which was often rotten and undigestible. The hygiene conditions were disastrous, and most deaths can be attributed to dysentery and other types of intestine infections. Many were beaten to death by Japanese guards for not being able to keep up with the required pace.

Australian War Memorial

The death rate among Southeast Asian labor force was as high as 50 percent, and predominant causes were tropical diseases like cholera, malaria, or tropical ulcers. They were treated much poorly, and within their ranks, they didn’t have any medical staff available. Allied POWs sometimes had doctors within their regiment who had experience with tropical diseases, which contributed to the lower death rate.

The ones who survived this hell were left with emotional and physical scars for life and remained the living witnesses of war’s horror and madness. As for the railway, it did serve its purpose for a while, and it helped for more than 500,000 tons of freight to be moved before the Allied forces captured it. Today, most of it is swallowed by the jungle and hidden from those who can only imagine the horrors that took place here a long time ago.