Hellfire pass today.
As I grew up, I was aware that my father had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Thailand, and that he had been forced to work on what was known as the "Death Railway". He had been permanently weakened by the experience, had lost a lung during a shipwreck, but it was never really spoken about in our family. He died when I was a child, and as I got older I wanted to know more about what had happened to him.
I first went to Kanchanaburi in 1988 with my mother. We visited the bridge on the river Kwai and stayed in a tiny hut right on the river (the inspiration for the place where Laura and Luke stay in the book). You can see the photos from that trip here.
Kanchanaburi was not very developed in 1988. The only museum that was there then was the JEATH Museum. It was in a group of atap huts, similar to the ones the prisoners would have lived in while building the railway. It was fairly low key then and run by a Buddhist monk. It was slightly bizarre, with cartoons of the various tortures meted out to prisoners displayed in graphic detail. We visited that museum, walked over the Bridge on the River Kwai and took a train along the railway to the end of the line at Nam Tok near the Burmese border. At that time, no section of the railway had been restored for visitors to walk on.
I went again in 2005 with my husband and our three sons who were then aged 8, 11, and 13. We went back to the JEATH museum, which had hardly changed since my first visit, and by that time there was also the excellent Thailand, Burma Railway centre, with information and displays about the railway together with walk-in railway carriages and 3D reconstructions of parts of the track.
We also took a trip up the railway line and walked a section of the railway, between Hellfire Pass, through Hintok and to Compressor Cutting. This section of the track has been restored by the Australian Government, and there is a museum and walking trail dedicated to the POWs and Asian labourers who died building it.
Hellfire Pass is a 500 metres long and 26 metres deep section of rock that was dug out by Prisoners of War intended to allow the ‘Death Railway’ to continue its route from Bangkok to Rangoon. Soldiers were forced to remove the rock using no more than picks, hammers and their bare hands. Of the 1,000 Australian and British prisoners who took 12 weeks to clear the stretch of mountain, 700 died.
Trestle bridge with train on it in 1945 - similar to the "pack of cards bridge" near Hellfire Pass.
Because it was Christmas Eve on the day we went, there was no-one else there. Our driver agreed to meet us at the other end and we set off along the track. It was an eerie experience, walking for 3.5 kms unaccompanied through the jungle along the track that had been built with the slavery and suffering of so many men. Along the route were information plaques, giving details of how each section was built, atrocoties that had occurred and where. For example, the Pack of Cards Bridge fell down three times. At least 31 men were killed in falls and 29 men were beaten to death there.
I went back again in 2010 with my eldest son, Oliver. By this time many more records were available about the prisoners. With help from dedicated members of the FEPOW Community, Michael Hurst from the Taiwan POW memorial society, and Terry Mantann from the TBRC I had traced my Dad's story and had tracked down his record card and Liberation Questionnaire in the National Archives at Kew. More details of this research are here.
On that occasion, in summer 2010, Ollie and I went from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi for a day trip with Terry Mantann from the TBRC . Terry was incredibly knowledgeable and informative. He took us out into the countryside to see the sites of three of the camps listed in my Dad's Liberation Questionnaire and to walk through Chungkai cutting - where the rock had been chiselled by prisoners using only hand tools and where you can still see and feel the marks made by their tools.
Chungkai cutting -
cut by hand by the POWs
We visited the Chungkai camp and cemetry, walked on the Bridge on the River Kwai and looked round the wonderful displays at the Thailand Burma Railway Centre again. More photos from that trip can be seen here.