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A Life for every Sleeper
The Siam - Burma Railway
1942 - 1943
In June 1942, 61000 British, Australian, American, New Zealand, Danish and Dutch POWs as well as an estimated 250000 labourers from Siam, Burma and Malaya were put to work by the Japanese Imperial Army to construct a railway line 415km long to link Kanchanaburi to the Japanese Base Camp in Thanbyuzayat in Burma, thus ensuring a direct line from Singapore through Malaya and Thailand to link up with the railway network in Burma. Apart from supplying their bases in Burma, the Japanese had also planned to use the railway to launch an attack on India.
Originally, the Japanese estimated that it would take 5 to 6 years to finish the line, but under tremendous pressure, the POWs were forced to complete the  in 16 months. The effect was devastating. The railway line was built over the dead bodies of some 16000 allied POWs and 75000 Asian labourers. That means for every sleeper laid on the railway track, a life was sacrificed.
Work was hard; a prisoner Naylor wrote:
We started work the day after we arrived, carrying huge baulks of timber. It was the heaviest work I have ever known; the Japs drove us on and by nightfall I was so tired and sore that I could not eat my dinner and just crawled onto bed and fell asleep. The next day was spent carrying stretchers of earth, also heavy work and incredibly monotonous. The hours were 0830 to 1930 with an hour of lunch.
One of the most difficult stretches of the railway line, which claimed many lives, was a wooden viaduct (above) near Nam Tok. It winds round a sheer cliff face by the Kwae Noi river. Another difficult stretch was the infamous Bridge Over the River Kwai. It is an engineering feat which evokes immense human suffering. At Hellfire Pass, trails lead to the Konyu Cutting and the Hintok bridge where POWs undertook hazardous work in precarious conditions. The hard labour, harsh discipline, poor diet, exhaustion and lack of medical care exacted a heavy toll among the prisoners. The cruel treatment meted out to the prisoners is a shameful indictment of the Japanese military. By 1943, some of the men were in an appalling state. In Colonel Toosey's report of October 1945 he wrote:
On one occasion a party of 60, mostly stretcher cases, were dumped off a train in a paddy field some 2 miles from the Camp in the pouring rain at 0300hrs...... As a typical example, I can remember one man who was so thin that he could be lifted easily in one arm. His hair was growing down his back and was full of maggots; his clothing consisted of a ragged pair of shorts soaked with dysentery excreta; he was lousy and covered with flies all the time. He was so weak that he was unable to lift his head to brush away the flies which were clustered on his eyes and on the sore places of his body. I forced the Japanese Staff to come and look at these parties, which could be smelt for some hundreds of yards, but with the exception of the Camp Comdt, they showed no signs of sympathy, and sometimes merely laughed.
The railway was finished in 17 October 1943, at a cost of thousands of lives. The railway was used only once before the Allies bombed it at the Bridge over the River Kwai towards the end of the war. The Kanchanaburi and the Chungkai War Cemeteries (above left) in Kanchanaburi contain the graves of 7000 Allied POWs. Although the number of Asian labourers far exceed to number of POWs, their sufferings celebrated.  After that, the construction of the Death Railway became one of the most infamous nightmares of the Second World War in Southeast Asia. Every year, reenactions (above right) of the Allied bombings of the Bridge Over the River Kwai are held during the week dedicated to this infamous episode.
The Thailand Collection
Copyright © 1998, by The Thailand Collection