Kaeng Khoi Tha, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand October 25, 1943

The Burma-Thailand Railway was inau­gu­rated on this date in 1943 near the Konkoita forced labor camp about 11 miles (18 km) south of the Burmese border. The opening of the new rail line was declared a holi­day by Japa­nese autho­ri­ties. The festi­vi­ties cele­brated the meeting of the north­ern and sou­thern lines 9 days earlier near Kon­koita (today Kaeng Khoi Tha). Guest of honor was Lt. Gen. Eiguma Ishida, com­mis­sioner of the Burma-Thailand Rail­way pro­ject. Ishida drove a copper spike where the north and south tracks met and unveiled a memo­rial plaque. The con­struc­tion of the 258 mile (415 km) meter-gauge line between Ban Pong 45 miles west of Thai­land’s capi­tal and sea­port Bang­kok and Thanbyuzayat 73 miles across the Burmese border (see map below) had taken 16 months and finished 2 months ahead of schedule. Though the rail­way is com­monly referred to as the Burma-Thai­land Rail­way, only 69 miles (111 km) of the track were laid in Burma (present-day Myan­mar); most of the track—189 miles (304 km)—was laid in Thailand.

The British occupied and annexed Burma between 1824 and 1885. The colony was governed as part of next-door British India but became a sepa­rate colony in 1935. On Decem­ber 14, 1941, Burma came under attack by invading Japa­nese forces from Thai­land. To supply their occu­pa­tion forces in Burma, the Japa­nese ini­ti­ally depended on sup­plies and troops shipped around the Malay penin­sula, until early 1942 occu­pied by the British, and through the Strait of Malacca and the Anda­man Sea. The sea route was long and exposed to attack by British and Amer­i­can war­ships, espe­cially after the Battles of the Coral Sea (May 4–8, 1942) and Midway (June 3–6, 1942). To avoid the peril­ous 2,000‑mile (3,200 km) sea jour­ney, a feasi­ble alter­na­tive emerged: over­land rail from Bang­kok in the direc­tion of the Anda­man Sea, then a swing north to Ran­goon (Yan­gon), at the time Burma’s capi­tal and com­mer­cial center 25 miles (40 km) inland from the coast.

The rail project began on June 23, 1942, when 600 British POWs from prison camps in South­east Asia arrived to build a transit camp for sub­se­quent forced labor staging camps built along the rail­way. Rail­way con­struc­tion began in Burma and Thai­land on Septem­ber 16, 1942. Much of the con­struc­tion cut through moun­tainous coun­try and dense jungle inter­sected by count­less rivers (688 bridges were required, including 6 or so long-span bridges) in a region with one of the worst cli­mates in the world. A quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple were involved in the pro­ject. Forced laborers—silent, name­less unpaid con­scripted South­east Asian civil­ians, often known by the Japa­nese word for “laborer,” romusha, (180,000–250,000) and to a smaller extent Allied pri­soners of war (nearly 62,000)—per­formed the dirty, dan­gerous, and back-breaking work.

Often overlooked are the Japanese and their Korean allies who worked on the rail­way. Roughly 12,000 troops of the Impe­rial Japa­nese Army and 800 Koreans were employed on the rail­road project, many acting as guards for the Allied POWs or coercing the romusha. Others were mili­tary engi­neers and those with the techni­cal know­ledge and exper­tise to design and build the rail­way. Some of the men were orga­nized into rail­way regi­ments that worked directly on the rail­way. Still others were admin­is­tra­tors who orga­nized the pri­soner work force, ensuring they did the work and preventing any from escaping.

After construction was complete, work on the rail­way con­sisted of main­te­nance, cutting fuel for loco­mo­tives, han­dling stores along the line, cutting and building roads, and repairing damage caused by Allied bombings to trestle bridges, rails, supply and muni­tion sheds, and petro­leum storage tanks. Bombings became more fre­quent and the inev­i­ta­ble casual­ties rose ever higher when, toward the end of October 1943, trains full of Japa­nese troops and war materiel began to flow through Thai­land to Burma. Flow in the other direc­tion was light. Over the course of its exis­tence, 500,000 tons of freight moved over the rails.

The Notorious “Death Railway,” 1943–1945

Map Burma-Thailand Railway, 1943–1945

Above: The Japanese utilized a labor force com­posed of Allied pri­soners of war, including Allied civil­ians, cap­tured in cam­paigns in South­east Asia and the Pacific Islands and romusha brought from Malaya, Singa­pore, New Britain, and the Dutch East Indies or con­scripted in Thai­land and Burma. From June 1942 onward large groups of pri­soners were trans­ferred periodi­cally to Thai­land and Burma from Java, Suma­tra, and Borneo. Two forced labor teams, one based in Thai­land and one in Burma, worked from oppo­site ends of the line toward the center in a deadly tropi­cal environ­ment that caused horri­fic losses of life due to sick­ness, malnu­tri­tion, exhaus­tion, and their captors’ cruel indifference and brutality.

Burma-Thailand Railway: POW work party 1 laying railsBurma-Thailand Railway: POW work party 2 laying rails

Above: Scenes of two work parties laying rails. The Japa­nese demanded from each labor camp a cer­tain percen­tage of its strength for work parties, irre­spec­tive of the number of sick and dis­abled. The rail pro­ject was inspired by the need for improved commu­ni­ca­tions to main­tain the large Japa­nese army in Burma. At full strength (1942–1943), the Japa­nese Army had ~300,000 men at arms in Burma.

Burma-Thailand Railway: Allied POWs in chow line, n.d.Burma-Thailand Railway: Australian and Dutch POWs, Tarsau, Thailand, 1943

Left: Prisoners in a chow line under the scorching Thai sun and without a shirt or hat for pro­tec­tion, or shade from the nearby jungle canopy. Throughout the building of the rail­way, food sup­plies were irreg­u­lar and totally inade­quate. Brought up by barge on the nearby Kwai Noi River or trucked in over a con­verted jungle track, food delivery could not be con­sis­tently main­tained, so rations were nearly always below the Japa­nese offi­cial stan­dard for the rail­way pro­ject. Vege­tables and other perish­ables long in transit arrived rotten. The rice was of poor qual­ity, fre­quently con­taminated by vermin, and fish, meat, oil, salt, and sugar were rarely provided. Although it was often possi­ble to supple­ment this diet by pur­chases from locals, pri­soners some­times had to live for weeks on little more than a meager bowl of rice flavored with salt. Red Cross parcels helped when they weren’t held up by the autho­ri­ties. Malaria, cholera, dysentery and diarrhea, beriberi, and pel­lagra (two vita­min defi­ciency dis­eases) attacked the pri­soners, and the number of camp sick was always high.

Right: Australian and Dutch POWs, photographed in 1943 at Tarsau forced labor camp, Thai­land, show the results of mal­nu­tri­tion and beri­beri. As long as the wretched laborers could stand, they were pushed to work. Once they turned extremely frail, they were thrown into mass graves adja­cent to the tracks. Thus, the Burma-Thai­land Rail­way earned the noto­rious moni­ker “Death Rail­way.” Wide­spread mal­nu­tri­tion, lack of medi­cines against infec­tions and trop­i­cal dis­eases such as cholera and malar­ia; harsh, muddy ter­rain that required workers to walk for miles; a relent­less and ruth­less army extracting work from even the sickest individ­uals caused the deaths of 80,000 to 100,000 romusha (the Japa­nese kept no death records), chiefly Tamil Indians, Malays, Bur­mese, Indo­ne­sians, Indo-Chi­nese, and Java­nese. An esti­mated 12,621 Allied POWs perished working on the rail­way, a death rate that ranged between 15 per­cent (Dutch sub­jects) and 23 per­cent (British and Common­wealth sub­jects). Around 1,000 Japa­nese died during this period, mostly from disease.

Burma-Thailand Railway: Bridge building at Tarmarkan, Thailand, n.d.Burma-Thailand Railway: Bridge over the Khwae Yai River, aka River Kwai

Left: Burma-Thailand bridge construction over the Kwai Noi River at Tamar­kan, n.d. Laborers built the tracks and bridges with hand tools (pick­axes, hammers, tongs) and muscle power. All were urged to work at a tempo the Japa­nese called “speedo” with little rest or food. Work carried on late into the evening by the light of oil lamps and bamboo fires. The Tamar­kan work camp saw a num­ber of inad­vertent com­bat casual­ties. The unfor­tu­nate pri­soners were caught in air raids against the area bridges. The worst took place on Novem­ber 29, 1944, when an Allied air raid struck the bridge seen here and a near­by ant­iair­craft bat­tery. Some of the bombs over­shot the target and exploded in the camp, killing 19 POWs and wounding 68 others. Another raid took place on Febru­ary 5, 1945, in which 15 POWs were wounded; the autho­ri­ties wisely moved the rest of the pri­soners to a less vulnerable camp site.

Right: The iron and concrete bridge that is the true bridge over the “River Kwai” has become a tourist mecca. The bridge was com­pleted in June 1943 and blown up by Royal Air Force Liberator bombers 2 years later. The curved struts are the original Japan­ese made of iron brought in from Japa­nese-occupied Java. The fic­tional River Kwai depicted in Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel The Bridge over the River Kwai and David Lean’s 1957 film adap­ta­tion of the same name is the Khwae (or Kwai) Yai River, meaning “Big Kwai,” a name it received in the 1960s. A wooden trestle bridge was in fact built over the Kwai Noi (“Little Kwai”) miles up­stream in the jungle (it was bombed and rebuilt 9 times), and that bridge more closely resembled the bridge in Lean’s film. How­ever, Lean’s film is really a fic­tional depic­tion of the events during the bridge’s con­struc­tion with many inac­cur­acies baked into the novel and screen­play, and neither bridge—iron and con­crete bridge or the wooden trestle bridge miles upstream—conform closely to fact.

Building the Burma-Thailand Railway, aka “Death Railway” (Skip first 1:40 minutes)