Remembrance Day – 11 November

REMEMBRANCE DAY ON 11 NOVEMBER EACH YEAR PROVIDES AN OPPORTUNITY FOR AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE TO REMEMBER ALL AUSTRALIANS WHO SERVED IN ALL CONFLICTS. THE BURMA-THAILAND RAILWAY AND HELLFIRE PASS IS PART OF ONE SUCH CONFLICT.

REMEMBRANCE DAY SERVICES ARE HELD EACH YEAR IN ALL MAJOR CITIES AND MOST SUBURBS AND COUNTRY TOWNS AND PROVIDE AN OPPORTUNITY TO REMEMBER THOSE WHO SERVED OUR COUNTRY.


Excerpt from The Anzac Portal: Reference Here

“The Burma-Thailand railway was the common and dominant experience of Australian POWs. It distorted or ended the lives of over half of the Australian prisoners of the Japanese…” Hank Nelson, 'Measuring the railway' in Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson (eds), The Burma–Thailand Railway, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 17, 19.

But 'Hellfire Pass' was more than just a cutting. In its vicinity a sequence of bridges and embankments were needed to keep the railway route along the escarpment level. There were also many camps housing the thousands of workers, including Australians. These have now disappeared into the exquisitely beautiful landscape, but they have been reclaimed as witnesses to the POW story.

The Anzac legend and Australian memory

Over the years this story of atrocity and suffering has become an affirmation of Australian courage and resilience. Although prisoners of war suffered the humiliation of being defeated and captured, they came to be portrayed as men who had triumphed over adversity. Displaying in captivity the qualities of humour, resourcefulness and mateship, they were able to integrate their experiences into the dominant national memory of war since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, the Anzac 'legend'.

The POW experience is also remembered for the dedicated service of the medical personnel who, with little equipment or medicines, cared for desperately ill men in primitive hospitals. Most famous of these doctors is the POW surgeon Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. His statue now stands outside the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, not so far from another iconic image of compassion, Simpson and his donkey. Although Dunlop was only one of 106 Australian POW medical officers, in recent years he has come to represent them all—and the values of courage and compassion that they and many Australians manifested in captivity.

The workers

Military units to which the Australians belonged were broken up into work forces to meet the Japanese need for labour. From late 1942 more than 13,000 Australians were sent from Singapore, Java and Timor to work on the Thai–Burma railway.

The enemy

Around 12,000 Japanese and 800 Korean soldiers worked on the Thai–Burma railway as engineers or guards. They were some of over five million soldiers who served with the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.


Excerpt from The Anzac Portal: Reference here

The Building of Hellfire Pass

"It seems to run without much regard to the landscape as though someone had drawn a line on a map!" [E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 212.]

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942.

Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar).

A rail connection between Thailand and Burma had been proposed decades before World War II. In the 1880s the British had surveyed a possible route but abandoned the project because of the challenges posed by the thick jungle, endemic diseases and lack of adequate roads.

The Japanese also carried out a survey in the 1920s and, after completing a further survey in early 1942, decided in June to proceed, using the large workforce of Allied POWs now at their disposal. At this time Japanese engineers were assisted by small numbers of prisoners marking and roughly clearing the route of the railway.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use a massive workforce of prisoners and Asian labourers or rōmusha. The railway was to be constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end.

Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Burma-Thailand Railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia's national memory of World War II. There are good reasons for this. Over 22,000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.

This article focuses on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), the deepest and most dramatic of the many cuttings along the Burma-Thailand railway. Not all Australian POWs worked here in 1943. Nor was the workforce in this region exclusively Australian. However, in recent years Hellfire Pass has come to represent the suffering of all Australian prisoners across the Asia–Pacific region. The experiences of prisoners elsewhere were, in fact, very diverse but this article can only hint at these. The Burma-Thailand railway Since 1945 prisoners of war and the Burma-Thailand Railway have come to occupy a central place in Australia's national memory of World War II.

There are good reasons for this. Over 22,000 Australians were captured by the Japanese when they conquered South East Asia in early 1942. More than a third of these men and women died in captivity. This was about 20 per cent of all Australian deaths in World War II. The shock and scale of these losses affected families and communities across the nation of only 7 million people.

This article focuses on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), the deepest and most dramatic of the many cuttings along the Burma-Thailand railway. Not all Australian POWs worked here in 1943. Nor was the workforce in this region exclusively Australian. However, in recent years Hellfire Pass has come to represent the suffering of all Australian prisoners across the Asia–Pacific region. The experiences of prisoners elsewhere were, in fact, very diverse but this article can only hint at these.

The Burma-Thailand railway

The Burma-Thailand railway (known also as the Burma–Thailand or Burma–Siam railway) was built in 1942–43. Its purpose was to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes which had become vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India, and in particular the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

Aiming to finish the railway as quickly as possible the Japanese decided to use the more than 60,000 Allied prisoners who had fallen into their hands in early 1942. These included troops of the British Empire, Dutch and colonial personnel from the Netherlands East Indies and a small number of US troops sunk on the USS Houston during the Battle of Java Sea. About 13,000 of the prisoners who worked on the railway were Australian.

To meet the tight deadlines the Japanese had set for completing the railway, a further 200,000 Asian labourers or rōmusha (the precise number is not known) were enticed or coerced into working for the Japanese. The 415km railway ran from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) to Non Pladuk in Thailand. It was constructed by units working along its entire length rather than just from each end. This meant that the already difficult problems of supply became impossible during the monsoonal season of mid-1943.

Starved of food and medicines, and forced to work impossibly long hours in remote unhealthy locations, over 12,000 POWs, including more than 2,700 Australians, died. The number of rōmusha dead is not known but it was probably up to 90,000.

Remembering the railway

All memory is selective. Communities, like individuals, remember some stories of the past while forgetting others. For memories to survive at the collective or national level they need to be championed—not just once but over the decades. Many Australians performed that role for prisoners of the Japanese. World War II ex-prisoners published memoirs and eye-witness accounts. Many proved to be immensely popular. Russell Braddon's The Naked Island (1951), for example, sold well over a million copies and stayed in print for decades.

There were also memorable fictional accounts of captivity, some of which were adapted for commercial films and television series. The most famous of these was The Bridge on the River Kwai which, though bearing little resemblance to events in 1942-43, generated a popular interest in the railway which continues to this day. In the 1980s Australian ex-POWs returned to Thailand and reclaimed Hellfire Pass from the jungle which had swallowed it when the Burma-Thailand railway was demolished after World War II. The cutting soon became a site of memory for many Australians, particularly on Anzac Day. Its dramatic scale and its towering walls, scarred with drill incisions made by hand, spoke particularly vividly to the hardships endured by POWs.

The building of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum by the Australian government in 1998 also made it a key site of memory, attracting tourists and 'pilgrims' of many nationalities.

The terrain the railway crossed made its construction very difficult. However, its route was not entirely the dense and inhospitable jungle of popular imagination. At either end, in Thailand and Burma, the rail track travelled through gentle landscape before entering the rugged and mountainous jungle on the border between the two countries. When the track reached Wampo, about 112km from the Thai terminus, it started to meet jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. This posed problems for construction as well as for transport and supply.

As far as possible the railway track proceeded at a gentle gradient, as steam trains could only climb a slight incline. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway. In addition, over sixty stations were built to allow trains to pass one another, as well as refuelling and watering points.

More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian.

In addition, the Japanese enticed or coerced about 200,000 Asians labourers (rōmusha) to work on the railway. These included Burmese, Javanese, Malays, Tamils and Chinese. Over 12,000 Allied prisoners died during the construction of the railway, including more than 2,700 Australians. Around 1,000 Japanese died. It is difficult to determine precisely how many rōmusha died, as record keeping was poor. The number is estimated to be between 75,000 and 100,000.

Despite being repeatedly bombed by the Allies, the Thai–Burma railway did operate as a fully functioning railway after its completion. Between November 1943 and March 1944 over 50,000 tonnes of food and ammunition were carried to Burma as well as two complete divisions of troops for the Japanese offensive into India. This attack, one of their last, was defeated by British and Indian forces.

As the railway was used to support the Japanese in Burma until the end of the war, prisoners of war and rōmusha continued to work on maintenance and repair tasks after the railway construction was completed.


“We do not know this Australian's name and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, nor precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances – whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children, we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was. Yet he has always been among those whom we have honoured. The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia.”

Remembrance Day 1993: excerpt from commemorative address by PM Hon Paul Keating MP

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