Prisoners in the fires of hell
Hellfire Pass Memorial and Museum, Thailand
It’s always quite emotional to be confronted with the tragedies of your own country while travelling overseas. But the nature of war means the losses of our countrymen are often spread across the globe. One such place for us Australians is Hellfire Pass, the iconic stretch of the ill-fated Thailand-Burma Railway.
It’s with a bit of shame that I admit I previously knew very little about it. So little, in fact, that I actually got things the wrong way around when trying to explain it to someone several weeks ago.
It’s lucky we travel to learn, because on this topic I clearly had a lot I needed to learn.
It is also a bit of a shame that this story does not feature more prominently in the Australian narrative of war. More than 16,000 prisoners of war – the majority Australian, British and Dutch – died here. But, from my experience at least, it doesn’t seem to have to have the awareness at home that it should.
It is the home of the Weary Dunlop legend, the army surgeon who gave hope to the men he was imprisoned with in the railway work camps. Most Australians know the name… I doubt many these days would be able to tell you his story.
Visiting Hellfire Pass is truly worthwhile, though – to see it for yourself, to try to imagine what it would have been like, and to learn. Credit where credit is due because I was extremely impressed with the Australian Government’s museum, memorial and effort to tell the story. The museum sets the scene perfectly with interesting and informative displays.
There is also a free audio guide that you can take with you as you descend the steps and walk through the cutting that thousands of prisoners of war worked on. It explains the history, features interviews with survivors who tell their stories, and includes detailed commentary on specific issues like the diseases they faced, the meagre offerings of food available, and even the nicknames given to the Japanese guards.
Hellfire Pass (named so because of the way it looked when they worked at night by firelight) was the toughest part of the Thailand-Burma Railway. I’ll be going into more detail about the railway in the second part of this story, but what you need to know now is that the Japanese were building the railway during the Second World War because they were fighting in Burma and troops there desperately needed supplies. It was decided that sending the ammunition, food and other goods overland from Thailand would be better than by sea and so the track was needed. Tens of thousands of prisoners of war and Asian labourers were brought in for the task. Hellfire Pass, because of the difficulty of cutting through so much solid rock, was a bottleneck on the project, though. The harsh mistreatment to speed up the work, coupled with malnourishment and disease would prove to be fatal for so many good men.
Listening to the stories on the audioguide was horrific. The difficulty of the labour, the brutality the Japanese guards inflicted on the POWs, and the disease. How any of them survived, I will never know.
During the busiest period of work, the men were struck with the worst sicknesses. The guards would still demand a certain number of prisoners for the work group, though, so they would judge who was the sickest by who had the most blood in his shit.
Blood, shit, sweat… but no tears – that are talked about, at least. How they got through this, I will never understand.
I thought a lot during my visit. You can’t help but be reflective. There was something odd and slightly unsettling that struck me down on the memorial, though.
From the railway track they were building, these workers really did have a stunning view. I say this not to be flippant or trite, but to point out the contrast of the place that these days tens of thousands of Australians come for holidays, partly for this beauty. Most might not even realise that so many of their countrymen are just kilometres away, their ashes in the ground around Hellfire Pass and their souls with their comrades. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because those brave soldiers lost their lives so we may enjoy ours in freedom – but we should never disrespect their memory.
Lest we forget.
* You can find out more about the memorial and museum at the official website here.