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The Death Railway in Siam During World War II

MG is a military specialist having spent quality time in the Indian Air Force. He is also an alumnus of the Defence Services Staff College.



Siam is the old imperial name of modern Thailand. The war in the east was a savage affair. The Imperial army advanced across Thailand and captured Singapore. The Japanese invasion of Thailand commenced on 8 December 1941. It was a brief war and very soon the Thai army caved in as the Thai Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram was keen to have an alliance with Japan. There was some fighting in Southern Thailand but it lasted only five hours. Thailand and Japan then allied, making Thailand part of the Axis alliance until the end of World War II.

They followed up and captured Burma, driving the British out of the entire region. The Japanese army in Burma needed supplies and these necessarily had to be brought by sea to Rangoon through the China sea and the Strait of Malacca. This was hazardous as allied warships took a heavy toll on the Japanese shipping. Japan was also weakened to a great extent after the defeat of their fleet by the US fleet at the Battle of Midway in 1942. The battle of MIdway greatly depleted the reach and capability of the Imperial fleet as 4 carriers were lost.

Despite this, the Imperial army was rapidly advancing in Burma and the British Indian army was in headlong retreat.

The Imperial army needed supplies for their army in Burma and they thought the best way was to construct a rail link from Thailand to Burma and on to Rangoon. The rail line was planned to be 458 km and was slated to be completed by Mid 1943. The Japanese needed this rail link to ferry supplies to their army advancing in Burma. The rail line would negate the use of cargo ships to ferry supplies to Rangoon.


The Rail Line

The Imperial cabinet led by General Hideki Tojo passed instructions to start the immediate construction of the rail line. It was no easy task as the line was to pass through thick tropical jungles and deep crocodile-infested rivers. Besides, there were mountains and the entire construction required great engineering skill. Work on the rail line commenced on a war footing and the entire stretch was expected to be completed by mid 43.

The Japanese were lucky as the British had planned a rail line on the same route. The rail line had been envisaged as far back as 1885 and a survey had been done. The Japanese were able to lay their hands on the survey report and Imperial army engineers began the construction. As the rail was to pass through thick jungles and nearly 4 rivers the rail construction was slightly delayed.


Construction however commenced as there was a dire need to transport supplies as the war was on and defeating the Allies was the topmost priority. The Japanese needed labor for this rail effort. They chose the easy path out and conscripted the Allied POWs for this task. These prisoners worked in inhuman conditions and they laid down the rail line. After the war in the war crimes trial, 32 Japanese soldiers and officers were hanged by the allies for atrocities committed during the construction of the rail.

However, it must be mentioned that the Japanese never utilized any Indian pows for this task and mainly used British, American, and Dutch POW. They also used local labor who was very poorly treated and almost 20 of them died every day.

To speed up the completion of the project the Japanese engineers started work from both ends in Burma and Siam. The construction parties met in the middle when completed in 1943.

Labor and POW's

The speedy completion of the railway was mainly because the Japanese had no shortage of manpower. They used nearly 330,000 workers of who at a conservative estimate 100,000 died. That is the reason the nickname "death railway" was given.

The Japanese army also moved 60,000 POWs from Changi prison in Singapore to work on the project. The condition of work during construction were very harsh and many workers died of malnutrition, starvation, and illnesses including cholera and malaria. Life in the POW camps was particularly disturbing,

Engineering feat

The rail line was indeed an engineering feat and trains began to move across this line carrying supplies to the Imperial army in Burma which had now reached the gates of India at Assam. Engineers constructed what is known as the Kwai bridge over the Mar Klong River. The bridge was originally made of wood in 1942, and a steel version was built next to it in 1943. The Allies however destroyed it by bombing in 1945.

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Another important construction was the Hellfire Pass. Many workers were forced to work in torchlight and most were to work for 18 hours a day. There are reports that 60 men were beaten to death for not working. . Today, Hellfire Pass is no longer open to trains and has been converted into the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

Many of the allied POW's met a horrible death due to the harsh conditions, but it appears the Japanese were not overly bothered about the Geneva convention and the welfare of POW. For this, they had to face retribution at the end of the war.


The end

The Japanese surrendered in 1945 and the rail line was bombed by the Allies. The line went into disuse, but was restored in 1957 and made into a tourist destination. The Burma portion of the rail line is no longer in use. However, the Thai government has restored part of the line and there is also a museum and a restored rail station. The bridge over the River Kwai is now serviceable. An excellent movie was made titled Bridge over the River Kwai with Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins. It is considered a masterpiece. All said and done the death rail is now history, but at one time it was a priority for the Japanese.

The construction of the Burma Railway is labeled as a war crime. At the end of the war, 111 Japanese and Korean soldiers were tried and 32 death sentences were carried out. Apart from the Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1952), there is also an award-winning novel by Eric Lomax "The Railway Man"


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 17, 2020:

Yes Tom, I read about it. He died in 2012

tom on December 17, 2020:

eric lomax died ,i have read his book

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 17, 2020:

Ruby, thank you for reading and commenting. Your comments are special

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on December 17, 2020:

This is something that I never heard or read about, so terrible that so many POW'S had to die, so cruel! The pictures you shared are remarkable, the men so undernourished. Hopefully the world has learned war never solved anything. I enjoy reading your stories, and you tell them so well.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 17, 2020:

Tom, I have been reading now about Eric Lomax. He always had a grudge and wanted revenge but when he met his main tormenter in Thailand he forgave him and they became friends, that was in 1993.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 17, 2020:

Thank you, Tom, the movie "Bridge on River Kwai" is fiction. Nice information on Eric Lomax. Yes, the British are guilty of the Bengal famine and I wonder what was their thoughts about it at that time.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 17, 2020:

Pamela, thank you. The Japanese were so cruel, I have not been able to understand their psyche as they profess to follow Buddhism which is a non-violent religion;

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 17, 2020:

I love the movie the Bridge over the River Kwai. I have seen it at least twice.

This is another interesting article about WWII history. I knew many were tortured and died as POWs of the Japanese. They were cruel, which I suppose is why ment were hung at the end of the war. It is nice that the rail road is now for tourists.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 17, 2020:

Thank you, Alan, nice you have commented. I wonder if you could let me have the gist of the experiences of your father in the camp.

Alan Smith on December 17, 2020:

My father served in Thailand and was a pow and worked on the notorious bridge. He used to tell me so many tales of the bridge and the terrible conduct of the Japanese. Thanks for highlighting it.

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