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The completion of the Thai Burma Railway

Friday 11 October, 2019

Allied prisoners of war laying track on the Burma-Thailand Railway, at Ronsi, Burma (AWM P00406.034)

The tombstones of 3,149 Commonwealth soldiers are laid out in a semi-circle in the Burmese town of Thanbyuzayat.

In Thailand, another 4,946 men are buried in the cemetery at Kanchanaburi. This was just part of the human cost of the Thai Burma railway.

Following the fall of Singapore in 1942, 22,000 Australians were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese and held at Changi prison. Some were then sent to Japan, Taiwan and Borneo, but the majority were transported in appalling conditions on a five-day journey in overcrowded carriages to work on the Burma railway.

During the fighting in 1942, the Japanese High Command recognised the need for a supply railway linking Thailand and Burma as a means of bypassing the sea routes and a much-reduced and vulnerable Japanese naval strength. Once the railway was completed, the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the roads and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

The railway was required to traverse 420 kilometres through rugged and dense jungle between Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma.  A labour force of 60,000 Allied prisoners and 200,000 Asian labourers was used to build the rail line.  Work began at both ends of the rail line in June 1942. The track was built with only hand tools and human labour, working through the monsoon of 1943.

The living and working conditions on the railway were horrific. Prisoners were already in a poor state as a result of the nightmare voyage from Singapore.  At the camps, there were shortages of food and medical supplies and the treatment of the Japanese guards was vicious and brutal.  This and the relentless physical labour and the tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery, all contributed to the high loss of life during the construction.

Map of the Thai-Burma Railway – showing the locations of the camps along the length of the railway. The railway is shown crossing the map diagonally from the north -west to the south-east, stretching 415 kilometres from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) down to Nong Pladuk in Thailand

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop was one of 106 Australian doctors who were captured by the Japanese and one of 44 who worked on the railway.  On 20 January 1943, he left Singapore for Thailand in charge of ‘Dunlop Force’ and would remain there until the war ended, working tirelessly to save wounded, sick and malnourished men, often standing up to the brutality of his captors. Dunlop came to represent the self-sacrifice, courage and compassion that doctors, and Australians more generally, are remembered as displaying in captivity. In his war diaries, recorded throughout his captivity, he shares his views of the folly of building the railway….

‘It seems to run without much regard to the landscape as though someone had drawn a line on a map!’

The most well-known of sites along the Thai-Burma railway was Hellfire Pass. Located at Konyu, Thailand, Hellfire Pass was named for both the brutal conditions and the scene at night – lit by carbide lights, bamboo fires and hessian wicks in containers full of diesel oil. The site consisted of two cuttings; the first measured 460 metres long by 7.6 metres deep, the second was 73 metres long and 24 metres deep. The prisoners had to drill, blast and dig through solid rock over shifts lasting 18 hours a day. Around 700 Australians died working at Hellfire Pass.

A memorial sits next to the railway lines at Hellfire Pass (source: ABC)

Hellfire Pass was a cutting 75 metres long by 25 metres deep and it still looms today as an embodiment of the most extreme conditions faced by the prisoners and labourers who worked on the railway.  Prisoners worked in 18 hour shifts for 6 weeks to complete the cutting. They were expected to move three square metres of earth each day.  It is believed that about 700 Australians died during the construction of Hellfire Pass alone.

In October 1943, the two tracks met about 18 kilometers south of the Three Pagodas Pass at Kon Kuta, Thailand.  The track spanned 420 kilometres and travelled over 600 bridges, including six to eight long-span bridges.  It has since been described as an ‘engineering feat’ due to its length, the number of bridges, the number of people who worked on it, the short time it took to construct and of course, the extreme conditions under which it was constructed.

The Japanese Army transported 500,000 tonnes of freight over the railway before it fell to Allied hands in 1945.  It was closed in 1947, but a section between Nong Pladuk and Nam Tok was reopened in 1957 and it continues to run today.

The construction of the Thai-Burma Railway cost the lives of at least 2,815 Australians.  A further 11,000 other allied prisoners and 75,000 Asian labourers lost their lives in the process.


“The [Thai-Burma] 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 …”

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop



E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 212

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