I have been traveling from the end of January through most of the month of February, visiting the schools that I have not yet visited and learning more about this land where I live. When I reflect back on all that I have seen and learned, there is one place that made a deep impression on me and I would like to share some of what I learned with you. I have heard the stories of the ‘Death Railway’ and the bridge over the River Kwai all of my life. Books have been written and movies have been made about what is probably the most infamous site in all of Thailand. But I had never traveled there or seen that part of Thailand until I went this year in late January.
I traveled with Kathryn McDaniel and Carol McDaniel Licht as they went to visit Carol’s brother, Dr. Phil McDaniel, who always comes to Thailand in January to volunteer one month each year at Kwai River Hospital, giving Dr. Scott Murray a much-needed break. There will be more on Dr. Phil and the Kwai River Hospital in another post, as that is yet another story that needs to be told. On our way up to Sangklaburi close to the Burma border, we stopped at the War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi. It is the final resting place for many of those who died while constructing the ‘Death Railway’ during World War II. The railway was constructed as a supply route for Japanese troops in Southeast Asia – designed to bring fresh food and ammunition to aid the war effort. More than 270,000 people worked on the railway, including more than 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners of war. More than twenty percent died during its construction – most of these during a brief four-month push to complete the railway in March, April, May and June of 1942.
The War Cemetery in Kanchanaburi is a stunningly beautiful place with manicured lawns, large trees, a breath-taking array of flowers, simple headstones and moving messages. The land for the cemetery was donated by the Thai people, who were unwilling allies of the Japanese who occupied the country during World War II. The cemetery is a graceful, spacious place that invites visitors to take time to walk, to see, to learn, to remember, and to pray for peace. Most of those buried here were very young when they died – alone, abused, in agony, and far from home.
We did not have time to stop at ‘Hellfire Pass’ on the way up to Sangklaburi. But on our return trip, we allowed enough time to visit both the bridge over the River Kwai and ‘Hellfire Pass.’ When you visit these places on a beautiful cool, comfortable January day, it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those who built this railway and worked all day in the sun during Thailand’s hot and rainy seasons, when both the temperature and the humidity hover around 95. The fact that the bridge still stands after all these years is a testament to the quality of the work that was done under appalling conditions.
There are no words that adequately present the story of ‘Hellfire Pass’ – nor photographs that do it justice. We walked down a path to the original railbed of the ‘Death Railway.’ No trains run along this portion of the line any longer, though trains still regularly run from Bangkok to a station only 11 kilometers from this site. Bamboo grows wild here – a natural resource that the Japanese used during the railway’s construction. The railbed is cut into the side of a mountain and the mountain drops off steeply at the edge. Even on a January afternoon, it was uncomfortably warm. I could imagine what it would have been like in the heat of the day during the hot or rainy seasons. Nor could I imagine working at night on scaffolding hanging off the edge of the rock face of the mountain.
Hellfire Pass is the deepest of all the cuttings. A tunnel would have made more sense, but fewer people can work on a tunnel due to space constraints inside the tunnel, so the Japanese elected to make a cutting. No modern machinery was available. The workers used pick axes, hammers, and chisels – often working 18-hours at a stretch. They worked in the heat of the day, in the pouring rain, and late into the night, when the site was illuminated by torches, lamps, and bonfires that gave the cutting its name. I have attached a PDF file below that shows the location of ‘Hellfire Pass’ and tells the story better than I could. I was humbled by what I learned by walking the path and using the headset guide that was offered by personnel at the ‘Hellfire Pass’ Museum. I was awed by what those prisoners achieved. I was also struck by the beauty of this part of Thailand, though I realize that few of those who suffered here had time to appreciate it. I have attached more thumbnail photos below.