The Death Railway

After spending several days in Bangkok, it was time to move on and explore new places. We decided to head west to the city of Kanchanaburi, the capital of the Kanchanaburi province. The area is a mix a beautiful rivers, mountains, and jungle. There is a great, very low-key backpacking community along the riverside, and the locals couldn’t be more friendly.

The most noteworthy part of this beautiful area is its anything-but-beautiful history. This town is the home to the River Kwai Bridge, made famous by the 1957 film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’ This infamous landmark marks the beginning of the Death Railway, also known as the Thailand-Burma Railway.

In 1937, 2 years before the official start of WWII, the Japanese Empire was ambitiously trying to colonize its surrounding Asian neighbors, and had invaded China. By 1940 they had occupied all of coastal China and had invaded French-controlled Indochina (Vietnam) as well. In 1941 they joined the Axis powers and attacked Pearl Harbor (on December 8th local time), declaring war on the US. Simultaneous attacks of several European-controlled Pacific territories, including Indonesia and Thailand, soon gave the Japanese full control over Southeast Asia and much of the Pacific.

In 1942 the Japanese empire had taken control of British-controlled Burma, and had their sights set on India. They found great difficulties supplying their front lines by merchant ship, as Allied Naval forces had a large presence in the Andaman Sea. So the decision was made to build a railway linking Thailand and Burma (via Bangkok to Rangoon). There was a reason no such rail line had exisited – years earlier, while still under British controll, surveyors mapped out such a line, but decided that the mountainous jungle terrain protected by crisscrossing rivers was too brutal and dangerous of a landscape to begin the work, and gave up on the idea. But the Japanese were ambitious and determined, and in 1942 set out to build the Thailand-Burma Railway.

Such a project was going to require a great amount of manpower, so the Japanese brought 60,000 Allied POWs to Thailand and Burma to begin this impossible task. The prisoners were transported by boat and train in miserable conditions; conditions that only got worse and worse upon arrival. Brithish and Australian troops made up the majority of the prisoners, while there were notable amounts of American, Dutch, Indian, and Canadian soldiers as well. Construction began during 1942 on both fronts, with the idea that they could build it faster if they started on each end and worked towards the middle. The Japanese soon realized that they would need many more laborers, and employed another 250,000 asian workers. At first they recruited willing indigenous workers with the promise of good pay, safe conditions, and even a promise that they could bring their families. This of course was not the case and once word of the brutal conditions leaked back to potential laborers, the Japanese employed a new method of recruitment – slavery.

Laborers would work up to 18 hours a day, cutting their way by hand with inadequate tools through mountainsides and dangerous jungle, while extreme heat or unrelenting rain, depending on the season, as well as brutal guards trying to meet an unrealistic deadline, made life unbearable. One particularly unimaginable stretch of the railway, known as Hellfire pass for its brutal conditions and the silhouettes of the men working by torchlight, saw an incredible loss of life in a relatively short amount of time. POWs and Asian slaves alike would die from malaria, cholera, malnurishment, and being beaten to death by cruel gaurds.

Fearing death yet despising their captors, many brave POWs set out to secretly sabotage the efforts. They had to be crafty to not be caught or risk more loss of life by simply having to redo the work. Such methods included using hollow/weak timber, filling in already-inspected post holes with soft dirt, or my favorite – leaving termite nests near wooden bridges. Despite these efforts and the massive loss of life, the railway was actually completed in 1943, only 18 months after construction began.

The Japanese thought they had their key to success in Asia, but constant allied bombing resulted in the railway being repaired more often than actually being used as planned. In 1945 the famous River Kwai Bridge was bombed by RAF and US planes. This campaign also saw the first successful use of a new radio-controlled bomb by the US – our first “smart bomb.” In August of 1945 Harry S Truman ordered 2 well-known attacks against Japan, eventually culminating in surrender onboard the USS Missouri, ending WWII and dismantling the Japanese Empire.

The atrocities committed during construction of the railway resulted in the world’s first warcrime trials, seeing several death sentences and even more prison sentences handed out to high-ranking Japanese officials. In total, of the 60,000 Allied POWs, 12,399 lost their life – 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders. Thousands of these fallen soldiers are buried in WWII cemeteries in the Kanchanaburi area, while the rest were taken back to their home countries. Of the 250,000 Asian workers, it is believed that more than 90,000 lost their lives. In one final act of inhumane cruelty, the Japanese did not keep any records whatsoever of these deaths.

Control of the railway, which had been heavily damaged, passed over to the British. They dug up the railway on the Burma side, and sold the remaining Thailand section to the Thai people, who still use it today. There are several museums and other related sights around the Kanchanaburi area, and the cemeteries are among the most well-kept I’ve ever seen. Additionally, as friendly as Thai people are to tourists, I have noticed a heightened sense of comradery between the local Thais and tourists/expats from Allied countries. This was a horrible time in human history, and despite how painful the stories are, we found the museums and memorials to be very powerful and moving.

Thanks for reading, and I promise our next post will be much more lighthearted!

River Kwai Bridge

Up-close look at a train crossing the River Kwai Bridge

Still-visible blast marks from Allied Bombing. The round trusses are from the original construction, and the larger squared trusses are the rebuilt section.

Hellfire pass. From this angle you can get an idea of how much rock men had to dig through – by hand.

Hellfire pass

Original tools/materials from Hellfire pass

Hellfire pass

Tools workers used to dig through mountains and clear out jungle.

Prisoner transportation


Wooden truss bridge on the Death Railway – still used today.

Riding a very crowded train on the Death Railway




Japanese word-burning locomotive used to transport ammunition in WWII

Original bomb fragments from WWII




4 thoughts on “The Death Railway

  1. A great report and photos of a terrible time that really help tell the tale of death and life, despair and hope and the ability of good to rise up

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