The Railway of Death

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The Railway of Death Frank_McVey 11/30/14 11:51 AM

The Building of the Siam-Burma Railway

More than a year had passed since the Japanese surprise attack on United States forces in Pearl Harbor.  By early 1943, the Japanese had reached the height of their fast, aggressive expansion in the Pacific theatre. 


French Indo-China, Siam, the British colonies of Burma, Malaya, Singapore, The Dutch East Indies, the US colony of the Philippines and vast areas of China and Oceania had all fallen.  Japanese-held territory ranged from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the north to New Guinea in the south; from Midway in the east to Burma in the west and the Imperial Japanese Army stood at the gates of Australia and India.

However, one of the problems in fighting a war with the front-line troops almost 2500 miles from their home base is that of re-supply.  With limited air cargo and air transport capability, Japan relied on resupplying and reinforcing her large armies mainly by sea, and had entered the Pacific War with around 6,500,000 tons of merchant shipping.

 By mid-1942 the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway had eroded Japanese naval superiority to the extent that Allied submarine and aircraft attacks were making her merchant shipping losses unsustainable; to put it bluntly, Japan was losing ships and their precious cargoes of war materiel much faster than her limited industrial and material resources could replace them.  The following screenshot shows some of the Japanese shipping losses during WW2, with Naval losses indicated by a red dot and merchant losses in yellow. The size of the dot indicates the tonnage of the ship lost.  It comes from Timpan's excellent GEC post WWII Japanese Shipping Losses.

 A case in point was the situation in Burma.  Japan had long had her eye on the vast resources of the huge Indian sub-continent; but before launching an attack on India, she needed to reinforce and re-equip her armies in Burma.  The previous system of shipping supplies and men via the China Sea, Straits of Malacca and the Andaman Sea to the docks of Rangoon or Moulmein in Burma was becoming virtually suicidal, and overland supply from Siam was impossible because of the lack of any roads through the dense jungle and mountains forming an almost impenetrable spine between Siam and Burma.

 The proposed solution was to build a railway which would effectively link Bangkok in Siam with Moulmein in Burma, thus connecting the railway systems of Singapore and Malaya in the south with Siam to the east and Burma to the north.


The idea of a rail link between Siam and Burma was not a new one: the British had surveyed such a link in the early 1900s, but had concluded that it would take five years to build; it was unlikely to be profitable, and that the expense and the probable large loss of life involved would outweigh any other benefits.  However, for the Japanese, neither profit nor potential loss of life was a consideration and IJA engineers resurveyed the route in early 1943. 

The route surveyed would take the railway link over the Three Pagodas Pass on the mountainous border between the countries.  South of the border, it would follow the valleys of the Rivers Kwai Noi and Mae Klaung nearly to Bangkok; in the north, the valleys of the Mezali and Zami rivers in Burma would allow it to link with the Burma railway system at Thanbuzayat.  In a land with no roads, the advantage of following the course of the rivers meant fairly straight-forward transport of men and materials by boat for much of the way.  To complete the railway would involve building a single track line, with numerous passing stations, over some 275 miles.  The most southern section from Ban Pong to Kanchanaburi was flat and relatively easy; the rest comprised dense jungle and steep mountains and tributary gorges, and would need nearly 700 bridges and viaducts and innumerable embankments, all of which would have to be built by hand.   Since time was crucial in the fast-moving war in the Pacific, the Japanese High Command ordered that it be built within a year.

The task was given to the Japanese 5th and 9th Railway Regiments; the 5th Regiment would build the railway from Thanbuzayat in Burma southwards, and the 9th Regiment would build from Nong Pladuk in Siam northwards and the two lines would meet in the middle. To build it in a country where it was impossible to operate heavy plant (even assuming it was available) they were also given, as a labour force, 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War and some 250,000 contracted labourers (the Romusha) mainly Thai, Burmese, Tamils and Malays.

In the end, the railway was built in 16 months -  between June 1942 and October 1943  - by virtually-unaided human muscle power and became perhaps the greatest engineering feat of the Second World War. However, the fears of the earlier British surveyors were realised; through accident, disease, malnutrition, over-work, incompetent logistics, theft of Red Cross supplies by the Japanese guards, criminal neglect and extreme brutality by the Japanese guards and engineers and their even more brutal Korean overseers, some 16,000 POWs and 120,000 native labourers died in its construction: they say that a man died for every sleeper (cross-tie) laid.  Thousands of those who survived returned home as ruined men; many of them suffered life-long mental and physical incapacitation.  Some of them - now very old men -  are still suffering.

The railway was never a great success; the defects in construction (some were deliberate acts of sabotage introduced by the POWs building the line); the fact that it was a single-track line with passing-places; the fact that the Japanese were forced to use underpowered wood-burning locos and the very nature of the country all conspired to make it a very slow line.  The target figure of 3,000 tons of materiel to be hauled per day was never reached - some analysts estimate that the average amount hauled was less than 1/10th of that figure.  In addition, it seems to have escaped the Japanese High Command's attention that, if a ship (which moves) is vulnerable to air attack, how much more vulnerable must be a railway (which doesn't move!)? Allied bombing took a heavy toll on the Railway.  This photograph shows the bridge at Tha Makham (The Bridge on the River Kwai) after an attack by US B-24s, an early use of precision-guided Azon bombs.

As the war drew to a close, the Railway's main task became hauling Japanese troops and equipment from Burma to ship back to Japan to defend their homeland.

Immediately following the war, the bodies of those POWs who died during the construction and operation of the line and were buried in dozens of small cemeteries along the line, were exhumed and, as its last task, the railway was used to transport them to the two huge war cemeteries in Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Kanchanaburi in Siam for their final rest, apart from some 650 American POWs who, in accordance with US custom, were taken home to the States.  It says much for the diligence of the sick and starving POWs on the line, who laboured in what little time they had to themselves to give their dead comrades a decent marked burial, and for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission officers and men who tracked down the graves that, of the 16,000 Allied men buried along the line, only 50 were unaccounted for.  The estimated 120,000 civilian romusha  - men, women and children - who died on the line are there to this day, mostly in unmarked cemeteries; many simply crawled into the jungle to die.

The WW2 Cemetery at Kanchanaburi, Thailand

This solemn task done, it fell to the victorious Allies to decide on the fate of the railway.  Bearing in mind the aforementioned defects in design and construction (for example, it was much quicker and easier to work with softwood than hardwood to make sleepers and bridge trestles, despite the fact that the humid climate and termite population would give such timbers a life of only 3 years), and the fact that large chunks of the railway track, bridge sections and rolling stock had been looted by the Japanese from other conquered countries such as Malaya and Indonesia, it became obvious that the railway could not be allowed to remain as it was built, and it would be too expensive to rebuild it properly.

  On the section south of the border, Thailand bought up the track, bridge sections, rolling stock and workshop equipment and the money was used to compensate some former POWs and those who had formerly owned the equipment.  The State Railway Board dismantled the line from The Three Pagodas Pass to Nam Tok and brought the southern section from Nam Tok to Nong Pladuk up to an acceptable operating standard.   This 75-mile section of the line continues in daily use, transporting tourists to see the Bridge on the River Kwai, the Wang Pho Viaduct and the Australian War Memorial at Hell Fire Pass.   

North of the Three Pagodas Pass in Burma, the line was completely dismantled and sold off piecemeal, allegedly by the local Karen people.

The dismantled sections, both North and South of the border, have reverted to jungle in the more remote regions, or have been developed as agricultural land and modern roadways in more accessible regions.  A large part of the railway trace now lies below the waters of the Vajiralongkorn Dam, a large 300MW hydroelectric scheme built in the 1980s, which, ironically, uses Japanese-manufactured turbines to produce its power.  Little now remains of the infamous Railway of Death that caused so much suffering and loss of life.


1.    To avoid confusion between this post and the many historical documents I have quoted, I have referred to the countries concerned by their historical names of Siam and Burma; Siam adopted its modern name of Thailand in 1948, and the military government of Burma changed its name to Myanmar in 1989.

2.   The English language with its 21 consonants and 5 vowels is insufficient to do full justice to the Thai language, which uses 44 consonants, 30 vowels and 5 tones: virtually every English-language source that I have seen spells the place-names along the Railway differently.  I have tried to stick to the naming convention adopted by the Thai Burma Railway Centre and used in the TBRC map, except when I am quoting a source document, in which case I use the original author's spelling.

3.   In dealing with so many different sources, attributions and acknowledgements over so many different placemarks, it becomes easy to confuse these sources.  If, to your knowledge, I have wrongly attributed, or failed to attribute, any of the content of this post and its attachment, please let me know and I will gladly rectify the situation.

4.   There never was a Bridge On The River Kwai at the time of the Railway's original construction.  The concept was made popular by the 1957 film of the same name, starring Alec Guinness, based on the 1952 book, Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai by a Frenchman, Pierre Boulle, which in turn was very loosely based on the story of the building of Bridge No 277 over the River Mae Klaung at Tha Makham and was intended as a study of collaboration with the enemy.   Although hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, it managed to alienate nearly everyone who had been involved with the Siam/Burma Railway.  The POW officers were unhappy, as the film portrays the POW's CO (Guinness) as a half-mad collaborator and was seen as a huge slur on the gallant and much-respected Lt Col Philip Toosey, the real-life CO at Tha Makham; the POW soldiers were unhappy at the "sanitization" of the story, since the actors playing them were all fit, well-dressed, well-fed and relatively well-treated young men, and not the brutalised, naked, walking skeletons they themselves had been;  the Japanese engineers were also unhappy as the film suggested that they were far too incompetent to design and build a proper railway bridge.  Nonetheless, the film proved popular and in the 1960s the astute Thai people renamed the upper stretch of the Mae Klaung River (where the Bridge was built) as the Kwai Yai (Big Tributary) - this river joins the original Kwai Noi (Little Tributary) some two miles below the Bridge to form the Mae Klaung River.  The Railway followed the the valley of the Kwai Noi north for hundreds of kilometers, but never crossed it.  So there might never have been an original Bridge On the River Kwai, but there certainly is one now, and it has become a huge tourist attraction.  The full story is here. 

5.  The reason for the large number of stations (mostly in the middle of nowhere) on the original TBR is because, if you have a single track line, you obviously cannot have trains running north and south at the same time, since a crash would be inevitable. So what you do is build a station half-way along the line with a siding in which one of the trains can wait, while the other train passes in the opposite direction.  Access to the next section of line is controlled by a system of tokens - you can only enter a section of track if you have the token for that section.  Basically, you just stop at the siding and wait there until the train running the opposite direction passes you - the driver of that train will pass the token for that section of the line, and you will pass him the token for the stretch of line you have just left, so both of you can continue your journeys.  The more stations you build, the more sections of line there are, so the more trains that can concurrently use the track.  Because every train has to wait in a siding for the next token, the whole railway system will only run at the speed of the slowest train; if there is a fault in the track or a loco breaks down, the whole system grinds to a halt.  In addition, many of the stations were refuelling stops - wood-burning locos use a LOT of fuel.

5.  If you go to Wagale, just south of Thanbuzayat, in the GE attachment, and enable the GE Transportation (Rail) Layer, you will see a phantom of the line of the Thai Burma Railway running south to just past Apalon.  No-one at Google has been able to tell me why this line - which has been gone these 70 years - still appears in the present-day railway layer...


My sincere thanks go to:

Mr Rod Beattie of Kanchanaburi, Thailand.  This Google Earth map is largely based on the Map of the Thai-Burma Rail Link, which was researched and compiled by Mr Rod Beattie, founder and Curator of the Thai Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.  Compilation of the map took 4 years, and copies are available from the TBRC; this map is a must for any serious student of the railway, being by far the most accurate and comprehensive source with easy availability.  Despite its accuracy and large scale, inevitably some errors will have crept in while transposing information from Mr Beattie's map to the greatly larger-scale format of GE.  All credit for the map belongs with Mr Beattie; any transposition errors are all my very own.

Mr Ron Taylor of the Far Eastern Prisoners Of War Community and its sister-site, Britain At War for his generous permission to use excerpts and images from his work.  Both sites exist to commemorate the soldiers who fought in both World Wars and to provide an advice facility for those conducting their own research, be it from a historical or family research viewpoint. Both sites represent a huge undertaking and Mr Taylor's work is entirely voluntary.  Much of the information contained in the GE Map's placemarks has been taken from these excellent websites.  Keep the candle burning, Ron.

The staff of the Australian War Memorial, particularly Mr David Gist, Assistant Curator, Photographs and Ms Kelly Burgess, Assistant Curator, Art Section for their courteous and kind assistance in obtaining permission to use many of the photographs and artworks entrusted to the AWM in compiling imagery to illustrate the GE placemarks.  "The Australian War Memorial combines a shrine, a world-class museum, and an extensive archive. The Memorial's purpose is to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war. Its mission is to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society."

The staff of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, Australian Government, in particular Mr James Rogers, Director Commemorations at the DVA, for his kind permission to use excerpts and images from The Thai Burma Railway and Hell Fire Pass website.  This is another outstanding example of a commemorative website, which also goes into the history of the TBR in considerable depth.  The DVA is also responsible for a range of other commemorative websites, including their Gallipoli ANZAC website, Australians on the Western Front 1914-18, Australia's War 1939-45, Australia's Involvement in the Korean War and Australians in the Vietnam War.

Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP for his kind permission to use excerpts from his excellent  Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1942-1945, a private commemorative website, which includes many articles and stories by the former POWs themselves; also thanks to Major Greg Wilson for his permission to reproduce some of his photographs of sites on the TBR as they appear today.

Mr Justin Nash of Myrmidon Publishing and Ms Laura Rosenberg for their kind permission to use extracts from The Railroad of Death by John Coast.  The original was published in 1946, and is one of the first and best accounts by a young British officer POW on the Thai Burma Railway; Myrmidon is due to issue a revised update of this classic in May 2014.

Ms Lori Jones of Pen and Sword Books for her good offices in obtaining permission to use excerpts from No Mercy from the Japanese by John Wyatt and Cecil Lowry and Life On the Death Railway by Stuart Young, both published by Pen and Sword Books. John Wyatt was one of the few survivors of the infamous Japanese massacre at Alexandria Military Hospital during the fall of Singapore, when Japanese soldiers murdered 300 patients and staff; one patient was bayonetted to death while on the operating table. He also survived the notorious Japanese hell-ships transporting POWs to Japan as slave labour.  Stuart Young paints a vivid picture of the daily life and deprivations of an ordinary soldier forced to work on the railway.

Mr Ken Sewell of Janus Book Publishing for his kind permission to include excerpts from Nippon Slaves by Lionel De Rosario

Mr Bruce Skewes and the family of Pte GBW (Glen) Skewes for their kind permission to use excerpts from his thought-provoking website, Changi Diary

Ms Ann A Apthorp for excerpts quoted from her excellent book The British Sumatra Battalion, published by The Book Guild.

Google Street View for many of the images used in placemarks showing scenes on the Thailand section of the Thai Burma Railway as they appear today; I look forward to updating this post when Burma (Myanmar) is similarly covered by Street View.


The Railroad of Death by John Coast, originally published by Commodore, now to be re-released by Myrmidon in May 2014.

Life on the Death Railway by Stuart Young, published by Pen and Sword Books

River Kwai Railway by Clifford Kinvig, published by Brassey's Classics

The Burma Siam Railway by Dr Robert Hardie, published by Quadrant Books

Nippon Slaves by Lionel De Rosario, published by Janus Publishing Company

To the Kwai - and Back by Ronald Searle, published by Souvenir Press

No Mercy From The Japanese by John Wyatt and Cecil Lowry, published by Pen and Sword Books

A Life for Every Sleeper by Hugh V Clarke, published by Allen & Unwin

Survivor on the River Kwai by Reg Twigg, published by Penguin Books

The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop by E E Dunlop, published by Penguin Books

Singapore and the Thailand Burma Railway by Lt Col Alfred Knights, published by Arena Books

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, published by Vintage Books

Burma Railway - Images of War by Jack Chalker, published by Mercer Books

The Thai-Burma Railway by Rod Beattie, published by TBRC Co Ltd, available from The Thai Burma Railway Centre, Kanchanaburi

The Railway of Hell by Lt Col Reginald Burton, published by Pen and Sword Books

The Thailand-Burma Railway, 1942-1946: Documents and Selected Writings by Paul Kratowska, published by Routledge, New York, perhaps the most wide-ranging in-depth study of the TB Railway.

Sweet Kwai Run Softly by Stephen Alexander, published by Merriots, 1995

Unknown to the Emperor by J R Hill, published by Zeebra

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon

Re: The Railway of Death LarryC1 3/4/14 7:38 AM
Now there's a standard to aim for!  Bravo.
Re: The Railway of Death TheLedge 3/4/14 8:09 AM
Possibly... NO it IS the best post we have had for years. I bow to your brilliance.
Re: The Railway of Death retnavy1 3/4/14 9:13 AM
Great job Frank!
Re: The Railway of Death Noisette 3/4/14 12:43 PM
An amazing piece of work Frank, well done!  It must have been long job and a lot of effort.

The Railway of Death Masonicmoron 3/4/14 1:26 PM
Great post Frank
Re: The Railway of Death no.stranger 3/4/14 8:06 PM

What a great contribution to Military History on a significant event that was previously lurking in the shadows of the forgotten and unknown .

Surpasses excellence Frank, well done..
Re: The Railway of Death Frank4 3/5/14 3:52 AM
An excellent post indeed Frank!  And excellent GE visualization.  Bravo!
Re: The Railway of Death lockhopper 3/5/14 9:23 AM
An excellent piece of work. Had to wait to read it to make sure I read it well.
Re: The Railway of Death Google Craig 3/5/14 11:21 AM
Truly an amazing piece of work, and quite a spectacular homage to this particular time in the World's history.

Bravo, Frank!