Working on the Railway of Death – Hellfire Pass

Prisoners of War Working on Thai-Burma Railway at Kanu Camp, Thailand 1943.  The John Mennie can be viewed online.

Prisoners of War Working on Thai-Burma Railway at Kanu Camp, Thailand 1943. Other artwork by former prisoner John Mennie can be viewed online.

Out in the jungles of Thailand, far from home and far from the Singapore base where they had been captured, thousands of men now found themselves working as slave labour for the Japanese army. Work on clearing the jungle to lay a railway track was now in full swing. Now based in remote camps in the forest with the most basic facilities, every single man was now suffering from the effects of malnutrition and starvation. The death toll was mounting, As Dr Hardie had recorded at another camp on Christmas Day, even before the men began their hard physical labour.

Alistair Urquhart was working on one of the most notorious sections of the railway, one that would later be dubbed ‘Hellfire Pass’ by the Australian troops who worked on it. The early stages meant clearing a path though the trees, with a designated width and distance to be cleared every day. If it wasn’t done they had to work into the night. These was only limited scope for some respite:

Another squad were tasked with removing the rocks, trees and debris, another separated the roots to dry them out and later burn them. Meanwhile on the pickaxe party some men were going hammer and tong.

I said to one chap near me who was slugging his pick as if in a race, ‘Slow down mate, you’ll burn yourself out.’ ‘If we get finished early,’ he said, puffing, ‘maybe we’ll get back to camp early.’ But the soldiers would only find something else for us to do. And then the next day Japanese expectations would be higher.

Personally I tried to work as slowly as possible. The others would learn eventually but I soon discovered ways to conserve energy. If I swung the pick quickly, allowing it to drop alongside an area I had just cleared, the earth came away easier It also meant that while it looked as if I were swinging the pick like the Emperor’s favourite son, the effort was minimal.

Nevertheless under the scorching Thai sun and without a shirt or hat for protection, or shade from the nearby jungle canopy, the work soon became exhausting. Minute after minute, hour after hour, I wondered when the sun would drop and we could go back to camp.

Around midday the japanese called for yasume. We downed tools and sat and ate rice, which we had taken with us from camp in the morning. When I opened my rice tin I found the contents had begun to ferment. It was almost rice wine and tasted horrible. But I ate it anyway.

Lunch usually lasted for around thirty minutes at the railway, depending on the officer in charge. If he were sleepy or tired, it might be longer. We used to love it when he fell asleep!

By mid-afternoon we had finally completed the first section. Despite enormous toil and effort over the previous ten hours, our progress had been incredibly slow. We had managed to clear the required thirty-foot width for only about twenty feet.

It was the beginning for us of what would become the most notorious railway construction that the world had ever seen. The japanese engineer came over to inspect our work. He studied the clearing from several angles, using various surveying instruments, before declaring, ‘No gooda! Do again! Deeper!’

Utterly demoralised we had to go back to the beginning and manually dredge another foot of soil. We were all in various stages of beriberi, pellagra, malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. A new illness had also started to ravage some unfortunate prisoners. Called tinea, it was nick- named ‘rice balls’ because the hideous swelling had the tormenting tendency to attack, crack and inflame the scrotum.

See Alistair Urquhart: The Forgotten Highlander

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Val February 14, 2018 at 8:41 pm

My Dad was part of the “forgotten army” during WW2. He refused to talk about it so I know vey little. Can anyone give me more info about this.
He was with The Royal Signals and I do have his medals, one of them being the Burma Star.

Nigel February 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Haven’t read the above book, but ‘One fourteenth of an elephant’ is an excellent if harrowing read. It is the only book I have read that actually made me weep, these poor men of the ‘Forgotten army’ should not go unremembered anymore.

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