They say that one man died for every sleeper on the Death Railway.
I pondered this macabre fact as the train rolled through Thailand’s countryside. Outside, the green fields seemed endless, stretching into the hills. The faded sky watched over the red earth; earth which covered those who died building the Death Railway.
As I wrote before, the Death Railway was a railroad built between Thailand and Burma during World War Two. Up to 300,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway for the Japanese. The terrible conditions killed more than 100,000 of them.
Riding the Death Railway, I saw why the British had considered its construction was impossible. The railway crosses large rivers and snake-infested jungles, in such an isolated part of the world. Sections pass through rock walls, which the prisoners tunneled through using only spades and hammers. The Japanese spared no machinery to aid their work.
Warm air rushed in the open window as I gulped some water. I’d had a big lunch, but still the heat and humidity was exhausting — and I was sitting comfortably on a train. Yet men had built a railway in these punishing circumstances. Many had suffered from tropical ulcers that made gaping holes in their legs right through to the bone. They worked for 14 hours a day, despite resembling walking skeletons. It would’ve been hell on earth.
The train pushed through the thickening jungle. Branches clattered against the carriages, making a loud racket. One group of prisoners had been forced to march 300 kilometres through this jungle. Despite many being sick, they were denied medication by the Japanese who viewed them as sub-human. More than 3,000 of this group died.
But the Death Railway also has moments of tragic beauty. At one point, the jungle vanished, exposing a peaceful river below. Up ahead loomed an old wooden bridge built into a cliff. This was the Wang Pho Viaduct, the deadliest part of the Death Railway.
Conditions on this part of the railway were so brutal that nearly every man who worked here died. Even today I sensed the peril, riding high above the river while surrounded by sharp bamboo.
Soon after this, the train stopped at the terminus, Nam Tok. The rest of the line was abandoned following the war. An American engineer observed that considering the extreme conditions, the railway’s construction was an extraordinary accomplishment. This may be true, but the Death Railway should be remembered not as an engineering feat, but as one of war’s worst atrocities.