The Burma Railway

‘The Hellfire Pass Memorial’

It goes beyond the scope of these series to write a tourist brochure. Unfortunate these days the Burma Railway history, foremost on Thai soil, became a venture for leisure and happiness, certainly good for the well being of local entrepreneurs or simple souvenir shopkeepers. There’s no reason to come and see a piece of steel spanning a river others than the suffering now buried in the mud deep down below but never forgotten. If there’s railway in the world that got so much attention and was published about by many books, it must be this line and no other though the things that happened here goes beyond any imagination but above all pure railway interest. Without a daunted background this W.O. II souvenir, if it was build anyway and survived, would be an ordinary branch line ending in the middle of nowhere and only pleasing the lone traveller accidently going there.
The Bridge at Kanchanaburi for many might be interesting; the real course of action is eighty kilometres situated beyond but can’t be reached by train any longer. Till Nam Tok, yes, and certainly something that have to be done. A frequently running bus along route 323 for the remaining twenty kilometres or so drops you in front of a military field. Here you’ll find an excellent museum but above all a walking trail, first of all to the famous (notorious) place were mainly Australian PoW’s cut a rock in two under the most deplorable circumstances.

The Konyu cutting

It’s a ghostly appearance and hardly anyone is living around so there’re no spectators. Only hundreds of partly emaciated men who by the glimmer of a torch and a carbide lamp with no appreciable resources beating a rock into manageable pieces into a cleft in order to give perfect way to a train.
Ghostly is also the sound, a monotonous clicking of a hammer on a piece of steel which, by way of a wedge, is beaten into the rock, but nobody will hear this either. For miles wide and far no village or any construction what so ever. Only an encampment with poorly constructed barracks with roofs of dried palm leaves, where even the sickest of the sick are forced to beat along in race against time. Only a single man, temporarily released for highly necessary maintenance of the camp itself, digging latrines and other holes for in the heat of fight fallen bodies.
The way the Japanese tried to beat the rock which had to get out of the place for establishing the line, after oversee supply routes had collapsed one after another under allied attack. Over land and by rail to keep Fortress Burma for the delusion of a United South East Asia under a single flag; the symbol of the Rising Sun. That human sacrifices were requested was only a side issue, or worse; non at all.
After a glorious march through the Dutch Indies and Singapore, the Japanese found themselves with thousands of prisoners of war who almost without a blow resigned to their fate with hope for the Geneva Convention to be applied. It was a culture cap to close for others, for a Japanese soldier will not yield but for his Emperor. Suicide is painless setting foot on the path of heroism when the battle is lost. Capitulation; loss of face which will hurt forever and never really can be shown again.
To honour the grim faces of those who suffered most, the Australians in memory of their fallen comrades created a new monument on the very spot. From kilometre marker 152 till the one of 156, the track was cleared of undergrowth and turning into a walking trail. Stolen from the jungle again for a rather simple hike along the troubled past. No sensation, no pottering with arts or Hollywood romanticism, just plainly feeling how it must have been on a naked railway bed. In its rubble still a partly rotten beam of wood, a steel nail and other pieces of rail. A silent witness of the killing, for every sleeper one.

The illustration was made by Jack Chalker and used as the cover of a booklet edited and published by the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. The 5th edition 1997 and 9th 2001.


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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