75th Anniversary of the completion of the Thai Burma Railway

Allied prisoners of war laying track on the Burma-Thailand Railway, at Ronsi, Burma (AWM P00406.034)

Following the fall of Singapore in 1942, 22,000 Australians were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese and held at Changi prison. While some were sent to Japan, Taiwan and Borneo, the majority were transported in appalling conditions on a five-day journey in overcrowded carriages to work on the Burma railway.

During the fighting in 1942, the Japanese High Command recognised the need for a supply railway linking Thailand and Burma as a means of bypassing the sea routes and a much-reduced Japanese naval strength. Once the railway was completed, the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the roads and airfields used by the Allies to supply China over the Himalayan Mountains.

The railway was required to traverse 420 kilometres through rugged and dense jungle.  A labour force of 60,000 Allied prisoners and 200,000 Asian labourers was used to build the rail line.  Work began at both ends of the rail line in June 1942. The track was built with hand tools and human labour, working through the monsoon of 1943.

The living and working conditions on the railway were horrific. The relentless physical labour, inadequate rations and the tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria and dysentery, all contributed to the high loss of life during the construction. By the time the railway was completed on 16 October 1943, at least 2,815 Australians had died with over 11,000 other allied prisoners and 75,000 Asian labourers.

Map of the Thai-Burma Railway – showing the locations of the camps along the length of the railway. The railway is shown crossing the map diagonally from the north -west to the south-east, stretching 415 kilometres from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) down to Nong Pladuk in Thailand

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop was one of 106 Australian doctors who were captured by the Japanese and one of 44 who worked on the railway.  On 20 January 1943 he left Singapore for Thailand in charge of ‘Dunlop Force’ and would remain there until the war ended, working tirelessly to save wounded, sick and malnourished men, often standing up to the brutality of his captors. Dunlop came to represent the self-sacrifice, courage and compassion which doctors and Australians more generaly are remembered as displaying in captivity. In his war diaries, recorded thoughout his captivity, he shares his views of the folly of building the railway….

‘It seems to run without much regard to the landscape as though someone had drawn a line on a map!’

The most well-known of sites along the Thai-Burma railway was Hellfire Pass. Located at Konyu, Thailand, Hellfire Pass was named for both the brutal conditions and the scene at night – lit by carbide lights, bamboo fires and hessian wicks in containers full of diesel oil. The site consisted of two cuttings; the first measured 460 metres long by 7.6 metres deep, the second was 73 metres long and 24 metres deep. The prisoners had to drill, blast and dig through solid rock over shifts lasting 18 hours a day. Around 700 Australians died working at Hellfire Pass.

“The [Thai-Burma] railway … was the common and dominant experience of Australian POWs … [it] distorted or ended the lives of over half of the Australian prisoners of the Japanese …”

The 75th Anniversary of the completion of the Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass will be commemorated on 16 October 2018.









E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 212