Hellfire Pass: Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Hellfire Pass, or the Konyu Cutting, is a 75-metre-stretch of what once was the Thai-Burma Railway. Also known as the Death Railway.

The 415 km long railway ran from from Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma (now Myanmar) and was a supply line for Japanese forces during World War Two.

Born of necessity, the railway was an astonishing feat of wartime engineering and a monument to human suffering.

Today, only a few sections of the railway exist. They include the made-famous-by-Hollywood Bridge On the River Kwai (more about that in another post) and Hellfire Pass notable for having been the one section preserved and maintained by the Australian Government.

Located in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walk is a museum, memorial and shrine to the Australian, Dutch, American and British prisoners of war who suffered and died building the railway.

The centre provides information on the railway, the site and the experiences of the Prisoners of War who were involved in its construction. It also gives visitors the opportunity to walk through Hellfire Pass itself.

Malnourished, ravaged by tropical disease, and regularly beaten, the men who worked on the Konyu cutting laboured around the clock for 12 weeks to cut through the 25 metre high rock face.

Using only simple hand tools and gelignite, workers used a method dubbed “hammer and tap” whereby holes punched or drilled into the rock were filled with explosives and then detonated.

It was difficult, dangerous, deadly work and the men who worked on the railway, which included conscripted nationals from Burma, Malaysia and Thailand, were considered a thoroughly expendable workforce. They were provided with nothing in the way of safety gear and, because their uniforms had disintegrated in the jungle humidity, often worked in little more than loincloths.

It is said that the sight of these skeletal, near naked figures, toiling in the dark by flaming torch light is how this section of the railway earned its hellish nickname.

But of course, the entire construction of the Thai – Burma railway was, for those who worked on it, Hell on Earth.

Every man who worked on the railway, in which ever section, would have an automatic passport to Heaven. They have all done the requisite stretch in Hell.

Private Max McGee, 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion

Bibliography and resources:

https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/events/building-hellfire-pass/hellfire-pass

https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C45345

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