Hellfire Pass, Kanchana Buri Province


Photos prisoners during the second World War.

Hellfire Pass is the name of a railway cutting on the former "Death Railway" in Thailand which was built with forced labour during the Second World War, in part by Allied prisoners of war. The pass is noted for the harsh conditions and heavy loss of life suffered by its labourers during construction. Hellfire Pass is so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight was said to resemble a scene from Hell.

History

Hellfire Pass was a particularly difficult section of the line to build due to it being the largest rock cutting on the railway, coupled with its general remoteness and the lack of proper construction tools during building. A tunnel would have been possible to build instead of a cutting, but this could only be constructed at the two ends at any one time, whereas the cutting could be constructed at all points simultaneously despite the excess effort required by the POWs. The Australian, British, Dutch and other allied Prisoners of War were required by the Japanese to work 18 hours a day to complete the cutting. Sixty nine men were beaten to death by Japanese and Korean guards in the six weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion (Wigmore 568). However, the majority of deaths occurred amongst labourers whom the Japanese enticed to come to help build the line with promises of good jobs. These labourers, mostly Malayans (Chinese, Malays and Tamils from Malaya), suffered mostly the same as the POWs at the hands of the Japanese. The Japanese kept no records of these deaths.
The railway was never built to a level of lasting permanence and was frequently bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Burma Campaign. After the war, all but the present section was closed and the line is now only in service between Bangkok and Nam Tok.


A portion of Hellfire Pass

Present day

There are no longer any trains running on this stretch of the line. The nearest railway station is at Nam Tok, where trains of the State Railway of Thailand can be taken for a trip over the famous Whampo Viaduct and across the bridge over the River Kwai to Kanchanaburi, which is the nearest major town and tourist base. Visitors to the museum usually base themselves in Kanchanaburi. It is possible to roll into one day a trip to the Erawan Waterfall in the morning, followed by a visit to Hellfire Pass and its museum in the afternoon, and then catch the train back to Kanchanaburi to cross the famous bridge around sunset.

Museum

There is a museum co-sponsored by the Royal Thai Armed Forces Development Command and the Australian government at the site to commemorate the suffering of those involved in the construction of the railway. It was built by the Office of Australian War Graves and opened by the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard. As a part of the museum experience, it is possible to walk through the cutting itself and along a section of the former railway track bed. An audio tour including recorded memories of surviving POWs is available at the museum.


The Australian memorial in the cutting

Recent developments

In 2006, proposals to create a railway network linking eight south-east Asia countries would see a railway link restored between Thailand and Myanmar. It is not clear if this would follow the original Death Railway route through Hellfire Pass, since this route was necessarily built quickly and to low standard of curves and gradients.

Listen to describe Hell Fire Pass 


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Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

During the Second World War, thousands of forced local labourers and Allied prisoners of war suffered and died constructing and maintaining the Burma-Thailand railway. The Australian Government constructed the interpretative memorial in cooperation with the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand. The memorial, dedicated in 1998, was designed and constructed by Hewitt Pender Associates Pty Ltd, Australia and Woods Baggot Limited, Thailand.
The museum explains to visitors the story of why and how the railway was built and attempts to convey the hardships and suffering endured by so many who were forced to work in extremely harsh conditions. The Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum symbolises the importance of this site to the Australian people. After visiting the memorial museum and contemplation deck, visitors are encouraged to proceed to the walking trail.
The walking trail follows the alignment of the original Burma-Thailand railway for approximately four kilometres from Hellfire Pass to beyond Compressor Cutting. Small shelters and interpretative panels have been provided at various locations and toilets are available at the Hintok Road stop. Those undertaking the walk should wear strong shoes or boots and protective clothing and take drinking water with them. Only those who are fit and well prepared should attempt this walk.
In August 2004, the Office of Australian War Graves contracted Hewitt Pender Associates Pty Ltd to undertake a major upgrade of the memorial. The work completed in April 2005 included updating the internal areas of the museum to provide more detailed information on the significance of Hellfire Pass. In addition, Thai text was added to all graphic displays and signage throughout the memorial and the audio visual equipment was upgraded to provide improved quality in multiple languages.
As part of the new interactive environment an audio guide tour service has been made available for visitors to the memorial. The guide has been produced in multiple languages and gives visitors the opportunity to tour the site independently while listening to the history of Hellfire Pass.
External works include a new commemorative stone at Konyu Cutting which replaces the temporary stone cairn and cross installed for Anzac Day services and a stainless steel cable fence. A new canopy has also been constructed at the entrance of the museum to shield visitors from the weather.
The Museum, located 80 kilometres from Kanchanaburi, is managed by Mr William Slape on behalf of the Office of Australian War Graves. Information on the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery located in the region can be obtained through www.cwgc.org.
Opening Times : Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum is open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm.

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