Monday, 12 August 2013

Hellfire Pass

You hear a lot of Aussie accents at Hellfire Pass in Kanchanaburi. In fact, the majority of the 80,000 tourists who visit the memorial annually are Australian, and the museum is, in fact, a gift of the Australian government. 

Thailand was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II from 1941 to 1945. In order to gain access to ports in Burma, the Japanese enslaved approximately 250,000 Asians and over 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners of war to work on a railway, cut through the jungles near the Thailand/Burma border. Twenty percent of those Allied POWs would die on the project, while up to 90,000 civilian labourers are also believed to have died. 

Although Australians were a relatively small part of this workforce - 13,000 in total, with 2,700 dying in the camp - this represents 10 percent of all Australian deaths during World War II. It’s little wonder, then, that Hellfire Pass, more than any other Asian location, has come to represent the horrors of war and the suffering that Australian soldiers experienced during this tragic time in history. 

It’s hard to imagine the conditions on the railway, and the horrors these men and women had to endure. I visit on a hot and steamy day - nothing unusual for this part of the world - and even just walking down to the railway site, then back again up hundreds of steps - is exhausting and sweat-inducing. You hear many an Aussie voice complaining about the humidity and the mosquitoes; and more often than not this is accompanied by “it puts it all in perspective” or “those poor buggers, imagine what they went through”. 

The actual site known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ was a cutting 75 metres long and 17.5 metres deep, cut largely by hand and primitive tools by the labour enforcements. Prisoners were forced to work up to 18 hours a day, surviving on starvation rations of a cup of rice and dried vegetables. Then there were the diseases - malaria, dysentery, cholera; while physical punishment - severe beatings and torture were common.

But it’s the stories of survival, of courage and resilience that resonate loudest for Australian visitors. Of men like Weary Dunlop, a doctor known for his untiring care of the sick; or of Tom Morris, who served for three years as a POW and was interned in 10 different camps. Forty years after working on the railway, Tom returned to Thailand and ‘rediscovered’ Hellfire Pass, almost consumed by the jungle. It was largely through his efforts that the site has been preserved, with the memorial formally dedicated in 1987. 

It’s certainly a moving, poignant and worthwhile place to visit, one that highlights human endeavour, resilience and strength under extreme and cruel conditions. 

Hellfire Pass Memorial: Pics Julie Miller
The Hellfire Pass Memorial is located on Highway 323 outside of Kanchanaburi. It is open daily from 9am to 4pm, and entry is free with a donation.


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