August 19, 2016

The Hellfire Pass

The Hellfire Pass must be the worst nightmare of their lives, for those who were involved in the construction of the notorious Death Railway, linking Thailand and Myanmar, during the Second World War (WWII). I had read many interesting, emotional and tragic stories of the hardships and the ordeals, the prisoners of war (PoWs) had to endure during its constructions. According to many accounts, the working conditions there were the harshest and most difficult along the whole section of the railway line that lied inside Thailand. Those memories of the hardships, the ordeals and the maltreatments they had suffered would never be forgotten and carried with them to their graves.
I was familiar with the Hellfire Pass since my younger days and had some ideas about the hardships, the ordeals and the maltreatments , which the PoWs and the civilian forced labourers had suffered. Those facts became more profound after my visit to the Hellfire Pass as I had an opportunity to observe, firsthand, the rugged and difficult terrain at the location. Also the museum, close to the site of the Hellfire Pass, provided vivid insights into the atrocities committed on the PoWs and the civilian labourers.
The location of that place is at the Sai Yok township in the Kanchanarburi Province, about 190 kilometers west of Bangkok. It is on a high mountain, which is part of the Tenessarim Range or the Tanintharyi Yoma, that straddled our two countries. The place is only reachable by motor vehicles as there are no rail tracks beyond Nam Tok, a few kilometers away. That place might be remote in those days, but now it is at the rear of a military establishment, through which it could be easily accessed.
When we arrived at the museum close to the Hellfire Pass, dedicated to those who died and those who had suffered during its construction, there were a few tour buses and many private cars already parked. The museum was crowded with tourists, most were from Australia, America, UK, Europe, Japan and a few locals.
As the museum was too crowded, we decided to look at the notorious Hellfire Pass first. We descended the steep cliff behind the museum, to where the old rail track bed that runs through the pass is located. The height of the cliff is about 200 feet above the rail bed and its sheer face would be almost impossible to descend, if there weren’t the timber boardwalks and stairways mounted on steel frames, zig-zagging down along the cliff face. It was learnt that the museum and the boardwalk stairways were donated by the Australian government. They facilitate safe and easy descent even for persons of my age. However, the ascent was very challenging for me.
At the bottom of the boardwalk stairways, we set foot directly on the old rail  bed. After walking about a hundred meters or so along the trail, the Hellfire Pass came into view. At first glimpse, it gave me a novel mixed feeling—it was very awesome and at the same time looked very sinister.
Except a short length of rail track inside the pass there was no intact rail line. That short rail track was laid by the Australian survivors with the materials from the original rail tracks, to demonstrate how it was done in those days. The pass is a narrow gorge cut in the rocky mound obstructing the route, just wide enough to afford a passage for the trains to pass through.
Apart from the section inside the pass,  the rail bed is only a few feet from the sheer drop in many places. I was unable to guess the height of that drop, due to a dense jungle of bamboos and large trees covering the slope and the bottom was out of view. However, I assume it must be quite high, judging from the sounds of motor cycles  and cars down below in the valley, where there are some villages.
It was learnt from the information on a sign posted there, that the old rail bed had been cleared to about four and a half kilometres beyond the pass to provide  a trekking trail. However, there is a warning sign about rockfalls that are frequent along the trail and advised the tourists to do the trekking at their own risk.
Some younger visitors took the risk, but for me, as my interest is to have a close look at the pass, I went as far as a monument erected by the Australian government, just beyond the pass, dedicated to those who died and those who suffered. Beyond that point a shallow gorge cuts across the trail. Those who want to continue further had to pass that gorge with some difficulty.
The Hellfire Pass resembles a narrow deep gorge with sheer vertical rock cliffs on both sides.  What I learned from the museum was, the cuttings were done with bare-hands using basic hand tools. The poor people had to toil 18 hours a day on meager rations of two meals a day that consisted of only rice and salted vegetables. Many died due to cholera, dysentery, malaria and from starvations and exhaustions. Some were beaten to death. After the visit there, I came to realize what those poor souls had been subjected to, were beyond human endurance and human dignity. It was surprising that anyone could have survived.
The cutting of the pass took 12 weeks and the casualties were immense. In some rare photographs, the PoWs were seen to be reduced to skin and bones and clad only in narrow pieces of loin cloth barely covering their dignity. Those emaciated prisoners and labourers clad only in loin cloths and toiling laboriously in the dark with flame torches must have resembled a scene from hell and thus it was dubbed the “Hellfire Pass”.
Inside the narrow pass, there are brass plagues fixed on the rock surface, dedicated to some individuals and the members of certain military units. Just reading the inscriptions on those plagues made me understand their sufferings during those darkest days of their lives. At one place, I came upon an A4 size photo copy pinned to a tree. It displayed an old photograph of a young Australian soldier who died at the site in 1943, and below that photo was one of a lady who was the sister of the soldier, who passed away in 2006. The caption below read: “At last the brother and sister are together again”. There are many more such mementos written on small wooden crosses and small flags of Australia and Britain, which are stuck into the rock crevices.
While reading all those sentimental writings and dedications to those who died  and those who suffered, I was greatly touched and overwhelmed with emotions. They also made me understand why that Hellfire Pass was so much dreaded by those who had been there during its construction.
After visiting the Wang Pho timber viaduct, the museum in Kachanarburi, the Hellfire Pass and its  museum, I came to realize why the casualties were so high, as I had mentioned in my previous article, “A Train Ride on the Death Railway Line” (15-02-16 GNLM). Here, I would like to recall the number of deaths for those who haven’t read the said article and also to get the records straight.There were 12,621 PoWs and about 90,000 civilian forced labourers, who died during the construction of the Death Railway.  In the aforementioned article, I made a blunder by stating the number of PoW casualties to be 123621. My sincere apology to all those who had read that article.
The Hellfire Pass was one of the most difficult and deadly construction site along the Death Railway that linked Thanbyuzayat and Bangkok in the past. There could be many such interesting places along the old rail track, which lied 111 kilometers or 69 miles inside our country. Such places should also be made accessable for those who are interested to visit for various reasons. Some who were involved in the construction of the said railway or their descendants, relatives, friends and countrymen or those with historical interests, like me, may want to visit those places. They would make interesting tourist attractions.


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