Death Railway

Missing image
The Bridge over the river Kwai

The Death Railway (known also as Burma Railway or Thai-Burma Railway) was a railway built from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar) by the Japanese during World War II to complete the route from Bangkok to Rangoon and support the Japanese occupation of Burma. It was so called because of the human cost of its construction. About a hundred thousand conscripted Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died on the project made up of 6,318 British, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch and the remainder from the USA or unknown (Wigmore, p588).

Japan occupied both Thailand and Burma during the Pacific War, however when the sea route through the Strait of Malacca became vulnerable an alternative way of transporting support to the troops in Burma was needed. A railway connection between Thailand and Burma was already surveyed at the beginning of the 20th century by the British, but was considered too difficult to be built. The Japanese nevertheless started the project in June 1942, connecting Kanchanaburi with Thanbyuzayat by the Three Pagoda Pass. Construction started simultaneously at the Thai and the Burmese side. Most railway materials (tracks, sleepers etc.) were carted from dismantled branches of the Federated States of Malaya Railways ( FMSR - now known as Keretapi Tanah Melayu) rail network.

After 17 months the 415 kilometers of railway were finished, when on October 17, 1943 the two lines met about 18 km south of the Three Pagoda Pass at Konkuita. While most of the POW were then transferred to Japan, those left to maintain the line still suffered from the appalling living conditions as well as Allied air raids.

The most famous part of the railway is the bridge over the river Kwae Yai, however named River Kwai in the book by Pierre Boulle and the later film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The first wooden bridge over the Kwae Noi was finished in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943. Both bridges were destroyed on April 2, 1945, by the AZON crews of the 458th Heavy Bombardment Group USAAF, but had been damaged and repaired several times before already. The two squarish central sections of the current bridge were made in Japan and donated to Thailand to repair the bridge as war reparations.

Missing image
Along the Death Railway today, River Kwai on the left

After the war the railway was in too poor a state to be used for the civil Thai railway system, and needed heavy reconstruction. It was also converted from 1 metre narrow gauge to standard gauge. In June 1949 the first part from Kanchanaburi to Nong Pladuk was finished, in April 1952 the next section up to Wampo, and finally in July 1957 up to Nam Tok, making about 50 kilometres of the death railway still in use. Since the 1990s there have been plans to rebuild the complete railway, but these plans have not yet come to fruition.

The living and working conditions on the railway were horrific. About 25% of the POW workers died because of overworking, malnutrition and diseases like cholera, malaria and dysentery. The death rate of the Asian workers was even higher, however the numbers for them are only estimates as the Japanese didn't count them.

Several memorials were built on the Thai side after the war. Directly at the bridge is a memorial plaque, and a historic locomotive is on display as well. Another memorial built by the Australians is at the Hellfire Pass, a landcut which cost most lives of all. The main POW cemetery is about 1 kilometre north of the city Kanchanaburi. 6,982 POW were buried there, mostly British, Dutch, Australian and American. A smaller cemetery a bit further outside city is Chong Kai with 1,750 graves. Both are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Death Railway is only one of many major war crimes committed by the Imperialist Japanese from the annexation of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of World War II in 1945. It is a major event in the Asian Holocaust, where over 15 million Chinese, Korean, Filippino, Indonesian, Burmese, Indochinese civilians, Pacific Islanders and Allied POW were killed.


There are several museums dedicated to those who lost their lives constructing the railway - the best of which is at Hellfire Pass, north of the current terminus at Nam Tok. Two other museums are in Kanchanaburi, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, opened in March 2003, and the JEATH War Museum. There is also a preserved section of line and memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, England.


  • The Japanese Thrust - Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Lionel Wigmore, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957.

External links

nl:Dodenspoorlijn ja:泰緬鉄道


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