The Thailand–Burma railway was constructed in 1942-1943. It was built for the purposes of supplying and moving Japanese troops in South and Southeast Asia. The railway was constructed largely by the forced labor of local populations and Allied POWs. Often times, paths for the railway had to be cut through rock in order to overcome obstacles or steep gradients. Much of the excavation of these cuttings was done by hand, using a “hammer and tap” method whereby dynamite holes were drilled into the rocks using a ten pound hammer and chisel held by another man (“Cuttings” 2015). Among the most notorious of these excavations was “Hellfire Pass.” The commemorative Web site, created by the Australian government, states
Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. (“Hellfire Pass” 2015)
Many of those working on the pass were among the first Australians to arrive in Thailand. These were members of “D Force” or Dunlop Force, named for their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop (“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific” 2015). This group nearly 900 men were part of a larger force, including Dutch, that had been captured in early March of 1942 in Java (ibid; (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 106). After being interred primarily in Bandung POW Camp, they left Java in early January 1943 and had been interred at Changi, Singapore temporarily before being transported to Kanyu region (ibid).
The majority of D Force were interred at a camp known as “Konyu 3;” the other camp nearby was known as “The Malay Hamlet” (also known as “Kanyu 2”) and housed mostly men from H Force (“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific” 2015). At least two other camps were also located nearby. Not only were the physical conditions deplorable, with cholera breaking out and malnutrition contributing to the demise of many men, and the work grueling and difficult, but the POWs were also subjected to violence and abuse by their Japanese captors.
Leonard Appleby, of the Royal Air Force, spend around seven months in the camp after being transported there, like so many others, from Singapore’s Changi Camp. His information, as well as those that follow, is taken from materials collected by the Australian government during efforts to identify potential war crimes and their perpetrators. Appleby reports on a Japanese soldier known to him only as the “Kanu Kid,” whom Appleby described as “brutal” (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 105) Among the acts of brutality ascribed to him, one included parading the camp including those in the hospital, as well as physical assault on prisoners.
Many such characters such as the Kanu Kid emerged in the testimony of the POWs, but perhaps few as often or as in such detail as the “The Mongrel.” Robert Baker, a member of D Force who, like Dunlap’s other men, had been captured in Java, described him as a Korean guard at Camp Hintok, all “Hellfire Pass” camps, and attributed to him “all the bashing” (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 106). Hugh Vincent Clarke, another POW captured in Malaya and sent along with members of D Force to Thailand described “Koreans [were] in charge of us as far as discipline was concerned” (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 117). Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Dunlop, leader of the D Force, reported that even before being transported from Bandung POW camp, Koreans guards were beginning to replace Japanese guards (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 127)
Robert Baker, who had arrived in December 1942, occupied three camps before eventually being sent to Japan, via Singapore, one year later (ibid). The Hintok River Camp was the “last camp to be occupied by Australians working on the section of the Thai–Burma railway that stretched from Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) to Compressor Cutting” (“Hintok River Camp” 2015).
Jack Blyth, of the Fourth Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, was captured in Singapore on February 15, 1942 and transported to The Malay Hamlet on April 25, 1943 (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 116). He also reported his encounters with “the Mongrel” or “The Mad Mongrel.” He identified the man as a Korean guard from a photograph that had been shown to him, He first recounts of the story of being forced to stand, along with General Horgan, of his same regiment, within three feet of a “roaring bamboo fire” at bayonet point for about twenty minutes. The general was shirtless, and suffered severe burns all over his torso, while Blyth, wearing a shirt, had his arms and legs severely burned (ibid). Horgan died two weeks later, never recovering from the burns which were complicated by malaria. He recounts another time when the Mongrel had swindled a POW, and after the POW complained and the Mongrel was reprimanded, the Mongrel severely beat the prisoner using his rifle butt (ibid). Hugh Vincent Clarke also reported the Mongrel beating a soldier over the head and injuring him while at Kanyu-on-the-River Camp (perhaps the Hintok River Camp; although Clarke says he was next sent to Hintok, there were two camps known as Hintok—Hintok River Camp and Hintok Road Camp) (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 119). Clarke, like Robert Baker, would eventually be sent to Japan to work as forced labor there.
The conditions in the camp were deplorable, with cholera, malaria, malnutrition, and physical abuse compounded by 12 and 14 hour work shifts that continued around the clock. Hugh Vincent Clarke recalled having one day of rest in a five month period (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 118). The testament of the POWs who were forced to serve in these camps underscores this; however, with occasional examples of Japanese officers intervening to stop abuses or reprimand a soldier for swindling a prisoner adds an additional complexity, along with the fact that “discipline” was attributed to Koreans, and individuals such as the “Mad Mongrel” played a notorious role in abuse. While the more informative testimony of officers such as Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Dunlop (see “Kanu Camp,” 2015, 129-130) clearly implicated Japanese officers of gross abuses as well, and the image of life that emerges at these camps is clearly horrific, these testimonies do add more subtlety to our understanding of Japanese conduct towards Allied prisoners of war during the Second World World.
“Cuttings.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 20. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/cuttings.php.
“Hellfire Pass.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 20. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/hellfire-pass.php.
“Hintok River Camp.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 22. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/living-in-camps/hintok-river.php.
“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 20. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/australian-prisoners-in-the-asia-pacific/thailand.php.
“Kanu Camp.” 2015. Accessed October 22. https://laulima.hawaii.edu/access/content/group/MAN.79181.201610/Kanu%20Camp.pdf.