The Thailand–Burma railway was constructed in 1942-1943. It was built for the purposes of supplying and moving Japanese troops to support an Indian theater of the war, and allow Japanese to stage attacks on British India and Allied positions around the Indian Ocean as they did in early 1942 when bombing raids on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were carried out. The railroad gained urgency after Japan suffered heavy losses in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942 (“The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass” 2015). “Hellfire Pass” was the name of one of the “cuttings” on the railway. Cuttings were paths carved out of hills, often of solid stone, that “allowed the rail track to climb at a steady gradient” (“Cuttings” 2015). Much of the excavation of these cuttings was done by hand, drilling dynamite holes into rocks using a hammer and chisel after clearing the area by hand; thanks to a Japanese policy of rapid building, no doubt further motivated by their loss of naval capacity following Midway and the Coral Sea engagements, this work continued through the night, lit by bamboo torches and oil lamps (see map below) (ibid.; “Hellfire Pass” 2015).
(“Hellfire Pass” 2015b)
Among those engaged in work on Hellfire Pass were H Force; this a group of nearly 3270 men consisted of 1141 British, 670 Australians, 588 Dutch, 26 Americans, Malay Volunteers and Indians who arrived from Singapore’s Changi POW camp in mid-May 1943 (see map below) (“Details of Groups Moved into Death Railway and Death Statistics” 2015).
They were primarily interred at The Malay Hamlet, one of at least two POW camps in the area and one of the closest to Hellfire Pass (“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific” 2015.; “The Malay Hamlet” 2015). The other camp, known as Konyu 3, was the internment location of part of D Force (ibid.). The conditions in the camp were miserable. R. F. Oakes described the setting up and conditions of the camp:
We had a heart breaking job building that camp, [Oakes recalled] but it was done at last and we found ourselves at the end of two days with 24 half rotten, leaking tents, set up in a small clearing amongst giant bamboos in the wilds of Siam … The accommodation worked out at 28 men to a tent, but once the work started that many were never in them at the one time, for there were no holidays and half of them formed each shift. (Quoted in “The Malay Hamlet” 2015).
Within three weeks of H Force’s arrival, cholera broke out among the prisoners with up to 12 POWs perishing every day. By mid-July, however, conditions had dramatically improved, with medical treatment being provided and meat being supplied in abundance (“The Malay Hamlet” 2015). However, “the death rate in H Force was 27.4% or 885 [individuals]” of which 179 were Australians (“Details of Groups Moved into Death Railway and Death Statistics” 2015).
“Cuttings.” 2015. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/cuttings.php.
“Details of Groups Moved into Death Railway and Death Statistics.” 2015. Accessed October 20. http://www.mansell.com/pow_resources/camplists/death_rr/movements_1.html.
“Hellfire Pass.” 2015a. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/hellfire-pass.php.
———. 2015b. Wikimapia. Accessed October 19. http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=14.357031&lon=98.945789&z=15&m=b.
“The Malay Hamlet.” 2015. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/living-in-camps/malay-hamlet.php.
“The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass.” 2015. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/.by