IF YOU HAVE a bad heart or hip problems, don’t even think about it. Walking from the Information and Display Centre to Hell Fire Pass, about an hour’s drive from the River Kwai in Thailand, is a nightmare of steep, unforgiving concrete steps that seem to go up forever.
From the Information Pavilion, the walk takes 10 or 15 minutes – if you’re in good shape. But if you’re not, take the alternative route that requires the services of a van and driver.
But if you want to stick it out, be prepared for some pretty challenging climbs. In the toughest areas, you’ll find metal railings on both sides of the steps to help you along before reaching a rocky level path and then, another wall of stairs before descending finally down a long twisted flight to the pass, itself.
Voices cry out from the past as you walk through the pass – a lone rose inserted in a drill hole by relatives of a POW that never made it home, a broken compressor drill still stuck in the rock where it was left almost 70 years ago, and here and there, a wooden tie peeps up from the gravel. In the middle of the pass, a tree has taken root and grown up in the middle of the rocky railway bed.
That’s when you find out that there are only two ways to get back – by the way you came or by van.
“Walking back is easier,” I was assured by one of the tour guides. Unfortunately, I believed him and was barely able to stagger back on my car.
On the way back, I kept thinking of the prisoners-of-war who had to make their way back to camp after an exhausting shift under brutal conditions day after day. If you pause along the way, as I did, you can hear the birds and cicadas in the bamboo grove that has grown up around sections of the pathway.
Hell Fire Pass was the longest – and deepest – along the entire length of the Thai-Burma Railway. It was also notorious as one of the worst places of suffering and cruelty faced by the POWs.
The cutting was planned by Japanese engineers and carried out by the prisoners.
It became known as the Hammer and Tap, because of the constant sound of hammering by the POW crews. who kept working long into the night by light from torches and fires, reminding more than one POW of a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
Their suffering is retold in a series of display panels in the Information Pavilion, built by the Australians after the war to document the sufferings of their servicemen who toiled at Hell Fire Pass.
As you enter the pavilion, you are asked to take your shoes off. This is customary in Thai homes and temples.
This is how one of the panels describes the work of the POWs: “If you stood at the top of the cutting, you could see fires at intervals of about 20 feet and the shadows of the Japanese, wearing Foreign Legion caps, moving around and beating the POWs with sticks. Many of the POWs were almost naked under their slouch hats, moving rocks around and hammering. The shouting and bellowing went on all night ….”
Work gangs were divided into three groups: Moving gangs, who cleared the earth; tap men, who drilled deep holes into the rock for blasting and explosives; and rock rollers, who cleared the rubble after each blast.
Men worked all day, even through Monsoon rains, stopping only at midday for lunch. And later, when the Japanese decided to speed up the process, the gangs were required to work through the night.
“Each morning, as the POWs arrived on the job, the Silent Basher, a guard, went down their lines, never uttering a word, punching the POWs in the head and face to make sure they were suitably motivated for the day’s work,” Gunner Keith Harrison, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment of Australia, was to write later.
Work on the pass started on April 15, 1943 – ANZAC – the day Australians remember their war dead. Many of the POWs fell sick and died.
Reinforcements had to be brought in, continuing to work under “Speedo” conditions until the cutting was completed and rail-laying teams took over. Hundreds of men were working at the site at any given time.
Interestingly, the Japanese paid the POWs working on the railway. Hourly rates were low and payment at the whim of the Japanese. The POWs used the pay to buy extra food and contribute to camp funds to buy medicine and food for the sick.
The POWS were led to believe they were going to rest camps. Even sick POWs were asked to fill their quotas. By the time they reached their camps, most of the POWs were in poor shape and their possessions stolen from them. In fact, they had to build the camp and start work on the railway almost immediately.
“All we knew was that they want a work party to go to Thailand. It was supposed to be a land of milk and honey – with plenty of food and very little to do,” wrote Geoff O’Connor, D Force.