The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, was a 415 kilometres railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943, to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II.
Forced labour was used in its construction. About 180.000 Asian labourers and 60.000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 90.000 Asian labourers and 12.399 Allied POWs died during construction of the railway. The dead POWs included 6.318 British, 2.815 Australians, 2.490 Dutch, 356 Americans and smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.
In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand and seized the colony from British control. To maintain their forces in Burma, the Japanese were required to bring supplies and troops to Burma by sea, through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. This route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and a different means of transport was needed. The obvious alternative was a railway. The Japanese forces started the project in June 1942. They intended to connect Ban Pong in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Burma, through the Three Pagodas Pass. Construction began at the Thai end on 22 June 1942, and in Burma at roughly the same date.
On 17 October 1943, the two sections of the line met about 18 km south of the Three Pagodas Pass at Konkuita (Kaeng Khoi Tha, Kanchanaburi Province). Most of the POWs were then transported to Japan. Those left to maintain the line still suffered from appalling living conditions as well as increasing Allied air raids.
The most famous portion of the railway is Bridge 277, ‘the bridge over the River Kwai’, which was built over a stretch of river which was then known as part of the Mae Klong. The association with the ‘River Kwai’ came from the fact that the greater part of the Thai part of the route followed the valley of the Khwae Noi, ‘Khwae’ being the Thai word for branch or tributary, although it is frequently mispronounced by non-Thai speakers as ‘Kwai’, the Thai word for Water Buffalo. This bridge was immortalised by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai. However, there are many who point out that the movie is utterly unrealistic and does not show what the conditions and treatment of prisoners was actually like.
The first wooden bridge over the river was finished in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943. It was this bridge 277 that was meant to be attacked with the use of the first-ever example of a precision-guided munition in American service but bad weather scrubbed the mission. The two bridges were successfully bombed on 13 February 1945 by the Royal Air Force. Repairs were carried out by POW labour and by April the wooden trestle bridge was back in operation. On 3 April a second raid by Liberator bombers of the U.S. Army Air Forces damaged the wooden bridge once again. Repair work continued and both bridges were operational again by the end of May. A second raid by the Royal Air Force on 24 June put the railway out of commission for the rest of the war.
The construction of the Burma Railway is counted as a war crime committed by Japan in Asia. Hiroshi Abe, the first lieutenant who supervised construction of the railway at Sonkrai where over 3.000 POWs died, was later sentenced to death as a B/C class war criminal. His sentence was later commuted to 15 years in prison.
After the war, the remains of most of the war dead were moved from former POW camps, burial grounds and lone graves along the rail line to official war cemeteries. Three cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission contain the vast majority of Allied military personnel who died on the Burma Railway. Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, in the city of Kanchanaburi, contains the graves of 6.982 personnel comprising 3.585 members of British units, 1.896 Dutch, 1.362 Australians, 12 members of the Indian Army, 2 New Zealanders and 1 Canadian.
Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, at Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, has the graves of 3.617 POWs (3.149 Commonwealth and 621 Dutch) who died on the Burmese portion of the line.
Chungkai War Cemetery, near Kanchanaburi, has a further 1.750 war graves. A memorial at the Kanchanaburi cemetery also lists 11 members of the Indian Army, who are buried in nearby Muslim cemeteries.
In accordance with the traditions of the US military, the remains of its personnel were repatriated to the United States, 902 died while working on the railway.
Several museums are dedicated to those who perished building the railway, the largest of these is at Hellfire Pass (north of the current terminus at Nam Tok), a cutting where the greatest number of lives were lost. An Australian memorial is at Hellfire Pass. Two other museums are in Kanchanaburi, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, opened in March 2003, and the JEATH War Museum. There is a memorial plaque at the Kwai bridge itself and an historic wartime steam locomotive is on display.
Nowadays the Burma Railway is a touristic atraction with visits to the cemetaries, museum and a tour by train accross the tracks and bridge. Below a short impression of such a tour.