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Hellfire Pass

Penny Walker is a New Zealander, who lives in Thailand with her husband.







































Penny Walker

    Hellfire Pass is a rock-cutting dug out by Prisoners of War with picks, hammers and hands. On one wall an ANZAC Memorial plaque is imbedded. Below on a sleeper, people leave mementos, flowers, jars of vegemite. Symbolic, re-laid tracks run for a few metres. A self-seeded tree called 'The Tree of Life' grows in the middle of this pass where the original railway tracks once ran through. On ANZAC day New Zealanders' and Australians' will walk along a cleared jungle track to reach this memorial that honours the Prisoners who constructed the Burma to Thailand railway during the Second World War. A 400 km railway track made famous by the movie "The Bridge over the River Kwai" 

     At this site the Rev. Stephen Gabbott will take the dawn service. His wife Marion won't be there. Two of her uncles died from working here and she spent her childhood remembering. They returned to Australia their stick thin bodies damaged beyond recovery. Her Uncle Reg was fed by an eyedropper by his wife for 6 months before he died. Her Uncle Bert didn't last that long. At their family get togethers her Aunts got behind the piano and belted out wartime songs; 'Roll out the Barrel' and 'Underneath the Lamplight'. Then the music would stop and they would weep for their dead husbands, fatherless children, wedding anniversaries never counted. Marion lived a childhood mourning those who will never grow old and it's too much for her to stand here and touch these rock walls. 

     Although this is an ANZAC memorial only 5 New Zealanders died here compared to 2,710 Australians. 'Our Boys' were fighting the Desert Fox in North Africa. New Zealanders' who worked on this railway were attached to captured British or Australian units or had joined the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force. Others were captured during the escape from Singapore. So it's more the 'A' in ANZAC you think of as you stand in this deep, narrow rock cutting. Four hundred Australian Prisoners of war started work at Hellfire Pass ironically on Anzac day in 1943. 

     The British had surveyed the area for a railway in the early 1900's. This isolated, mountainous jungle, set in a hostile tropical climate was deemed impassable. By WW2 the Japanese army had stretched to Burma. A supply line through allied Thailand looked attractive to them as the sea route East was vulnerable to attack. Japanese engineers dusted off old plans. They proudly declared this railway could be built in a matter of months. These engineers had an advantage the British lacked. They could use the expendable workforce of PoW's. Thousands of British, Dutch, American and Australian prisoners plus Asian labourers would work and die on this line. 'A life for every sleeper' it is said. This was a premeditated plan. Cruelty conceived in a distant office. 

     First hand cruelty is a part of this war story too. At Hellfire Pass Japanese and Korean guards with such nicknames as the 'Mad Mongrel' would fling rocks on top of men as they worked below them. Some would personally kill and torture these emasculated men. British PoW. Eric Lomax in his book "The Railway Man" describes the beating to death of two of his friends and his own near death after a beating with pick axe -shafts. They had been party to the construction of a radio. In between beatings water was sprayed into his face forcing it into his lungs and stomach. All day and night he and four others were left lying broken and bloodied on the campground. As the skinny, bedraggled prisoners in the camp filed out to work the next morning they saluted them 'with faultless precision'; a small psychological victory of aggressive solidarity. 

     There was also the, slow, arbitrary cruelty of weakening by malnutrition. On a near rice-only diet these tough Aussie blokes shrunk to Auschwitz skeletons. Prone to beriberi the soles of their feet would burn. They would be afflicted by 'rice balls' where their testicles would swell and the skin itch and peel off. They slept and worked in a sea of monsoon mud in temperatures of 35 degrees. Even so, Aussie humour survived. PoW Hugh Clarke recalls having to carry a cholera victim in a stretcher to another camp. They kept slipping until their patient accidentally fell out. Covered in red mud he said, "Bugger this, I'll walk". I imagine them arm in arm struggling through the sludge. It was said of this time that you 'Needed a mate to survive'. 

     One old PoW told Sheila Beaton, the current Director of Computer Services at Hellfire Pass Museum, that he had been one of eight good Aussie mates. They made a pact. They were going to stick together, support each other in every way possible. They were getting out of there alive. They were going home. Only three did. Not even mateship could stand the ravages of dysentery, malaria, cholera and gangrene. A simple scratch in this heat and humidity and your body could rot in front of you. These men didn't die heroes holding a gun they died of dysentery on latrines. Weakened already, cholera could kill in a day. Where possible men were buried with military honours. Sometimes their last uniform was a rice bag; clothing was too precious to bury. 

     There is another loss often forgotten on this ANZAC memorial day. An Asian workforce also toiled on this railway. Almost half paid with their life. An estimated 80,000 Malays, Chinese, Tamils and Burmese died here, more than all PoW's put together. 

     The Australians suffered a death for every five prisoners. Their lower death rate is attributed to Army discipline, heroes and the power of mateship. Doctors are the easy heroes to find here. They secretly bought drugs from the Thai underground, though always short on medical supplies they were creative. Stills made to produce distilled water for intravenous drips were fashioned out of petrol cans. Slithers of bamboo were used as needles. Thicker bamboo for artificial limbs. Their strict rules of hygiene and seats on latrines saved lives.

     In July 1943 construction was behind schedule. With calculating efficiency the Imperial Army in Tokyo devised a 'man quota' to speed up the work. An Australian Doctor, Edward Dunlop was nicknamed the 'Quiet Lion'. Risking his life he would dare to refuse the order that sick men work to make up the quota. Such was his mana, sometimes sick men were allowed to stay in their hospital beds. Other times he was beaten for his stand, his patients were carried to the working site and died as a consequence. 

     "Australian resilience is startling" he noted in his diary in March of that year. Months later he wrote of men "Broken into emaciated pitiful wrecks". They were working 80 days straight in one of the worst monsoons seen. Morale boosting concerts where they sang 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'The Land of Hope and Glory' were no longer enough. Many gravestones are dated from this 'Speedo Worko' period, July to October 1943 

      Holding a candle we will stand in Hellfire Pass at dawn on ANZAC day alongside old soldiers who still make this pilgrimage to honour comrades. Men who made it back alive and were expected to live a normal life nursing hideous, invisible wounds. We will remember cold-blooded plans, and merciless hearts. We will remember the sweet sweet pain of mateship, the power of heroes, of eight men who became three. We will remember the collective grief of overwhelming loss. Weeping Aunts and fatherless children. Later after another service in the war cemetery at Kanchanaburi, we will chose a grave to place a poppy on and remember a man representing many who saw organised and individual cruelty first hand and never lived to tell the tale. 

     This history burns yet I am driven to imagine it in aching, vivid colours. On ANZAC day I must return to Hellfire Pass and touch those walls. As the darkness becomes dawn in the still hot air in Thailand I will remember them.

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2001 Penny Walker. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.