Hellfire Pass and reflections on survival

Visiting the Hellfire Pass Memorial in Kancharaburi, Thailand, is a moving experience. It also got me thinking about the art of survival.

The Memorial commemorates the sacrifices of those Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) and Asian forced labored who suffered and died on the Burma-Thailand railway from 1942-1945. The story is immortalized in the film “Bridge over the River Kwai” starring Alec Guiness and Bill Holden.


In mid-1942, Japanese forces were fighting the British in Burma, their ultimate aim being an offensive against India. To maintain their armies in Burma, Japan needed secure supply routes and decided to construct a railway to connect Burma to Thailand. Work on the line began in both Burma and Thailand in October 1942 and the two ends were joined 14 months later. This was an incredible engineering achievement – the railway was 415 kilometers long and went through inhospitable jungle and mountains; and the tools were primitive.

But the cost – in human terms – was very high. The multinational workforce assembled by the Japanese of approximately 270,000 Asian labourers and over 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American POWs suffered horrific privations, including hunger and torture, while working punishing hours round the clock against the deadline. The flickering bonfire on the emaciated workers gave the place its name – Hellfire Pass. Some 30 per cent of the Asian labour force and 20 per cent of the POWs died during the construction of the railway.

The Memorial, comprising a museum, walking trail and information center, has been developed and preserved as a historic site. It came about from the inspiration of an Australian POW and funding was provided by the Australian government.

Why do some survive and others don’t?

It would be reasonable to say that survival depends on luck and one’s constitution – mental and physical. But learning about the POWs constructing the Burma-Thailand railway made me aware of another attribute which helps with survival. That attribute is mutual support. Despite their desperate plight, the POWs had team work; they were better organized than the Asian labourers and their survival rate was better. Among the POWs the Australians had possibly the strongest system of mutual support. As a result, their survival rate was higher than the other groups.

deathrailway night

The Australian sense of mutual support is charmingly reflected in the poem “Mates” written by Duncan Butler, an Australian survivor of Hellfire Pass. The following is an extract of two verses from a longer poem.

I’ve travelled down some lonely roads
Both crooked tracks and straight
An’ I’ve learned life’s noblest creed
Summed up in one word – “Mate”.

My mind goes back to ’42
To slavery and ‘ate
When Man’s one chance to stay alive
Depends on ‘is Mate.

We can always learn something new from the past!

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