Australian prisoners of war: Second World War - Prisoners of the Japanese, Burma-Thailand Railway
Prisoners of the Japanese, Burma-Thailand Railway
Australian prisoners of war: Second World War
In all, 9,500 Australian prisoners of war worked on the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway, which ran from Bampong, Thailand, to Thanbyuzayat, Burma . Building commenced at each end of the railway. Altogether, 2,646 Australians died working on the railway. Prisoners in Changi were divided into forces to work on the railway in either Burma or Thailand. The railway was completed on 16 October 1943.
A Force, 3,000-strong and commanded by Brigadier A. L. Varley, was the first Australian group to leave Singapore for Burma, on 14 May 1942. It was drawn principally from the 22nd Australian Brigade (Varley was promoted to Brigadier by Gordon Bennett in February 1942 and given command of this brigade), the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion (under Major C. E. Green), and 2/30th Battalion (under Lieutenant Colonel G. E. Ramsay), with a medical group drawn mostly from the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (under Lieutenant Colonel T. Hamilton). A Force sailed in the Celebes Maru on 15 May 1942 , from Singapore to Victoria Point, in Burma, where Green's battalion and some other groups (a total of 1,017) disembarked. Ramsey's Force (1,000-strong) traveled to Mergui and the remainder continued to the Burma Peninsula near Tavoy. After constructing airfields, A Force moved to Thanbyuzayat.
Prisoners of war from Java (Williams Force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. M. Williams, and Black Force, including 593 Australians commanded by Lieutenant Colonel C. M. Black) travelled via Singapore and thence to Moulmein, arriving in Burma on 29-30 October 1942. Williams Force was based at Tanyin and Black Force at Beke Taung camp at Kilo 40. In October 1942 survivors from the HMAS Perth were shipped to Singapore, and then to Burma. In October 1942, 385 Australians, commanded by Major L.J. Robertson, left Java on board the Moji Maru ; they joined up with A Force on 17 January 1943.
In all, 479 Australian soldiers died on the Burma section of the railway. Following its completion, in October 1943, A Force returned to Singapore.
The majority of Australian prisoners from Changi and Java were sent to Thailand to assist in the building of the railway. D, F, H Forces and K and L Forces (Medical) left Changi in 1942-43 for Thailand. Prisoners of war were also transported from Java. Hospitals were established at Tanbaya, Tarsau, Kanburi, Nakom Paton and Tamuan.
Dunlop Force, commanded by Colonel E. E. “Weary” Dunlop, arrived at Konyu, in Thailand, from Java in January 1943. It was divided into two battalions, each 450-strong: O battalion (commanded by Major H. G. Grenier) and P battalion (commanded by Major F. A. Woods). Dunlop Force was the first group of Australians to reach the southern end of the railway. Captain J. L. Hands commanded A battalion (337-strong), and the Dutch R battalion also came under Dunlop's command. The force eventually moved to Hintok.
D Force (2,242-strong under Lieutenant Colonel C. A. McEachern) left Changi for Bampong in four groups between 14 and 18 March 1943. Later, D Force moved to Hintok (to work on Pack of Cards Bridge), where McEachern took over the command of Dunlop Force. D Force was also stationed at Kanburi, Tarsau and Konyu, where they worked on Hell Fire Pass.
F Force, a mixed Allied force including 3,662 Australians under Lieutenant Colonel S. W. Harris (18th British Division) left Changi for Thailand on 16 April 1943. Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Kappe commanded the Australians. Transported by train to Bampong, F Force then marched to Nieke, some 180 miles north and thence to Lower Songkurai. At the end of May, F Force was distributed among five main camps, with 1,800 Australians at Lower Songkurai, 393 at Upper Songkurai and 700 at Konkoita. Some 1,438 men of F Force did not return.
H Force, including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant Colonel R. F. Oakes, left Changi on 5 May 1943. From Bampong, they marched 140 kilometres north to Tarsau. H Force joined D Force in cutting Hell Fire Pass; 179 men in H Force died.
K and L medical forces left Changi in June and August 1943 for Thailand. These personnel were used as labourers in various hospitals along the railway. Major B. H. Anderson commanded K Force, including 5 medical officers and 50 other ranks. Major A. L. Andrews commanded the AIF party of 3 officers and 70 other ranks included in L Force.
The railway was completed on 16 October 1943 . Most prisoners were returned to Changi and some were sent as technical workers to Japan between April and June 1944 to work in heavy industry. They were concentrated in Saigon before moving to Japan. Some were returned to Singapore for shipping; others stayed at Saigon until the end of the war.
Official records held by the Memorial include:
- [8th Division in Captivity - "A" Force ( Burma ):] Reports on conditions, life and work of Prisoners of War in Burma and Siam by Brigadier C.A. McEachern 1942-1945. AWM54 554/2/1A and B
- [8th Division in Captivity - "D" Force (Thailand):] POW Camps, Thailand, Report on Kinsayok Camp and Hospital and Tarsau Base Hospital, 1943-1944. AWM54 554/5/1
- [8th Division in Captivity - Changi and Singapore Island:] Appendix 1 History of "F" Force from Lieutenant Colonel Harris Commander, Report by Lieutenant Col C.H. Kappe, February 1945 - Recording treatment of POW in Thailand. AWM54 554/11/4 Part 2.
- [8th Division in Captivity - "F" Force (Thailand): ] History of "F"Force .1945-46. AWM54 554/7/2 PART 1B and PART 2B
- [8th Division in Captivity - "H" Force (Thailand):] "H" Force in Thailand. Medical report and summary of deceased personnel. AWM54 554/8/2
- [8th Division in Captivity - "K" Force (Medical Force):] Report on "K' Force (Medical) 1945-1946. AWM54 554/9/1
- [8th Division in Captivity - Other Thailand Forces:] Medical report of 800 Prisoners of War, March from Nakom Naiyoke to Pitsanloke, May 1945. AWM54 554/17/1
- [8th Division in Captivity - Other Thailand Forces:] Report on Kamburi staging camp by Maj E.A. Rogers. Report on Base Hospital Kanchanburi by Lt Col J.W. Malcom, RAMC QR, Tamuang Camp Hospital. Medical Report by Maj A.A. Moon, Tamarkan POW Hospital, December 1943, Burma Thailand sketch. AWM54 554/17/2
- [8th Division in Captivity - Other Thailand Forces:] Reports by Lt Col A.E. Coates, Impressions of the Nakom Pakon Hospital, written at the request of the Japanese Imperial Army. Experience as a POW in Burma and Thailand, general report on medical aspects of POW's treatment by Japanese, 1944. AWM54 554/17/3.
- [Medical - Attendance on POW's:] Part of medical returns and correspondence handed to medical historian by Lt Col J.G. Glyn White (Includes: Force "L", 15 medical officers 100 other ranks; nominal roll of personnel Australian General Hospital selected for inclusion in Force "L"). AWM54 481/8/24
- War Crimes and trials. Affidavits and sworn statements. Searchable by name and service number, various items. AWM54 1010/-
- Records of Australian Military Forces prisoners of war and missing, Far East and South West Pacific Islands. Contains nominal rolls and paybook photographs searchable by name, theatre of war, unit, location of POW camp. AWM232. The nominal rolls are available online.
Private records held by the Memorial include:
- A.L. Varley (Brigadier, MC, 22nd Aust Inf Bde and POW, Burma d: 1944). Detailed daily record as a POW on the Burma end of the Burma Thai Railway. Describes executions, conditions, rations, illness, work and movements. 3DRL/2681
- Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop. The papers of Sir Edward Ernest Dunlop include his military and prisoner of war experiences and related post-war concerns. Includes his personal diaries. PR00926
- Sir Albert Ernest Coates. Papers of Lt Col Sir Albert Coates relating mainly to his time as commander allied POW hospital Nakom Paton. Reports of Japanese War Crime Trials and the peace treaty. PR86/186
- R.M. Mills (Captain, 2/10th Aust Fld Amb, AIF, POW). Nominal Roll and medical record of "F" Force under command of Colonel Pond, Burma-Thailand Railway, April -November 1943. PR86/211
- C.H. Kappe, (Brigadier) OBE, 1900-1967. Roll of Honour for "F" Force Personnel-including cause of death, date of death, personal effects and list of awards/punishments, camp equipment and rations. 3DRL/2695
- Roland Frank Oakes (Lieutenant Colonel). Oakes' typescript account of the defence of Malaya and Singapore Island , treatment as POW, including Oakes time with "H" Force work and repatriation. Oakes mentions a variety of Australian, British and Indian units and officers. Hand drawn coloured maps are included. MSS0767
- George Ernest Ramsey. These papers span most of Colonel Ramsay's military career, particularly covering his experiences commanding 2/30 Battalion in Malaya and Singapore and as a prisoner of the Japanese (when Ramsay commanded 2/18 Battalion, and No 1 Battalion "A" Force, also known as "Ramsay" Force, includes report on POW conditions (particularly in camps at Changi, Mergui, Tavoy and Tamarkan), letters and newspaper clippings regarding war crimes trials. PR00079
- A.W. Hence (Captain) MBE. Diary/nominal rolls, records relating to Thai POWs at Thanbyuzat and Tamarkan. PR82/053
Books held in the Research Centre include:
- Geoffrey Pharoah Adams, An illustrated history of the Thailand to Burma Railway of World War 2 (Poole, England: G.P. Adams, 1978) Includes map of railway
- Hugh V. Clarke, A life for every sleeper (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986)
- E.E. Dunlop, The war diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma Thailand Railway 1942-1945 (Tokyo: Kenryu Kawauchi 1997)
- Allan S. Walker, Middle East and Far East, Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series 5 (Medical), vol. II (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1953)
- Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese thrust, Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series 1 (Army), vol. IV (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957) : Chapter 24 and 25 : maps of railway on pages 542 and 563
Published unit histories may also contain information, photographs and nominal rolls of POWs.
Theatre programs from concerts held in Prisoner of War camps (3/16/47) and menus (13/4/34) are of great interest and highlight the courageous efforts which people make to maintain their self esteem, integrity and dignity.
Interview with E. E. Heckendorf of 2/30 Battalion and Prisoner of War by Hank Nelson, (S00763) deals with his experiences at Changi and working on the Thai section of the railway.
- Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass is commemorative website jointly created by the Australian National University and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
- The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre is an interactive museum, information and research facility dedicated to presenting the history of the Thailand-Burma Railway. The TBRC has researched the experiences of approximately 105.000 prisoners of the Japanese in South East Asia during the Second World War. They can be contacted regarding this research at email@example.com.