Seventy-five years ago, the Thai–Burma railway was completed on 16 October 1943, costing the lives of more than 2,800 Australian Prisoners of War (POWs), including some 700 at Hellfire Pass.
During the Second World War, the Japanese sought to maintain their armies in Burma and began construction of a 420 km railway between western Thailand and Burma through harsh jungles and mountains.
Construction of the Thai–Burma railway began in October 1942 and by the time the line was finished, around 270,000 Asian labourers and some 60,000 Allied POWs, including Australian, British, Dutch, and American troops had worked on its construction.
The most notorious site along the railway is Hellfire Pass, where prisoners were required to drill, blast and dig their way through solid limestone and quartz rock. Shifts lasted up to 18 hours a day during the most intense period, a regimen that continued for some six weeks. The Pass was named both for the brutal working conditions and the eerie light thrown by bamboo fires as skeletal figures laboured by night, reminiscent to some of Dante’s Inferno.
Private James ‘Snow’ Peat found strength in these difficult conditions by thinking of home, and those waiting for him, I had a wife and little girl. And the will to live. I said ‘I’m not dying in this bloody place, and that’s all there is to it.’
This attitude, and the resilience and determination shown by Australian POWs during the Second World War epitomises the Anzac spirit forged more than two decades earlier during the First World War.
On this day, we remember the some 75,000 Asian labourers who died alongside the Allied prisoners while working on the railway and we honour the service and sacrifice of the some 12,500 Allied POWs who died, including more than 2,800 Australians.
Lest we forget.
Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs