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Death Railway

Designation for the Thailand-Burma Railway built by the Imperial Japanese Army during WW II (fig.) and which ran from Nong Pladuk in Thailand to Thanbuyuzayat in Burma, with its main section running through the Thai province of Kanchanaburi and crossing the border near the Three Pagoda Pass (fig.). During WW I, Japan honours its treaty with Britain and declares war on Germany. Japanese forces on to seize the German naval base at Tsingtao in northeast China (wartime maps) and thus on 7 November 1914 gained a foothold in China when it captured the German fortress. After WWI, former German possessions in China were handed to Japan, to China's outrage. The Japanese army subsequently became well established in Shandong (Shantung) and Manchuria, and by the mid 1930's Manchuria had become the Japanese protectorate of Manchukuo. The Japanese envisaged a similar fate for the whole of China. However, further territorial demands by the Japanese on a weak and divided China subsequently led to war. In an attempt to force Japan to end this war Britain, Holland and the United States imposed a trade embargo on Japan. At the same time they provided the Chinese forces led by Chiang Kai Chek with weapons and supplies via a road across the foothills of the Himalayas. In order to cut this vital supply link and to obtain the raw materials of Burma for themselves, the Japanese needed to enter Burma. After the Japanese offensive, which began in December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Malaya, the Imperial Army's forces were by mid ‘42 fighting the British in Burma, their aim being to cut the above mentioned Allied supply link into China and ultimately an offensive against India. To maintain their armies in Burma the Japanese needed a more secure supply route than the vulnerable sea-lines between Singapore and Rangoon through the Andaman Sea, where Allied forces operating from Ceylon were attacking their supply ships. Thus realizing the need for a safe land route the Japanese decided to construct a 415 km long railway through dense jungle and mountains. Work on the line began in southern Burma in October 1942 while at the same time construction also started in Thailand. To build the railway the Japanese assembled a multi-national workforce of approximately 250,000 Asian labourers and over 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners of war (POWs). On 16 October 1943 the two ends of the railway were joined at Kongkiwtah in Thailand. Of all POWs who worked on the railway 12,399 died (about 20%), and between 70,000 and 90,000 civilian labourers are also believed to have died, mainly as a result of lack of proper food, totally inadequate medical facilities and, at times, the brutal treatment from their guards, usually ethnic Korean soldiers who fought in the Imperial Japanese Army and themselves ranked among the lowest in the pecking order, not just lower than ordinary Japanese soldiers but below even a Japanese military pigeon. Due to heavy casualties of the Japanese Army in the ongoing Sino-Japanese war that began in July 1937, Japan's human resources were stretched thin and thus Korean men were conscripted into the Japanese military while Korea was under Japanese rule as an occupied territory between 1910 and 1945. The appalling death toll that arose during construction −it is said one life for each sleeper− led to the use of the name ‘the Death Railway’. Allied military personnel who died or were killed during its construction, as well as those killed in action in the region, are buried at the war cemeteries of Don Rak (map - fig.) and Chong Kai (map - fig.) in Thailand, and at Taukkyan/Htauk Kyant (map - fig.) in Myanmar, which also has graves of victims of other regional wars. These fields of honour are situated on land donated to and purchased by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is also in charge of their overall maintenance. A famous part of the infamous railway is the 297 metre long and 10 metre wide bridge over the River Kwae (fig.) near the city centre of Kanchanaburi. Although it is just one of over 600 bridges on the Thailand-Burma Railway and officially referred to as Bridge 277, it was made famous in the 1957 epic war movie Bridge on the River Kwai, which was filmed in a mountainous area of Sri Lanka nonetheless. See also Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, Hellfire Pass Memorial. In Thai called Thahng Rot Fai Mareutayu. See also samurai and MAP Tham Krasae Section.