The Siam-Burma Railway Line

The invasion of Malaya begun just after midnight on the 8th of December 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor with a naval assault on the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade stationed in Kota Baru, Kelantan, followed by an amphibious landing supported by air strikes by Air Group III.

The attack was led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita; the man selected for the job and later dubbed the Tiger of Malaya. The destruction on the Malayan side of things was total and both British and Commonwealth troops were on the retreat from the start, driven back from the north to the south and by the 31st of January 1942, British and Commonwealth forces had completely withdrawn to Singapore, and Malaya had fallen. The allies suffered massive casualties with 9,000 dead and almost 130,000 captured.

Between the 31st of January 1942 to the 15th of August 1945, Malaya was administered by the Japanese and much of its wealth as were its people were used to further Japan’s war efforts.

In 1943 the Japanese commenced with the building of the Burma-Siam railway line, a necessity for Japan at that stage to further its war efforts.

Prior to that supplies to Japanese troops stationed in Burma were ferried by sea but the route around the Malay Peninsula, via the Straits of Malacca, in addition to being lengthy, was fraught with danger and allied vessels and submarines which patrolled the area proved to be more than a handful.

In order to overcome these difficulties and to ensure that their troops in Burma were adequately supplied and reinforced, the Japanese embarked on the rather ambitious project of building a railway line that ran all the way from Thailand (a buffer state or a state that was neutral) to Burma and despite the difficulties of constructing such a line it was completed well ahead of schedule and was in operation within a year.

The line started from Ban Po in Thailand and stretched all the way to Thanbyuzayat in Burma and ran for about 258 miles. Hence it was a fairly long trip but much shorter that the 2,000-mile sea route that was used previously.

Thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) were deployed to lay the tracks which often ran through dense rainforests. In addition to POWs the Japanese army also conscripted thousands of young men of Tamil origin to help with the construction of the railway line.

Among the men that were taken was my grandfather on my dad’s side Nadisan Thevar. My grandfather was born in 1890 in Chidambaram and he came to Malaya in 1900 at the age of 10 to work. It must have been very difficult in India back then because there was a big outflow of workers that not only came to Malaya but also went to Thailand, Myanmar and various other countries in Indo-China.

My grandfather was taken at the age of 53, so he was by no means young, but he was employed by the railway services, as a matter of fact he was an engine drive, so that might have had something to do with it but as I understand it groups of men were indiscriminately taken from their homes and herded away by the truckloads so it could have been random.

Nothing was heard from him until he returned in 1946 after spending about three years in Thailand. From all accounts it was a very, very difficult life. He died 9 years later from a heart attack at the age of 65.

In total, approximately 180,000 civilian workers were taken from various countries to help lay the tracks and it is estimated that almost half that number died during the construction of the railway line. Of those that remained many didn’t return home and because of the extremely high death toll the Burma-Siam railway line is sometimes called the death railway.

It is difficult to say, with any degree of certainty, what happened to the POWs and the civilians that did not return home but it would be fair to speculate that many continued as laborers or remained behind and became either Burmese or Siamese citizens.

Copyright © 2019 by Kathiresan Ramachanderam

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