Hellfire Pass

Hellfire Pass

This final Blip on the Death Railway is a sobering reminder of what the laborers endured during the construction of the Death Railway.

AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT MUSEUM

The Australian government maintains this museum and grounds along the Hellfire Pass. It was established in 1998 with the cooperation of the Thai government. If you haven’t had your fill of listening to Australians yet, they provide more audio recordings to listen to as you walk the trail, in which the survivors of the Death Railway describe their hardships and share their personal experiences of working through this section of the mountain.

A memorial built to remember these men is located just a short walk from the bottom of the stairs, but the entire walking trail through the Hellfire Pass goes on for roughly 4 km, and we recommend only the reasonably fit attempt the descent to the memorial and return climb, but its well worth it if you do.

HELLFIRE PASS

The particular spot of the memorial is the Konyu cutting, deemed the Hellfire Pass by those who worked here around the clock for 12 weeks, illuminated by small fires throughout the night. It was likely the most physically demanding part of the railway, the sheer rock was cut away by hand without the assistance of heavy machinery.

The first step in excavating a cutting was to clear the area of vegetation. Then loose soil could be cleared relatively quickly using hand tools. Where the ground was semi-marbleized limestone (as at Hellfire Pass) however, the clearing work was more time consuming and difficult. A common method of drilling the rock was ‘hammer and tap’. One man would hold a drill—the ‘tap’—while another drove it into the rock by wielding a hammer (of 8 to 10 lb). After each blow from the hammer man, the tap man would rotate the drill to prevent it from becoming stuck in the rock. Three progressively longer lengths of tap were used as the prisoners drilled deeper into the rock. The rock powder was then extracted by pouring water into the hole and scooping out the resulting mud with a long spoon.

Dynamite would be placed after a series of holes were finished. Hugh Clarke, an Australian prisoner of war, recalled: “The engineers would plug it with dynamite, get six or seven of us out and give us a cigarette. We would light a cigarette each. We would have to light four or five fuses and then go for our lives up into the bush before the charges blew.” After the dust had settled, the hammer-and-tap pair would move to another section while other gangs of prisoners moved the rubble. After breaking it up with shovels and picks, they would carry it out using sacks or bamboo baskets. Where a cutting was deep, human chains would be formed to carry earth up ladders and over the side of the cutting. In some cases, skips on light rail were used to move the earth.

Work on cuttings was exhausting and dangerous. It was easy for a hammer man, tired and malnourished, to slip and hit his partner holding the tap, crushing his fingers. Rock splinters from the drilling and the explosives could easily cause skin and eye injuries. Sharp rubble was also a hazard to men whose shoes and clothes had long since worn away in the humid climate. Any injury incurred in the construction of a cutting was compounded by the lack of medicine available to doctors and the poor food provided to prisoners. Even a small cut from sharp rock could become infected and turn into a tropical ulcer. The Japanese engineers set daily quotas for each prisoner. For a hammer and tap pair, the initial quota was one metre of drilling per day. However, the Japanese quickly increased this, so that during the ‘Speedo’ period in mid-1943 each team was drilling at least three metres. To complete this, men were made to work for up to fifteen, even eighteen, hours a day.

Compared with the Bridge over the River Kwai, and the Wang Po viaduct, you can understand why the Australian government decided to erect a memorial here. As opposed to bridges, viaducts and tracks, this pass will remain for millennia as a testament to the extreme effort and futility of the whole godforsaken undertaking. It sits out of place amidst bamboo and green hilly countryside. Yet, its hauntingly beautiful, and quiet. A perfect to remember, contemplate, and forgive.

WEARY DUNLOP PEACE PARK

The Weary Dunlop Park – on the way to Hellfire Pass – is a tribute to the Australian POW surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop. It is found at Home Phu Toey resort, on the Kwae Noi a short distance downstream from the former site of Konyu River camp and accessible from Highway 323 just south of the entrance to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum.

Dunlop is revered in Australia as the iconic image of the self-sacrifice, courage and compassion manifested by Australian doctors in captivity, but what makes the park unusual is that it is located in Thailand and was created by a Thai.

The owner of the Home Phu Toey resort, a Thai businessman Mr Kanit Wanachote, met Dunlop in 1985 when he and his ex-POW companions Bill Haskell and Keith Flanagan were travelling up the Kwae Noi searching for the sites of the former Konyu River and Hintok River camps. Calling in at what they thought was a restaurant, they found Kanit and his wife living on a moored houseboat while they were building their home on land at Phu Toey. Kanit’s offer of hospitality and a beer started a life-long friendship with Dunlop, Haskell and Flanagan, each of whom returned to Home Phu Toey regularly until their deaths.

When Dunlop died in 1993 some of his ashes were taken to the railway. One part was interred in Hellfire Pass near the plaque that Dunlop had unveiled some years earlier. Another part was floated down the Kwae Noi from the ‘Green Beach’ at Home Phu Toey Resort. In 2009 Mr Kanit Wanachote was award an Honorary Order of Australia medal in recognition of his ‘service to Australia through his memorial peace park and museum erected to preserve the memory of the Burma–Thailand Railway Prisoners of War’.

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