The Death Railway
A Dutch viewpoint
Japanese Forced Labour Camps at the Burma Railway
Used with permission of the author, Lilian Sluyter
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CHAPTER 2. Organization of
Geneva Convention 1929, co-undersigned
by HRH The Emperor of Japan
CHAPTER 2. Organization of the Labor.
Labor furnished by prisoners of war shall have no direct relation with war operations.
No prisoner of war may be employed at labors for which he is physically unfit.
The length of the day's work of prisoners of war, including therein the trip going and returning, shall not be excessive....
From the Geneva Convention 1929, co-undersigned
by HRH The Emperor of Japan
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The destination was Changi, a Jap POW camp. As usual, the freshly arrived allied captives from all over the archipellago stood in long rows in the blazing tropical sun to "number", as the roll-call Jap fashion was called: Itchey, ney, san,sey, go, ro - Over and over again, as a never ending mantra. The year 1943 was only a few days old, and there were no signs of a Happy New Year ahead. On the contrary. Rumour had it that a railroad for military purposes was urgently needed in Burma, and the pows - Aussies, Brits and Dutch - were to be transported from Changi (Singapore) to Nan-Pong (Thailand) to build this rail track through a jungle and mountainous area.
The first group consisted of 700 Dutch Royal Navy men. Early next morning they had to board a freight train with steam lock. The waggons were completely covered with metal sheets, which became as hot as a furnace at midday, when the sun was at its hottest. The men were packed in cars that were too small to hold about thirty each. Cramped on the floor, trying not to touch the hot metal sheets, the journey became an ordeal. Smoke and soot from the lock penetrated the waggons. And during the whole trip, the train regularly stopped for hours in the blazing sun, to let opposing trains pass, the railroad being a single track. At night lying on the floor was quite impossible. Dysenteria excretions, urine and sweat made the atmosphere inside the carriages unbearable. Food became a problem too. Their last meal was had at Changi and that was quite frugal. Thank God for the natives, who always tried to approach the waiting train to sell eatables, and on the pityful sight of the men, even offered food for free. Contact with the natives was strictly forbidden. Sometimes the accompanying Japs turned a blind eye. On other times they found pleasure in hitting and severely wounding the men with their bayonets,or beat the hell out of them - just for the fun of it.
On the fifth day the train arrived at Ban-Pong (Thailand), where the men could finally disembark, and stretch their legs. Not for long, though. The prisoners had to be counted again and again, and the numbering ritual started, to last for several hours.
The men were told that they were commissioned to build a railway through the jungle from Pladuk (Thailand) to the Three Pagoda Pass at the Burma border. This railway was intended to connect the existing railway to Rangoon and into India. The track was to become 414 kilometres long, with a height difference of 300 metres and had to include, cross-overs and bridges, including the Bridge on the River Kwai (Khwae Noi), which became well-known from the film. However, life of a captive forced labourer was not quite as funny as in the film. It became worse than hell, in which survival was almost impossible. In actual fact, the men were on death row, and they knew it. Many thousands died from undernourishment, hard labour, torture, tropical diseases and neglect.
They worked while they lasted, and for replenishment there were male prisoners and natives galore. It was the cheapest and most effective genocide ever. Corpses don't need to be sustained, and before they became corpses they made themselves useful to the glory of the Imerpial Japanese Army. No Jap cared, as long as the railway was ready as targeted. The target was 2 kilometres per day. The deadline December 1943.
Speedo-speedo (faster-faster) became the watchword. And when during the process the target date was moved back to October 1943, the speedo-speedo intensified, which consequently ended up in more casualties.
A group of British pows had started the preparatory work in June 1942. Those who were still alive looked a pityful sight. Bearded, all skin and bones, covered with tropical sores, and living in delapidated huts. The newly arrived had few illusions.
Humidity was high in the jungle. And temperatures rose to some 40 degrees C (104 F) at midday. And then there was the monsoon with its non-stop tropical rains. The sludge, through which the heavy tree trunks had to be dragged by manpower, made the work extra hard. Apart from the sadistic guards, of which the Koreans were the worst, wants, white lice and scorpions added up to the misery of the men, who already suffered from the hard labour, the long hours, malnutrition and severe tropical diseases. (Recurrent tropical diseases: malaria, dysenteria, cholera, typhoid, beri-beri, hepatitus A, pellegra, tropical ulcers )
They had to work themselves through the jungle by felling each and every tree by hand saws and axes - and a jungle has thousands of trees and bushes that are in the way when one has to build a railroad or yet another camp. Naturally, camp building was not part of the railway project. So building barracks was considered a do-it-yourselves leisure activity the men had to do when they came back after a long day of hard labor. And many barracks had to be built along the way, as the railway track progressed. The Dutch Royal Navy junior seaman Adrian Kannegieter (now 81), listed a number of the forced labour camps on the Burma Railway. He was in several of them (in bold):
Non-Pladuk I 0
Non-Pladuk II 0 (start of Railway)
Non-Pladuk Provisioning camp 0
De Brug (Bridge) 55
Wampo (viaduct) 114
Rin Tin 181
Houthakkerskamp (Lumberjack Camp) 240
Three Pagoda Camp (border) 303
(** number of kilometres from Non-Pladuk)
Adrian's group was transported from Ban-Pong to Tarsau where they met a group of British 'bonebags'. Adrian's group was lucky to be transported by truck. Later they found out that new groups had to walk to their camps. According to their deplorable physical state they looked like "dead men walking".
The next move was from Tarsau to Kinsayok. Here again they met British quartermasters looking like skeletons.
After a few weeks groups of dead-tired and worn out prisoners passed Kinsayok Camp on (bare) foot on their way to Rin Tin and Hindato. They must have walked for ten days or more from Ban-Pong where they had arrived by train from Singapore.
In February 1943, a group of 500 Dutch men was selected to go to the new camp Brankansi (208 kms). Of the new arrivals many died and were replenished by Aussies and Brits.
In October 1943 Adrian was moved to Non-Pladuk II, one of the "replenishment" centers in Pladuk. In December 1943 he was transported to Hindato , a place with two camps, one for the Japs and one for their prisoners. In August 1944, they moved him to Non-Pladuk I, a huge camp with lots of barracks and no trees, so nowhere to hide from the burning sun. There he and another Dutch prisoner, were selected for the Non-Pladuk Provisioning camp, and he thanked God for this lucky day. This camp appeared to be a storage camp for food and medicins. Sometimes even relief parcels from the International Red Cross came in. Adrian and his Dutch mate soon discovered that the Jap guards were highly skilled thieves. And so were both Dutch men, for that matter. All of a sudden the camp physicians had plenty of bandages and medicines and there was extra food for the patients.
But for a few bombardments by the Allies with some hundred casulaties and deaths, Adrian's time at the Non-Pladuk Provision Camp were the best in his whole pow life. Unfortunately, after a few months the Kempei-tai (Japanese military police similar to the notorious Gestapo in Nazi Germany) found out that provisions were being stolen. Two Jap guards were caught and severly punished, but they never found the goods stolen by the Dutch. These were carefully and safely stowed away undergrounds.Anyway, suspicion was aroused, and Adrian was taken back to Non-Pladuk I in October 1944. A month later he had to move again. This time to Kuye, a small maintenance camp on the river (Kwai).
In June 1945 the constant bombing by the Allies ruined parts of the Railway, so Adrian was moved to the Houthakkerskamp (Lumberjack camp) for reparation work. Although far from the living world, it was there he heard that Germany had lost the war and Japan was on the loosing side. Another mate and he were the only white persons in this camp. The Jap guards were the worst sadists, and the two caucasians became their favorite targets. One day he was beaten so severely that he lost his zest for life. And it was thanks to his caring Eurasian camp mates that he stayed alive and eventually recuperated.
A few weeks later, around mid August 1945, the camp inhabitants were ordered to dig holes in the ground, size 2 metres wide and 1 metre deep. Machine-guns were mounted around them in the corners of the campsite. The men understood exactly what the ditches were meant for. What could they do in case the Japs started to execute their monstrous plan? Having been able to cope with all the atrocities for all these years the men went through the worst days of their pow existence as the lived with the prospect of being slaughtered like cattle.
However, during the following weeks things began to happen that were out of the ordinary. Quite unexpectantly, the prisoners got better food, they were not beaten up, and they were allowed to stay in the camp to relax. But that wasn't for long.
One day they were suddenly ordered to speedo-speedo pack their things and board a small motor train with open waggons. Immediately upon boarding, the train departed as if in a great haste. At the stop places they were even fed. And no Japanese troops in sight, but for their two guards. On passing, the men observed that the camps they knew so well, were completely deserted. Had the inhabitants been already been massacred ? What the hell was going on?
After two days the train arrived at a small station, where they were ordered to get off and continue their way on foot to the nearest camp, which was Tamuan. All of a sudden, in the distance, Andrian discovered a white MP in a uniform which was different from the ones they had seen for over three years. But he did not dare to yell in case it was just a spectre.What do you make out of all this? he whispered to his mate. Do you also think that this means the war is over? But the men didn't dare to speak it out loud, just in case they were seeing things wrong.
The group entered an overcrowded Tamuan Camp and sank down on the ground, completely exhausted. Out of the blue a friend, whom Adrian hadn't seen for a long time, appeared from the crowd. Adrian yelled to him: Does this mean the war is really over? His friend yelled back: Sure enough. We celebrated the Queen's birthday almost two weeks ago! (31st August - HRH Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands from 1898-1948). Adrian figured out that this meant it should be some day in September.
To be precise: Adrian's Liberation Day was the 12th September 1945, almost a full month after Japan surrendered and ten days after the signing of the Declaration of total surrender on the Missouri. He had made it. But it was only towards the end of December 1945 that the men were finally able to leave Burma, the country where tens of thousands of prisoners of different nationalities were forced to build the now famous Burma Railway, struggeling to stay alive.
The Burma Raiway had become a knockout race of the fittest. And for those who made it, life had almost ended in a massacre.
Thanks to a strange turn of fate and the atom bombs, the Japs did not come round to execute the Secret Imperial Order of 1944 to kill all European and Eurasian prisoners, as soon as the Allies were invading their conquered territories or Japan itself.
Lilian Sluyter (Holland) based this short story on the manuscript of Adrian Kannegieter (1920), former Royal Dutch Navy junior seaman, who by sheer chance arrived in the former Dutch East Indies, because their vessel was unable to sail back to her home port in the Netherlands, due to the German occupation (1940-1945).
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