Recovering the dead

The first [cemetery] with 146 graves had sufficient of the original crosses still legible for location to be simple … The cholera cemetery was hard to find … Finally … we found the pathetic little mounds marking the spots where ashes had been buried.

[Jack Leemon, War Graves Digger: Australian War Graves Registration Unit, Loftus, NSW, Australian Military Publications, 2010, 106.]

All wars confront nations with the joyless task of burying their dead. Along the Burma-Thailand railway, the recovery of the remains of approximately 12 800 Allied prisoners of war was complicated by the time elapsed since their burial, the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain and the wet and hot climate which meant that the original graves had deteriorated.

Recovering the dead began immediately after the war ended and was a combined effort of the Allied nations, in particular Great Britain, Australia and the Netherlands.

To locate the site of graves along the railway the Allied authorities consulted Japanese records and surrendered personnel as well as prisoners of war before they were repatriated. The POWs had also kept meticulous records during captivity, including diaries, cemetery plans and details of deaths and atrocities. Aware that the Japanese respected the dead and feared disease, the prisoners had often buried these sensitive documents at camp cemeteries. At Banya in Burma, for example, a cross bore the inscription, 'A bottle containing a sketch and list of names is buried at the foot of this cross'—a message which the Japanese faithfully re-inscribed when they replaced the cross!

The macabre task of locating and exhuming the dead was entrusted to an Allied War Graves Commission survey party consisting of Allied officers, volunteers from former prisoners and a Japanese translator. The party left Ban Pong, Thailand on 22 September 1945 for Thanbyuzayat in Burma where it arrived two days later. From here they worked back towards Thailand over the course of two weeks.

En route they consulted many of the Japanese units still up country. Since some Japanese units had yet to formally surrender there were a number of tense standoffs. The jungle also posed dangers, including tigers and local bandits.

As a result of this survey 10 549 graves were located in 144 cemeteries. Incredibly, only 52 of the graves the party had set out to find remained undiscovered.

After the graves had been located and marked, the longer process of reburying the dead began. The Allied authorities decided to inter the dead in three cemeteries: Thanbyuzayat in Burma; and Kanchanaburi and Chungkai in Thailand. American bodies were repatriated to the United States.

Kanchanaburi (Don Rak) War Cemetery, located near the site of a wartime POW hospital to the north of the town, is the largest of the three cemeteries: 5 084 Commonwealth casualties and 1 896 Dutch soldiers are interred here.

Chungkai cemetery just outside Kanchanaburi on the banks of the Kwae Noi, was the actual site of a wartime hospital cemetery which it was decided in 1945 not to relocate. Most of the 314 Dutch and 1 427 Commonwealth burials there are of prisoners who died while at the hospital.

Thanbyuzayat, at the Burma (Myanmar) end of the railway and again the site of a wartime hospital, became the cemetery for all Allied personnel who died between Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) and Ni Thea (Nieke). It now holds 3 149 Commonwealth burials and 621 Dutch.

As was the practice of the Imperial/Commonwealth War Graves Commission since World War I, each of the Allied POWs was given an individual headstone, if possible. This listed the badge of the serviceman's unit, his name, military number, date, age and date of death. There was no distinction on account of military rank or race. Many of the British and Australian graves—but not the Dutch—also carried personal messages from families, messages that continue to evoke an emotional response in visitors today.

The missing were commemorated with headstones inscribed 'A Soldier of the 1939–1945: Known Unto God' and in a stone chamber at Kanchanaburi war cemetery. This lists the names of soldiers whose remains were cremated up country and whose ashes, if found, were interred in a mass grave in the cemetery.

While Allied countries went to these great lengths to locate and reinter their war dead, the rǒmusha who died on the railway—up to 90 000 of them—have no marked graves. Lacking military organisation and leadership they either crawled into the jungle to die or were buried in mass graves without records. A memorial to the rǒmusha was later erected in the Chinese cemetery next to the Kanchanaburi war cemetery.

Over the years Kanchanaburi cemetery has become a key site of commemoration, including on the Australian de facto national day, 25 April, Anzac Day. It is also a major tourist destination, visited by scores of tourist buses each day. The fact the cemetery embodies British and Christian cultural forms seems not to limit its appeal to visitors of all nationalities, including Thais.

The web site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which maintains the three cemeteries provides details of the location of graves by name.

The Japanese interpreter Nagase Takashi, who assisted the Allied War Graves Commission survey party was so affected by his experiences that he dedicated his energies after the war to transnational reconciliation in Kanchanaburi.


Last updated: 13 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Recovering the dead, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/events/after-war/recovering-dead
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