Getting to the railway

By day steel carriages scorched with the heat of the sun: by night they were like ice boxes. Perhaps once a day the men were allowed out of the trucks to stretch their legs and attend to the demands of nature. Nature, unfortunately, did not understand this arrangement and made her demands much more frequently.

[Russell Braddon, The Naked Island, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2005, 169.]

For most Allied prisoners of war the journey to the Burma-Thailand railway was the first taste of the gruelling life that awaited them as workers for the Japanese. No prisoner arrived at their worksite healthier than when they left Singapore, and many finished their journey sick, exhausted and malnourished.

All groups sent to Thailand from Singapore travelled by rail for their first leg of their journey. Those travelling to Burma were transported aboard the infamous 'hell ships'.

The Japanese began transporting prisoners by rail to Thailand in June 1942. The first Australians were Dunlop Force who arrived at Nong Pladuk in early 1943.

The conditions on the five-day train journey were appalling and gave lie immediately to the Japanese assurances that the prisoners would enjoy a better life than they had since being captured.

Between thirty and forty men were crowded into railway trucks measuring 5.5 metres by 2.5 metres. Despite the intense heat and the length of the journey, little food or water was provided by the Japanese. Prisoners in D Force, for instance, were issued with only one pint (less than half a litre) of water each day and were punished if they tried to obtain more.

Often prisoners had to survive on what food they brought with them. If they were able to buy supplies from local traders they were often forced to pay exorbitant prices. Conditions were made even worse by the fact that the prisoners, many of whom had dysentery, were allowed to relieve themselves only infrequently.

Conditions for rǒmushatravelling by train were, if anything, worse. These workers were often transported in open cattle trucks, exposed to the elements. Many died of sunstroke, including a number of women and children who accompanied the rǒmusha.

Once deposited at the terminus of the functioning railway the workers travelled to their allocated work sites by a variety of means. Dunlop Force detrained at Ban Pong, the point where the railway ended in January 1943. By March 1943 since the line had progressed D Force was taken as far Kanchanaburi. Both these forces were relatively lucky, as they were then taken by truck to their worksites further up the line.

However, later forces were forced to march from Ban Pong to worksites far up country. F Force, who arrived at Ban Pong in April 1943, had to complete an exhausting march of up to 300 kilometres to remote camps near the Thai–Burma border.

This march was completed in fifteen stages of twenty kilometres each. If prisoners fell out in exhaustion they were beaten and abused. The one concession the Japanese made was to allow the prisoners to march at night, resting during the heat of the day.

As the days passed, prisoners were forced to rid themselves of excess weight in their packs. Some sold valuables to Thai traders. Others simply threw away items such as blankets, books and bulky equipment. Stan Arneil, a member of F Force, remembered the hardships facing prisoners even when they stopped for a rest:

A frightful night march brought us to a 'desert camp' at daybreak. We stop here for the night, the camp is a dry, stony, thorny half acre, as hot as frying pan and the kindly Thai natives sell us filthy water at ten cents a bucket and are prepared to rob us, hand over fist at every opportunity. Everybody is against us in this country.

[Stan Arneil, One Man's War, Melbourne: Sun Books, 1983, 75.]

The onset of the monsoon in late April condemned the later parties of F Force to even worse conditions on the journey. During the day the prisoners were forced to rest in the open, often simply sitting in the mud.

H Force, which arrived in Thailand in May, was also made to march up the railway during the wet season. Their worksites were closer than those allocated to F Force. However, the march still took a horrible toll on the prisoners.

Once at their destination, the prisoners rarely had any respite. Often the first task that faced them was building their own camps. Japanese engineers, who were impatient to get the prisoners working on the railway as soon as possible, allocated little time to this task or other camp duties.

Map of journeys of POWs to the Burma-Thailand railway

The Japanese moved many thousands of Allied prisoners from their original place of capture to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. Transport was either by train from Singapore, in cramped railway trucks; or via sea in equally crowded and primitive cargo vessels, known to the POWs as 'hell ships'. Once in Thailand and Burma, POWs were either trucked or marched to their worksite on the railway.


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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Journeys, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 June 2024,
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