It was a gigantic Via Dolorosa of the halt, the lame and the blind ...
[Rohan D. Rivett, Behind Bamboo, (first published 1946), Ringwood, Penguin, 1991, 244.]
The Japanese captured a small number of Australians in the Burma Campaign (1942 to 1945). In addition, the Japanese sent more than 4,800 Australian prisoners of war (POWs) captured elsewhere to southern Burma between September 1942 and July 1944. Around 800 Australians died during this period.
The first of the major workforces sent to Burma was A Force. Drawn from Allied prisoners of war interned at the base camp Changi in Singapore, they left in mid May 1942 in a suffocating and immensely crowded 'hell ship'.
Over a thousand of A Force disembarked at Victoria Point in the far south of Burma. Another third were sent to Mergui and the remainder to Tavoy (today's Dawei). All were tasked initially with building air fields.
At first the conditions for prisoners in Burma were adequate, if basic. The Japanese control was fairly lax and the Australian commander Brigadier Arthur Varley established a relatively good working relationship with the Japanese. Despite this, prisoners who attempted to escape–as did eight men in June 1942–were executed without trial, despite the protests of Australian officers.
In September 1942 the Australian prisoners were consolidated at Thanbyuzayat to begin work on the Burmese end of the Burma-Thailand railway. They were joined in October 1942 by nearly six hundred more Australians from Java, including some survivors from HMAS Perth which had been sunk in the Sunda Strait off the Netherlands East Indies on 28 February 1942.
Finally in January 1943 a further 385 Australians arrived from Java with more Dutch, British and American prisoners. By this stage there were more than nine thousand prisoners (mostly Australian and Dutch) in camps south of Moulmein (today's Mawlaminye). In April they were heavily reinforced with Burmese rǒmusha from the so-called 'Sweat Army'.
The route of the railway line in Burma, though not as challenging in engineering terms as in Thailand, was remote and difficult to supply. It did not follow a river route and there was no good road. The work camps along the railway took their names from the kilometres that they were distant from Thanbyuzayat (for example, 55-Kilo camp).
Work on the railway consisted of felling trees, clearing undergrowth, building embankments, excavating cuttings and constructing bridges across numerous streams and gullies. Workloads were reasonable at first when the railway route crossed reasonably easy territory. Soon, however, the pace of construction increased and by mid-1943 some up-country units were working shifts of twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off. As elsewhere on the railway they were often the victims of gratuitous violence, particularly from the hated Korean guards.
The Japanese administration was also less efficient in Burma than in Thailand. Hence, the further the railway advanced, the greater the supply difficulties, particularly when the monsoons came. Without adequate food and medical supplies many prisoners were falling ill by late 1942. Their condition worsened in 1943 as illnesses such as cholera, smallpox, dysentery and malaria broke out and the effects of malnutrition became endemic.
To add to this the Japanese workforce was exposed to Allied air raids from relatively early in the war. Despite requests from the Allied leaders the Japanese would not allow Thanbyuzayat to be marked as a hospital and POW camp. On 12 and 15 June 1943 twenty-three prisoners, including 18 Australians, were killed by Allied bombing and many more wounded.
When the Japanese finally agreed to evacuate Thanbyuzayat many of the already sick prisoners had to walk to camps further up the line. Some had the dubious pleasure of travelling on the railway line they had helped build. As Rohan Rivett recalled:
The train seemed to bounce from rail to rail, and at corners there was a lurching and a groaning which was ominous in the extreme. But the real fun came at the bridge, forty to sixty feet above the swollen rivers ... the connexion of the rails leading onto [one] bridge was so bad that we had to make three runs before the engine could get up and pull us across.
[Rohan D. Rivett, Behind Bamboo, (first published 1946), Ringwood, Penguin, 1991, 249.]
The railway was finally completed in October 1943. In the next two to three months the prisoners began to move eastwards to Thailand. Some remained in the jungle until March 1944, cutting fuel for the locomotives, before they too moved to Thailand.
Despite their many hardships, the death toll of Australians in Burma was not as high as on the worst sections of the railway in Thailand. A Force's death toll up to January 1944 was 13 per cent. At least one officer attributed this to Varley's leadership and the impact of his strong personality on the Japanese commanders.
Tragically Varley, who returned to Singapore in January 1944, died in September 1944 when the Japanese transport on which he was travelling with other prisoners of war, the Rokyo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine. Although more than sixty prisoners survived and were rescued by the Americans, Varley disappeared, last seen in command of a group of seven life rafts.
The prisoners of war who died in Burma were buried after the war in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Thanbyuzayat which contains 3149 burials of Commonwealth and 621 Dutch personnel.