Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.
[Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man's War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing, nd, 154.]
Australian prisoners of war were interned during World War II at many locations across the Japanese zone of conquest. However, the greatest concentration was in Thailand where around 7500 Australians were sent in 1943 to work as part of a force of over 60 000 Allied POWs and approximately 200 000 Asian labourers constructing the Burma-Thailand railway.
The first Australians to arrive in Thailand were Dunlop Force, a group nearly 900 strong under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. Part of a much larger force including over 8000 Dutch, they left Java in early January 1943 and travelled to Thailand via Changi, Singapore. Arriving by train in Ban Pong in late January, they were trucked to the Konyu region.
Here one half of the force struggled down a steep mountainside on foot to Konyu River camp where a group of British prisoners was already established and in a poor state of health. Organised into O and P Battalions over the next two months the Australians carved a new camp out of the jungle, only to find that they were then ordered by the Japanese to join the other half of Dunlop Force and part of D Force at Hintok Mountain camp further up the road to Burma (now Myanmar).
The prisoners at Hintok Mountain camp were tasked with working on a section of the railway stretching from the seven-metre embankment beyond Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting). This work site was some kilometres distant from the camp and involved an exhausting walk at each end of the long working day over steep hills made treacherous by the monsoonal conditions.
D Force, consisting of over 2220 Australians and some 2800 British, was sent from Singapore to Thailand in mid to late March 1943. The Australians, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel C.A. McEachern, were immediately split into four 'battalion' work forces (S, T, U, V). These were then spread, and later regularly moved, across work sites stretching from Wampo and Tha Sao in the south to Kinsaiyok in the north. McEachern's headquarters and S Battalion were based at Hintok Mountain camp but D Force never functioned as an integrated unit.
In late April 1943 four hundred men of T Battalion moved from Wampo to the Konyu region to join a force of British prisoners and rǒmusha working on the section of the railway stretching from present-day Tampi to the seven-metre embankment. It was these Australians, together with a group that soon joined them from H Force, who were involved in the excavation of Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) itself.
F Force (around 7000 Australians and British) left Changi by train on 16 April 1943. After arriving at Ban Pong they were forced to march to sections of the railway nearly 300 kilometres up country. Conditions on the march were appalling. Little provision had been made by the Japanese for accommodation, food and cooking facilities. Even water was in short supply. At times the staging posts were camps already occupied by Australians who provided as much food as they could. But other staging posts had already been used by Asian rǒmusha and were filthy. Cholera broke out at Konkoita only a few days after the Australians passed through.
To avoid the heat which was at its most intense in April the prisoners marched at night, for as much as twelve to fifteen hours. When the monsoonal rains began in May, the 'road' became impossibly slippery and treacherous. Many of the men, who had been unfit even before leaving Changi, collapsed and had to drop out. The Japanese objected violently to this and finally insisted that all the officers and medical equipment be left at a rear headquarters beyond Tha Sao.
During the march a group of seven hundred Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel S. A. F. Pond were detached to work on bridges and road construction at various locations in the region of Konkoita and Tha Khanun. Forced to ensure exceptionally difficult working conditions in cholera-infested areas, the survivors of the group were consolidated with the rest of F Force at Songkurai later in the year.
The bulk of F Force arrived utterly exhausted in mid-May at Shimo (Lower) Ni Thea (Nieke) which became the local headquarters. Most of the Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Kappe were then put to work at Shimo (Lower) Songkurai and Kami (Upper) Songkurai. In these remote and primitive camps, the acute supply problems were aggravated by the fact that F Force was under the administration of the Imperial Japanese Army Malay Command rather than the Thailand administration that controlled most other POWs in the region. The arrangements for these forces were inferior and the two administrations competed rather than cooperated in managing the workers under their control. Profoundly malnourished, overworked and ravaged by diseases, including cholera, F Force suffered one of the highest death rates on the railway: some 1060 Australians and 2036 British.
H Force, consisting of nearly 3300 men (including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes) also had the disadvantage of being under Malay Command. Arriving at Ban Pong from Singapore in mid-May 1943, H Force then had to walk to various work sites along a twenty-kilometre stretch of the railway between Tonchan and Hintok. Given the heat and the fact they were carrying too much equipment, men arrived at their destination in the last stage of exhaustion, staggering and swaying like drunks.
The majority of Hintok H Force was located at Malay Hamlet (also sometimes called Konyu 2). From here they were employed on the excavation of Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting).
Another group of H Force officers (known as H6 Officers Party) including 69 Australians was located at Tonchan South. Here they were forced to undertake manual work, despite their protests that as officers they should do only administration. They were also forced to bury the rǒmusha dead from the camps surrounding them.
Since H Force was the last major workforce sent from Changi, it included many prisoners who were older and already in poor health. They succumbed easily to the illnesses prevalent across the railway including cholera which broke out in most camps in June. In early July the Japanese agreed to the evacuation of the most seriously ill to Kanchanaburi hospital and later in 1943 the Tonchan South camp itself was abandoned. The remaining 'fit' of the H6 Party were dispersed to other locations including Hintok River camp, Hintok Mountain camp and Konkoita.
The last Australians to be sent to Thailand were members of two multinational medical groups: K and L Force. By mid-1943 the Japanese could no longer ignore the appalling casualties among the rǒmusha who had no medical officers to treat them. Arriving in Thailand in June and August 1943, many of K and L force (which included nearly 130 Australians) were dispersed in small groups among the Asian labour camps to do what little they could to stem the soaring death rate. Others stayed in the base hospital at Kanchanaburi where they treated the sick of H and F Force.
After the railway was completed in October 1943 some Australians remained in Thailand to do maintenance work on the railway and construct defence works. The majority of Australians, however, were moved to Singapore and Vietnam, from where some were shipped to Japan. Tragically some died on the journey as a result of Allied submarine attack.
The death rate among POWs working in Thailand varied according to location. In F Force and H Force the death rate was 29 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. D Force's death rate, in contrast, was 18 per cent, a statistic that shows that although Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) has become synonymous in the popular mind with the suffering and maltreatment on the Burma-Thailand railway, it was not in fact the worst experience of captivity within Thailand.