Tha Khanun and Thanbaya campsites

In the mornings mist wreathes and smokes along the hillside above us, green with its feathery bamboos and tall trees. In the soaked stillness of the air, out of the wet woods, come occasional plangent and fluty bird notes. It is wet, wet but rather impressive and beautiful.

[The Burma–Siam Railway: The secret diary of Dr Robert Hardie 1942–45, Sydney, Collins, 1983, 96.]

The main camps in which Australians of F Force were based were located far up country in Thailand, beyond Ni Thea and the Burma-Thailand border. However, two other locations, though distant, were important in the F Force story: these were Tha Khanun and Thanbaya in Burma (now Mynamar).

Tha Khanun

During F Force's long march from Ban Pong railway station to the camps near the Burma-Thailand border, a group of seven hundred Australians were halted on 10 May at Konkoita. Pond's battalion, as it was known after its Australian commander, Lieutenant-Colonel S.A.F. Pond, was separated from the rest of F Force until December 1943.

At first deployed near Konkoita, Pond's battalion arrived at Tha Khanun on 3 July. They remained there for two months.

The physical environment was dramatic. Here the Kwae Noi cuts its way through steep gorges of limestone cliffs. During the monsoon which began mid-May 1943, the river rose over three metres, 'swirling down in a yellow rush, submerging the willow-like bushes along the banks, and carrying on its surface great matted tangles of trees and bamboos'.1

The Australians were already ill with cholera, malaria, ulcers, dysentery, beri beri and diphtheria.

They appeared to be in a pitiful condition. With bodies like skeletons, they were clothed in dirty, torn and ill-fitting shorts and shirts. 150 men were without boots, few men with socks.

['Report on the Activities of A.I.F. "F" Force', AWM 54, 554/7/4, 31, Australian War Memorial.]

Their camp site was on a bamboo covered hillside sloping to a tributary of the main river: 'road one side, dry creek bed the other—railroad the other and creek the other' was how Dr Roy Mills described it2 . Only half a day was allocated for clearing and preparing the site before the men were sent to work. Only men who were close to death were spared working parties.

To get to their work site men had to negotiate a high level bridge, 70 metres long and made of slippery logs only 15 cm wide. Or they crossed a low bridge 60 to 90 cm under the water. The hours of work were long, almost inhuman. On two terrible days the men worked from 8 am to around 2 am the following morning. Their work included embankments and a cutting excavated from the near vertical cliff above the Kwae Noi. At times officers were ordered to work in special parties on a slightly lighter contract basis.

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Like many camps along the railway at this time, Tha Khanun was cholera camp. The first case was diagnosed on 9 July. By 8 August there had been 59 cases and 21 deaths. 'It has been hell—accommodation inadequate and even then muddy, Insufficient men to look after them, insufficient containers to boil water for them—pouring rain', was how Roy Mills described the situation3 .

In late July, despite all the efforts to create fly-proof latrines, there was also an outbreak of acute dysentery. Rations were little more than rice and there were only two meals a day. All the other illnesses associated with the endemic malnutrition along the railway afflicted Pond's Battalion too.

With the rates of illness soaring, the Japanese finally agreed to several evacuations of the most seriously ill prisoners to hospitals down river.

In late July the camp was split, some men being moved about 275 metres up the road to a site next to a rǒmusha camp and a cow yard. A forward camp was also established two kilometres north on 10 August. Finally in early September the Australians were marched back to Taimonta.

Tha Khanun today

It is difficult to trace the Australian story at Tha Khanun today, since the Kwae Noi has been dammed a little up river by the Vachiralongkorn dam. Traces of the railway's route can be found to the right of the main entrance to the impressive Wat Tha Khanun which is accessed off Highway 323.

Thanbaya

Far from Tha Khanun, and fifty kilometres to the south of Thanbyuzayat, was Thanbaya. It was to this camp that the Japanese agreed, during the medical crisis of F Force in mid-1943, that the most seriously ill prisoners could be transported and treated in hospital.

The patients were chosen from Ni Thea, Shimo Songkurai, Songkurai, Kami Songkurai and Changaraya. An advanced party of medical and administrative staff left Changaraya in late July to set up staging posts at Kando and Ronshi to care for the patients in transit. They had to cover some of the distance by marching, since the railway, though completed in Burma, was not working, owing to a bridge having collapsed in the floods.

Thanbaya was an old A Force camp, next to the railway, that had been allowed to fall into a bad state of disrepair; but in time, despite the lack of tools, it was converted into a hospital of eleven wards, each dedicated to specific illnesses.

Its physical environment was pleasant, with an outcrop of low hills nearby and three streams supplying water (two of these dried up after the monsoon ended). However, Asian labourers or rǒmusha who were camped in the vicinity fouled the whole area, adding to the difficulties of hygiene.

Patients began to arrive from Thailand on 8 August and continued to do until 7 September. Their journeys were sheer cruelty. Owing to the railway being damaged, some men had to walk two kilometres even though they were suffering from tropical ulcers. Those travelling by train and motor transport were herded into crowded closed or open trucks. Deaths en route were not infrequent.

By early September the numbers at Thanbaya were 1776, British and Australians. The morale of the patients rose once they were free from the fear of working. But drugs and food remained inadequate. Malaria, beri beri and scabies were also prevalent.

From 19 to 24 November the hospital was emptied as the surviving patients were moved to Kanchanaburi. As the prisoners travelled in closed and open trucks, the journey, lasting from 72 to 132 hours, with long halts en route, was as uncomfortable as all previous train journeys experienced by the POWs.

The total number of deaths at Thanbaya, including those who were dead on arrival, was 665, representing about 45 per cent of the British and 21 per cent of the Australians.

Thanbaya today

Thanbaya is inaccessible today because of restrictions of movements beyond Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar.

  • 1The Burma–Siam Railway: The secret diary of Dr Robert Hardie 1942–45, Sydney, Collins, 1983, 96.
  • 2Roy Mills, Doctor's Diary and Memoirs: Pond's Party F Force, Burma-Thailand Railway, New Lambton, NSW, R.M. Mills, 1994, 88.
  • 3Doctor's Diary, 88.

Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Tha Khanun and Thanbaya campsites, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 9 December 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/camps-f-force/tha-khanun-and-thanbaya-campsites
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