Camps near Hellfire Pass

This system of marching battalions into unprepared jungle camps was the [Japanese] policy … in this initial monsoon period thousands lived and died without cover over their heads, or lived in … congested huts … or in leaky tents or crazy bivouacs providing little more than token protection.

[Brigadier C.A. McEachern, 'Report on Conditions, Life and Work of Prisoners of War in Burma and Siam', AWM 54 554/2/1A.]

Black and white sketch of location of Hintok River camp

This wartime sketch by Ray Parkin shows the positioning of the Hintok River camp in relation to the Kwae Noi (below the cliffs in the foreground) and the railway line halfway up the slope in the middle distance. POWs had to walk from the camp to the worksite each day up the steep and, in the monsoon, treacherously slippery hill. [By courtesy of Parkin family]

In early to mid-1943 many thousands of Allied prisoners of war and Asian rǒmusha were brought by the Japanese to work on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway in the Konyu–Hintok region. To accommodate them a network of primitive camps sprang up at various points along the Kwae Noi and the road heading north to Burma (now Myanmar).

In most instances these camps had to be created from nothing. Prisoners arriving exhausted and hungry after long journeys by train, truck or foot, had to set about immediately clearing the jungle, pitching tents, digging latrines, building cookhouses and constructing huts, not only for themselves but sometimes for the Japanese. Usually they had very few tools or materials other than what could be found locally. Huts were constructed from bamboo and attap (palm leaves used for roofing). Typically they consisted of raised bamboo sleeping platforms flanking a central gangway or positioned in the centre. The sleeping space for each man was perhaps 70 centimetres.

The task of maintaining camps was made difficult by the Japanese refusal to make many men available for camp fatigues. Under pressure from the Japanese engineers managing the railway construction, the local commanders demanded that the maximum number of men work on the railway.

Camp sites were chosen for their access to flat land and water, be it a stream or the Kwae Noi. Water supplies, however, often became contaminated by human waste, particularly when one camp was downstream of another's bathing area or latrines.

Within the Konyu and Hintok area in mid-1943 there were at least five major camp sites at which Australians were accommodated together with other national groups. The POWs, whose sense of local topography was limited, called them by a variety of names—a practice which makes its difficult now to attribute names precisely.

Konyu River—also known as Lower Konyu or Konyu 3—was on the Kwae Noi below the escarpment on which Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) was excavated. Further upstream was Hintok River camp positioned on cliffs above a major bend in the river.

On the road just above Hellfire Pass (now Highway 323) was a large camp of POWs and Tamil rǒmusha, again called Konyu 3. Nearby, some hundred metres up the road, was Malay Hamlet (sometimes called Konyu 2). A few kilometres further on was Hintok Mountain camp, also known as Hintok Road.

In the other direction from Hellfire Pass, towards Tampi and Kanchanaburi, were yet more road camps, probably called Konyu 1 or, again, Konyu 2.

The Konyu and Hintok camps were close enough for there to be some communication between them. The prisoners at Konyu 3, Malay Hamlet and Hintok Mountain, for example, made regular trips down the steep and slippery escarpment to Konyu River, and later Hintok River, where they bought supplies from Thai traders working on the Kwae Noi. The very ill POWs were also moved to the river for evacuation by barge to hospitals downstream, at Tha Sao, Kanchanaburi and Chungkai particularly.

Yet in many ways the individual camps were discrete worlds with the Japanese treating them as water-tight compartments. Malay Hamlet was even administered by a different Japanese command, Malay Command, to that managing the other camps, Thailand Command. The jealously between these commands made integrated management of the camps in the Konyu–Hintok region impossible.

Since the camps in this region were temporary they never developed the infrastructure of more permanent base camps such as Kanchanaburi and Tha Markam further south. Once the construction of the railway in the area had been completed, and the workforce had moved on to another location, the camps lost their raison d'àªtre. Some camps along the railway, however, were retained for maintenance and repairs to railway in 1944–45 as it was damaged by heavy Allied bombing.

After the war, when the bodies of POWs had been recovered from the camp cemeteries and the Burma-Thailand railway had been dismantled, the camp sites disappeared into the jungle and the landscape. Some on the river, such as Hintok River and Tha Sao, have become tourist resorts. The same access to the Kwae Noi which made them good sites for POW camps attracts the twenty-first century leisure seeker and adventure tourist.

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