Konyu Road camps
We had located Major Quick's 'T' Battalion early, on our arrival at Kenyu [sic], and received a shock to see the conditions under which they were living … a camp of exhausted, weak and very sick men. There was nothing we could do to help them.
[R.J.W. Newton et al., The Grim Glory: The Official History of 2/19 Battalion AIF, 3rd edn, 2006, 502.]
Many work camps were established in the Konyu–Hintok region in the first months of 1943 to accommodate the large forces of Allied prisoners and Asian labourers (rǒmusha) constructing this section of the Burma-Thailand railway.
The Australians who worked on Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) were based at two camps on the road heading north (now Highway 323), directly above the cutting and the ledges approaching it. One camp, Malay Hamlet, accommodated Australians and British from H Force. The second, located a little to the south, housed T Battalion from D Force under the command of Major E.J. Quick.
This second camp was often known as Konyu 3, though POWs accounts used many different names and spelling for the camps in the region. The camp at Konyu River, for example, was also sometimes called Konyu 3.
Located on what is now a large open space just inside the entrance to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, 'Konyu 3' housed British as well as Australian prisoners. A group of Tamils were camped nearby, probably near where a wartime truck used to transport POWs from Singapore now stands.
Australian prisoner of war Hugh Clarke later recalled:
On Anzac Day, 25 April 1943, we halted in a small clearing in the jungle-covered plateau and were informed that this was our new camp—when we built it … The job site was at the end of a 500 metre track under a canopy of towering bamboo and was to be a cutting through a great rocky spur. Far below, beyond a sea of bamboo, the river wound north like a silver ribbon.
[Hugh V. Clarke, A Life for Every Sleeper: A Pictorial Record of the Burma–Thailand railway, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1986, 22.]
Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop also described the Konyu 3 camp site as …
… a favourable area for tent erection but which 'looks malarious'.
[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 221.]
It is hard to trace precisely what happened at Konyu 3. No one at this camp left personal accounts as full of gripping detail as Dunlop's diary of life at Konyu River and Hintok Mountain. The reports of the commander of D Force, Brigadier E.A. McEachern, also lack detail of Konyu 3 since he too was based at Hintok Mountain.
However, the working conditions for POWs based at Konyu 3 are known to have been some of the harshest on the railway. The excavation of Hellfire Pass was completed manually, using 'hammer and tap' methods and physical labour to clear the jungle. The working hours were exceptionally long during the 'Speedo' of mid-1943 and the Japanese treatment of their workforce was relentlessly harsh. The POWs' journey to and from the worksite was also exhausting, as any visitor climbing the steps to the site from the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum today can attest.
The health of the POWs was shattered by disease, malnutrition and overwork even before the camp was infected with cholera which broke out close by at Malay Hamlet in June. By 11 June 1943 only 60 of 600 men at Konyu were fit for work and the Australian death toll was 32. For medical emergencies the camp had to reply on Dunlop's coming down from Hintok Mountain as he did in May to operate (without success) on an English patient suffering general peritonitis1
Within the Konyu area there were other camps serving as work bases, supply points and staging posts on the road. Again nomenclature can be confusing but Konyu 1 was probably located a little further down the road towards Kanchanaburi. Konyu 2 may also have been in this vicinity though that name was often used to describe Malay Hamlet.
- 1. War Diaries, 18 May 1943.