Hellfire Pass rediscovered

Hellfire Pass was 'lost' in the jungle for many years after 1945 and was rediscovered only in the 1980s …

After World War II most of the Burma-Thailand railway was dismantled. The Thais kept a 130-kilometre section of the railway operating in the south but the rest of the railway, including Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting), disappeared beneath agricultural land, jungle and a major reservoir near the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma).

However, in the 1980s Australian ex-prisoners started to return to Thailand. Like many veterans they felt the need, as they grew older, to 'revisit' the sites where they had had such intense experiences forty years earlier.

Though it was not easy to locate, they found Hellfire Pass, full of tangled undergrowth. One ex-prisoner Tom Morris became committed in 1983 to developing the Pass as a commemorative site honouring the Allied prisoners of war and the Thais who risked their lives to supply them with food and medicines.

With a grant from the Australian government in 1985 a survey of the railway was conducted by an engineer from the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC), Jim Appleby, who happened to be working on a dam on the Upper Kwae Noi.

This confirmed that Hellfire Pass was a suitable site for remembering the POW experience. It was dramatic, emotionally significant and close to the major road (Highway 323) linking Kanchanaburi with Three Pagodas Pass.

At first the development of Hellfire Pass was coordinated by the Australian–Thai Chamber of Commerce (led by Ken Bradley in Bangkok) working together with the SMEC, the Australian embassy in Bangkok and various units of the Australian defence forces.

The cutting was cleared of the jungle. 'Relics' of the railway such as sleepers and rails were collected, and stairs were built down the steep slope from the road.

Hellfire Pass was dedicated on Anzac Day 1987 when Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, the POW surgeon, unveiled a memorial plaque. By an extraordinary coincidence 25 April was the date on which Australian prisoners had started working around Hellfire Pass in 1943.

The site continued to be developed over the years by a mix of individual and government initiatives. The Victorian 'Bill' Toon raised some $90 000 through selling stickers, books and 'relics' of the railway. Rod Beattie, an Australian ex-patriot living in Kanchanaburi personally cleared much of the railway from Hellfire Pass to Compressor Cutting (a section that now forms a walking trail).

In 1992 Ross Bastiaan, a Melbourne periodontist, placed near Hellfire Pass one of the many bronze plaques that he has installed at battlefield sites around the world. With its three-dimensional map and brief history of the railway it can still be found near the old concrete steps which have been replaced by wooden stairs in recent years.

On Anzac Day 1994 a portion of the ashes of Dunlop were buried in the Pass and a memorial plaque unveiled on the rock face to POW doctors. Another portion of Dunlop's ashes was scattered on his farm in Victoria and a third portion launched into the Kwae Noi from Home Phu Toey nearby. Here a Thai businessman, Kanit Wanachote, who had met Dunlop on one of his trips to Thailand and developed a close friendship with him has created the Weary Dunlop Park.

Since the mid-1990s the Australian government has taken on the role of managing Hellfire Pass and the walking trail. Prime Minister Paul Keating attended the 1994 Anzac Day ceremony and committed the Australian government to build the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. Opened in 1998, this now sits above Hellfire Pass as a memorial to all who died on the railway. It also provides an interpretation of the history of the Pass and the construction of the Thai–Burma railway.

The veterans who returned in 1980s were the first of many thousands of Australians to seek out this site of memory. No matter what time of the year, the visitor will find Flanders poppies, Australian flags or messages of personal tribute wedged into the cracks of Hellfire Pass.

Was this page helpful?