Rǒmusha on the railway

A new embankment and cutting are being built by Tamils [at Compressor Cutting] to skirt and avoid the bridge. In the wake of the railway is left a wreckage of humanity, stupidly broken by inefficiency and design.

[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 270.]

The hardship and suffering of Asian labourers (Rǒmusha) recruited by the Japanese to work on the Burma-Thailand railway was often far worse than that of Allied prisoners of war. The prisoners' chances of survival were increased by their education and military organisation, particularly their discipline and medical personnel. But the Rǒmusha had few such advantages. Possibly up to 90 000 of them died while working on the railway.

The majority of Rǒmusha who worked in Thailand were recruited from Malaya (Tamils, Chinese and Malays) and Java. On the Burma side of the railway they were predominantly recruited from within that country. After arriving at the railway, Rǒmusha were grouped into four main units, or butai, under Japanese commanders. Within these units they were divided, according to the needs of specific projects, into companies (tai) and sections (han).

A Japanese gunzoko, or overseer, commanded the Rǒmusha units. These men had absolute power over the Rǒmusha and were often callous or indifferent towards their charges:

If he beat a coolie who died as a result, he reported the death as due to malaria, and that was the end of the matter. Coolie-camp commanders were certainly not picked for their 'brightness', and the coolies off duty were at the mercy of an illiterate, usually a drunkard and often a sadist, but more often just plain stupid.

[Report on coolie camp conditions on the Burma-Siam Railway during the period November 1943 to August 1945, quoted in Paul H. Kratoska, The Thailand–Burma Railway, 1942–1946, Documents and Selected Writings, vol. IV, London, Routledge, 2006, 20.]

Like the prisoners of war the Rǒmusha were used as manual labour, building bridges and embankments and excavating cuttings. They worked long days with poor food. Despite their having been promised decent pay by the Japanese, many received little or no money, or were forced to spend it buying food at exorbitantly priced Japanese canteens or from local traders.

Although the Japanese promised to supply clothing little was actually provided. If it was available the Japanese used clothing as a reward for hard work. The situation was so bad that sacks used for rice became prized possessions.

Rǒmusha were housed in camps separate from, but often near to, prisoners of war. Conditions in Rǒmusha camps, which could hold from a hundred to two thousand people, were generally appalling. The accommodation was extremely crowded and the areas surrounding the camps were usually unsanitary. As an Indian worker S. M. Tharcisius later said of his arrival at his allocated tent at Ni Thea (Nieke) in Thailand in July 1943:

When we entered the tent we saw a rotting dead body of a man whose nationality could not be recognised. The tent was absolutely filthy.

[Summary of examination of S. M. Tharcisius quoted in Kratoska, Thailand–Burma Railway, vol. IV, 20.]

These filthy conditions, when combined with the Rǒmushas' lack of knowledge about sanitation and their poor organisation, produced horrendously high rates of illness and death. As a POW, Robert Hardie recorded in his diary:

We hear of frightful casualties from cholera and other diseases among these people, and of the brutality with which they are treated by the Japanese. People who have been near these camps speak with bated breath of the state of affairs—corpses rotting unburied in the jungle, almost complete lack of sanitation, a frightful stench, overcrowding, swarms of flies.

[Burma–Siam Railway: The Secret Diary of Dr. Hardie, 1942–45, London, Imperial War Museum, 1983, 104.]

Few doctors accompanied the Rǒmusha although as their death rates soared the Japanese recruited a handful of medical personnel from among Allied prisoners of war. These doctors and orderlies, K and L Forces, were distributed among the Rǒmusha camps along the railway to offer what help they could.

A number of base hospitals were also set up for Rǒmusha. The largest of these were the two 'coolie hospitals' at Kanchanaburi. There were also hospitals at Wang Yai, Kinsaiyok, Tamajo, Ni Thea (Nieke) in Thailand, and at Tardien, Apalon, Mezali and Anankwin in Burma. These facilities, however, were understaffed and had little medicine or equipment.

After the railway was completed, the bulk of maintenance work was completed by Rǒmusha. Although their numbers were fewer and the supply situation had improved, the Japanese continued to neglect them. With frequent Allied bombing and heavy workloads, conditions for the Rǒmusha continued to be harsh.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Rǒmusha on the railway, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 12 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/workers/romusha-railway
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