Kanchanaburi, a town in western Thailand. An hour and a half drive from Bangkok. A place I have called home for 9 years.
Kanchanaburi is probably best known outside Thailand for the Thai Burma railway and the infamous “Bridge on the River Kwai”. The 1957 film and the novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote Planet of the Apes) added to its notoriety, particularly with regard to the Death Railway as it is also known. The river is actually known as the Mae Nam Kwae Yai, Kwai is a lot easier to say.
The 400 plus kilometre railway was constructed by the Imperial Japanese Forces between 1942 and 1943 running from Ban Pong to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, now Myanmar.
The brutal conditions and the incredible loss of life of both POW’s and labourers is well documented.
This is something close to my heart as I work for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and manage the two War Cemeteries here, the largest being in Kanchanaburi and the smaller one at Chungkai. There is a third CWGC cemetery connected to the railway at Thanbyuzayat. Visit cwgc.org for more details.
Obviously, I am interested in the history of the railway and the impact of WWII on the local area. There was a fair bit that occurred here that is little known.
Opposite the main cemetery is the Thai Burma Railway Museum which holds an impressive collection of artefacts. It is an amazing research tool as well for those interested in the people that worked and often lost their lives on the railway. At the rear of the building there is a section of recovered railway track, but something was missing, rolling stock.
In particular a rice truck, known locally as a ‘bogey’. These were ubiquitous as transport for the POWs. Numerous rice trucks were captured in Malaya by the Japanese and used to ship prisoners to Thailand and up and down the railway as it was being constructed. These were the property of the Federated Malay State Railway and they remained in Thailand post-war.
So, in early 2014 I began to look into the feasibility of obtaining a WWII bogey. The curator of the museum, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the railway, knew of some originals located in a siding in Bangkok. The hunt was on! Sadly, after investigation, it was revealed that they had been placed in the sea off Phuket to form an artificial wreath several years earlier.
Back to the drawing board. I then entered into further discussion with the State Railway of Thailand. Did they have something similar? They were incredibly helpful and said they had some postwar variants that were identical to the WWII stock. The couplings were different but easy to replace but it gives a true idea of the original construction and dimensions.
After several visits to rural locations, we finally found several dating from 1947 to 1952. At 38 Celsius, being inside one of these wheeled ovens is very unpleasant.
To be shut in one of these for days is unthinkable. Eventually one was selected. The next issue was to get to Kanchanaburi. As part of an actual train or on a flatbed. Okay, but how do we get it from the station onto display at the museum?
It was now 2015 and enter my good friend Colonel (now General) Sudchai of the Royal Thai Army. It was decided that a tank transporter/low loader would be required, and it would collect the bogey from its storage location rather than come on the railway.
The Ninth Infantry Division, stationed here in Kanchanaburi offered a crane and some engineers to position it at the museum. Great, dates and timings could be confirmed, no rush. Wrong! It transpired that a member of the Thai Royal Family was to visit both the cemetery and the museum, now it was a rush!
I won’t bore you with the logistical details and to say it arrived in the nick of time is an understatement. It went on display on October 15th, only hours before the visit. In the end it all worked out, testament to all the different agencies cooperating to keep a bit of history alive.
Of note, the remains of 2 original bogeys are located at Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre, 80 Km from the town. Some period locomotives are still on display in the area.
I highly recommend both it and the Railway Museum should you find yourself in Kanchanaburi. Visit both if possible before you visit the cemeteries, it will be that more poignant.
With Japanese traditional sea-based supply lines being cut but the US Navy in the battles of the Pacific, The Japanese needed a new supply line. It was decided to build a 257 mile railway that would run from Thailand to southern Burma.
It took a year to complete and over 60,000 Allied PoWs, which included 13,000 Australians and roughly 200,000 civilians, mostly Malayans and Burmese.
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The vast majority of the line was built through and across dense malaria riddled jungle. The line required the construction of more than 600 bridges, 100s of embarkments, viaducts and cuttings.
The brutal work and conditions, the disease and living on a starvation diet, claimed the lives of 100,000 men. It is said that one person died for each sleeper that was laid. It earned the horrific name of ‘Death’s Railway’.
Canada, Americas and Pacific Area
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, c/o Khao Poon Road, Tambon Nong Ya, Kanchanaburi, Thailand www.cwgc.org