Friday, March 18

Hellfire Pass: Least we forget

Ask most Australians to name the nation’s most notorious wartime locations and you’re likely hear three names again and again; ANZAC Cove, the Kokoda Trail and Hellfire Pass. Garry and I visited ANZAC Cove in May 2007. It was a truly moving experience that brought home the total insanity and harsh reality of war.

Hellfire Pass is remembered for the barbaric cruelty inflicted on Australian prisoners of world during World War II. It was part of a long abandoned stretch of railway built by the Japanese Army between Burma and Thailand in less than 16 months. An astonishing achievement - even more so when you consider that remote and muddy conditions meant that heavy machinery was rarely used. Instead most of the back-breaking construction was done entirely by hand.

The entire 415 kilometre track was built using imported Asian labour and prisoners of war from Australia, the UK and the Netherlands. Their Japanese captors were unbelievably harsh task masters. Almost 39 per cent of those who worked on the railway died.

The Asian labourers suffered the most. An estimated 180,000 died. The death rate among the prisoners of war while lower was still an appalling 20% representing almost 62,000 lives. More than 2,800 Australian prisoners died; largely from disease, malnutrition and the effects of harsh punishments meted out their captors.

Hellfire Pass was one of the most brutal locations along the line. Japanese engineers were not particularly skilled in tunnel building. As a result, a decision was taken to route the line through a deep rock cutting at Kannyu, about 150 kilometres from its southern starting point. Over a period of six weeks 400 Australian prisoners of war worked continuous shifts to hand carve a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep through solid rock. The sight of emaciated prisoners working through night, lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires, was said to resemble a scene from Hell.

Weary Dunlop, one of Australia’s most celebrated war heroes worked here. His compassion and care as a doctor, nursing the sick and dying was considered exceptional. Many times he put his own health at risk, earning himself physical punishment whenever he protested to the Japanese. At other times his sheer physical presence — he was nearly two metres tall — intimidated his captors while inspiring his fellow prisoners. He survived the war and lived until the age of 86. After his death in 1993, a portion of his ashes were subsequently buried at Hellfire Pass.

Today, Hellfire Pass has been preserved as a memorial, funded largely by the Australian Government. An informative museum guides visitor through the railway’s history and the construction of the nearby Kannyu Cutting. The infamous gully is reached via a flight of stairs which lead you onto a peaceful walking trail. The trail trace the original railway’s track curving hand-hewn bench, carved directly into the steep hillside, until you finally reach the cutting itself.

Garry and I visited the sight overnight while we were in Bangkok for a series of business meetings. I can honestly say that more than 70 years on the cutting remains an impressive sight. Garry and I found hard to believe that this impressive gully was cut by hand in less than two months.

Its rough rocky walls slice dramatically through the hillside. Previous visitors have nested commemorative flags, photos and flowers in various nooks and crannies along its walls. Some of the railway’s original wooden sleepers remain embedded in the ground. At the cutting’s northern end, the Australian Government has built a simple black granite memorial. It’s all very moving.

However, the entire scene is best captured from a small viewing platform at the top of the gully. From here the scale of this wartime engineering feat comes into stark focus. Arriving visitors appear insignificant as the walls tower around them. Sadly my photos barely do it justice. What more can I say. Hellfire Pass really is an unforgettable experience.

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