The Burma Railway

A life for every sleeper

Memories of war. The images shown were part of a larger photographic project concerning Love & Loss (The Day After This Night : Love and Loss in the Orient - Further information, including exhibition review and book link, appears under the gallery below)

A life for every sleeper

The ‘Burma Railway’ is a phrase not easily comprehended, let alone explained by those who were not there. It encapsulates human suffering on an unimaginable scale for those who experienced it, and desperate humility in those who care to learn.

Over 90,000 Asians and 13,000 Allied service men died during its construction, and with twice over again that number who survived but were irreparably scarred. The Japanese occupying forces using POWs as slave labour to build a railway from Burma to Thailand.

The Bridge over the River Kwai still stands, and a large tract of the original railway is still used in Thailand. The same clearings. The same iron rails. The same wooden sleepers – all constructed by the hand of these prisoners of war.

The Thai’s call it the ‘Death Railway’.

It is said that there is a life for every sleeper.

 

Stan

A few days before he died, I had the privilege to meet Stan.

In 1942, he was a young boy aged 19. A farmhand in Norfolk, he came from a modest and rural background, and had joined up as soon as he could. The day after he arrived in Singapore, the island fell and he was to spend the next three and half years of his life on the Burma Railway.

For four hours he told me about his life as a POW. This is a brief extract.

Singapore was bombed; it was bombed continuously. The mortar fire and shell-fire; it was hell on earth in Singapore. I’ve never seen so many women and children slaughtered – the Japanese reckon they killed a million civilians. A lot of them were shoved in the sea, tied up with barbed wire. Just taken out and dumped in the sea.

When people – when little children get blown up and their ears, arms, legs and that all hang around… I thought “God, you’ve got to be tough to stand this.”

It’s very difficult. Some boys and officers killed themselves. It’s just evil. I thought, “If you can overcome it, then you’ve got to overcome it, if you possibly can”.

Well, the Burma Railway was different altogether. I thought Singapore was bad enough,but it was heaven compared to when I got on the railway. Everybody will tell you that. That was the most evil. I used to work eighteen, nineteen and sometimes twenty-four hours .I had no clothes in the end, no clothes at all. Just a g-string.

A lot of boys had their heads taken off. The gate that led to our bungalow had a big head – a human head – of one of our boys on it. Facing the people, you see. They did that as a warning to others.

They didn’t say what they’d done, or anything like that; or who it was. Then when I went on to the railway – there were human heads, tied in buns through the ear and the mouth; big buns of human heads.

I saw too many other evil things.

 

The bridge

As we approach the Bridge over the River Kwai, I see a poster advertising ‘Outdoor Unlimited’.

Clearly it is an international endurance-cum-triathlon style event involving running, swimming, cycling, kayaking and the prize is the River Kwai Trophy. In the centre of the poster sits an outline silhouette of the legendary bridge that spans the River Kwai. The bridge that is symbolic of so much pain and suffering in her construction, is also possibly seen as a representing the strength and stoicism of those who built her.

Before we arrive, I have a slight sinking feeling that visiting the bridge may be misguided. A bit like ‘Don’t meet your hero’ – best left imagined. I’m right and I’m wrong.

As we arrive, it becomes apparent this is the River Kwai Trophy competition day itself. 10’s of competitors are coming across the bridge towards me having completed one big leg of the endurance phase. They are from around the world, and they look happy & proud of their achievements; sweating, they stumble down to the check point to be counted in, and then they collapse. Unbearably loud rock music plays, only interrupted by a girls voice over the speaker telling them how amazing and cool they are.

A man sells postcards.

As I cross the bridge, a ‘toy’ train approaches carrying passengers back and forth. It can only be a 300m journey one way. Too far to walk I guess. Their good fortune that they were not POWs.

On the far side, there are less visitors. A chance to view the bridge not surrounded by people.

Bizarrely a feral dog parades up and down next to a faux Guard bamboo tower, which flies the Japanese flag. At the base, full size cut outs of POWs exist, with the face area missing. Here you can poke your face through the hole and have your photo taken (much the same way as you might on a pier have the fat & the thin character in striped edwardian swimsuits).

I then see a woman paying respects at a make shift shrine to a Japanese warrior. My guide tells me that the Thai people respect all spirits, even those of their enemy. There are many Japanese soldier spirits who also died in the region. “They are trapped here and they too long to go home, but can not” he explains, “so we pray for their spirits too.” Such extraordinary compassion.

I hear the competitors on the far side whooping and whistling. The next leg of the River Kwai Trophy is about to begin, and the disembodied girl’s voice is rallying them to the start line. They’re fit & they’re happy. There is also a sense of respect; and when they go home, they will tell people about the Bridge – and that can only be a good thing.

I think Stan would have approved.

 

Hell Fire Pass

Heading nearer to the Thai – Burma border (on the Thai side), we cross through an immigration check point. People walk hundreds of kilometres to cross over the mountain passes, or swim the mighty rivers and then hope to disappear into Thailand. They seek the good life. Others are being blatantly trafficked. We are waived through.

We are now climbing up into the hills and mountains; beautiful and yet menacing, they covered in impenetrable bamboo and jungle. We are heading for Hell Fire Pass – part of the Burma Railway where thousands perished carving a pass through sheer, solid rock face. I’m recording incidental notes onto my iPhone, and I see Emma’s song “I’m Lost’. I tell my guide about the recording – a song written and performed by my daughter. He is kind enough to ask it to be played.

As we weave up the mountains, I am painfully conscious of the Stan and Jimmy of seventy years ago fighting their respective wars in the jungle below; meanwhile quite unexpectently my daughter is now singing and I am in awe at her exquisitely crafted words. Aged only 15. I have been on the go since 4am, and I feel suddenly very emotional about everything. “I am going to have that played at my funeral”, I tell my guide as the song ends. “When?” he enquires. “Well, hopefully not for a while yet” I feel is the appropriate reply.

I look out at the passing jungle. There but for the grace of God.

Hell Fire Pass is extraordinary. We walk down in insufferable heat, and this alone makes you question yourself and wonder for these poor men. A 10 meter wide pass, maybe 25 meters high cut through sheer rock running for over 75 meters. The process involved pick-helms, and dynamite & mallets. It was run 24 hours a day, and the lamps used at night gave out an spooky red light. These red lit skeletal figures, swinging pick helms reminded the men of a scene from hell. Hence the name.

In the centre of the pass, a lone tree has taken root and grown to an enormous height – possibly 70 meters – it reaches into the sky. It is the only one, and I feel pleased that they have let her remain. Somehow she seems to link the present with the past, and vice versa.

We climb back up to where the car sits. Sweat is pouring out of us; it must be nigh on 100% humidity and about 40 degrees. At the top is an elegantly designed, clean white small Museum. It is air conditioned; and we enter quickly wanting to drink in the ice cool air-conditioned air.

A petite, pretty woman, almost completely covered in tattoos, patiently stands listening to the museum introductory exhibition video.

On one of the final exhibits, there is a quote from Dr Kevin Fagin. A doctor who served on the railway as a POW, always trying as best he could to treat the men in impossible circumstances. His final reflection on this time spent as a POW reads “You know, when it comes to the end, the only thing that really matters are the people whom you love and who love you.”

 

Jimmy’s Friends

A little over an hour outside Yangon sits the Taukkyan War cemetery. It is dawn as I arrive. Here lie the bodies of over 6,000 allied soldiers, with a further 27,000 names inscribed on the memorial wall.

Amongst these names are Jimmy’s friends and companions. Jimmy is now ninety three. A Burma Star veteran – a wonderfully kind and modest man, he now lives quietly in Devon. A long life; very fully lived. As a young man, he fought in Burma. So many stories. So many names. So many who didn’t come home.

These are Jimmy’s friends and companions; and I so long to talk to them.

Beyond the cemetery wall, the suburb is busy with workers rushing to catch the morning bus. Inside it is calm and the place is beautifully manicured.

A man silently does his morning exercise in a distant corner.

For those buried here, a regulated square of black slate, perhaps 20′ X 15″ states who, where and what in brief detail. Number, Rank, Name, Regiment, Date of Death, Age and Religion.

Row upon row.

However below these standard identifiers, there also sits a brief chiseled message. A few words, crafted out of both love and desperate grief. They speak of loss and offer a fleeting glimpse of the man. The individual; one who loved and was loved.

To the world, just a soldier; to us, the world. Loving wife, children Iris & Tony

We shall grow old and weary but he, beyond the reach of time, will always be our lad.

If ever you need me as I’m needing you, I shall hear if you whisper my name.

One treasured gift do I retain. Your smiling face in a photo frame – Mother

Amongst the headstones also lie the Unknown. Those recovered bodies whom were beyond identity. Too numerous to count. They too were husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, lovers; and someone grieved for them. However for them, there can be no personal message from home. Rather a simple chiseled inscription:

A soldier of the 1939-1945 war

Known unto God

And finally for those with no body, the Missing. 27,000 names carved upon a memorial wall.

It seems most probable to me that some of the Missing names must belong to the Unknowns buried below. How cruel of chance to deny the body his name, even in death.

So many missing; so many missed.

These are Jimmy’s friends and companions; and I so long to talk to them. To embrace them.

 

The images shown were part of a larger, three year photographic project:

The Day After This Night: Love and Loss in the Orient

Further information:

Exhibition Review – Please Visit>

To view extracts from the book – Please Visit>

All images & text Copyright Michael C Hughes