Hellfire Pass - more than 700 Allied POWs died here during WWII

Hellfire Pass - a section of the Death Railway in World War II

As I walked through the cutting, where the rail line had been long ago, I was alone in my thoughts. I pictured the Japanese guards high above on the top of the rocks yelling down at the prisoners to speed up their efforts - even throwing rocks at them not caring where they struck the men below.

Inside Hellfire Pass. Notice how high the rock wall is on the right side.

I envisioned the prisoners working in two-man “hammer and tap” teams - one holding a long drill while the other swung a sledgehammer pounding the metal stake into the rock. When the hole was a meter deep, an explosive was slipped inside. Other teams, called “rock rollers”, cleared the rubble after the explosion. A third team was above the rocks clearing away the earth. I was amazed at how high the rocks were on each side of the cutting (the name given to a path being carved through the rocks). This particular section was called Konyu Cutting; however, it was never called this. It was known by the name the POWs gave it – Hellfire Pass!

It was one of the longest and deepest cuttings along the entire 415 km railway being constructed. It was notorious as one of the worst places of suffering on the Burma – Thailand railway. Konyu was actually two main cuttings. One was 73 meters long and 25 meters high. The other was 450 meters long and 8 meters high. The cuttings were completed manually using very crude tools.

Approaching the end of Hellfire Pass where the memorials are located

As I continued to walk through the cutting, I was amazed at how high the solid rock walls were. I was here during the ‘cool’ time of the year yet I was still sweating under the midday sun. I tried to imagine what it was like working here long hours on a daily basis during the hot season or even when the monsoon rains came.

The British and Australian POWs arrived in April 1943 to begin work on the cutting. Shortly after they started on this section, the Japanese decided to bring forward the December, 1943 deadline, for completing the entire railway, by four months. This resulted in what was called the ‘speedo’ period. Prisoners and Romusha (locals coerced into building the railway) alike were made to work punishing 15 to 18 hour days, as guards would often shout ‘speedo’ at them. At night, work parties continued by the light of bamboo torches and bonfires. The shadows of gaunt, starved men could be seen working in the cutting. This view gave way to the name “Hellfire Pass”.

Gunner Kenneth Harrison, who was in the Australian 4th Anti-Tank Regiment stated, “Men toiled and sweated and were driven mercilessly. Men were flogged and men collapsed. Japanese and Koreans threw themselves into a frenzy of efficiency and terrorism. Men were battered. Limbs were broken. Men died.”

This display, in the Hellfire Pass Museum, describes the ‘Speedo’ period where POWs worked 15 to 18 hour days

The speedo period coincided with an early onset of the monsoon season and a major outbreak of cholera. With little in the way of food and medical supplies, thousands of the exhausted prisoners succumbed to illness. Every day, more and more prisoners came down with cholera. The Australians seemed to be the least impacted. Their strict medical requirements, such as not using their dixies (mess kits) for meals until they had placed them in boiling water, were deemed to be the reason they were less affected by the cholera outbreak. Soon the other prisoners were following many of the Australians’ requirements.

Many of the sick, especially those afflicted with cholera, were forced to work. To be considered for the medical hut and not work, they would have to provide a stool sample before the workday began. If there were 50% blood in it, they would be forced to work. It would have to contain 80% blood for them to stay in the camp. Overall, 700 prisoners, who worked on Hellfire Pass, died of disease and exhaustion while another 70 died from the severe beatings inflicted by the guards. This was just in a several month period of time.

As I continued walking through the pass, I came to the Hellfire Pass Memorial located at the end of the cutting. The memorial is dedicated to the effort put into completing the cuttings at Hellfire Pass and others in the nearby area. Another memorial is for the doctors who many considered the real heroes in the POW camps. Their tireless efforts were considered to be the main reason why so many prisoners survived.

After reading the memorials, I continued hiking along the rail line, for about 2 km, to the Hintok Cutting. The tracks in this area, just like Hellfire Pass, were removed shortly after the war ended. I got the impression that most visitors walk to the Hellfire Pass Memorial and no further because I was completely alone on this 2 km section. It was nice not to be surrounded by other tourists. It was a little eerie to be out there by myself. There was no one else. No people. No animals. Just me – trying to picture what it was like about 70 years ago when there were hundreds of POWs working here in the area where I walked.

Just beyond the Hellfire Pass Memorial, the terrain, where the tracks used to be, is very rough and rocky

The terrain in this section of the Death Railway is pretty uneven. In fact, many sections of the railway, areas that might have been filled in, were gone – almost as if they had washed down the mountain in heavy rains. This section was so uneven the museum staff offered me one of their radios to use in case I had any issues hiking through this section and needed their assistance. I felt that I would be ok and declined their offer. I already had a number of things that I was carrying with me.

As I walked along, I listened to the audio device provided at the museum entrance. Different audio sections pertained to different spots along the walk. It helped me to feel a little closer as I listened to some of the POWs after the war talk about their experiences at Hellfire Pass.

The Hellfire Pass area went untouched for forty years, after the end of the war, until a former Australian POW returned to find the place almost consumed by the surrounding jungle. With the assistance of the Australian Government, the Hellfire Pass Memorial was built and access provided to the site in 1987. With additional funding, a museum on site was opened in 1998 which now receives over 80K visitors annually. The museum and the Hellfire Pass area offer free admission; however, donations are readily accepted.

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