By 1944 the tide of the war in Burma was turning. Non combatant units, including headquarters staff, Japanese civilians and members of the Burmese puppet government began an exodus of lower Burma and Rangoon in late April 1945. It was organised panic. The majority of the armed Burmese turned against their former allies and hundreds of Japanese were killed on their flight south to Thailand. Prior to this the Japanese High Command in Rangoon had ordered the construction of a road, the Mergui Road – from Pratchaub Khiri Khan through Tenasserim to Mergui ( Myeik) on the south Burma coast to aid their escape. Allied prisoners were used, but the majority were Asian labour – the Romusha. Few of those survived.
Japanese plan to escape
The Japanese had suffered severe reverses in their 1944 attacks on India – the retrained and re-motivated 14th Army pushed them back relentlessly with, to the Japanese, surprising vigor and tactics. Not all Japanese wished a “Samurai’s death” – the command in Rangoon left the city well before they ordered those fighting at front to hold to the last man. Infrastructure, particularly railway lines, especially the bridges, were being constantly bombed by the allies and so they looked at a new road route to take the surviving troops out of Burma.
The secret road
By early 1945 the construction of the Mergui Road, to connect Prachup Kiri Khan and Mergui ( present day Myeik in Burma) was begun from both ends of the proposed road. The initial stages were over relatively flat land, but there is a mountain range which runs alongside the Thai-Burma border. Some Thai contract workers were paid high wages to work but often abandoned it due to the the excessively hard work, beatings and executions.
The Japanese need more men
In early April 1945 the Japanese looked to the allied POWs as a labour force and many were taken from the hospital camp in Nakon Pathom – they were told the Japanese needed 1000 for “light work” in Malaya. Some POW’s volunteered to get out of the camp, surrounded as they were by dead and dying servicemen – eventually Japanese threats completed the required allocation, and several trains left for the route south.
Allied bombing of the line meant that trains could not make the entire journey, prisoners were marched between 40 kms and 70 kms depending on where they had to get off, to the base camp some 5 miles from Prachup Khiri Khan, near where the border crossing with Myanmar stands today.
The prisoners, British, Australians and Dutch, eventually called it “Death Valley” – it became their main hospital camp. When they arrived they occupied an abandoned and filthy Romusha camp. There was no time to clean it – the next day they were marched to the start of their “light work” – 40 miles of cutting and digging through virgin mountain forest.
The work was hard – from dawn to 10.00 p.m. on most days with the trail lit by flares at night – not only for illumination, but to keep bears and tigers away. Rocks were dynamited, trees felled, and the dead buried in shallow graves by exhausted survivors, often on top of each other. Starvation, exhaustion and lack of medicine, some of the Japanese were especially severe with beatings as they knew that the Japanese propaganda of the past ten years and the stunning victories of 1941 were long over – their army was in retreat.
The Japanese were generally indifferent to the suffering of those working for the Emperor, supplies became infrequent as work progressed to the mountainous interior and prisoners received little food – the sick and dying non at all.Towards the end of construction rations did improve as supplies could get through.
The senior allied officer on the road was Major D. B. Dewe of the Indian Medical Service, who had to do medical and administrative duties. The other field officers had been separated from the men at Nakhon Pathom – many had been sent to Nakhon Nayok camp.
When the road was pushed through in July the senior Japanese general paraded on a horse in front of the surviving prisoners standing at the side of the road.
Events moved too quickly for the Japanese – the atomic bombs ended the conflict suddenly, and few Japanese had the chance to use the road as an escape route. The road had cost untold lives. The deaths of the Thais and Romusha were never recorded. Major Dewe had made sure all of the survivors were accounted for and brought out of the jungle, but when the initial British forces arrived on 30th August, after the Japanese surrender, they found 250 dead and 250 dying.
The dead were collected by allied officers and 200 Japanese prisoners and taken to Kanchanaburi Cemetery, and many of the survivors sent to Rangoon for recovery and eventual repatriation. Few accounts were written of the history of this episode of the war, but one was included in a novel written by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Donald Smith, who worked on the Death Railway railway and the Mergui road, where he eventually lost most of his sight due to insufficient diet. The title is taken from Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress”
“Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side. Donald Smith’s account was about forgiveness, not exhibited by the Japanese captors and their allies to the prisoners and the romusha.
LEST WE FORGET
View Mergui Road
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A trip to Prachup Khiri Khan is easy from Bangkok, by road or train, and the Sing Khon border crossing is also now an official visa renewal point (as of 7th May 2013), so those wanting to travel south can easily discover where these terrible events occurred. There are no memorials save for the graves in Kanchanaburi.
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