The forgotten Mergui Road – the Japanese escape route of 1945

Sing Khon border crossing

Sing Khon border crossing

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 Japanese High Command in Saigon had a plan to have a  military stand against the allies possible  onslaught into Thailand  from Burma at Nakhon Nayok in Isaan, Thailand where they already had a large military establishment ( today there is a  Japanese memorial at a temple), and from late 1944 they started to transfer more prisoners of war to a camp established there, especially high ranking officers. Possibly they could act as a human shield if the attack happened – all camps were surrounded by ditches   (you can see the remains of one at Chungkai cemetery in Kanchanaburi )- the ditches were not merely defensive  – they were for the mass execution of prisoners should the occasion arise – or part of  negotiated peace. The Japanese were aware that the Burmese and Thai allies were turning against them. They needed a fortress. Nakhon Nayok was the place.

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.

Other Asian Romusha were brought up and  forced to work, but they started to die in large numbers due to disorganised and unsanitary conditions , and when cholera broke out many were  taken away and then “disappeared”. Now even the Japanese troops took part in the work, including officers.

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.

Nakhon Pathom, famous for it's stupa - in 1944 it became  the site of a huge hospital camp following the completion of the "Death" railwayi

Nakhon Pathom, famous for it’s stupa – in 1944 it became the site of a huge hospital camp following the completion of the “Death” railwayi

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.

Death Valley

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.

Sing Khon valley

Sing Khon valley

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.

Japanese troops at Bangkok station 1945

Japanese troops at Bangkok station 1945


Japanese indifferent 

 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. 

Virgin Jungle

Virgin Jungle

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.

The track is still used.j

The track is still used.j

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.

Near Tenasserim in Burma the Japanese had to cross the wide river by boat. Today a post war bailey bridge spans it.

Near Tenasserim in Burma the Japanese had to cross the wide river by boat. Today a post war bailey bridge spans it.

Japanese surprised 

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.

Don Rak cemetery Kanchanaburi

Don Rak cemetery Kanchanaburi

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

Please use your mouse to zoom in and out on the map to see locations.

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.

For information on these and other locations in South East Asia please contact








Posted on by TOBY in Asia, Burma, Inspirational, Remembrance Tour, Specials, Thailand, Tours 1 Comment

One Response to The forgotten Mergui Road – the Japanese escape route of 1945

  1. Ffelix Bakker

    The title of this srticle is right. It is a forgotten story of those Allied pows who had
    suffered and died in this dense jungle.
    I was there too with a group of 125 Dutch pow,
    coming from Chungkai,April1945.
    Coming Octover,15 rill 28 octover, I willvisit
    the Thai-Burma railroad ,as I think,for the last time,bevausr of my age(99)vow. regards. Felix


Add a Comment