In Khun Yuam, Mae Hong Song Province in Thailand, there is a museum displaying over 1000 items of Japanese militaria collected by a Police Lt. Col. Cherdchai Chomtavat officer over the years of walking on the course of the Japanese road built to connect northern Thailand to Burma. On it’s opening in the mid 1990’s the then governor of the province remarked that it was a remarkable museum, but that many thousands of local Thais were forced to work on this road, and many thousands died of malnutrition, brutal work and disease.
This small town also has the remains of a disused Japanese military airport. Let’s explore what lies behind this often often forgotten chapter of Thai history.
World War comes to Thailand
World War 2 broke out in Europe in 1939 – however the Chinese had been battling the Japanese since 1937, and by December 1941 the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese brought the United States into this global conflict.
The Japanese invasion is initially resisted.
Some hours before the first bombs dropped in Hawaii, Japanese forces landed in several sites along the Thai coast and crossed at one major land border – all troops coming from French Indo China (the Vichy French government having no choice but to agree to Japanese presence on the fall of France in 1940), and from Japanese occupied China (Hainan).
Initially the Thais resisted in several locations, but their Prime Minister Luang Phibul Songkram “reappeared” from a military inspection and ordered a cease fire (there is debate as to whether he was already aware of the Japanese attack and wanted to put up “a show” before a ceasefire).
Thai forces assist in the Japanese invasion of Burma
In reality Thailand was in no position to successfully resist the power of Imperial Japan in 1941 On December 21, 1941, a mutual offensive-defensive alliance pact between the two countries was signed. The agreement, revised on December 30, gave the Japanese full access to Thai railways, roads, airfields, naval bases, warehouses, communications systems and barracks. Later on, as a result of Japanese pressure, the Thai government declared war on Britain and the United States on January 25 and thus they joined the Japanese effort, declaring war on the United Kingdom and the United States.
The Thais occupy the eastern Shan States
By early January 1942 Japanese and Thai forces were crossing the border to invade Burma, then a British possession. The Japanese were keen to get into Burma to try and cut the India to China supply line which actively gave material support their enemy China, the Thais had been promised by the Japanese the areas in the Shan states around Kengtung (present day Myanmar) which in Bangkok were regarded as lost provinces after eras of war with Burma.
The Thai infrastructure was poor
However the infrastructure – roads and rail – was limited, and the Japanese decided they had to improve the communications between Thailand and their objective – Burma. The Japanese high command authourised the building of two road networks and two railways. Pre -war the Japanese planning was excellent – they had locomotives prepared for the famous Thai Burma railway since the mid 1930’s, and they had already identified a bridge from Dutch Indonesia to form the second “Bridge on the River Kwai” which tourists know well – the first was built of timber.
But their preparations elsewhere were less well organised. Their lightening victories took them by surprise and they needed more invasion routes to Burma than had been planned for.
The northern road
When the combat troops had left for the invasion of Burma, garrison and engineer troops remained and they recruited local labour – Thai and tribal people to work on the construction of the their road, with the intention to link Chiang Mai with it’s railway connection with Toungoo in Burma, which was on the Burmese road and rail network heading north towards the Chinese border.
State Highways 1095 and 108
The present Thai State Highways 1095 and the 108 generally follow course of the Japanese road. It took 50 years before the Thai government to upgrade it from the Japanese original.
In some places you can see the old road beside the new – about 10 kms south of Pai – you can see a bridge which is supposed to have been installed by the Japanese (there is a plate on it “United States Steel Products Company. U.S.A. 1930), ( but actually it is a post war construction, a conbination of various bridge types and origin. However the river crossing was an important part of Japanese logistics plans, and those of the Thai Army who invaded the Shan States which they regarded as part of their heritage. In Thai language the Shan are called Tai Yai, meaning Big (or original) Tai – those who originally migrated from Yunnan before settling in present day Thailand). The district office of Pai was originally built by the Japanese as an administration office. Normally the Japanese would take over the best hotels and buildings, but in 1942 Pai was such a backwater they had to build their own.
Difficult terrain and disease
The road was built through difficult terrain, and one of the greatest of problems was disease, particularly malaria.
So they were fortunate to discover at the now small village of Pha Bong , near Mae Hong Son which has several natural hot springs. Naturally an offices club was set up here.
South of here is Khun Yuam (mentioned previously) which was an important location for the Japanese, as the road turned due west here to cross the Burmese border.
By 1943 the road still under construction ( it was never finished as intended) led to quarrels between the Japanese and the Thai government, the former demanding of the latter some 20 million baht for assistance to construct the road. This was never agreed.
Initially the Japanese paid good salaries to workers, but as the war progressed and the military engineers forced construction faster, the workers conditions deteriorated -many fled, and some of the local and tribal people were enslaved and worked to death.
A road for retreat
Thought vital to the Japanese war effort, the road eventually served as an escape route for some of the retreating Japanese troops after they were pushed back by allied forces advancing from India after the Japanese defeats at Imphal and Kohima. The battles of Meiktila and Pwabywe The Japanese supply line in Burma was completely broken, the leadership of the army had become divided, inept and uncaring, and the retreating soldiers and civilians (the Japanese has a large number of civilians in Burma to run seized banks and businesses).
By the time they reached this road to struggle through Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai they were in a very pathetic condition. They traded what they had for food, or even begged from local Thais. Their route is now marked by memorials in numerous temples erected by both survivors and relatives, such as in Mae Hong Son’s Wat Phra Nong..
There are other more macabre things to commemorate this time.
In the little village of Ban Sala Mae Noi, which lies between Pai and Wiang Heng, workers digging foundations found a mass grave of Japanese soldiers, thought to have been killed by Karen people The Karen and Karenni people, armed by the allies, killed 12,000 to 13,000 Japanese in their trek through Burma and northern Thailand. Many were taking revenge for being forced to work with little food, no medicine and no rest, in building the supply road, acting as porters and generally slave workers.
The remains of a field hospital
Between Chiang Mai and Lamphun there is a monument at the rear of the Ban Kat Technical school. Bones discovered in the school’s well were confirmed as those of Japanese, and the memorial was built in 1995 – still visited by Japanese visitors even today. Some 18,000 died here. The Japanese military were generally unsympathetic to wounded or the ill, possibly giving them a grenade to kill themselves, usually in groups.
Memories have faded
Shortly after the end of WW2 the war time administration of Thailand was reinstated with the help of the Americans who appreciated their anti-communist credentials. The grim history of the road was buried under post war Thai-Japanese co-operation and the generous gifts of the Japanese with scholarships to children or donation to temples in various areas of Thailand where their army had formerly operated.
Many remember the 1957 movie about the “Bridge on the River Kwai” as their understanding of war in Thailand. In Japan they remember the 1956 film “The Burmese Harp”, which describes the retreat from Burma. Both are fictitious and full of historical inaccuracies, but the “Burmese Harp” put the realities of the retreat into a softer light – it certainly attracted Japanese tourists to Thailand.
The Skeleton Road
However, Japanese survivors remember better – they gave the road it’s present moniker “The Skeleton Road”.
Not all of the road is able to be visited, but State Highways 108 and 1095 go through some of the most magnificent scenery in Thailand which is well worth a visit.