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Hiking Thailand’s death railway route

Two adventurers plan to retrace the infamous POW-built railway across SE Asia, but finding the tracks is getting harder
Hiking Thailand’s death railway route

When most of us think of Thailand our minds are filled with images of blue ocean, pad thai stalls, elephant rides and, for the more adventurous, jungle treks. But for one group of men when they think of Thailand their minds are filled with horrific memories that have affected the rest of their lives: torture, starvation, sickness, forced labour and murder. These are the Japanese prisoners of war from World War II. Between 1942-1943 along a 415km stretch, 61,000 men of Australian, British, Dutch and American origin were forced to build a railway. The purpose of the railway was to provide supplies and lines of communication for the Japanese troops fighting in Burma.

In 1942 the Japanese military ordered that a railway be ready for use in less than eighteen months. The Japanese had 61000 men who they could work to death, if need be. The jungle was relentless: mountains over 5000 feet high, twisting riverbeds, tigers, pythons, cobras, scorpions, monsoon rains, malaria and cholera. To make things worse, the Japanese provided no heavy construction equipment – the railroad was built by hand.
Now Rachel and Luke Nowell, two siblings from Australia, are preparing to retrace the steps of these prisoners of war on the Burma-Thailand Railway in an effort to learn more about their experiences. They will follow as closely as possible the 300km route the F Force were forced to march. The expedition has been inspired by a documentary Luke made in 2006 about an Australian, Stan Carlyon. Stan was a member of the F Force and worked on the building of the Death Railway.
A tribute to F Force

“I composed and performed the music for the documentary,” Rachel tells WideWorld, “So both Luke and I feel a strong connection to Stan’s story. Sadly, he passed away last year, so this walk seemed like something we could do to honour his memory and the many others like him.” Journeying with Stan has allowed Rachel and Luke to gain an understanding of how deeply affected prisoners of war remain, over half a century after their ordeal has ended. When a human being is physically tortured, they remain mentally tortured for the rest of their lives.

The F Force was just one POW working party, made up of 7000 Australian and British men. In 1943 the F Force men who had been based in Changi Prison since the Fall of Singapore, were promised a new home where food, rest and medical attention would be plentiful. They were sent from Changi prison in April 1943 via railway in rice trucks to Ban Pong in Thailand. Twenty-eight men were crammed into each of the small trucks; with little ventilation or food, it was an unbearable 5-day journey. Once they arrived in Ban Pong they realised that they were being forced to march 300km through the jungle to POW camps near the Thai-Burma border to start building what would be come to be known as the Death Railway. They walked at night and received barely any water, food or shelter along the way. They travelled in stages – covering large distances of up to 40km at a time, the walk took them two and a half weeks. Many died of exhaustion or starvation during the walk. Those who made it to the POW camps found themselves in the centre of a cholera belt. The Australians, tragically, lost 1060 men in the POW camps to tropical diseases.

The first section of track

Rachel and Luke leave on 25th April 2011. They will walk from Ban Pong to Songkurai over a period of 4 weeks. Songkurai was one of the remotest parts of the railway and the F Force was placed in 3 major POW camps here. “A lot of our route is unknown, as more than half of the original railway is now gone,” Luke says. “We’re planning to stick to the original route as closely as possible and visit historical and cultural landmarks along the way.”

The original railway still runs from Nong Pladuk to Nam Tok; Rachel and Luke plan to follow this for the first 100km or so. The rest of the railway no longer exists and the jungle has reclaimed much of anything that did remain so the route Rachel and Luke will take is essentially ‘unknown’; there is agricultural land, roads and for about 40km there is a dam that was built in the 1980s. The start of the walk will see them walking through low-lying plains whilst the later part of the walk will be more mountainous with jungle and they will also follow the shoreline of the dam.

“Unimaginable horror”

“We realise we will never be able to relive the unimaginable horror endured by the POWs,” Rachel says. “However, we believe there is something to be learned from the horrific events that took place and hope to communicate this to others.” Rachel and Luke will face intense temperatures of up to 40C, high humidity and monsoon rains. This walk will test their patience, endurance and perseverance. It will also test their relationship as brother and sister. They hope that this expedition will allow them to understand – even just a little – the atrocities POWs faced. Luke will film and photograph the journey, while Rachel plans to write a book.

On a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, Luke and Rachel were able to see artefacts from the Death Railway in the WWII displays. Amongst the artefacts were a piece of the railway; items made by the POWs such as a comb, an artificial leg and a pair of spectacles; a diary; and sketches by POWs. Seeing first hand the pieces of the story they are to follow was a humbling experience, says Luke.

An example of true sacrifice

“We’re hoping our expedition raises awareness of the experiences of POWs and their significant place in Australian and British history,” Luke says. “Our countries wouldn’t be what they are today without the sacrifices of life and health these brave soldiers made.”