Hellfire Pass
Hellfire Pass is the name of a railway cutting on the former "Death Railway
Death Railway
The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Thailand–Burma Railway and similar names, was a railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma , built by the Empire of Japan during World War II, to support its forces in the Burma campaign.Forced labour was used in its construction...

" in Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

 which was built with forced labour during the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, in part by Allied
Allies of World War II
The Allies of World War II were the countries that opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War . Former Axis states contributing to the Allied victory are not considered Allied states...

 prisoners of war
Prisoner of war
A prisoner of war or enemy prisoner of war is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict...

. The pass is noted for the harsh conditions and heavy loss of life suffered by its labourers during construction. Hellfire Pass is so called because the sight of emaciated prisoners labouring at night by torchlight
A torch is a fire source, usually a rod-shaped piece of wood with a rag soaked in pitch and/or some other flammable material wrapped around one end. Torches were often supported in sconces by brackets high up on walls, to throw light over corridors in stone structures such as castles or crypts...

 was said to resemble a scene from Hell
In many religious traditions, a hell is a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife. Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as endless. Religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between incarnations...



Hellfire Pass was a particularly difficult section of the line to build due to it being the largest rock cutting on the railway, coupled with its general remoteness and the lack of proper construction tools during building. A tunnel would have been possible to build instead of a cutting, but this could only be constructed at the two ends at any one time, whereas the cutting could be constructed at all points simultaneously despite the excess effort required by the POWs. The Australian, British, Dutch and other allied Prisoners of War were required by the Japanese to work 18 hours a day to complete the cutting. Sixty nine men were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the six weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The main symptoms are profuse watery diarrhea and vomiting. Transmission occurs primarily by drinking or eating water or food that has been contaminated by the diarrhea of an infected person or the feces...

, dysentery
Dysentery is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon, that results in severe diarrhea containing mucus and/or blood in the faeces with fever and abdominal pain. If left untreated, dysentery can be fatal.There are differences between dysentery and normal bloody diarrhoea...

, starvation
Starvation is a severe deficiency in caloric energy, nutrient and vitamin intake. It is the most extreme form of malnutrition. In humans, prolonged starvation can cause permanent organ damage and eventually, death...

, and exhaustion (Wigmore 568). However, the majority of deaths occurred amongst labourers whom the Japanese enticed to come to help build the line with promises of good jobs. These labourers, mostly Malayans (Chinese, Malays and Tamils from Malaya), suffered mostly the same as the POWs at the hands of the Japanese. The Japanese kept no records of these deaths.

The railway was never built to a level of lasting permanence and was frequently bombed by the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 during the Burma Campaign
Burma Campaign
The Burma Campaign in the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II was fought primarily between British Commonwealth, Chinese and United States forces against the forces of the Empire of Japan, Thailand, and the Indian National Army. British Commonwealth land forces were drawn primarily from...

. After the war, all but the present section was closed and the line is now only in service between Bangkok and Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi.

Present day

There are no longer any trains running on this stretch of the line. The nearest railway station is at Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi, where trains of the State Railway of Thailand
State Railway of Thailand
The State Railway of Thailand is the state-owned rail operator in Thailand. The network sees around 50 million passengers per annum.-History:SRT was founded as the Royal State Railways of Siam in 1890...

 can be taken for a trip over the famous Whampo Viaduct and across the bridge over the River Kwai to Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi ) is a town in the west of Thailand and the capital of Kanchanaburi province. In 2006 it had a population of 31,327...

, which is the nearest major town and tourist base. Visitors to the museum usually base themselves in Kanchanaburi. It is possible to roll into one day a trip to the Erawan Waterfall in the morning, followed by a visit to Hellfire Pass and its museum in the afternoon, and then catch the train back to Kanchanaburi to cross the famous bridge around sunset.


There is a museum
A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

 co-sponsored by the Royal Thai Armed Forces Development Command and the Australian government at the site to commemorate the suffering of those involved in the construction of the railway. It was built by the Office of Australian War Graves
Office of Australian War Graves
The Office of Australian War Graves is a branch within the Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs and was formed on January 1, 1975. The OAWG acts as Australian agent for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ....

 and opened by the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard
John Howard
John Winston Howard AC, SSI, was the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, from 11 March 1996 to 3 December 2007. He was the second-longest serving Australian Prime Minister after Sir Robert Menzies....

. As a part of the museum experience, it is possible to walk through the cutting itself and along a section of the former railway track bed. An audio tour including recorded memories of surviving POWs is available at the museum.

Recent developments

In 2006, proposals to create a railway network linking eight south-east Asia countries would see a railway link restored between Thailand and Myanmar. It is not clear if this would follow the original Death Railway
Death Railway
The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Thailand–Burma Railway and similar names, was a railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma , built by the Empire of Japan during World War II, to support its forces in the Burma campaign.Forced labour was used in its construction...

route through Hellfire Pass, since this route was necessarily built quickly and to low standard of curves and gradients.

Further reading

  • The Japanese Thrust — Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Lionel Wigmore, AWM, Canberra, 1957.
  • Authenticated Records from Japanese POW camps along the Thai-Burmese railway 1942–45, second floor, Research library, Thai-Burma Railway Centre, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, 2008.
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