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This article is about the railway constructed by Japan during World War II. For articles relating to the railways of the country Burmamarker, see Railways of Burma.

The Bridge over the River Kwai
The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Thailand-Burma Railway and similar names, is a 415 km (258 mile) railway between Bangkokmarker, Thailandmarker and Rangoonmarker, Burmamarker (now Myanmar), built by the Empire of Japanmarker during World War II, to support its forces in the Burma campaign.

Forced labour was used in its construction. About 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project. The dead POWs included 6,318 Britishmarker personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutchmarker, about 356 Americansmarker and a smaller number of Canadiansmarker.


Map of the Burma Railway
A railway route between Thailand and Burma had been surveyed at the beginning of the 20th century, by the Britishmarker government of Burma, but the proposed course of the line — through hilly jungle terrain divided by many rivers — was considered too difficult to complete.

In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand and seized it from British control. To maintain their forces in Burma, the Japanese had to bring supplies and troops to Burma by sea, through the Strait of Malaccamarker and the Andaman Seamarker. This route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and a different means of transport was needed. The obvious alternative was a railway. The Japanese started the project in June 1942.

They intended to connect Ban Pongmarker with Thanbyuzayatmarker, through the Three Pagodas Passmarker. Construction started at the Thai end on 22 June 1942 and in Burma at roughly the same time. Most of the construction materials for the line, including tracks and sleepers, were brought from dismantled branches of the Federated Malay States Railway network and from the Netherlands East Indiesmarker.

On 17 October 1943, the two sections of the line met about 18 km (11 miles) south of the Three Pagodas Pass at Konkuita (Kaeng Khoi Tha), Sangkhla Buri districtmarker, Kanchanaburi Provincemarker). Most of the POWs were then transferred to Japan. Those left to maintain the line still suffered from the appalling living conditions as well as Allied air raids.

The most famous portion of the railway is probably Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River (Thai แควใหญ่, English "big tributary"). (The river was originallyknown as the Mae Klong and was renamed Khwae Yai in 1960.) It was immortalized by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it: The Bridge on the River Kwaimarker. However, there are many who say that the movie is utterly unrealistic and does not show what the conditions and treatment of prisoners was really like. The first wooden bridge over the Khwae Noi (Thai แควน้อย, English "small tributary") was finished in February 1943, followed by a concrete and steel bridge in June 1943. The Allies made several attempts to destroy the bridges, but succeeded only indamaging them in their first attempts. On 2 April 1945, AZON bomber crews from the U.S. 458th Heavy Bombardment Group destroyed Bridge 277. After the war, two squarish central sections were made in Japan to repair the bridge, and were donated to Thailand.


After the war the railway was in too poor a state to be used for the civil Thai railway system, and needed heavy reconstruction. On 24 June 1949, the first part from Kanchanaburimarker to Nong Pladuk (Thai หนองปลาดุก) was finished; on 1 April 1952, the next section up toWang Pho (Wangpo); and finally on 1 July 1958, up to Nam Tokmarker (Thai น้ำตก, English "waterfalls".) The portion of the railway stillin use measures about 130 km. (80 miles) Beyond Nam Tokmarker, the line has been abandoned. Steel rails have been removed for reuse in expanding the Bangsuemarker railway yard, reinforcing the BKK-Banphachi double track, rehabilitating the track from Thung Songmarker to Trangmarker, and constructing both the Nong Pladuk-Suphanburimarker and Ban Thung Pho-Khirirat Nikhom branch lines. Parts of it have been converted into a walking trail.

Since the 1990s there have been plans to rebuild the complete railway, but these plans have not yet come to fruition.

Workers On The Bridge

Train on the Death Railway

Conditions during construction

The living and working conditions on the railway were horrific. The estimated total number of civilian labourers and POWs who died during construction is about 160,000. About 25% of the POW workers died because of overwork, malnutrition, and diseases like cholera, malaria, and dysentery. The death rate of the Asian civilian workers was even higher; the number who died is over 150,000 people.

The living conditions of POWs were recorded at great risk to their own lives by a number of artists. Miraculously many of these drawings have survived. Works by Jack Bridger Chalker, Philip Meninsky and Ronald Searle are held by the Imperial War Museum in London, England and works by Ashley George Old are held by the State Library of Victoriamarker in Australia. Many of the images can be viewed on-line.

POWs and Asian workers were also used to build the Kra Isthmus Railway from Chumphon to Kra Buri, and the Sumatra or Palembang Railway from Pakanbaroe to Moeara.

The construction of the Burma Railway is only one of many major war crimes committed by Japan in Asia. Hiroshi Abe, the first lieutenant who supervised construction of the railway at Sonkrai where over 3,000 POWs died, was later sentenced to death as a B/C class war criminal. His sentence was later commuted to 15 years in prison.

Cemeteries and memorials

The graves of the people who died a brutal death were transferred from camp burial grounds and solitary sites along the railway to three war cemeteries after the war, except for Americans, who were repatriated.

The main POW cemeterymarker is in the city of Kanchanaburi, where 6,982 POWs are buried, mostly British, Australian, Dutch and Canadians. A smaller cemetery a bit farther outside city is Chung Kai with 1,750 graves. At Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar there are 3,617 burials of POWs {3,149 Commonwealth and 621 Dutch} who died on the northern part of the line, to Nieke. The three cemeteries are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

902 US POWs from the 131st Field Artillery Regiment and survivors of the USS Houston -668 were sent to work on the Railway, of whom 133 died.

There are several museums dedicated to those who lost their lives constructing the railway, the largest of which is at Hellfire Pass (north of the current terminus at Nam Tokmarker), a cutting where the greatest number of lives were lost. There is also an Australian memorial at Hellfire Pass. Two other museums are in Kanchanaburimarker, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum (opened in March 2003), and the JEATH War Museummarker. At the Khwae bridge there is a memorial plaque and a historic locomotive is on display.

A preserved section of line is at the National Memorial Arboretummarker in Englandmarker.

Prominent people who helped build the line

Some Significant Bridges along the line

  • 346.40 meter iron bridge across Kwae Yai river at Tha Makham km. 56 + 255.1
  • 90-meter Wooden Trestle across Songkalia River km. 294 + 418
  • 56-meter Wooden Trestle across Mekaza river km. 319 + 798
  • 75-meter Wooden Trestle across Zamithi river km. 329 + 678
  • 50-meter Concrete Bridge across Apalong River km. 333 + 258.20
  • 60-meter Wooden Trestle across Anakui river km. 369 + 839.5


  1. Wigmore, p. 588)
  2. David Pye, The Price of Freedon

Book references

Ian denys peek, one fourteenth part of an elephant

See also

External links

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