Wednesday, October 17, 2018

75th Anniversary of the opening of the Thai-Burma Death Railway

Death Railway Engine at Yasukuni
Manufactured by Nippon Sharyo
Seventy-five years ago today, 17 October 1943, the Thai-Burma Death Railway opened. The ceremony was timed to coincide with the first day of the Autumn Festival [Shuki Reitaisai  秋季例大祭at the Emperor-focused, war-memorializing Yasukuni Shrine. The train engine, C5631, that ran that first day is now displayed at the entrance of the Yasukuni Shrine's entrance.

What distinguishes the Spring and Autumn Yasukuni rites above all is the presence of an emissary (chokushi) from the Imperial Court. The emissary brings the Emperor's offerings of silk in five colours to add to those which the shrine priests place before the kami at the start of the rites. Whereas the Emperor has not visited Yasukuni since 1978, an Emperor’s representative has attended the principle ceremonies that merge the Emperor with the state.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe celebrated today's Yasukuni fall festival by sending his usual ritual offering. A number of members of his Cabinet also sent offerings to Shrine and some members of his Party visited. No mention was made of the Railway anniversary.

What gave the Death Railroad its gruesome notoriety was not its uniqueness as an engineering achievement, remarkable feat though it was, but the ruthless determination of its architects to have it completed on time, however daunting the task in the inhospitable climate and topography of the region, and regardless of the cost in human life.

In many respects, it was this callous pursuit that was celebrated on this day in 1943. A group of high-ranking Imperial Japanese Army officers and engineers gathered in the tropical heat in Thailand, some 11 miles south of the Three Pagodas Pass, to ceremoniously mark the completion of the Burma-Thailand Railroad construction project. Since June 1942, the Japanese had forced some 200,000 Asian and 61,000 Allied POW laborers to construct two sections of railroad tracks—one originating in Nong Pladuk, Thailand; the other originating in Thanbyuzayat, Burma.

Some 80,000 Asians and approximately 13,000 Allied POWS had died of starvation, beatings, and various tropical diseases from lack of medical care while building hundreds of trestles, placing thousands of railroad ties, and laying over 258-miles of tracks. But now, as the two sections of railroad tracks were about to be joined together at Konkuita, the Japanese had decided that “the final act of labor” in the railway construction project—the installation of the last spike into a wooden sleeper—would be a special celebratory moment, carried out and shared by the senior Japanese officers and engineers, themselves.

By this time, 668 (of the 902 total) American POWs who had been captured on Java—survivors of USS Houston (CA-30) and soldiers of the 131st Field Artillery/2nd Battalion (known as the “Texas Lost Battalion”)—had joined the Allied POW labor force working on the railroad Most of the 220 USS Houston (CA-30) survivors and the 448 Lost Battalion soldiers had worked on the Burma side of the line. On this particular day, none of these Americans was at Konkuita to witness the senior Japanese officials as they pounded in a “final spike” into a railroad tie, and congratulated each other on the railroad’s completion.

Officially, the railway project was finished. But, for the Allied POWS who’d survived its construction, their ordeal was hardly over. Nearly two more brutal years were to pass before Japan would surrender and Allied prisoners of war would be liberated. 

And during those two years, the railroad—built to carry some 3,000 tons of Japanese supplies per day, which included Comfort Women—would become the constant target of allied bombing attacks, and thus, would require constant repair. The rail line would never stay completely “finished,” per se. In the end the so-called “completed” Burma-Thailand Railroad would never achieve the Imperial Japanese Army’s objectives; most of the tracks would be dismantled after the war; and the Japanese-controlled rail line, which once linked Nong Pladuck and Thanbyuzayat and cost approximately 100,000 lives—including the lives of 77 USS Houston (CA-30) survivors and 89 soldiers of the 131st Field Artillery/2nd Battalion—would become known forever as “the death railroad.”

It should be noted that Nippon Sharyo, the company that manufactured Engine C5631, still exists and is active in the U.S. The company was able to maintain production during the war due to POW slave labor: Nagoya POW Camp #2-B, Narumi

The founder of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, Sam Moody (Reprieve from Hell), was a POW who was tortured at the Narumi factory. The company is now owned by JR Central. This company, created by a close friend and adviser of Prime Minister Abe, Yoshiyuki Kasai, heads the main consortium bidding on high-speed rail projects

If you want to know more about the Lost Battalion and the USS Houston (CA-30) see:

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