“The place earned the title of Hellfire Pass, for it looked, and was, like a living image of hell itself.”
Jack Chalker, Burma Railway: Images of War, London, Mercer Books, 2007, 59
Douglas France Dowsett, a driver with the 22nd Infantry Brigade Australian Army Service Corps Supply (AASC) Section was held along with roughly 15,000 other servicemen of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in the British Army’s Selarang Barracks, Changi. It was a prisoner of war camp holding some 50,000 Allied – predominantly British and Australian – soldiers captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. From 1943 the prison also included Dutch civilians brought over by the Japanese from the islands from what is now Indonesia, then part of the Dutch East Indies. The name Changi has become synonymous in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, and elsewhere with the horrific treatment suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the POW camps.Doug’s army war records are notable in that the pages are bare of much detail, essentially just a few lines recording his status as “missing” and then POW. It’s as if the silence of his service record speaks loudly of the suffering in the prison camps, such a long way from home and long way from the protection of his own unit. What we now know as the history that occurred between the dates recorded on those cards haunts the unknown time in between. The conditions experienced in the Changi camps by Australian soldiers have been memorialised in poetry, books and film by the number. The very name Changi immediately conjures emtions of dread amongst all who know anything of the horrors lived by the wretched souls sent to build the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. In his 1980 book One Man’s War, Stan Arneil quotes from his diaries: “If ever I see home again …I want nothing more … than to forget these awful days—swollen bodies, bloated from beri beri, walking skeletons from dysentery, eyesight becoming universally bad, malaria rampant. Surely this cannot last..?”
The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China. Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It wound not only through gentle plains but also jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway system.
In order to complete the works in record time, more than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian. Over 12 000 Allied prisoners would die during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians.The required POW labour force was systematically transferred from the Changi barracks camps to various labour camps outside Singapore, including the Burma Railway and the Sandakan airfield. ‘D Force’, consisting of over 2220 Australians and some 2800 British, was sent from Singapore to Thailand in mid to late March 1943. ‘F Force’ was 7,000 strong; there were 3,338 British and 3,662 Australians and the first train left Singapore on the 18 April, 1943.
Doug Dowsett was transferred to Changi with ‘H’ Force in May 1943. This group consisted of nearly 3300 men including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes. Arriving at Ban Pong from Singapore in mid-May 1943, ‘H’ Force then had to walk to various work sites along a twenty-kilometre stretch of the railway between Tonchan and Hintok. Given the heat and the fact they were carrying too much equipment, men arrived at their destination in the last stage of exhaustion, staggering and swaying like drunks.
The bulk of the workforce arrived utterly exhausted in mid-May at Shimo Ni Thea, which became the local headquarters. Most of the Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Kappe were then put to work at Shimo (Lower) Songkurai and Kami (Upper) Songkurai. In these remote and primitive camps, the acute supply problems were aggravated by the fact that F Force was under the administration of the Imperial Japanese Army Malay Command rather than the Thailand administration that controlled most other POWs in the region. The arrangements for these forces were inferior and the two administrations competed rather than cooperated in managing the workers under their control. Profoundly malnourished, overworked and ravaged by diseases, including cholera, F Force suffered one of the highest death rates on the railway: some 1060 Australians and 2036 British.What is now known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ is a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep. It was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. The name ‘Hellfire Pass’ came from the appalling working conditions at and around this site, some 150 kilometres from the start of the railway at Nong Pladuk. In mid-1943, when the Japanese introduced impossibly fast work schedules to meet tight deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work long hours into the night. Their work site was lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires. This flickering light, the noise from the drilling of the rock and the shuffling of hundreds of poorly fed prisoners seemed the very image of hell.
“Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.” – Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing 1980
Hellfire Pass was lost to the jungle in the years after the war when the railway was demolished. But it was rediscovered in the 1980s. It is now the site of Anzac Day ceremonies and the location of the Australian government’s Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and a walking trail for visitors.