Hellfire Pass changes - up close and personal

Earlier this year there was plenty of attention given to the redevelopment of ANZAC Cove at Gallipoli. A road-widening effort being carried out to accommodate the large number of visitors had the apparent effect of making the sight nearly unrecognizable, and certainly very different to how it was on the cold morning of April 25, 1915.

Flashing forward a few months, and all the attention is on the Hellfire Pass site in Thailand, where the POW-built Thai-Burma railway passed through. Again there's plenty of controversy over renovations at the sight, with the suggestion being made that the ashes of Edward "Weary" Dunlop are being disturbed with the movement of a short stretch of railway tracks, which was part of the actual railway constructed in 1942 (from The Age):

The son of Australian war hero Edward "Weary" Dunlop yesterday criticised the "desecration" of his father's ashes at Hellfire Pass in Thailand.

Alexander Boyd Dunlop, the elder of Dunlop's two sons, said the family was upset that it had not been consulted before the ashes were disturbed on the Burma railway site where his father famously saved other POWs.

"The work shouldn't have been started without any consultation with relatives," Mr Dunlop, 56, said from the family's cattle property at Smiths Gully, near St Andrews, north-east of Melbourne.

The original rails and sleepers that covered his father's ashes at the Hellfire Pass site have been removed and replaced with a granite and sandstone memorial.

I've become quite personally engaged in this particular bit of WW2 history since I visited the Hellfire Pass site in December last year.

Firstly, a bit of background. During the Second World War Japan had control of both Thailand and Burma, and used Allied PoWs, as well as unwilling local Thais, Malays and Burmese, to construct a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon. The initial estimations said it would take 5 years to construct the 415km railway, but with slave labour and torturous techniques, the railway was completed in just 16 months. Thousands of soldiers died in the process, mostly through malnutrition, disease and construction accidents.

One of the most dangerous and forboding stretches of railway was the part that stretched through a large rocky area, which has since become known as Hellfire Pass. The rock is tremendously long and tall, and given that the path had to be carved away using only manual tools, it is an awe-inspiring effort. The labour involved was backbreaking, and the finished product sees the railway wind smoothly through the pass, with two tall, intimidating walls of rock on either side. The name 'Hellfire Pass' arose due to the strange light the PoWs would see at night as the moon, the stars and their campfire was reflected in the rock.

Nowadays, the site is a memorial to those who worked and died in the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. A stylish meseum on the site documents the tremendous strain that the PoWs were under and the ruthlessness of the Japanese soldiers.

Next door, at the Pass itself, a small stretch of railway sleepers still sits in its original location. To get there requires visitors to walk down several long flights of stairs, a journey which itself reminds visitors of just how tall and large the rock was that was carved away to make Hellfire Pass. Whilst the site itself is unremarkable, seeing it as it was more than 60 years ago when it was first built is an effective, simple reminder of what an amazing achievement it was. Though it is not clear at the site, this was also where "Weary" Dunlop had some of his ashes scattered in 1994.

It seems a great shame to disturb the site, given that the simple elegance that previously existed. Regardless of the disrespected to Sir Edward, there is no need to install a granite stone monument. Other sites nearby - the War Cemetary in Kanchanaburi, the bridge over the River Kwai, the PoW museum - all have appropriate memorials, and there is little need for another one, especially when it disturbs the resting state of the site. Leave the place alone.


Freeworldnik said…
It's a hard argument. I can definitely see the emotive side as my great grandfather was a POW of the Japanese, captured with the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion.

I guess it's a double-edged sword though, same with Gallipoli. The need to increase access and preserve elements of the site can outweigh the potentia damage (although I remain to be convinced about Gallipoli).

At Birkenau (the death-camp part of Auschwitz) for example, they had to rebuild many of the barracks because local Poles had taken the wood away straight after the war for fires, leaving only the brick chimneys.

I guess though, if the site itself isn't decaying and people can get there to appreciate it, you've gotta draw a line about disturbing the atmoshere and environment of the place.
Anonymous said…
I have to be honest about all this.The rail was NOT original the sleepers maybe..but could have come from the 1946/48 reconstruction of portions of the line.Weary was never a pow in Konyu and his ashes were trodden on by tourists and washed away within days from deluges.Ask Rod Beatty.
Hellfire should be allowed to go back to jungle pre 1985.
So many people and associations have ther own one sided plans for the site that I think the POW,s are sometimes forgotten.
Some still alive say they were there when they were not..So many agenda,s from some...and I am NOT referring to Weary.
Ask the Australian Thai Chamber where is the $100,000 raised and promised from all over the world for Hellfire.Approx $10,000 arrived.
So dont get to precious about rail,sleepers and POW ashes.
I wont give my name as I dont want to be harrassed.
One last thing what gives the right to anyone to put plaques up in Hellfire in honour of the POW,s who died or survived with 3rd party names as the proud donor of the plaque.
In one instance one person has 3 plaques in place let alone 2 time capsules.
In 1995 there were less than 10 real surviving pows from the area and about x more who were living the dream.

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