The Railway Man - The Thai-Burma Railway

A just released prisoner of war

In the film, they just couldn't get anyone to look this emaciated.  But this is what happened to POWs in Japanese prison campls
In the film, they just couldn't get anyone to look this emaciated. But this is what happened to POWs in Japanese prison campls

The Burma - Siam Railway 1942 - 1945

The Railway Man is one of the most moving films I have ever seen. What makes it even more poignant is that it is based on a true story. It deals with one of World War Two’s most horrendous episodes: the Burma – Siam Railway project in those years between 1942 and 1945. When I came out of that movie I could not help thinking, “I wonder if the authorities in Japan would be willing to let their people know of just what went on there?” For it has to be one of the most despicably shameful episodes ever inflicted by one race on others during the 20th Century.

Looks like Australian 'Diggers' marching up the line

This would have been early, before starvation began to cut in on the soldiers' health
This would have been early, before starvation began to cut in on the soldiers' health

The 'Coward's Hit' of an undeclared opening of warfare

When the Japanese cowardly – cowardly in my and most Western people eyes I suspect – bombed Pearl Habour and invaded all over Southeast Asia without declaring war first, they took, among other cities, Singapore. The British surrendered. Their general staff possibly thought that they’d be treated as prisoners of war as was happening in Europe. They did not take into account the Japanese culture and Japanese views towards their defeated enemies. They turned the prisoners into slaves.

Over 100,000 died attempting to build the Thai-Burma Railway

But they went further than turning the soldiers who had surrendered to them into slaves. They also imposed that same slavery on some 180,000 native people in and around Malaya, Thailand and Burma. All told, the Japanese put around 240,000 people, forcing them to work laboring on the almost impossible task of building a railway line which would take them from Bangkok, Thailand into Rangoon in Burma, some 258 miles away. In their attempt to build this line around 90,000 Asians and 12,399 allied prisoners of war died. They died of malnutrition, jungle fevers and illness, beatings and torture. Most were simply starved, and overworked to the point where they died, no reserves of energy left.

Burma-Siam Railway - A drawing of Australian Soldiers at Hellfire Pass area

22,000 Australian troops, both men and women were captured by the Japanese, more than a third died in captivity.  This represented nearly 20% of all Australians killed in World War Two.
22,000 Australian troops, both men and women were captured by the Japanese, more than a third died in captivity. This represented nearly 20% of all Australians killed in World War Two.

Russell Braddon and The Naked Island

Back in 1953, Russell Braddon, an Australian prisoner who spent four years in Changi Prison in Singapore, wrote a book called, The Naked Island. I read it in the early 1950s. In those days there was, in Australia, extreme bitterness even outright hatred, to the way the Japanese had treated their prisoners. I recall as late as 1960 ex world War Two veterans speaking of their utter contempt and hatred of “Those little yellow bastards.” There was, for example, in this country so much resentment that even Japanese appliances and cars could not sell here for a long time. Certainly my own views of the Japanese, probably colored by American War movies I’d seen both as a child in England and here in Australia re-enforced this view. They were indeed a very ‘sick’ race, as far as I was concerned.

Japanese Soldiers - POW Guards?

Russell Braddon's change of heart

Then, sometime in the 1960s, I read Russell Braddon’s second book on the subject: End of Hate, which came out in 1958. Braddon had come to the conclusion after some years of soul-searching that hate does as much to the victims of atrocities as those who actually perpetrated those cruel acts. He went to Japan. He mixed with people who had been his tormentors. He made peace not only with them but with himself.

More POWs newly rescued from Japanese

Around 40% of the 240,000 'slaves' working for the Japanese died over less than a four year period.
Around 40% of the 240,000 'slaves' working for the Japanese died over less than a four year period.

There was much sadism and cruelty for cruetly's sake

In the film, The Railway Man, what happened to the hero (Actor, Colin Firth) was even more horrendous than what Russell Braddon went through. He was singled out for torture and was subjected to it repeatedly. Like so many, at war’s end, he suffered badly. In those days just about every serviceman who had seen action where people were killed or maimed; where action was brutal and unrelenting, were left with scars in their minds. Such experiences and the witnessing of so much senseless slaughter and brutality, is not to be shrugged off. It goes deep into the psyche, lodges there and continues to do its devastating work. So many returning serviciemen tried to drown out or suppress what is held within with drink or drugs but, in the long run, none of this worked. Post dramatic stress disorder was term which had not yet arrived. Veterans had to ‘tough it out.’

The Thai-Burma Raillway - One of the numerous bridges built by the prisoners

It was not easy to forgive these people

I recall, when I was fifteen years of age and very new to Australia (I spent the first fifteen years of my life in England) asking a fellow worker who was then twenty-eight some question about the war. He’d been a soldier fighting the Japanese in New Guinea. Well! He almost went out of his head. The rage! Fortunately he was able to quell it, but I felt very frightened the way he suddenly blown up. Others I met later would not talk about their time in action. Some few did. But that was much later when I lived in New Zealand. But for those who had been taken prisoner by the Japanese I heard not one good word. The Japs were devils.

Hell Fire Pass - Hewn out by pick and shovel

Many died as the prisoners were driven to dig through this solid rock to make a railway pass.
Many died as the prisoners were driven to dig through this solid rock to make a railway pass.

The Japanese Leaders in Tokyo lied to their soldiers

In The Railway Man the Japanese Officer who was the main protagonist, towards the end of the picture, states that the Japanese leaders had lied to the soldiers in the field about the progress of the war. I believe they did far worse than that. When the war was all but over, and these leaders knew they would be defeated, they ordered the commandants at their prisoner of war camps to kill the prisoners in their charge. This was done not so much by bullets but by ‘Death Marches.’ They were marched without food or water until they dropped with fatigue and were either left to die or bayoneted on the ground. At Ambon Island 808 Australians and 239 Dutch soldiers were captured by the Japanese. At war’s end came liberation: only 139 were still alive, and several of these died shortly thereafter.

For the Japanese, the whole project turned out to be a failure

It's now a tourist attraction.   But the huge cemetaries are a constant reminder of what thad gone on here.
It's now a tourist attraction. But the huge cemetaries are a constant reminder of what thad gone on here.

It took a long, long while for the hate to decline

Is it any wonder then, that there was so much absolute hatred against the Japanese as a race? This went on for decades in this country. Not with everyone, of course. But it took another generation or two before the average man and woman in Australia could regard the Japanese with the same neutral detachment they could for our other enemies in World War Two, the Germans and the Italians. I remember, as a seven-year-old child in England, being given pieces of honey comb from a wild bee hive ripped out of a hollow log by an Italian prisoner of war. A dozen Italian prisoners, all laughing and good-natured as they worked on a country road guarded only by an old man with a pitch fork; they were no threat. I recall, too, only ten years after Germany had stopped bombing England and sinking British ships, as a young sailor myself, going about a German merchant ship and drinking snaps with its sailors. They told me quite proudly they’d been U-boat crew only then years before. There was no ill feeling here.

Does the ordinary Japanese civilian know how their troops behaved on the Thai-Burma Railway?

With the Japanese it was different. There’d been no need, in our Western eyes, for them to treat those who had surrendered to them so badly. It was unforgivable…well, apparently - no. Russell Braddon had done it. He forgave. So, too, had the hero in the true story, The Railway Man. The Burma-Siam Railway prodject of 1942-45 was an indictment against its Japanese planners and advocates.. The whole project was a 'War Crime.'

I have no personal animosity towards the Japanese. But I can’t help wondering: Does the average Japanese man and woman know just what their armies did in World War Two – or for that matter in Mainland China in the 1930s? I suspect not. I wonder if they ever will…

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Comments 5 comments

annart profile image

annart 2 years ago from SW England

I saw an interview with Colin Firth the other day, regarding his role in this film. He had spoken to the person whose part he plays and had been totally overwhelmed by his story. It was something he 'had to do', he said, to tell the story which was far more potent than he'd imagined.

We have family members who died there but it's all a distant haze for us; we need to be told these stories in order to learn a lesson - but do we ever learn this lesson? I'm not sure. Ann


lions44 profile image

lions44 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

This was a very important contribution to HP. Thanks so much. May we never forget. Voted up.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

I wish I have seen this movie. Well, I will now. This is sad. I have many Japanese friends and I don't think they know. In fact, some of them are working in Burma, maybe constructing roads and bridges.


peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 18 months ago from Home Sweet Home

I have never seen the movie nir read the article. Too much heart breaking scene. May god bless those men


JayD19 profile image

JayD19 4 months ago from Mumbai, India

I've watched Railway Man, it's one of my favorite movies of all-time. It's crazy how a guy so smart as the protagonist deserves to be trapped in all this POW mess. It's a brilliant movie.

& the part where Firth meets his Japanese translator who caused the torture-is heartbreaking.

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