Much has been written about the building of the Thailand Burma railway. Films like The Railway Man and The Bridge on the River Kwai depict the brutality of Japanese soldiers and the deadly conditions under which allied POWs and conscripted Asian laborers worked on the railway during World War II. A walk across the River Kwai bridge elicits images of the suffering. The heat is extreme even during this January day, the sun so unrelenting that I pop open my umbrella for relief. The POWs had no opportunity for any respite. A momentary stop to wipe sweat from their eyes could result in a beating. The solemnity of my experience here is broken only by a group of Thai schoolboys who smile excitedly as this westerner greets them in their native language — sawasdee ka — –hello!
We travel down the road to the Hellfire Pass Museum where short films about, and photos of, the railway POWs bring me to tears. War as they say is hell, but somehow seeing these images in this setting is so much more heart wrenching than my high school history classes could convey. In the summer of 1942, World War II was raging across Europe and Asia. The allies were rapidly capturing the sea routes to Burma, forcing the Japanese to develop an overland supply route from the east to support their troops. About 200,000 Asian laborers and 61,000 allied prisoners of war built this 260 mile stretch of rail in abominable conditions. For every half-mile of track laid, 38 POWs perished.
From the museum we head to the four kilometer trail that will take us through Hellfire Pass. The pass appears suddenly, less than ten minutes into our hike. I can picture the men, with their primitive tools, chipping away at this mountain of stone. Children and grandchildren of the men who died here have visited and left behind flags and mementos in honor of their loved ones. It is another stark reminder of what we lose because of war and hate.