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Memoir of the Thai Burma Railroad (Singapore/Malaysia/Thailand)

2nd June 2018

Railroad of Death by John Coast, memoir of the Thai Burma Railroad, set in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

If you are considering a trip to see the Bridge over the River Kwai between Thailand and Burma at Kanchanburi (accessible from Bangkok), then this is an insightful memoir of the terrible conditions imposed by the Japanese on those prisoners of war building the railway.

In the introduction it lambasts the “easy” telling of the story in the film “Bridge on the River Kwai” as a “load of high-toned codswallop”! Yes, it was the sanitised version of what is to come in this book. The reader is spared little. The book was a real success when it was first published in 1946.

The book starts out as prisoners are taken prisoner in Singapore on 15th February 1942, when the island is captured by the Japanese invaders (remember, the Japanese cycled down the length of Malaysia so they could surprise those living in Singapore, the island city-state!). The first stop was Changi where the true horrors to come were not really anticipated. Clothes were in short supply and in the heat of the sun everyday, combined with sweat, they just disintegrated. Food became a real issue (coconut wars ensued for those desperate for anything to eat). And illness was rife, where dysentery, Dengue fever, malaria (even Singapore Foot) become the norm, claiming the lives of many.

The prisoners were gradually driven up country, up Malaysia towards Thailand, and on to work on the Railroad of Death. It was completed in less than a year using the forced labour of tens of thousands of Europeans and hundreds of Asiatic coolies, a tremendous feat at 400km cutting through jungle and mountains. And at what cost! And all for the honour of The Greater East India Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese were ruthless masters who balked at nothing.

The memoir was first published in 1946 and the author returned to the camp at Kamburi in 1947, to revisit the site of such torment and to pay his respects to those who died, at the war cemetery. It is written in the style of the era, the Japanese are “the Nips” and it has an old world feel to it. It is important that the atrocities are remembered and that men gave their lives for others. I am just not so sure, though, how popular this book will be to a wider audience in the 21st Century.

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