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Researcher compiles roll call of Sumatra 'death railway' UK soldiers

Published 14/08/2015

A university researcher has pieced together for the first time a roll call of the 855 British soldiers, sailors and airmen who laboured on an often-overlooked "death railway" in the Second World War.

The suffering of prisoners of war and slave labourers forced to build the Thailand-Burma "death railway" amid appalling conditions was immortalised in the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

However, less attention is paid to the building of another railway elsewhere in occupied south-east Asia - despite the fact more than 80,000 people perished during its construction, almost 700 of them PoWs.

The last nail of the 200km Sumatra railway was hammered into place on August 15 1945. It was the day Japan surrendered to Allied forces, bringing about the end of the war.

But it would be several days before the PoWs and slave labourers who were lined up in the jungle to watch the formal completion ceremony would learn that the war was over.

University of Leeds researcher Dr Lizzie Oliver's interest in the "other railway" was sparked by the discovery that her grandfather - who survived - was forced to work on it when taken prisoner.

She has mined a wealth of material never before catalogued or extensively examined.

She said: "The 'death railway' has become a term synonymous with the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway during the 13 months from September 1942.

"But while it was the largest forced labour project of its kind in the far east, it was one of four such tracks designed by Japanese engineers and constructed by PoW and slave labour."

The other three were the Kra Isthmus line, also connecting Thailand and Burma, the Saketi-Bayeh railway on Java - and the Pakanbaroe railway on Sumatra.

Built by 5,000 Allied PoWs and 100,000 slave labourers, or "romushas" in 1944 and 1945, the Sumatra railway stretched through the island's mountain ranges and thick jungle, swamps and marshes, and across rivers between Pakanbaroe and Moeara.

The undernourished men who hacked out its path used only manual tools, wearing little more than loin-cloths.

Of the PoWs, the majority (4,000) were Dutch, with the remainder made up of 855 British, 200 Australian, 15 US merchant marines and a lone Norwegian.

Dr Oliver added: "During my research, which has focused on the stories of British former PoWs who laboured on the railway, I have talked to former PoWs and their relatives about this little known aspect of far eastern captivity.

"Unlike the Thai-Burma railway, these men undertook their unimaginably gruelling toil having already experienced two years of meagre rations and hard labour - they were already starving and brutalised."

Deplorable conditions, disease and starvation claimed the lives of tens of thousands of the men.

Many more died on overcrowded ships while being transported to Sumatra - the Junyo Maru was tragically sunk by Allied submarine "friendly" fire in September 1944 with the loss of 1,800 PoWs and 6,000 romushas.

Tomorrow morning, Dr Oliver will take her place among veterans and former PoWs and their relatives, as well as the Queen and other members of the royal family, at a commemorative service at St Martin in the Fields Church in Trafalgar Square.

The service has been organised by the National FEPOW (Far East Prisoners of War) Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association.

* Dr Oliver's PhD thesis, Breaking the Silence of a Forgotten Army, was made possible by an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded collaborative doctoral award between the Imperial War Museum and the University of Leeds. She is currently a Wellcome Trust post-doctoral research fellow in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute at the university.

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