Though they were not prisoners of war, the romusha were transported to Thailand like POWs, crammed into railway carriages with little food or water. This picture was taken in 1945 of romusha forced to travel on the roof of a railway truck near Wampo, Thailand. Photo: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
Seventy-five years ago, in June 1942, the Japanese Occupation Army commissioned the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway that later gained its infamous name, the Death Railway.
In the months that followed, thousands of Malayans were taken, some by recruitment, most by coercion, and transported north to complete the project. Thousands died.
With time, the stories of those who suffered immeasurable cruelty on the railway trail have slowly disappeared. However, there still remain a few survivors whose memories live on today.
In conjunction with the deadly railway’s commissioning this month, we record the survivors’ stories.
Ellan Kannian turned 100 in March. He has lost his eyesight and suffers from Alzheimer’s – but the horrors he experienced on the Death Railway remain vivid in his mind.
Despite his age, he’s quick to come up with a sarcastic jibe when we first ask him to describe the ordeal. “I was very happy,” he says with a small chuckle – but the smile fades when we ask him to tell us how he became involved in the infamous project.
In 1942, Ellan was working on a rubber estate in Klang when the Japanese called for one man from each family on the estate to take part in the construction of a new railway that would link Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar), to carry supplies to the Japanese Army.
Fearing for the safety of their families should they refuse, Ellan, his brother, and a brother-in-law went to where the line was to begin in Ban Pong at the arrangement of their British estate manager.
The three men travelled to Thailand on goods carriages meant for 30 people – but the carriages were packed until there were about a hundred people in each one.
It was the first inkling that the “good life” he had been promised would become a life filled with abuse, starvation, and death.
“The moment we reached there, we were beaten because we didn’t understand their (the Japanese soldiers’) instructions,” Ellan says during a recent interview at his home in Kuala Selangor.
If the labourers – called romusha by the Japanese – did not die from sheer exhaustion or diseases, they died from drinking polluted river water.
A portrait of Ellan Kannian’s father in his younger days.
“All the dead bodies were around us but we would still take the water (to drink). What could we do?” he says, holding his hands up in the air fatalistically.
The contaminated river located beside the tracks was not just the only source of drinking water but it was also used as a toilet by the hundreds of thousands working on the railway. Corpses were often seen floating downstream or rotting on the banks where they had been dropped.
When the river flowed by bamboo groves, the plants’ sharp, fine bristles, or miang, would mix with the water which the labourers would then drink – and the miang would cause tears in the stomach and intestines that would eventually kill the men.
But it really didn’t take much for death to visit due to the abhorrent living conditions. For instance, despite the gruelling physical labour, the romusha were only given one meal a day, and often the rice in that meal was laced with chalk to stretch it further. Most of the labourers suffered from bloating of the stomach and legs and others died after uncontrolled vomiting, according to Ellan.
Indeed, according to Australian war records, though Allied prisoners of war worked alongside the romusha, it was the latter who died in far higher numbers.
Ellan says he started out laying sleeper tracks but was later put in charge of engine maintenance due to his expertise in handling lister engines (slow-running engines used to drive electric generators or irrigation pumps) from his days on the estate.
Finding it physically difficult to tell long stories nowadays, Ellan has his 54-year-old grandson, Ravendran Murugesan, share the next story.
“They were made to march from one point to another. There were many bodies lying all over. Some were dead, some half dead,” relates Ravendran, recalling the story Ellan had told him years ago.
“And while walking, Grandfather saw someone he recognised. When he looked, it was his brother, Ponnan. Still alive, but only barely. When he bent down to try and help, a soldier whipped him very hard. All he could do at the time was to take the towel from his shoulder and cover his brother’s face, to shield it from the sun. That was the last time he saw his brother,” Ravendran says, as Ellan sits silently by.
Later that day, another labourer brought Ellan the devastating news: Ponnan had died.
Sliver of a chance
It was perhaps the last goad Ellan needed to seize his freedom during an air raid. Shrapnel from a bomb hit the engine Ellan was maintaining, and in the commotion, he escaped. However, it was short-lived freedom as he was recaptured later the same day.
The raids continued and the next day, Ellan found another chance to run away – this time for good. “I walked along the railroad to escape,” he says, explaining that he did not know any other route home.
It took Ellan 39 days to reach home. He would walk on clear nights and hide whenever he spotted someone suspicious.
It was love for his father that kept him going through that arduous march. “I was totally heartbroken. I fiercely wanted to see my father,” he says.
Despite the brutality and atrocities he witnessed, Ellan also remembers the kindness of strangers he met on his long walk home. Thai and Malayan villagers gave him the little food they had and let him hide in their homes at great risk to themselves.
After crossing into Malaya, he walked from one rubber estate to another, inching closer and closer until he finally saw his home in the distance.
And the elation at finally returning was made sweeter by the sight of his father. “When I first saw him, I was so happy. We were both very happy,” Ellan says, his face lighting up even now at the recollection.
Surprisingly, he says he bears no anger towards the Japanese. Instead, he has come to accept that their brutality was a product of war.
Out of the 20 or so men from his estate who went to work on the Death Railway, Ellan was the only one who made it back home alive.
Death in the night
Retired army officer S. Shanmugam, 78, was very young when his family moved out of Malaya to work on the railway line in Thailand. While he cannot recall much from his time there, a few incidents remain forever with him. Among them: The death of his beloved mother and siblings.
“Once I came back to Alor Setar, everybody kept asking what happened. That’s why I cannot forget. How my mum passed away. How my brother passed away. How my sister passed away,” he says at a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Shanmugam’s impression of the Japanese is a little different from the almost entirely negative memories most other romusha have. He was just five years old when his family accompanied his uncle, a Public Works Department supervisor ordered by the Japanese to build roads to aid the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway.
The family travelled from Alor Setar to further up north and across the Thai border, and lived in barracks close to the railway tracks.
Finding a friend
Once in Thailand, a senior Japanese officer discovered that Shanmugam’s elder brother could speak English. The officer took a liking to Shanmugam’s brother and a cousin and invited the two boys to live with him. As a result, Shanmugam’s brother eventually learned to converse in Japanese.
He still remembers the flurry of incidents that transpired the night of his mother’s mysterious death. First, there was an attempted theft in the barracks, and later, elephants appeared. Although elephants often stumbled into the barracks area, they were usually harmless. Shanmugam, however, says that both the incidents together may have affected his mother. “She died due to shock,” he says. He still doesn’t know the exact cause of her death.
Shanmugam remembers that the senior Japanese military officer attended his mother’s funeral and even took part in the funeral rites.
“He had a long knife. He came to the funeral. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be here. I’ll do everything’,” Shanmugam relates.
The officer even kept a light burning throughout the night for his mother, who had flowers for her funeral bed.
“Not all Japanese men were bad. Some were good,” says Shanmugam.
Around the time of his mother’s death, Shanmugam’s youngest brother, who was born in Thailand, also died; he was only a few months old.
Eventually, a friendly Indian clerk helped Shanmugam’s family find a way home from Thailand. Unfortunately, another disaster struck the family the night before their departure.
“The whole night my sister kept asking, ‘Appa, I want this, I want this’. She was asking for food. My father replied, ‘Now it is late at night. Nobody is selling. You sleep. Tomorrow I’ll get for you what you want’,” Shanmugam recalls.
The next morning, the Indian clerk told the family to pack quickly so they could transfer out before the opportunity was lost.
“So we went to wake my sister…,” says Shanmugam, shaking his head sadly. “Finished. Passed away,” he whispers softly.
“We started to cry. The Indian gentleman told us, ‘There is no point crying. This is the last opportunity we are giving you. If you miss this train, you cannot go for a lifetime’,” Shanmugam remembers.
With the family at a loss as to what to do, the Indian clerk offered to help with the death of the little girl.
Shanmugam recalls the clerk’s kind words: “You don’t worry, I will treat her like my daughter. I will carry out the customary rituals. Whatever you all will do (for her), I will do the same. I will take her, don’t worry. Go, all of you. If you miss this opportunity, then there is no more chance for you.”
As the family was waiting in line to board the train, a second Japanese army officer arrived and saw the lifeless body of Shanmugam’s sister, who was only about three or four years old.
“The Japanese officer asked the Indian man whose child that was and why she was left there,” Shanmugam says.
This officer then approached Shanmugam’s family.
“He gave my father a tight slap. We were all crying in the field. My father, he was a sickly man. He couldn’t take it,” says Shanmugam.
“At the same time, the senior Japanese officer came. The one who knew us very well. He knew my father, my brother, my mother, her funeral, everything,” he says.
After Shanmugam’s brother explained the situation to him, the senior officer became enraged at the junior officer.
“The second Japanese officer stood still like a tree. The senior officer slapped him – pam, pam, pam!” says Shanmugam, making repeated slapping gestures. “If it was me, I would have collapsed,” he adds.
That day, the family travelled home to Alor Setar. Of the seven family members, only four returned home.
Years later while in Bangkok to work as a mechanic’s apprentice, Shanmugam searched for his mother’s grave. But with only faint memories as a guide, he never found her final resting place.
Calling for memories
If you or someone you know has a connection with any aspect of the building of the Thai-Burma Death Railway during World War II, contact the Death Railway Interest Group. The group is looking to give this overlooked event its rightful place in Malaysia’s history. Send an e-mail to P. Chandrasekaran at email@example.com or call 017-888 7221.