Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Relying on forced labor by close to fifty thousand Allied prisoners of war and tens of thousands of Burmese people, the Japanese constructed the Thai-Burma Railway, a strategic railroad designed to provide swift transportation for its troops and arms during World War II. Thousands of prisoners of war and tens of thousands of Burmese perished under brutal working conditions, later dramatized in a novel and an award-winning film.

Summary of Event

Following the establishment of the pro-German Vichy government in France in 1940, Japanese troops occupied Indochina (now Vietnam), leaving the existing Vichy colonial administration nominally in charge. Thailand, allied with Japan, declared war against the Allies shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Japanese forces invaded Burma (now Myanmar) and occupied much of the country, capturing Rangoon (Yangon) in March, 1942. This assured Japanese control of most of Southeast Asia, but Allied naval threats against Japanese shipping continued, creating a need for overland supply routes through the Indochina-Thailand-Burma area that Japan controlled. [kw]Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor (Oct. 25, 1943)[Thai Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor] [kw]Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor, Thai- (Oct. 25, 1943) [kw]Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor, Thai-Burma (Oct. 25, 1943) [kw]Forced Labor, Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with (Oct. 25, 1943)[Forced Labor, Thai Burma Railway Is Completed with] Thai-Burma Railway[Thai Burma Railway] Burma Railway Death Railway War crimes;World War II Forced labor World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war Thai-Burma Railway[Thai Burma Railway] Burma Railway Death Railway War crimes;World War II Forced labor World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war [g]Southeast Asia;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [g]Thailand;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [g]Myanmar;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [g]Burma;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [c]World War II;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [c]Engineering;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [c]Military history;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] [c]Human rights;Oct. 25, 1943: Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor[00970] Toosey, Philip Pantridge, Frank Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu Saito, Teruo Boulle,Pierre

One supply route required the creation of a railway link between the Japanese-occupied zones of Thailand and Burma. A route had been attempted by British colonial authorities around 1900 but was abandoned because of problems posed by the terrain. Work began in June, 1942, on an approximately 420-kilometer (260-mile) rail line from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. This crash program was to be completed at any cost, and work started from each end simultaneously.

The Japanese obtained track-building material and other equipment from railways seized in Malaya (now Malaysia) but had to construct the line across rugged terrain and through jungles. Tens of thousands of indigenous people were conscripted as forced laborers, and approximately fifty thousand Allied prisoners of war, captured in Southeast Asia, were moved to the area and compelled to do construction work, a clear violation of international law.

One group of Allied prisoners was forced to construct a railway bridge across the River Kwai near Kanchanaburi, and a prison camp Prison camps was set up at the nearby village of Tamarkan Tamarkan, Thailand to house the prisoners of war (POWs). The senior Allied officer among these prisoners was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey, a British officer captured when the British colonial enclave in Singapore fell in February, 1942. As ranking POW officer, Toosey tried to maintain order and some level of morale. At the same time, he attempted to ensure the well being of the prisoners and have them treated decently by the Japanese.

When Toosey protested against mistreatment of prisoners, he was himself beaten by Japanese guards. He helped prisoners escape and tried to slow bridge construction. He made arrangements with a local Thai merchant, Boon Pong Sirivejjabhandu—who was secretly sympathetic toward the Allies—to provide prisoners with food and medicine beyond the minimum allotted by the Japanese. Nevertheless, because of harsh conditions, thousands of prisoners became ill and died. By war’s end in August, 1945, Toosey weighed about 100 pounds. He was regarded as a hero and was decorated for bravery by the British army. Toosey and other Tamarkan prison camp survivors later criticized his negative portrayal in the 1952 Pierre Boulle novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwai Bridge over the River Kwai, The (Boulle) (The Bridge over the River Kwai; 1954); an award-winning film based on the novel appeared in 1957.

Boulle, a French resident of Malaya, joined the French in Indochina when World War II began. In 1940, after Vichy authorities took over Indochina and Japanese troops arrived, Boulle went to Singapore to join the Allies. After Singapore was taken by the Japanese in 1942, Boulle secretly worked as an Allied agent. Arrested during a mission in Indochina, Boulle was imprisoned by the Vichy authorities. Boulle spent the remainder of the war in Allied-controlled areas after escaping, an escape arranged by Allied intelligence. Though he was never in the sort of prison camp he described in his novel, Boulle knew about the war crimes of Japan’s railway project.





Other significant differences between Boulle’s novel and how things really happened include the portrayal of the Japanese as inept railway builders who were dependent on prisoner know-how. Engineers of the Japanese Fifth Railway Regiment had designed the railway and bridge, using conscripted local people and war prisoners to perform heavy labor. Also, Boulle depicted the Japanese camp commander as a tragic figure. The Japanese commandant was indeed harsh, but his second-in-command, Sergeant Major Teruo Saito, tried to help prisoners, and Toosey’s postwar testimony saved Saito from being convicted for war crimes. Boulle portrayed POW officers as getting preferential treatment, but Toosey and the camp’s medical officer, Frank Pantridge, actually underwent the same hardships and privation as other prisoners.

The railway was completed on October 25, 1943, and many surviving prisoners were subsequently returned to regular POW camps. Some were retained to perform maintenance work on a wooden bridge and a concrete-and-steel bridge along the railway line. The two bridges had been completed earlier in 1943 but were sporadically bombed by the Allies, and sporadically repaired. A decisive bombing raid in April, 1945, made them permanently unusable.


During the three years from the start of the Thai-Burma railway to the Japanese surrender, tens of thousands of Asian conscripts and Allied prisoners died. While there are no precise figures available, close to nine thousand Allied prisoners are buried in the area, not including a large number of deceased U.S. prisoners whose remains were re-interred in U.S. cemeteries after the war. To build the railway, war crimes against civilians and POWs were clearly committed on a massive scale.

Boulle’s novel and the subsequent film version focused on the relations among a few fictional Allied and Japanese individuals and on the building of the bridge, with less prominent attention to prisoner mistreatment and virtually no attention to the mistreatment of the conscripted Burmese workers. Boulle’s tale about the rise and fall of this bridge in an exotic location is remembered as part of U.S. popular culture. The railway line itself, now greatly upgraded, has become an attraction for Japanese tourists, who visit the cemeteries of the war dead there. Several area museums also commemorate the period. Thai-Burma Railway[Thai Burma Railway] Burma Railway Death Railway War crimes;World War II Forced labor World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boulle, Pierre. The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Translated by Xan Fielding. New York: Gramercy Books, 2000. This English version of Boulle’s often controversial novel first appeared in 1954 and inspired the 1957 Columbia Pictures film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which used the British version of the novel title. Published first as Le Pont de la rivière Kwai in 1952.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. My Own River Kwai. Translated by Xan Fielding. New York: Vanguard Press, 1967. Boulle’s nonfiction account of his experiences as an intelligence agent in Southeast Asia during World War II. Published as Aux sources de la rivière Kwai in 1966.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Peter N. The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai. London: Athlone Press, 1991. This historical study includes a laudatory foreword about Toosey by the United Kingdom’s prince Philip.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunlop, Ernest Edward. The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway, 1942-1945. Melbourne, Vic.: Nelson, 1986. These lengthy war diaries, a major source of firsthand information by an Australian POW in Burma, were also published in a 758-page Japanese translation in 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardie, Robert. The Burma-Siam Railway: The Secret Diary of Dr. Robert Hardie, 1942-45. Sydney, N.S.W.: Collins, 1983. A graphic account of the railway by an Australian POW survivor, translated into Japanese in 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinvig, Clifford. River Kwai Railway: The Story of the Burma-Siam Railroad. London: Conway, 2005. Kinvig, a specialist on the history of World War II in Southeast Asia, tells the story of the Thai-Burma Railway.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stewart, John. To the River Kwai: Two Journeys, 1943, 1979. London: Bloomsbury, 1988. A collection of reminiscences over time, with historical comparisons, by a POW camp survivor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summers, Julie. The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. A one-of-a-kind work written by Toosey’s granddaughter, who had access to his personal papers, family records, and memories of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tamayama, Kazuo. Railwaymen in the War: Tales by Japanese Railway Soldiers in Burma and Thailand, 1941-47. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. The first major source from a Japanese perspective, based on official military records and personal reminiscences, compiled by a Japanese historian living in the United Kingdom. Includes accounts of the fierce and unforgiving fighting between Japanese and British Commonwealth troops in Burma.

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