BANGKOK – A crowd of about 1,000 Australians, New Zealanders and others joined the dawn service this morning at the Konyu cutting in Kanchanaburi province, 200 kilometres west of Bangkok.
Julianne Blair, from Perth, said while she attended a dawn service wherever she was on Anzac Day, this was her first at the railway.
“Hellfire Pass”, set among bamboo forests with sweeping views of Thailand’s Kwai Noi river valley, was an especially solemn place, she said.
“I want the young ones to realise life was so cheap back then when [the war dead] were serving our country,” Ms Blair said.
Her two sons said they could not believe that the railway cutting, more than 20 metres deep, was made mostly with simple hand tools.
The rail line,stretching 415 kilometres to the Andaman Sea in Burma, was built under brutal conditions by Asian labourers and Allied POWs.
By its completion in 1943, more than 12,000 POWs, including about 2,700 Australians, had died from disease, malnutrition and abuse by guards.
Tens of thousands of civilian labourers are also believed to have died.
Lonnie Rutland, from the Gold Coast, said she “teared up” during the service, and also when meeting one of the former POWs.
“I was crying at the brutality, the cruelty – it’s just beyond comprehension. And for what?” she asked.
“I think this chapter has been sadly forgotten… I want children to realise that this is the futility of war.”
Ms Rutland said this was her second time visiting the railway, and the first visit for her husband, John.
New Zealand’s Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch, paid tribute to the soldiers who died, and also to a group of Thai people who smuggled food and medicine to the POWs, saving countless lives.
The railway endured heavy bombing during the war and was ultimately reclaimed by the jungle.
An Australian government-led restoration in the 1980s turned a section of the line into a walking track, with a museum added in 1998.
The Office of Australian War Graves, which oversees the site, is expecting even larger crowds next year, for the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in Turkey.
Robert Baird is a freelance Australian journalist based in Thailand, reporting on politics, development and media in the South-East Asian region.
This Anzac Day he attended a service at “Hellfire Pass”, a site of special significance for Australia where WWII Allied prisoners of war (POWs) died building a stretch of the Thai-Burma railway, sections of which they excavated by hand from sheer rock.