1943 saw the completion of the Burma-Siam Railway. As a railroad, it was unique in its construction, as it was built by Allied prisoners-of-war held by the Japanese during World War II. The line would close after only four years, but ripples of the pain it caused were felt long after. The Burma-Siam is the subject of a recent film, The Railway Man, based on the autobiography of one of the imprisoned builders, Eric Lomax. Lomax was a British Army Officer during WWII, captured in Singapore when the Japanese invaded and took over in 1942. From there, he joined 60,000 of his fellow Allies in construction of a railroad that would be of key strategic importance to Japan, who could no longer rely on belligerent-infested seas to transport troops and supplies. Determined, Japan put over 220,000 laborers to work on the rail (Asian civilians and POWs alike). The project was an immense undertaking. The route had originally been attempted by the British 40 years prior, but the path through the dense, hilly jungles and over numerous rivers proved too much of a challenge. Not only was the terrain difficult and hazardous, but there were also malaria-ridden mosquitos and other diseases to contend with. And in many ways, the environment was the least of the prisoners’ problems. The prisoners were tortured, beaten and starved, and the living conditions were so poor that cholera and dysentery ran rampant and took many lives. Construction of the line took the lives of over 100,000 forced laborers, 12,000 of whom were Allied POWs. It’s no wonder that Burma-Siam is also known as the “Death Railway.” Eric Lomax would survive the construction of the rail, but bear its scars to the end of his life. The Railway Man tells Lomax’s story. Starring a haunted-looking Colin Firth, the story is a timely look at a victim of PTSD dealing with everyday life, decades after his imprisonment. As for the railway, most of the line has since been abandoned, and several sections have even been converted to walking trails. Only 81 miles of track are still in use, and while there have been talks of rebuilding the complete railway for years, no plans have ever been realized. And given the dark chapter in its history, perhaps that’s just as well.(Image credit: © Naz Gassiep / Mrnaz at en.wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)
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