Forgotten Sikhs of the Siam -Burma Death Railway 
 Their grueling role in the railway’s construction remains a little known story

"They shared their stories of hardship and horror, of death, disease, and suffering in  the faraway jungles in Siam ... A terrible story of torture, starvation and brutal treatment by the Japanese".

The infamous Siam-Burma railroad, built and maintained by the Japanese at the expense of thousands of lives - both of Allied prisoners of war and conscript labour from Malaya, Siam, Burma and Java. 

The railway line from Ban Pong in Southern Siam (Thailand) to Ye in Burma (Myanmar) is lined with graves which will forever stand as a monument to Japanese inhumanity, for in them are buried hundreds of prisoners of war, including thousands of Indians, Chinese and natives from Malaya (Malaysia) who died while being forced to construct the line under the worst of conditions.

At the beginning of the construction about 50,000 Allied POWs were taken as slave labourers to construct the railway line . When this workforce proved incapable of meeting the tight deadlines the Japanese had set for completing the railway, an 'unknown' number (80,000 ~ 120,000) Asiatic labourers were enticed or coerced into working for the Japanese.

In early 1943, the Japanese advertised for workers in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), promising good wages . Some were deceived into taking up the job on empty promises of high pay while others were forced into it.

They had been told glowing stories of Siam, of plenty of work, high wages, abundant food, Red Cross hospitals and hospital trains that would follow them up the line. All they found in Siam were work, disease and death.

On August 1943 a group of railway men consisting of station-masters, guards, locomotive drivers, permanent-way labourers, etc; left Malaya in railway trucks for the notorious Siam-Burma railway. This was the first batch of railway men sent to Siam to help the Japanese maintain their infamous railroad.

When they left Malaya to work on the Siam-Burma railway they had no realisation of the horrors and hardships they were to suffer. Thus many of the Malayans were disgusted and soon made their minds to return to their homes in Malaya.

The only two methods they could adopt were either to run away or to feign illness, since the Japanese had decided to send occasionally a limited number back to Malaya as they did not have the medical facilities in Siam.

Later on, however the Japanese got wise to these tactic and entirely stopped any further repatriation. Without any medical aid, many died of such sickness as malaria and dysentery.

The more daring among the Malayan railway men, manage to smuggle their way back to Malaya with the aid of their Siamese colleagues.

They were some who despite intense suffering survived to tell a tale so grim that it is almost unbelievable".

Harnam Singh, Kalwant Singh, Harnaik Singh, Anand Singh and a few other Sikhs from Malaya were a few such survivors assigned to the infamous Siam-Burma Railroad, the “Railway of Death.” 

Harnam Singh and Kalwant Singh worked on the death railway which spanned from Siam to Burma.They were Railway men who did not volunteer their service but were given no choice but to work as station-masters at Wampo and Tha Sao in Thailand.

They were civilian prisoners. They were told to volunteer or else they would be rounded up and forced to work along the death railway as POWs. Both survived the war. They told horror stories of people like them killed by malaria, the Japanese and tigers.

Harnam Singh s/o Inder Singh worked alone from a small station at Tha Sao (Tarsau). His job was to pull the levers to change the track when he heard the trains coming. The place where he worked was infested with malarial mosquitoes and tigers used to roam at night. He fell ill and escaped Tha Sao by hiding in a rail cart that held dead bodies of POWs. He hid right at the bottom, because when the train stopped, the Japanese would use their bayonets to stab the dead bodies to ensure no living souls escaped. After the war.

Sardar Harnam Singh  s/o Inder Singh

Harnam Singh rejoined the Railways and served as station master Batu Tiga and retired as chief clerk at the Parcel office in Kuala Lumpur Railway Station around 1973. He was born in Pahang, Malaysia. Passed on at an early age in 1989. 

The tropical climate was unforgiving. The heat and humidity of the wet-season where the deadly effects of diseases such as cholera, malaria, painful skin diseases, secondary infections and tropical ulcers decimated the workforce.

Kalwant Singh Judge worked at Wampo (Wanpo). He worked as a station master and contracted acute eczema when he was Siam.

Sardar Kalwant Singh s/o Anup Singh

He usually bathe in the river, one day while he was bathing, he stepped on a sharp bamboo and injured his foot. His leg became septic, and the Japanese wanted to amputate his leg. He manage to persuade them to move him to Kanchanaburi where there was a field hospital, where he got his treatment from after which he was  allowed to return home.

In his diary he mentioned other workers from Malaya who had been taken by the Japanese to work on the Railway. They were Kapur Singh from Pandamaran, Klang, Jora Singh from the postal department who lived at the government quarters in lake gardens, Kuala Lumpur and Lambrogan a locomotive driver. They all survived and returned back to Malaya.

During the post war period he continued to serve with the railways .His British officers realized his plight and  qualifications placing him on the  permanent salaried staff list. Rose to the rank of senior officer  serving in Pasir Mas,  Prai, K.L,  Seremban, Singapore and finally Port Klang retiring in 1970.

A keen hockey player he served on numerous sporting organizations:  Malayan Sikh Sports and the Malayan Hockey Federation.  He was one of the founder members of the Malayan Olympic Council in 1954 in preparation for the Melbourne Olympics of 1956. Settled back in Punjab in 1972 along with a few other Railway men and established the Malayan Singapore Pensioners Association which assisted numerous Malaysians  in securing their pensions. Passed on at a age of 99.

The Wanpo bridge built by prisoners of war , borders the Gwe Noi river for several hundred meters.             Date: 06/1946, Thailand
Courtesy: International Red Cross

The Japanese dismantled and transplanted railway lines from Malaya to serve as a wartime line communications through the Jungles linking Siam and Burma.

Burma become Japanese front-line, and it was vital to them to be able to transport to and from Burma quickly. So they conceived the idea of tearing up a line from somewhere else and getting it laid from Siam to Burma. The Japanese pulled up the rails, steel bridging and other materials of the Malayan railway network. The three and a half years occupation by the Japanese , who moved to Siam about 3000 wagons and nearly 300 miles of line and many important bridges from  Malaya’s railway network.

Sardar Harnaik Singh s/o Arjan Singh

Harnaik Singh s/o Arjan Singh was a working as a labourer in the tin mines in Tronoh, Perak. He was taken away by the Japanese to serve at the Siam-Burma railway. He was told to dismantle existing railways lines and sleepers from Malaya and transporting them back on the wagons to Siam and laying them there, passing through dense rain forest, over rugged mountains of between Siam and Burma. As each section of the rail was finished so the men moved along to different camps along the route of the 200-mile rail link. The line was built at breakneck speed by thousand of Allied prisoners of war and local forced labour.

The god-forsaken places along the routes were infested with malaria and rampant with cholera, dysentery and diarrhea diseases, where many Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and the Asian civilian forced labourers perished.

When the Japanese surrendered in August, 1945, many Malayan labourers were scattered along the length of this Railway. Those who survived would have been abandoned by the Japanese and were actually told in many cases that they could find their own way back to Malaya. Harnaik Singh and many others seek shelter from the local Siamese homes. They worked in their farm helping the farmers who in return gave them food, shelter and treated them before being repatriated.

They were repatriated from Bangkok by sea through Singapore. Harnaik Singh together with his wife Bant Kaur @ Mae Niam and some of his friends decided to  return to Malaya. They were sent back to their former towns in Malaya.

Many Malayan labourers were in a terrible state of malnutrition and disease and very few were capable of making even the journey to Bangkok.

Harnaik Singh became a 'bullock-carter', helping his brothers  and later part when the tin industry started to flourish again, he rejoined the tin mines. He became their guard at a mine in Tronoh. Not before long, he was recruited into the reserve police force during the Malayan Emergency period. Harnaik Singh and his wife happily settle down in Wah Loong, Kampar, Perak.

The Japanese order said that every sleeper cost a man’s life, but it is probable that the death roll, from cholera, tropical diseases, malnutrition, and Japanese bashings was on even a higher rate than that.

Cholera epidemic broke out at Tamarkan Camp

Sardar Anand Singh s/o Wajir Singh

Anand Singh 'Nand' and many others from Malaya arrived in Siam by rail. They were taken to a quarantine camp where they were inoculated first  and later ordered to march further, all the way to Tamarkan camp. Their journey to the camp was a nightmare and they had to walk for about a day or two. Many of them were hungry, thirsty and dying. When they arrived at Tamarkan, they were filled with disgust as they saw the wretched conditions at the camp.

Anand Singh was employed as guard at the Tamarkan camp which is about 5 Km from Kanchanaburi, Siam.

They were given quarters. The camp was infested with mosquitoes. They had to bathe and get their drinking water from the same river. Work went on day and night without respite. The sick and the underfed were driven out to the railway track no matter how bad their condition was.

Miserable heat and monsoons plagued the labourers. The lack of hygiene, inadequate medical supplies, equipments and regular beatings from Japanese guards made for abysmal working conditions.

Many succumbed to diseases which were easily spread. They were forced to live in squalor and without even basic hygiene.

Starvation was a real threat due to the physical nature of the work and with food in short supply. 

A disease broke-out in the camp where 50~70 labourers will die in their sleep every night continuously for few months. Overnight the huts were filled with the dead and the dying. As the dread news spread, even the Japanese was terrified and thought it was wise to encourage precautions lest they be engulfed in the scourge that spares neither conquered nor conqueror.

So they  started to improve the camp hygiene and conditions. They begin to provide more food ration and vegetables for their consumptions and better medical attention was given.

After they were liberated, Anand Singh returned to Malaya and re-joined the tin mines and during the Malayan Emergency, he become the home guard in the gated village camps.

Anand Singh's commendation letter from Tamarkan Camp, Kanchanaburi, Siam, dated 5th June 1946.
Courtesy of Mr. Jeet Singh s/o Anand Singh.
Tamarkan, Thailand. c. September 1945. A view of Tamarkan prisoner of war (POW) camp showing rows of huts with thatched attap roofs and open walls. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

Japanese bashings
The Siam - Burma railway line was not the only railway built in Thailand by the Japanese military. The first such railway was the Kra Isthmus Railway.

Awtar Singh, another railway worker from Kuala Lumpur, assigned at Kra Isthmus Railway, narrates about the bad treatment on the labourers each day. The Japanese would bash "bamboo bashings" and often struck the victims with full force, and sometimes causing serious injury.

Torture and punishment were commonplace. Those who faltered, even when sick, were brutalised by their guards, often fatally. Punishments would occur for anything, from not working fast enough, to looking at the guards the wrong way.

Bamboo rods, rifle butts, and burning cigarettes being the favoured form of punishment. The terms of the Geneva Convention were ignored by the Japanese who made up rules and inflicted punishments at the whim of the Camp Commandant.

Escape from Burma

Sardar Dushan Singh s/o Harnam Singh

Dushan Singh 'Darshan', a railway worker, from village Balsarai, Amritsar worked at the Railway laying tracks in Burma. He lived and worked in some of the worst conditions imaginable. As the work schedule became more critical they were forced to work long hours each day. In fact the work went on around the clock. He narrates of the harsh treatment by the Japanese and lack of proper food.

He and some of his friends, planned an escape from their camp in Burma. From the start, all the escapers were aware that their fate on recapture would most likely be execution. Yet despite the warnings the men kept their spirits up. While escaping into the Siam border, he was shot and was wounded. Dushan Singh and his friends managed to run into the thick jungles of Burma and evaded the vicious Japanese guards. They managed to cross the border into Siam and got medical attention from a Hospital in Siam.

Dushan Singh was admitted for a month and were treated for the gunshot wound on his leg. While he was in the hospital he met a good Samaritan Sikh, Mohan Singh who hails from Bangkok and later he took him back to his village in Bangkok to recuperate. Later he got married to Mae Phadhawang.

After the war, Dushan Singh and his wife  Mae Phadhawang @ Taro Kaur  returned to Malaya and settle down in Bidor, Perak. He was a labourer in the tin mines and subsequently managed to joined with the local municipal council in Air Kuning, Perak. Later part when he retired from work, he ventured into dairy farming. He passed  away on August 1998.    

For many, liberation came too late. Those who survived, told the stories of hardship and horror, of death, disease, and suffering in  the faraway jungles of Siam-Burma.

The building of the Siam-Burma and the Kra Isthmus railroad was a monumental task. Their personal accounts which are narrated above, serve to remind us at what human cost this great feat of engineering was completed. It is estimated 12,000 Prisoners of War and 40,000 ~80,000 labourers lost their lives.

A monument to the many who died and worked there.

The four corners of a Japanese wartime  military monument in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, each bearing an inscription in a different language: English, Thai, Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia, Tamil and Vietnamese. These inscriptions are a clear indication that labourers from the language groups represented worked and died on the construction of the Railway.

Many Sikhs became the victim too in the construction of the Railway.  Sikhs should also be given their rightful place in history, with a fitting monument that bears testimony to these forgotten souls. 
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Header Pic: MM. Murchison and Salzmann with Indian guards from the Asian labor camp. Kaorin camp, Thailand.      Date: 09/1945.
Courtesy of the International Committee of the red Cross. VP-HIST-03356-31

I am thankful to descendants of those who worked on the Death Railway:- Mrs. Kalwant Kaur, Madam Bebi Kaur d/o Dushan Singh, Mr. Prem Singh Judge, Dr. Nantam Singh s/o Harnaik Singh & Mr. Jeet Singh s/o Anand Singh for their kind assistance and cooperation

International Committee of the Red Cross
APA KHABAR .Patron: Her Grace The Duchess of Norfolk.
Australian War Memorial
Notes on the Thai-Burma Railway Part II : Asian Romusha; The silenced voices of David Boggett
Notes on the Thai-Burma Railway Part II : Asian Romusha; The silenced voices of David Boggett david.pdf

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