Rock and a hard place: Thailand's Hellfire Pass hits home

On a warm afternoon in Thailand, the forest around the city of Kanchanaburi is quiet. There's just the occasional bird chirping as it hops between branches, and the crunch of gravel as I walk towards a cutting in the large rock ahead of me.

The silence is broken when I raise an audio guide and press the play button. As I listen, the narrator describes what was happening here 76 years ago.

The serene landscape in front of me seems to melt away and is replaced with a mental picture of horror: suddenly I see frail prisoners of war (many Australian) breaking through this rock by hand under the cruelty of Japanese and Korean guards.

"Savage beatings were inflicted on the weakened and disease-ravaged prisoners," the audio guide recounts.

A small impromptu memorial for the Australian POWs at the start of the Hellfire Pass cutting. Photo: Michael Turtle

A small impromptu memorial for the Australian POWs at the start of the Hellfire Pass cutting. Photo: Michael Turtle

"No man was allowed to stop work to assist his mate. Men with dysentery or diarrhoea had to wait for permission before making their urgent dash into the bush."

This is Hellfire Pass, a fitting name for the scene of one of the most atrocious chapters in Australia's wartime history.

It was here that the Japanese brought an initial group of Australian POWs in April 1943 to work on clearing a path for the ill-fated Burma-Thailand Railway. The Aussies would be joined by British, Dutch, and American POWs, as well as Asian labourers.

More than half of them would die here because of their mistreatment.

Standing in the middle of the pass, with solid rock either side of me, I can only imagine what it must have been like to cut through it with just picks, shovels, hammers, and gelignite. And, of course, doing it all while severely malnourished and diseased, with constant violence from the guards.

What makes it slightly easier to imagine is the excellent audio guide that is offered for free to every visitor. As well as detailed narration, it includes stories from former POWs who share their personal experiences.

The original rails and sleepers were relaid here in April 1989 by the men of 'C' Company 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. Photo: Michael Turtle

The original rails and sleepers were relaid here in April 1989 by the men of 'C' Company 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. Photo: Michael Turtle

They talk about the nicknames they had for the guards (Fatso, Boofhead, Silent Basher), about the strategies for protecting the weakest of their mates, and about the legendary Weary Dunlop who worked as a doctor here.

But the stories that most strike a chord with me are the occasional ones of optimism, like when former prisoner Rowley Richards describes the spirit of the men.

"Probably the most important thing keeping us alive, for survival, was hope, maintaining hope. A common saying was, we'll be home for Christmas, for Grandma's birthday, for Easter, or Anzac Day, and we'd go from day to day and day. And to maintain that hope, we were able to defer disappointment by this particular manoeuvre."

The audio guide has been produced by the Office of Australian War Graves, which manages the site here in Thailand. There's a walking trail with information boards and a museum that was just reopened in December after a major upgrade. I find it quite an incredible memorial, with an excellent balance of education and respect.

For most of us, a holiday to Thailand is about relaxation - the beach, the islands, the jungle, the street food. Even if we're looking for more depth, it's natural to think that travelling overseas means learning about the history of foreign countries.

So when we are confronted with horrors of our own Australian story, it's a reminder that borders don't define the human narrative.

The stories that most strike a chord with me are the occasional ones of optimism.

Gallipoli has become an important pilgrimage for Australians who want to honour our veterans and gain a better appreciation of our history. But sites like Hellfire Pass in Thailand are just as important.

It's a credit to the Office of Australian War Graves that there are about 180,000 visitors each year to Hellfire Pass. But considering how many Australian tourists go to Thailand, the number could certainly be higher.

I like to think that the men who suffered indescribable horrors here would be pleased that we can travel to this part of the world on a holiday, carefree, our hearts full of peace. That they wouldn't want us to dwell too long on the ghastly past.

But let's never stop visiting memorials like Hellfire Pass, lest we forget.