The Death Railway
The personal account of Lieutenant Colonel Kappe on the Thai-Burma Railroad
Barnsely, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword Books, 2022
Hardback 192pp RRP: $59.99
Reviewer: Adrian Catt, May 2023
Part 1: Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kappe’s report, plus five Appendices (correspondence to IJA Officers Commanding captive Allied POWs).
Part 2: Captain Ben Barnett, Adjutant 8 Division Signal’s Unit Diary, Apr-Oct 1943.
In 1943, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) summoned 7,000 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) from Changi Prison in Singapore to form a combined Australian and British labour force, to be known as ‘F’-Force, and deployed it to Thailand to work on the notorious Burma railroad; supposedly under better conditions than those being experienced in Changi. Upon deployment, it didn’t take long before the Allies realised that the Japanese had lied, and that the POWs were to be enslaved for construction of the Thai-Burma railroad, all whilst enduring abominable monsoonal weather, sodden conditions, rampant disease, brutal and primitive working conditions, starvation diets, and woeful hygiene at both their staging and work camps.
As a result of persistent tropical diseases and ulcers, men were sick and dying from the outset of ‘F’-force deployment; from conditions such as cholera, malaria, beriberi, diphtheria, typhus, dysentery, diarrhoea, jaundice, exhaustion and understandably, suicide. Consequently, 44% of ‘F’-Force was to die over the eight months before the surviving POW’s were returned to Changi upon completion of the rail and roads construction project.
Kappe’s report and appended documents are unequivocal evidence of the brutality and cold-heartedness of the misery and inhumanity inflicted upon the desperate men of ‘F’-force by their IJA captors. The camps were scoured daily for men, whether they be fit or not, to be worked excessive hours with minimal or non-existent breaks, then marched back to camp in the dark of night, or the next morning! They slaved in primitive conditions with basic hand-tools, all whilst enduring life-threatening fatigue, disease and starvation. Established camps were fouled with excrement, vomitus, flies and mosquitoes, so Australians took the initiative to establish proper hygiene practices with segregated latrines, cooking areas, hospitals, sleeping quarters, water supplies and bathing facilities (usually rivers one kilometre or further from camp). All the water was polluted with disease, so all water used for drinking and cooking had to be boiled.
Kappe’s report was used as evidence in War Crimes Trials and correlates with Captain Bennett’s detailed Unit Diary of the horrors endured by the men of ‘F’-Force and makes for chilling reading of inhumanity at its worst.
The only detail missing from this historic publication, is a map of the camps.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.