Surviving the Death Railway
Using his wits and seizing opportunity, this man did what few managed to do: escape the Death Railway.
In this month, 75 years ago, the Japanese Occupation Army commissioned this infamous line. Today, we record the stories of the men who lived through ordeal of working on it under horrific conditions.
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago, in June 1942, the Japanese Occupation Army commissioned the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway that later gained its infamous name, the Death Railway.
In the months that followed, thousands of
Malayans were taken, some by recruitment, most by coercion, and transported north to complete the mega project. Thousands died.
With time, the stories of those who suffered immeasurable cruelty on the railway trail have slowly disappeared. However, there still remain a few survivors whose memories live on until today. In conjunction with the deadly railway’s commissioning this month, Star2 records the survivors’ stories today and tomorrow.
A darkened mosque
Samion Ariff, 91, is a man with a million dollar smile that’s sure to warm your heart. But behind the jovial grin is someone who encountered extreme hardship during his youth as forced labour toiling on the Death Railway. Despite his age, Samion can clearly recall the Friday afternoon in 1942 when he was snatched away from his home state, Johor. Samion was an ablebodied teenager then, and the Japanese Army was desperate for workers.
“We would usually go for Friday prayers and come home after. But this time, I felt uneasy. After prayers, we saw many Japanese lorries around the mosque compound,” Samion says when we interview him last month at his home in Kampung Melayu Majidee, Johor Baru.
“We wondered why the mosque was so dark. It turns out Japanese lorries had blocked all the main doors and had backed up very close to the doors. All six doors had been blocked,” Samion recalls.
The elderly were allowed to go home but the young men, including Samion, were loaded onto the lorries and taken to the Japanese army command centre at Bukit Timbalan, Johor Baru.
A Chinese family friend who witnessed Samion’s capture quickly reported the inciSamion’s dent to late father, who went immediately by bicycle to see his son. “My father was told that I was going to be sent to Thailand with only the clothes on my back so he packed a towel, pyjamas, and a blanket in a jute bag for me,” Samion says.
“They loaded us up and my father was crying, but what could we do?”
Samion, three close friends of his, and others from his village were taken by train to Bangkok, where they were made to march every day from location to location as they built railway tracks and bridges.
The Japanese Army paid the workers a mere 1 baht a day, which was enough to buy dried fish from Thai boatmen plying rivers that usually ran alongside the tracks.
“If anyone collapsed from illness, we had to leave them behind. We could not attend to the weak. The Japanese soldiers told us to continue on. If we did not listen, they would hit us with their rifles,” he says.
“It makes me sad, remembering what happened to one of us. He was ill and had headaches, but the Japanese officer did not care. He told the man to get up and go to work. If you didn’t get up, they would hit you. He remained lying down, and a soldier hit him with a bamboo stick. He died,” says Samion.
In another incident, one of Samion’s friends died in the night. Fearing that his body would be thrown into the gorge behind the camp along with others who had died, the remaining village friends hid the body in the jungle.
“The next day, after returning from work,
we buried him. It was a shallow grave, but at least we could cover his body,” Samion says.
Flight to freedom
Upon nearly reaching Burma (now Myanmar), Samion and 17 others hatched an escape plan.
“We left at night. By then we already knew the schedule of the freight trains. It was a slow-moving train and we chased after it and climbed onto the roof!” he says, excitement returning to his voice.
Returning to their village was a slow process for Samion and his three friends, though, as they had to take circuitous routes to evade notice.
By the time the four finally reached Johor, the Japanese had lost the war, in September 1945.
The day Samion was reunited with his family was an emotional one, and Samion tells the story with a wide smile on his face.
“I saw my two brothers walking along the road. Their reaction when they saw me? What else? There was hugging and crying,” he says.
“My younger brother was at home at the time. When he heard the news, he rushed to see me.
“He didn’t even bother to put on a shirt!” Samion says with a laugh.
After the war, Samion led a remarkable life of service to the people.
He joined the police force, eventually retiring from his position as an assistant superintendent with a medal of honour to his name, the Member of the Order of the Defender of the Realm (AMN), presented by the King in 1981.
Samion’s beautiful smile belies the horror he experienced while working on the Death Railway – horrors that he recalls as if they happened yesterday.
Romusha working on the Death Railway at Ronsi, Burma, 1943 (above), and (right) emaciated survivors in Nakom Platon Hospital, Thailand, 1945. While Asian labourers worked alongside Allied prisoners of war on the railway, they died in far higher numbers. — Photos: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
A 2015 photo of the bridge on the River Kwai, immortalised in the 1957 Hollywood movie classic of the same name, which was part of the 415km Death Railway. — AP
(Far left) Samion as a dashing policeman after the war and (left) receiving his medal of honour in 1981.