Sur­viv­ing the Death Rail­way

Us­ing his wits and seiz­ing op­por­tu­nity, this man did what few man­aged to do: es­cape the Death Rail­way.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - Sto­ries by DINA MU­RAD and MEI MEI CHU star2@thes­

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.

Im­age: FOO CHERN HWAN/The Star


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.

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