Life and death on the tracks
In this conclusion to our stories recording the memories of those who survived working on WWII’s infamous Death Railway, two men talk about family members they were forced to leave behind along that deadly line 75 years ago.
ELLAN Kannian turned 100 in March; he has lost his eyesight and suffers from Alzheimer’s – but the horrors he experienced on the Death Railway remain vivid in his mind.
Despite his age, he’s quick to come up with a sarcastic jibe when we first ask him to describe the ordeal: “I was very happy,” he says with a small chuckle – but the smile fades when we ask him to tell us how he became involved in the infamous project.
In 1942, Ellan was working on a rubber estate in Klang when the Japanese called for one man from each family on the estate to take part in the construction of a new railway that would link Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma (now Myanmar), to carry supplies to the Japanese Army.
Fearing for the safety of their families should they refuse, Ellan, his brother, and a brother-in-law went to where the line was to begin in Ban Pong at the arrangement of their British estate manager.
The three men travelled to Thailand on goods carriages meant for 30 people – but the workers were packed in until there were about a hundred people in each carriage.
It was the first inkling that the “good life” he had been promised would become a life filled with abuse, starvation, and death.
“The moment we reached there, we were beaten because we didn’t understand their (the Japanese soldiers’) instructions,” Ellan says during a recent interview at his home in Kuala Selangor.
If the labourers – called romusha by the Japanese – did not die from sheer exhaustion or diseases, they died from drinking polluted river water.
“All the dead bodies were around us but we would still take the water (to drink). What could we do?” he says, holding his hands up in the air fatalistically.
The contaminated river located beside the tracks was not just the only source of drinking water but it was also used as a toilet by the hundreds of thousands working on the railway. Corpses were often seen floating downstream or rotting on the banks where they had been dropped.
When the river flowed by bamboo groves, the plants’ sharp, fine bristles, or miang, would mix with the water which the labourers would then drink – and the miang would cause tears in the stomach and intestines that would eventually kill the men.
Actually, it didn’t take much for death to visit due to the abhorrent living conditions; for instance, despite the gruelling physical labour, the romusha were only given one meal a day, and often the rice in that meal was laced with chalk to stretch it further. Most of the labourers suffered from bloating of the stomach and legs and others died after uncontrolled vomiting, according to Ellan.
Indeed, according to Australian war records (hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au), though Allied prisoners of war worked alongside the romusha, it was the latter who died in far higher numbers.
Ellan says he started out laying sleeper tracks but was later put in charge of engine maintenance due to his expertise in handling lister engines (slow-running engines used to drive electric generators or irrigation pumps) from his days on the estate.
Ellan (left) and Ravendran. It was the thought of seeing his father again that kept a young Ellan going through the horrors of the Death Railway.