Aussie in Thai­land de­votes life to ‘Death Rail­way’ POWs

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY DE­NIS D. GRAY

Wield­ing a ma­chete, Rod Beat­tie slashes at tan­gled un­der­growth and soar­ing bam­boo to ex­pose vis­tas from one of World War II’s iconic sagas. Out of the jun­gle ap­pear rem­nants of a rail­way that cost the lives of more than 100,000 Al­lied pris­on­ers and Asians en­slaved by Ja­pan’s Im­pe­rial Army.

As the 70th an­niver­sary of the war’s end ap­proaches and its vet­er­ans dwin­dle by the day, the ag­ing Aus­tralian still slogs along the 415-kilo­me­ter length of “Death Rail­way.” With his own money, he maps its van­ish­ing course, un­cov­ers POW relics and with his vast data­base helps brings clo­sure to rel­a­tives of the dead — not only those who per­ished build­ing the rail­way, but also those who went to their graves never hav­ing shared their trau­mas.

Beat­tie ac­knowl­edges to be­ing a man ob­sessed.

“The life I have given isn’t just for them but for their de­scen­dants,” he says. “Their chil­dren are now at an age where they have re­tired. They’ve got time to ask ques­tions — ‘ Where was my fa­ther? What hap­pened to him?’” And many, bring­ing along their own chil­dren and even grand­chil­dren, are mak­ing what Beat­tie calls pil­grim­ages to the rail­way to seek an­swers, find peace and shed tears.

One daugh­ter he es­corted was able to learn for the first time ex­actly where her fa­ther, Pvt. Jack McCarthy, died on July 21, 1943, of what dis­eases and where he was ini­tially buried.

Then Beat­tie took her to his fi­nal rest­ing place, be­neath a head­stone bright­ened by a sin­gle poppy. Another daugh­ter re­cently came fix­ated on whether wild bananas con­tained black seeds the POWs would suck for sus­te­nance. It was some­thing her fa­ther of­ten re­counted. When they found some, it seemed to au­then­ti­cate and il­lu­mi­nate all that her fa­ther told her about his or­deal.

“It made her very happy,” Be- at­tie said.

Ar­guably the world’s au­thor­ity on this drama of in­hu­man­ity and courage in a green hell, this one­man band has also busted myths and plain in­ac­cu­ra­cies that have ac­cu­mu­lated around the rail­way. Some are drawn from a stil­lon­go­ing pa­rade of mem­oirs, nov­els and films, from the clas­sic 1957 movie clas­sic “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “The Rail­way Man” in 2013 and “The Nar­row Road to the Deep North,” a novel that won Bri­tain’s top literary prize last year.

Driven, ‘for history’s sake’

He’s driven, he says, “for history’s sake. To give peo­ple a true ver­sion of the story. Af­ter I leave or pass away, who would oth­er­wise know where the rail­way was?”

Beat­tie, 67, clam­bers down a steep slope where the track has been re­placed by a rolling field of tapi­oca. Within 15 min­utes, aided by a me­tal de­tec­tor and pickax, he un­cov­ered 11 relics un­der the red­dish soil, in­clud­ing rail­way sta­ples and bolts. He also gath­ered clues to the lo­ca­tion of a la­bor camp, Tampii South, that he has yet to pin­point.

Tampii South was among a string of POW camps along the rail­way, which the Ja­panese re­garded as a strate­gic sup­ply line from Ja­panese- con­trolled Thai­land to their forces in Myan­mar as Al­lied war­ships made the sea route around the Malay Penin­sula in­creas­ingly haz­ardous. Com­pleted in 15 months, the rail­way was an in­cred­i­ble feat of en­gi­neer­ing and hu­man toil.

More than 12,000 Aus­tralian, Bri­tish, Dutch and Amer­i­can pris­on­ers died along with an es­ti­mated 90,000 Asians, in­clud­ing Tamils from Malaysia, Burmese and In­done­sians — some 250 corpses for ev­ery kilo­me­ter of track. Work­ing with prim­i­tive tools and their bare hands, the pris­on­ers suc­cumbed to cholera, beriberi, star­va­tion, ex­e­cu­tions and de­spair.

A civil engi­neer in Aus­tralia, Beat­tie ar­rived in Thai­land in 1990 to work as a con­sul­tant in the gems in­dus­try. He set­tled in the western Thai­land town of Kan­chanaburi, a key rail­way ter­mi­nus and site of the in­fa­mous bridge on the River Kwai. His pas­sion was kin­dled by the history around him and his own back­ground: two of his un­cles had been killed and his fa­ther twice wounded in World War II. Beat­tie him­self served in the Aus­tralian mil­i­tary for six years.

In the mid-1990s, with ma­chetes and chain saws, he and his Viet­namese wife, Thuy, eight months preg­nant, cleared 4.5 kilo­me­ters of rail bed at a rock cut­ting known as Hell­fire Pass, paving the way for a me­mo­rial and mu­seum there. In 2003, he opened the Thai­land-Burma Rail­way Cen­ter in Kan­chanaburi, both a re­search fa­cil­ity and a su­perb mu­seum in­cor­po­rat­ing some of the thou­sands of ar­ti­facts he

had un­cov­ered.

All Men Suf­fered

Although Ja­panese atroc­i­ties are graph­i­cally de­picted, it is not a mere mu­seum of hor­rors. Ja­panese sol­diers also suf­fered hard­ships and sav­age com­man­ders, and not all are por­trayed as brutes. The ex­hibits in­clude rare pho­to­graphs pro­vided by a Ja­panese engi­neer on the rail­way.

Beat­tie has cor­rected mis­con­cep­tions about the rail­way that had made it into a num­ber of history books, in­clud­ing some that flatly state that Ja­panese guards killed 68 Aus­tralian POWs at Hell­fire Pass. He proved that the guards killed no Aus­tralians there by go­ing through a data­base of 105,000 records of nearly ev­ery pris­oner in South­east Asia.

Beat­tie found that Al­lied POW records were so sketchy that some rel­a­tives even had false in­for­ma­tion about where their fathers died. He said the in­dex cards that Ja­pan’s Im­pe­rial Army kept on ev­ery POW some­times have proved more help­ful than Aus­tralian of­fi­cial­dom. He also dug into ar­chives around the world in­clud­ing hos­pi­tal and burial records, ceme­tery maps, reg­i­men­tal doc­u­ments and di­aries to re­con­struct the tor­tured odysseys of thou­sands. He of­fers them to any who want to know, and has re­ceived dec­o­ra­tions from Aus­tralia, the Nether­lands and Great Bri­tain for his work.

Beat­tie’s on­go­ing work in­cludes a de­tailed GPS map­ping of the en­tire rail line that in Thai­land is 60 per­cent com­pleted. Ear­lier, log­ging more than 3,000 kilo­me­ters on foot, he plot­ted the Thai end and some of the Myan­mar stretch on a 1:50,000 map.

“Prob­a­bly when I die,” he says when asked when he’ll halt his self-im­posed mis­sion.

Beat­tie’s labors seem a race against the clock: The rail­way is van­ish­ing along with those who built it.

Over the past two decades, he says, most sec­tions dis­ap­peared, over­taken by the jun­gle or cov­ered over by farms, roads and a large dam. In Aus­tralia, only some 200 ex-rail­way POWs are still alive; world­wide, the youngest one Beat­tie knows about is 89. Only two sur­vivors at­tended com­mem­o­ra­tions this year in Kan­chanaburi on AN­ZAC Day, April 25, the na­tional day of re­mem­brance in Aus­tralia and New Zealand. In times past, there might be dozens.

But ear­lier in

the

year, 34 Aus­tralians, mostly chil­dren of POWs, gath­ered at the main Al­lied ceme­tery in Kan­chanaburi town for a sim­ple, mov­ing ser­vice among the 6,982 graves. Some wore the medals of fathers they never knew: They were con­ceived be­fore their fathers left for war or were sim­ply too young to re­mem­ber them. They sought in­for­ma­tion from Beat­tie.

It was the first trip to the River Kwai for El­iz­a­beth Pi­etsch, whose fa­ther died in 2013 at the age of 95.

“He never talked about it very much, but when he did, tears would well up in his eyes,” she said. “He went on to be a char­tered ac­coun­tant, a very suc­cess­ful man, but it was al­ways there, the ele­phant in the room ... It was the defin­ing time of his life.”

AP

1. In this June 18 photo, a Thai Bud­dhist monk takes a sou­venir pic­ture while stand­ing on the bridge on the River Kwai in Nam Tok, in Kan­chanaburi province, Thai­land. 2. In this June 18 photo, Rod Beat­tie nav­i­gates the path of the “Death Rail­way,” built dur­ing World War II, Kan­chanaburi. 3. In this June 18 photo, the bridge on the River Kwai, im­mor­tal­ized in the 1957 Hol­ly­wood movie clas­sic, is still in use in Kan­chanaburi.

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