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'Death Railway' POWs Damn Japan's Failure to Face Up to Atrocities

Returning to the scenes of their agony, survivors of the notorious Death Railway blasted Japan for not facing up to its World War II atrocities.


George Lee, an 88-year-old Australian, lived through eight months of grueling, pre-dawn to after-dark labor before being taken to Singapore to finish an airfield by August 28, 1945, or face execution. The war ended 13 days before the deadline.


Now, 60 years after the war's end, Lee and four other former prisoner of wars (POWs), all from Ipswich, Queensland, returned to the railway yesterday to take part in commemorative ceremonies and recount some of their brutal -- and inspiring -- experiences, as their own generation wanes and passes.


Survivors from other countries joined them at one of two war ceremonies in Kanchanaburi, 110 kilometers west of Bangkok, where many of the 12,000 Australian, British, Dutch and Americans who died working on the railway were laid to rest.


In a World War II episode popularized by numerous books and the 1957 Hollywood movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Japan's Imperial Army forced some 60,000 Allied soldiers captured on Southeast Asian battlefields to build a 415-kilometer railway between its garrisons in Thailand and Myanmar -- then called Burma -- through some of the world's most inhospitable, disease-ridden terrain.


Given virtually no medicine, fed rotting rice with occasional bits of maggot-ridden meat and beaten by sadistic guards with nicknames like Doctor Death and The Maggot, the Allied prisoners, along with about 200,000 Asian forced laborers, were driven mercilessly to complete the rail link.


Dysentery, beriberi, cholera, malaria, malnutrition, executions and Allied bombing took a terrible toll.


"You have to move on. I've been to Japan, had a Japanese student stay at my house. I drive a Japanese car," said 85-year-old Harry Barker on Sunday. "But what gets my goat is that they don't recognize what they did. They just butchered people without any apparent reason."


Another comrade, Bobby Landers, one of the last Aboriginal POWs still alive, was less forgiving: "Oh, no. I'll never forget or forgive those bastards. They killed too many of my mates."


"I can accept the fact that the young generation of Japanese is not to blame. It was their fathers and grandfathers. But until they own up, they'll always be a pariah nation," said 84-year-old Baden Jones, who traveled in a wheelchair. "They could have got the work done without any brutality at all. They didn't even need barbed wire to keep us in the camps. Where were we going to go?"


Perhaps the greatest display of Japanese brutality during the 14 months of the railway's construction came at Hellfire Pass, where about 1,000 Australian and British POWs had to cut through 533 meters of sheer rock to a depth of up to 20 meters with only primitive tools during torrential monsoon rains.


When the Japanese started a "speedo" campaign, already intolerable working hours were pushed to 18 a day. Some estimates place the number of dead at 400, with 69 beaten to death by guards.


(China Daily August 16, 2005)

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