The Japanese Plan
In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand and seized the colony from British control. With the intention of pressing on and invading India and to maintain their forces in Burma, the Japanese were required to bring supplies and troops from Singapore to Burma by sea, through the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. This route was vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and a different means of transport was needed.
A railway route between Thailand and Burma had been surveyed by the British government of Burma at the beginning of the 20th century, but the proposed course of the line - through hilly jungle terrain divided by many rivers - was considered too difficult to complete. The Japanese forces intended to connect Ban Pong in Thailand with Thanbyuzayat in Burma, through the Three Pagodas Pass. Construction began at the Thai end on 22nd. June 1942, and in Burma at roughly the same date. Most of the construction materials, including tracks, sleepers and even a large steel bridge, were brought from dismantled branches of the Federated Malay States Railway network and from the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). Forced labour was used in its construction.
The Imperial Japanese Army used Prisoners of War as slave labour
Large groups of the prisoners began leaving Changi as early as June 1942, all groups - or parties as they were known - that departed from Changi were identified by a letter of the alphabet starting with "A" Force. These "Forces" containing hundreds and even thousands of men, were sent all over South East Asia to wherever they were needed to serve the Japanese as slave labour. The men within these "Forces" were of multi nationalities, mainly British, Dutch, Indian and Australian and later some Americans joined them.
"F" Force was a working party of prisoners of war of the Japanese. It consisted of 7,000 men, of which 3,662 were Australians, the others British. The purpose of this working party was to assist in the construction of the Burma/Thailand Railway linking Bangkok with Rangoon. The force was formed at Changi and the first of thirteen trains left Singapore on 16th. April 1943. Each train contained approximately 600 men crowded into rice trucks, 28 men to each truck, for the 5 day trip to Banpong in Thailand. Unlike the other parties, "F" Force was not deemed to be a working party. The reason for moving them was necessitated, or so the Japanese said, by the lack of provisions. Food was running scarce in Singapore and good conditions and supplies (including cattle for slaughter) would be abundant in a better climate to enable the sick to recuperate. They were allowed to take loads of equipment such as blankets, cooking utensils, gramophones and even a piano. Transport would be provided so they could take whatever they needed. Plenty of food and medical supplies were promised.
Unfortunately the British Officers believed these promises which, as it turned out, were empty promises and in reality the Japanese wanted these men out of Changi and away from Singapore no matter what consequences befell them. "F" Force left Singapore without waiting for cholera vaccinations which proved to be a dreadful and deadly mistake.
The prisoners of war allocated to this force were largely sick men, regarded as not fit enough to be transferred to working areas. The parties that were sent up into Thailand were transferred from the Singapore Japanese administration to Thai/Burma Japanese administration. "F" Force never transferred to the Japanese Thailand Command. They were only on loan and had to be returned to Singapore when the task was finished. F Force was led by Lt. Col. S.W. Harris of the 18th Division (British). The Australian Commander was Lt. Col. C.H. Kappe.
Most of the 2/26th travelled in Train 3, which departed Singapore on Anzac Day, 1943. After arrival at Banpong, they were then marched by night, 330 klm. to various camps north. In May "F" Force was divided into 5 camps, of which 3 were Australian. The main camps for the Australians : no. 1 (Lower or Shimo Songkurai), no. 3 (Upper or Kami Songkurai), and no. 4 (Konkoita). These camps were located in the centre of the cholera belt. Consequently the Australians were to lose 1,060 men from various diseases, mainly cholera, in the period April to November 1943. 1700 sick Australians were sent north to Tanbaya in Burma to a hospital camp where 750 of them died within a short period of time. After the linking of the rail line, in mid November 1943, "F" Force was moved south by train, to Kan Buri Hospital Camp, about 80 klm. from Bangkok.
Most of the surviving members of "F" Force arrived back in Changi in December 1943. Of the 22,376 Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese, 8,031 died while in captivity.
About 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project. The dead POWs included 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.