The men who built – and survived – the Death Railway

  • People
  • Monday, 12 Jun 2017


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, we record the survivors’ stories.

This is Part 1. Read more stories in Part 2.

Samion Ariff

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.

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Samion Ariff’s beautiful smile belies the horror he experienced while working on the Death Railway – horrors that he recalls as if they happened yesterday. Photo: The Star/Abdul Rahman Embong

“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 in May 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 incident to Samion’s 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?”

death railway

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.

Samion as a dashing policeman after the war.
Samion receiving his medal of honour in 1981.

“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.

The Death Railway Interest Group is calling for memories

If you or someone you know has a connection with any aspect of the building of the Thai-Burma Death Railway during World War 2, contact this group that is looking to give this overlooked event its rightful place in Malaysia’s history.

More should be done to recognise and remember the hundreds of thousands of Malayans who suffered building the Thai-Burma Death Railway, say historians and the families of survivors.

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Romusha working on the Death Railway at Ronsi, Burma, 1943. Photo: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

Of the 300,000 or so men forcibly drafted by the Japanese army to work on the railway, some 200,000 were South-East Asian labourers, or romusha in Japanese. About 100,000 of them are believed to be Malayan Tamils.

The romusha were distinct from prisoners of war (POWs) and were treated differently, with some being paid a wage (a paltry 1 Thai baht according to some records) while POWs were, obviously, not paid. However, according to an Australian government website, Australia’s Wartime Heritage: The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass (, romusha who worked alongside Allied POWs on the railway died in far higher numbers.

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Prof Teo Kok Seong believes this incident should be emphasised more in history books. Photo: Filepic

Prof Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong – who is head of the history, heritage, and socio-culture cluster at the National Council of Professors – says there is very little awareness about the Death Railway among Malaysians.

“Little or nothing significant about it is taught in our school curriculum,” he says, adding that the Death Railway has not been considered as part of Malaysian history because the construction took place in Thailand and Myanmar (then called Burma).

“But when we scrutinise it, it is our history too, because the number of Malayan labourers forced to work on the line was significantly big,” he says.

The sufferings of the forced labourers, he says, “cannot be a forgotten chapter of our history, especially if we are to honour those who died from malnutrition, torture, brutality, execution, and diseases”.

Besides “serious mention” in our history books, he also suggests that a monument be built in honour of the victims, a section in the National Museum be dedicated to the event, and its victims be remembered during the annual Warrior’s Day marked on July 31.

Deputy Perak State Assembly Speaker Datuk Nasarudin Hashim, whose late father, Mohd Hatim Itam Manas, escaped the Death Railway, strongly believes that the history of Malayan involvement in the tragedy should be remembered and preserved.

“We must know what happened because it shows us the result of war. War creates havoc and suffering. Even innocent people were killed. Those who died were not only from the army. The whole nation suffered,” says Nasarudin, who is a former history student.

Nasarudin’s father had just got married and was only in his early 20s when the Japanese Army came to take young men from his kampung to work on the railway.

Facing daily abuse, many undoubtedly considered escape. However, it was a risk not everyone was willing to take. Those who attempted to run away but were unfortunate enough to be caught were made to dig their own graves before being executed by the Japanese soldiers, Nasarudin explains at a recent interview.

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Emaciated Romusha in a hospital at Nakom Platon, Thailand, 1945. Photo: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum

Despite the horrific repercussions, Mohd Hatim hatched a daring plan and escaped with two others from the same village by fleeing into the jungle while everyone was busy working on the railway.

“When my father came back, my mother said he was so skinny she could barely recognise him. He really suffered there,” Nasarudin says about the daily abuse his father lived through.

Fearful that the Japanese might find him again, Nasarudin’s father changed his name from Mohd Hatim to Hashim; he later joined the police force.

Nasarudin’s father has died but a small number of elderly survivors still live to tell their tales today.

“If we don’t record them now, the stories will disappear for good,” says P. Chandrasekaran, chairman of the Death Railway Interest Group, whose late father worked on the line as a locomotive assistant.

He is on a mission to chronicle as much as possible about the railway and the people that worked on it.

For now, the group is calling for anyone directly or indirectly affected by the Death Railway to come forward so that victims and their families can be given a voice.

“We want to document their experiences, and preserve and publicise their stories to see that these individuals get their rightful place in history,” Chandrasekaran says.

To contact the Death Railway Interest Group, send an e-mail to P. Chandrasekaran at or call 017-888 7221.

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