World War Two came to Thailand by agreement between the Japanese and the Thai’s – otherwise it was coming by force, but the Thai government in 1942 agreed to allow the Japanese passage and signed an agreement effectively saving it (Thailand) an invasion. This was opposed by many Thai’s including the Thai Attache to the US (Khun Seni Promoj) who refused to deliver his declaration of war to the US. Due to America gaining supremacy in the Pacific with the Battle of Midway etc, Japan was struggling to send supplies back home via sea and to supply it’s forces in it’s ever expanding empire; this included essential supplies to Burma and any future foray into India. The Pacific was increasingly risky for shipping, so there had to be another way.
Only several months before on 15 February 1942 – the impregnable fortress Singapore fell – enslaving thousands of allied troops – who began their 3.5 years of occupation. Having secured the Thai tenure, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) compiled the bold plan to use that labour to build a rail link from Ban Pong (near Bangkok) through some of the worst jungle in the world to Burma joining rail services to Moulmein and Ye – giving the IJA the ability to supply their depleted forces. A railway that would end up taking over 100,000 lives – as one author penned, ‘A Life For Every Sleeper’. Over 6,000 British perished, 2,710 Australians, 2,600 Dutch, 400 Americans, and a combination of coolie labourers (Malay, Tamil, Burmese and Chinese etc) who lost great numbers of people. Deaths came to the prisoners from malnutrition, malaria, tropical ulcers, cholera, dysentery and murder.
There are two allied war cemeteries in Thailand – Chungkai and Kanchanaburi War Cemeteries (about 80kms NW from Bangkok). Chungkai War Cemetery holds British and Dutch servicemen and Kanchanaburi War Cemetery holds Australian, British and Dutch men. Kanchanaburi has over 7,000 boys buried in it’s war cemeteries across many nations including men who were unable to be identified – and they have plaques referring to them as ‘Known Unto God’, it is the burial ground for the southern aspect of the railway. Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is managed by an Australian – Mr Rod Beattie and recently I interviewed Rod for my new travel guide to WW2 Thailand on his life, the cemetery and other interesting odds and ends. Rod is a busy character who not only manages the largest Allied War Cemetery in Thailand, but is the Director of Research of the Thai-Burma Railway Centre (museum) next door to the war cemetery.
An Interview with the Curator – Rod Beattie (Curator of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and
Director of Research of the TBRC among other things…)
Q. How did you first hear of the Thai/Burma Railway? In Australia or abroad?
A. Whilst in Australia I knew no more or less than anyone else. I got my first book about the railway as a school prize in 1966. My real knowledge started after moving to Kanchanaburi to work for a Thai company mining sapphires at Bo Phloi.
Q. Have you served in the military?
A. Yes, six years in the Army Reserve (1969-76).
Q. What is your profession? (OK Jack of All Trades – but what does your CV say?)
A. Jack of all Trades. Three tertiary qualifications. Two in Civil Engineering. One in Gemmology. Trade qualifications as Heavy Plant Operator and Truck Driver. Master gem cutter. I am multi qualified.
Q. Why your passion for the TBR?
A. I don’t know other than a desire to learn more and to help other people.
Q. What year did you get to Kanchanaburi?
Q. Was it the same year you started as Curator of Kanburi Cemetery?
A. No. It was not until 1994 that I got involved in the railway. 1995 appointed Manager of the War Cemeteries.
Q. How did you get the job?
A. The British Embassy contacted me to ask for help in finding a new Manager. I gave them local advice which they passed on to CWGC. CWGC came back and asked if I was interested in the job. I said ‘Yes’.
Q. What is your relationship with OAWG like? Is it very bureaucratic?
A. Since my contract as Project Manager of the Hellfire Pass Museum Project finished in 1998 I have had no formal relationship with OAWG. Unofficially I work closely with the Manager of the Hellfire Pass Museum.
Q. Do you think political correctness is a thing that has little place in the TBRC or the HFP Museum etc?
A. Absolutely. The truth would be better and more appropriate.
Q. I know you cleared a lot of railway with your wife, how much did you clear and how long did it take?
A. A total of 8 kilometres. Two years. Only 4 and a bit kilometres are now maintained by OAWG as the walking trail.
Q. Were you ever concerned about the tropical diseases etc, that our predecessors suffered, occurring to you whilst working there?
A. Not at all. I was brought up in the Australian bush so felt completely at home in the jungle. The
diseases are still here but in our present state of health we will not be affected provided we use normal health precautions. The son of one of my labourers had a tropical ulcer which was only cured after I put him in Kanchanaburi’s best private hospital.
Q. How is your relationship with exPOWs that visit – there must have been many over the years – who sticks in your mind as the typical bloke you connected with most?
A. Excellent, with those who know me personally. I really can’t pick out any one individual of the very large number. They are almost universally wonderful men. A tiny number use their status as former POWs to their own advantage. The one who I owe the deepest debt is Tom Morris. He was the one person who had the courtesy to discuss with me what was going on in Kanchanaburi three years ago, when I and my plans for the TBRC were the subject of so much bad press. He believed in what I was doing and stood by me – unlike many others who have not met me and simply believed what they read or heard.
Q. What was Weary Dunlop like when he was in town?
A. I never met Weary.
Q. What about Japanese? Have you had many dealings with them visiting over the years?
A. Yes, many visit Kanchanaburi. Most know nothing of the true story. As an historian I put aside my personal feelings in an attempt to get the Japanese side of the story. It is important that a balanced story be recorded for historical purposes. I have a close relationship with a senior Japanese Engineer and other Japanese interested in the story being told accurately.
Q. A little birdie tells me that you may have had an altercation with some ‘characters’ in the cemetery playing up and being disrespectful? What happened – who were they and why did they make it out alive?
A. Only a minor one, two or three. I am very mindful of the position I hold and only extremely distasteful behaviour will provoke me. Like people running around climbing trees. Like a bus load of tourists using the hedge as a toilet. Like some ignorant people sitting on headstones.
Q. How long are you going to stay in Thailand? Will you ever leave?
A. Totally dependent on the future education of my three little girls. Secondary education in Kanchanaburi is not good so I may move back to Australia for this.
Q. The TBRC has been a long time coming. Has other museums like JEATH even Hellfire Pass (HFP) Museum been annoyed at this new one or have they been supportive.
A. Terrified would probably be a better description. I have a close relationship with the Manager of the HFP Museum so we actively promote each other. I offered a space in my TBRC to OWAG for a HFP display and this offer was accepted.
Q. What is your project at Chungkai doing? What have you unearthed?
A. A huge ‘dig’. Hundreds of items. Personal possessions, camp items, tools, numerous medicine bottles, the actual fireplaces etc.
Q. What do you miss about Australia? (Rugby, AFL, Fish’n’Chips, Meat Pies?)
A. The ease of travelling and going on holidays. Packing up the car, trailer and boat and heading off in any direction. Camping by a western stream and fishing for yellow belly. Pulling into a caravan park anywhere on the coast and putting the tinnie in the water. Cleanliness and order of daily life. But there are also many things I don’t miss.
Q. Have royalty shown interest before in the Thai-Burma Railway and its history etc?
A. Very little interest shown by any Thais. Khun Kanit is an exception. No Thai royal visit in the offering. We have just had a visit by the Queen of the Netherlands.
Kanchanaburi is about a two-three hour trip by bus from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal, cost 79 baht one way. The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is located on Sangchuto Road about 15 minutes walk from the bus terminal. The Thai-Burma Railway Centre is located in a street that overlooks the cemetery – a two storey building with the upper storey overlooking parts of the war cemetery, it costs 60 baht to enter.
The title of my travel guide is ‘A Different Brand Of English’ and is available at www.poseidonbooks.com/a_different_brand_of_english.htm (ISBN: 1-9208-8490-4) An A5 Paperback with 367 pages including over 150 photographs of Singapore and Thailand. This comprehensive travel guide has an emphasis on WW2 Singapore and Thailand. It guides the traveler around Kranji, Chungkai and Kanchanaburi War Cemeteries and includes many graves of war time luminaries to visit with next of kin permission and in some cases includes photographs of the deceased all with information on how and where they died etc. It guides the traveler to cuttings, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Hellfire Pass, POW Camps, Changi Prison etc.
The travel guidebook also consists of Ex Prisoner of War (POW) interviews of men who toiled on the Thai-Burma Railway & includes an interview with the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and Museum Director/Curator. Along with never published before prison camp reports marked SECRET and released before the end of the war for Australian Prison Camp Investigators. The Australian Prime Minister provided comments exclusively for the book about his travel in and around Hellfire Pass. Has over 150 photographs from many and varied luminaries including many of George Aspinall’s war time collection, exclusive pictures of the Queen of Holland in the Thai War Museum, contemporary shots of Singapore and Thailand’s memorials, plaques and places of interest, including Australian War Memorial photographs and maps etc.
The guidebook also discusses the main touristy attractions in both countries including Raffles Hotel, Singapore Cricket Club, Merlion, Bangkok Palace, Bangkok Prison, Patpong Market to Phuket etc. It has a recommended restaurant guide, a hotel stay guide and tips and travel advice down to scams to avoid with up to date foreign office warnings.
This type of book on this combined issue has never been written before and it goes where no guidebook has gone before on this subject. The journey the book takes is one of wonder, excitement, sadness and reflection.