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Video Clip Synopsis:
Weary Dunlop and his elderly comrades return to the site of the Thai-Burma railway. As prisoners of war they each had to dig three cubic metres of earth a day, virtually with their bare hands.

2min 19sec

Return To The Thai-Burma Railway is an excerpt from the film Hellfire Pass (55 mins), produced in 1987.

Hellfire Pass: More than forty years after the notorious Thailand-Burma railway was completed, a group of Allied ex-servicemen, including an Australian contingent lead by Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, returned to Hellfire Pass in Thailand to dedicate a monument to the thousands who died during its construction.

Hellfire Pass is a Film Australia National Interest Program.

Study Module

Curriculum Focus: SOSE/HSIE
Year: 9-10
Strand: History
Theme: Wartime Work

Key Concepts

War; Identity; Image and reality; Commemoration; Repatriation

Curriculum Applicability Notes
NSW:History, Stage 5, Topic 4
NT:Social systems and structures — Time, continuity and change Band 5, SOC 5.1
Qld:History Years 9 and 10, Time, continuity and change Level 6, TCC6.1
SA:Time, continuity and change, Standard 5
Tas:Social responsibility — Understanding the past and creating preferred futures
Vic:History Level 6, 6.2
WA:Time, continuity and change — Early adolescence

Context / Background Information

In 1942 more than 20,000 Australians, together with large numbers of British and other allied troops, became prisoners of war after the fall of Singapore to the invading Japanese.

For the next four years most of these Australians were held at Changi prison, in difficult conditions. Some were sent to Japan to work in coalmines, and many were sent to work with other Allied soldiers and local conscripts on the building of a railway between Burma and Thailand. 330,000 worked on the line, including

250,000 Asian labourers and 61,000 Allied prisoners of war — 12,000 of these were Australians taken from Singapore after the surrender. It is thought that about

90,000 of the 250,000 labourers from Malaya, Thailand, Burma and India died, together with about 13,000 Allied prisoners.

The building of the Thailand/Burma railway involved 415 kilometres of clearing ground in the jungle, cutting through hills of rock and building bridges. There were 4 million cubic metres of earth to be moved, 3 million metres of rock to be broken and shifted, and 14 kilometres of bridges to be built. There was virtually no machinery available - only a few elephants and a lot of men with basic hand tools. The short time-line meant that men had to be worked hard to complete their tasks. Camps were set up along the route and men had certain quotas to complete by set dates. For the Japanese, there could be no delays and no failure if they were to support their Burma army. The safety of their colleagues depended on building the line.

The men who worked on the Thailand/ Burma railway were appallingly mistreated, beaten, starved, denied medical supplies and forced to live and work in primitive and physically destructive conditions. A large percentage died during this experience.

Discussion Pointers

  1. Before watching the video clip, list a number of words that describe your image of the Australian soldier.
  2. We often speak of soldiers as ‘heroes’. What is your definition of a hero — what qualities do they have and in what circumstances do they show these qualities?
  3. The Australian prisoners of war (POW) were brought up on heroic tales of the fighting ANZAC tradition. A POW is taken out of the fighting and yet we have great respect for those Australians who survived the war as prisoners. What elements of their experience and behaviour do you think are 'heroic'?
  4. Many prisoners of war, and many soldiers who were not prisoners, continue to suffer from their wartime experiences. Does the nation owe these people a debt of care? Discuss this idea.
  5. Every Anzac Day we hear about the Anzac tradition, the Anzac spirit. Discuss and define what that is. Then consider if prisoners of war are part of that image. For example, the Anzac spirit is often defined as involving a fighting spirit — can it be said that prisoners, most of whom made no attempt to escape, had that spirit?
  6. Many Australians who experienced the Second World War say that they cannot forgive or forget their enemy in the war, Japan. They also stress that they want young Australians today to know what happened. Do you think this emphasis on remembering horrific events is appropriate today?

Suggested Classroom Activities

  1. Interview an ex-prisoner of war. Contact your local RSL for help in locating one. As a class decide what you want to know from this man or woman (some nurses were prisoners of war, and some civilians were interned) about their experience.
  2. The visit to the site of the Thailand/Burma railway shown in the video clip is part of a process of commemoration. How do we commemorate experiences such as those of the prisoners of war? Imagine that you had to design a memorial. What messages would you want people to get from it? What images would be appropriate? What words? What symbols would be appropriate and effective? Put down your design ideas, then visit the national memorial that was dedicated to prisoners of war in 2004. Go to
  3. Prisoners of war of the Japanese pay greatest honour to the medical men who served them — men such as Weary Dunlop, Albert Coates, and many others. Research the medical conditions and the experiences of those who provided medical care in the camps.

Modules That Use This Clip

Science Year 9-10, English Year 11-12, SOSE/HSIE Year 9-10