[Documents menu] Documents menu

WWII 'Death Railroad' memoirs to be published

By Ken Yamada, Mainichi Shimbun, Thursday 22 July 1999

KOBE - The bitter memoirs of a Japanese railroad official who was charged with committing serious war crimes against British and Dutch prisoners of war (POWs) who were forced to build a railroad linking Thailand and Burma during World War II are set to be published this August to commemorate the end of the war.

During the period of the atrocities in which tens of thousands of POWs died from mistreatment, overwork and sickness while constructing the railroad, former official Shigeharu Tarumoto - author of the memoirs - worked in Thailand and was responsible at times for inflicting pain on soldiers who disobeyed orders to work on the bridge.

I gave up and think it was unfortunate that I was labeled a class BC war criminal, but I really want people to think about why the Japanese Imperial Army committed war crimes, says Tarumoto who now lives in Kobe.

Tarumoto joined the Japanese railroad regiment in 1940.

From July 1942 he was responsible for the construction of the railroad from Thailand to Burma.

Tarumoto, now 82, wrote the memoirs while in solitary confinement in a British prison after his conviction.

In the letters, he describes his outrage at the Japanese military for the atrocities he was forced to commit, but also expresses his repulsion against the Allies for labeling him a criminal.

During the period, Dutch and British soldiers endured incredibly harsh conditions through jungles and over rocks as they constructed the railroad in only a year and three months.

There were nearly 12,000 prisoners from the United States, Britain and Holland, and about 33,000 workers dispatched from Asian territories to work on the bridge.

Tarumoto even admits allowing the beating of prisoners though he knew this was against international law.

On one occasion when construction had reached a standstill because of workers who claimed to be sick, Tarumoto questioned a British colonel about prisoners he believed were simply lying down on the job feigning illness.

He describes how he asked the colonel's permission to punch him if he found out the workers were lying about their sickness.

The colonel apparently agreed to this by nodding his head.

In fact, many of the prisoners were faking their illness, and Tarumoto did punch the colonel for lying to him.

After the war, Tarumoto was convicted on charges of physical abuse and cruelty for forcing sick prisoners to build the railroad.

He writes in his memoirs how he was forced to take most of the burden for violence committed by his commanding officers, as charges against him included responsibility for the death of a prisoner, about which he claims he didn't know anything.

The construction of the railroad by British and other prisoners at the instruction of the Japanese Imperial Army was featured in a 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, directed by David Lean.