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World War II Veterans Revisit Sites of Hardship


A group of former Australian prisoners of war has returned to Thailand to mark the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II. Allied POWs were used as slave labor by the Japanese to build the infamous "Death Railway" from Thailand to Burma, and at least 12,000 were executed or died of hunger or disease.

Former allied prisoners of war were among the thousands of people across Asia marking the anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.

Ceremonies in recent days have rekindled memories of the horrors of war more than 60 years ago, when Japan's imperial forces swept across Asia. Ceremonies like those conducted in the small western Thai town of Kanachanburi.

It was in Thailand that 60,000 allied POWs and some 200,000 Asians were forced to work in appalling conditions during the construction of a railway from Thailand to Burma from 1942 to 1945.

The railway was built to move troops and equipment to the Burma Front, and, ultimately, aid the invasion of India.

But construction came at a terrible price. Living in filthy conditions, prisoners were fed moldy rice and occasional rotten meat. At least 12,000 POWs and an estimated 100,000 Asian laborers perished from disease, malnutrition and the effects of severe beatings.

For 84-year-old Australian veteran Baden Jones, memories of the lives lost and the hardships endured will never fade.

"We lost a hell of a lot. Worked to death," he said. "I had mates that just came in from work, and sat down, and said, 'I've had enough, I'm not going to work tomorrow.' And they'd be dead in the morning. Just died - utter, absolute exhaustion, besides the starvation."

For Mr. Jones, the memories of tragedy and hardship must be preserved, so future generations can learn.

"It's got to be kept alive. The younger people have got to know what happened. Japan has never admitted to what they'd done. It's only the younger generation now that's starting to take up any interest," he said.

The POWs first heard their ordeal might be coming to an end thanks to the secret radios some prisoners risked their lives to keep. Eighty-four-year-old Harry Barker says the news spread quickly.

"Whispers got around that the war was drawing to a close," he recalled. "Then, we saw the Japanese burning everything. And, soon after that, a British captain and a signaler walked into the camp. They had been dropped by parachute."

Mr. Barker said the surrender was greeted with great relief, as the POWs had feared the Japanese were preparing to kill them.

But despite the hardships endured by so many, Mr. Barker feels the time has come to move on.

"I certainly won't forgive them for what they did, nor will I forget what they did. But at the same time, I've had Japanese students in my home. I've visited Japan, and I think you have to move on," he said.

For many of the former POWs, making their way to the region, this may have been the last opportunity to say farewell to fallen comrades they lost as young men six decades ago.

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