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Preserving Horrid History Becomes Man's Obsession

River Kwai: An Australian seeks to memorialize the 'Death Railway,' which Japan forced Allied POWs and Asian slaves to build during World War II.

September 08, 2002|DENIS D. GRAY | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

ALONG DEATH RAILWAY, Thailand — Leaves of teak trees rustle in the moist wind. Smiling villagers tend papaya, pineapples and bananas in neat patches. Below the cliff, the River Kwai sweeps grandly around a bend.

A soothing landscape -- for all but Rod Beattie, striding over the field, pointing and intensely conjuring up hellish scenes of six decades ago.

"Here was the isolation area where they came to die," Beattie says. Their withered bodies were cremated where the teak trees stand. There was the cookhouse, the tents, the garbage dump. Here is where Ray Parkin -- an Australian writer who later recounted his wartime life -- spliced the wire on the funicular that drew water from the river.

This now tranquil place was once Hin Tok River Camp, among a number that held skeletal Allied prisoners of war and Asian slave workers who labored on the "Death Railway" for the Japanese army.

This infamous episode of World War II has become an obsession and a mission for Beattie, a 54-year-old Australian who wasn't born until three years after the war ended.

Over the last eight years, on his own time and money, he has trekked more than 1,240 miles along its length, producing a detailed map and almost single-handedly clearing thick jungle from a five-mile section with a machete and saw.

Scouring the region with a metal detector and shovel, he has unearthed thousands of relics -- buckles, insignia, tools, train parts and some poignant articles like a porcelain figure of the Chinese goddess of compassion found at a cremation site. Or a handmade tobacco tin with a heart for "Mum," the dead soldier's name and a plea: "Oi, I'm empty. Please fill."

Some of these relics will be displayed at a museum in Kanchanaburi, about 70 miles west of Bangkok, which Beattie and four colleagues plan to open by the end of 2002 after four years of effort financed from their own pockets.

The museum, Beattie says, will in graphic, non-nationalistic terms show the Japanese feat of laying 250 miles of track through the jungles and hills of Thailand and Myanmar.

And it will detail the price paid: more than 12,000 of some 60,000 Allied POWs and as many as half of the 200,000 Asian laborers dead, mostly from diseases compounded by brutal working conditions.

The harrowing story of the Death Railway has been depicted in a number of books and a 1957 Academy Award-winning movie, "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which starred Alec Guinness and William Holden.

Beattie is painstakingly sifting through memoirs, archives and personal interviews with survivors to compile a computer database that will eventually include 40,000 POWs who died while working on the railway or in captivity afterward.

Recently, the daughter of Australian Pvt. Jack McCarthy came to learn more about her father. From the database, Beattie was able to tell her that McCarthy died at Linson Camp of beriberi and malaria on July 21, 1943. He pinpointed the initial burial site and took her to her father's final grave, a simple headstone adorned with a single red poppy.

"There is so much to do and so little time. My most precious resource is dying -- the POWs," Beattie said in his office flanking one of two Allied war cemeteries in Thailand. The youngest ex-POW he knows is 77.

Many aging survivors or their kin -- British, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians, Dutch and others -- still make the pilgrimage to Thailand.

Beattie tells of an Australian who was 2 when his father died on the railway and whose widowed mother had constantly reminded him that he would never measure up to his almost mythic dad. Beattie found the son a thoroughly unpleasant person but took him to the spot where his father died. The man returned months later, bringing his daughter, and Beattie said he came back transformed into a warm, sensitive individual.

"It's wonderful to be able to help those people to find peace," Beattie said. "You have to be personally involved to know that what happened so long ago is still having an effect, not only on the few surviving wives, but on their children and grandchildren."

Beattie's passion was kindled in 1994, five years after coming to Kanchanaburi to work as a consultant to a sapphire-mining company. Earlier, the native of Gympie, Queensland, had studied civil engineering, built roads, and run a gem-cutting and selling enterprise.

That year, he volunteered to clear the encroaching jungle around Hellfire Pass, where some 400 POWs died cutting through sheer rock, and was hired to build a museum at the site.

After each conversation with a visiting POW, after every bend in the railway line, Beattie's curiosity grew. He decided that he would explore the entire line in Thailand.

Beattie continued to work in the gem business to support his Vietnamese wife, Thuy, and their three young daughters, but spent more and more time on the railway. In 1995, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission put him in charge of caring for the two cemeteries in Thailand.

"It's personal," he said when asked why he has become so involved.

His grandfather served in World War I. His father was wounded twice in World War II, and six of his seven uncles fought in that conflict.

"Sometimes I wish I could just walk away from it. I could make a whole lot more money doing gemstones full time -- and fishing four to five days a week," Beattie said.

"But I am the product of my mother and father. They both dedicated their lives to community service and I guess I inherited it all."

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