Cameron Forbe’s unflinching Hellfire explores a chapter of WWII history unfamiliar to most Western audiences: the harrowing experiences of thousands of malnourished and war-ravaged Australian prisoners of war at Hellfire Pass who were forced by Japanese soldiers to undertake the Sisyphean task of chipping away at stone to make way for a railroad passageway.
The gravity of the subject matter doesn’t encumber the engaging performance of gifted narrator Peter Byrnes, whose energetic and soulful Australian accent adds a sense of authenticity to this stirring, eye-opening pastiche of 50 accounts by those who endured the atrocities at Hellfire.
For months during 1943 there was no night in Hellfire Pass. By the light of flares, carbide lamps and bamboo fires, men near-naked and skeletal cut a passage through stone to make way for a railway. Among these men were some of the 22,000 Australian soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. In camps across Asia and the Pacific, they struggled, died, and survived with a little help from their mates. Their experiences became a defining feature of the war, just as Hellfire Pass was to become a defining symbol of what every prisoner experienced.
Hellfire details the individual stories of those caught up in history: the Hudson bomber pilot attacking the Japanese invasion force on Day One; the prisoner of war who refused to be blindfolded for his execution, and another who coped with misery and death by sketching plumbago flowers; the man the atom bomb didn't kill in Nagasaki and whose homecoming helped change Australia.
Hellfire was researched in Australia, Japan and across South-East Asia. It draws on 50 first-person interviews, ranging from former prisoners to an old Mon villager deep in the Burmese jungle, and from Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew to veterans of the Imperial Japanese Army. The result is a tour de force, a powerful and searing history of the prisoners of the Japanese.