Being a coal miner in China has never been the easiest or safest of careers, but today’s Chinese miners operate in conditions infinitely superior to those endured by their forebears. Mining was particularly demanding under Japanese rule, when the conquerors used forced labor. Miners wore tattered clothing and frequently went barefoot, food was in short supply and disease was rife in the labor camps.
One such mine was the Benxihu (Honkeiko) Colliery in Manchuria. It was a joint Chinese-Japanese commercial venture (Honkeiko’ being the Japanese name), but during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 it was under Japanese control. Overseers were brutal but there was no escape. The mine was surrounded by a barbed-wire perimeter and weakened miners who refused to work were brutally beaten.
The miner’s worst enemy is firedamp – explosive gases (usually methane) that can build up, especially where coal is bituminous. The other serious danger is a coal-dust explosion, where fine suspended particles of flammable material combust instantly in a confined space with stunning force. On April 26 one, the other or both exploded within a shaft.
The earth shook and flame burst from the entrance. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, miners’ families rushed to the scene of the disaster, only to be prevented from approaching by Japanese guards, who erected an electric fence to prevent anxious spectators from getting too close. The clean-up operation lasted for ten days, with a succession of charred bodies being carried out of the shaft on carte, many too badly burned to be identified. They were interred in a mass grave with scant ceremony, and when the final death toll was known over 1,500 souls – a third of the miners working that day – had perished in the world’s worst mining disaster.
When: April 26 1942
Where: Benxi, Liaoning, China
Death toll: 1,549 miners killed
You should know: There was no respite for lucky survivors. The Japanese reopened the mine as soon as the clear-up was complete and it continued to operate until the Japanese surrender in 1945, when it was taken over by the exploited workers.