A visit to the Bridge over the River Kwai (near Kanchanaburi, Thailand)

the bridge over the River Kwai

As I stood alongside the river and gazed at the bridge, I found myself comparing it to the one I remember from the movie – a wooden bridge that spanned a deep gorge with a river running below. The one I was gazing at was steel-based supported by cement pillars that jutted down into the water and spanned a wider river in a fairly flat area. It was a totally different scene. I almost felt like saying “hey everyone, this is the wrong bridge”. It’s not surprising. The movie was fictional, loosely based on the building of the Death Railway, as it was known, and the bridge over the River Kwai and was shot in Ceylon (nowadays called Sri Lanka). In fact, in his 1952 novel, Pierre Boulle mistakenly indicated the bridge crossed the River Kwai, when in fact it actually crossed a river close by called the Mae Klong. After the movie came out in 1957, so many tourists were getting confused when they came looking for the bridge over the River Kwai that the Thai government changed the name of this section of the Mae Klong, to Kwai Yai (the big Kwai), so it would not be confused with the nearby one which became the Kwai Noi (or little Kwai).

The bridge over the River Kwai against the setting sun

The bridge over the River Kwai against the setting sun

As I continued to gaze, I tried to piece together, in my mind, the scene from 70 years ago – a nearby POW camp with attap (woven palm thatch) and bamboo huts that were 80 to 100 meters long with prisoners sleeping on long bare bamboo slats one right next to the other each having no more than 2.5 feet of space, thousands of Allied POWs toiling in the heat and humidity of the midday sun constructing the bridges and being driven harshly by Japanese guards – many times beaten for no reason at all. I picture a chaotic scene where there’s almost too many people trying to build the bridge. Prisoners are dressed in nothing more than a loincloth covering their mid-section (termed a Jap Happy by the prisoners themselves) with many men going barefoot due to the lack of adequate clothing and other supplies.

As I stood there and contemplated everything that happened three quarters of a century ago, I thought it incredible that any of the POWs survived this inhumane environment of malnutrition, disease, constant beatings and exhaustion, let alone in the extreme heat and humidity.

The Bridge

My Travel Op's John Opperman is on the Bridge over the River Kwai

My Travel Op’s John on the Bridge over the River Kwai

As I walked across the bridge, I had to multi-task and watch where I was stepping since I was literally walking on a railroad. There’s no pedestrian walkway along the side of the tracks. There’s a somewhat smooth section in between the rails and one on each side of the rails; however, these are part of the tracks and have sections to step over and/or around. While trying not to trip and fall, I was taking photos, selfies and videos as I sidestepped the other tourists on the bridge. Periodically, there are small steel alcoves, which protrude outward over the river. These are sections to step into to get out of the way of the train as it crosses the bridge.

All told there were 688 bridges built along the Death Railway. Due to the lack of construction materials, only eight were made of steel like the one here at Tamarkan (as this area was known). There were two bridges constructed here. A wooden bridge was constructed in late 1942. Allied plane attacks destroyed this bridge before the end of the war. The current steel bridge was completed in May 1943. The curved sections located along the top of the bridge were brought from Java, in the Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia) in 1942 and are part of the original bridge. Allied planes destroyed two sections in 1944 and 1945. These sections were repaired after the war and two new steel sections (those that are straight across the top) were brought from Japan.

The Death Railway

With the Singapore to Burma shipping lanes subject to attack by Allied ships and planes, the Japanese decided to connect the existing Thai and Burma railroads with a 415 km railway – the Death Railway as it came to be known due to the 100k prisoners and Southeast Asian laborers, called Romusha, who died building the railroad. The Japanese were trying to position themselves to invade India and stop the Allied war shipments that were supplying the Chinese. In October 1942, work began on the railway at both ends – Ban Pong on the Thai side and Thanbyuzayat on the Burma side. The newly constructed railroads would meet somewhere in the middle.

This map shows the Death Railway from Nong Pladuk, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma

This map shows the Death Railway from Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma

Of the 200k prisoners captured by the Japanese by early 1942, about 60k were jammed into steel, rice railroad cars for the five day railway trip from Singapore to Thailand. The men had very little room, as they were crammed into the small cars with virtually no opportunity for a decent night’s sleep. Sweltering by day and shivering at night, they had few stops for food, water and toileting. When they arrived in Ban Pong, Thailand, they had to march frequently at night until they arrived at their work camps. Prisoners that went to Burma were crammed into similarly small areas on ships for the Singapore to Rangoon trip.

Realizing, in early 1943, they would not meet their railway construction deadlines by just using the POWs, the Japanese supplemented the workforce with laborers from the Southeast Asia area. They coerced these laborers by offering decent wages and working conditions; however, things were no better for these Romusha, as they became known, than for the POWs. In total, 200k Romusha were brought in to help finish the railway.

The war cemetery

Don-Rak war cemetery in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Don-Rak war cemetery where 7k Allied POWs are buried

After getting off the bridge, I proceeded on foot and walked the approximate 3 km distance to the Don-Rak war cemetery where almost 7k POWs are interred. This is about half of the POWs who died during the construction of the railroad. The cemetery was beautiful and appeared well taken care of. There are rows and rows of graves. Each grave has a small monument with the prisoner’s name, their rank, the name of their unit, the date of death and their age at the time. Many have an inscription at the bottom. Most of the men were not any older than their mid-thirties with many in their early twenties. In between each marker is a small plant – many with blooming flowers. I walked through the cemetery with the other tourists who were there. There was a bench, in the shade of a large tree, where I sat down to rest for a few minutes. I tried to absorb what was going on in this very peaceful place. Here were a number of men, many very young who might have been away from home for the first time. They were serving their country somewhere in Southeast Asia and were caught by a surprise attack by the Japanese. They were put through a horrific experience and never made it home to their loved ones. This was their final resting place.

Don-Rak war cemetery in Kanchanaburi, Thailand where 7k Allied POWs are buried

A grave marker for a British POW who is buried at Don-Rak war cemetery

The markers didn’t indicate what the men died from; however, after walking through two museums, I discovered most died from:

  • Malnutrition – their meager diet consisted of just white rice and dry vegetables, which didn’t contain the minerals and nutrients the men needed for a healthy life; in addition the amount of calories was about half what they needed to sustain their current work efforts
  • Disease – cholera, malaria, tropical ulcers, dysentery
  • Exhaustion – prisoners were forced to work, including walking to/from their worksite, 15 to 18 hours per day during the “speedo” period – April to August of 1943 when the Japanese were attempting to meet an accelerated deadline for completing the railway
  • Beatings from the Japanese and Korean guards – many times for no reason at all, the beatings increased when the railway construction got behind schedule

There are another 1,700 POWs buried at the Chungkai War Cemetery about 4 km from here.

The life of the POW

As I left the cemetery, I stepped across the street and into the Death Railway Museum and Research Centre (also known as the Thailand – Burma Railway Centre). The museum, along with the Hellfire Pass Museum, which was located about 80 km further up the railroad, provided extensive information about the building of the railroad, the bridge and the general conditions that existed for the prisoners during that period of time. I was both fascinated, and horrified; to read about the life of the POW and the conditions they lived under during the time they were imprisoned by the Japanese.

The POWs erected and maintained their own shelters, cookhouses and latrines. Men were roused from sleep before first light, ate breakfast and attended ‘tenko’ (roll call). Tools were issued and work parties marched out along the railway. Their marching helped to compact the previous days’ work. They walked from their camp each day to/from their worksite, which, sometimes, was quite a distance. They had just one break each day – at midday for lunch.

The weather was hot and humid. Meals of white rice and vegetables did not provide the minerals and nutrients the men needed especially in light of their extreme manual labor requirements. As a result, malnutrition was a constant issue. Photos showed many men having no fat on their bodies and their ribs and other bones were clearly visible. They were constantly affected by diseases such as dysentery, beri-beri, ulcers to their skin, cholera and malaria.

The monsoon season was especially tough. The tropical downpours made it harder to work as tracks and worksites became muddy. Life in camp was miserable with leaking huts, overflowing latrines and muddy grounds. Cholera became rampant during this time.

However, beatings by the Japanese and Korean guards were one of the worst treatments they faced. Gunner Kenneth Harrison commented “The Silent Basher (a guard) swept down the line of POWs never uttering a word, punching the prisoners in the head and face to ensure they were suitably motivated for the day’s work ahead of them”.

 In closing

My Travel Op's John riding on the Death Railway train

John inside one of the Death Railway train cars

I found visiting the bridge, cemetery, museum and Hellfire Pass (see Hellfire Pass blog) to be a very sobering experience. In all, about 13k POWs and 90k Romusha died from working on the Death Railway. The Asian laborers fared much worse than the POWs probably because they had no Army doctors to provide basic medical treatment. In addition, they didn’t have the structure that the prisoners did. Each POW looked out for their buddies doing whatever was needed to keep each other alive

The Death Railway traveling over the Wampo Viaduct from Nam Tok to the River Kwai station

Riding the Death Railway train from Nam Tok to the River Kwai. Near Thamkrasae Bridge, the train travels over the Wampo Viaduct – a series of wooden trestles.

Today, only 130 km of the Death Railway remains in use, in Thailand, from Non Pladuk to Namtok (just before the Hellfire Pass area). If visiting Hellfire Pass, which is 80 km beyond the city of Kanchanaburi, make your way to the nearby Namtok station and ride the Death Railway train to the station at the River Kwai near Kanchanaburi. It’s a great way to see the area where the prisoners were forced to build this railway, cross the Wampo Viaduct, which is built on wooden tressels and eventually cross the bridge over the River Kwai.

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