Monday, September 17, 2012

Bridge On the River Kwai

Commander K. on the Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

I was fortunate to be able to visit the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai on a recent trip to Thailand.  The bridge is about a three hour drive from Bangkok not far from the border with Burma.

In Kanchanaburi I picked up a tourist brochure called "The Death Railway & the Bridge on the River Kwai".  This is from its introduction...

"In June of 1942, 61,000 British, Australian, American, New Zealand, Danish and Dutch POWs as well as an estimated 200,000 laborers from India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia,Singapore, Burma and Thailand were put to work by the Japanese Imperial Army to construct a railway line 415km long to link Kanchanaburi to the Japanese Base camp in Thanbyuzayat in Burma, this ensuring a direct line from Singapore through Malaya and Thailand to link up with the railway network in Burma.  Apart from supplying their bases in Burma, the Japanese had also planned to use the railway to launch an attack on India.

The decision to build the railway was made by the Japanese Cabinet following the decisive defeat of its navy at the battle of Midway in June 1942.  At that time a large Japanese army was based in Burma and another in New Guinea and adjacent islands.  Both depended for support and supplies on the navy which after Midway no longer enjoyed its former supremacy.  The Japanese were aware hat the British had surveyed a proposed railway linking Burma and Thailand in 1910 and that they had abandoned the project in 1912 because of difficult terrain, endemic disease and high monsoonal rainfall.  To planners studying the map in Tokyo however, the construction of a 415 kilometer railway seemed an obvious solution to supplying the army in Burma and thus avoid the hazardous seas route around Singapore and through the Straits of Malacca.

Accordingly two Japanese railway regiments totaling 12,000 men were assigned to the railway project...The deadline for completion was August of 1943 and in June of 1942 the Japanese began moving prisoners of the war to Burma and Thailand.  Construction of the railway began on the 16th of September 1942.  First estimates by the Japanese engineers suggested that it would take at least five years to build, but under tremendous pressure, the POWs were forced to complete the bridge in 16 months.  On the 25 December 1943 the "the Railway of Death" was completed...

Kanchanburi Cemetery, Thailand
The effect was devastating.  16,000 allied prisoners of war lost their lives when this railway was built dying together with 100,000 slave Asian laborers who aren't mentioned all that often...Every kilometer of railway track cost the lives of 38 allies."

Historian Andrew Roberts writes,  "When considering the horrific cruelties inflicted on European POWs by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, it is important to see them in the overall context of atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking.  Whereas 6.2 per cent of British Commonwealth prisoners of the Japanese died between 1941 and 1945, the figures were 23 per cent for the Dutch, 41.6 for the Americans and a monstrous 77 per cent (230,000 out of 300,000) for Indonesian forced laborers...The literature covering what one historian has called 'The Horror in the East' is voluminous, and the Kachanaburi death camp on the River Kwai, Unit 731's anthrax experiments, Chang Jail in Singapore, Korean 'comfort' women, the Bataan Death March and so on have particularly foul places in the long history of man's inhumanity to man."  (The Storm of War, Andrew Roberts, 2009 http:/

E.T. on Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
I hired a friendly Thai driver named E.T. to take me from Bangkok to the Bridge on the river Kwai which is near the border with Burma.  On the way we stopped at the JEATH Museum (Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland) in Kanchanaburi.

Japanese Commander: "If you work hard you will be well treated, but if you do not work hard you will be punished."
The museum had photographs and artifacts from the construction of the bridge...

JEATH Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Small Arms collection, (JEATH Museum)
Here is a photo of the bridge under construction...

Building the Bridge on the River Kwai (JEATH museum)
There was original art by the prisoners...

Aussie, Yank, Dutch, Brit (JEATH Museum)
The Bridge over the River Kwai was bombed by allied aircraft during the war...

Bridge Damaged by allied bombs, not destroyed (JEATH Museum)
Here is a photo of some prisoners who were lucky enough to survive the war...

"Liberty" (JEATH Museum)
I stopped at the nearby Kanchanburi cemetery to see some of the graves of the victims of the "Railway of Death".

Kanchanaburi Cemetery, Thailand
The grave of Australian private T.J. Kelly naturally caught my eye...

"Greater Love hath no man than this that he lay down his life"
When I finally arrived at the bridge after a 3 hour car journey this is what I first saw...

Bridge on the River Kwai today, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Walking over the bridge, I met a musician who was, of course, playing the famous Colonel Bogey's March tune on his violin.  I put a couple of US dollars into his violin case.  He stopped playing and asked me to come over and check out something on the bridge.  I was curious as he had me feel with my hand on the outer side of the steel bridge -- I could detect the unmistakable marks of bullet holes that had been caused by strafing from allied planes during the war.

Colonel Bogey's March

The movie, Bridge on the River Kwai, won the academy award for best picture in 1957 and is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest films of all time.  It was directed by David Lean, shot on location in Ceylon and based on a novel by French author Pierre Boulle.  Alec Guinness (, who had served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during World War II and piloted a landing craft in the 1943 invasion of Sicily, won the Academy award for best actor, playing the role of the unbending Colonel Nicholson.  William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa co-starred.  The movie's theme message of collaboration was, perhaps, more appropriately suited to occupied France rather than Southeast Asia -- the real life Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey did not collaborate and worked to delay the railway's completion.

Contrary to film's dramatic conclusion, the bridge was NOT destroyed by the allies during the war.  It was hit by allied bombers (see above) but it was reconstructed and, as you can see, is still standing today.  E.T. and I enjoyed a pleasant Thai lunch at a nearby restaurant...

Commander K. and The Bridge on the River Kwai

Today a small tourist train clatters over the bridge ferrying tourists back and forth...

Tourists now cross the Bridge over the River Kwai
After contemplating the bridge that cost so many lives I was ready for this...

Singha beer, Thailand
Commander Kelly says, "Never forget the sacrifice of so many in the construction of the "Railway of Death" and Bridge on the River Kwai during World War II.  'Forgive, but not forget' as the sign at the JEATH museum says. Our generation and all those born after 1945 have had it so easy in comparison".

Commander K. on Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's 
first book, America Invades or on

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