The bridge that was blown up in David Lean’s classic movie is very much present, a testimony to thousands of soldiers who lost their lives building it, says Prakash Philipose.
As you take the curve on the river Khwae Mae Khlong, an iron bridge looms right in front, the one made famous in the movie The Bridge on the Rriver Kwai. In the movie the bridge was destroyed. In real life, the bridge still stands, a testimony to thousands of prisoners of war whose lives were lost in building it. This is one of the lesser-known stories of the Second World War, specifically the war in the India-China-Burma sector.
Kanchanaburi is where the bridge spans the fast-flowing river. Located 240 km from Bangkok, it’s an easy drive along a four-lane highway. You can also travel by train and experience how the prisoners of war where moved from Bangkok to the site to build the bridge.
“My grandfather built this bridge,” said Gordon Rice, visiting from the U.K. His grandfather was captured after the fall of Singapore to the Imperial Japanese army, interned for a short while at the infamous Changi prison in Singapore and then moved to Tamarkan, where the camp for PoWs working on the bridge was set up.
While Rice’s grandfather survived the ordeal, many others did not. Those who did, never talked about it, said Rice. The bridge was part of the grand plan to connect Rangoon and Imphal, to create a supply route for the invasion of what was then British India. The 415 km stretch ran close to the banks of the river to avoid dense jungle, which held a horde of dangers — intense heat, malaria, dysentery, leeches, snakes and tigers. Only at one point did it cross the river: Kanchanaburi.
Thousands of lives were lost to the jungle, and the arbitrary cruelty of the guards. When the railway was completed in 1943, an estimated 16,000 allied prisoners and as many as 15,000 Thai, Burmese, Indonesian and Malaysian labourers had perished, earning it the name ‘The Death Railway’.
At Kanchanaburi, there is a huge cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. What strikes you first is how young these prisoners were — most in their early twenties. The messages on the headstones reflect the sadness of parents and young wives realising their loved ones would never come home again. These troops were largely British, Australian and Dutch. There is another cemetery for conscripted labourers where many more thousands are buried unsung.
Initially, the bridge was a wooden structure. This was eventually replaced by an iron bridge for which pilings had to be driven into the river bed. Using primitive diving equipment, prisoners had to dive to the muddy bottom and monitor the depth of the piling. Others slaved away in the hot sun riveting, laying out sleepers and rails. Some workdays would stretch for twenty hours. Laxity was punished with whipping. Extreme punishments included being made to stand under a merciless sun in the open quadrangle the whole day and solitary confinement in a hut made of metal sheets that baked you. This could last for days.
But the worst punishments were for those who tried to escape. The camp hardly had a perimeter; it was not needed because escapees would have to cut their way through dense jungle, find food to eat, be well enough to battle animals and the elements, and evade locals, who got monetary benefits if they turned in PoWs. If caught, prisoners were asked to dig their own graves and then bayoneted alive into them.
The railroad thus built was the lifeline that served the Japanese for many years and brought them to the doorsteps of India, culminating in the battle at Imphal. Slowly, the Americans and British under Generals Stilwell and Slim pushed back. By 1945 Burma was cleared and the gateway to China from India was built, so that supplies which were air-dropped till then could be sent by road.
Today tourists come by the busloads to marvel at the bridge and to enjoy the fresh fish caught from the waters of the river. There is a museum nearby, but poorly maintained. The most poignant part of the visit is the confession of the ex-guards; what they did and why. The Death Railway Museum is next to the cemetery and is a must see. It has interactive sections and a short video that captures the struggles of building this infamous railway.