written by Mary Klepper

Kanchanaburi, Thailand, site for the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, about the Burma Railway in WWII

In December, I made a pilgrimage to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, a site made famous by the 1957 David Lean classic, The Bridge On the River Kwai, starring William Holden and Alec Guinness.

The film is far from an accurate depiction of the horrors that accompanied the Japanese construction of the Burma Railway in during World War II.

As John Coast, a young British officer who spent three-and-half years as a Japanese POW, put it, “[The Bridge On the River Kwai] is a load of high-toned codswallop.”

The real history of the bridge and the whole railroad construction project is captured at the Death Railway Museum and Research Centre in Kanchanaburi, a resort town whose beauty belies its dark past.

Death Railway Museum and Research Centre showing the real history of POWs in WWII

(Roweromaniak, via Wikimedia Commons)

Two hours from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is located where the Khwae Noi River (noi means small) and Khwae Yai River (yai means big) meet and form the Mae Klong River.

Outside the museum is a sandwich board advertising air-conditioning and free coffee or tea with your admission of 160฿ (about $4.50).

The museum pays tribute to those who lived and died on the construction site. It contains personal accounts, artifacts, and photographs that give a glimpse into the lives of the POWs: tools used in construction, makeshift items crafted for survival, and images of emaciated prisoners.

Signs in Thai and English walk the visitor through the exhibits in roughly chronological order of the railway’s creation.

The Burma Railway was the key route Japan used to supply its war in Burma from Thailand, then known as Siam.

The British had originally envisioned such a link connecting Bangkok in Thailand with Rangoon in Burma. But it was Japanese engineers who figured out how to cross the rugged mountains separating the two countries, clear the right of way, and build the hundreds of bridges needed without heavy machinery.

Initial estimates were that the Japanese would need 60,000 laborers to do the job. In the end, it took five times that number.

More than 100 basecamps were established along the route. The first British and Australian POWs arrived in June 1942 in five trainloads, each boxcar crammed with 28 men, no food.

On arrival, some POWs were fortunate enough to be transported to their work areas. Most, however, were forced to march.

In the beginning, the distances were short, and the walking was done during the dry season. But by early 1943, some marches grew to 185 miles long, and they were done in the hard rainy season.

Huts made of bamboo or attap and some dilapidated canvas tents provided rude shelter. Bedding was split bamboo on bamboo frames. Lice, mosquitos, and other bugs and vermin were rampant, as was dysentery and jungle illnesses of all sorts.

Vintage photo of two POWs in Kanchanaburi Camp

(Death Railway Museum)

“The camp is a quagmire, mud on everybody and everything – in the tents, on the bamboo bed boards, splashed up our legs and taken to bed with us,” reported one British POW.

Food was a precious commodity, poor in quantity and quality. Laborers were supposed to be fed 2000 calories a day – about half of what was required for men doing such hard physical work.

But the food that arrived at the workcamps was usually spoiled. Much of it was stolen enroute, and what was left was contaminated with lime, kerosene, dirt, rat droppings, and weevils. Rotten maggot-ridden meat provided rare protein.

Illnesses such as beriberi and pellagra weakened laborers’ resistance to tropical disease.

Survival depended largely on each camp’s conditions. A camp built in a swamp saw 217 deaths (30% mortality) in three months. Another with clean water had only 5% of its inmates die during the same time frame.

The working conditions were harsh but mostly survivable during the initial construction during the dry season of 1942-43.

One sign at the museum records these “good” times that saw “few” deaths:

Deaths: July 1942-February 1943

Americans 0

Australians 27

Dutch 136

British 255

In March of 1943, the Japanese High Command ordered the rapid completion of the railway – known as “The Speedo” period.

Conditions became much worse: larger work quotas, longer working hours, and increasing brutality were the norm. Still, the death rate remained relatively low:

Deaths: March-May 1943

Americans 4

Australians 148

Dutch 418

British 430

The wet season of 1943 arrived, and disease thrived in the tropical conditions. Already weak from a lack of food and brutal work conditions, men died from diseases that were not usually fatal.

Deaths: June-October 1943

Americans 88

Australians 1630

Dutch 1303

British 4283

The museum referred to this time as the “real tragedy.”

One war convention the Japanese obeyed was to maintain records of enemy captives in wartime. The POWs were involved in this record keeping. After the war, both Japanese and POW records were used to compile accurate figures of deaths.

No such record keeping existed for the Asian romusha, the Japanese word for forced laborer. No one knows how many romusha died, and there’s no memorial to them at the site. Here are approximate numbers from existing records:

Nationality    “Employed”               Deaths

Malaysians    75,000                         42,000

Burmese         90,000                         40,000

British             30,131                           6,904

Javanese        7,500                            2,900

Australian    13,004                          2,802

Dutch             17,990                           2,782

Chinese         5,200                             500

American     686                                131

Amanese      200                                25

Japanese     15,000                          1,000                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               /Koreans

The museum contains an interesting note about the Burmese figures. Approximately 175,000 Burmese were drafted to work on the railway but large numbers deserted before arriving at the town of Thanbyuzayat on the western end of the route. This 40,000 dead does not include the many believed to have died after deserting.

In contrast to their treatment of the living POWs and Asian romusha, the Japanese displayed a “perverse” (the museum’s word, not mine) respect for the POW dead, even allowing them to hold funerals and bury their dead in marked graves. During the early stages, the Japanese even attended the funerals.

The POWs were able to take advantage of the Japanese fear of disturbing the dead by burying records in the graves. The War Graves Search Party recovered many of these records in October 1945.

“The Japanese will carry out [their] schedule and do not mind if the line is dotted with crosses,” wrote Brigadier Varley, an Australian who commanded around 9,000 POWs on the Railway.

Varley buried that note in his diary before boarding a “hell ship” bound for Japan. He died when his ship was sunk in September 1944. The diary was retrieved after the war and used as evidence in war crimes trials.

The brutality of the Japanese guards is well known and documented. The reasons and causes for this brutality, less known.

At first, Japanese engineers felt little pressure from high command to get the job done. Acts of brutality during this time were usually one-on-one encounters for disobedience and rule-breaking.

As pressure mounted to complete the railway, the entire workforce was pushed to greater levels of productivity, and the brutality increased.

One museum sign notes:

It is important to understand that no nation uses its most intelligent and best troops to guard prisoners. In the case of the railway many of the guards were Japanese considered unsuitable or unworthy for combat, or Koreans drafted into the Japanese Army as auxiliaries. With much of the discipline within the Japanese military being maintained by physical punishment (any rank could inflict corporal punishment on a lower rank) and with the Koreans at the bottom of the ladder it is not surprising that many of the Koreans took out their frustrations and rage on the POWs and Asian workers. Adding to the fear of possible brutality was the unpredictability and inconsistency of the Japanese and Koreans. Behavior that could elicit no response one moment could result in a terrible beating the next.

If not for the atrocities committed during its construction, the Burma Railway would be considered one of the greatest engineering feats of history.

The entire 258-mile route took one year to build. Under normal conditions, it might have taken seven years. The route involved the construction of 680 timber trestle bridges built to a standard design American Civil Engineers’ Handbook.

The Bridge On the River Kwai was just one of those bridges. Actually, there were two bridges near Kanchanaburi. One was made of wood and was close to the main tourist area near the museum. The other was steel and concrete and located several miles downriver.

Neither bridge crossed the River Kwai (which the Thai pronounce “quay”), but rather the Mae Klong River.

Both were bombed by the Allies and destroyed. While the steel bridge was not repaired until after the war, the Japanese forced POWs to repair the wooden bridge, which the museum sign says remained in use until 1947.

Vintage photo of bombing attack on the bridges at Tha Makham, Thailand in WWII

By early 1944, with the railway complete, most of the Allied POWs had been evacuated from the jungle camps. The fittest POWs were sent to Japan to work in mines, shipyards, factories and foundries. They traveled on so-called “hell ships,” which the Japanese refused to identify as carrying prisoners. Many of the ships were on were sunk by Allied submarines or planes.

Conditions in Thailand improved for those POWs who stayed after the railway construction period. The death rate dropped.

Deaths: February 1944 to August 1945

Americans 5

Australians 113

British 440

Dutch 451

About 200 of these were killed during Allied bombing raids.

The sudden and surprising Japanese surrender in August 1945 brought great relief. But the Japanese High Command ordered all Allied captives killed in the event of Allied landings in the areas where POWs were held. This order was carried out in the Philippines and in Borneo, but those in Thailand were spared.

When the Allies arrived, they documented what they saw: emaciated and sick POWs and Asian romusha.

During the repatriation process, the newly released POWs turned over the death records they’d secretly kept. Using these with the Japanese records, the Australian, British, and Dutch Army Graves Services assembled in Bangkok and hatched a plan to identify the dead.

In September 1945, thirteen former POWs volunteered to remain in Thailand and assist with the search of thousands of graves scattered along the railway.

By October 10, the mission had located 10,449 graves in 144 cemeteries. Only 52 graves remained unlocated.

Not one single Asian laborer was buried in an identifiable grave.

After identification was complete, recovering and reburying the bodies began. The cemeteries at Chungkai and Thanbyuzayat had been well cared for so they remained. Along the southern portion of the railway, an empty field next to a Chinese cemetery in Kanchanaburi was chosen s a reburial site. Almost 7,000 Allies were moved there.

The British decided to severe the link to Rangoon and sold the railway to the Thailand government. The British then used the proceeds to pay back countries where the Japanese had stolen materials for building the railway.

Allied Command asked the former POWs to report any cases of ill-treatment or brutality by their captors. The Allies conducted identification parades of suspected war criminals. A total of 120 Japanese and Koreans were subsequently tried for war crimes by the Allied governments of America, Australia, Britain and the Netherlands.

Of the 111 convicted of war crimes, 32 received death sentences. Those not executed served time in various Allied prisons until they were transferred to Sugamo prison in Japan in 1951. All prisoners still in prison in 1956 were paroled.

After the museum, I headed down river to the remaining steel and concrete span. In deference to the famous movie, the Thai have renamed this section of the Mae Klong River the “River Khwae.”

Keepers of the famous site hold a light and sound show reenacting the Allied bombing of the bridge. You can see video of the production on YouTube:

My day revisiting the horrors of World War II wasn’t over. I elected to move on to Hellfire Pass, where 700 POW laborers died in 1943. I’ll cover that part of the trip in my next post.

Writer Mary Klepper on the Bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand