Bridge On The River Kwai - History
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The following article  by Arnold Abrams appeared under the title "An ugly bridge with a dubious history", in "The Review", August 20, 1971, page 1273.

The things that stick after seeing the bridge are mostly through rugged jungle, the starkness of its setting and the horror of it's history.

It stands in a lonely place where the heat is oppressive and the jungle foreboding. Flowing below it is muddy water; running across it are rusting railroad tracks that come from the forest, then curve towards distant mountains and the Burma border  beyond.

The train line once was known as the Death Railway, but it no longer has a name. The bridge, once without a name, now stands immortalised by a movie. It is the Bridge on the River Kwai.

It is an ugly bridge: 200 yards of black iron span resting on yellow concrete foundations that are faded by time and discolored by dust. This is appropriate, for no structure with such an unsavory past should be gifted of with grace or pleasing to the eye.

More than 116,000 men died and untold others were maimed while building this bridge and railway during world way two. All were victims of the Japanese "Speedo" campaign, a frantic effort to create an overland supply line between Thailand and Burma.

Although the line stretched more than 250 miles, the Japanese allotted only one year for its construction. They ignored standard conventions of warfare to muster more than 60,000 British, Dutch, Australian and American war prisoners for the project. About 200,000 coolies, primarily Burmese and Malayan peasants, also were conscripted.

The Japanese drove those men savagely while providing insubstantial shelter, insufficient food and inadequate sanitation facilities. More than 16,000 war prisoners and 100,000 coolies perished as victims of sickness, malnutrition and beatings by their captors.

The project was started in October 1942 and finished 14 months later, but the railway was never fully used. Frequent breakage, sabotage and allied air attacks were responsible. The film ended with the bridge - and Alec Guinness - blown sky high by planted explosives. Real life, as usual, was not so tidy.

According to official records, the bridge eventually was bombed out of commission but not fully destroyed in 1945 after a total of 10 attacks by allied airmen.

Some survivors claim however, that it was demolished shortly after completion and that some British prisoners actually were distraught at having their workmanship destroyed.

The bridge, located on the outskirts of a small provincial capital of Kanchanaburi about 75 miles northwest of Bangkok, was rebuilt with Japanese indemnity funds after the war. But remnants of the past remain: some of the tracks are pocked by bullet holes and shrapnel. However, that does not deter a crowded passenger train from chugging across twice daily on an 80 mile run operated by the Thai state railway.

More recent times. View from bridge.

The train passes near Kanchanaburi cemetery, one in three set aside in Thailand and Burma for victims of the Death Railway. It is unadorned but well tended, with graves of some 7000 POWs neatly aligned and marked by simple bronze tablets.

A memorial plaque at the cemetery entrance commemorates the "fortitude, and sacrifice" of the "valiant company" lying within. But the timeworn platitudes obscure the simple truth and tragic sadness of the story. These victims were an incongruous mixture of unlucky souls who happened to fall into Japanese hands. They were boys in their late teens, fathers in their early thirties and men in their mid-fifties. They had little in common except mutual misfortune.

To that end, there is another memorial. It stands about 50 yards from the bridge, almost hidden by jungle foliage. It is a Japanese memorial, built by the captors in 1944, when the war tide had turned and the world was noting how these people handled their prisoners.

The Japanese memorial is a 20 foot high concrete pillar in a concrete plaza. The plaza is encircled by barbed wire, a tribute to either the exquisite sense of irony or incredible insensitivity of some unknown official. It bears a plaque with the following inscription: -

"In order to console the deceased who had been labored along the Thailand-Burma railway during world war two this memorial was built by the Japanese army in 1944."

Perhaps of greater consolation to the deceased, however, are the few visitors who journey here, far from Bangkok's regular tourist route. All are asked to sign a guest book at the cemetery; comments are invited, and some are noteworthy.

Ralph Harvey of California recently wrote: -

"The absurdity of it all".

Ganis Corke of Sydney, Australia, asked: -

 "What can be said?"

William Deusch of Massachusetts wrote: -

"Alles was wir machenist falsch, gottverdamnt" ("Everything we do is wrong, goddammit").

But most moving of all was a simple commentary about the cemetery, written by an Englishman with an illegible signature. He had been to the bridge on the Kwai before and wrote: -

 "A fine resting place for old friends"


Copyright 2002, Elliott McMaster, "Glen Ora", Nabiac, New South Wales, Australia, 2428.  Original content in these Web pages is copyright. Apart from any use permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be produced by any process or any other exclusive right exercised without written permission from the copyright holder.

This Web was prepared by the Great Lakes Historical Society Ltd, C/- Great Lakes Museum,  Capel Street, (P.O. Box 23), Tuncurry, New South Wales, Australia, 2428.