The Bridge on the River Kwai

This is the bridge over the Kwai river. (It actually was the bridge over the Mae Klong river, but the river was renamed the Khwae Yai in the 1960s to “bring geographical fact more in line with the fictional association with the name River Kwai,” according to Wikipedia.) It was a link in the Burma-Siam railway, also known as the “Death Railway,” that the Japanese Army built using POWs and local pressgangs during the second World War: after the Japanese seized Burma, they realized they needed an over-land route to supply their forces. The British had considered building such a route years before and abandoned the idea because of the difficult terrain, but the Japanese saw no alternative since the naval passage was being threatened by Allied submarines.

Most of us know of the bridge from the 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (based on the 1952 novel “The Bridge over the River Kwai”), but that film was highly fictionalized. A plucky band of whistling British POWs did not build a wooden bridge for the hapless Japanese and – apart from some references at the start of the film – come out no worse for the wear; instead, the Japanese army shipped in an iron bridge that they had captured in Java and enslaved soldiers and civilians who came to resemble the emaciated figures like the ones displayed in the nearby museum (above right). Overall, in the fifteen months it took to construct the railway (April 1942 to October 1943), approximately 100,000 POWs and civilians – 1 out of 3 workers – died from overwork, starvation, abuse, and diseases such as malaria, cholera, and dysentery.

On November 28, 1945, Allied bombers flew in to destroy the bridge. The Japanese forced prisoners to stand on the bridge and wave at the planes, to dissuade them from dropping their bombs, but the tactic was futile: the Allies destroyed the bridge anyway, littering the river with metal and corpses. After the war, the Thai government forced the Japanese to rebuild the bridge as part of the reparations package.

The war cemetery near the Railway Museum:

Next: something more cheerful.