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The Bridge Over The River Kwai

by Alan Brown

Many times I have visited the churchyard in Whittingham where I grew up, and pondered the headstone bearing the inscription "In memory of Frank Brown, buried in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, November 29th, 1944". Never did I think that I would be the first and probably only family member to visit Kanchanaburi, almost 60 years after his untimely death.

I remember my father, when he was alive, mentioning his younger brother who died in Asia on the Burma Railway, but had no knowledge of what had befallen him in his only too short a life. In April, 2002 I put some closure to these issues, finding out as best I can just how my Uncle Frank and many others died all those years ago.

Today I am employed by a mineral and mining company, J. M. Huber, in Georgia, USA, working as their Director of Technical Services in the Global Paper Group. We service and support paper companies all over the world, and earlier on this year I was visiting paper mills in Asia, spending time in both Taiwan and Thailand. While in Thailand I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Kanchanaburi and catch up on some family history.

One of the most extraordinary engineering achievements of World War II was the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. With unbelievably primitive tools for such a project and a total disregard for human life and suffering, the Japanese built a railway 415 km long through one of most rugged and pestilence-ridden areas of the world in the incredibly short span of 12 months. The cost was a life for every sleeper laid over its most difficult sections. Dead were 13,000 British, Australian, American and Dutch prisoners of war and an estimated 70,000 Asian civilian laborers.

"Work Cheerfully…" Lt. Col. Y. Nagatomo to "A" Force Thanbyuzayat, Burma, 1942

The decision to build the railway was made by the Japanese Cabinet following the 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 on support and supplies from the navy, which after Midway no longer enjoyed its former supremacy. The Japanese were aware that the British had surveyed a proposed railway linking Burma and Thailand in 1910, and that they had abandoned the project in 1912 because of the difficult terrain, endemic diseases and high monsoon rainfall. To the planners studying the map in Tokyo, however, the construction of a 415 km railway seemed an obvious solution to supplying the army in Burma and thus avoid the hazardous sea route around Singapore and through the Straits of Malacca.

Accordingly two Japanese regiments totalling 12,000 men were assigned to the railway project, the 5th Regiment to be based in Thanbyuzayat in Burma, and the 9th Regiment at Kanchanaburi in Thailand. The deadline for completion of the railway was August 1943, and in June 1942 the Japanese started moving Australian, British and Dutch POW's to Burma and Thailand. The total workforce to be employed on the railway included some 30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australian and 700 American POW's. Over 61,700 conscripted Asian laborers from China, Burma, Thailand, Malay and Singapore were also used in the construction process.

Some experiences were common to all the work forces sent to Burma and Thailand in 1942 and 1943, but as the forces were continually split up and spread along the route of the railway many experiences varied enormously from camp to camp. The first groups to arrive were composed of mainly fit men, while those that left the Changi holding camp in Singapore after April 1943 were made up of men in poor physical condition and included large numbers of convalescents. At Changi POW's had little contact with the Japanese and were subject to the discipline of their own officers. In Thailand, they were suddenly thrown into direct and violent conflict with Japanese engineers and Korean guards.

Those prisoners put to work in base camps, or in the flat country, coped reasonably well, but those in remote camps in the mountains who worked on embankments, cuttings and bridges suffered unbelievable hardships. Until the coming of the monsoon rain about the end of May 1943, living conditions were endurable. But when incessant heavy rain turned bush tracks into impassable bogs, and swelled the river until it became un-navigable, POW's in remote areas could no long be adequately supplied. Their boots and clothes rotted away, and they slowly starved while being literally worked to death. Malaria, dysentery and ulcers were ever present, and with the monsoon came cholera.

A further factor for good or ill was the character of the individual Japanese camp commandants. Some were reasonable, a few compassionate, but most were dedicated to one purpose - getting the railway through at any cost.

The first Australian POW's to begin work on the railway were a group of 3,000 men, known as "A" Force, under Brigadier Varley. They had left Changi in May 1942 to work on airfields in southern Burma, but in September 1942 were moved to Thanbyuzayat, the northern starting point of the railway. Mean while, in late June 1942 a force of 600 British POW's had been moved to Bampong to begin preliminary work on the Thailand side, and the following "Dunlop Force" of 900 Australians, under colonel E.E. Dunlop, arrived from Jarva at Konyu on the River Kwai.

As batch after batch of British, Dutch, Australian and some American POW's continued to converge on Thailand and Burma, the Japanese also began recruiting Tamil, Chinese, Malays and other civilian laborers from Burma, Singapore, Malay, Java and Thailand. By October 1942 construction was under way, but it is doubtful if the Tokyo planners or the Japanese engineers in Burma and Thailand had any conception of the magnitude of the task they were undertaking, or the natural disasters that lay ahead.

The 3,000 men of "A" Force sailed from Singapore on 15 May, 1942 in two small, over crowded, filthy steamers, on which an epidemic of dysentery broke out almost instantly. Three separate parties were disembarked, and for the next few months worked at their separate locations. After some initial misunderstandings the POW's were treated fairly by the Japanese, who seemed unprepared for the large numbers being thrust into their care. Nevertheless, the thought of escape was in the minds of many men, and in June one of the first attempts at escape from Burma was made by eight Australians at Tavoy. All were members of the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, and were led by Warrant Officer Quittendon. They were soon re-captured and four days later were executed by a firing squad of sixteen guards. Their conduct to the end was exemplary. Brigadier Varley, who was compelled to witness the execution, recorded in his diary: "The spirit of these eight Australians was wonderful. They spoke cheerio and good luck messages to one another, and never showed any sign of fear. A truly courageous end."

In August 1942 the parties at Mergui and Victoria Point were bought to Tavoy and work continued on that airfield until it was completed on September 16th. Later "A" Force was moved to start work on the railway. Most of the POW's were taken by ship to Moulmein and from there by cattle trucks to Thanbyuzayat, by early 1942 POW's were clearing undergrowth, felling great trees and making embankments and cuttings. The equipment provided was primitive - picks, shovels and a hoe like implement called a chunkel. Baskets and stretchers made from bags and poles were used to carry earth and rocks.

One of the most hazardous operations on the railway was bridge construction. Apart from the limited use of elephants, the only equipment available was manpower, and fatal accidents occurred almost daily. Over 15 km of bridges were built over the entire railway, and some 30,000 trees were cut down to provide timber for girders. Primitive methods of pile driving were used, the power being provided by prisoners repeatedly raising the pile driver with ropes, and letting it drop onto the top of the wooden pile. By early 1945 such bridges became targets for Allied bombings.

In December the Japanese reaffirmed their uncompromising attitude towards escape attempts by executing an Australian and three Dutchmen.

By March 1943 the POW work force in Burma was spread between Thanbyuzayat and Meiloe at the 75 km camp. At this stage there were some 9543 POW's under the command of Brigadier Varley, including 4465 Australians, 481 British, 194 Americans and 4394 Dutch. In April 1943 there was an influx of native labour onto the railway. About this time the wet season began, earlier than expected, and by May 1943 the string of camps extending southwest from Thanbyuzayat were wallowing is seas on mud. Day and night the rain poured down from leaden skies, drenching all beneath. The base camp at Thanbyuzayat was bombed by Allied bombers from India on June 12, 1943, nine men including five Australians were killed, and eight were wounded. In another raid three days later seventeen men were killed, including 13 Australians. Many others were wounded.

As the year went on "A" Force camps stretched south beyond the Three Pagoda Pass into Thailand. By September 1943 the Japanese ordered that prisoners of Group 3 were to lay the rails as far as the 150 km mark where they would meet parties working form the Thailand end. Disease ridden prisoners now began working shifts of 24 hours on and 24 hours off as the Japanese drove to keep the work on schedule. In the early stages of construction the POW's were moved from site to site by foot, often over distances of up to 100 km. As the line neared completion they were privileged to travel by train.

"A special savagery…" Dunlop Force, Thailand

In the Thailand sector where Dunlop and succeeding forces were to be employed, the track of the line ran over level country to Kanchanaburi and Tamaran, the site of two bridges, one concrete and one of wood. From there the line followed the left bank of the Kwai Noi River into thick jungle and massive clumps of bamboo. Approaching Wampo, the route led into hilly country and beyond the Tarsauinto ragged mountains covered with dense jungle and extensive clumps of bamboo. The conquest of this kind of country called for the construction of improvised viaducts and bridges and massive earth works and rock cuttings. The lifeline of the project was the river and the commander of "D" Force, which follower Dunlop Force. Lieutenant Colonel C.A. Mc Eachern described its role thus: "The river Kwai was of great importance during the construction of the railway. In the dry season, although full of shoals and rapids, it is navigable for barges towed by motor launches up to Takanoon and in the rainy season as far as Krekonta. The river was used as a transport system for water supply as well as washing; it was also thick with fish, though POW's were rarely able top avail themselves of this. Occasionally the Japanese exploded dynamite charges below water level and obtained some quantities of fish".

The Hintok section of the line was technically the most difficult being extremely rocky, involving big embankments and cuttings. The main working camp was sited so that the men had to march to work over rough hills for 3-4 miles every morning and night. They frequently left in darkness in the morning, with the marches and work keeping them out from the camp up to 16 hours a day. During the worst blitz of the railway construction drive, there were no rest days for over 3 months. Work consisted largely of hand drilling with crude drills, rock clearing after dynamiting, hauling logs in the jungle, bridge building and scratching earth from between the stones to build embankments. In the rock cuttings the heat and glare at times were almost unendurable, with the rocks hot enough to blister at the touch.

Wampo Viaduct, Thailand

Closed steel trucks were used to transport the men from Changi to Thailand. There were 36 men to a truck, with the journey taking 5 days. The men and their gear were so tightly packed that sleep was only possible in shifts. By day, the prisoners stifled in the over heated steel trucks, and by night they froze. Toilet facilities were non-existent apart from the occasional stops. Food consisted of two small rice meals a day. A Japanese guard traveled in each truck occupying a positioned near the partly opened sliding door which was the only source of ventilation.

The cutting at Konyu was known as "Hell Fire Pass". Over 500 yards long and over 80 feet high, it claimed the lives of many POW's. Work began on the cutting in April, 1943, with half of the assembled POW's working on building the camp out of virgin jungle, and the other half beginning the gargantuan task of making the cutting with hand drills, picks and shovels, baskets and dynamite. In June 1943 the work hours were extended to 18 a day for 6 weeks until the cutting was completed. Some 1000 POW's worked on the cutting day and night with 400 dying in the completion of the pass alone. By mid-August 1943 there were only 100 survivors left.

Building bridges from jungle material was the most dangerous task allotted to POW's. One bridge near Hintok was named the "Pack of Cards Bridge". It was built of green timber, fastened with wooden wedges, spikes, bamboo ties and cane rope. It was 400 yards long and 80 feet high, falling down three times during construction, killing 31 men. Some other 29 POW's were beaten to death during the construction of the bridge.
In one of the camps following an outbreak of cholera the medical officers insisted that each man should sterilize his eating utensils in boiling water before receiving his rice. River water was boiled in kerosene cans before each meal. At this stage of the railway construction, mid 1943, few POW's had boots, some of the more resourceful making footwear from wood or old tyres.

Conscript Asian Labor - "K" and "L" Forces, Thailand and Burma

In addition to the 61,000 POW work force, the Japanese at the end of 1942 recruited by fair means or foul some additional 270,000 civilian laborers including Chinese, Burmese, Thais, Javas, Indians and Eurasians. As the railway construction moved north the Japanese placed adverts in Malayan newspapers seeking Malay laborers for work of up to three months in Thailand. Free rail travel and housing were offered together with medical services and a pay rate of 1 dollar a day. The response was negligible so the Japanese resorted to press-gang methods. Free picture shows were advertised at various theatres, when full the doors were locked and all the males were put aboard trains to Thailand. Under Japanese occupation forces all civilians had to register to receive rice rations, the Japanese started to assess the local male population demanding 50 - 70% of males from each village for their labor force. Young men evaded this by hiding in the jungle.

As pressure increased to complete the railway it became increasingly more difficult for the Japanese to replace those dying in Thailand. Java was then exploited with offers and advances of up to 100 dollars for a three-month contract. Similar methods were used in Burma. Needless to say three-month contracts proved valueless as no labourers returned home during the first 18 months. Once they reached Thailand and Burma the labourers found themselves herded into unhygienic half-built camps with no medical facilities, inadequate rations and yoked to a relentless grind in which nothing mattered but the completion of the railway.

The civilian death toll is estimated at between 70,000 and 90,000.

In early 1943 the line from Thailand and the line from Burma were rapidly approaching each other. On the Burma end of the line at one stage work continued for 33 hour straight because of collapsed cuttings. On October 16th 1943 the lines joined at Konkoita. For the POW's the joining of the line near Three Pagoda Pass was both farcical and pathetic. They could not but smile at the antics of the Japanese as they enacted the final scene with so many "Hollywood" trimmings, their thoughts clearly on the futility of the achievement and upon the tragic and unnecessary deaths of so many of their comrades.

For the POW's the line-laying ceremony had one remaining element of fun. Those POW's chosen to take part were suitably costumed for the final scene and were prone to swank in their new shorts, shirts and footwear. Ironically, they were not even allowed to keep these small offerings as payment for their services. To the cheers and jeers of their mates the "film stars" were deprived of their bounty by an unsmiling Japanese quartermaster and his staff who walked down the line of POW's collecting their uniforms in large bags, leaving the men standing bare and exposed in only their G-strings.
The ceremony was capped for the Japanese engineers and the guards by a celebration dinner in which generous portions of sake were served. For the POW's there was little but a feeling of anti-climax after the ceremony. They did get an extra portion of rice which all were glad to receive.

And so it was in the closing stages of the war many air raids were carried out on the railway by the Allies. On March 22nd, 1945 RAF Liberators bombed the 200 foot bridge built by the POW's about 10 miles south of Thanbyuzayat. These raids caused many casualties among the POW's who were still held in Burma and Thailand to maintain the railway which at this time was being used to evacuate sick and wounded Japanese survivors from their recent defeat in Burma.

The so called "Bridge on the River Kwai" was bombed on November 28th 1944. The bridge steel girder sections were brought complete from Java to replace the wooden bridge made famous by Pierre Boulle in his book "The Bridge on the River Kwai", and by the film of the same title. There is no longer any trace of the original wooden bridge, which was 300 meters down stream from the concrete and steel structure that still is in use today. On that fateful day the Japanese were aware of the impending raid because of the earlier observation of Allied spotter planes, and forced all the POW's in the bridge camp to stand on the bridge and wave at the Allied planes in an attempt to prevent a bombing raid. Two of the curved sections of the bridge in the middle of the river were totally destroyed in the raid and later replaced with squared metal sections. Many POW's lost their lives in the raid. My Uncle Frank died on November 29th 1944, presumably a casualty of the failed Japanese human shield tactic.

There are two cemeteries in Kanchanaburi, one in the town where Uncle Frank, 9th Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, is buried, and one outside the town on the site of the original hospital cemetery at Chungkai. Those who were sick were sent to the hospital, where food was deemed a waste of resources by the Japanese. In the hospital cemetery the men are buried sequentially by the date they died. In the cemetery in town graves are grouped by nationality, with Uncle Frank in Plot 2, row G, grave number 71.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand

For those readers that may have a loved one, relative or friend buried at Kanchanaburi I can report that both cemeteries are immaculately kept, with each headstone bearing individual inscriptions and perennial flowers. The grass is perfectly trimmed. And there is evidence of friends and relatives visiting the cemeteries with faded poppies and other items to be seen occasionally amidst the rows and rows of graves.

I will return to Kanchanaburi some day to visit again with Uncle Frank and wander the rows of graves, the vast proportion of which will swelter in the ever present heat and never be visited by family members.

As for the bridge! These days it has become a very big tourist attraction, with visitors from all nationalities (including a few elderly Japanese men) seen crossing the bridge and wondering as I did as to the conditions under which it was constructed.

The Bridge

How ironic that so many men had to suffer and die in the construction of what really is a rather unassuming concrete and steel structure.

Alan Brown

August, 2002.
Macon, GA, USA.


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