Bridge over the River Kwai *Video*
On this, my third trip to Thailand, I became a little obsessed with visiting the River Kwai. Which is kind of strange, since I didn’t really know much about it before striking out. Luckily, during our 3 days in the Kanchanaburi region, we visited two excellent museums that conveyed the horror and fate of Allied POWs building this infamous railway during WWII.
Here I am atop the bridge spanning the River Kwai:
Can’t see the video? Click on this link: Erin on River Kwai: http://youtu.be/Aw2ZRcHKDQY
Here’s what I found out during my trip and by reading the weirdly addictive blog: The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com):
Bridge Over the River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai is about 5 km from the center of the town of Kanchanaburi. The first River Kwai Bridge was a wooden bridge that was completed in February 1943. The second bridge, where I’m standing, was built several months later.
The curved steel bridge spans are original and were brought during the war from Indonesia by the Japanese. Other parts of the bridge, including the two straight-sided spans, were installed after the war to replace spans destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945.
There are two River Kwais. Historically, the river the bridge crossed was called the Mae Khlung, not the River Kwai . To better sync to the famous movie, the Thai government changed the name of the Mae Khlung River to the River Kwai, which is now known as the “Big Kwai.” The original River Kwai is now known as “Little Kwai.” Confusing.
The Burma-Thai Railway is known as the “Death Train” because it was built by prisoners of war. The Japanese army, contrary to Geneva Conventions, used forced labor to build the railway, ultimately setting up 55 POW work camps. As many as 6,000 Allied troops, mainly British, Dutch, Australian & America POWs, died while building the railway.
10% of all POWs who worked on the railway died during the forced labor campaign. There is a cemetery, where many of the POW remains are buried, right by the bridge. In total, 686 American POWs died. All American POW remains were repatriated to U.S. soil.
In addition to POW labor, more 200,000 Malays, Indians, Indonesian and Thai workers were conscripted. More than 100,000 — 50% — of these conscripted laborers died in the work camps.
The Death Railway starts about 80km west of Bangkok. The line heads northwest to Kanchanburi, over the Bridge on the River Kwai, and onwards to Burma. The railway originally covered 415 kilometers in total, and has 680 timber bridges and 8 steel bridges. Today, the railway only runs a short distance from Bangkok.
The Burma-Thai Railway was originally conceived by the British but the idea was abandoned due to the treacherous conditions. The Japanese resurrected the idea and built the entire railway line within 18 months, completing the line in Oct. 17, 1943.
The railway was instrumental to the Japanese war strategy of linking all Southeast Asia capitals. The railway served to cut off Chinese supply lines, provided access to Burma and Thailand’s natural resources and was a key component of the Japanese war plan to invade India.
Hellfire Pass, also called the Konyu Cutting, was the site of some of the worst conditions during the building of the railway. The pass was cut from solid stone and worked labored around the clock. It was said to resemble hell because of the sight of the emancipated workers slaving away at night by lamplight.
The pass took 6 weeks to build. Reports indicated that 69 Allied POWs were beaten to death by Japanese guards during the cutting, and countless (because the Japanese Army didn’t keep records of non-military labor) conscripted Asia laborers died.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed learning about the history surrounding the Death Train and the River Kwai. I thought the museums and monuments were very well done and respectful of the men – both Asian captives and POWs — who died there. I highly recommend you visit on your next trip to Thailand.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 and is filed under Asia Pacific.