The Bridge on the River Kwai

This posting is dedicated to my dad, Keith Miller. Dad, you fought in Europe, not SEAsia and thankfully you were not a POW. But you experienced war and hunger and fear, and those experiences were life-changing for you. I have never known hunger and fear and war, and I owe that and my ability to travel freely and witness these sights to you.

I’ve not read the book, nor seen the movie, but the “real” Bridge on the River Kwai is a potent reminder of human cruelty, and what our world might have looked like had the  outcome of WWII been different.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai is located in the town of Kanchanaburi, which has built up a large tourism business around the bridge, the War Cemetery, the JEATH museum and the war museum.

We stayed for four nights at the Thai Garden Inn, across the river from town (the quiet side). This has been our home for the past four days – a relaxing respite.

 

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Our first night, we ate at a riverside restaurant just down the road. Walking at night is tricky; there are no shoulders and most drivers are quite unconcerned about pedestrian safety. Apparently it is up to us to stay alive. This was our first dinner – worth remaining alert for:

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The next day, we walked about 15 minutes to the entrance of the bridge. The railway from Thailand to Burma was built in 1943 to provide a secure supply route for the Japanese to make their way to India, as the sea routes were too risky. It was a total of 414 km., with 294 km. in Thailand, built entirely  by Asian forced labourers and Allied POWs. It became known as the Death Railway, as over 13,000 prisoners and 93,000 Asian labourers died during its construction. The bridge was built with 11 steel spans, and the rest were wood, and when the Allies bombed it in 1944, three spans were destroyed. There are frequent pullouts to stand on for safety, as a tourist train crosses it twice daily. Luckily, we arrived quite early, and had the bridge almost to ourselves.
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Looking over the River Kwai from a pullout.

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The JEATH museum is just down the road from the bridge – JEATH is an acronym for Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand and Holland – representing the Allied POWS and Asian forced labourers involved in the building of the Thai-Burma Railway.
This is a section of the original track over the bridge.

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The JEATH Museum is difficult to go through. The savagery and tragic loss associated with this infamous railway are portrayed through life-size dioramas, photos and artifacts, and they grab you by the gut. This railway car is typical of how POWS were housed on their way to the camps.

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Japanese soldiers watching over the POWs.

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A poignant and understated expression of the futility of war

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Off we went to the War Cemetery. We had never visited a war cemetery before – there is nothing to celebrate here.

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The grounds are immaculate and beautifully cared for – a team of gardeners steadily at work weeding and planting and grass-cutting. The markers are identical, but for the names, ages, ranks and sentiments of loved ones. 6,982 Australian, Dutch and British POWs are laid to rest here, including two graves with the cremated remains of 300 soldiers.

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It was a moving and emotional experience to walk the rows and note the young ages and wonder who they left behind. Loss magnified many times.

Then, the most extraordinary thing happened. Three young girls started taking selfies – laughing, posing, all pouty lips and peace signs.  It was beyond disrespectful.  Young people might not understand the importance of a memorial or a monument – they are many generations removed, but it seems impossible to think anyone of any age would enter a cemetery and consider it just another backdrop for a selfie.  Stephen spoke to them, asking them please not to take selfies. They didn’t understand his words, but I think they got the message.

Yesterday, we headed up to Hellfire Pass Memorial – an 80 km. bus ride out of Kanchanaburi, up to the site of some of the most difficult rock cuts of the entire rail line. Hellfire Pass is so called because the light from the torches bouncing off the limestone and quartz rock illuminated the skeletal workers as they laboured at night – a scene from hell.

We began by visiting The Memorial Museum, which thoughtfully goes through the timeline of the railway construction, and outlines a number of written accounts from POWs who survived, as well as harrowing photos of those who did not.

The museum and clearing of the  old rail site at the cuttings was the dream of an Australian, Tom Morris. He was a POW for three years, and incredibly decided to return to the site of his torment in 1984. It was his desire to restore the area as a memorial to all who perished there, and with the help of the Australian government, he instigated the building of the museum and the restoration of the walking trails. Another Aussie POW, Peter Rushforth, who became a potter after the war, created the Peace Vessel as part of the display.
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There was an excellent audio accompaniment to the walk,  with first-person accounts submitted by former POWs. What really struck me was the ability of these men to survive after such brutality. One POW, who is a painter, told of his visit to the area decades later. During the war, the beauty of the mountains and the spring flowers had been enough to keep him going, and it was always his intent to return and paint those scenes. The photo below is of the valley and mountains beside the rock cut. Burma is just 40 km. away.

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We began our walk with food in our belly, water in our backpack and shoes on our feet. It was hot, and the going was a bit rough, but we were reminded of the conditions the POWs lived with and perished from. In this particular cut, they had to walk from their camp, which was 6 km. away. They slept on bamboo cots, and were often covered in lice and fleas. They were fed one cup of rice a day and very little water. Many of them had dysentery, cholera and malaria, and when they fell down or could not move fast enough, they were beaten, sometimes to death. They worked 16-18 hours a day under blistering sun, and under constant threat of abuse and beatings from the Japanese guards. As the war progressed, and the urgency for the railway line increased, the abuses grew worse. By the end, over 13,000 prisoners died of illness, malnutrition, and torture.
This section of the cutting was achieved by a tedious method called “Hammer and Tap”, which involved hammering out pieces of rock and breaking them down. This section is 73 metres long, and 25 metres deep – dug entirely by hand through jungle vegetation from the top to what became the railbed. If you look to the left of the cut, you can see flags and crosses – one of a number of shrines and memorials along the way.

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Most of the railway was dismantled after the war, but this small section of rail remains as part of the memorial.

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This was an extremely impactful experience, and I hope the pictures help to tell the story.