I stroll across the railway bridge whistling “Colonel Bogie’s March.” Others on the bridge give me strange looks as if thinking “Who is this weird man?” But I feel good and my whistling is appropriate, for this is the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Most of us first heard about the bridge through the 1957 film, based
on Pierre Boulle’s French novel. Set in a World War II Japanese
POW camp in Burma, it is a fictional account of a battle of wills between
a harrassed Japanese camp commander and a doggedly-stubborn British colonel.
The story climaxes when allied commandos blow up the bridge.
The true story is different. During the Second World War, the Japanese
planned a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon to shorten the distance between
Japan and Burma by 1,300 miles. The railway would cross some of the wettest
and most inhospitable terrain in Southeast Asia and require the construction
of 688 bridges, but they considered it critical to the war effort.
For labor they used 250,000 Asian forced-laborers, mostly Thais, and
more than 60,000 Allied prisoners—30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch,
13,000 Australians, and 700 Americans. Estimated to take five or six
years to build, the project, which began on September 16, 1942, was completed
after only 16 months, and cost the lives of 16,000 POWs and 75,000 Asian
workers. The deaths from cholera, beri beri, malaria, typhoid, exhaustion
and malnourishment, earned the railroad the name, “The Death Railway.”
The Japanese actually constructed two parallel bridges across the River
Kwai, just outside of the Thai town of Kanchanaburi—the first made
entirely of wood, the second made of steel and concrete. The Allies destroyed
both on February 13, 1945.
In the film the commandos detonated explosive charges fastened to the
bridge’s supports. The real bridge was bombed. Failing to destroy
the bridges with conventional bombs (some hitting POW camps) the American
flyers brought in a new weapon, the AZON (Azimuth Only) bomb. The precursor
of today’s “smart” bombs, it had a radio-controlled
tail and ten times the accuracy of a conventional bomb.
After the war, engineers repaired the steel bridge over the River
Kwai. It is still in use. Visitors to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, now
walk across the bridge (the fortunate ones having the opportunity
to witness me whistling the theme from the movie), and visit the
Allied war cemetery and a museum run by Buddhist monks, featuring
a reconstruction of a prisoner of war camp. The monks built the
museum “not for the maintenance of hatred
among human beings but to warn and teach us the lesson of how terrible