Although I had heard of the book title ‘bridge on the river Kwai’, I never knew the full story of the construction of the Thailand to Burma railway or the significance of that bridge until our visit to Kanchanaburi a few weeks ago. It’s one of the most moving and heart wrenching stories I’ve ever heard. The cruelty that was inflicted on so many people was so truly horrendous that even thinking about it now sends chills down my spine and makes me feel incredibly uneasy. It’s a story that I think is important to share and important to remember.
Back in the late 1800s, the British government considered building a railway to connect Burma with its neighbouring country of Thailand. After surveying the proposed route, it was decided that the mountainous jungle and numerous rivers would not only be physically challenging to penetrate, but would be totally inhumane for labourers working in the stifling tropical heat and inhospitable environment. The proposal for the railway was, quite rightly, abandoned.
During the Second World War, Japanese forces invaded many countries in eastern Asia and the Pacific. Part of their conquest included seizing control of Burma from the British government. They supplied their forces in Burma using an oceanic route but were frequently attacked by Allied submarines. They became particularly vulnerable after they lost a gruelling sea battle (the Battle of Midway) in May 1942, so to avoid the hazardous 2000-mile sea journey the Japanese formed plans to construct a railway linking Thailand (Ban Pong) to Burma (Thanbyuzayat). This would connect existing railways and be the key to safely supplying much needed resources to their troops – even though they knew it would be the worst kind of living hell for the labourers.
Many Japanese and Koreans were employed to work on the railway as engineers, guards and supervisors. However, the cruel task of constructing the railway itself was given to prisoners of war and slave labourers from neighbouring Asian countries.
Prisoners from Britain, Australia, America and Holland were forced into trains, 30 – 40 people per carriage, where they travelled for up to 4 days with no food and barely any water, in the stifling heat, no toilet facilities and no space to even lie down and take nap. Once they arrived at their destination, many men then faced an exhausting trek through the hostile terrain of the tropical jungle. Sleep deprived and already malnourished, they were expected to hike for days carrying supplies and construction materials to their designated work camps.
The Japanese were in a hurry to build the railway and “employed” 180,000 Asian civilians (known as Romusha) to bulk out the existing workforce of 60,000 POWs. The Romusha were essentially tricked into working on the railway. Many arrived with wives and children on false-promises of good wages and housing facilities, while others were conscripted by force. They arrived into hell-like conditions, they suffered the same conditions as the POWs but they hadn’t had the same military training as the POWs and ultimately suffered even more as a result.
Camps were set up using bamboo as the main construction material. Sleeping platforms were created in a space about 60 meters long, they were completely open to the elements and each one housed around 200 men. The men had very few belongings and most just had the clothes they were wearing. In the tropical heat and humidity, clothes and shoes soon rotted away and many men were forced to work barefoot. By contrast, the nights were comparatively cold; many men saved their tattered clothes for sleeping in to keep themselves warm. During the day they worked in nothing but a loin cloth.
Just imagine this for a second – you’re in an impenetrable jungle and sleeping in filthy, tattered, often damp clothes on bare poles of bamboo at night, then during the day you are forced to do extreme manual labour in the searing heat with nothing but a rag to cover your genitals. Exposed to torrential rain during the wet season, to searing sun causing unforgiving sun burn during the dry season and to all the hazardous wildlife that live in the jungle. Of course, you might think the many poisonous snakes that live in Burma and Thailand would have been a big worry – but far more worrying were the microbes found in dirty drinking water that lead to many cases of debilitating dysentery and cholera, and the mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue fever.
Meanwhile the men were given food rations that were a quarter of that required to keep a regular man well-nourished, yet alone a man doing extreme physical labour. Food would often be sent from afar, but after travelling for many days in the tropical heat much of it would be maggoty and rotten. The Japanese would claim any good food for themselves, whilst the workers would be left with scraps. The guards would bury food they deemed unfit for consumption, but the workers would often dig this food back up and eat it – that’s how desperate they were.
Prisoners found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder in an incredibly cruel and unforgiving culture. Japanese culture is often about maintaining ‘face’ and many were brainwashed during the war to believe they were the world’s most superior race. They were taught to never surrender – that surrendering would be incredibly shameful and that even if the only alternative was death, this was way more honourable. They truly believed that if they were captured by the enemy they would have been treated unspeakably badly. Given the hierarchical system in their culture, they had zero respect for their captured prisoners and slave labourers and would treat them as sub-human. I listened to an account of a prisoner who survived death railway and he described how guards would dish out horrendous beatings, often for no reason, which would render men unconscious or even be deadly. He described a common punishment for misbehaviour where guards would force the men to stand holding a heavy rock above their heads for hours on end, then beat them when they were so weak that they could no longer hold the heavy weight.
Sickness was a major killer on the railway, but the Japanese offered little in the way of medical supplies. They would even prevent sick men from receiving their food rations as an ‘incentive’ to get back to work. They would get men to defecate on the floor and examine their faeces to see how ill they really were. If there was 50% blood or less, they were deemed fit to work. Skin ulcers often became so bad that skin rotted away exposing bare bones. The account of one POW describes seeing a number of cases of tropical ulcers with “legs bared to the bones from ankle to knee”. The medics did the best job they could with the supplies they had. They used natural resources from the jungle, administered charcoal to relieve the symptoms of dysentery, saved precious marmite to be used as medicine rather than food, used thorns from plants in lieu ofhypodermic needles and used bamboo to create prosthetic limbs after skin diseases became so bad that amputation (with no anaesthetic) was the only option.
Hellfire Pass was a section of the railway that was particularly difficult to build. It’s an enormous cutting through the rocky hillside which was created by malnourished and sickly labourers with inadequate tools working up to 18-hour shifts a day. Sixty-nine men were beaten to death and many more died from disease in the 12 weeks it took to build this cutting. At night the starving men would work under fire light under the harsh control of Japanese guards – as a result the area became known as Hellfire Pass due to its remarkable resemblance to a scene from hell.
Bridge over the River Kwai
One of the most challenging aspects of the railway was the construction of the bridge over the Mae Klong River (which later on became known as the River Kwai Yai). A film was later made called Bridge on the River Kwai, which unfortunately I have never seen but I’ve heard is very good – albeit a little unrealistic.
A camp of British POWs were forced to build this section of the railway and conditions were equally as tough as what is described above. There were originally two bridges over this river; the first was a wooden construction which was finished in February 1943. This was accompanied by a more modern concrete and steel construction which was finished in June the same year. Many POWs tried to undermine the plans for the bridge by exposing parts of the structure to vulnerabilities whenever the opportunity arose. This would include planting termite mounds next to wooden structures and letting ‘nature take its course’, or reducing the length of piles which were subsequently driven into the ground to make the structure less stable. Despite being one of the most difficult sections to build, we learned at the Hellfire Pass museum that very few men died during its construction in comparison to many other sections of the railway thanks to the organisation and management of the camp leaders, who were POW officers. Both bridges were bombed on two separate occasions in 1945 by Allied Forces and subsequent repairs were done by the slave labourers and POWs. Since the camps were next to the bridges, some labourers were killed and injured during the raids. The wooden bridge was never rebuilt but the concrete-steel bridge was repaired and is still in use today.
The 415km railway was finished ahead of schedule in October 1943, just 13 months after the start date. Over 200,000 Romusha were forced to work on the railway as slave labourers – over 100,000 of whom died from disease, starvation or brutal beatings from Japanese guards. Over 60,000 POWs also worked on the railway, over 12,600 of whom died. Interestingly, 1000 Japanese and Korean overseers also died during its construction. Well over 100,000 men lost their lives, that’s a death rate of 45%, in just over a year. I’m not a person of faith, but if I had to prey for something, it would be that no human ever has to suffer in this way again.