World War II - Thai Burma Railway

I love old movies. The music, the clothes, the romance. A few days ago I spent an afternoon with Bogie and Bacall watching the classic Casablanca. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” It’s so romantic. I believe that many of us learn about history through the movies. While compelling films may draw us in and give us an abridged look at an historic event, they are not always …well, factual.

Let’s take that great film from 1957 with Alec Guinness and William Holden: The Bridge on the River Kwai. (If you haven’t seen it yet, run, do not walk to your Netflix queue and put it at the top.) The movie shows us a small slice of the Second World War as it played out in Thailand. The Japanese were trying to get a bridge built over The River Kwai and they were using British POWs to get the job done. The British colonel, played by the brilliant Alec Guinness, worked out a plan with the Japanese camp commandant to build the best damn bridge ever. And then the ever so fine William Holden (who, after escaping the camp, was shot and then ended up romancing a hot chick at some army hospital) was sent back to blow the bridge up. I think I’ve already revealed too much. 

Bridge over the River Kwai (2003)

While the film is based on some actual historic events, it’s really mostly fiction. Yes, there was a war. And yes, Japan was trying to build a railway and a bridge. And yes, the Japanese used British prisoners of war as labor. Um . . . and that’s about it as far as the facts are concerned. 
What the movie gets wrong or omits:

•  the name of the river. It was actually Mae Klong (not Kwai)
• Asian civilians were also used as labor, 
• while the bridge was destroyed and rebuilt a few times, it was ultimately destroyed by the Royal Air Force during some bombing raids.

The actual condition of the real camp and the real prisoners was worse than appalling.  There was little if any food, insufficient medical care, and I seriously question if prisoners of war would be looking as hot as William Holden after so much time in captivity. (Okay, that last one is more of a personal view on the situation.)

Exhibit at The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (2003)

In the early 20th century the British, having colonized Burma earlier in the 19th century, were interested in building a railway between Thailand and Burma. After completing a survey of land through hilly jungle that was divided by many rivers they scrubbed the idea as it proved to be too difficult to complete. In 1942 the Japanese seized control of Burma from the British, but were now vulnerable to Allied forces from the Andaman Sea. They needed to devise ways of getting supplies through Thailand and into Burma that would not be subject to Allied attack by submarine so they, too, started scoping out the idea for a railway. The plan was to build rail that would connect Ban Pong Thailand (just northwest of Bangkok) to Thanbyuzayat in Burma. Previously this vision had not been realized because of cost and complexity. But now Japan was able to seize on the opportunity. Due to its military successes in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and the Philippines Japan suddenly had thousands of prisoners of war at its disposal to be used as forced labor. Initial plans allowed the project five years to be completed. But Japanese command, ever the overachievers, ordered it to be completed in 18 months.  And even then, after construction began, command became anxious and ordered the railway to be completed more quickly. This is known as the “Speedo! Speedo!” period. 

Section of original bridge (2003)

The first wooden bridge that spanned the river Mae Klong (a.k.a. The Bridge on the River Kwai,) was completed in February of 1943. A second, more substantial bridge, made of steel and concrete brought in from Java, was added in June of that same year. Both bridges were bombed two years later in February of 1945, only to be repaired and bombed again. The second bombing was a success that would put the bridge out of commission for the rest of the war.

Exhibit at The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (2003)

Approximately 80km (50 miles) northwest of the bridge, there was a particularly troublesome spot: the railway section known as Hellfire Pass.  The name stems from those viewing the emaciated prisoners working at night under oil-fired bamboo lights and it brought to mind a vision from hell. Using unsophisticated tools like small hammers, steel tap drills, some explosives and shovels, the prisoner’s worked nearly around the clock to cut and dig out the rock. 

Hellfire Pass (2003)

And if the difficult work or disturbed guards didn’t kill you first, there was always dysentery, malaria, beriberi or cholera. The stories and photos from survivors of these places are gut-wrenching. Today we take for granted that a small cut will heal within a day or two. For a prisoner back then, though, a small cut could turn into a massive ulcer that could mean an amputation. Sure, there was a “hospital,” but the hospital was nothing more than a waiting room for the graveyard. The Japanese guards expected everyone to work regardless of nationality, rank, or general health.  

The final score of the Thai Burma Railroad: 

  • Forced Asian Labor: 200,000.  80,000 dead.
  • British POWs: 30,000.  6,540 dead.
  • Dutch POWs: 18,000.  2,830 dead.
  • Australian POWs: 13,000.  2,710 dead.
  • American POWs: 700.  356 dead.
  • Forced Korean & Japanese Soldier Labor: 15,000. 1,000 dead. 

Hellfire Pass Memorials (2003)

Stories of the brutality that took place are not worth thinking about or repeating. They are disturbing at worst and heart-wrenching at best. And I am curious about those guards. All were probably nice boys once who were sent off to war, only to become "monsters". What happens to us that we allow ourselves to lose our humanity?

When I read about these events I am baffled that we as a human race keep repeating these stories of war. The legends from Hellfire Pass are not new. They are as old as time. Somehow, we seem to have become complacent and simply accept that war is a part of our existence. It’s almost as if we have developed a romantic notion about war. Perhaps we learn too much history from the movies.

Hellfire Pass (2003)


NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.