Bridge Over the River Kwai

by Lt. Col. William A. (Bill) Henderson, USAF Ret.



At last the two longest bridges which spanned the widest river on the Burma-Siam Railway were down. We noted on our mission against the wooden bridge, and photography confirmed, that the steel bridge was undergoing rapid repair. The wooden bridge being the first to be built and having jungle growth (trees) readily available for repair materials would undoubtedly go under rapid repair as well.

Unknown to us, labor at the bridges was now plentiful, also. Once the entire railroad had been completed between Burma and Thailand, the POW's were used primarily as repair crews when damage was done by floods or bombing. Large numbers of the work crews were moved back to Chungkai, Tamarkan and Kamburi, near the bridges. Bleak as living conditions were in the camps, they were better than the "up country" camps.

These inhuman living conditions were also unknown to us. Pierre Boulle's novel, Bridge Over the River Kwai,2 gives us a faint idea of Japanese cruelty and inhuman treatment of prisoners of war. However, after my magazine article, "About that Bridge on the River Kwaill (Air Force, Feb., 1972) was published, I received many letters and much information from former prisoners of war who were there. Truth is indeed stranger, and in this case, more cruel than fiction.

With the fall of Burma, Malaya, Sumatra, the Dutch East Indies and other points, the Japanese had a huge pool of prisoners of war that they were not prepared mentally or physically to hold. There is little evidence that the Japanese fully expected to capture such an expanse of territory so rapidly in 1942. With this captured territory came thousands of military and civilian prisoners who had to be interred one place or another.

Difficult as it may be for the Westerner, one should at least attempt to understand the mental background of the Japanese.

"Scattered in prisons and improvised camps throughout Malaya, Singapore, Java and Sumatra were tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war whose existence was both an embarrassment and an encumbrance to the Japanese military forces. As a Japanese interpreter put it to one group of prisoners, it would have been more satisfactory if they had allowed themselves to be killed in battle rather than taken prisoner. It seems certain that the capture of such a huge and largely unwounded military force came as a surprise to the Imperial Army; a surprise because the possibility of being taken prisoner was not something which the Japanese soldier ever considered. His function was to fight for the Emperor, until the death if need be, for there was no greater honor than to die f or the Emperor, nor worse dishonor than to be taken prisoner. The Allied prisoners were also an encumbrance since the Japanese had now to %ndertake the chore of feeding them."

And so it was that tens of thousands of Allied POW's found themselves at Changi prison in Singapore. The shortage of drugs, hospital supplies for the sick and wounded, and food for all was acute, but nothing to compare to what was to come while working on the jungle railway. Not even the Serland Barracks incident in Singapore compared to railway camps. At Serland the POW's were crowded into quarters where there was not enough room for everyone to lie down at one time, and they were allowed no food, water, or latrine facilities. All because they refused to sign a promise not to attempt escape! Thus they were finally advised by their officers to go ahead and sign. This was only the beginning of the Japanese ignoring the rules of the Geneva Convention even though they had been signers of it.

Since the sea routes to Rangoon were becoming very dangerous for the Japanese, and all but closed, plans to build a railroad from Burma to Siam were formed and dispatched rapidly. An old British survey and plan which was later abandoned as unfeasible and unprofitable, was revived. British estimation for time for construction through the dense jungle and over the rough terrain was roughly seven years. The Japanese did not have this sort of time. But they did have manpower--lots and lots of expendable manpower. In their minds the prisoners would earn their keep and redeem their dishonor by accomplishing a great feat for the Emperor. Therefore, any treatment, or death, of the prisoners was justified.

The plan was to begin laying the roadbeds by October 1942 with completion in August 1943. On June 19, 1942, the first advance party of 600 British solders under the command of Major R. S. Sykes entrained in Singapore for Ban Pong, Thailand. The fourday journey in "cattle car" compartments was another inhuman experience. Men took turns standing, sitting and lying down in the crowded compartments. With no latrine facilities and few stops, the floors soon became covered in human excrement.

Their captors consoled them with their usual false promises of good living conditions and food once they arrived in their new setting. As usual, not so. They were herded into partially completed bamboo huts. The atap roofs often leaked under the monsoon rains which were just beginning. Many huts had no sides. The advanced party was at once put to work in a sea of mud and water building sufficient numbers of quarters for themselves and the thousands that were to follow them to this jumping off camp in Ban Pong. Splitting bamboo and lacing atap was a new experience, but under slaps, jabs, kicks, and bayonets they learned quickly.

Food was as scarce as ever. The diet of rice and more rice was carefully rationed. The rice was of very poor quality and was unpalatable to western tastes. The western stomach appeared to be unable to gain strength of bodily sustenance from the rice diet. Since the Ban Pong campsite was near the village, some prisoners were able to sell their rings, watches, writing pens, and even clothing in order to buy duck eggs, sugar, and fruit from the Thais. This was usually done under great risk of severe punishment if found out by the Japanese or Korean guards.

However, for those immediately sent "up country" and those who were later moved from the "early" campsites, trading villages seldom existed and one survived as best he could. Many died or became human skeletons for lack of food.

All labor was done with the most primitive equipment. Roadbeds were built with pick and shovel with men hauling dirt in baskets or stretcher-like slings. Roadbeds progressed slowly. Ballasts (cross-ties) were hand-hewn with axes and other hand tools. Bridge timbers and pilings were manhandled into the streams to float to destination or in rare instances pulled by elephants. Pilings for trestles and bridges were hand driven. A huge stone, raised by rope and pulley and many men, was released on command. Rocky bases were a nightmare.

Exhaustion and illnesses were ignored by the Japanese. As could be expected the POW's died by the thousands. Many of the survivors still remember with great admiration the skills of the Medical Officers (M.O.'s) who with home-concocted medicines, homemade surgical equipment and supplies, saved so many from dysentery, diptheria, jungle ulcers, cholera, malaria, and other ailments. The Japanese furnished so little in the way of medical supplies that their own solders sometimes came to the Allied M.O.'s for treatment. Approximately 27% of the Allied solders and almost 50% of the Southeast AsiarV impressed laborers died working on the railroad. This compared to only 3% of Allied POW's who died in German and Italian prisoner of war camps.

How could human beings ignore or perpetuate the misery and death of so many? As previously stated, people of the far east think differently from Westerners. A POW marveled at the patience and skill of a Japanese guard who worked for days on an intricate piece of art. Then he was taken aback and distressed to see this same guard spend hours watching a large lizard die painfully with a pen knife stuck through its tongue and anchored to a log. This same guard thought nothing of soaking a dog with gasoline, then setting it on fire.

Apparently, the building supplies for the railway came through Bangkok more readily and faster than through Moulmien on the Burma end of the railroad. Even with the two bridges at Kanchanaburi and the almost impossible cliff passages at Wampo and Hintok, the Thailand end progressed 263 kilometers and the Burma end 152 meters when they met at Kon Kuta. Treatment on both ends was unbearable. A hesitation, a wrong move or a wrong word could get your brains bashed out with a shovel. The Japanese could not comprehend that medicine and food to keep the troops healthy could have shortened the time taken to build the railroad.

In early summer of 1943 the captors realized they were behind their target for completion date of August, 1943. From that point on every word and motion was 11speedoll and more "speedo.11 If a prisoner slipped and fell in the mud during the driving monsoon rains, he was bashed. officers worked as coolies with the Other Ranks (O.R.'s). Over strong objections by Allied camp commanders and M.O.'s, the hospitals at Chungkai and Tamarkan were screened and men sick with malaria,- dysentery, and other ailments were sent "up country." This included men,with jungle ulcers so severe that the bare bone was exposed.

Even this was not enough manpower. Recruited with false promises of good pay, good food, and good living quarters, about 200,000 Tamils, Chinese, Javanese, and Burmese were sent into their own separate camps. When numbers of volunteers were insufficient, the Japanese presented free movies for a few nights, then rounded up the fittest young men and sent them on their way as "impressed laborers." They died in droves.

"The Tamils, Javanese, Chinese and Burmese had been struck down in their thousands by dysentery, malaria, and cholera, and also by sheer fatalistic resignation to death. The chaotic conditions prevailing in their camps and the inadequacy of their medical provisions have already been recounted, but it was principally because they were leaderless and unorganized that the Asi workers had suffered so severely."

The "speedo" actions were still not acceptable to the desired pace set by the Japanese. The prisoners were told, "You do not understand us. We will build the railway if necessary over the bones of the POW's. Any sick man who staggers to the line to lay one sleeper will not have died in vain. 11 At last in October of 1943 the east and west lines met. The last rail to be laid was a special copper one, secured it is said, with a gilded spike which was apparently stolen by an Australian prisoner shortly afterwards.

In spite of Japanese actions, most men kept a certain spirit of defiance, carefully guarded and executed. one night an uneasy and frightened N.C.O. woke his officer and asked to talk to him. He asked the officer if he knew a certain Japanese guard who was especially cruel. The officer knew him. The N.C.O. then related that he had waited for his enemy in the night with a shovel with intentions to really fix him--perhaps break a limb or something. When he spotted his man in the dark he became so enraged that he killed him. The body was out in the bushes-what could he do? After deliberation they decided to dump the body in a very old latrine. The body stench would be well hidden and the maggots should dispose of the remains. It worked! Oddly enough, nothing more was heard of the affair. No inquiry, no search, nothing. No one knew if the Japanese thought he had gone absent without leave or what. There was no indication that he was even missed at roll call next morning.

Diaries, records of events and so forth were strictly forbidden. Yet if there was a will, there was somehow a way. Wally Davis played in the Chungkai band when plays and music were sometimes allowed. By an ingenious means of arranging musical notes, he kept dates and events. His captors never caught on.

The men were not entirely without news. Especially at Chungkai. Tom Stuart, a legend on the railway, built three radio sets there. His own set was hidden in a water bottle. One was made in a cylindrical cigarette tin and another in a biscuit tin. Batteries were always a problem, but the Thai canteen owner, Boon Pong (another legend and a lifesaver of many) sometimes helped. A total of eight sets were hidden up and down the line by 1945! In one instance when a battery had gone dead, a POW truck driver took the vehicle battery out and started through the compound gate by the Japanese guard. When the guard accosted him during a torrent of rain, the POW explained that he was taking the battery to his shelter to protect the scarce item from the mud and rain. Amid big grins and grunts the guard urged and helped him along with compliments for being so thoughtful in taking good care of the Emperor's valuable and scarce property--a battery!

Small events? Never! Only a prisoner of war could fully realize what reports of such events meant to their morale. The reports went up and down the line like wildfire. It was often the spark that kept a man with the will to live just a little longer until something else stirred his soul.

Wally Davis wrote me that he remembered very well the day the steel bridge was bombed out--February 13, 1945. He was on a work party walking across the wooden bridge when he heard and saw a low f lying four engine bomber rapidly approaching the bridges. He saw the bomb bay doors open and the bombs leave the bomb bay. The entire party leaped over the side of the wooden bridge into the river. From that moment he said he could remember absolutely nothing until the next day. He doesn't remember where or when he emerged from the water and returned to camp. The following day he was again on work detail and they crossed the wooden bridge. He and a friend noted the downed bridge spans and the downcast Japanese guard mumbled something to the effect that "bridge pinis." Years later when I talked to him in person he stated that they could have laughed about it with great satisfaction had they not been afraid of a bashing by the guard. At the time of my conversation with him in Cambridge, England, he said he could not recall what happened during the twenty-four hour period following leaping off the wooden bridge and walking across it next day on the work detail.

The Japanese railway engineers in the main were recognized to be trained, skilled, and intelligent. But what humanitarian instincts they may have possessed were pushed aside by their single-minded determination to finish the railroad on time. The people who were really in charge of the prisoners were the administrative troops. This group was of poor quality. Many of its officers were totally incompetent. Some of its other ranks were moronic and at times almost bestial in their treatment of prisoners. This applied particularly to Korean private soldiers, conscripted only for guard and sentry duties in many parts of the Japanese empire. Regrettably, they were appointed as guards for the prisoners throughout the camps of Burma and Siam. The battle to deceive, outwit, and avoid contact with their captors where possible went on constantly. These practices were necessary without regard to the enemy's educational or ethnic background, if one hoped to survive.

It should be noted that the Japanese were as cruel to their impressed laborers as they were to their prisoners. In one instance during a cholera outbreak, several Tamil corpses lay alongside an open burn pit. Suddenly, an old man sat up among the corpses. A guard took a shovel from a worker, knocked the old man in the head, then shoved him into the pit with the others. Expediency counted above all else. After all, the man was too sick to work.

The impressed laborers were not immunized or otherwise prepared to fight the cholera outbreak. Without doctors in their midst, they were helpless in overcoming the epidemic which befell them. Contaminated bodies were often left where they fell in fear of handling them. Other bodies were dumped into the streams. Therefore, flies and contaminated water spread the disease rapidly. Allied medical personnel were sent to their camps to supervise collection and disposal of bodies by burning. No one was allowed to bathe in the streams or use water from them. Men with home-concocted wands of leaves were assigned to keep the flies from food being cooked or served. Practicing strict rules of sanitation saved thousands of Allied troops. Failure to understand or refusal to practice strict rules of sanitation was devastating to the impressed laborers. Some had even brought their families into the disaster.

"Dying was easy. Those who decided they had no further reason for living, pulled down the shades and quietly expired." Ernest Gordon was moved f rom one part of the Chungkai hospital to the "Death House" section. He wrote, "The battle between life and death goes on all the time. Life has to be cherished, not let go. I have made up my mind. I am not going to surrender.116 Through his will to live he survived. Many who were not as sick as he, lost that spark of the will to live and thus expired.

Health and living conditions improved after completion of the railway. But a new menace to the lives of the railway builders now arose. Bombing by their own troops!

Clifford Kinvig writes, "As time went on, more and more of the strategic railway came under attack. What the Allied pilots did not appreciate, however, was that the repair of the damaged bridges and track was being carried out by prisoners of war, and that the further south they struck with their bombing raids, the more the lives of the prisoners were once again being put at risk. This onslaught made repair and maintenance work a dangerous and arduous business for the parties who were sent up line periodically from the camps. On one occasion a train crammed full of prisoners was caught in the open and bombed with great accuracy by Allied aircraft, causing over 100 casualties of whom forty-one were killed. However, the situation was even worse for those prisoners who were crowded into base camps located dangerously near to what were obviously particularly important bombing targets, especially the vital bridges over the Mae Khlong at Tamarkan, and the Non Pladuk area further south which was a main maintenance centre for the railway and, in addition, lay close to the junction with the main Singapore-Bangkok line. The main camp at Non Pladuk lay amid the marshaling yards, workshops, and supply sheds of the railway depot and close to the ack-ack battery. it therefore seemed inevitable that if the allied planes struck heavily at the depot, the prisoners would again be in danger: nevertheless, the Japanese had forbidden the digging of slit trenches and when on the 6th of September, 1944 the first wave of twenty one Liberators appeared over the area, the prisoners were crowded into huts, perhaps confident that the accuracy of bombing techniques would enable the camp to be spared. Indeed the first wave did bomb with great precision, but the last plane of the second flight appeared to release its bombs too soon and the stick fell right across the flimsy bamboo camp, killing ninety-eight prisoners and wounding 330 more. The Japanese commander refused to sanction the move of the camp to a safer area. "This will happen many times again," he said. "You are soldiers; you must be prepared to die." A similar heavy raid on the Tamarkan bridges took place at the end of November, and once again the POWs were inevitably among the casualties since their camp lay close to the ack-ack battery defending the railway bridge. Most of the bombs effectively plastered the battery, but three overcarried and demolished the ends of two of the prisoners I huts, killing seventeen and wounding a further sixty. When POW authorities complained about the camp being located so close to the ackack battery, the Japanese replied with their impenetrable logic, "We have given you guns right beside the camp to defend you against the planes."

Many men found the attacks more terrifying than anything they had experienced during their captivity; the feeling of being trapped and being ignorantly pounded by their own people after three years of Japanese maltreatment produced a sense of helplessness and despondency that was only partially alleviated by the knowledge that the bombings were rendering the railway useless.

Our intelligence officers cautioned us continuously about damage to camp locations where we knew of the POW camps. Caution about release with bombsight cross-hair drift was strongly emphasized. But our crew was never briefed on the terrible living conditions of the men in the camps below us. Had we known our rationed PX supplies would have been flowing out of the aircraft windows.

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