The Bridge over the River Kwai. For generations of Americans and her Allies in World War II, especially the British, it has been the symbol of the hardships and cruel treatment during World War II in the Pacific Theatre. Until the arrival of Louie Zamperini’s block buster life story, Unbroken, it had been the epitome of writing of the life of a POW under the Japanese.
I had read The Bridge over the River Kwai, like thousands of American school children, in Miss Shepherd’s 7th Grade English class. I had watched the movie on Wert Cain’s Afternoon Theatre on Channel 9 in Cincinnati. Now I was going there. I could hardly believe it.
My driver picked me up at 12:32 and we were off. It took us an hour just to get out of Bangkok, if you can call it getting out. We spent another 30 minutes in the suburbs, which looked more like more city to me. Finally we got out into the countryside. We crossed a railroad track, I wondered if it led to the River Kwai. I was expecting to see animals and farms…I saw neither. Finally I saw some goats. Later I saw a pond in a field and I said to the driver, “Rice?” My driver, who spoke little English, responded “Yes, rice”.
After nearly two and a half hours, we entered a large town. Suddenly the driver pulled to the curb, he said something unintelligible and pointed to the left. It was a cemetery. He motioned for me to get out. I walked to the stone entrance, it was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Before I stepped inside, I paused to thank the Lord for these men and the sacrifice that they had made. I had the same feeling that I had had years before at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. I felt that I was about to step onto hallowed ground.
The grounds were immaculately groomed, much, I suppose, like Augusta National Golf Club where they hold the Masters. I decided to walk down one entire row of grave stones. I learned later that I was in the British section. Of the dozens of stones that I read, all except two were in their 20s or 30s when they died, most between 24 and 31.
After nearly an hour of slowly endeavoring to drink in all I was experiencing, I was interrupted by my driver calling over the hedges. “Museum close at 5:00, you come back here later”. I looked at my watch, it was 4:01. I had an hour, as it turned out I needed two.
The Death Railway Museum was almost too much to digest, though it was a simple museum. I learned that the Japanese had decided to build the railway in order to get supplies from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar). They had captured Burma from the British, wanted to hold it and possibly move into India. They could not re-supply Burma by sea as they had no way to protect the sea lanes after their loss at the Battle of Midway—hence they desperately needed the new railway.
They did not have the heavy equipment required to build the railway through the jungle and mountains, but they did have lots of cheap labor…thousands of captured Prisoners of War (POWs) they had garnered during their conquest of the Pacific – most of the POWs were British. I also learned that a Dutchman walked into the railway headquarters the day after Japan surrendered and informed the Japanese that he was now in charge of the railway. He spent the next two years (1945-1947) recording the history of the railway, which has been extremely helpful in preserving this story.
One important piece to record. The railway was over 400 kilometers long and was built between June 1942 and October 1943. The price – unbelievable suffering by POWs and thousands of forced laborers.
But the Grand Finale lie ahead of me. To actually see the Bridge over the River Kwai. After emerging from the museum and a quick return to the cemetery to pay my last respects, the driver said, “You happy…Go to Bridge now”
We drove what seemed to be a couple of miles and the town turned into a village. Suddenly the driver stopped at the curb. He pointed and said, “You walk to bridge”. I got out.
Before me lie the River Kwai and then the structure I first read about 41 year prior…The Bridge over the River Kwai. I walked up and onto the railroad tracks. Before I could step onto the bridge, I heard a train whistle. Dozens of visitors on the bridge began to scurry. The railroad is still being used. After the train went by, I resumed my pilgrimage. I could not believe that I was walking on a structure built by hundreds of British POWs 74 years before. Inside the modern, wide tracks, they still had the original 1 meter gauge tracks laid all those years before. The concrete pillars supporting the bridge showed marks of the allied bombing in 1945, which eventually shut down the bridge in that summer. After the war, the bombed section was repaired and is marked by rectangular steel versus the oval shape used in most of the bridge.
After crossing, I found the other side to be very primitive, almost as if it must have been in 1942. I saw a road to the left and decided to follow. I had read that the POW camp had been 400 yards downstream. I was going to find it. I marked my paces and sure enough, around 375 came to an old metal sign written in Thai. It must have been the entrance. I found a path to the river where I encountered a tourist group coming out of the river on kayaks. I asked the guide if this was the place of the POW camp, he confirmed that it was. I asked someone to take the photo below, the same view of the Bridge over the River Kwai (without the buildings in the background) that the emaciated POWs had 74 years prior, from their camp.
As the driver took me back to Bangkok we passed the cemetery again as the sun set beyond the Thai horizon. I thought of those graves again. One had said, “His duty fearlessly and nobly done is ever remembered”. I thought in this “postmodern” world where “everything is ok” and “there are no absolutes” (neither of which holds true) would we have the moral fortitude to sacrifice like those brave soldiers of World War II? The price they paid was a heavy one, it is said that for every railroad tie on the line, one soldier died…that is over 12,000.
Then I thought of the tombstones with messages of hope written upon them. I include a photo of one below. How good it is for followers of Jesus Christ to have the assurance that despite the awful things that can happen in life (and the Death Railway is near the top of the list) one can have eternal bliss in Heaven, if they only receive this free gift.
See more photos at the Doctor Aviation Facebook site: https://www.facebook.com/doctoraviation