Today I had the honour of walking across the Bridge over the River Kwai. It was a most humbling experience. I could not help but wonder what I would have done had I been a young man at the start of WW2. Would I have volunteered or waited for conscription, would I have acquitted myself well, would I have survived and how would I cope if I found myself myself here as a POW?
These questions are imponderables, but ONE THING I AM SURE OF, JUST STANDING IN THE BLAZING HEAT OF THE SUN ON THAT TRACK, AS LUCKY IN LIFE AS I AM, I KNOW THAT I WOULD NOT HAVE SURVIVED. THE MEN THAT DID IRRESPECTIVE OF RACE OR CREED WERE GIANTS!
The construction of this 415 Km railway of death cut through mountains and valleys, through dense jungle and took 16 months (despite an original estimate of 5-6 years). It also took the lives (usually horribly) of 16,000 British, Dutch, Danish, Australian, New Zealand and American POW’s together with those of 100,000 conscripted Asian labourers.
Building it was a massive undertaking, but particularly this bridge (made famous by the movie, although they also built 420 other timber cantilevered bridges) and cutting the nearby Hell Fire Pass, so called because the men toiled through the night hammering and chiselling through solid rock by hand, illuminated by oil lamps and bamboo torches, to all intents and purposes, Hell on earth.
When finished, the bridge and tracks operated as a supply line for about 18 months, ending up ironically being used by the retreating Japanese army before being put out of action by allied bombs (incidentally by one of the early uses of guided bombs).
Looking back, Japan’s expansionist ambitions were clearly bonkers, way beyond its capabilities and capacity, yet another example of the hawks’ influence over that of the doves that sadly we still see today. They were going to come unstuck sooner or later, even without the atomic bomb and this bloody railway would have made little difference.
After the war, some of the line was dismantled, leaving the section we travelled on from Bangkok as a local line and a reminder of the pain and suffering that some sadly misguided men can inflict on other men far better than them.
Final note! At war’s end, the Allies recovered all but a handful of the 16,000 POW’s bodies, identified each one and buried them in beautiful cemeteries that are still cared for today. Of the 100,000 Asian conscripted dead, records show that 3 bodies were recovered, these were never identified and so buried in unmarked graves.