Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
The destruction of the bridge over the River Kwai represented a crucial turning point in the Pacific War.
The Japanese invasion of Thailand in 1941 is generally considered one of the key events that set the Pacific theatre into motion; and as the Japanese sought to strengthen their move into the formerly British-occupied Burma, so began work on the Death Railway. This direct track from Thailand to Burma would have allowed the swift transport of Japanese strength into the Allied colonies, and as such, was deemed impermissible by Allied forces.
The events that transpired however, would later be recognised as one of the most tragically inhumane episodes of the twentieth century… the weight of the slaughter resting heavily on both Allied and Japanese consciences.
Eager to learn more about this significant turning point in the Pacific theatre of war, I booked myself a Kanchanaburi tour from my Bangkok hostel. I paid 1000 Baht for the day trip – that’s around £20. It seemed like a good deal, but I was still a Thailand newbie at the time… I would later discover how easy it is to travel the country by rail, even without speaking a word of Thai. The train from Bangkok to Kanchanburi costs the equivalent of about £1.50, and it would have spared me the experience of my travelling companions; most notably a brash young American couple who insisted on filming everything that happened in the course of the day, and began each conversation with a proud declaration of their Californian heritage. It was to be my first and last experience of attending such a tour.
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Our first stop was The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (or as it is locally known, the Don-Rak War Cemetery).
While my new-found friends posed for photos with the bus, with pedestrians, and pulled funny faces on the steps of the Kanchanaburi Memorial, I disappeared alone into the solemn green rows.
The Don-Rak Cemetery marks the final resting place of many of the prisoners of war who perished in the construction of the Burma Railway. It contains the graves of almost 7,000 former POWs; most of them British, Australian and Dutch.
Many of these bodies were recovered from the mass graves inside the south section of the railway between Nieke and Bangkok… where they were discarded once unable to provide further labour. Two additional graves in the cemetery contain the ashes of those victims whose remains were cremated.
The Don-Rak War Cemetery is located on Saeng Chuto Road, the main thoroughfare which leads through the town of Kanchanaburi. It must be one of the few small corners of Thailand which is not permeated with Buddhist paraphernalia; this solemn, timeless location could have been anywhere, defined only by the green grass, clear blue skies and row upon row of neat marble graves dedicated to a Christian God.
The cemetery is presided over by the Kanchanaburi Memorial, which provides the names of those cremated… in addition to the names of 11 Indian prisoners of war, who were buried elsewhere in Muslim cemeteries.
The JEATH War Museum
Next, on to our main port of call. The JEATH War Museum is situated on the junction of the Rivers Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi, right on top of the old rail tracks. The name is an acronym recognising the primary nationalities of those involved in the construction of the Death Railway; Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland. To the locals it is known simply as the Wat Tai War Museum.
The museum is divided into several sections. While the main path through the exhibitions charts Thailand’s involvement in the Pacific War (from first invasion through to the destruction of the bridge, and finally Japan’s retreat accompanied by the release of prisoners), other areas offer a range of different perspectives on the region.
One room focusses on the prehistoric evolution of the area, while another charts the annual winners of the Miss Thailand competition. There seem to be Buddhist shrines tucked away into every empty corner, and there isn’t an inch of wall space that hasn’t been written on. Some of it in Thai, other passages in French, English or German, these verses range from military history through to religious philosophy. To read them all would have taken a day at least.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the museum however, are the wooden effigies used to depict the suffering of Allied POWs. Carved in a similar style to those that appear in Thailand’s numerous Buddhist Hell Gardens, these often crude figures show naked men engaged in hard labour, being tortured, or lying dead and bloody at the bottom of rivers.
The intention is to shock… but also to bring home the very real pain and suffering which prisoners were subjected to; and which many of us living comfortable Western lifestyles find it so hard to fully comprehend. My fellow travellers were living proof of this, as they jokingly cupped the testicles of flayed men, or mimicked their expressions for photographs.
Towards the end of the museum, a courtyard is walled in with mounted figures of WWII’s military leaders: Churchill and De Gaulle; Mussolini and Hitler; the Japanese Generals Tōjō and Yamashita; Joseph Stalin and General Douglas MacArthur. On an adjacent wall, written in both Thai and English, hangs a sign which reads, “War is sinful behaviour”.
More poignant still, is the broken wooden structure which protrudes from the riverbank beneath an observation platform. This is all that now remains of the former bridge, and is a stark reminder of the tragedy that befell here; in 1945 both the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force mounted bombing raids on the bridge, but after both attacks it was repaired using prisoner labour.
Finally on 24th June 1945, an RAF squadron was ordered to halt the Japanese movement into Burma at any cost. Fearing defeat, the Japanese filled the bridge with as many Allied prisoners as they could fit, in a hope to deter the bombers. It failed however, and when the bridge was finally put out of action, its destruction came at a cost of many Allied lives.
These events were later immortalised in Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel, ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai‘ .
Hellfire Pass & The Death Railway
The last stop on our tour was a ride on the Death Railway itself.
The route was first surveyed by British colonists in Burma at the turn of the twentieth century; however, this treacherous landscape of jungles, rivers and mountains was deemed far too rough and remote a terrain to ever form the basis of a successful rail road.
Hellfire Pass in particular, a crossing point through the Tenasserim Hills, would have required an enormous effort – with rail workers forced to cut their way through solid rock in order to build foundations for the track.
Nevertheless, as the Japanese pressed on towards Burma in 1942, it became apparent that they would need to find a way through. At this stage they were sending supplies by boat across the the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea; these waters were well guarded by Allied submarines however, and so a direct railway seemed the only viable solution.
Work began in June. It is believed that somewhere in the region of 330,000 POWs and civilian labourers worked on the line. The majority of these were Asian (Thai, Chinese and Burmese in particular), while approximately 16,000 captured Allies (mostly British, Australian and Dutch) were put to task.
The POWs were forced to work under filthy and inhumane conditions, forbidden such niceties as bedding or even clothing. As a result, the camps were rife with disease – many of the workers died from dysentery or cholera, if not starvation and exhaustion. Over the six weeks it took to build the cutting through Hellfire Pass, 69 men were beaten to death by their Japanese guards.
By the end of the project, roughly 90,000 civilians and 16,000 Allied POWs lay dead beneath the tracks.
We had been promised five stops on the train – boarding from the station at Wampo, then north through the pass, and dismounting at Rin Tin. I was eager to lose the rest of the group. So, when the rusty old train pulled up to the platform in front of us, I waited for everyone else to get on first… and then climbed up into a different carriage.
As the track rises up into the Tenasserim Hills and through the pass, it clings precariously to the face of the cliff. Wooden supports rattle and groan beneath the weight of the carriages, making for a thoroughly unsettling experience. The overall effect is that of a rollercoaster built upon heinous war crimes – I was left feeling a strange mixture of adrenaline, grief and awe.
 As an interesting side note, on the release of David Lean’s subsequent film, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘, thousands of tourists flooded to Thailand to see the bridge for themselves. Of course, no bridge now remained on the River Khwae, although a similar wood and concrete construction spanned the nearby Mae Klong. So, the Thais renamed this stretch of the Mae Klong the ‘Khwae Yai’ (‘Big Khwae’), while the original Khwae became ‘Khwae Noi’, or ‘Little Khwae’.
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