Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai (2003) This PBS Secrets of the Dead documentary focuses on an on-the-ground inspection of the WW II Bangkok-Rangoon railroad by an Australian mining consultant, an American civil engineer, and a Japanese army engineering major who was involved in the construction project.

This crash railroad project was called the Death Railway because the Japanese, in their haste to build this without heavy construction equipment, considered POWs and Asian labor as ‘expendable.’ The death rate escalated sharply after a January, 1943 decision for “Speedo,’ the acceleration of an already unrealistic construction schedule.

From an engineering standpoint, this was an extraordinary undertaking. Over 600 bridges were necessary to traverse rivers, major cuts through mountains were required, and work continued incessantly through disease-infested jungles during monsoons and blazing heat.

The brutality of guards was matched by the relentless pressure from Japanese engineers. The bridges were copied from an American civil engineering manual for 19th century U. S. bridges. Since these were constructed for locomotives heavier than those used by the Japanese, the human work force was obliged to overbuild these structures.

The death rate of POWs from brutality, starvation, and disease was about 30%, with the worst at the Sonkurai bridge, where 1,200 of 1,600 POWs died. The fate of a quarter million Asian forced laborers is more difficult to calculate. Thousands were hastily buried in mass graves, as the Japanese were facing military defeat.

The concrete-and-cement bridge over the River Kwai was one of the easier construction projects. The camp was on a major river accessible to food and medical supplies. By one estimate, only nine POWs died at this camp, though other estimates are considerably higher. By contrast, the death rate and brutality were much greater along the jungle route and at key bridge and tunnel junctions.

News of this Death Railway reached the West with the Allied sinking of a POW ship in 1944. Graphic accounts by Death Railway survivors also provided vital information for the use of the first ‘smart bombs’ against the railroad. In February, 1945 Anzon-directed bombs scored four direct hits on the bridge on the River Kwai. Today this bridge is a tourist attraction.

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