The Bridge Over the Khwae Yai River and the Burma-Siam Railroad



The Bridge Over the Khwae Yai River and the Burma-Siam Railroad

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The first railroad bridge over the Khwae Yai River, near Kanchanaburi, was built of wood, using Allied and Asian slave labor. In 1943 it was abandoned for an iron bridge, which was repeatedly bombed and damaged by the US Army Air Force from late 1944 on. In 1945, after only a short period in service, the bridge was put out of commission. After the war this infamous river crossing was immortalized in David Lean’s movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The bridge was part of an immense project, the 255­mile (414­km) Burma­Siam Railroad, conceived by the Japanese after the Allies blockaded sea routes in 1942. It ran from Nong Pladuk, 30 miles (50 km) southeast of Kanchanaburi, to Thanbyuzayat near the coast in Burma. Built under appaling conditions, it operated for only two years. Around 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 300,000 Asian laborers were forced to work 18­hour shifts on its construction, with many losing their lives to cholera, malaria, malnutrition, and most tragically to maltreatment. It is said that one man died for each tie laid. One reason for the brutal regime was that the Japanese followed a samurai code. They despised the disgrace of surrender and treated the Allied prisoners of war as if they had forfeited all human rights. The present­day bridge at Kanchanaburi was rebuilt, as part of Japanese war reparations, with two girders from the Japan Bridge Company of Osaka. It has now become a place of pilgrimage for veterans.

Kanchanaburi has two cemeteries and a museum, the latter, in particular, presenting a moving evocation of this harrowing episode of World War II history.

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