Contributed by John Griffith
Between December 1942 and October 1943, 60,000 Allied Prisoners of war and 177,000 Tamil, Malay and Burmese worked for the Japanese to build a strategically (for the Japanese) important railway through the jungles of Burma and Thailand. For nearly two hundred kilometres of its journey the railway ran alongside a river called the Khwae Noi or ‘little river’. Around 12,500 Allied soldiers and more than 85,000 Asian labourers died during its construction and it became known as the ‘Death Railway’.
In Sept. 2009, while holidaying in Thailand I visited Kanchanaburi. Today the town is a pleasant, easy going city with a population of about 52,000 located about 150 km to the north-west of Bangkok. During WW2 however, it was the location of the Japanese construction headquarters for the railway’s construction on the Thailand side. Today it carries no visible evidence of the horrors which took place there, and in the dozens of other camps scattered along the length of the railway, during those terrible years. However a visit to the Commonwealth war cemeteries in the area quickly reveals the stark reality of the deaths which took place as the railway was built. The cemetery at Kanchanaburi holds the graves of approx 5,000 Commonwealth and 1,800 Dutch soldiers and it is located very close to the site of the actual base camp where many of them died. About 4 Km away is Chungkai, which was the site of a large hospital camp. The cemetery there is the original burial ground started by the prisoners, and the burials are mostly of men (approx 1,400 Commonwealth and over 300 Dutch) who died at the hospital.
Much confusion surrounds the river system here, especially since the making in the 1950s of a film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. The actual position is that two rivers follow an almost parallel course from the highlands on the Thai Burma (Myanmar) border, the Khwae Mae Khlong (to the east) and the Khwae Noi. They meet above, and just west of Kanchanaburi. Below the town the river is known as the Khwae Mae Klong, (Khwae is river in thai, Kwai is an anglicised version).
When the camp was established in October 1942, the prisoner’s first task was to bridge the Khwae Mae Klong above its confluence with the Khwae Noi. Once this bridge was constructed, work on the railway continued towards Burma. The prisoners and civilian workers were treated as slaves and suffered great brutality from the Japanese and Korean guards, as well as having to cope with the heat and diseases of the jungle. So its no wonder that the graves of so many men fill the cemeteries close by. In one of the cemeteries lie the remains of a Dubliner but as the cemetery registers were missing I was unable to locate his grave.
Adjacent to the Kanchanaburi cemetery I visited two other interesting locations. A museum, the Thailand Burma Railway Centre, overlooks the cemetery and has a powerful exhibition of photographs and artefacts from the railway.
Close by is a Catholic Church, built in 1955/6 at the instigation of the Dutch ambassador, to cater for the multidenominational needs of all relatives coming to respect their loved ones buried in the cemeteries.
It must be noted that the film of the 1950s is not in any way historically authentic except that in the broadest context it portrays the Japanese Allied Conflict of WW2. The film was actually shot in Sri Lanka to give a dramatic appearance to the bridge, as the actual bridge built by the prisoners is on a plain. For anyone visiting Bangkok, very good train and bus services go to Kanchanaburi, and its a visit well worth making.