A Visit to Those Who Died on the River Kwai

Posted: May 29, 2011 12:01 AM

Almost every nation sets aside a special day to honor its veterans and remember fallen comrades.

I believe it is only in America, however, that we separate the two. Memorial Day consecrates those who gave their last full measure of devotion. Veterans Day honors those who brought to an end a vicious war a century ago along with the hope- not yet a reality- that its wounds would serve as reminder to never let such carnage happen again.

My wife and I were in Kanchanaburi Province in Thailandprior to this year’s Memorial Day.

While there, it was our honor and privilege to be able to pay our respects to the over 200,000 Allied prisoners of war and occupied-nation laborers. More than half of them died as a result of the brutality of Japanese Army guards or from disease, starvation or exhaustion while being forced to build the Death Railway beginning in 1942.

Most people, if they recall anything at all about the terrible tragedy and its unspeakable cruelty, torture, and deprivation, know only what they read in Pierre Boulle’s fictionalized account- or in the movie made from it: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

It was a fine book and movie. But like all “historical fiction,” the need to have a hero, a villain, a rapidly-moving plot line and a modicum of love interest, typically outweigh the needs of history. History asks only that it be told accurately.

For those who remember the 1957 Best Picture winner, please know there was no Col Nicholson (the character Alec Guinness played) who first stubbornly resisted, then fell victim to a Stockholm

Syndrome of his own making long before the term was coined.

There is no record of a wisecracking and handsome American like William Holden who played a pivotal role in destroying the bridge. In point of fact there was no British team of saboteurs that trekked through the jungle for days, and no beautiful Thai maidens who shared the hardships of the commando team.

But, the bridge itself is a fact. In fact, two were built. At that point, history and fiction diverge.

The real Death Railway was conceived by the Japanese to support their large land forces in Burma, where, 50 years later, I had the privilege to serve as a US military attaché. Japanese lines of supply were stretched thin by 1942-1943. Resupply by rail was far more desirable for the Nipponese than trying to run the Gulf of Siam, the Malacca Straits, and the Andaman by sea where allied naval forces patrolled.

Those pressed into labor on the building of the railroad comprised mostly Brits and Aussies, but also Canadians, Kiwis, Indians and numerous others from the then-British empire, as well as Dutch from the Dutch East Indies (mostly today’s Indonesia), Americans from a field artillery unit and the sunken USS Houston, and indigenous peoples forced to labor alongside Allied POWs. At least 100,000 of those imprisoned were murdered or died of disease, starvation or exhaustion between 1942 and 1946.

The senior Allied POW at the bridge was British Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey.

Unlike the fictional Nicholson, which Boulle claimed was a composite of a number of French officers he had served under, Col. Toosey suffered no dereliction of duty, no need to show the Japanese Army how to build a better bridge.

In fact, Col (later Brigadier) Toosey delayed and sabotaged the building of the bridge as much as he dared, while still protecting his POWs from even more unspeakable acts of violence and vengeance. Mixing the concrete improperly, surreptitiously collecting termites to place in the wood, and affixing its supports as loosely as they dared while making them look more secure, were the order of the day.

In short, they were real men doing their duty as POWs to resist by whatever means possible. No drama, no poignant epiphanies happened at the end. They were just men “doing their duty.”

Toosey was one of the senior leaders deemed so essential to the war effort that he was to be evacuated as the Japanese closed in on Singapore. He declined in order to remain with his men during their captivity.

The life these men led was nasty, brutish and short.

The Japanese warrior culture of the times demanded death before surrender and considered any soldier who surrendered a coward beneath contempt. It mattered not whether they surrendered of their own volition, or because they were unconscious, or because their superiors surrendered knowing their men were out of time, ammunition, and alternatives.

Since they were therefore not real men in the eyes of the Japanese, they were treated as such.

The Death Railway claimed men the way the Bataan Death March did, for the same reasons and, typically, in the same manner.

69 men were beaten to death in just 6 weeks at Hellfire Pass alone. Anyone with the ill fortune to contract malaria, or suffer from beri-beri, dysentery, cholera, or any of a score of other jungle maladies, was left to die or bayoneted in place as being of no value as a laborer.

POWs subsisted on rice, rancid vegetables, and watery gruel with the occasional rat, snake, insect or weed for protein. They spent back-breaking hours in the unyielding sun day after miserable day. Then,

Too often, they just died while “doing their duty.”

The primary POW cemetery where many are buried is in the city of Kanchanaburi.  Here 6,982 mostly British, Australian, Dutch and Canadian POWs are interred. I was struck, in walking the row upon row of these graves, by two things.

First, the simplicity of the markings: Most of the graves are marked with a straightforward “He died that we might live” or “He did his duty.”

Some may find those words prosaic. I, an old soldier, do not. I cannot imagine any veteran thinking so. For fighting men, it’s more complicated.

Second, the dates of death: They range from the earliest POWs, before the railway was even begun, to many – I stopped counting at 100 – who died well after the war ended, either of wounds received, diseases from which they could not recover, or simply being too malnourished and mentally skeletal to respond to the best treatment they could be given.

Visiting their final resting place reminded me that while each nation may honor its own war dead, so many have given so much to the cause of freedom from tyranny and barbarism that it is unfairly parochial to think only in national terms. We stand on the shoulders of so many giants who came before us, not all from the same place, but all sharing the same ideals.

There will always be tyrants, xenophobes, ideologues and religious extremists willing to enslave, crush or murder those who do not think as they do. I thank God there are an equal number, or if ever outnumbered a more committed few, willing to live, fight and die for the freedom to think as we like, to worship as we like, and to live free, as we choose.

We who visit them so long after their lives have ended must not allow them to have died in vain.

On this day of Remembrance for America’s war dead, let us also salute the British, Australians, Dutch, Canadians, and others who died in this terrible place. Let us salute all the men and women in all the other nations who have fought for our right to be free to live as we choose.

And let us pick up that precious torch and keep it always burning brightly, even into the darkest corners of the world.

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