The "Death Railway" in Kanchanaburi: The real story behind the Bridge Over the River Kwai​


The construction of the Death Railway has been the subject of numerous memoirs, novels and films including the 1957 movie 'The Bridge On the River Kwai'. You might wonder how much of the film was real and how much was fictionalized. In fact, the real history of how this railway was built, including the bridge, is a horrific story.


During Second World War, the invading Japanese took on the railway project in order to support the Japanese Imperial Army's forces in Burma. Those plans were drawn until they found a source of free labor: the Allied POWs (Prisoner of War). The construction of this 258-mile stretch of track connecting Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma was the largest project involving forced labor and perhaps one of the most enduring images of the ordeals faced by Far Eastern POWs.


During World War II, an estimated 140,000 Allied military personnel were captured by Japanese Imperial Forces. The majority of prisoners were put to work in mines, fields, shipyards and factories, usually for over 12 hours a day while surviving on a diet of little over 600 calories.


The project was an ambitious one and, the Japanese began moving POWs northward from the infamous Changi prison in Singapore and other prison camps in Southeast Asia in May 1942. By October, the first 3,000 Australians prisoners had begun constructing airfields and other essential infrastructure. In June another 3,000 British soldiers arrived at the southern terminus of the railway at Ban Pong.


More than 180,000 Asian civilian laborers and over 60,000 Allied POWs were forced to live and work in the worst conditions imaginable. As the majority of the work took place in Jungle conditions, humidity was constantly high and temperatures could reach 40 °C (104 °F) at midday.


Starvation, exhaustion, absent accommodation and sanitation, and the individual viciousness of Japanese and Korean engineers over minor transgressions, took their expected toll. Disease (predominantly dysentery, malaria, cholera), brutality and 12 to 18 hour daily work shifts made for a high death rate. Over 16,000 Allied prisoners lost their lives on the Death Railway.


The Japanese deadline for the Railway's completion was December 1943. As the deadline was approaching, the work went on 24 hours a day with the aid of oil pot lamps and bamboo/wood fires. When looking down on the wok area at night it looked like working in the “jaws of hell” — thus, the workers gave it the name “Hellfire Pass” which is a rocky and isolated section in the Tenasserim Hills.


Because of the inhuman amount of labor forced on the prisoners, the railway line that was expected to take five years to complete was ready in only 16 months which was on 17 October 1943. However, those POWs who survived the construction still had to endure a further two years in captivity before liberation. After the war ended, 111 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes committed during the construction of the railway, and 32 were sentenced to death.