More than the Academy Award winning film that made it famous or the song I’m whistling right now, the River Kwai’s real story lies in an immaculate cemetery built near its banks.
The Kanchanaburi Cemetery contains the remains of 6,982 POWs who died building the Thailand-Burma Railway during World War II. In addition to them, more than 100,000 civilians died during its construction, prompting Major A.E. Saggers, then an Australian commanding officer and POW, to say, “Never have I dreamt that I would see the day when human life would be held so cheaply.”
Following their defeat in the Battle of Singapore, Major Saggers and his surviving men spent over three years as Japanese prisoners-of-wars. Their time included work on the Thailand-Burma Railway, which the Japanese army needed to deliver supplies and ammunition to its large base in Burma.
Under extreme pressure, the Japanese army oversaw construction of the railway and completed the 258-mile line in just over a year.
The POWs worked alongside civilians forced into labor from Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies. So brutal were the working conditions that thousands of men died and were buried in makeshift graves along the route.
Eventually, authorities recovered the remains and relocated them into three POW cemeteries, the largest of which is located in the Thai city of Kanchanaburi. (The bodies of American POWs were sent home).
Though the main reason for our trip to Kanchanaburi was to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, immortalized in the 1958 movie that won seven Academy Awards, I found the adjacent cemetery even more fascinating.
I loved the tremendous care that obviously went into planning and maintaining the grounds. Teams of Thai gardeners worked a section while I was there visiting.
Both my mom and I were also very touched by the inscriptions and we selected two graves to commemorate with flowers — Private S.G. Hann, whose poetic inscription read “His life a beautiful memory. His absence a silent sorrow,” and 21-year old N.T. Wright, whose inscription was far more brief and therefore, we thought, even more profound. It read “Bud”