Bridge over the River Kwai

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”

This is my mom and me standing in front of the Bridge over the River Kwai (technically the Bridge over the Khwae Yai River, which intersects the Mekong River near Kanchanaburi.)
That is our train going over the bridge. It looks a little dicey for the tourist in the blue sweatshirt but no worries, she emerged unscathed (except for the literally burning questions — What was she doing on that bridge wearing a sweatshirt and long pants in near 90 degree heat??)
The Kanchanaburi Cemetery is the largest of three POW cemeteries in Thailand.
The dedication reads “1939-1945 The land on which this cemetery stands is the gift of the Thai people for the perpetual resting place of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who are honored here.
We laid small wreaths on N.T. “Bud” Wright’s grave. He was just 21 when he died as a POW in WWII.
We also left a wreath on Private Hann’s grave.
This is the view from the back of the cemetery.
Teams of Thai gardeners work hard to keep the grounds immaculate. Though the Japanese military treated the POWs and conscripted laborers horribly, they did allow survivors to respectfully bury their countrymen. Initially, there were multiple make-shift graves along the railroad route, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission later exhumed the bodies and relocated them to large cemeteries. Two graves contain the ashes of 300 men who were cremated and it lists the names of 11 POWs from India who are buried in Muslim cemeteries.
The Death Railway Museum and Research Center is continuing to work to collect records and data related to the railway.

2 thoughts on “Bridge over the River Kwai

  1. I was a senior in college when the movie was released; I saw it immediately, driving from Durham over to the Raleigh theater. How enlightening it is to read and see in your, as usual, striking photographs, the
    actual place. I was especially struck by your response, the focusing on two particular graves. Those who die in wars rarely if ever are remembered outside of their immediate families. I’m very grateful for how you have shared your experience with us. The beauty of your photographs and responses serves to redeem the horror and bestiality inflicted on these dead human beings. Many, many thanks for this.

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