The Real Thing
I dedicate this article in memory of my good friend and mentor, Derek Lehrle who passed away in 2009. Derek was a great guy willing to impart his knowledge and photos of what he saw of Singapore in the 1950s. Derek contributed many of his photos to the PICAS collection at the National Archives of Singapore. You can read more of Derek’s sharp observations on his web site.
What’s the connection between the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, Changi Prison and 2 persons?
Let’s start with the easiest explanation, the Oscar award movie starring William Holden and Alec Guinness. I saw the re-run of this action war movie when I turned 7 and never forgot the images of the blowing-up of the wooden bridge, Colonel Saito and the British POW contingent marching to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”. Together with many others (like The Alamo, The Battle of Gettysburg, Raid on Entebbe, to name a couple) with a historical theme behind them, I bought the laser versions at the HMV store in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. Why did I have to do it? The Singapore Censorship Board frowned on anything violent and my perception was they could not differentiate between a work of art, something history and street violence. So I was really worried that the airport customs would confiscate my prized purchases.
Did the movie really tell the whole truth about the Siam-Burma Railway construction during WWII? In fairness, we must go beyond the celluloid film.
Photo 1: Scenes from the “The Bridge on the River Kwai” showing men from RAF Chia Keng
In June 1942 some 61,000 POWs from Britain, Australia, America, Canada, New Zealand and Holland as well as some 90,000 Malayans were put to work by the Japanese Imperial Army to construct a railway line 415 km long linking Kanchanaburi to the Japanese base camp in Thanbyuzayat in Burma. First estimates by experienced Japanese railway engineers suggested a time-frame of 5 years for completion but under tremendous pressure, the POWs were forced to complete in 12 months. The outcome was devastating even though it was an engineering feat. The British and Australian POWs were taken from Changi Prison and driven up-country over 4 days on the “cattle-train” from Tanjung Pagar Station. My cousin lost on his maternal side, “Uncle Robert Cheong”, from Kuala Lumpur who never came home after the war.
Photo 2: The steel (bottom) and wooden (top) bridges on the Maeklong River which was renamed the River Kwai in 1960. Photo was taken by USAF aerial intelligence prior to the bombing
What about the 2 persons mentioned? This refers to Derek and me. Derek was English who did national service at RAF Chia Keng in Singapore in 1957. It was through Derek that I was able to build up my photo collections on Singapore at a time when I was struggling to get old Singapore landmarks. I was a toddler when Derek was here. He confirmed what my eyes saw as I recollected my early childhood memories. Our friendship extended even to the golf course. He was a good single handicapper who enjoyed nothing but a walking course whereas I wished for a buggy course.
Photo 3: Derek shared his memories on his enlistment at RAF Cardington in 1957 to his time at RAF Chia Keng in Singapore
Derek often encouraged me to visit the bridge on the River Kwai to seek out answers, something I never could quite catch what was on his mind. “Go not just for the sight-seeing”, he said. Derek shared with me stories about his RAF Chia Keng colleagues who acted in the movie of the same name. After they ROD in 1955, some of them headed to Ceylon where the movie outdoor production was made. When you watch the movie, there’s a scene of a group of defiant POWs who marched off to the tune of “Colonel Bogey” despite threats from Colonel Saito the railway camp commandant. That group of rank and file men were once NS enlistees from RAF Chia Keng in Singapore. During the outdoor shooting scene, the men were made to sing “Colonel Bogey” but their lack of singing talent made the film director David Leane switching over to whistling. That’s how the whistling part became the signature tune in the movie.
Photo 4: Two spans of the steel bridge receive a direct hit during a raid by the 20th Bomber Command’s 40th Bomber Group of B24s.
Spending time in Kanchanaburi, I found the answers Derek might have wanted me to find out. The only sad part is I am unable to tell Derek. The wooden bridge was completed in February 1943 and the steel bridge in April 1943. Both the steel and wooden bridges were subjected to intense Allied bombing between December 1944 and June 1945. The wooden bridge was not blown up by Allied commandos as in the movie. On Jan 1, 1945 B24 aircrafts from the U.S. Air Force destroyed the wooden bridge and killing and injuring several POWs housed in the Tamarkan POW Camp 200 meters away. One span of the steel bridge was destroyed in mid-Feb 1945, another 2 spans destroyed between April and June 1945 which finally put an end to the railway link between Siam and Burma.
Photo 5: The steel bridge today with third and fourth span (from the right) replaced after the war
Coming to Kanchanaburi also had its other rewards – I now have a better collection of Kanchanaburi WWII photos – and located many of the original sites. Incidentally the Singapore connection does not stop here. You get to see a little of Singapore’s heritage kept at the Kanchanaburi museums.
This is a good site for another story about the River Kwai Bridge.
Read also Brian Mitchell's post on the Cambridge Yasume Club.