Friday, April 13, 2012

River Kwai: the movie and the real thing – by Peter Chan

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.

Thanks Derek.

This is a good site for another story about the River Kwai Bridge.
Read also Brian Mitchell's post on the Cambridge Yasume Club.


Tim said...

One of the railway exhibits at Kanchanaburi is no 804. This is a former Federated Malay States Railway locomotive that was confiscated by the Japanese and taken to work in Siam. It was never returned to Malaya, and became part of the Royal Siamese Railways fleet after the war.

As one of the express engines of its day, it probably visited Singapore many times.

A lot of Malayan railway vehicles found their way to Siam during the war, but the majority were returned.

The biggest loss was the Malacca branch. This line was ripped up to provide materials for the Siam-Burma Railway, and it was never reopened.

Edward said...

The 1957 award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is an excellent movie that portrayed the POW experiences from one perspective. A number of books have been written on the building of the bridge, some focused on the personalities of the senior officers involved, others on the prisoners’ experiences in the death camps. One of the most moving books I’ve read on the construction of the bridge is “One Fourteenth of an Elephant” by Ian Denys Peek. The book takes you on a deeply emotional journey through the death camps and the immense suffering experienced by the POWs. I quote verbatim from Denys Peek’s “Dedication”:

“Death came bearing a dismal shroud of utter loneliness, which sealed off dying men from all those they had loved and who had loved them, warmed only by the intense compassion of those few friends who were with them at the time.

We must never forget them, or allow them to pass from their people’s memories. Indeed, our constant remembrance is our own personal thanksgiving for our survival.”

I commend this book to those with a keen historical interest in the construction of the Thai-Burma railway.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks for sharing that Edward. I remember seeing a docuentary of this famous railway line on Spore Cable Vision before.

Recently my friends who came back from holiday showed many nice photos of the holiday resorts in that area. I always this place is only famous for the railway.

peter said...

There are many good and reasonably priced guesthouses and makan shops. Imagin bathing in a lana-style toielt with c-thru glass and a landscaped garden (I was told this is very common with guesthouses along the river bank).

A bowl of noodles goes for S$1.20/. Fresh veggies for only S$2/- at a restaurant and can feed 2 persons.

NO wonder my former teacher retired to Kanachanaburi and lives like a "king".

ZEN said...

Thailand and Sri lanka (formerly ceylon) are attractive places to retire. In fact many foreigners are making home there. The famous author Arthur C Clark retired in Sri Lanka and recently passed away there. My former boss once joked: "you can become a thai citizen very easily (how?)- just marry a thai girl and that's it". I doubt his off-the-cuff statement, but anyway I do not bother to find out its validity .

Keith said...

I had been to the Kao Yai / Sai Yok area very near to Kanchanaburi thrice for training during my army days; once during active and twice during reservist days. Navigating that area used to be very easy for me as my army job was largely involved with reconaissance.

And twice Kanchanaburi was one of the stopovers for R&R. We used to make fun of the name - pronounced hokkien way taking out the 3rd syllable. All those times I hated that place until I went there recently and really appreciated the rich history and nature there.

Brian and Tess said...

We visited Kanchanaburi as part of our round the world trip in 2009 and the reason was to visit the site of what is known as 'The death railway', there is an extremely moving and realistic museum and recreation of the huts used by the POWs and a very large and moving war cemetary.

Incidentally one of the great inacuracies of the film was the Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) role protrayed in the film as a rather crazed collaborator when the real commander was a considerable heroic figure who saved many lives.

Icemoon said...

The best (or worst?) time to go Kanchanaburi is during November? when they have this light and sound extravaganza re-enactment of the war.

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