The modern Kwai River Bridge spans the Kwai Yai River, people crossing when trains aren’t.
For more time and space spanning pictures from Thailand, click here.
My father used to take regular trips to Hawaii for business when I was a child. A couple times each year, my mother and I would accompany him, lounging at some beachside resort, waiting for him to join us on forays out into the beautiful mystery of the islands. It was during one of these trips that my parents and I paid a visit to the USS Arizona Pearl Harbor memorial.
Many of the details of that visit have long since faded into the fog of time ever encroaching on my memories. The floor may have gray marble or rivet speckled metal. The light may have been artificial, bright bulbs carefully placed to enhance the magic of the monument, or natural sunlight streaming through windows and slits in the wall. The memorial may have been near empty, a few souls choosing to visit on that day at that time in that year, or my eagerness may have put me ahead of the crowd slowly filtering in behind me where my eyes couldn’t see.
A stone monument stands at one of three major cemeteries for victims of the death railway.
What I do remember for certain is a long gray room centered on a stone wall carved full of names, a velvet rope lining the front of the room keeping the crowd five feet away.
As I ran toward the front, my youthful gait slowed to one of reverence. I hardly understood the tragedy and sacrifice of Pearl Harbor, let alone the far-reaching implications it had for the world and, more personally, the Jews by bringing the US into World War II. And yet I found a lump forming in my throat, a knot in my chest beside it, as my eyes slowly took in the words imprinted on those hallowed walls. My hand rose to my heart as it had so many times at baseball games, the bombs bursting not in air, but only within the confines of my own head.
Momentarily, I was stunned, awed. I’d like to say I found myself on my knees because I was too weak to stand, but it’s equally likely I dropped prone out of respect for the names on the wall or out of respect for the people behind me who wanted to see. I remained there, pondering the deaths of these men, wondering what effect they had on the world; whether or not they knew what they had done for the world after them; whether they were proud of their heroics, their sacrifice, now that they had passed.
The clicks and whirs of the camera brought me out of my meditative state. The clarity of the moment was gone, like a TV show now lost in the throes of commercials. And though I bounded toward my parents ready to bounce and play and run free once more, that instant of pure homage was locked indelible in my mind.
The bridge on the River Kwai appears an average bridge to the mass of people making pilgrimage to pay their respects. Its steel beams and wooden ties bolted to cement supports make it a sound feat of engineering still used by the Thai railways, but beyond that, it’s surprisingly normal. A few stone plaques nearby are the only indication of its history besides the camera toting crowds that cross it. The restaurants lining the near side of the bridge feature photos of the atrocities that, given a prolonged examination, should make one queasy and suffer a loss of appetite.
The bridge’s simple image belies the incredible and tragic history now fictionalized in popular Hollywood mythos. Unlike the famed film, the bridge was actually two bridges across the River Yai Kwai and the Mae Kong River. There was never a commando team sent in to blow them up, though both were hit in bombing raids. What the movie did get right was the use of thousands of POWs to build the bridge, though it’s unclear how much pride these POWs took in their work, torture and cruelty often employed as encouragement to work harder in the subhuman conditions.
The Death Railway, as it’s called today, ran 415 kilometers across Burma and Thailand, linking Japan’s forces North to South. With nearly 250,000 POWs, rebels and imprisoned laborers, the crews were worked to the bone, illness and weakness punished as if they were symptoms of laziness. Japanese surveyors expected the railway to take 5 years to complete, but under the brunt of forced labor, it took a mere year and a half. More than half the work force died during construction from starvation, disease, and lack of proper medical equipment.
Both bridges fell in a series of bombing raids by the allies, key attacks that helped turn the tide of the war. The remnants of the wooden Kwai River Bridge have been washed away by nature and time, leaving only photos and memories of the blood built structure. The steel one still stands in a way, but it’s been repaired and improved my government workers and parts from Japan. Whether any part of it still remains original is unclear, though it doesn’t matter.
Matt and I walked the full length of the bridge down and back. On one end, the masses of people congregated along the bridge for photos and an impressive view of the river, carefully sidestepping each other onto rotting wooden boards slapped down to extend the walkway. On the other end, tiki tiki stalls lined an empty lot to either side of the railway, an elephant standing quietly as a beacon to onlookers who braved the trek all the way across.
All the while, I searched for that epiphany I had felt at Pearl Harbor all those years ago, the sense of utter helplessness, pride and respect swept into one grandiose soul shattering revelation. And though I didn’t find an emotional outburst so strong, there was no doubting the awe and reverence I felt for the sweeping sense of history imparted.