Memorial Day is celebrated on the final Monday in May. It’s easy to think, based on the way we act, that it just a three day weekend to officially open the pool, drink beer, throw some burgers on the grill and watch the Indy 500. Lest we forget, Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it started after the American Civil War to commemorate both the Union and Confederate soldiers who perished.
In my mind, there is a single film associated with Memorial Day. As a child, The Bridge Over the River Kwai would play on one of the two stations we were able to get on the television. My father, who truly loved TV, would always watch. If you’ve not seen it, The Bridge over the River Kwai is a 1957 British-American World War II film directed by David Lean, starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, and based on the 1952 French novel by Pierre Boulle.
As a child, it never occurred to me that that the film was based on a real event. It was just a story. Nor did I know that I would one day walk across that very bridge.
This past February, I visited Thailand. I signed up for a day trip out of my base city of Bangkok and I honestly didn’t know what I was signing up for. I was focused on the part of the tour where I could ride an elephant and didn’t pay attention to the rest. But the highlight turned out to be a stop at the Kanchanaburi WWII Cemetery. This cemetery, the largest of three, is the final resting place for about 7,000 prisoners of war who died building the Burma-Siam Railway.
After entering the Second World War in December 1941, Japanese forces quickly overran most of South East Asia. In 1942, in order to find a shorter and more secure line of supply between Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) the Japanese decided to use prisoners of war and civilian labor to build a railway to existing railheads at Thanbyuzyat in the west and Ban Pong in the east. Two forces, one based in Siam and one in Burma, worked from opposite ends of the line, meeting at Konkuita in October 1943. The project cost the lives of approximately 15,000 prisoners of war, mostly from the UK, Australia and New Zealand as a result of sickness, malnutrition, exhaustion and mistreatment. The dead who could be recovered—and many could not be—were laid to rest in one of these three cemeteries. The land on which this cemetery stands is a gift of the Thai people for the perpetual resting place for the sailors, soldiers and air personnel who died. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the Kanchanaburi Cemetery and similar memorials in 150 countries. The Army Graves Services transferred remains from camp burial grounds and solitary sites all along the southern half of the railway and from other sites in Thailand.
The experience was moving beyond words. It brings to life the phrase, “Gone, but not forgotten.”
This cemetery is located near former Kanburi Prisoner of War base camp through which most prisoners passed. This building is now the “JEATH” War Museum, depicting the horrors of building this railroad in the steamy temperatures and dense tropical forest with little food and less medical attention. It’s not the most informative museum I’ve seen, nor the best organized, but it brutally depicted what went on in the camps. I walked through the displays horror-stuck, realizing that I probably wouldn’t have made it through the experience. I’d have been one of the bodies thrown in the river and forgotten.
The museum backs up against the river and there, on the patio, I saw for the first time the real bridge over the River Kwai (locally called the Kwae Noi River), bridge #277, on the former Burma-Siam Railway. This bridge was bombed by American forces, which helped to stop the progress of the Japanese. (Though it wasn’t as simple nor as final as the film would lead you to believe)
According to our guide, the round truss spans are the originals. The square-ish truss spans are replacements. According to Wikipedia, these were supplied by the Japanese as war reparations.
A man on the tour with me, from the UK, said that his Uncle had been a prisoner of war here and helped to build the railroad. He was liberated by the US and sent back home, but his ship was sunk on the way. He was rescued, but by the Japanese, making him a prisoner of war once again. He was taken to Nagasaki to work in a factory. He survived the atomic bomb and the US managed to rescue him again, but kept shuffling him about, first to hospital in Hawaii, then California, then even spent some time in New York. It was almost 2 years after the end of WWII before he made it home. His family had thought him dead. By then no one wanted to talk about the war so he didn’t share his experiences in full. He died 5 years later because his body was so worn out, but managed to marry and father 4 children before his death. He was only in his early 40’s when he died. A member of his same group, Alistair Urquhart, lived much longer. He wrote a book called The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific. I really must get this book.
But in the meantime, I’m going to watch The Bridge over the River Kwai on Netflix.