A bridge to remembrance of war

SUN JOURNAL

Death: Tens of thousands of Allied prisoners and Asian conscripts died building a railroad through the Thai jungle. A simple thatch-roofed hut commemorates the extraordinary loss of life there.

May 25, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KANCHANABURI, Thailand -- Here on the banks of the River Kwai, the sun shines bright and brutal. Standing, wondering, in its glare, the imagination fails. During World War II, the Japanese forced 69,000 American and other Allied prisoners, along with 200,000 Asian conscripts, to build a railroad here.

They were ill-fed; medical care was poor; malaria and beriberi attacked relentlessly; the work was set at an impossible pace. And the sun beat down. The suffering, the price paid in that war, is nearly beyond comprehension 57 years later.

The movie helps. "The Bridge on the River Kwai," made in 1957 by David Lean, leaves some indelible images. The strongest, perhaps, is of the plucky British regiment, captured by the Japanese and marched to a camp near here to build a railroad bridge over the River Kwai.

Alec Guinness plays their spit-and-polish commander, Colonel Nicholson. He heads the column, erect, unbending, with the air of an aristocrat leading a ceremonial review under the gaze of a grateful monarch in dear old England. No need to acknowledge he's a prisoner in an inhospitable jungle, smartly stepping ever closer toward doom.

As they march, exhausted but refusing to yield a bit of their pride, they whistle the Colonel Bogey March. "Dah da, da da da DA DA da " Well, if you've seen the movie, you can't have forgotten the tune. It's been synonymous with bravely marching off into the heart of darkness ever since.

Not long ago, Dutch students marching across a potholed Moscow runway to board a shabby Aeroflot plane spontaneously broke into that same whistle. (They survived their journey, as it happens.)

Today, Kanchanaburi, about 100 miles northwest of Bangkok, is a tree-cosseted town full of convenience stores selling cold Cokes, automated teller machines dispensing cash for the traveler, peaceful Buddhist temples, a museum memorializing the war dead and a cemetery full of their remains.

The museum is set in a long, thatch-roofed hut meant to recall those the prisoners lived in while building what became known as the Death Railway. More than 80,000 conscripted Asian laborers and 12,500 Allied prisoners died building it. But the museum is called the JEATH Museum, after the initials of the six countries involved: Japan, England, America and Australia, Thailand and Holland.

The Japanese oversaw construction of the railroad in 1942 and 1943, using their prisoners to lay 300 miles of track through mountainous jungle. They wanted a railroad running from Burma to Thailand to provide an alternative to supplying their forces by sea.

Japanese engineers estimated it would take five years to build the railroad. The Japanese commanders pushed their prisoners so hard they finished it in 16 months, on Dec. 25, 1943.

This mad rush toward completion lies at the heart of the David Lean film. The Japanese commander orders the British officers to work alongside their men, in violation of the rules of war.

Guinness refuses to budge, and the commander shuts him in a tin hut where he bakes under the sun as if in an oven. The other officers are also tortured. Without their leaders, the men work badly. Finally, acknowledging he has no choice if he wants the work finished quickly, the Japanese commander relents and agrees that the officers will not work.

Guinness, victorious and determined to show the Japanese what British ingenuity is made of, puts his heart and soul into directing the completion of the bridge. The crack British engineers correct Japanese mistakes. The bridge on the River Kwai becomes a monument to British skill and perseverance. The British officers work alongside their men -- but it's their decision.

Vanity comes into play -- and cynicism in the form of one of the few U.S. prisoners, played by William Holden, who reluctantly becomes a hero while Guinness marches on to his tragic mistake. It's all sad and even romantic. It won seven Oscars, including best picture, director and actor.

The unimposing hut housing the museum casts all melodrama aside. The museum -- its exhibits of worn photographs, corners curling, captions crudely typed or lettered, yellowing newspaper articles with interviews of survivors -- is extraordinarily moving.

The photographs show emaciated prisoners, often dressed only in loincloths, looking dazed. The newspaper stories -- many of them from Australia, which had 13,000 captured soldiers here -- are full of brutality and bravery.

The museum, which opened in 1977, is operated by a nearby Buddhist temple. The monks give out a simple pamphlet with an admission ticket.

"Dear Visitors," it says, "JEATH Museum has been constructed not for the maintenance of hatred among human beings, especially among the Japanese and allied countries, but to warn and teach us the lesson of how terrible war is."

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