Sketch by Jack Chalker

Bridge Over the River Kwae

The Bridge Over The River Kwae

Taken from a booklet by Sirichai Press

THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAE is, known to most people through Pierre Boulle's novel and the movie based on it According to Boulle the finest espionage agents British Force 136 could muster risked tlieir lives to plant explosives on the bridge the Allied prisoners of war built for the Japanese.

The, actual World War II history of the "Death Railway" is somewhat different from the novel. The prisoners built several bridges at the site of the present steel bridge.

All three bridges were bombed not by British underground agents but by British Air Force planes. The planes flew to Thailand from bases in Ceylon. U.S. Air Force planes also flew missions in the area from Chungking, in the south of China.

Bridges at Tha Makham 1946

Two wooden bridges were built by British, Dutch, Australian, and American prisoners of war. One bridge was built at the site of the metal bridge; the other was approximately 100 meters downstream from the metal bridge. The remaining wooden supports of the downstream bridge can be seen during the dry season.

The metal bridge was brought from Java by the Japanese. It was brought up to Kanchanaburi by barge and was assembled by the prisoners. Bombing of the bridge took place several times during the summer of 1945. Bullet holes can still be spotted on the original spans of the bridge. But the bombs did no great damage to the steel bridge until the eighth, ninth and tenth attacks, which destroyed three spans of the bridge. The spans destroyed were the fourth through the sixth from the Kanchanaburi side. (After the war they were replaced by two larger spans.)

After the war, the State Railway of Thailand bought the railway from the Allies for 50 million baht.   The destroyed spans were replaced by the State Railway. The repair work was done by a Japanese firm as part oi war indemnity.

The railway bridge is still used by the Thai State Railway, which runs a passenger train to the end of the line, Saiyok No1 Waterfall (Nam Tok) once a day. The train leaves Kanchanaburi at 6:00 a.m. and returns in the evening. The track west of the Nam Tok Station was dismantled after the war because it was unsafe.

Although a careful aerial survey of the railroad route preceded the construction, due to poor engineering and poor materials the railroad was in constant need of repair. Prisoners used the worst wood they could find for building the bridges. The unseasoned kapok usually rotted after three or four months.

It may bo due only to an error in map making that the Bridge Over the River Kwae was built at the present site, Tambol Thamakham. If the railroad had crossed the Kwae further north at Laddya many miles of track through rugged terrain cold have been avoided.

The  original survey advised building a  bridge at Chong Kai, a hill near Laddya. But subsequent maps were mislabeled and the name Chong Kai was given to the hill across the river from Kanchanaburi instead of the hill across from Laddya. The bridge was then built at the mislabeled "Chong Kai," Although the area was always called Chong Kai by the prisoners, the Thais still use the correct name, Khao Poon.

“Kwae” is a Thai word meaning “the branch of a river”. The Big and Little Kwae meet at the town of Kanchanaburi. The branches join to form the Maeklong River, which flows to the Gulf of Thailand.



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