Saturday, April 26, 2014


Flipping back and forth between the local classic rock station and NPR to avoid the ads, a phrase caught my ear - "The Railway Man" - and for some reason I immediately knew they were talking about a place I know very well, from my youth in Thailand . . . S.L.

"The Railway Man" is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was brutally tortured at a Japanese POW camp during World War II. Lomax somehow survived — unlike many fellow soldiers — but came home broken and haunted, particularly by his ordeal at the hands of one sadistic Japanese interpreter. In his book, Lomax, who died in 2012 at age 93 (during editing of this film), chronicles what happened when he was able to confront the interpreter in person, many years after the war's end.

The "railway" in the title refers to more than one thing. As a child, we learn, Lomax was enthralled by trains. During the war, trains became a source of agony as he and his comrades, in captivity in Thailand, were forced to work under inhuman conditions on the infamous Death Railway, built by the Japanese with forced labor to link Bangkok with Rangoon, Burma.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, as it appears today.

Growing up in Thailand, my brothers and I visited this place many times on Boy Scout trips, and later on our own. It is a beautiful part of a beautiful country, but during World War II it was the site of an incredible horror - as bad as any concentration camp in Nazi Europe.

A cholera case in the Kanchanaburi PW 'hospital' - which was known as 'The Death House'

"The Bridge Over the River Kwai" made famous in Pierre Boule's novel, countless memoirs by Allied prisoners and the film of the same name, is actually located on the Mae Klong river - one of the branches of the Kwai. There were actually TWO Bridges over the River Kwai - the bridge built by the prisoners and Asian slave labor was a temporary structure, made of wood and did not survive the ravages of time. The bridge that survives today was also built during the war, and bears the scars of numerous Allied bombing raids.

In this unique wartime aerial reconnaissance photo, the older wooden bridge (built by PWs) is seen in the background and the 'new' bridge of concrete and steel is seen in the foreground.

It is said that for every railway tie on the Death Railway, a man died. The numbers are horrifying: about 180,000 Asian civilian laborers (romusha - enslaved civilians from Indonesia) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian civilians and 12,399 Allied PWs died as a direct result of the project. The dead PWs included 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans, and about 20 POWs from other British Commonwealth countries (the Indian Empire, New Zealand and Canada).

The cut at Hellfire Pass is now a memorial to the men who suffered and died there.

Hellfire Pass in the Tenasserim Hills was a particularly difficult section of the line to build due to it being the largest rock cutting on the railway, coupled with its general remoteness and the lack of proper construction tools during building. The Australian, British, Dutch, other allied prisoners of war, along with Chinese, Malays and Tamil laborers, were required by the Japanese to complete the cutting. 69 men were beaten to death by Japanese guards in the twelve weeks it took to build the cutting, and many more died from cholera, dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion.

One of several cemeteries established and maintained in the Kanchanaburi area by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Visiting the River Kwai as a youth, and hearing the story of the Death Railway directly from the men who built it, made an indelible impression on me that survives to this day . . .