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Famous Thai railway offers ride to the past

The train eases onto the trestle, wheels screeching as they follow the twisting track.

On one side, the cars hug a cliff. On the other, passengers lean out of windows, staring down several hundred feet to the swift-flowing Kwai Noi River.It has been said that a man perished for every railroad tie on this 257-mile line - more than 90,000 deaths in all. Built by prisoners of war and conscripted Asian laborers, the railway once carried Japanese military supplies through the wilderness of Thailand and Bur-ma.

Now, the line is used by a third-class passenger train, serving stations that are little more than jungle clearings. My wife and I are among the few who stay on board for the whole trip. We're just along for the ride, going to the end of the line to admire the scenery and remember the tragedy of the River Kwai railway.

The city of Kanchanaburi is home of the span made famous by the 1957 Academy Award-winning film, "Bridge on the River Kwai." Every day, buses make the three-hour trip from Bangkok, bringing tourists eager to see and walk across the structure and to visit the Allied cemeteries. Fewer make the journey by train. It's a long but fascinating day-trip steeped in history but lively with Thai passengers.

More than 50 years after the end of World War II, there's renewed interest in the railway - one of the more brutal chapters of the Pacific war.

Recently, the Japanese prime minister apologized to Britian for his country's treatment of prisoners during World War II. In a newspaper article, he acknowledged the "tremendous damage and suffering of that time."

This spring, a new Australian-funded museum is scheduled to open at Hellfire Pass, the site where an estimated 400 prisoners died. Workers labored around the clock cutting a half-mile pass through mountains about 50 miles northwest of Kanchanaburi. Prisoners said the torch-lighted work site looked like the jaws of hell, thus the name. Although the train no longer runs there, the site can be reached by bus.

And since September, visitors also have paid homage at a new memorial at the foot of the famous bridge. It's a small plaque, provided by the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars, commemorating the hundreds of Americans who died while prisoners here. Most of the U.S. dead were Texans, members of a state National Guard regiment, and sailors from the USS Houston - the so-called "Lost Battalion."

But for most, the bridge is the main attraction. It's especially popular in late November, when visitors pack the town for an annual sound-and-light show: a symphony of fireworks and music inspired by the Allied bombing of the span.

World War II had no shortage of atrocities, but it's clear the River Kwai (pronounced "Kway") will be remembered for years to come: a once-obscure river immortalized by a film.

The 1957 movie was an international blockbuster. Shot in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the film's $3 million budget was outlandish for its day. Director David Lean spent $250,000 alone to build a wooden rail bridge - destroyed in 30 seconds at the end of the film.

The movie stars a stern British officer played by Alec Guinness. A POW, he insists his Japanese captors obey international law, which precludes officers from manual labor. The officer is beaten and brutalized, but the Japanese com-man-der finally gives in when it's clear he needs the soldiers' help to meet the Japanese goal of building a wooden rail bridge.

Then in a fit of British pride, the officer decides to prove the worth of the Empire, vowing to build a sturdy, well-engineered structure, even if it means abusing his own troops.

"One day the war will be over," he says, "and I hope that the people who use this bridge will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves but soldiers, British soldiers."

Meanwhile, an American soldier, played by William Holden, who has escaped from the Kwai camp, reluctantly joins a group of commandos to return and blow up the span. The climax of the movie comes when the British officer discovers that his beautiful bridge is moments away from destruction.

Years later, the tale is still nail-biting and provocative: In the name of pride and military discipline, an officer exploits his soldiers in a way his captors never could.

Unfortunately, the tale is true only to a point.

Prisoners did build hundreds of bridges and trestles. And one near Kanchanaburi is believed to be the inspiration for author Pierre Boulle's novel and film. The span was wooden and completed in about two months. Soon after, it was replaced by a steel bridge - the one visitors see today.

But there were no known successful escapes from the railway camps: Hundreds of miles of jungle were more effective than any prison wall. And there was no commando raid on the structure, although bombers did strike the area several times, killing POWs and eventually knocking out three spans of the steel bridge. After the war, the missing pieces were replaced by the Japanese as war reparations. The new rectangular-shaped spans still bear the name and place of manufacture: Japan Bridge Co., Osaka.

In one sense the movie did not exaggerate. If anything, it understated the brutality and the death of the Burma-Siam railway camps.

For 61,000 Allied soldiers and an estimated 200,000 Asian laborers, Kanchanaburi province was a living hell. The prisoners were methodically starved to death on meager portions of rice and thin soup. Full rations were provided only for those who worked. Feeding the sick was considered a waste of resources. Prisoners resorted to eating bugs, monkeys, snakes and refuse.

Epidemics were rampant, with prisoners constantly battling malaria and dysentery. Minor scratches turned into tropical ulcers. Doctors and medical supplies were scarce, and prisoners died by the thousands. Estimates vary, but upwards of 13,000 Allied soldiers, 80,000 Asian laborers and 1,000 Japanese and Korean captors perished during railway construction - more than 360 for every mile of railway.

The deaths contributed to the high mortality rate in Japanese POW camps. In the Pacific, more than a third of all prisoners died while in captivity; in Europe, the figure was just over 1 percent.

The entire enterprise was to support the Japanese war effort. The goal was to create a land-based supply line to support a planned invasion of India. By building a railroad over the mountains and into Burma, the Japanese could take a 2,000-mile shortcut, eliminating the cost and danger of sending supplies by sea, where they were vulnerable to submarine attack.

Initial estimates called for six years to build the railway. The Japanese decreed it would take 18 months. The actual work was completed in 15.

When the project threatened to fall behind schedule, the Japanese began Operation Speedo - the phrase guards shouted at prisoners during workdays that stretched 18 hours, even during the miserable monsoon season.

Nearly all the work - digging and removing dirt and stone, downing trees and building bridges - was done by hand. There was no heavy machinery. Instead, elephants were used to haul timber, and small charges of dynamite helped blast through mountain passes. And there was no safety equipment: Most prisoners worked only in loincloths, and many were barefoot.

Stories of the horrors and the heroes of the construction period are detailed in the small but earnest JEATH museum in Kanchanaburi. Its initials stand for the countries that lost soldiers during railway construction: Japan, England, America and Australia, Thailand and Holland. The river-front museum is mainly a collection of pictures, newspaper clippings and diary excerpts, but what's most telling is the building itself: long bamboo shelters that are said to resemble the POWs' living quarters.

The 21-year-old museum was built by Buddhist monks and is on the grounds of a riverside temple. It's dedicated "not for the maintenance of the hatred among human beings . . . but to warn and teach us the lesson of how terrible war is."

The museum contains countless tales of cruelty and torture - and occasional accounts of survival and redemption.

Kanchanaburi is now a weekend getaway from Bangkok. Downstream from the bridge, the river is lined with floating discos that blare into the early-morning hours every weekend. North of the bridge are several national parks and jungle resorts that offer guests a fully catered back-to-nature experience.

The full impact of the Death Railway only becomes clear at Kanchanaburi's two Allied war cemeteries.

The burying grounds are beautiful and meticulously maintained by the London-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Stepping into the graveyards, one is transported to the West. Neat rows of graves form a grid on the green grass.

Heartfelt English inscriptions reach across the decades. Some, such as the one marking the grave of 22-year-old H. Draper of the Royal Artillery, reflect a mother's loss: "His memory, my dearest treasure. His absence, a silent grief. Sadly missed, Mum."

Other inscriptions speak of fatherless children, grieving wives and patriotism.

Here, the tragedy becomes clear: These weren't faceless laborers, playing a bit part in a global conflict. They were living men, who perished so far from home.

No Americans lie in these cemeteries. After the war, the bodies were brought back to the United States.

The highlight of the journey comes at the twisting trestle near Wang Pho, which once held several POW work camps. As the train slows, passengers, Thai and foreigners alike, rush to windows or peer out open doors. The area looks rugged and inhospitable now. It's hard to imagine what the conditions were like 55 years ago.

When the train reaches the end of the line at Nam Tok, there's only a few minutes for lunch before the return trip.

Then it's a long ride back to Bangkok. As the miles roll by, we're teased by the train's janitor and treated to magic tricks by a snack vendor, who makes a coin disappear from his hand. He finally cajoles us into buying drinks and snacks for him, the conductor and another vendor.

Our $3 treat assures us friends for the rest of our journey. One vendor, a thin woman, urges me to pick up her supply of ice water and soft drinks. I can barely lift the bucket she has been carrying on her forearm for more than five hours.

We roll by the soaring golden spire of Nakhon Pathom, the site where Buddhism was introduced to this region 2,300 years ago.

Dusk approaches as we pass through Bangkok's suburbs. We finally reach Thonburi Station, the end of the line, and stroll to a ferry stop. Soon we'll be whisking down the Chao Phraya River and to our hotel.

When surviving prisoners left the jungle, several said they were amazed to see cars, buildings and traffic - signs of civilization unimaginable during their ordeal.

We're just tourists on a brief excursion. We've barely been inconvenienced during our daylong outing. But as we leave our now-familiar passenger car, we're disoriented by the bustle of Bangkok.

Our rail trip has taken us through history, showing sites of horrors and heroics. Looking up at the city's glittering high-rises, it's clear we've journeyed much farther than a few hundred miles into the countryside.


Additional Information

If you go

Seeing the bridge: Kanchanaburi and the Kwai River bridge are 75 miles northwest of Bangkok. They're easily reached by train, bus or bus tour, which usually include stops at the bridge and at least one of the city's two Allied war cemeteries.

The city has a tourist office, and travel information can be found on the Internet: (asiatravel.-com/kaninfo.-html).

The JEATH War Museum is open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Train trips: Most weekends and holidays, the State Railway of Thailand runs a tourist train, which offers trips on the "Death Railway." These daylong excursions include stops at the Buddhist shrine in Nakhon Pathom, the bridge and an Allied cemetery in Kanchanaburi and a waterfall or bat cave near Nam Tok, returning to Bangkok by early evening. Prices have been less than $5, but fare and itinerary change occasionally. Also on weekends, there often is a nonstop train to Nam Tok for less than $2. Both excursions should be booked in advance.

On weekdays, two daily trains from Bangkok follow the route of the "Death Railway" to its terminus at Nam Tok. It's usually not possible to take the trip and see the sights of Kanchanaburi in one day.

Floating hotel: Guests at River Kwai Jungle Rafts usually book accommodations as part of a package that includes transportation from Bangkok. Rates are about $100 per person, double occupancy, for a three-day, two-night trip. For information, call 011-66-2-245-3069. Internet information: (

It's also possible to arrange your own bus or train transportation to Pakseng Pier, near Nam Tok. Rate for a one-night stay, including boat transfers to the floating hotel, is $27, double occupancy.

Meals are included in all rates.

Those seeking a slightly less rustic experience can stay at the River Kwai Resotel, which has air-conditioned cottages equipped with television. About a mile downstream from the Jungle Rafts and managed by the same company, the property is accessible only by boat. Rates start at $40 a night, double occupancy.

Other floating hotels and shore-based hotels in the area offer similar packages.

Further reading: Several books recount the experiences of POWs who worked on the Thai-Burma railway. One, "Building the Death Railway" (Scholarly Resources, 1993), focuses on the Texans and other U.S. prisoners. It was compiled from interviews with survivors by two University of North Texas scholars, Robert S. LaForte and Ronald E. Marcello.