The Bridge Over the Mae Klong River

The Japanese offensive in early 1942 against the Allies in Burma wasn’t stopped by any successful defensive action on the part of Allied troops, but by the monsoon and lack of supplies. The British just retreated to India faster than the Japanese could advance. Furthermore, the British retreated towards their supply depots while every step forward took the Japanese further from theirs. Moreover, Japanese supplies couldn’t come directly from their bases in Vietnam due to the harsh terrain of the northern Thai Highlands and the Shan Hills of eastern Burma, both “foothills” of the Himalayas. They had to be shipped down around the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, and then back up to Rangoon, where the transports made excellent targets in the confined waters for Allied submarines. In order to mitigate this extended logistics chain, the Japanese decided to build a railroad through the forbidding jungle and over the steep mountains from Bangkok to Thambyuzayat, Burma, where they could be easily ferried to Rangoon. This would cut weeks off the supply timeline, and save countless ships.

To construct the 250 mile long railroad, the Japanese conscripted 270,000 local civilians, many of whom supported the Japanese (Thailand was a Japanese ally in World War Two), and 61,000 British, Australian, Dutch, and American prisoners of war taken during the successful Japanese campaigns in Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies. The 330,000 workers were overseen by just 14,000 Japanese. Their treatment ranged from lethal neglect to sadistic torture and mass murder. The terrain of western Thailand and southeastern Burma is some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet, and consists of thick jungle, steep gorges, and fast flowing rivers.

The most famous portion of the Burma Railroad was the Bridge over the Mae Klong River, a tributary of the Khwae Noi River whose valley the Burma railroad followed. On 4 October, 1942, the first Australian troops arrived at a prisoner of war camp at Tamarkan, Thailand. They would start work two days later on two bridges over Mae Klong River. Bridge 277 was a temporary wooden trestle bridge. It would be used until Bridge 278 was completed further upstream. Bridge 278 was a permanent metal and concrete structure assembled from a Dutch bridge dismantled in Java and transported to Thailand. The workers were given just 250 grams of rice a day to eat, in addition to what they could scrounge from the jungle. On 6 October, the Australians and British at Tamarkan numbered 1700.

Bridge 277 was completed in February, 1943, and the Bridge 278 in October 1943, about the same time the Burma Railroad itself was completed. The Burma Railroad was completed ahead of schedule but nearly 66,000 workers died as a result, including 1300 during the construction of the Mae Klong bridges. Just 400 remained to repair the damage caused by Allied air attacks later in the war.

The plight of the prisoners at Tamarkan and the construction of Bridge 277 was immortalized in the 1952 of the fictional book “Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai” (The Bridge on the River Kwai) by Pierre Boulle, and the 1957 David Lean movie of the same name, starring Jack Hawkins, Alec Guiness (Obi Wan Kenobi), William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa. “Kwai” (Burmese for water buffalo) is an English bastardization of “Khwae” (Burmese for tributary). Surviving British and Australian workers despised the movie for the “wonderful” treatment of the Allied characters by the Japanese, and Japanese veterans called the movie racist because they were depicted as unable to complete the bridge on time without the willing help of the Allied prisoners.

In 1970, the Thai government renamed to the Mae Klong River to Khwae Yai (“Big Tributary) due to tourists wanting to see “The Bridge over the River Kwai”.

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