One thing we should always keep in mind when reading a novel like “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” is that it is pure fiction. Pierre Boulle’s book may be entertaining, but its tale of British-Japanese one-upmanship, although spliced onto a historically accurate setting, never happened. The true story of the construction of the 278-mile long rail link running across the base of the Malaysian Peninsula is horribly different from the fictional tale in Boulle’s novel.
Obviously, the award-winning film made from Boulle’s book was also fiction. It was well acted and enjoyed by millions of viewers, but the ironic twist at its end, where the now finished bridge is destroyed as an entire trainload of Japanese soldiers is dumped into the river to drown, doesn’t appear in the book. It was probably added so that moviegoers could leave the theater with a good feeling.
Sadly, the truth about the construction of what is so often called “The Death Railway” leaves no one with any kind of good feeling. The real facts create questions which cry out for answers — Why were the Japanese so desperately anxious to create a short rail link extending an existing railroad line in Thailand to one in Burma? Why did they force 180,000 Malaysians and 61,000 British, Australian, Dutch, and American prisoners of war to slave so hard, so fast, and under such horrible conditions and such incredibly brutal treatment, that 90,000 of the Malaysians and 12,000 of the POWs died — a sacrifice of 367 human lives for every mile of rails?
Undoubtedly, the Japanese were guilty of some brutal acts during World War II, but the high-speed construction of a simple rail link at such a monstrous cost seems inexplicable. What could possibly have forced those events to occur?
The answer lies in what happened as Japanese forces swarmed over the western Pacific; first into China, then southward to the Philippines, Guam, Guadalcanal, and other islands, and finally westward across the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, New Guinea, Malaya, Thailand, and on to Burma, where they were knocking at the door to India.
During their days of easy conquest in their own backyard, the Japanese enjoyed two great advantages. One, the Dutch, French, and British were fighting for their existence in Europe, which crippled their ability to provide sufficient forces to protect their Asian colonies. Two, the large Japanese Navy virtually ruled the western Pacific.
However, as Japanese conquests began to stretch out farther and farther from their homeland, the distance over which they had to ship men and material multiplied. The distance from Japan to China was just 500 miles, but as the Japanese extended the war to the Philippines, the distance quickly quadrupled to 2,000 miles, and then leapt to 4,000 miles as they reached Thailand.
Imagine their shock when they realized that the sea route to next-door Burma required a 2,000-mile detour around the entire Malaysian Peninsula. Further more, it required passage through the 550-mile long Malacca Strait between Sumatra and Malaysia, where American submarines awaited easy prey.
That, you see, explains the frenzied brutality of the Japanese. They were desperate to create a land link between Thailand and Burma, a link that required — for one thing — 600 separate bridges. Furthermore, they had to build those bridges, and lay 278 miles of rails, without heavy equipment of any kind. All they had were picks, shovels, and precious human lives.
That doesn’t excuse their brutality, but at least it explains it.