The Thai-Burma Railway Story
As hostilities spread across Asia in 1942, with the fall of the Philippines and Singapore, the strongest remaining Allied presence was in India. A long-term strategic goal of the Japanese was to link up with the Germans in the Middle East by driving the Allies out of India. To this end they had amassed a large army in Burma. But it became increasingly difficult to supply these forces by sea. Allied submarines and bombers constantly harassed the shipping lanes. The toll of ships sailing towards Burma in the Andaman Sea was particularly great.
There was an efficient rail link between Bangkok and Singapore and also within Burma, but there was no railway from Thailand to Burma. Apparently, in the latter part of the 19th century, the British had explored the possibility of constructing such a link but surveyors deemed it too costly if not nearly impossible to span the 415-kilometers (258 mi) between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma.
But in early-1942, the Japanese found themselves in a rather unique position. They had tens of thousands of British and Australian POWs in Singapore. The first prisoners of war, about 3,000 Australians, left Changi Prison on 14 May 1942 and journeyed by sea to Tavoy. They worked on airfields and other infrastructure initially before beginning construction of the railway in September 1942 near Thanbyuzayat, the northern terminus of the railway. The first to work in Thailand — about 3,000 British soldiers– left Changi by train in June 1942 to Ban Pong, the southern terminus of the railway. More prisoners of war (including Americans) were imported from Singapore and the Dutch East Indies as construction advanced.
Given the urgency of the need for supplies, the Japanese established multiple camps along the route and built it simultaneously rather that working from the two directions towards the middle. The lower section of the railway from Ban Pong to Kanchanaburi – some 50 Kms – was over open flat terrain running roughly parallel to the Mae Klong River. At Kanchanaburi, British POWs under the command of LtCol Toosey (he was actually an artillery man not an engineer) completed Bridge #277 one of the longest spans on the route. The initial wood and bamboo span was completed in Feb 1943 and by June the iron span was imported from Java and installed up-stream from the first.
A 100 kilometers west of that bridge mainly Australian POWs labored night and day to slice though a one kilometer long rock outcropping that stood in the railway’s path. This section came to be known as Hellfire Pass named after the torches that were used to illuminate the area while the POWs and Asian workers labored through the night giving it a hellish atmosphere.
The third most recognizable section of the TBR that still exists today is the viaduct that clings to the mountainside above the Kwae Noi river at Wong Po between these other two sections.
For their contribution to this effort the 682 American POWs who worked the railway labored mainly on the Burmese end of the link through a mountainous jungle area. This website is dedicated primarily to the US POWs, but will touch on other Allied POWs who were also involved.
As an aside: There never was a “Bridge on the River Kwai”; there never was a “River Kwai”. The 1952 book and later the movie that popularized the TBR was written by a Frenchman who had nothing what so ever to do with the TBR. As a result of the book and movie, tourist began to arrive in Kanchanaburi in search of this site. They could find the iron and concrete bridge but not the “River Kwai”. World War II-era maps clearly show that that bridge spanned the Mae Klong river. A few kilometers down-stream, it is joined by a smaller tributary known as the Kwae Noi (this translates directly as ‘small tributary’). In the mid-1960s, the Thai government bowed to the tourist industry and renamed the portion of the Mae Klong west of the point of confluence with the Kwae Noi as the Kwae Yai (= ‘big tributary’). Beyond the point of confluence, the Mae Klong continues to flow to the Gulf of Thailand.
The TBR crosses the Thai-Burma border at a historically significant mountain pass known as the Three Pagodas Pass for the 3 chedis on the Thai side of the border. This had long been a point of transit for Thai and Burmese forces as they fought many battles through the centuries.
On 17 Oct 1943, just on the Thai side of this pass, the two sections of the TBR were joined at Konkoita (aka Kon Kuta).
Even in the midst of war, it was hard to keep a construction project involving perhaps half a million people a secret. The railway attracted the attention of the Allied reconnaissance aircraft as it developed. Early on, Allied planes flying out of India bombed the Burmese end of the project.
Although the TBR was in operation for nearly two years (from Oct 43), it never achieved the success that the engineers had hoped for. A combination of war-time shortages of equipment and the damage done by Allied bombers restricted the tonnage that could be shipped overland into Burma.
Since much of the railway ran through dense jungle, the easiest targets to find were the hundreds of bridges needed to span gullies and streams. One of the largest of these was at Kanchanaburi and became a favorite target of the Allied bombers. American POWs describe frequently being deployed back into Burma to repair bomb damage to the various bridges. The two bridges at Kanchanaburi were successfully bombed and damaged on 13 February of 1945 by aircraft from the Royal Air Force. Repairs were carried out by POWs and by April the wooden railroad trestle bridge was back in operation. On 3 April, a second bombing raid, this time by Liberator heavy bombers of the U.S. Army Air Forces, damaged the wooden railroad bridge once again, but both bridges were operational again by the end of May. A second air-raid by the RAF on 24 June 45 finally severely damaged and destroyed the railroad bridges and put the entire railway line out of commission for the rest of the war.
As one views the iron and concrete bridge that still stands at Kanchanaburi today, the two central spans are rectangular as opposed to the semi-circular design of the original bridge. These sections were added after the war’s end when the railway operated for a short time. They replaced the center spans that had been bombed. Soon after the war’s end Thailand destroyed the tracks near Three Pagodas Pass using Japanese POWs as labor; thereby severing the Thai-Burma connection once and for all.
In the 1950s, the Thai Railway System rehabilitated the deteriorating section from Ban Pong to Kanchanaburi and out to Nam Tok – just short of Hellfire Pass. But there was never any real demand for commercial traffic into that area and still today the main users are tourists riding the historic rails.
 Ban Pong is about 50 Km west of Bangkok and was the point at which the Thai Railway turned south towards Malay and Singapore.
 The Mae Klong is not to be confused with the Mae Kong (or Mekong) which forms the Thai-Laos border and flows into South Vietnam. One popular mis-translation results from the title of Boulle’s book. He used the word ‘Kwai’ which translates as buffalo as opposed the proper word ‘Kwae’ = tributary.
 A US POW was killed in an Allied bombing raid in June 1943.
I also highly recommend the website compiled as a memorial to TXNG SSG Homero Martinez by his son. It provides such an overview before delving into the particulars of SSG Martinez’s ordeal.
It can be found at: https://weplaythegame.us/the-story-of-the-lost-battalion/
For the briefest look at the TBR, I suggest:
See Section 8 for a more detailed description of the TBR.
Perhaps the most comprehensive look at the TBR from the Australian perspective can be found at:
Another rather unique perspective of the TBR is presented by Dwight Rider and Eric Hahl:
“Truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it and
ignorance may deride it, but, in the end, there it is.”
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)