What is the TRUE STORY of the Thai-Burma Railway?
Is it one of the successful completion of a massive construction project?
Is it one of cruelty and brutality that one group meted out on others?
Is a story of survival under the most adverse of conditions?
Is it a story defined by geography or engineering? Is it a documentary or a story of personal struggle?
How does one tell the story? Is it the tale of faceless groups of uncounted men who toiled, died and survived? Or is it to be told through the eyes of individuals as Hollywood would seemingly do it?
Is it all of the above?
Perhaps this is one reason why the story is not oft told. There are dozens of YOUTUBE videos that flash period pictures or clips of the scene as it stands today. They are most often un-narrated or contain incorrect information spouted by someone with no idea as to what truly occurred when and where.
Where does one turn to learn the TRUE STORY? All of the books and movies; all of the photographs and post-war film provide only a glimpse of the full saga. None can tell the whole story. No one person experienced more than a limited perspective. The best known story is portrayed in the movie: Bridge on the River Kwai. Too bad it is horrible history. The director of the movie To End All Wars took a stab at telling a wider story. He created a fictional group of POWs then placed them at various places and had them experience some of the more common situations as related by the POWs themselves.
61,000 Allied POWs and as many as 500,000 Asians were the tools that built the Railway and a number of associated projects. That any, much less most, survived is a miracle unto itself. How does one integrate a story of geography, engineering, personal horror, disease and death, survival and liberation? Apparently, not easily for few have tried.
The original JEATH museum (at Wat Chai Chumphon) was seemingly the first attempt to portray the POW experience. This was followed by the Thai-Burma Railway Centre [www.tbrconline.com ]. Founder Rod Beattie is probably the world’s leading expert on the TBR. That museum undoubtedly tells the most comprehensive story of the TBR found anywhere.
Another problem is answering the question: Whose story is it to tell? The Japanese Engineers would tell a story of a magnificent engineering triumph. A military historian would cite its failure to assist the IJA in successfully invading India. The Allied POWs and romusha tell it from an entirely different perspective. All are correct and none complete!
My initial effort to preserve the story of the US POWs who worked the TBR grew over time. I came to the realization that nothing exists in a vacuum and that to more fully understand what happened to that small group of men, one had to set it into the context of the entire Southern Pacific Theater of WW II. From the invasion of Java in search of oil and other resources through the consolidation phase post-construction and operation of the Railway, we can follow the deterioration of the Japanese plan to invade India.
Summarizing the building of the Railway in a few hundred words is not that difficult. It did, after all, take place over a period of only 15 months; a blink of the eye even in the context of the Pacific Theater. Yet, in doing so, we lose the richness and horror of the greater story. Hundreds of thousands of men (and some women) were reduced to the role of tools used to achieve a specific end. How does one convey how they were stripped of all humanity and then discarded in the jungle when they were no longer useful?
Finding the proper way to relate the TRUE STORY of the TBR is no easy task.