to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.19 Myths vs Reality

In any historical event, it is possible for counter-factual ideas to be introduced and then via repetition enter the fabric of facts. Let’s examine a few such circumstance that I have heard/seen repeated many times.

The first involves POWs being herded on to bridges as a deterrent to them being bombed. Show me ANY evidence that such an action took place anywhere. Which POW wrote about standing on a bridge under fire? Were there any photos taken of the aftermath to depict the inhumanity of the Allied fliers? Where are the body counts of those KIA in such events? We do have any number of reports of errant bombs falling on the POWs in camps near the targets, but they were not herded there.

One version of this myth is that the River Kwai (another myth) ran red and bodies were hung in the iron work as the bridge was bombed! Can anyone name 1 man killed in this way?

We do know that in AUG 44 a fair number of Dutch POWs were indeed KIA and WIA by friendly fire when the maintenance train they were on was bombed and strafed by Allied planes. Names, date and place were well recorded. When and where did these other mythical killings take place?

Next, let’s examine such a scenario from the bomber crew’s perspective. Did they first fly over their target and make sure that it was ‘safe’ to bomb? IF the target was crowded with ‘friendlies’ would they abort? Of course, not! They aimed as best they could at designated coordinates and hoped that they hit something of value. In that era, this was a low percentage gamble that they’d be anywhere near that target! The most high value targets would also be defended. No pilot is going to announce his presence then circle around for the real approach! Even at low altitude, it would have been nearly impossible to ascertain that there were ‘friendlies’ in harms way.

The entire concept of bridge hostages is quite preposterous!

Let’s examine the true facts about Bridge-related deaths. All things considered, very few men on the work crews building those two bridges at ThaMaKam died in the process. Of course there were accidents. There was malaria. There were even a few executions for escape attempts. BUT because LtCol Toosey was such a capable leader and because they were co-located with the Engineer HQ, those men suffered comparatively few of the maladies seen elsewhere. Most accounts state that only a few dozen of the 6500 British and Dutch POWs who worked those bridges died doing so. This could easily be the lowest death toll of any TBR workgroup! We have absolutely no evidence to support this, but I’d go so far as to speculate that more of those men died in the follow-on camps they were sent to than died during the bridge construction period. It’s quite impossible to accurately track individuals who died at NongPlaDuk or in places like Vietnam to know that those men once helped build those bridges. IOW there is not one shred of evidence that scores of men died at those bridges.

Perhaps it is because they make for a good story that these myths get perpetuated. Another common myth is that the men buried at ChungKai died in the ‘hospital’ there. Surely some of them did, but by no means all. Nor is the reverse true, men who died at ChungKai were often finally interred elsewhere. It IS a simple fact that there is NO Australians buried there. This would have been impossible if all men who died there were buried there.  

Another myth that does have a kernel of truth behind it concerns who drowned the Japanese survivors of the sunken ship en route to Burma in Jan 43. That ship carried only Dutch POWs. The US POWs were on the ship that rescued them. No Japanese were recorded as being plucked from the water. Dozens of Dutch were. They bragged about ‘killing Japs’ when they had the chance. Over time, the story began to be told as Americans ‘killing Japs’ in the water. Never happened. No Americans were in the water. In point of fact, those repeating such a version of the story are accusing Americans of a war crime!

If one simply takes a step back and critically examines the actual circumstances involved, these myths can easily be burst like a bubble. 

Another factor comes to mind with regard to the hostages safe-guarding the bridge ploy. The Japanese had no radar available. So they would have had little if any warning of the approaching bombers. The best they could hope to do would be to use spotters who would radio the report of approaching planes. This would still provide only minutes with which to gather and herd the POWs onto the impending target.

HOWEVER, having done my best to dispose of this idea as quite preposterous, I find an eye-witness account! A quote from an interview by a British TBR POW: “Japanese herd prisoners of war onto railway bridges…..during air raids. The prisoners are not allowed to leave the targets until the raids are over.” Having been recorded in an official INTEL debrief document, the officer must have taken this credible. He even adds a note that others had made similar reports.

For all the reasons cited, I still doubt that this tactic would have had any protective value what so ever. But that doesn’t mean that the IJA didn’t employ it.