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Model for “The Bridge on The River Kwai” Confirmed   ONOGI Yoshiyuki (Sept 2009)

1, Abstract and chronology
 On a river bed of Songkhalia at upcountry of Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand near the border with Myanmar, there remain several old concrete footings as well as wooden trestles right downstream of the current Route323 bridge. The area is where Thai-Burma Railway ran in the wartime. One of them must have been for the railway bridge called Songkurai Bridge (*1), and the other for construction trucks, but which one for which was uncertain until recently. The author finally confirmed in February 2009, after several preceding site surveys, that the concrete footings were for the railway, by unearthing ballast on the extended line of the footings which is assumed as the railway-bed, essential material to locate railway lines. In other words, we could find clear evidence to support our rational hypothesis that the concrete footings were used for the railway on which heavier cars ran, while wooden trestles for lighter trucks.

Chronology of finding the bridge remnants is as follows (see also the attached figure);

 September 2005: Several persons traveled along the Thai-Burma Railway area for preparation of 6th leg of Malay Peninsula Peace Cycle planned in November, and dropped in the site of River Songkhalia for the first time expecting to find any trace of the real model for “The Bridge on The River Kwai.”(*2)

  Nothing special was seen at the spot where a book “Class B&C War Crimes-War Tales Woven by Journalists” (edited by Osaka City Department, Yomiuri Shinbun, and published by Shimpu Shobo) says with some photos that there was the bridge (point B in the attached figure). Two local women guided us at our inquiry for any trace and indicated the upstream of the river from a ragged arbor (point C), while a drunken man voluntarily followed us and indicated the downstream (point A). However, due to high water level in the monsoon, we could recognise nothing in either points of the river.

 November 2005: Participants of 6MPPC confirmed nothing special at the point B from the right bank, although the water level was much lower as the monsoon was already over. We moved next to the point A and discovered 6 concrete footings (*3) orderly seated on the bed crossing the river. With the exciting discovery, we decided that the footings were for the bridge foundation of Thai-Burma Railway, and the drunken man was the winner of the dispute. Inserted an article of the discovery on the memorial pamphlet for 6MPPC published in August 2006.

  February 2006: Some regular members of MPPC went to Thailand after taking part in the annual ritual of War Memorial in Singapore. Observed an unveiling ceremony of a statue of Mr. NAGASE Takashi (1948-) in Kanchanaburi City, followed him to visit an orphan sponsored by him at the Three Pagoda Pass, the border with Myanmar. On the way back, dropped in the site from the left bank of River Songkhalia.

  August 5, 2006: After the annual worship service at Commonwealth War Graves in Hodogaya, Yokohama, had a press release at a nearby community center about the “discovery of Songkurai Bridge.” Several newspapers printed the article delivered by Kyodo News.

  August 2006: Presented the finding at a seminar jointly organised by Australia National University and POW Research Network Japan at ANU, Canberra, and wrote the summary on its Seminar Report.

 December 2006: Partially followed Mr. NAGASE’s visit to the orphan in Three Pagoda Pass, and guided him to the site for the first time. Measured the concrete footings afterwards.

 April 2007: Partially followed an Australian group lead by Mr. Terry Beaton, retired Australian Army colonel (*4), who participated in the ANZAC Day ceremony in Kanchanaburi. Guided the colonel and his group to the river as he had yet to see the site. A nearby school teacher joined and told us a local legend that the concrete footings were for the construction trucks. Instead, he showed us in the upstream but about 50m downstream of the highway bridge (point C) decayed wooden trestles, which were said as the railway bridge remains according to him. The short wooden trestles may have shown up in last days of the dry season, in direction where local women claimed so some time ago.

 Our precious “discovery” in course of 6MPPC of the Songkurai Bridge relics turned out to be instantly denied by the local legend. “Here is a big crater” the colonel further indicated in the left bank near the wooden trestles and said, “that may be made by Allied air raids.” The cone shaped crater, about 15m diameter and 10m depth, was supposedly a mark dug by airstrikes that targeted the bridge. Being about 100m away from the concrete footings, this likely looked another evidence to corroborate that the wooden trestles were authentic.

 One of remaining questions of ours then, however, was (a) why a bridge for heavier railway was made with wooden trestles, while lighter trucks with concrete foundations. There are 5-6 decayed woods slightly showing above water near the right bank and 2 in left, each wood with thin 20cm diameter. And (b) the second question was, though putting the cart before the horses, why Pierre Boulle wrote a novel “The Bridge on The River Kwai” which was later cinematized, in which British POW engineers, unable to just stand being ordered to do useless effort, suggested that they be the ones to lead constructing the bridge in place of IJA, and completed on concrete footings making use of natural rocks on the river in a separate point. Was not there a similar fact he adapted from? Though a part where British POW played leading roles was merely fictitious, the story of molding concrete footings on natural rocks exactly coincides with what are remaining today.

  “You can determine a place where a railway ran” said the Australian colonel earlier “by finding ballast underneath.” Separating from the colonel’s group, the author searched for ballast in area on the extended line of the wooden trestles in the right bank, 20-30m apart from the Route323 where vehicles roar with deafening sounds. Unable to find ballast in immediate proximity to the river, but could notice scattered ballast about 100m away from the river on the extended line, though the line gently curved leftward parallel with the highway, which seemingly reinforced the thesis that the wooden trestles were highly likely the remnants for the Songkurai Bridge.

 Whether or not ballast is found in extended line of the concrete footings should have been checked at the same time, but could not conduct by being deeply disappointed with the local legend. The investigation of 2009 aimed to supplement the survey.


2, Rereading “Class B&C War Crimes”

 In early 2009, the author was to be interviewed by an Ausie writer regarding the Thai-Burma Railway. She wanted to obtain some information about late Mr. ABE Hiroshi (1920-2002) who was a platoon leader belonging to the 5th Railway Regiment in charge of constructing the Songkurai Bridge. Leaving a question of whether the selection was befitting, reread “Class B&C War Crimes” among others to refresh my knowledge about him. Fragments of Mr. ABE’s stories are put here and there in 2 volumes of the book, being a compilation of a long serial feature of war crimes in WWII. Reading through the book, found that there are detailed descriptions about layout of the Songkurai Bridge as well, which I did not pay particular attention in the past with little interest with the theme. Anyway, the writings clearly depict that the railway bridge was in the downstream side of the River Songkhalia, the concrete footings side, and another bridge for construction trucks in the upstream.

 Following are the significant descriptions, with quotation marks showing direct citations;

 (1) P-150, Volume 1: Mr. ABE sent to the writer a 50cm square sheet of hand-drawing of an area around the Songkurai Bridge. “First, the River Songkhalia flows from right to left at 1/4 from the bottom of the sheet.” Readers of this report should imagine the drawing which deviates by 90 degrees from the attached figure, or turn the attachment by 90 degrees clockwise and make the North upward. “The Thai-Burma Railway crosses the river from south to north at about 1/3 from the right end of the sheet. That was the wooden Songkurai Bridge that ABE Platoon constructed as their central duty. After crossing the river, the railway gently turns left, becomes straight line and disappears at the left end center of the sheet. [New paragraph] On the sheet a truck road is also drawn. Having separate bridge at east side of the railway bridge and crossing the river from south to north, the truck road turns left before the railway and crosses it, and then turns right, crosses the railway again, and extends toward the border called Three Pagoda Pass.”

  (2) P-198, Volume 1: “The height from the river bed to the top of the bridge was over 15m. Therefore, three tiers had to be made; 5m long timbers needed to be connected to make the height. … In order to tightly erect bridge piers, holes were dug in rocks on the river bed by exploding some dynamites. [New paragraph] Luckily when he went to the site, the exploding work had been completed. About 30cm diameter and 30m long timbers were sawed in jungle, branches cut, erected on the holes, ballast of blasted mountain rocks collected and put around the holes, and fixed with concrete. [New paragraph] In a rainy afternoon of May when the first tiers had been completed and the second ones being constructed, a group of 1200 POW’s, F Force, arrived at Songkurai by crossing the 4m wide road bridge that was already finished in the eastward to the railway bridge.” The description must have been based on Mr. ABE’s memories.

  (3) P-79, Volume 2: In late 1944, 1st Platoon, 5th Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Railway Regiment was assigned to operate the railway around the Songkurai Bridge. The platoon leader was second lieutenant Mr. NODA Shigeo (1912-1983). His account “Away to The Railway – My Record on Military Service” (private printing) is cited. “My area included the Songkurai Bridge which was an easy target of the enemy air raids. … There were so many craters made by 500 kilo bombs around the bridge that you could not even walk around freely. Surrounding jungles being totally burnt down by bombs as well, you could not find a place to evacuate from another air raid. (pp. 112-113 in original book)

  According to (1) and (2) above, the configuration of the two bridges are clear; the railway bridge was in west side (downstream of the river), and the road bridge in east side (upstream). The attached figure reflects this geography on our previous drawing. As is clearly depicted in (1), the railway crossed the Songkurai Bridge from south to north, crisscrossed the road that had crossed the river at eastern side, and re-crossing with the road went up to the border.

 By carefully examining the attached figure, it is apparent that our survey report of April 2007 does not conflict with the new recognition, as it says that in extended line of the wooden trestles “unable to find ballast in immediate proximity to the river, but could notice about 100m away from the river on the extended line.” This is because the extended line of the wooden trestles is also the extended line of the railway. Rather, the description of “unable to find ballast in immediate proximity to the river” happened to support that the wooden trestles were not for the railway.

 According to above (3), there were many craters around the bridge. In April 2007, Col. Terry Beaton indicated a large crater in the left bank and said that that must have been made by air raids. Truly the crater may have been dug by bombs, but that does not necessarily prove that the wooden trestles were for the railway, because there were so many craters in the area targeting the railway bridge (which could be logically inferred by now that it stood on the concrete footings). And one of them happened to be near the wooden trestles. It could be guessed that the existing crater was not made by miss-bombing the railway bridge, but made by targeting the road bridge. Similar crater is not seen today, aside from the one above.


3. Searching for ballast

 “You can determine a place where a railway ran by finding ballast underneath” is what the Australian colonel said. That means that plenty of ballast of infant’s fist size in particular place strongly implies that a railway ran there, since such phenomenon hardly exists naturally. The investigation of February 2009 was solely intended to confirm that. In the left bank of the river there is a narrow hollow in the extended line to the concrete footings which is presumably a railway bed. As soon as digging the mud at the hollow by 5cm, plenty of ballast appeared. As it is rational to assume that concrete footings were used for the railway bridge in order to load much heavier cars than trucks, we could finally discover evidence to support our assumption.

 Right before the mud digging, dropped in the nearby school to learn some more about the local legend. A teacher sociably answered our question as it was a lunch break. An interpreter was Junyarat who was a part-timer at a car rental shop in Kanchanaburi in June 2008, and accompanied me to the Three Pagoda Pass since she had never been to the border (purpose of the trip that time was to confirm that so-called Kanchanaburi Peace Memorial Park, or River Kwai Shrine, was not erected by Mr. NAGASE, unlike what Col Terry Beaton claimed, but merely a misinformation. Did not drop in Songkhalia then). She kindly followed me this time again, and did interpretation between Thai and English. Before going to the school we went to the riverside and showed her the concrete footings and the wooden trestles as important background information of the discussions with a school teacher. Climbing a steep slope of the river for the school, talked to a teacher. My question was, is there any evidence to prove the local legend saying that the railway bridge was located where wooden trestles are seen today. The different teacher than before answered me, in a primitive hut classroom with only roof and short walls, that the legend says there ran a railway. He showed us some timbers used for the bridge, being artlessly laid outside of the hut; one of them having a bolt still screwed in a timber end.

 My second question was, “is not there any possibility instead that concrete footings in the downstream were used for the railway.” The teacher was seemingly bit surprised with the question, though it was my guessing through an amateur interpreter. He might not have any knowledge about the concrete footings, but answered “That may mean that there were double tracks in the wartime.” This was quite remote from the reality; that was enough. School teachers (including the other one few years ago) might not be knowledgeable enough about the Thai-Burma Railway, which nobody should blame. We thanked the honest looking man of around 40, and headed for the digging.



 After several years of straying to and fro, we could satisfactorily confirm that the location of Songkurai Bridge on the River Songkhalia was on the concrete footings, exactly as we had discovered in 2005. It is clear with the descriptions of “Class B&C War Crimes” as well, and most of all it is strongly supported by finding plenty of ballast in its extended line this time. Next steps of MPPC should include to disseminate the information to those concerned elsewhere. Thorough and detailed measuring of the site is indispensable. Explanation to Thai authorities is also important, requesting their good understanding to the historical remains, as well as suggesting appropriate preservation and publicity of the heritage. We believe that these are most suitable to keep it in people’s minds of the remnants of the Bridge, which was constructed by tremendous number of Allied POW’s and Asian laborers with enormous sacrifice under Japanese Railway Regiment’s command.

*1, Songkurai Bridge, River Songkhalia: River Songkhalia that flows in Ban (village) Songkhalia, Kanchanaburi Province, is one of the main sources of the River Kwae Noi, official name used for long.  Most probably by mishearing, however, Imperial Japanese Army named the nearby bridge and nearby stations as Songkurai, which have been repeated by Allied POW’s as well.  Therefore, we would call the village and the river as Songkhalia, and the Bridge (and stations) Songkurai.
*2, Model of “The Bridge on The River Kwai”: The Permanent Bridge on the River Mae Khlong, or Tamarkan Bridge, in Kanchanaburi City was also brought out to be represented as the model of “The Bridge on The River Kwai” assumedly by the Thai Government in early 1960’s in order to lure more tourists after seeing a world success of the film with the same title.  Originally, however, the Songkurai Bridge was the model.  In the novel as well as in the film, the bridge was made of woods, and was located in mountainous area.  As the area was also depicted as close to the border with Burma, the only bridge that meets these conditions is that of Songkurai.  On the other hand, the broadly believed “model” is in the town, and made of steel (hence “Permanent”).  That bridge crosses the River Mae Khlong, while the railway heads toward mountains along its tributary River Kwae Noi.  However, “The Bridge on The River Kwai” on the River Mae Khlong did not make sense.  Thereupon, River Mae Khlong was given another name River Kwae Yai.
*3, Number of the concrete footings on the river bed: It is unclear by now what is the real number of the concrete footings, 6 or 5, some molded on rocks and others put on the river bed gravel.  There is a probability that #2 and #3 footings are double counted.  Further, the span between #4 and #5 being too wide, it is anticipated that there is another concrete footing missing in between.
*4, Col. Terry Beaton: A retired Colonel of Australian Army civil engineer (1952-. He made a detailed map of Thai-Burma Railway, a copy of which the manager of Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum gave us, which we put on the memorial pamphlet of 6MPPC).  Is an Honorable Secretary of Ex-Prisoner of War & Relatives Association in Victoria, Australia.  It is apparent that one source of his map was the “Map of Thai-Burma Linkage Railway” made by the Railway Regiment, IJA in August 1944.  Layout of the 2 bridges at River Songkhalia in the 2 maps fully agrees with this report and the attached figure.