Standing on the Bridge over the River Kwai
That Never Was....

I tell every class that I have taught over a couple decades that they must travel overseas to acquire a more complete education than what they acquired from textbooks. While reading books is essential for learning, traveling is also. Both learning experiences are critical.

Case in point. I traveled to Indochina several years ago for a month of exploring Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. I loved the entire trip. However, there were two very important reasons why I wanted to go to Thailand. One of which was to see an old friend of mine, Rob Collins. We lived across from each other in graduate school decades before. After graduate school, he went back to Thailand and is still there.

Al with Rob Collins

I spent several days in Chiang Mai visiting him and seeing the sites of this very important city in northern Thailand. Being in Chiang Mai was most enjoyable. However, when traveling in Indochina, I had the ability to find the one meal on a restaurant's menu that contained food poisoning. I was able to do that in Chiang Mai. As a result, I spent several hour in the bathroom of my hotel room and finally went to a hospital's emergency room. The doctor said that I had eliminated the food poisoning from my system while in my hotel's bathroom. He gave me some pills and told me that I would be back to normal in a couple of days.

Then I traveled to Kanchanaburi in southern Thailand not far from Bangkok. The other essential reason for the visit to Thailand was to stand on the bridge over the River Kwai.

Al on the bridge

The bridge over the River Kwai

Having taught 20th century history, I knew a great deal about the bridge over the River Kwai. It was the terminus of the Burma Railway between Burma and Thailand during WWII. The Japanese forced several hundred thousand POWs to build a 258-mile railroad, which the POWs called the Death Railway due to the deaths of 13,000 POWs and about 100,000 local civilians during its construction. The railroad actually was started in 1942 from Rangoon and Bangkok. The construction project worked from both ends at the same time and finally met at a midpoint of the Burma Railway in 1943.

The Bridge on the River Kwai movie The Bridge over the River Kwai book
The Bridge on the River Kwai The Bridge over the River Kwai

The movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was based upon the book, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which Pierre Boulle wrote in 1952. Both movie and the book were highly fictionalized stories of the building of the bridge. Actually, there were two bridges involved and neither was built on the River Kwai. The river was renamed after the book and the movie became popular. One of the bridges was built with bamboo and the other with steel. Tourists can still ride today the train that transverses the bridge.

The movie and novel were about British POWs. However, Boulle's novel had as its basis French POWs to whom he spoke with while he was a prisoner in Thailand during WWII. This mixture of truth and falsehood muddied the water regarding the bridge. The POWs completed the bridges by October 1943, but it was not until June 1945 that Allied bombers destroyed the steel bridge. After WWII, the Japanese rebuilt the steel bridge as a part of its war reparations.

From the Australian War Memorial

From the Australian War Memorial

Standing there on the bridge, I recalled what I felt like 24-hours before. I then knew the more complete history of the bridge better than most people in the entire world did. I knew something of what everyone of the POWs felt like building those bridges over the river. They all suffered from all sorts of medical issues like dysentery, dengue fever, malaria, and malnutrition. Additionally, their Japanese captors beat them all at will. I will never forget what I learned that day on the bridge; I learned a great history lesson even though I thought that I had mastered the facts. I knew some facts, but I did not feel it. Hence, I lacked a more complete history regarding the bridges over the River Kwai.

Several years later, I went to Moulmein, Myanmar (Burma), which was one of the terminus of the Death Railway. When I returned to the States after being in Myanmar, I bought the CD, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which I had seen a half century ago. It is an interesting process just how we learn the history of the world in which we live.