The real bridge over the River Kwai

River Kwai Bridge

THREE THINGS you may not know about the bridge over the River Kwai:

The colonel in the movie was modeled on a British lieutenant colonel, Philip John Denton Toosey, who became Sir Philip Toosey and a brigadier by the time he retired.

Toosey was completely different from the fictional colonel portrayed by Sir Alec Guiness. In fact, most of the soldiers who served with him were outraged by the way he had been was caricaturized and hounded him to protest. He demurred. The colonel’s family was even more incensed and his oldest granddaughter wrote a book to set the record straight, without much effect.

Unlike the colonel in the movie, Toosey did everything he could to delay the construction of the bridge, including collecting white ants to eat the wooden structures. He also helped to organize an escape of two of his officers and was punished for concealing their escape for 48 hours.

His focus was on the survival of the 2,000 men in the prison camp, standing up to the Japanese and working with a Thai merchant to organize the smuggling of food and medicine into the camp. The Thai merchant, Boonpong Sirivejjabhandu, was honored after the war for coming to their help.

Then there’s the bridge. There were actually two – a wooden one as portrayed in the movie and a permanent one, which still stands today. The wooden bridge was temporary and does not exist today. In the movie, the British come off as the engineering marvels. But that’s not the way it played out in life. British Army engineers had estimated that the building of the Thai-Burma Railway would take five years. The Japanese did it in under a year, using prisoners of war and other slave labor for the heavy stuff.

It was the permanent bridge that was eventually destroyed by the allies – not by the colonel during a commando raid – but bombed by a plane piloted by a Canadian. You’d never know it if you relied on the displays you see at the local museums. The pilot’s name was Roy Borthwick, flying a Liberator on June 24, 1945, on a bombing mission.

Borthwick died in West Vancouver on Oct. 15, 2007 in his 88th year.

You can still see evidence of the raid on the concrete base of the bridge. The steel structure was repaired by the Japanese after the war and is still in use today. The site draws hundreds of tourists and Thais every day.

At high noon, the train stops at the station a few yards from the bridge to take on passengers. The sun is hot and intense as we start across the bridge on foot. A few minutes later, the train starts up and we step aside into one of the small nooks along each side of the steel span as the train lumbers by. The passenger cars are packed. People stick their heads out of the windows of the cars, craning their necks for a glimpse of what’s ahead. A few minutes later, it disappears around the curve amid the thick jungle growth.

The station area is thick with stalls selling souvenirs – caps, T-shirts, etc., all with the River Kwai Bridge logo.

Off to the left, we walk down stone steps to a floating restaurant built on oil drum pontoons. Four or five of these platforms are bolted together at staggered intervals. A cool breeze flows through the darkened interior, and from the first platform, the bridge looms like a giant.

Japanese tourists sit quietly at the table next to us, eating quietly, and on the other side, an Australian couple, who have been to Toronto, talk to us about the view from the CN Tower.
After lunch we head out into the bright afternoon sun.


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