It was known, for good reason, as the Death Railway. In 1942, after the fall of Singapore, the Japanese army ordered the construction of a jungle railroad from Bangkok to Rangoon to support its assault on India.
Almost 260 miles of track were built by a forced labor workforce consisting of 250,000 local men and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, whose treatment at the hands of the Japanese was brutal. More than 16,000 prisoners of war and an estimated 90,000 Asian laborers died.
As one of the last remaining survivors, 99-year-old Reg Twigg wrote a remarkable personal testimony of his three years of hell on the River Kwai. Sadly, the former private in the Leicestershire Regiment died last week and never lived to see it published.
The Bridge from Hell: Prisoners of War lay sleepers on the Death Railway at River Kwai
The Mail on Sunday published an extract from his compelling and often harrowing account of life on the Burma Railway.
They called him the Silver Bullet. Where did the name come from? His uniform shone with polished leather and shiny metal buttons. He would kill without a second thought. He was Korean and he strutted the camp with all the megalomania that war and prison camps bring out in some people.
I knew the score. Keep your head up. Avoid eye contact. Don’t get yourself noticed. The Bullet couldn’t have been taller than 4ft 10in and I suppose it rankled to look up into prisoners’ faces – watching for a sign of defiance.
And then he found one, a massive, bearded Sherwood Forester. The Bullet smashed his fist into his nose. Then I watched the Sherwood Forester draw his right fist back and hammer it into the Korean’s face. The guard fell to the dust.
The Forester had just signed his own death warrant. He knew it. We all knew it. He stood to attention staring ahead. It was quite magnificent in its way. He said in that one perfectly aimed punch: ‘How’s that for bushido [warrior spirit], you yellow bastard?’
The rest of us stood, backs straight, heads up, as though a man was not being beaten to death at our feet. We all knew the score. A man was going to die because he’d loosened a few Korean teeth. If we’d intervened, we’d all have died. That was how the system worked.
Regg Twigg returned to the River Kwai where he suffered through the horrific PoW slave labor during World War II
Out there, somewhere to the west, was a world I once knew. My dad would be in the City Arms, sipping warm Ansells and wondering why I hadn’t written.
Putting a brave face on it counted for nothing now. Nobody knew where we were: there’s something appallingly lonely about that.
I’d been taken prisoner on the morning of February 15, 1942. A grim-faced officer told me: ‘It’s all over, Twigg. We’re surrendering. Remain at your post and don’t let anyone take or destroy any military property.’
That sums up the double-think of the British Army. Who else would take military property but the Japanese Imperial Army? I took armfuls of rifles and dumped them in the sea. General Arthur Percival signed the surrender papers that same night.
We were herded into a central square and thousands of us were marched to Changi prison, the route lined by civilians. The mightiest empire in the world had gone not with a bang, but a whimper.
After seven months, we were packed, standing room only, into boiling, stinking cattle trucks and taken up-country for three days and nights, then marched through the jungle at riflepoint.
Tormentor: Brutal Lieutenant Usuki, the ‘Konyo Kid’
Then up-river in rickety bamboo boats to Konyo camp, and an A-framed hut made of bamboo and rattan. There were no chairs or cupboards, just hard bamboo beds raised from the damp earth floor.
The Japs called ‘tenko’, or roll call, for a pep talk from one of the most vicious of the ‘little yellow bastards’ I was ever to meet.
He stood 5ft tall, his face lean and dark, his eyes expressionless.
He told us, in broken English, that his name was Lieutenant Usuki. To us he became the Konyo Kid.
Our task, he told us, was to clear the jungle and prepare the ground for a railway.
‘All will work,’ he spat as he strutted. ‘Including officers.’
A polite voice said: ‘May I remind the camp commander that under the Geneva Convention, officers do not have to work . . . and we will not do so.’ I had to admire him.
The Kid’s eyes narrowed. Bushido does not tolerate loss of face. He screamed until the veins stood out on his forehead.
Then came a slap. A punch followed, then the Kid called in the heavies. Rifle butts thudded into stomach, jaw and temple. Boots crashed into the officer’s prone body.
We all felt like cheering when he stood to attention again, bleeding and trembling with shock, but soldier still.
The Kid stepped back and screamed for the parade to move. Time to work.
I had no idea about how to build a railway and neither, it seemed, did the Japanese. We were given blunt axes to clear thickets of bamboo, each made of at least a dozen stems about 14 inches in diameter. The dull blades bounced off as if the bamboo was made of iron. We had hoes to break up the ground and shovels to move the soil. Below the topsoil, solid roots. The yellow clay was unyielding and soul-destroying.
We dragged the tangle of weeds away in woven baskets and hauled at rocks with our bare hands, the skin of our fingers cut to ribbons. We worked in silence because the Japs allowed no talking.
Rest periods and water were strictly limited: calluses and blisters simply had to be tolerated. A piece of bamboo, ten to fifteen feet long, is bloody heavy. We had to carry them two at a time to clear the jungle.
First you try one under each arm. That doesn’t work. So you lay them across your shoulders like a yoke, too painful, so you try something else, carrying them like a baby across your chest.
I started to carry just one, but a Jap screamed at me and jabbed his two fingers into my eyes. I picked up the bamboo and dashed back for another one. I never made that mistake again.
On-screen horror: A still from the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness
The guards watched us constantly. If we weren’t ‘speedo’ enough, they’d slap us around the face: three, four, five times. Show defiance and the slaps become punches, a little yellow bastard snarling gibberish in your face. Then the boots go in. You curl up on the ground. The rifle butts slam into your head and if you’re lucky, you’ll pass out. If not, it’s back to work.
By the end of the first week at Konyo, I’d come to a decision: escape was impossible, but I was going to survive. Darwinists call it the survival of the fittest, I’d call it survival of the most selfish bastards imaginable.
I began to focus on the jungle as a fascinating new friend. The floor was alive. Frogs the size of guinea pigs struck up their interminable noise along the river bank as soon as night fell. Centipedes were six inches long. I never counted the types of snake: some were poisonous, especially the ones with bright colors, and you learned to watch out for them and keep away.
The brown, sluggish river drew everybody like a magnet. We’d soak in it after a gruelling day’s work. We drank it, boiling it at first when we had the opportunity but afterwards not giving a damn. We bathed in it, peed in it, relaxed in it and cooked our rice with it. We lived alongside it, built bridges across it. And buried our dead along its banks.
Like most, I wore a ‘Jap-happy’ loincloth and became all but indistinguishable from the locals. My hair was crawling with lice and my skin had tanned to the color of old leather. I had no choice but to go barefoot. It hurt like hell at first, but my soles hardened.
Weeks passed. We’d cleared a swathe through the jungle and levelled the ground. The rocks now had to be shattered to make an embankment. We loaded our baskets with stones, struggled up the slope barefoot and threw them on the pile. Then we had to flatten the top and prepare it for sleepers and track.
More than 16,000 prisoners of war and an estimated 90,000 Asian laborers died during the construction of the jingle railroad from Bankok to Burma
I stole to stay alive. There was a metal skip behind the Jap cookhouse full of dried fish. At night, with the Japs relaxing, I had the place to myself. I lifted the rough matting over the top and grabbed two pieces of fish, shoving them down my Jap-happy.
I retraced my steps, strolling slowly as if I was still taking the night air. Back in the hut, I lay down on my bed. I grinned and ferreted in my loincloth, hauling out the fish.
The pace of work became impossible. Men who couldn’t stand for tenko sat on their bamboo beds. You knew by their eyes that they’d got nothing left.
They were walking skeletons. Worked-out wrecks, often younger than me, worked to death by the sheer, blind inhumanity of the Japanese. We were slaves. With no rights, no honor, no feelings. It’s terrifying, at first, to watch a man die. But you get used to anything.
The Jap engineers didn’t seem to know what they were doing.
In early 1943, I had proof of just how useless they were.
An ancient locomotive was tentatively trying out a new section of timber viaduct. The driver and his mate hung out of the cab as they inched forward.
As we watched, there was a series of loud cracks. The upper portion lurched to one side and the two men leapt from the cab, shrieking before the locomotive twirled down almost in slow motion into the chasm.
As the years rolled on we were moved on from camp to camp. Hauling sleepers into position at Tarso, I found my chin itching, and my neck and cheeks.
Too much hair in the jungle is the last thing you need.
I’d long ago used up the blades in my safety razor, so I improvised.
I stole an old knife from the cookhouse and sharpened the blade on the whetstone of a leather belt or smooth stones alongside the track.
I boiled some water and, using my last bit of carbolic, scraped the dinner knife down my cheek. I had no mirror and it hurt a lot, but it worked. And it got noticed.
‘Shave me, will you?’ somebody asked. And so I became the Barber of Tarso. It filled my time, gave me a purpose.
It was at Rin Tin that we first saw signs that something was going wrong for the Japs. Lying on my bamboo at night, I began to hear the drone of distant aircraft.
Next day we were marched up-country through the steaming jungle to what I can only describe as a train wreck. But this was no accident.
There were bomb craters everywhere – huge mounds of earth and rock piled up, with trees shattered to matchwood. It took us two days to drag it all away and repair the track.
It was payback time for the Japs, who had bayoneted nurses in hospitals and tortured so many of us to death on the Railway.
We travelled north-east, away from the camps and the River Kwai into the open country, with paddy fields and terraces of cultivated land, where we were put to work digging trenches.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was August 14, 1945. I saw a Japanese army unit come through in single file, shoulders down, their faces worn with the exhaustion of defeat. I’d seen it before – on our own faces after Singapore.
The next day we’d finished breakfast when we heard a plane droning out of the morning, but there were no bombs.
Instead thousands of leaflets were fluttering down. ‘The Japanese have surrendered,’ they read. ‘You are now free men and we will get in touch with you as soon as possible.’
Attribution: Reg Twigg