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Revisiting the River Kwai

Historical Notes

Relative journeys : river kwai revisited

A personal reflection of my father's experiences as a Far East prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma railway and my visit to Thailand in 2004, sixty years later.

The paintings and original prints made following the visit were first exhibited at Trackside Gallery, West London, on 11th May 2006, the centenary of my father's birth, and can be viewed on the gallery page, Captivity: Revisiting the River Kwai. Two years later they were exhibited at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

The work in this series is dedicated to all those who suffered and died and those who suffered and survived cruelty and incarceration in times of conflict.

The artist's journey

My father, George Edward Milner Porter, was a Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) from the fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942 until the Japanese surrender on 15th August 1945. He survived.

I grew up knowing my father had been a prisoner working on the Thai-Burma railway and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'; I knew he had been starved and had suffered from tropical diseases; I knew he managed to keep all his teeth, had stolen eggs, been stung by a scorpion; I knew he wore nothing but a 'jap-happy'. What's more, I knew how to count to ten in Japanese, which gave me tremendous status in the playground! He died in 1979 and it wasn't until 2000, when I filed a claim for compensation on behalf of my mother that I became interested in his experiences, inspired by his little notebook (journal), which survived with him. I started piecing together his story, reading accounts written by other FEPOWs, researching the history and, on the 15th August 2004, met up with my daughter Zoë in Bangkok. We travelled to Kanchanaburi, saw the bridge, did the museums, visited the war cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi, travelled on the only part of the railway still running and went to the memorial at Hellfire Pass. It was an unforgettable journey and the reason this body of work has come about.

The first page of my father's journal

Kipling's 'If' from my father's journal

Historical background

Less than two months after Pearl Harbour and the US and Britain's declaration of war on Japan, the Allies defense of Malaya was in trouble and the Japanese were advancing south towards Singapore. Although the Japanese army was outnumbered 3:1 and running dangerously short of supplies, they pressed on gambling that they could take Singapore before the Allies realised their weaknesses. The battle for Singapore began on 1st February and lasted just two weeks with many military and civilian casualties. On 15th February 1942, General Percival took the decision to surrender. The fall of Singapore is now considered to be the worst defeat in British military history.

Over the following three and a half years, until the Japanese surrendered, they imprisoned some 132,000 Allied prisoners of war as well as approximately 130,000 civilian internees in South East Asia. To the Japanese, defeat and surrender were dishonourable and they had no respect for the lives of the British, Dutch, Australian and US troops who had been captured. The Geneva Convention was not adhered to and prisoners were used as slave labour throughout the countries under Japanese rule. In Java and Sumatra, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Japan a vast series of military administrations moved, organised, controlled, starved, tortured and forced men to work beyond the limits of human endurance. They worked on railways, down mines, in dockyards. They travelled by rail, on forced marches, by barge and, for those transported overseas, on the 'hell ships' only to be torpedo targets for Allied submarines. By 1945, when the Japanese Imperial Army was on the defensive, orders were given that, should they face defeat by the Allies, these prisoners of war should all be massacred and records destroyed. Fortunately for those still alive, the decision to capitulate after the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that these orders were never carried out. Of the 58,000 British prisoners of war, 25% died in captivity. Starvation, malaria, dysentery, beri-beri and cholera were just some of the causes of death; exhaustion, torture and execution were others.

After the war and their long journey home, there was no counselling, no help. Like everyone who came home from the many theatres of war, they were expected to return to normal life and not talk about their experiences. For some, though, the nightmares never ceased.

The only communication received by the family in nearly four years

The Thai-Burma railway

By mid-1942, just a few months after the Pacific War began, the Japanese needed a secure supply route to maintain their armies in Burma who were fighting the British. As the sea lanes between Singapore and Rangoon were vulnerable to attack, they decided to construct a railway: 416 kilometres of track from the junction of the Singapore-Bangkok line at Bam Pong, Thailand through jungle and mountain to Thanbyuzayat in Burma, crossing the border at Three Pagodas Pass. For much of its route in Thailand, the railway was to follow the path of the Kwae Noi river.

Work on the line began in October 1942 in both southern Burma and in Thailand and, just twelve months later, the two ends were joined at Konkoita in Thailand. A workforce of 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and approximately 240,000 Asian labourers were involved it the construction.

Little modern equipment was made available for the work on the railway. Earth and rock were broken by shovels, picks and chunkels (hoes), and carried away in baskets or sacks. Embankments of stone and earth were heaped up by human endeavour. Cuttings were driven through rock by hand; metal taps and sledgehammers being used to drill holes for explosives. Most of the bridges along the railway were wooden trestle bridges made from timber cut from the surrounding jungle.

From April 1943, the work pace increased as the Japanese tried to meet a proposed August deadline for completion. This was the notorious 'Speedo' period. POWs and Asian labourers worked punishing hours well into the night. At Konyu Cutting, the flickering bonfire light on the emaciated workers gave the place its name - Hellfire Pass. The 'Speedo', coinciding with the rainy season and outbreaks of cholera, claimed thousands of lives. Between December 1943 and August 1945 about 220,000 tons of military supplies were carried over the railway. Allied air raids hindered the railway's operation, yet the Japanese continued to move supplies along the route. After the war, the railway was decommissioned, much of the track torn up, and the route reclaimed by jungle. Today 130 Kilometres of the line is in use, running from Nong Pladuk to Namtok.

Of the 60,000 prisoners of war who worked on the railway, 12,399 (over 20%) died. It is also believed that almost 100,000 civilian labourers, including women and children lost their lives. The reasons for this appalling death toll were lack of proper food, totally inadequate medical facilities and, at times, the brutal treatment from the guards and railway supervisors.

'The Bridge on the River Kwai'

The reality is that there were two bridges spanning the Kwae Mae Khlong ('kwae' means river in Thai), just north of its confluence with the Kwae Noi. The main bridge, for the railway, was made of steel and imported from Java, the wooden bridge, constructed first, was a service bridge. Colonel Toosey, the British CO of Tamarkan camp, was a very different man to the character played by Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson). Unlike his Hollywood counterpart, Toosey was one of the war's true heroes. His courage, leadership, organisational skills and ability to deal with the cruel, difficult and often erratic Japanese command undoubtedly saved many lives. In stark contrast to the other POW railway work camps, at Tamarkan, just nine prisoners died during the construction of the two bridges.

The wooden bridge did not survive. The steel bridge was bombed by the Allies and finally damaged beyond repair in June 1945.

The rebuilt steel bridge photographed in 2004

A transcript from my father's journal

Bombardier G. E. M. Porter, E/9/135th Field Regiment R.A., October 10th 1943, Tamarkan


Oct 30 Sailed from Gourock,

Nov 9th Arrived Halifax,

Nov 11th Sailed from Halifax,

Nov 18th Arrived Trinidad.

Nov 20 Left Trinidad

Dec 9 Arrived Cape Town

Dec 13 Left Cape Town

Dec 25 Arrived Mombassa

Dec 29 Left Mombassa


Jan 4th Arrived Maldives,

Jan 5 Left Maldives,

Jan 13 Arrived Singapore,

Jan 30 Returned to Singapore from Mainland


Feb 15th Capitulation,

Feb 17 March to Changi P.O.W.,

May 5th March to Bukit Timah,

Oct 22nd Left Bukit Timah destination unknown,

Oct 26 Arrived Bang Pong THAILAND,

Oct 27 Arrived Tamarkam


April 16 First letters from Home arrived - None for me!

May 14 Majority of Regt left for jungle,

June 6th Remainder of Regt. left for jungle via Kanburi,

Oct 20 Second batch of Mail from England - still none.

Dec 18th left Tamarkam,

Dec 18 Arrived Nong Pladuk No 2 Camp,

Dec 24 Moved into No 1 Camp


May 14 1st letter from England. Dated 25/6/42 - Gina,

July 7 1st Japan Party from this camp,

July 27 2nd Japan Party,

Sept 13 3rd Japan Party,

October 4 letters Gina, 1 letter Dal,

October 17 1 postcard Gina


Feb 19 Left Nong Pladuk

Feb 21st Arrived Bangkok 0700 hrs

Feb 27th Arrived 'UBON'


Sept 6-7 First Air Raid Nong Pladuk 300 Casualties, Dec 3 Daylight Air Raid Hoshimotos 9 killed


Aug 15 News of Capitulation,

Aug 20 Allied plane leaflets

The symbol above was stamped on a piece of fabric amongst my father's FEPOW possessions. I am told the writing is Japanese for 'prisoner' and may have been a badge he had to wear when outside the camp.

I used this symbol as my 'signature' for the work in this series.

Bombardier G E M Porter before captivity

The fabric stamp showing the symbol used as my 'chop'

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