French author Pierre Boulle’s best-selling book The Bridge on the River Kwai needs precious little introduction to old-time movie viewers. Yep…I said that right. I can say that because the movie based on the book was probably more famous than the book itself. Set in World War II’s Thailand and starring William Holden and Alec Guiness, it’s a story of how these men build, and then destroy, a bridge. Guiness plays the leader of the prisoners required to build a bridge on the Kwae Yai River so the Japanese can transport supplies. Holden plays the American prisoner who escapes from the camp and is eventually tasked with returning to destroy the bridge.
But what you might not know is that there were two bridges. The wood bridge, completed in February of 1943, is one the novel-readers and movie-watchers know. The steel bridge was built 100 yards away and was finished in the summer of the same year.
And both bridges died on consecutive days in 1945.
While both bridges were valuable targets to the Allies, the steel bridge was the bigger prize, because it allowed for heavier traffic. And since October of 1944, the Seventh Bomb Group had made it a high priority, mounting strikes against it and damaging it on numerous occasions. But always the Japanese (with the help of their POW-slave labor) had repaired it.
However, on April 2, 1945, the Allies got it right. One of the B-24’s sent to bomb the bridge, piloted by John Sims and Charles Linamen, flew through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire (the Japanese knew it was a valuable target as well), and placed their bombs perfectly in the middle of the bridge. Two spans of the bridge became one with the River they were built to traverse.
And normally, the Japanese would have scrambled to get the slave labor to work. But in April of 1945, in western Thailand, there was no steel available to the flagging war effort to support bridge building and repair. The (steel) bridge on the River Kwai was down…permanently.
And as for the wooden bridge 100 yards away?…the one that got all the press? Well, let’s take that one down tomorrow.