Ok, so yesterday’s lesson involved the steel bridge on the Kwae Yai River in Thailand. Today, we move 100 yards away…to the wooden bridge. It was this particular bridge that was the subject of Pierre Boulle’s book and the award-winning movie adaptation.
Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, so I don’t remember all the details. But I seem to recall the climatic scene in which a wounded (and maybe dying?) Alec Guiness falls on the detonator that blows the wooden bridge to smithereens.
And this is where my frustration with movies “based on a true story” really comes front and center. I know I’ve harped on this before. The actual historical account had nothing to do with dynamite charges. But had the director stayed true to the facts, I think the movie would have had just as great (and award-winning) an ending. But such are movies.
With the steel bridge down, the Japanese now focused all their air defenses on protecting the wooden bridge still standing. Seventh Air Force realized this, so the planners sent out a pre-attack mission of B-24s that would attack the air defenses surrounding the bridge and drop radar-confusing chaff. Like yesterday, the focus narrows to John Sims and co-pilot Charles Linamen. While again flying a Liberator, it was different aircraft, so new that it remained free of nose art. And in this theater, no one wanted to fly a brand-new airplane, because enemy gunners zeroed in on them, thinking they were more advanced and deadly than the known marks.
And they sometimes had glitches. The plane flown by Sims and Linamen had one glitch, and it showed up at the worst possible time.
Rolling in on the bridge, the first problem was obvious. The pre-bomb attack planes were nowhere to be seen, and no defense suppression of any kind had been performed. So Sims and his flight flew into a hailstorm of lead and fire. Their first pass involved dropping a pair of thousand-pound bombs…but that glitch. The ejector racks on Sims’ Liberator only allowed a single bomb to be released.
Donovan Webster gives us the play-by-play. “But what a shot it was. It was falling beautifully . . . down, down, down becoming smaller and smaller as it plummeted. Finally, with an in-unison sigh from every crew member who had a vantage, the one-thousand-pound bomb hit the bridge squarely: precisely at its center and between the two rails. Seconds later, it exploded, taking out two wooden spans.”
The wooden bridge was down…and soon, so would Sims and Linamen.
They returned to take two more passes and drop their final bombs and, by that time, Japanese gunners had found the range. The brand-new B-24 was hit by flak and heavily damaged. But somehow they nursed their stricken bomber back to friendly territory before finally setting down on a sandy beach. Just the account of the crew’s drama in their dying aircraft would be worth the price of admission to the theater. The entire crew escaped with an incredible tale to tell.
It’s just a shame that most people know a very different story.
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road