Death Railway Completed

'Bridge over the River Kwai' drawn by Leo Rawlings in 1943 depicting construction by POWs of the Burma Railway
'Bridge over the River Kwai' drawn by Leo Rawlings in 1943 depicting construction by POWs of the Burma Railway

Historical Context

In early 1942 the Japanese Empire invaded and occupied Burma in Southeast Asia. This densely forested land was a nightmare to fight in, and the Japanese quickly decided that to continue their expeditions in and occupations of countries in Indochina a railway would need to be completed to supply their forces, instead of risky naval supply routes around the subcontinent. This became known as the Burma Railway, or Death Railway.

Over 180,000 civilian South Asian laborers and about 61,000 Allied prisoners of war subjected to forced labor were drafted to build the 415km (258mi) railway, from Ban Pong, Thailand, to Thanbyuzayat, Burma.

Conditions for the prisoners were extremely bad. Maltreatment, sickness and death was rife during the construction. It is estimated that 90,000 civilian laborers died during building, as well as 19,000 Allied prisoners of war. The project is considered a war crime and after the war 111 Japanese officials were tried for crimes related to the Death Railway. 31 of them were executed.

The rail is often remembered for the 1952 book and 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which depicts the construction of Bridge 277 over the River Kwai (then known as Mae Klong River). Directed by David Lean, the film starred William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness.

Drawing Info


Artist: Leo Rawlings
Location drawn: Japanese-occupied Burma

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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