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NEWBRIDGE TO THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

 
FROM NEWBRIDGE TO THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.
by
James Durney
 
 
On December 7 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbour. Almost simultaneously Japanese bombs fell on Singapore. The following day Britain and the United States declared war on Japan. Thousands of Irishmen were serving with the British and Commonwealth forces in the Far East and among them were several dozen men from the Short Grass county. In January 1942, after conquering Siam, the Japanese invaded Burma. Singapore, an island at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, was considered a vital part of the British Empire and supposedly impregnable as a fortress. Singapore had adequate defences against attack from the sea but the land front had been neglected as it was thought impossible for an enemy to attack through the thick jungles of Malaya. However, that is exactly what the Japanese did. By the end of the month the British forces in Malaya had withdrawn onto Singapore demolishing the causeway linking the island fortress and the mainland. On 8 February 1942, 23,000 Japanese attacked across the Johor Strait. Within days the garrison was nearly out of food and water as casualties mounted. On 15 February General Arthur Percival surrendered the garrison of 90,000 British, Australian and Indian troops. While the Japanese had called on the Percival to surrender to avoid needless casualties the people of Singapore got no mercy from the new occupiers - thousands were slaughtered by the Japanese. Winston Churchill called the surrender of Singapore, “The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” It was no exaggeration. Worse was to befall the captured troops and 12,000 would die building 260 miles of railway through jungle covered mountains from Thailand to Burma. Another 75,000 native labourers also died.
 
Among the thousands of Allied troops who died on the Death Railway were two men from Newbridge, John Thompson and Patrick Byrne, and one from Naas, Tom Higgins. John Thompson was born in 1918 and left Newbridge in 1936 when the new Liffey bridge was being built. He enlisted in the Manchester Regiment and was sent to the Far East with the 1st Battalion, along with Tom Higgins of Naas. Both men were captured at Singapore. John Thompson was reported missing and for several months his family was unaware of his whereabouts. Then word came that he was a prisoner. In the Japanese the western powers found a formidable and cruel foe. The Japanese despised weakness and did not understand how a soldier who could still fight would choose to surrender. So they treated their prisoners as something beyond contempt. Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention which outlined the rules of warfare. Prisoners of war were not to be made work according to the convention but the Japanese put their POWs to work on the death railway and the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. The Japanese had a work quota to achieve each day and they did not care how this was accomplished. Men were beaten to work harder, or taken from their sick beds from the hospitals in the camps and made work. Men who fell by the wayside, and showed no hope of recovery, were left to die or were bayoneted. Captured escapees were beheaded in full view of the other prisoners. And, if that was not enough, the food was meagre and the conditions in the camps and the tropics unbelievably foul. Allied POWs died in their thousands and it is said that the railway cost the life of a prisoner for every sleeper laid. Conditions in most POW camps were dreadful and prisoners had an appalling time. After a year in captivity John Thompson died from malaria on 29 March 1943, aged 25. Tom Higgins died on 4 June, aged 26. Private Tom Higgins, Dublin Road, Naas, was also serving with the 1st Manchesters when Singapore fell to the Japanese. He was unfortunate as his enlistment term was up when the Japanese attacked and he was awaiting transport home. In total 370 men of the 1st Manchesters died of disease and brutality.
 
Another Newbridge man, Sergeant Patrick Byrne, died on 26 September 1943, while a prisoner in Burma. He was 38 and from Walshestown, Newbridge. Patrick Byrne had emigrated to Australia, probably in the 1920s, and had married and settled down in Kensington, New South Wales. He joined the Australian Army and was attached to the Personnel Depot when he was captured in Singapore. With thousands of other Allied prisoners Sgt Byrne was put to work on the Burma-Siam railway line. A base camp and Prisoner-of War Administration Headquarters had been established at Thanbyuzayat, Burma, and it was here work ceased on the railway line which had been intended to link Moulmein with Bangkok in Thailand. The administration headquarters and the nearby hospital were situated close to a railway marshalling yard and workshops and these were bombed several times between March and June 1943. Numerous casualties occurred among the prisoners and the camp was then evacuated and the prisoners, including the sick, were marched to camps further along the line where camp hospitals were set up. For some time, however, Thanbyuzayat continued to be used as a reception centre for the groups of prisoners arriving at frequent intervals to reinforce the parties working on the line to the Burma-Thai border. A cemetery was located close by and 3,771 men who died while working on the railway are buried there. Among them is Patrick Byrne. How he died is unknown.
 
In 1957 the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai opened in Naas and Newbridge. Few in the audience realised that three local men had died in the construction of the railway and bridge depicted in the movie.

James Durney unearths some Co. Kildare connections with the building of the infamous Bridge on the River KWAI. 


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