The Worst Railroad Job

Everett Collection
Sessue Hayakawa as a Japanese colonel and Alec Guinness as a British POW forced to work on the Burma railroad in Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957

Christopher Isherwood called it the Test. He was obsessed by the idea that men of his generation, born too late to have fought in the Great War, were never put to the test of manhood imposed on their fathers. Isherwood was ten in 1915 when his father, Frank Isherwood, a professional soldier, died in France. It affected him deeply. The test of manhood, for him, was more than trial by gunfire (he was in fact a pacifist); it was sexual as much as anything else. He liked to say that he had to prove himself by courting risk. Homosexuality was cast as a form of rebellion. Not that having sex with tough Berlin street boys was really comparable to facing German machine guns on the Somme, but there was a tenuous link, at least in Isherwood’s mind.

The Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, whose book won this year’s Booker Prize, was born sixteen years after the end of World War II, too long, perhaps, to be bothered by the Test. But his father was a POW forced to work on the Thai–Burma railroad. Few things could be more testing than that.

This so-called Death Railway was meant to send supplies and reinforcements to Japanese troops in occupied Burma from Malaya through Thailand. Japanese engineers had calculated that the mountainous terrain was so impenetrable that it would take at least five years to construct a railroad. The British before them had decided that it would be utterly impossible. But with more than 60,000 Allied POWs at their disposal, and many more Asian slave workers, Japanese military authorities decided that the job should be completed in eighteen months.

As a result of savage treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, tropical diseases, starvation, and merciless hard labor, especially during the insane “speedo” (high-speed) campaign in 1943, more than 12,000 Westerners died, and possibly more than 100,000 Asians. Even though the first locomotive to run on the Death Railway is still proudly displayed at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of imperial Japanese soldiers are worshiped by Japanese nationalists, including the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, the tracks were so shoddy that most of the railroad had to be rebuilt by the Thais after the war.

Working on the Death Railway was an experience that can scarcely be imagined. Yet that is precisely what Flanagan has tried to do: imagine it. More than that, he has sought to imagine what the POWs’ Japanese slave drivers did and thought as well.

The result is a novel that is sometimes almost unbearable to read, because of the horrors it describes. Just one example: an Australian POW named Darky Gardiner, falsely accused of slacking…

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