Return From the River Kwai – Book Review

Almost two years ago I wrote about a real Second World War story. That story puts most of what has been deemed newsworthy over those past months into perspective. It involved my grandmother’s brother; my great-uncle. You can read that article here. I found a copy of the book about those events and read it a while ago. The book is called “Return from the River Kwai” and finally, I decided to review it…

Note: Check the lists of British and Australian survivors below. You, or someone you know,  may be related to one of them. 

Book Review

It was written by an American husband and wife, Joan and Clay Blair and published in 1979. It is based on interviews with the survivors and those who rescued them.

The book can be considered in several parts. Firstly it covers the decision by the Japanese to select 2,000 of the strongest prisoners working on the infamous Burmese railway, to be shipped to Japan where they would be used as slaves for the Japanese war effort. Most prisoners had already been worked to death or close to it. It covers the journey by road and train to a suitable port for transportation. 

The second part of the book covers the journey by sea where the convoy is struck by American submarine torpedoes. Two of the ships carrying prisoners sink and the men fight for survival against the sea, the weather, lack of food and water and the perils of the deep. The survivor’s stories of bravery, desperation and often horrific attempts to remain alive are both shocking and sad. Many went delirious through dehydration. Others making life and death decisions based on who could manage with least help. The badly injured, that constantly needed tending to, were allowed to slip into the sea so that others could be saved. Even as men clung to small lifeboats they were rammed by other Japanese navy ships in the convoy. 

The book then covers the American submarines (and their crews) that were in the area to disrupt any Japanese convoys. We get to read the submarine captain’s stories leading up to the attacks on the Japanese convoys. Later we read about how those same submarines searched desperately for survivors once they had learned the truth behind the terrible events. They destroyed the prisoner carrying vessels and ultimately rescued the last survivors, pulling their pitiful bodies from the sea.

Only 152 lived to tell their stories.

Not all were rescued by friendly sailors. Some prisoners were picked up by Japanese ships. They thought they were the lucky ones at that moment. However, they ended up completing their journey to Japan to be freed after the war. Once there they were paraded before the locals. In the words of one of those men; “We were so degraded and humiliated that I did not know whether the locals looked at us with pity or disgust…”

Finally there is the return home. For the British this included a spell of rest and recuperation in Honolulu before a trip across America to the east coast. The final leg, a six day crossing of the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. For the Australians it meant a return home directly by sea.

The Mental Scars…

I always wondered and sometimes asked my dad why he never told me more of this brutal real life story. Why hadn’t his uncle told him more? I wanted to know more and my curiosity, I believe, was fair. Why had nobody ever really mentioned it? 
After reading the book I can see why. It is all too clear now. Those men were truly tortured. Physically, during their incarceration. And mentally, for many years after – if not for the rest of their natural lives. Most people just do not want to talk about such things. Many cannot bring themselves to do so. It is clear from the book that some of those interviewed spoke freely while many struggled to recollect the whole episode.  

During their escape – if that is even the correct word – adrift at sea, some went mad. Others drank the blood of the dead on their makeshift rafts. Still others just gave up and flung themselves into the unforgiving sea. Seemingly taking their own lives – or letting the ocean do it for them. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that they believed that they were finally freeing themselves after such a nightmare. In captivity treated worse than animals, and now left to die slowly of thirst and sunstroke. 

The book does not only relate the journeys and personal battles of the British and Australian prisoners. There are whole sections detailing how the American submariners tracked and sank the Japanese ships carrying the forlorn servicemen. They were not aware that these ships were carrying allied prisoners of war. As far as they knew they were carrying the plundering loot of occupied countries back to Japan. For they knew that the ships were cargo vessels and what’s more those ships were being escorted by the Japanese navy. Without knowing the true identity of the ships’ cargoes they were all fair game.

The chapters that follow the rescues are intense and deeply moving. The American naval personnel had not seen such horrors during their time at sea. They were deeply shocked at the sight of what remained of the British and Australian men. It clearly left a huge and lasting impression on the Americans.  

These final sections are also uplifting as the men are nursed back to health. So many simple things we take for granted, like ice cream, brought such joy to the battered survivors. Even though, at that time, such seemingly trivial treats were quite common on the US submarines. The Americans were only too happy to give these semi-corpses anything they could. 

This book is very well researched and serves as a warning of what can happen during times of war. Some of the first hand accounts from the survivors are incredible. Almost unbelievable. But you can see that they happened. As you read it all, it is easy to see how some men can take such brutality and misfortune better than others. We are all different but every man has his limits. How these men managed is something I will probably never understand. And there  cannot be many who can or ever will. There is often talk of ‘the horrors of war’ and most of us are fortunate enough to have escaped such events. But what these men endured was something more than that. It was constant abuse and mistreatment, again and again over a long period and in various forms. Some of it was man’s own inhumanity to other men. It was also everything the brutal forces of nature could throw at them; the extreme weather, the terrifying sea and the predators that lurked within its depths.

I am glad I read this book and I can recommend it. Even though it is a difficult subject to read at times it is also an emotional and joyous ending for those who were tough enough – lucky enough –  to make it.

Final thoughts…

Two main things struck me while I read this book. One was how the survivors dealt with it all later in life. The other is the comparison of those heroes and how people are today.

The men recuperated before being returning home. At least physically. Back then there was no such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Back then such men just got on with their lives. Even if they avoided talking about their wartime activities they would never have been able to erase the memories of the horrors. Many would have had trouble sleeping.

I understood why my family never spoke of it all those years ago. Some of the survivors just did not want to. Very few felt comfortable (if that is even the right word) talking about it. That was very evident when reading the book.  The vast majority just wanted to forget about it or at least try. And who can blame them?

I also read this book during what was the initial coronavirus/Covid “pandemic” lockdown. At that time it was not as bad here in Australia as in other countries such as the UK, but it was still all over the news – wall to wall, 24/7. In more recent months of course the lockdown mania spread to this part of the world too. It was impossible to read the book without thinking how pathetic people now are in the 21st century. Comparing the way some people have behaved (and still are behaving), terrified of catching a bad common cold/flu-like virus, just makes the story of these brave men even more heroic. 

And what about the liberty these men fought and died for? Freedoms that have been so eroded this past two years? What would the heroes of this true story have made of it all?


Here are the lists of survivors taken from the book. Maybe you have a family member is in these lists. Or maybe you know someone that may have a relative in the lists. If so, they will have been interviewed and contributed to this book…

List of British survivors
List of Australian survivors.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has a relative on these lists. Please feel free to get in touch.

And The Movie?

Finally I need to mention the movie. The (1989) movie that was based on the true events of this book and does cover the overall events fairly well. However it is still a movie and as such it has nowhere near the same impact as the book. Although as recent as 1989 the film seems very dated and I believe that this true story should be remade by Hollywood. In more recent times film-making has improved considerably and a good, gritty remake would do this book justice.
Note: For its time the movie is not nearly as good as ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai’ – which while based on the very real and infamous Thai-Burma railway, is in fact purely fictional.

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