Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

In the morning of 3 April 1945: A few minutes before 9:00 am, a lone aircraft appeared in the clear sky above Kanchanaburi a small town in western Thailand near the border to ( Burma ) Myanmar.

The warplane was set on a course that would take it over a wooden bridge that spanned the river on the northwest edge of the town. 

River Kwai Bridge

The river at that point was known as the Kwai Yai and, because of a fictional bridge in a novel that would be written years later, Kanchanaburi would become known as the site of the "Bridge on the River Kwai."

Attacking the River Kwai Bridge

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Many people still remember the movie "River Kwai Bridge" which made Kanchanaburi famous and uncovered the story of the heroic bomber crew who destroyed the train crossing.

Two bridges crossed the Kwai Yai River

Located in Kanchanaburi Province. About a hundred meters north of the wooden bridge was a second, more substantial-looking structure of concrete and steel. Both bridges had been built in 1943 by the forced labor of Allied prisoners of war who were used by the Japanese Imperial Army to construct a railway linking Thailand to Burma. It became infamous as the " Death Railway".

The wooden crossing was the first completed, in February 1943; the metal and concrete structure were completed several months later. By October 1943, when the railway was completed, the Japanese were able to move thousands of tons of supplies to its military forces in Burma every day.

Cutting Japanese supply lines in WW2

River Kwai Bridge (1)River Kwai Bridge POWThis was the mission of the 7th Bomb Group of the 10th US Air Force based at Madagange, India, and in February 1945 a concerted effort was made to destroy the two bridges at Kanchanaburi. Strikes by the 7th Bomb Group's B-24 Liberator bombers early in February failed to cut the bridges. Then, on 13 February, bombs from a low flying B-24 hit the steel bridge and dropped two of its spans into the river. By April, photo reconnaissance showed that although the metal bridge remained unusable, damage to the wooden bridge had been repaired and trains were once again moving over it.

The task was to take the River Kwai Bridge out

On the morning of 3 April, a lone aircraft came in, it was a B-24 Liberator from the 436th Bomb Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group. In command of the aircraft was a 20-year-old First Lieutenant from Ashland, Virginia, Charles F. Linamen, known to his crew as "Curley."
River Kwai Bridge (2)River Kwai Bridge (2)The nine others who made up the crew included the copilot Thyron Bradley Hamlet; Navigator, Raymond F. Hanson; Bombardier, William A. Henderson; Engineer-Gunner, William A. Nations; Radio Operator Gunner, Bernard K. Bondurant; Armorer-Gunner, Clifford B. Webb; Assistant Armorer-Gunner, Herbert Clyde Saylor; Nose Gunner, George Barrett Twelvetree; and Tail Gunner Raymond F. Hertzlin. The mission had started eight hours earlier with a briefing at the 7th Bomb Group's airbase in India.

The target of the mission was designated as "the bypass bridge at Kanchanaburi," to distinguish the functional wooden bridge from its heavily damaged concrete and steel neighbor.

Linamen's B-24 would lead the raid, and six other B-24s would follow one-by-one at five- to ten-minute intervals. Linamen's aircraft would make three bomb runs over the bridge, and on each run drop two 1000-pound bombs.

The River Kwai bridge

The crossing over the "Kwai Noi" was well protected by Japanese antiaircraft guns. An attempt to neutralize these guns would be made by flak-suppression aircraft, B24s that would sweep over the area just before Linamen arrived on target and drop antipersonnel bombs on the gun positions. Hopefully, this would silence the guns before Linamen's aircraft started its looming run.

Takeoff was at 2 am. Linamen's B-24 turned to a southeasterly course, over Calcutta, out over the Bay of Bengal, across the tip of Burma and then due east to Thailand. The night was dark; there was no moon and few stars. No lights showed from the B-24 as it flew low to avoid detection by radar.

WW2 and the Warriors

They had flown past the southern tip of Burma or Myanmar when the tail gunner became aware of another aircraft that flew alongside them, no more than 70 meters away. By its size and shape, it was a fighter. In this area - well beyond the limited range of Allied fighters -- there was no question that it was Japanese.

The tail gunner alerted Linamen and he instructed him to track the fighter carefully in his gun sight, but not to open fire unless the fighter made an aggressive move toward the B-24. Ten tense minutes passed while the Japanese fighter and the B-24 flew side by side. Suddenly the fighter backed away and headed back toward Burma or Myanmar. In the darkness, the B-24 crew thought about what had happened. Because of the blackness of the night, it is possible the Japanese pilot never saw the B-24. If he did, he chose not to fight.
WW2 and the Warriors
live of POW washing cloth
Japanese Soldiers in Thailand
live of POW in Kanchanaburi
WW2 bombs used
The River Kwai Bridge Warriors
ww2 in Thailand
The POW camp
POW in the camp
River Kwai Bridge Photos

Linamen's B-24 reached Kanchanaburi

The sky was empty: there was no sign of the flak-suppression aircraft that were to precede the bombing raid. Linamen did some calculations: The return flight to India was a long one and fuel conservation was a major concern; it was not wise to wait.

Linamen alerted the crew that they would go ahead with the bomb run. At 8:59 Linamen started the first run over the target at an altitude of 6000 feet. He was conscious of the Japanese antiaircraft guns below and of the Allied prisoner of war camp that was located near the western end.

The Japanese gunners opened fire and shells started exploding above the aircraft and to its right. When the B-24 was directly over bombardier Bill Henderson released the first two bombs. For an unknown reason, only one bomb fell away from the aircraft. The crew watched it fall until it struck the bridge and exploded.

A direct hit! One span of the wooden River Kwai Bridge was destroyed.

Linamen turned the B24 left in a wide circle that lined the aircraft up with the bridge for the second time. The Japanese antiaircraft gunners adjusted their aim, and the shells started exploding closer to the B-24 now, but still high and still to the right. The bombardier released two more bombs, and both fell away this time. They exploded in the river but did not hit it. Linamen again banked the B-24 into a left turn and started the third bombing run on the bridge.

The Japanese gunners

Started to take the aircraft under "fire", made more corrections and now had the B-24 bracketed. The bombardier toggled all three of the remaining bombs. As they dropped away from the aircraft, Henderson asked Linamen to hold the B-24 steady so that a camera in the aircraft could record the damage done. As the last three bombs exploded very close, Linamen kept the aircraft straight and level. He was ready to turn away from the target when Japanese shells struck the aircraft. The two rear bomb bay doors were blown away.

Three feet of the right wing tip vanished, followed into oblivion by a section of the right vertical stabilizer. Linamen did not realize it immediately, but an important control cable had also been cut and the B-24's ailerons were now useless. The B-24 started a steep diving turn to the right and that concluded the job about the Bridge on the River Kwai.

The pilot had his hands full. As the aircraft headed down, it seemed to Linamen that the right outboard engine had probably been shot out. He applied left rudder and left aileron and pulled back on the control wheel to get the aircraft out of its dive. He called for the copilot to increase power. Slowly, the B24 came out of its dive, but despite all of Linamen's efforts he could not get the wings level. When he glanced at the engine tachometers he saw that all four were reading normally. It was not an engine causing the problem.

Linamen twisted the yoke on the control column left and right to activate the ailerons. Nothing happened. Linamen felt his stomach drop. There was no aileron control and - according to the men who had designed and engineered the aircraft - the B-24 was not supposed to be able to fly without ailerons!

Linamen hit the alarm bell to alert the crew to a possible bailout. The crew prepared to abandon the aircraft, but Linamen did not want anyone to bail out until it was absolutely imperative. They were over enemy territory and 1500 miles from the nearest Allied base. They were not very far from the target they had just bombed.

The longer they stayed in the air, the closer they would get too friendly territory,
Things were not looking good, but Linarnen did have something to think about. In the diving turn that occurred when the aircraft was first hit, it had lost 4000 feet of altitude and the airspeed had increased to 170 mph. When Linamen instinctively stomped down on the left rudder to stop the turn, the right wing rolled level. Linamen had accidentally learned how he might be able to control the aircraft - with one hitch. When the aircraft's speed dropped below 160 mph, the right wing dropped and the aircraft turned to the right and started to dive. When that happened, Linamen would have to build up airspeed to regain rudder control and then use the left rudder to lift the damaged right wing.

The B-24 flew on at an altitude of 2000 feet. To clear the mountains en route to its base, the aircraft needed at least 4000 feet Linamen began a tedious climb to higher altitude, keeping speed higher than normal and using higher than normal power settings. This meant that the B-24 was burning more fuel than normal. Linamen thought about the condition of the aircraft. He did not know how badly it was damaged and how long it would stay together. It did not seem likely that the aircraft could reach India. Linamen reviewed the options. One possibility was to head south for the Andaman Islands where supplies were stored for just such emergencies.

To avoid the areas with the heaviest concentrations of Japanese, Linamen turned due west toward the Bay of Bengal. When they finally reached water, Linamen decided to try to reach "Cox's Bazaar," a British airfield outside Akyab, Burma. Linamen knew this airfield; he had landed there in the past. The B-24 turned to follow a northwest course along the Burma coast where the best Myanmar beaches are today such as Ngapali. Cox's Bazaar was seven and a half hours away, but Linamen had coaxed the B-24 up to 6000 feet.

With Cox's Bazaar in sight

Linamen alerted the crew, he told them they had the option of parachuting; he was not sure that he would be able to maintain control of the aircraft when he would try to land it. One of the gunners asked what Linamen would do? Ride it down," he said. What the hell are we waiting for?" was the response from the crew.

Airspeed on the approach had to be kept above 160 mph to keep the wings level and the aircraft in a straight line. To add to the problems, there were many B-24s lined up wing tip-to-wing tip on both sides of the runway. Landing a crippled aircraft on the runway would be a great risk.

Loss of control could send the cripple plowing through the rows of parked B-24s. Linamen decided to abort the approach to the runway and try to land instead on the beach at the edge of the airbase.

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