In the early days of World War II, the Japanese army invaded Burma (now Myanmar) and forced an end to British colonial rule there. Occupying Burma required troops and massive amounts of materiel, though, and the Japanese navy was taking a beating on the 2,000 mile sea route around the Malay Peninsula. And so it was decided that a railway connecting Thailand and Burma would be constructed through dense tropical jungle over hilly terrain with hundreds of rivers, including the Kwae Noi River, made famous by the Hollywood treatment of the story in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story of what came to be known as the Burma Death Railway is far grislier than any movie could make it, and the ways that the prisoners who built it managed to stay alive is a fascinating case study in making do with what you’ve got and finding solutions that save lives.
Nutrition from Next-to Nothing
Labor for the massive project was to come from the ultimate spoil of war – slaves. About 250,000 to 300,000 slaves were used to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Among them were about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, primarily Australian, Dutch, British and American. POWs were singled out for especially brutal treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, with punishment meted out with rifle butt and bamboo pole.
With the POWs was Doctor Henri Hekking, who had been born and raised in the former Dutch East Indies colony of Java (now Indonesia). He had spent his early years with his grandmother, a master herbalist who served as “doctor” for the native villagers. Inspired by his oma’s skill and convinced that the cure for any endemic disease can be found in the plants in the area, Dr. Hekking returned to Java as an officer in the Dutch army after completing medical school in the Netherlands.
After his capture by the Japanese, Dr. Hekking did everything he could to help his fellow POWs despite the complete lack of medical supplies, all the while suffering from the same miserable treatment. Hekking realized early on that the starvation rations the POWs endured were the main cause of disease in the camps; a cup of boiled white rice doesn’t provide much energy for men building a railway by hand in jungle heat, and provides none of the B vitamins needed by the body.