It was here that the infamous “Railroad of Death” was constructed from 1942–1943 over some 260 miles of mountainous jungles. The railway was built by at least 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, of whom about 16,000 died in the excruciating conditions, alongside almost 300,000 civilians from Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia, of whom over 100,000 perished. The POWs and civilian laborers were forced to lay track and build several bridges—including a large span over the Kwae Yai (River Kwai; called the Mae Klong River at the time) north of Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
One of these POWs was Hendrik Robert van Heekeren, an archaeologist born in 1902 in Semarang, Indonesia. Through financing his own research and fieldwork, van Heekeren significantly contributed to the study of ancient Indonesia prior to the outbreak of the war. But, like many of his Dutch compatriots, he was captured after the Japanese invaded Java in 1942. By February 1943, he was forced to work on the Railroad of Death.