MT. AIRY, Md. (WDVM) — Seventy-Six years ago a flight of six U.S. B-24 Liberator bombers destroyed two parallel bridges over the Mae Klong River in Thailand during World War II. One of the bridges was made of concrete and steel that carried supplies to Japanese troops in Southeast Asia. The other bridge was made of wood and carried foot traffic and light truck traffic. It wasn’t sturdy enough to carry supply trains. At the time American air crews bombed the bridges there was no way for any of them to know that one of the bridges, the wooden one, would become famous in the 1957 Award-winning movie, “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
The RAF, Royal Air Force, was aware of the bridges and photographed them from the air, but couldn’t knock them out. That’s why the mission on February 13, 1945 was given to the 493rd Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group based in India.
Corporal Andrew Hocko Jr., a ball turret gunner, who lives in Mt. Airy, was in the lead bomber nicknamed “Double Trouble” on the day his B-24 came roaring down the river at treetop level and dropped four bombs at the base of a concrete pier holding up the center spans of the railway bridge known only as “Bridge 277.”
Hocko’s job that day was to sit in the rear hatch of his Liberator and take pictures of the bridges being destroyed. The 95-year-old airman remembers seeing the bombs drop, but his camera malfunctioned.
“The next thing I knew the tail gunner yelled, “The bridge is down,” said Hocko who banged on the camera and hung out the waist gunner position on the left side of the aircraft and managed to snap one picture as his plane banked hard to the left and to escape heavy machine gun fire from Japanese gunners on the ground. Since the war, Hocko has lost that picture, but it showed what this photo taken by a gunner in the bomber behind him took that day.
Two of the bombers, including Hocko’s, suffered minor damage from groundfire. “A bullet came up through the open bomb bay doors,” said Hocko who saw that it hit a terminal that controlled the transfer pump. Without the pump the flight engineer would not have been able to transfer gasoline in bomb bay tanks to the bomber’s four engines. So Hocko climbed out on the narrow catwalk in the bomb bay and rewired the terminal. “Thank goodness I always carried a pair of pliers in my flight suit,” laughed Hocko, “or we would have run out of gas and had to crash land on the way back to base in India.” One of the bombers lost an engine over the target and had to crash land in Burma, but the crew was rescued.
It wasn’t until after Hocko retired that he learned that one of the bridges bombed that day, the wooden one, became famous in the movie.
But there was never a “Bridge on the River Kwai.” The French author who wrote a book that inspired the movie got his rivers mixed up, but due to the worldwide attention drawn by the movie the government of Thailand renamed a stretch of the Mae Klong River the “River Kwai,” and today the railway bridge is a major tourist attraction.
Hocko Jr. is the last surviving member of his ten-man crew to tell their incredible story and separate fact from fiction surrounding an epic war movie that was released in 1957.