A book does not have to be likeable to be worth reading. Return from the River Kwai bothered me a lot. But it made me think, and think, and think some more. As I’ve said before, I enjoy World War II history that emphasizes heroism, patriotism, courage, etc., but I don’t particularly like the gory battle details.
Return from the River Kwai is the story of two shiploads of POWs being sent to Japan for work detail. The Allies bomb the ships, not knowing they are carrying prisoners. In the first part of the book many uninteresting facts are strung together (based on government reports?) to lead up to the main story. After the ships are torpedoed, eye-witness accounts are included in the narrative, which make the book absolutely riveting.
Most men jumped overboard without a thought to saving other lives. Many prisoners intentionally murdered their Japanese captors before jumping off the ships. Others murdered Japanese in the water as they were trying to climb aboard the rafts. A few rafts held both Japanese soldiers and POWs who held an uneasy truce. The westerners were hoping that if they were recaptured, they would receive mercy for treating their enemies with kindness. Only one man, Vic Duncan, seemed to have a thought for anybody else. He swung into action with a pre -planned evacuation scheme to get as many men out of his ship's hold as possible.
One of the two ships sank slowly enough for every man to escape. The other sank so quickly that many POW lives were lost. Drowning, dehydration, fear of sharks, madness, loss of hope and partial cannibalism were the prevailing (and horrific) themes of the next part of the book. Initially I was quick to judge the actions of the men. But then I realized that it would be normal after two and a half years of cruelty and deprivation to have a sharply-honed instinct for self-preservation. While this does not justify their actions, it does make them more understandable.
All the survivors were hailed as heroes which made me ponder what exactly makes someone a hero? On the one hand, surviving the horrors of a POW camp takes inordinate amounts of stamina and perseverance. But on the other, were these men heroic when they spitefully murdered their Japanese guards before jumping ship, or when they fought each other for space on the rafts? Were they heroic when they got drunk at every port on their way home? Or when they stole food and bedding from the hotels and hospitals where they stayed during their trip back to England and Australia?
It is a tribute to the resilience of human nature that most of the survivors went on to live normal lives as lawyers, farmers, firemen, postmen, meat inspectors, or artists. Some men remained in the military for their careers.
8/11/12 postscript: Since reading this book I’ve read many other books about POWs and understand more clearly the behavior of the men in this account.