Friday, February 20, 2009

Return from the River Kwai by Joan and Clay Blair, Jr.

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.


Laura said...

I am so glad you reviewed this book! Last week I picked it up because our library discarded it. It's been sitting on my desk ready to read for a few days now.

Your review is excellent. I think I might wait a bit before jumping in to read the Blairs' book, though, and read a few other books first.

T.K said...

Thanks very much for your review of the book,I'll see about getting a copy from my local library."Return from the River Kwai" is one of those long-forgotten classics featuring an ineffable theme-that of human resilience and courage as shown by the P.O.W.S during the second world war.

If people would just demand that war be an absolute last plan of action, to be used after, and only after, all peaceful attempts have failed, this world would see far less bloodshed and fewer birthdays missed and more New Years spent together with loved ones and more summer fishing trips.

Anna and Serena said...

an excerpt from your review will appear here:

on Nov. 23. Thanks for participating.

Steam said...

Thanks for your review, there are a number of points I’d like to respond to.

I found this book to be a riveting read, from start to finish. Far from finding much of the first half full of uninteresting facts, they were most informative and helped build a clearer understanding of the circumstances these unfortunate men found themselves in. The behaviour of many after the torpedo attacks was as a direct result of their harrowing experiences at the hands of the Japanese for more than two years. Hundreds if not thousands of their friends and ‘muckers’ had died due to the sadistic treatment they had received as POW’s working on the ‘Railway of Death’. Their treatment was hardly much better on the ships right up to the moment of torpedo impact. Their behaviour towards their captors after abandoning the ship is wholly understandable. I’m not sure that the word murder applies. Although very personal and deliberate, and to our minds sitting comfortably at home, quite abhorrent, they were acts done during a time of war against the enemy. The submarines had just torpedoed the enemy ship with the intention of sinking and killing. These POW’s, perhaps had a greater justification, who knows what personal torture they had experienced and endured. Perhaps if they had shot their victims rather than killing with their bare hands, which makes it more personal, the use of the word murder may not seem quite so appropriate. Executed their sadistic captors and tormentors might have been used, but the intent is the same.

As for the survivors being hailed as heroes, like you it makes me ponder. Much of it came down to survival of the fittest and good luck, but time and again throughout the whole book we hear of men helping and caring for each other, looking out for their ‘muckers’. I think that that comes through loud and clear. Ok, human instinct and self-preservation kick-in at times of desperation, we are all fallible. We may not like seeing it, but it is often instinctive and uncontrollable, however, I read this book with the over-riding feeling that these men can be proud of their behaviour, endurance and achievement. There are always exceptions. Heroes? I don’t know, but in the context of the time you can understand that re-action.

I have read many books on all aspects of WW2 but find this one particularly readable due to the many personal accounts, which bring it to life. This was a story I had heard about, but knew nothing of the details. The movie that was made a number of years (1988), after the book was first published in 1979, did not do the story justice. Some may find the movie entertaining, but as a factual account it is most disappointing. So I would suggest that this is a very good read for anyone with an interest in the Pacific theatre of war during WW2.

hopeinbrazil said...

Dear "Steam", Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to this book review. I really appreciated your thoughts on it.