Friday, April 13, 2018

Miracle on the River Kwai by Ernest Gordon

Of the twenty P.O.W. memoirs that I've read, Ernest Gordon's Miracle on the River Kwai is my favorite. Published in 1963 it recounts Gordon's three years in a Japanese concentration camp in Thailand.

I was drawn into the story by the splendid writing. Phrases like Age, sun and sea had made his face a thing of wrinkled splendor and Apathy and listlessness settled over Bapong Camp like a miasmic fog, made my heart sing. But I kept reading because of the mesmerizing stories of faith  being lived out in the harshest of circumstances. 

Gordon was a young Scotsman whose pre-war life included college studies and yacht racing. When WWII broke out, he became an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Captured after the fall of Singapore, he is taken to work on the Thailand/Burma Railroad. Japanese engineers calculated that the railroad would take 5 to 6 years to complete because of difficult terrain. But when they received permission to use "disposable" workers, they pushed the timeline to 18 months. The Allied prisoners were worked so hard that they lost all consciousness of time. Was it Tuesday the fourth or Friday the seventeenth? Who could say? And who would care? One gray day succeeded another - with no color, no variety, no humanity. Misery, despair and death were our constant companions. As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate and fear.

It was every man for himself until a miracle of grace occurred. Gordon had suffered from a number of diseases (diphtheria, beriberi, etc.) and had lost the use of his legs. A friend built him a little shack and arranged for him to leave the Death House (the hospital hut where men went to die). Another man, a quiet young Methodist named Dusty Miller, came daily to bathe and feed him. Dusty also massaged his legs and squeezed out the pus-filled ulcers. As Gordon "came back to life," a general regeneration was going on in the camp. Several men gave their lives to save others. Stories of their self-sacrifice began to outweigh tales of Japanese cruelty.

Gordon's view of Christianity had been that it extracted the bubbles from the champagne of life, leaving it insipid, flat and tasteless. While still recovering from his illnesses, he was asked to lead a religion class. Is there meaning in life? Does faith in Christ make any difference? He did not have the answers but he had a New Testament, which he read and discussed with the men.

He goes on to describe how the atmosphere in the camp changed as the men began to serve one another. The filthiest job in the camp was to collect the used ulcer rags, scrape them clean of pus, boil them and return them for future use. After a man named Dodger came to faith, he took on the job with joy. The last portion of the novel shows the transforming power of God's love in mens' hearts. A very inspiring read. 

P.S. Gordon does not describe the torture and hardship in as much detail as other P.O.W. memoirs so this might be a good book for the squeamish. Also, because I loved the book so much I sat through the profanity-laden two hour movie version. (The book title was changed to To End All Wars to accommodate the 2001 film.)  It added lots of people and horrific situations that were not in the book, and isn't nearly as eloquent or satisfying.

Blessings,

1 comment:

Carol said...

Sounds like a wonderful book & I like your Declaration of Independence!