I first read Ernest Gordon’s fascinating and moving book, “Miracle on the River Kwai” about twenty years ago. (The book had first been published nearly thirty years before I got my hands on it.) Gordon, enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the outset of the Second World War. At the age of twenty-four, as company commander with the 2nd Battalion, along with hundreds of others, he was captured by the Japanese while escaping from Sumatra after the fall of Singapore.
The book details his experiences, along with many British prisoners, at the hands of their Japanese captors as they were forced to build a jungle railway. Gordon describes atrocities worse than most of us could even imagine as he relates a story of torture, abandonment and death.
As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion and disease took an ever-growing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived was increasingly poisoned by selfishness, hatred, and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the scale of degradation.
We lived by the rule of the jungle, “red in tooth and claw” – the evolutionary law of the survival of the fittest. It was a case of “I look out for myself and to hell with everyone else.” The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, the dead forgotten. When a man lay dying we had no word of mercy. When he cried for our help, we averted our heads.
We had long since resigned ourselves to being derelicts. We were the forsaken men – forsaken by our families, by our friends, by our government. Now even God had left us.
Hate, for some, was the only motivation for living. We hated the Japanese. We would willingly have torn them limb from limb, flesh from flesh, had they fallen into our hands. In time even hate died, giving way to numb, black despair.
Despite the conditions described above, ultimately the book is a story of selfless sacrifice and triumph over that death. The turning point for Gordon happened in the ‘Death House’. The Japanese were especially cruel to their captives. The starvation diet, lack of medical provision and brutal treatment at the hands of the guards all contributed to cause Gordon’s health to deteriorate to a point that led to his being placed in the ‘Death House’, in theory a rudimentary hospital but in reality a place designated for those who were not expected to live. However He was treated there by two special soldiers. Motivated by their Christian faith, the two gave Ernest 24-hour care. They would boil rags and clean and massage Gordon’s diseased legs every day until, against all the odds Ernest Gordon survived and went on to see a miraculous transformation in that prison camp.
Here are two stories from the book which sum up that selfless sacrifice and victory over death that mirror the ultimate sacrifice and triumph of Jesus which is the Easter Story (Where the Bible is quoted I’ve used a contemporary translation):
The day’s work had ended; the tools were being counted as usual. As the party was about to be dismissed, the Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing. He insisted that someone had stolen it to sell to the Thais. Striding up and down before the men, he ranted and denounced them for their wickedness, and most unforgivable of all, their ingratitude to the Emperor. As he raved, he worked himself up into a paranoid fury. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. No one moved; the guard’s rage reached new heights of violence.
“All die! All die!” he shrieked.
To show that he meant what he said, he cocked his rifle, put it to his shoulder and looked down the sights, ready to fire at the first man at the end of them. – At that moment the Argyll stepped forward, stood stiffly to attention, and said calmly, “I did it.”
The guard unleashed all his whipped-up hate; he kicked the helpless prisoner and beat him with fists. Still the Argyll stood rigidly to attention, with the blood streaming down his face. His silence goaded the guard to an excess of rage. Seizing his rifle by the barrel, he lifted it high over his head and, with a final howl, brought it down on the skull of the Argyll, who sank limply to the ground and did not move. Although it was perfectly clear that he was dead, the guard continued to beat him and stopped only when exhausted.
The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools and marched back to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guard-house no shovel was missing.
As this story was told, remarkably enough, admiration for the Argyll transcended hatred for the Japanese guard.
News of similar happenings began to reach our ears, from other camps. One incident concerned an Aussie private who had been caught outside the fence while trying to obtain medicine from the Thais for his sick friends. He was summarily tried and sentenced to death.
On the morning set for his execution he marched cheerfully between his guards to the parade-ground. The Japanese were out in full force to observe the scene. The Aussie was permitted to have his commanding officer and a chaplain in attendance as witnesses. The party came to a halt. The C.O. and the chaplain were waved to one side, and the Aussie was left standing alone. Calmly, he surveyed his executioners. He knelt down and drew a small copy of the New Testament from a pocket of his ragged shorts. Unhurriedly, his lips moving but no sound coming from them, he read a passage to himself.
What that passage was, no one will ever know. I cannot help wondering, however, if it were not those words addressed by Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room:
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. …I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”
He finished reading, returned his New Testament to his pocket, looked up, and saw the distressed face of his chaplain. He smiled, waved to him, and called out, “Cheer up, Padre, it isn’t as bad as all that, I’ll be alright.”
He nodded to his executioner as a sign that he was ready.
He knelt down, and bent his head forward to expose his neck. The Samurai sword flashed in the sunlight.
The examples set by such men shone like beacons.
“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13 NLT)
“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners… So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.” (Romans 5 NLT)