I recently found Ernest Gordon’s book “Through the Valley of the Kwai” in which he chronicled his experiences on the “Death Railway.” Gordon wrote with candor about the two years he was a prisoner of war in World War II. 

One story in particular has touched me deeply. I needed a godly reminder that people can change. Ugly hearts can be transformed. Light always beats out darkness. This is the story he told:

Ernest Gordon, a Scotsman, was a company commander with the Second Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He fought in the Malayan Campaign and the Battle of Singapore. In fact, he was one of the last Allied soldiers to cross the causeway from Johor before it was blown up by the Japanese. 

After the capture of Singapore, he escaped to Java and attempted to sail several thousand miles to Sri Lanka in a native fishing boat with a group of other British officers. They were captured by Japanese warships and he was returned to Singapore as a prisoner of war.

At the age of 24, Gordon was sent to work in the prison camp that would be constructing the Burma-Siam railroad. 

The Japanese were especially cruel to their prisoners. For every mile of track, 393 men are said to have died. Wearing nothing but loincloths, they worked for hours in the scorching temperatures. Prisoners were treated like animals and became themselves like beasts trying to survive the unsurvivable. Theft was as rampant as illness. 

Eventually, Gordon was transferred to the “Death Ward,” designated for those who were not expected to survive. Most succumbed to malnutrition, malaria, beriberi and what is now known as flesh-eating bacteria. 

He describes his purposeless existence in that cruel and indifferent setting: “I was a prisoner of war, lying among the dead, waiting for the bodies to be carried away so that I might have more room.” 

In their fight to survive, the men lost all sense of right and wrong, light and dark, good and evil. Their world shrank to each individual struggle to stay alive one more day.

At night, the Japanese guards would count the tools before anyone was permitted to return to camp. One evening when a shovel was missing, a guard shouted relentlessly for the guilty man to present himself. When no one responded, he callously screamed, “All die! All die!” 

Finally, a young man stepped forward and confessed to the theft. He was immediately killed before them. 

Later, one of the guards discovered a mistake in their counting. There had never been a missing shovel. The young man who stepped forward was innocent; he had sacrificed his own life to preserve the lives of his fellow inmates.

Attitudes immediately and dramatically shifted. Instead of men focused on a detached game of survival of the fittest, prisoners began to look out for each other. One of the men remembered the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) 

Gordon, who once lay for dead, was slowly nursed back to health by two special soldiers in their late 20s, a simple gardener named Dusty Miller and a devout Roman Catholic named “Dinty” Moore. They gave him 24-hour care, boiling rags to clean and massage Gordon’s diseased legs day after day. 

To everyone’s surprise, Ernest Gordon survived. He became a makeshift chaplain for the camp. After they were liberated, he entered seminary. In 1954 he was named Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. 

“Faith thrives where there is no hope but God,” he later testified. 

Light always conquers darkness. 

•••

Sylvia Peterson is a former co-pastor for Bald Hill Community Church and an author. She and her husband are chaplains for the Bald Hills Fire Department. You can email her at sylviap7@comcast.net.

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