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Copyright © Jules Dervaes

March 16, 1985

What does the word CAPTIVITY bring to your mind? And if I said “concentration camps,” what feeling does that image stir in you? That is a trial that all of us would like to escape–given the stark realization that, in the past, captors have inflicted horrible atrocities on their captives. Yet, it seems that such an occurrence could never happen to us; the possibility seems so remote–so unlikely today. After all, people have learned the lesson of history, haven’t they?

To find out more about concentration camps, I searched back to a time when they existed, not so many years back–only one generation, just forty years ago. I chose to make a report on a group of men who lived in a captive world. This is part of that story, the story of the Death Camps in southeast Asia during World War II. It is from a book entitled Through the Valley of the Kwai by Ernest Gordon.

The Japanese Imperial Army had in 1940 captured the Malaysian Peninsula and had plans to construct a railroad of 250 miles through the Burmese jungle to invade India. Japan would use the British prisoners of war to implement its objective; and, so, the work that was estimated to take five or six years was forced to be done in one year. During the four years they were in control, the Japanese Military violated every civilized code: murdering prisoners overtly by bayoneting, shooting, drowning, or decapitation; and murdering them covertly by working them beyond human endurance, starving them, torturing them, and denying them medical care.

In the British P.O.W. Camps there was an upsurge of religion. Church services were well attended. And men who had no particular religious ties now went regularly, listened attentively, sang hymns lustily, prayed fervently, and read their Bibles. Clearly, as human resources failed, men turned to God to deliver them.

But the most grueling phase of the captivity was just beginning. It involved clearing the jungle and digging earth for seven days a week in heat which reached 120 degrees and in monsoon conditions. Given only a handful of rice a day, the exhausted men were slowly being starved. Now, as conditions steadily worsened, as starvation and disease took an ever-growing toll, the atmosphere in which they lived was increasingly poisoned by selfishness, hatred, and fear. Slipping rapidly down the scale of degradation, because nothing mattered except to survive, men lived by the rule of the jungle: “I look out for myself.” The weak were trampled underfoot, the sick ignored or resented, and the dead forgotten. Everyone was his own keeper. It was free enterprise at its worst, with all the restraints of morality gone. And, yet, the strongest among them still died. The most selfish, the most self-sufficient, the wiliest, and most clever, perished with the weak. It soon became common practice to steal from each other. Even more damnable were the human jackals who lurked about, waiting to rob the dead.

The religion, which many had turned to, was now discarded. Many had prayed but only for themselves. When nothing happened, the supposedly useless crutch was cast off. The prisoners had appealed to God as an expedient, but God apparently had refused to be treated as one.

There was a man named Angus, who shared what he had with his friend. That friend was dying, but Angus made up his mind that he shouldn’t die. Angus gave him his blanket and his rations at mealtime. Eventually, the friend got better but Angus collapsed. Angus had been strong, one of those expected to be the last to die. The cause of his death was starvation complicated by exhaustion. The story of what Angus had done spread rapidly throughout the camp. He had given them a shining example of the way they ought to live.

Then, too, there was the Aussie, who was caught outside the fence while trying to obtain medicine from the villagers for his sick friends. Having been sentenced to death, he finished reading a section from the New Testament and, seeing the agitated face of the Chaplain, smiled and called out, “Cheer up. It isn’t as bad as all that. I’ll be all right.” So the Aussie calmly knelt down and bowed his head to the samurai sword.

Then there was the Argyll–a soldier of the British Highlander Battalion. He was on a work detail at the railroad when the Japanese guard declared that a shovel was missing. He demanded that the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. But no one moved. So the guard, in a violent rage, shouted, “All Die!” and he trained his rifle, ready to fire, at the first man he saw. At that moment the Argyll stepped forward and stood stiffly at attention and said calmly, “I did it.” The guard then beat the hapless prisoner who stood there without making a sound. The Argyll’s silence goaded the guard to an excess of rage and he brought the butt of his rifle down on the prisoner’s skull. The other men picked up their dead comrade and returned to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guardhouse, no shovel was missing.

These examples set by such men shone like beacons. There was a turning in the camp. The men were coming Through the Valley and turning to life. The acts of self-sacrifice had sparked the regeneration of the prisoners. The Law of the Jungle was broken. A wave of generosity began to spread. The officers gave part of their allowance to buy food for the sick. It was dawning on all of them that the Law of the Jungle was not the Law for men. The author, who was a survivor of the death camps, said:

“We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrasts between the forces that make for life and those that make for death. Selfishness was ANTI-LIFE. Love was the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men. We were developing a keener insight into life and its complexities. We were learning what it means to be alive–to be human. As we became more aware of our responsibility to God the Father, we realized that we were put in this world not to be served but to serve. This truth touched and influenced many of us to some degree. There was a general re-awakening. Men began to smile–even to laugh–and to sing.”

There happened an episode that reflected this rare attitude of Love which was being shown in the death camps. The British P.O.W.s found themselves on the same railroad track with several carloads of Japanese wounded who were being shipped back from battle near the close of the war. These Japanese casualties were on their own and without medical care. No longer fit for action they were given no medical treatment on the way back to Bangkok. Their uniforms were encrusted with mud, blood, and excrement. Their wounds, sorely inflamed and full of pus, crawled with maggots. The unfortunates were just waiting for death. And these were the enemy. But, without a word, most of the British officers unbuckled their packs, took out part of their food ration, a rag or two, and, with canteens in their hands, went over to clean and bind the wounds of the Japanese soldiers.

When finally, in 1945, the camps were liberated, the incoming Allied soldiers were so infuriated by what they saw that they wanted to shoot the Japanese guards on the spot. Only the intervention of the victims prevented them. Captors were spared by their captives.

The lesson learned in those death camps is a very valuable one. Ernest Gordon the author writes:

“What we hoard, we lose. To hang on to life, to guard it, to preserve it, is to end up by burying it. Each of us must die to the physical life of selfishness, the life controlled by our hates, fears, lusts, and prejudices in order to live in the flesh the life that is of the spirit. This is a basic law which cannot be broken except at great cost. We were beginning to understand that as there were no easy ways for God so there were no easy ways for us. God was honoring us by allowing us to share in his labors and in his agony for the world he loves. God in finding us, had enabled us to find our brother.”

This is the story of the men who came through the valley–the Valley of the Kwai.

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