Seventy Times Seven

Most people are familiar with the film, ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’. This tells us about the building of the infamous railway bridge going from Thailand towards Burma during the last three and a half years of World War II. The Japanese conscripted many thousands of allied POW’s and local Thai people whom they forced to work in conditions of unimaginable cruelty. The film tells of the way the allied POW’s restored discipline to their camp, of the British army commander who insisted the bridge was built to standards of excellence, and of the soldiers who tried subtly to sabotage it.

It is, of course, fiction based on fact. But the true story is even more remarkable. It’s told in the novel, ‘Miracle on the River Kwai’, written by Scottish POW Ernest Gordon.

The Japanese treated the lives of their conscripts as expendable. Men were forced to work long hours in stifling heat, beaten sadistically by the Japanese guards, fed meagre rations and housed in hopelessly cramped dormitories. It was little wonder that many of them became sick and exhausted. The whole atmosphere became that of a death camp with an air of hopelessness. Men’s spirits became broken and bitter.   

Gordon, from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was lying in the infirmary, seriously ill, surrounded by corpses. He was attended to by “Dusty” Miller, a gardener and a Methodist from Newcastle, and “Dinty” Moore, a Roman Catholic POW. In their care, Gordon unexpectedly recovered. Through the examples of Miller and Moore, the recovery of Gordon, and the self-sacrificing examples of numerous others, both faith and hope were restored to many soldiers in the death camps.

The film portrays accurately the way the prisoners transformed their camps to become a place of pride, where the sick were cared for, where men attended educational classes of all sorts and where they could exercise. What Gordon’s book explains is the way this was inspired by an infectious discovery of faith in Jesus Christ, in which worship played a huge part.

At the war’s end, Gordon was the sole survivor of the three. Upon liberation, as he sought news of his friends, he found that two weeks before the war’s end Miller had been martyred, crucified by a Japanese guard who had despised his faith.

Near the end of the war, Dinty Moore was being transferred on a Japanese ship. This should have had Red Cross markings, as it was a POW ship, not a warship. It did not, and an Allied submarine sank the ship in ignorance. 

But perhaps the last word should lie in a story about Gordon’s journey home after liberation. The POW’s were crowded onto a train headed towards their pick-up point on the coast. As they stopped in a siding, another train pulled alongside them heading in the opposite direction, containing Japanese soldiers many of whom were gravely wounded. A whole army of liberated men crossed the track, jumped into the Japanese train, and then dressed and bound up the wounds of the ‘enemy’ soldiers.

Might you say they’d forgiven ‘seventy times seven’ times?        

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